Monday, September 26, 2011

ABA blog: Ten Ways to be a Better Birder

A recent post by Ted Floyd on the ABA blog was quite interesting. Titled "Ten Ways to be a Better Birder," the article makes for some thought-provoking reading.

Some of the things you have no control over. For instance, you can't go back and start birding at a younger age.

But I think that point number 5, on understanding status and distribution, is worthy of a future discussion. So also are points number 2-4, learn vocalizations, understand behavior, and put down your binoculars ("go naked").

Friday, September 23, 2011

eBird updated!

I had a nice surprise this morning when I logged into eBird to upload a few birds seen at my feeder.

The eBird team has updated the "View and Explore Data" page with some long-requested features.

Now, you get the same maps whether you view maps directly for one species, or make bar charts for a region or area. Good, zoom out to see the world range and zoom in to see the individual sightings. Better, click on the individual sighting locations to see when and who has seen the species at that location in the past. Best, click on an individual record and see that person's entire checklist for the day!

These changes really make 'viewing and exploring data' useful and addicting!

Well done, eBird!

Wednesday, September 21, 2011


WrentitWrentit, near Lincoln City, Oregon, 30 July 2011 by Greg Gillson.


The Wrentit is a small little mouse of a bird found in coastal scrub and chaparral from extreme northern Baja California Norte to the mouth of the Columbia River in Oregon. It stays hidden and fly-hops from branch to branch, rarely crossing an opening. If it wasn't for its bouncing whistled song and quiet rattling call, no one might ever know it existed!

In the Pacific NW it is only found in Oregon, along the entire coast, inland in clearcuts nearly to the summit of the Coast Range. It is found in SW Oregon inland in the California-type vegetation habitats of the Rogue Valley and Klamath Mountains to Klamath Falls.

In the past century it has slowly expanded its range. It has crawled its way northward in western Oregon to the Umpqua and edges of the southern Willamette Valley. In the past decade or two it has colonized new locations along the edges of both the eastern and western edges of the mid-Willamette Valley. Imagine everyone's surprise when they showed up in the last year at the mouth of the Sandy River into the Columbia east of Portland!

Will it ever cross the Columbia into Washington State? Well, it has been common in Astoria for at least 200 years and hasn't crossed the River, nor even expanded upriver toward Portland. The recent birds in Portland evidently came from the south, not the west.

The bird is not closely related to any other bird in the New World. At present, it is listed with the Old World Babblers--the only New World representative in that group.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Bird Watcher, Birder, Ornithologist--Who cares?

BirdersPeople watching birds--whatever you call it--at Abbott Creek Burn, Jefferson County, Oregon, 7 June 2009 by Greg Gillson.


It's a perennial discussion. What do bird watchers call themselves? Although you would think that it is silly and doesn't matter, the name we associate with ourselves is very personal and self-defining. Such discussions can be quite emotional.

Recently, there has been discussion of changing the name of the Oregon Field Ornithologists in order to possibly increase membership. It seems that many bird watchers think that this birding organization is only for professional biologists. Not even close to true. Likewise, the organization that is the very definition of the word "birder," the American Birding Association, still wrestles with the word, as it did from its very inception. Having "birding" in its name does not keep the ABA from losing membership in the Internet age.

Very broadly, anyone who watches birds is a bird watcher. The old man that feeds bread to the ducks at the local city park, the neighbor with the empty hummingbird feeder hanging outside the window, visitors to the wildlife refuge to view the Bald Eagles, and the enthusiast who plans her third trip to Borneo this year just to view that one species missing from her huge list of birds she has seen in the world--all these are bird watchers.

Though not without argument, the term that describes a person who searches out and tries to identify all the birds they see, is usually called a birder. Birding often (but not always) includes listing--keeping careful track of birds they see, ticking them off on their list(s). There are life lists, country lists, state lists, county lists, backyard lists, and year lists of all these types and more. A friend once compared it (without bias) to stamp collecting. Birders are concerned with identification and distribution of birds in order to find (collect sightings of) them.

