Friday, April 29, 2011

Friday Foto: Gadwall

GadwallGadwall, Portland, Oregon, 19 February 2011 by Greg Gillson.


Though not colorful, the drake Gadwall is exquisitely patterned.

See a previous post on Gadwall.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

How did Townsend get away with it?

Townsend's WarblerTownsend's Warbler, Beaverton, Oregon, 22 January 2011 by Greg Gillson.


Townsend's Warbler Dendroica townsendi (Townsend, 1837)

The above reference is the scientific listing of Townsend's Warbler. Let's analyse this further.

Townsend's Warbler is the common English name as established by the American Ornithologists' Union (AOU).

The binomial is a Latinized set of words, the genus name first and species name second (always non-capitalized). The person who describes a new species to science (by being the first to publish the description in a scientific journal) gets to choose this name. This bird is named townsendi, for John Kirk Townsend.

The final part (in parentheses) is the person who described the bird to science and the year of publication. Seems simple enough. It was John Kirk Townsend in 1837 in the Journal of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia.

Now wait just a minute!

There aren't too many rules about naming a species. But I do know that you can't name a species after yourself!

How did Townsend get away with it?

John Kirk Townsend was born 200 years ago, in 1809. As a young man he distinguished himself in medicine and natural history, especially bird collecting (shooting and stuffing). He was asked by botanist Thomas Nuttall to join him on Nathaniel Wyeth's second expedition to the Oregon Territory from 1835-1837. The expedition was a failed business venture on Wyeth's part, but was scientifically rewarding.

Townsend wrote about his adventures in the 1839 book: "Narrative of a Journey Across the Rocky Mountains."

It turns out, though, that the article in the Journal of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia was actually written by Thomas Nuttall in Townsend's name.

Thus, Nuttall named Townsend's Warbler in a journal using Townsend's name as author. Confusing? Yes. Sneaky? Perhaps. But certainly interesting!

This new species of warbler wasn't the only new bird described to science that Townsend collected. He also collected Mountain Plover, Vaux's Swift, Chestnut-collared Longspur, Sage Thrasher, and Black-throated Gray Warbler.

Several birds and mammals are named after Townsend, including Townsend's Solitaire, Townsend's Chipmunk, etc. [The Townsend's Shearwater was named after Charles Haskins Townsend (1859-1944) an ornithologist and ichthyologist.]

Being a doctor, you'd think Townsend would have been more careful. But he died of arsenic poisoning in 1851 when only 41 years old. Arsenic was the main preservative in bird specimens. So birding was the direct cause of his death!

More images and history of Townsend's Warbler:

Audubon's Birds of America

Columbia River Images

Monday, April 25, 2011

Townsend's Warbler

Townsend's WarblerTownsend's Warbler, Beaverton, Oregon, 22 January 2011 by Greg Gillson.


A rare sunny day this winter enticed me outside, camera in hand. At a nearby park I came across this feathered ray of sunshine.

Townsend's Warblers nest in mountains from SE Alaska, western and southern British Columbia, Vancouver Island, Olympic Peninsula, Cascades south to central Oregon, northeastern Oregon, northern Idaho, western Montana.

In winter, a coastal population is found from Vancouver, British Columbia (rarely), western Washington and western Oregon south along the coast to southern California, and into Baja California (a few). A large population winters in the Central Valley of California.

Surprisingly, there is an inland wintering population found from northern Mexico to Panama.

Though there are no named subspecies, the coastal wintering birds average shorter wings and larger bill and tarsus, and may breed mainly on the Queen Charlotte Islands to SE Alaska. A good reference on these birds is the Peterson Field Guides series book from 1997: Warblers by Jon Dunn and Kimball Garrett.

Is the bird in the photo above a female, as one might deduce from the field guides? Perhaps not.

There is an interesting note in the Sibley Guide about warblers. In the "Big Sibley," page 437, under the heading of "Warbler Plumages" he states that there is quite a bit of variation and overlap in plumage between males, females, immature, breeding, and non-breeding birds. He cautions: "field observers should not attempt to label individual birds without experience and reference to detailed literature on determining the age and sex of birds."

Never one to worry about blundering in over my head, I suggest that this bird is likely a first year male. I base this on the blackish (rather than greenish) facial mask, along with what appears to be worn outer primaries (brownish) on another photo I have of this bird. I could be wrong.

There is more to be said about the Townsend's Warbler, but I'll save that for the next post...

Friday, April 22, 2011

Friday Foto: Bushtit

BushtitBushtit, Hagg Lake, Oregon, 11 March 2011 by Greg Gillson.


