Saturday, October 29, 2011

Best North American field guide... again!

There are 3 worthy North American field guides. But the one I carry with me on trips, the one I turn to first, has been updated to compete strongly with the others. Yes, with its 2011 printing, Jon L. Dunn and Jonathan Alderfer did it again with the National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America, now in its 6th Edition!

The back cover advertises: "America's #1 Bird Guide Just Got Even Better!". While I don't necessarily agree with the grammar, I agree with the thought.

You may argue that The Sibley Guide to Birds is your favorite. Fine. That was an amazing book when it first came out, and is still a strong contender. The songbirds shown in flight in that book still haven't been matched by any other guide. But when Sibley's guide first hit the market in 2000, the National Geo was in its 3rd Edition with just over 800 species shown, matching the 810 in Sibley. The 5th Edition of the National Geo was a complete make-over, and this 6th Edition is also a redesign--now with 990 species (including 92 Accidentals and Extinct)!

While many of the illustrations in the National Geo are familiar through all versions of the book, this 6th edition claims 300 new art pieces in addition to all the changes in the 5th Edition! Averaging over 3 illustrations per species (as opposed to 8 for Sibley), the National Geo's bird illustrations are larger and more detailed than Sibley's. I noticed many new illustrations, including standing and close-up head views of jaegers. I notice the goatsuckers no longer have "shrunken heads" as those illustrations were re-done. Many of the warblers were re-drawn. The comparison views of the foreheads of Tundra and Trumpeter Swans are a great new ID illustration.

This new edition places helpful identification text next to the illustrations, making it similar to the arrows and text in Sibley. This seems to add almost 50% more identification text than the previous edition of this guide. Imagine having an expert write additional ID comments next to each illustration in your field guide. Wow!

Following the lead of The Stokes Field Guide to the Birds of North America the new National Geographic guide also heavily stresses field identifiable subspecies, with 59 maps showing subspecies in the main text, and an additional 37 subspecies maps in the appendix.

The subspecies are especially helpful for the white-cheeked geese, carefully delineating range and plumages of the various populations of Canada Goose and Cackling Goose--something birders really need, based on the amount of confusion I have witnessed among birders.

The maps are updated, too. The 3-color maps of the 5th Edition (breeding, winter, year-round) have been replaced with 6-colors (adding 3 different colors for migration: spring, fall, both). Hurray!

The new edition also adds more voice annotations. For instance, previous versions of the guide did not list the distinctive calls of swallows and some shorebirds (Red Knot, Surfbird, Rock Sandpiper)--it does now.

Finally! We now have a field guide that shows North American seabirds correctly and completely! It is updated with rarities and subspecies that may actually be separate species. The illustrations of wing molt in Wilson's Storm-Petrel was a nice surprise.

A new feature is a quick-find index on the front cover, and a visual index to bird families on both front and back covers. These will help newer birders find birds and learn the taxonomic sequence.

All the way around, this is a great field guide. In fact, compared to previous editions (especially the 4rd Edition or earlier), this seems like a brand new field guide to hit the market!

Related: A review of the new Stokes guide.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Golden-crowned Kinglet

Golden-crowned KingletGolden-crowned Kinglet, Cooper Mountain Nature Park, Beaverton, Oregon, 13 October 2011 by Greg Gillson.


On a recent slow drive with my window down I heard numerous Golden-crowned Kinglets in the lowland woods. Although some birds will remain through the winter in the snow-covered mountains where they breed, most move down-slope or southward for winter.

The photo above was taken on a recent cloudy morning at the nearby nature park. These low-light weather conditions will be frequent through the winter in western Oregon, where I live. At 1/30th of a second, hand-held, 400mm, and 800 ISO, it is amazing I got even one good photo of this energetic little bird. So I'll probably add a flash to my camera for my photo outings for the next few months. Birds look more realistic and three-dimensional with natural light. But without flash my bird photography would be very sparse from late October into April.

Earlier this year I posted a more in-depth article on Golden-crowned Kinglets.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Heermann's Gull

Heermann's GullHeermann's Gull, Seaside, Oregon, 6 August 2011 by Greg Gillson.