Field ornithology is the study of living birds in their natural habitat. Population status, behavior, and nesting are some of the topics of field ornithology. Recording data (including counting the number of individual birds seen) is a major component of field ornithology.

So, if you like to watch birds and desire to know their names you can be considered a birder. If you have ever participated on a Christmas Bird Count or breeding bird atlas, helped create a park checklist, or submitted sightings to eBird, you are, in fact, participating in a field ornithology activity.

Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia all have their Field Ornithology organizations. These are primarily birding organizations. They host their respective Bird Records Committees, which keep track of, and sanction, the official state bird list and vet rare bird sightings. They often produce a periodical that includes an updated state bird checklist, a comprehensive list of recent bird sightings, details about rare birds discovered, site guides to relatively unknown birding locations, and identification articles.

If you want actual field ornithology, then the East Cascades Audubon Society in Bend, Oregon does many more field ornithology projects than many state field ornithology organizations. Of course, Audubon Societies, in general, are environmental advocacy organizations that have membership primarily made up of the generic "bird watchers" and birders, and very few actual biologists or professional ornithologists.

So, no matter what you call your bird watching activities, you're probably also participating in birding and field ornithology.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Rare Bird Report: Red-necked Stint

Red-necked StintImage 7573: Red-necked Stint, New River, Coos County, Oregon, 27 August 2011 by Greg Gillson.


On July 12, 2011, Dave Lauten and Kathy Castelein discovered a small sandpiper that they initially identified as a Semipalmated Sandpiper (Calidris pusilla), a rather rare, but regular migrant through the Pacific NW. One oddity, though, it lacked partial webbing between the toes. In other words, the supposed Semipalmated Sandpiper was not semipalmated! With some prompting by Shawneen Finnegan, Dave and Kathy re-identified the bird as a Red-necked Stint (Calidris ruficollis) in non-breeding plumage.

If a Semipalmated Sandpiper without semipalmations raised eyebrows, the new identification even more so! There are very few North American records south of Alaska of Red-necked Stint (primarily an Asian Arctic breeder that winters in Australia). Most records are either juveniles or breeding-plumaged adults. The plain non-breeding, or "winter," plumage is very difficult to identify.

The Oregon Shorebird Festival in Charleston, Oregon, gave me an opportunity to see this bird. To do so required a 3 mile hike on loose sand and for me to remove my shoes and role up my pants legs to wade a creek!

Even then, the bird was no slam-dunk to identify. I observed carefully and took notes--even though I also took photos. Photos alone are often not enough to document a rare bird. Sometimes the photos don't show the salient identification features. Worse yet, sometimes shadows or odd angles or exposure or color settings can misrepresent the actual appearance in the field! And this bird didn't let me get close and the wind was making my shots unsteady and a bit blurry.

The following is an edited version of my report to the Oregon Rare Bird Records Committee. Such a rare bird report needs to describe the bird so that others can "see" it in their mind and identify it themselves based on the description of the bird alone, and not the reputation of the birder.

Rare Bird Report
Red-necked Stint
End of Fourmile Road, south of Bandon, then north on New River to nearly due west of Hoffer Lane.
New River, Coos Co.
27 August 2011
3:30 PM

In view about 30 minutes from 50 to 150 feet, with 8x binoculars, Canon Xti with 100-400 zoom (through the lens magnification of about 12x), borrowed Russ's 40x scope for 5 minutes.

With Tim Rodenkirk, Tim Shelmerdine, and Russ Namitz after pelagic trip.

General: Obvious Calidris sandpiper: compact body, rounded head on short neck, wings to the end of short tail. Bill short for a sandpiper, legs black. Approximately 6-7 inches from bill tip to tail tip. Gray above, white below, non-breeding plumage.

Habitat and behavior: Shallow tidal river behind ocean dunes. Spent most of time with Western Sandpipers (all 350 were juveniles) foraging in an inch or less of water, with entire bill submerged, or resting on small sandstone ridge of about 8 inches in height with small potholes of water, where it may have been able to get out of the wind. Consistently was the aggressor against all juvenile Western Sandpipers of both sexes.