This is the brown-headed California race, common west of the Cascades in the Pacific NW.

The pale eye indicates a female.

See a previous post on Bushtits.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Recent sightings with eBird

Birders want to know: 'What birds have been seen in public locations near my home recently?'

eBird answers this with a Google Gadget.

Directions for creating your own Gadget on your web page (or desktop) are at Birding is Fun!.

My attempt is below.

This tool lists the most recent 7 days of bird reports for public eBird Hotspots in Washington County, Oregon. eBird data is updated periodically, thus the very most recent sightings may be delayed.

Not totally bug free, if Google Maps doesn't show Washington County correctly (Showing instead "Coffeeville Country Club, Kansas"), you may need to add the closing parenthesis [')'] to the navigation bar of Google Maps and hit enter.

Have fun with this!

Monday, April 18, 2011

At the pond... American Wigeon

American WigeonAmerican Wigeon, drake front, hen rear, Beaverton, Oregon, 2 February 2011 by Greg Gillson.


This duck is second only to Mallard in population of migrant and winter ducks in the Pacific Northwest.

It also breeds in smaller numbers here, primarily east of the Cascades. Otherwise, it is a widespread breeder from Alaska, across Canada, and into the prairie states.

Unlike most other dabbling ducks, wigeon are grazers, feeding on tender grass shoots. Thus, you can find them grazing in city parks with ponds and lawns, as in the photo above.


American WigeonDrake American Wigeon, Beaverton, Oregon, 2 February 2011 by Greg Gillson.


There is an iridescent greenish patch of feathers around and back from the eye. The amount of dark freckling on the face of drake American Wigeons varies greatly. Some birds have mostly white or cream-colored heads. Others have fairly dark faces with a cream crown.

The voice of drake American Wigeons is a distinctive 3-part wheezy-whistled call: zwe-ZWEEE-zew. Hens utter a quiet "quack."

Friday, April 15, 2011

Friday Foto: Downy Woodpecker

Downy WoodpeckerDowny Woodpecker, Cooper Mountain Nature Park, Beaverton, Oregon, 19 March 2011 by Greg Gillson.


See a previous post on Downy Woodpeckers.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Not a Slate-colored Junco! The Cassiar Junco

Cassiar Junco
Adult male Dark-eyed (Cassiar) Junco, Beaverton, Oregon, 7 April 2011 by Greg Gillson.
The bird above showed up at my feeder this week. Many birders might call this form of Dark-eyed Junco a Slate-colored Junco and not give it another thought. Technically, though, this is not correct.

Male Slate-colored Juncos are evenly dark gray above, with no contrast between head and back. This bird has an obviously darker gray head contrasting sharply with a paler gray back that is washed with a touch of brown.

The junco above is a Cassiar Junco. This was described as a subspecies of Slate-colored Junco when Slate-colored Juncos were considered separate species from Oregon Juncos. But in the Great Lumping of 1983 1973*, most of the juncos formerly considered separate species were lumped into "Dark-eyed Junco." Thus birders "lost" Oregon Juncos, Slate-colored Juncos, White-winged Juncos, and Gray-headed Juncos from their lists.

So if you saw a bird like this before 1973 it would have been considered a subspecies of Slate-colored Junco, and you could accurately call it such. However, since then, Oregon Juncos, Slate-colored Juncos and this Cassiar Junco are all subspecies of Dark-eyed Junco. So, technically, it is not a Slate-colored Junco. It is a Dark-eyed Junco or Cassiar Junco, but it is not a Slate-colored Junco.

I know, only 8 people in all of North America care. What? Not that many?

Looking at this level of detail will help you become a better birder--and you can do it in your own backyard.

Cassiar Junco
Immature (probably female) Cassiar Junco, Beaverton, Oregon, 28 March 2011 by Greg Gillson.
The male Cassiar Junco joined a first winter female that had been hanging around for a couple of weeks. Female and first-year Cassiar Juncos are much more difficult to separate from Slate-colored Juncos, so I was glad to spot the adult male.

The scientific name of Cassiar Junco is Junco hyemalis henshawi (=cismontanus of AOU 1957).

Cassiar Juncos breed in the Rocky Mountains of Canada. In winter they regularly are found from southern British Columbia east to Michigan and from there southward from Arizona to Texas. Scattered individuals wander widely in winter outside this main area.

Both Slate-colored and Cassiar Juncos can be found in small numbers throughout the Pacific Northwest in winter. They aren't too unusual at backyard feeders--most feeders will host a couple during the winter. But next time you see a "Slate-colored Junco" I bet you'll be taking a second, closer, look!