Over 90% of the world's population of Heermann's Gulls nests on Isla Riza in the Gulf of California, Mexico. After the nesting season concludes, Heermann's Gulls join Brown Pelicans moving north into the productive waters of the California Current, as far north as British Columbia. They are often seen feeding together, the gulls stealing food from the pelicans.

The eBird frequency chart (below, click for larger view) shows that a major movement of Heermann's Gulls on the Oregon and Washington coasts begin the first week in July. They are most widespread the first week of August and remain common through October. By the end of November, most are gone.

While Grant in his 1986 book "Gulls" says that Heermann's attains adult plumage in the 3rd year, Sibley indicates that Heermann's may take 4 years to become an adult. Indeed, I believe the bird above is in third summer plumage. The primaries and tail are worn but apparently not in adult plumage, the body plumage does have an adult-like aspect. This bird will likely undergo a full molt into adult non-breeding plumage before it heads back to Baja in November.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Guest post at Birding is Fun!

Robert at Birding is Fun! asked me to guest post once each month. So, my posts will appear on that blog on the 11th of each month.

This month's post was on the Northern Harrier and entitled: Blue Circler.

Please check it out!

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

What I learned about Ruddy Turnstone from eBird

Ruddy TurnstoneRuddy Turnstone, Seaside, Oregon, 6 August 2011 by Greg Gillson.


I don't get to see Ruddy Turnstones very often, especially adults in breeding plumage, like this bird.

They breed on rocky coasts and tundra in the Arctic. In the Pacific Northwest, spring migration is primarily mid-April to mid-May. Adults heading south arrive in mid-July, juveniles arrive in mid-August. By October most birds have departed, though there are always a few that winter, especially on the southern Oregon coast.

Unlike many shorebirds, turnstones in the Pacific Northwest are restricted to the outer coast--they are very rare on inland pond edges.

Thus, I was quite surprised to see the range map in the new Stokes guide. It showed regular migration through the Mississippi Flyway. No other field guide shows that.

So I thought I'd check it out in eBird.

Below is the winter range of Ruddy Turnstone in North America, showing the coastal preference of this species (click on the map for a larger view):

Next is the spring migration during May. Note the birds in the Mississippi Flyway and Midwest:

The exact breeding range is a bit hard to determine from eBird. That is because many birds are still migrating north in early June, and many adults are already heading south in July. Mapping for eBird currently is by month, not week.

The main southward migration is shown below (August-October). Notice again that there is a good migration through the Mississippi Flyway, but also widely in the Northeast and generally everywhere east of the Great Plains:

So, then, the migration range in North America is mostly coastal and the Mississippi Flyway. I learned something I didn't know before! How about you?

Interestingly, this individual bird hung around for several days at the "Cove" in Seaside, Oregon, where others also found and photographed it.

Mike Patterson's photo of this same individual on August 8.

Jen's photo of this same individual on August 8.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Check out eBird Version 3 – The ultimate birding tool

As you may know from reading my blog, I have been using eBird for the past 12-14 months and am totally hooked! eBird is for everyone! In fact, over the next year I will be having monthly posts on how to use eBird--both how to submit useful data and get amazingly useful information out of eBird. My very next post will be "What I learned about Ruddy Turnstones from eBird." In November I will present an eBird tutorial on finding Pinyon Jays.

Thus I am excited to post the following announcement from the eBird team:

If you haven’t been to eBird ( in a while, it’s time for another look. Over the past few months we’ve updated eBird so that it’s easier to use and more useful than ever to the birding community. eBird can help you find birds through our “Alerts” or by exploring our newly revised mapping tools and bar charts. Recording and keeping track of your birds is easier than ever with a completely redesigned data entry system and our automated listing pages (My eBird). Most importantly, you’ll become part of a growing community of tens of thousands of birders around the world whose data are now being used in real science and conservation. Best of all – it’s free!

eBird Version 3 includes:

  • Global scope—enter and explore observations from anywhere around the world
  • Streamlined data entry—getting your data into the system is faster and more customizable than ever
  • Improved range maps—explore interactive range maps for any bird in the world
  • Alerts system—get customized reports about birds of interest to you in a region
  • eBird Top 100—find out how your totals rank among other birders in any region
  • Birding + Science connection—by participating, your data become available to the science and conservations communities

We’re proud of the new developments at eBird, and we hope you’ll take the time to take the new tools for a test spin. Even if you don’t enter data, you can still explore the information submitted by other eBirders. Moving forward we’ll continue to develop eBird as the ultimate tool to serve the birding community, while always ensuring that the data we collect for science is of the highest possible quality. Join the flock, become an eBirder!