Image 7542: Red-necked Stint (second from right) amid juvenile Western Sandpipers. Note size equal to Western Sandpiper, neckless and humpbacked. [click all photos for larger views]

Size and shape: Appeared as large as Western Sandpipers with which it associated. It was consistently differently-shaped, however, so it was difficult to compare overall length. The bird appeared pot-bellied and neckless, accentuated by a humpbacked look that gave it a very round appearing body [Image 7542 and 7578]. Thus, the bird was fatter, belly to upper back, than the Western Sandpipers, but not as long. On the few occasions when it moved near Least Sandpipers it was significantly larger and bulkier.

Image 7578: neckless, hunchbacked, good angle to judge tapered bill shape

Head and bill: Eye dark, entire head very pale gray and without strong contrasting patterns. The eyebrow stripe was faint but fairly wide, and appeared to go over the bill, barely contrasting with a slightly darker (brownish tinged or faintly streaked?) crown and darker lores. Ear coverts generally pale but a small post-ocular brownish feather or two in the center of the ear coverts at some angles. Bill short, as shortest Western Sandpiper male (shorter than >95% of male Western Sandpipers). Bill tapered (more so than typical Semipalmated Sandpiper and similar to Western Sandpiper), with a slight constriction just before the tip and slight droop. [Image 7578 is a bit soft in focus but shows the bill length and shape best. Image 7574 best shows the ear coverts.]

Image 7574: ear coverts, breast collar

Underparts: White and unmarked from chin to vent except for a blurry patch on the sides of the upper breast and, at certain angles, photos [Image 7574] reveal a narrow very faint gray (complete?) collar across the breast.

Image 7570: P9 molted?

Underwing: The bird stretched and raised its wings once and I was able to get a photo [Image 7570. Note that bill tip is behind sandstone and appears blunt.]. The wing linings, including axillars, were entirely white and the flight feathers and tertials were silvery gray underneath with no pattern. I count only 9 primaries with perhaps a slight gap between the outer two primaries on both wings, perhaps indicating P9 is shed, if so then near the end of wing molt. Molt of the flight feathers would confirm the age as an adult.

Image 7573: good view of back, scapular, and tertial feather patterns

Back and wings: The rounded back feathers appeared mostly gray with pale browner centers and thin white tips. The messy scapulars were gray with brownish shaft streaks becoming wider, grayer (less brown), and darker on the inner scapulars. The tertials were darker grayish-brown, darker toward the feather shaft, white on the edges, wider white on the tip. [Image 7573 shows mantle feathers clearly, but dark shadow in water makes bill tip appear odd.]

My photos are ambiguous as to length of primaries compared to the tail. In many of the photos the tertials cover the primaries completely, and the tail is not clearly visible in any photo (except when wings raised). The primaries certainly do not fall short of the tail tip. In one photo [7559] it appears as if the tail end and wing tips are equal.

Image 7559: compare end of tail to wing tips.

Legs and feet: Black. Exposed tibia noticeably short compared to Western Sandpipers. Often only the tarsus emerged from the feathers of the round fat belly. The toes were clearly unwebbed in several scope views. Photos didn't really catch the toes at an advantageous angle, though webbing can clearly be seen on accompanying Western Sandpipers with no hint of such on any photo of the stint.

Voice: I heard the bird call as it flushed once. It was clearly different than Western's “jeet” call or Least's raspier “kreet” call. I described it as a rather smooth, drawn out “churrr.” On all of the Macaulay Library recordings I found only one call of Semipalmated Sandpiper that is similar ( time stamp 26-29 seconds). What I heard is NOT the short rough “chrrt” call of Semipalmated Sandpiper that is most common ( time stamp 50-54 seconds). The Red-necked Stint has a call similar to what I heard: time stamp 37 and 48 seconds; and the very first call. Thus, the call I heard could match either Semipalmated or Red-necked Stint.

Similar species: Western Sandpiper, Semipalmated Sandpiper, and Little Stint in non-breeding plumage are the only contenders.

Most (>95% of males in my experience) Western Sandpipers have longer bills. Westerns show longer legs, longer neck. Non-breeding plumaged Westerns show more streaking and contrast on the crown and sides of the breast. Westerns have obvious partial webs that this bird clearly did not. Voice does not match.