- - - - - - -
* The Great Lumping of 1983 1973: Besides the juncos, other species lumped in 1973 were Myrtle and Audubon's Warblers into Yellow-rumped Warbler; Red-shafted, Yellow-shafted, and Gilded Flicker into Common Flicker, but Gilded Flicker subsequently given back its status as a species and the other two called Northern Flicker; Baltimore and Bullock's Oriole lumped into Northern Oriole, but this decision was later reversed. Finally, Gray-crowned, Black, and Brown-capped Rosy Finches were all lumped into Rosy-Finch, but then this was reversed later, too, but with "Rosy Finch" altered to "Rosy-Finch." ...And I hear rumors of Yellow-rumped Warblers being re-split in the near future. -- We may get most of the pre-1973 species back, but the damage to birders' psyches from that period will never be repaired.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Friday Foto: Wood Duck

Wood DuckWood Duck, Portland, Oregon, 19 February 2011 by Greg Gillson.


Even the female can be surprisingly colorful!

See a previous post on Wood Ducks.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Casting the first stone

Benson PondI just know there's a Sora in there--give me a stone! Benson Pond, Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, Oregon, 26 May 2007 by Greg Gillson.


"A sharp keek when a stone is thrown into the marsh."
A Field Guide to the Birds. 1960. Roger Tory Peterson.
When Peterson was a young man, the accepted way to watch birds was along the barrel of a shotgun. Being a good birder a hundred years ago meant being a good shot. One also had to be skillful skinning and preserving the study skins procured. Rather than binoculars and spotting scope, a good birder had to carry a sharp knife and 2 pounds of arsenic to prepare the specimens.

Of course, by 1960 when Peterson was publishing his twenty-seventh impression of his second revised and enlarged edition of his famous field guide, shooting was out, and watching was in.

Thus, the introductory quote above of the voice of Sora, the secretive marsh rail. How many marshes did I fill with stones in my youth--at the suggestion of the greatest bird watcher of all time--hoping to hear a Sora call out?

As we approached the end of the 20th century, however, more thought was being given to the well-being of birds over the perceived "right" to observe birds.

It was about this time that the American Birding Association started up. Its goal was the advancement of birding, which was strongly slanted toward listing and chasing and definitely doing what it took to "get" the bird.

Nevertheless, in recognition of the growing concern for the welfare of birds, they crafted a code of birding ethics:
"Everyone who enjoys birds and birding must always respect wildlife, its environment, and the rights of others. In any conflict of interest between birds and birders, the welfare of the birds and their environment comes first."
Thus, Peterson's field guide changed with the times:
"When hands are clapped, startled birds utter a sharp keek."
Western Birds. 1990. Roger Tory Peterson.
So there we go. In one generation birding went from blasting birds with a shotgun to applauding.

This emphasis on the welfare of birds was certainly good.

But, sadly, it didn't end there.

In recent years there has been a growing theme in the various birding listservs and blogs. If we truly care about birds, this sentiment reasons, we won't guzzle up fossil fuels to find one out-of-place feathered waif. We won't use tapes for audio playback of a bird's song to get a better view. We shouldn't even pish!

In fact, if taken to its logical conclusion, if we truly care about birds, we should stay home and not go out and disturb them by watching them at all!

I think this is very faulty reasoning--and not a lot of fun, either.

Bird watching, even if accompanied by occasional fossil-fuel wasting, tape playback and, God forbid, pishing, creates more people who care about and protect birds and the environment than people who ignore it!

If I gave up bird watching, could I really replace it with an activity that disturbs birds less, in the long run? What should I do instead of "disturbing" birds by watching them--cruise the streets or hang out at the mall?

I submit that my peculiar habit of watching birds, and occasionally pishing them in for others to view, has caused numerous "non-birders" I encounter to notice birds and the world around them in an appreciative and protective way.

Yes, bird watching may slightly "disturb" some birds. But cutting down the forests, filling wetlands, paving over meadows, and creating shopping malls for people who don't even know the birds are there, disturbs more birds more greatly than all the tape playback, pishing or, yes, even stone throwing, by all the bird watchers in the world.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Friday Foto: Hutton's Vireo

Hutton's VireoHutton's Vireo, Cooper Mountain Nature Park, Beaverton, Oregon, 26 January 2011 by Greg Gillson.


Look at those blue feet and legs!

Do you remember how to separate Hutton's Vireos and Ruby-crowned Kinglets?