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Black Bullet

MerlinMerlin, Forest Grove, Oregon, 29 September 2011 by Greg Gillson.


Last week I was able to get a couple of decent photos of a Merlin. These birds tend to be wary and speedy!

While superficially the size and shape of an American Kestrel, in flight the Merlin is a race car to the Kestrel's moped. The Merlin never hovers!

Merlins tend to favor open country where they often hunt from low perches. Even migration is low and direct--hugging the terrain, just over the shrub-tops. When they see their prey (usually other small birds or dragonflies) they pursue in quick, direct flight. They then may take their prey to a perch (top of a telephone pole or fence post in open country) to pluck and eat.


MerlinMerlin, Forest Grove, Oregon, 29 September 2011 by Greg Gillson.


This particular bird is the subspecies suckleyi, formerly called the Black Pigeon Hawk. It is very dark--and heavily streaked below. This race breeds in British Columbia and winters along the coast to southern California.

I have noted this species chasing shorebirds in coastal estuaries and Pine Siskins over coastal sitka spruce forests. Once I noted a flock of Bushtits flying (crawling through the air) over the beach at the south jetty of the Columbia River. Silly birds. A Merlin flew leisurely (for a Merlin) and snatched a Bushtit out of the air without breaking stride.

Other races of Merlins are found September through April in the Pacific Northwest. The Prairie race (richardsonii) is very pale blue-gray, females pale tannish-gray. The northern taiga form (columbarius) is intermediate (see The Sibley Guide to Birds ).

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Recognition and Identification

I've been thinking quite a bit, lately, about how birders identify birds. Well, actually, by "lately" I mean the past few years--but more so in recent months.

Two blogs discussed this topic in June. A post by Blake Mathys on the ABA blog (How do we identify birds?) and by Ann Nightingale and Dave Irons on the BirdFellow blog (The Recognition vs. Identification Gap) provide an introduction to this topic.

My thoughts ponder the following types of questions.

Why can one person accurately identify a distant and poorly-glimpsed bird, while the person next to him, with the same view and apparently equal field experience and desire to identify birds, has no idea what the bird might have been?

Everyone does it; it's not just beginners who misidentify birds. Why do some experienced birders, who know all the correct field marks, sometimes badly misidentify a common and well-seen bird?

Why does a bird photo sent to the local bird discussion list generate so many diverse (and strongly held) opinions about what it is--even though it is unambiguously identifiable?

I think the answer to these questions comes down to two different reasons.

One reason is that some birders recognize birds based on clues in addition to the standard "field marks" listed in the book. Besides the plumage description (color pattern, wingbars, etc.) in the field guide, each bird comes with a certain shape, a set of behaviors, a certain habitat and specific niche within that habitat. Flying birds have a characteristic flight pattern. And most birds are not silent. And we're seeing them on a certain date, a specific season or time period during the year. (Birds in photos lack these supporting additional clues, thus why they sometimes fool even the best birders.)

Of course, each birder brings with them their own unique set of experiences with the birds they've seen in the past. Certainly, the more time in the field each birder has, the more opportunity they have to form patterns of bird recognition. Thus, to get better at bird ID, spend more time watching birds. (Duh.)

But to a large degree, shape, habitat, niche, behaviors, flight style, songs and calls, and status and distribution can be precisely described--they aren't totally subjective. They can be taught and can be learned--even without direct field experience with the bird under consideration. [See the series of posts: Seven methods of identifying birds.]

Oh, and the second reason some birders have trouble getting to the "advanced" level (meaning quickly and accurately identifying nearly every bird they see)? A future post ("Advanced birding means learning the basics") discusses this.