The observed bird was much larger than Least Sandpiper, thus also Little Stint. The bill on the observed bird is probably thicker than any Little Stint. Voice does not match.

Image 7549: blunter looking bill shape in this photo compared to other photos

I believe that the bill on the observed bird is more tapered than Semipalmated Sandpiper. Several of my photos seem to show blunter bill [Image 7549]. But I also have a couple other photos with more pointed looking bills [7553, 7578]. The posture of the observed bird is extremely different than the taller aspect with longer legs and neck that I associate with Semipalmated Sandpiper. The non-breeding plumage photos I have seen of Semipalmated Sandpiper do not show the strongly contrasting shaft streaks and white feather edges to mantle feathers. The observed bird clearly did not have webbed toes. However, at least one recording of Semipalmated Sandpiper has a call similar to calls of Red-necked Stint, and similar to what I heard.

Semiplamated Sandpiper is variable, but differs with the observed bird in plumage color and contrast of the mantle, bill thickness and shape, webbing between toes, neckless, humpbacked, and pot-bellied aspect of the observed bird, and apparent length of tibia.

Image 7553: tapered bill

You may find a previous article, ID Challenge: Western Sandpiper and Semipalmated Sandpiper, of interest.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Birdfest & Bluegrass Festival: October 8-9, 2011

Vancouver, Washington is the site of the 12th Annual Birdfest & Bluegrass Festival, October 8-9, 2011.

The press announcement states:
Birders from around the country will be gathering at the Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge for the annual BirdFest & Bluegrass Festival. Now in its 12th year, the Festival celebrates the natural beauty and rich culture of the Refuge as well as the beginning of the fall migration and the return of the Sandhill cranes. The Refuge provides habitat to more than 200 species of birds and is an amazing showcase of birds in the Pacific Flyway. The mild winter climate and wetlands along the Columbia River create ideal resting and feeding areas for Canada Geese, Sandhill Cranes, Great Blue Herons, swans, shore and song birds, and a variety of waterfowl.

Events include:

  • Sandhill crane tours
  • Raptor shows
  • Audubon-guided family bird walks and bus tours
  • Kayak and canoe tours
  • Guided photography walks
  • Bluegrass bands
  • A Birders’ Marketplace with great local food and bird related crafts and art
  • Guided tours of the historic Cathlapotle village archaeological site

For more information and a schedule of activities, visit

Thursday, September 1, 2011


SurfbirdSurfbird, Barview Jetty, Tillamook, Oregon, 8 January 2011 by Greg Gillson.


"Rockpipers." This is an informal term birders in the Pacific Northwest use to identify several species of shorebirds (sandpiper family) that prefer rocky intertidal zones over mudflats or sand beaches.

Most gaudy is the crow-sized Black Oystercatcher with its long thick pink legs, orange eye, blood-red knife-shaped bill, and piercing cries. These birds favor the volcanic headlands and offshore rocks where they eat shellfish (clams, oysters, mussels) at low tide.

Another very sought-after rockpiper is the rare winter-visiting Rock Sandpiper, usually found on jetties, November-March.

During spring and fall migration, you may find the gray Wandering Tattlers on headlands and jetties of the NW.

Most abundant, from late August into April, are the Black Turnstones and Surfbirds. You may find these birds on the rocky substrates described above, but also add cobble beaches and wharfs to their habitats.

Rockpipers often feed right at the sea's edge, gleaning small marine invertebrates at low tide. To search for these birds, watch each incoming wave force them to fly up higher on the rocks, and then scamper back down as the wave passes.

When standing on the wet rocks Surfbirds blend right in. However, when they fly up--usually as one flock--they reveal their diagnostic wing stripe and white rump.

Surfbirds often flock together with Black Turnstones. The turnstones have a harlequin wing pattern with many more white patches in flight. Feeding, Surbirds are grayer and slightly larger than Black Turnstones (10 inches long bill-tip to tail-tip), with thicker bill and legs.

In summer, Surfbirds breed in the mountainous tundra of interior Alaska and Yukon.