Saturday, February 25, 2012

Bird Migration Forecast

A cooperative effort between Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Oregon State University last fall, using a grant from the Nation Science Foundation, created BirdCast. What is BirdCast?

BirdCast is nothing other than a bird migration forecast!

That's right! We now have national weather and its resulting affects upon bird migration. The link in the paragraph above actually goes to the first forecast of this season, predicting a strong migration today and tomorrow in the Great Plains. But that's not all!

This bird migration forecast also tells the predicted species that will be migrating!

Now you can go to bed in the evening and know whether or not you should set your alarm early in the morning to visit your local migration hotspot!

Greg Haworth over at Birds over Portland has been posting radar images of bird migration. His last entry was in October, and he hasn't started yet this spring. I sure hope he is able to compare the BirdCast forecast with actual radar images this spring. It seems that migration in the West is not as dramatic as that in the East. For one, our migrants can fly over land all the way here. Most birds in the East migrate over the Caribbean and can't just set down when winds turn unfavorably on them.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Snow Goose

Snow GooseSnow Geese, Tillamook, Oregon, 24 December 2011 by Greg Gillson.


Snow Geese are abundant spring and fall migrants in the Pacific NW. Most birds stay along well-defined flight paths, though. They stage, or rest and feed, at selected locations, usually set aside as wildlife refuges

Growing numbers (several thousand) winter in the Sauvie Island/Ridgefield Refuge area a few miles west of Portland, Oregon and Vancouver, Washington. In fact, I live about 15 miles from Sauvie Island, but rarely see Snow Geese in my area.

They are even less common along the immediate coast, where I photographed this probable family group last December. The adults are white with black wing tips and pink bills. Birds-of-the-year are mottled dusky, as seen in the accompanying photos.


Snow GooseSnow Geese, Tillamook, Oregon, 24 December 2011 by Greg Gillson.


Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Field-friendly bird sequence
Part Two

In Part One we discussed how bird field guides traditionally have been arranged in taxonomic order--birds are ordered by presumed relationships, even if they don't necessarily look much alike. This order changes as scientists discover new relationships. Thus, the order birds appear in bird books constantly changes.

Veteran bird watchers memorize the taxonomic ordering of birds and keep up with the annual changes. But for beginners this just doesn't make sense.

In the "How to Identify Birds" section of his 1980 A Field Guide to the Birds, Roger Tory Peterson identified "Eight main visual categories" to separate birds. These categories were:
Long-legged waders
Smaller waders
Birds of prey
Non-passerine land birds
Passerine (perching) birds

An article in Birding magazine in November 2009 basically repeated Peterson's list as a proposed "field-friendly sequence" (The Purpose of Field Guides: Taxonomy vs. Utility? Birding 41(6):44-49, November 2009 by Steve N.G. Howell, Michael O'Brien, Brian L. Sullivan, Christopher L. Wood, Ian Lewington, and Richard Crossley). Richard Crossley used this sequence in his 2011 bird book, The Crossley ID Guide.

The shortfall of the sequence above is that half the birds in the world are Passerines. The proposed sequence does a decent job of categorizing half the birds--the non-Passerines--but doesn't really help with our familiar backyard birds.

Two other bird books took up the challenge of categorizing the Passerines. The 1997 book by Jack L. Griggs, All the Birds of North America, divided up the Passerines based on bill size and shape. It was an interesting concept, but a little complicated. Kenn Kaufman's 2000 Birds of North America did a better job, I think.

Kaufman had the basic categories of Peterson: Aerial waterbirds, Swimming waterbirds, Waders, Fowl, and Raptors. Then he used the following sequence:
Medium-sized Land Birds
Hummingbirds, Swifts, and Swallows
Typical Songbirds
Tanagers and Blackbirds
Finches and Buntings

Of course, there are always some birds that don't seem to fit neatly. I thought Kaufman's "Typical Songbirds" category included too many different-appearing birds. I also felt that most beginners (those for whom this sequence would be most beneficial) could not tell many streaky female finches and buntings from streaked sparrows.

So I propose the following sequence of categories of North American birds:
Swimming Waterbirds
Flying Waterbirds
Wading Waterbirds
Chicken-like Birds
Miscellaneous Landbirds
Aerial Landbirds
Flycatcher-like Birds
Thrush-like Songbirds
Chickadee and Wren-like Songbirds
Warbler-like Songbirds
Sparrow and Finch-like Songbirds
Blackbird-like Songbirds

A beginner should be able to quickly place a bird they see into one of these categories, and more quickly identify an unknown bird.

Future posts will discuss each category individually.

Monday, February 20, 2012

More from Winter Wings

Common RedpollCommon Redpoll, Tulelake, California, 18 February 2012 by Greg Gillson.


The Winter Wings Festival in Klamath Falls, Oregon completed yesterday.

One rarity was nearby at Tulelake, California. Two Common Redpolls were at Winema Lodge. Birders were welcome to view the bird, after checking in with the office. Since the birds were in a bare birch tree right by the front door of the office, they weren't hard to find!

This has been a good year for redpolls. They have irrupted (see What is an "irruption"?) in good numbers this winter. Common Redpoll is a very "good" bird for California (one that is quite rare and hard to find). Amazingly, there is also one right now down in San Diego!


Birders looking at Common Redpoll, Tulelake, California, 18 February 2012 by Greg Gillson.


Common RedpollCommon Redpoll, Tulelake, California, 18 February 2012 by Greg Gillson.


More birders lined up to look at the Common Redpolls, Tulelake, California, 18 February 2012 by Greg Gillson.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Winter Wings Festival: Day 2

Bald EagleBald Eagle, Worden, Oregon, 18 February 2012 by Greg Gillson.


The Winter Wings Festival climaxed tonight with a banquet, where I shared a pleasant meal with Debra Shearwater, and the keynote address by Kenn Kaufman. The keynote speech was attended by about 350-400 people, if my estimating numbers of people is any good. It was an excellent (and funny) presentation with an overall theme of being proud to be a birder.

Since it's too late tonight to do that topic any justice, I present two photos of raptors from Township Road, near the California border south of Klamath Falls, Oregon. I spent most of the day photographing Rough-legged Hawks with Brian Sullivan, one of the founders of eBird. In one field alone we had 17 Rough-legged Hawks. In another field a mile away were 46 Bald Eagles. Tens-of-thousands of Greater White-fronted Geese flew over, several thousand Tundra Swans, at least a thousand Snow and Ross's Geese,...


Rough-legged HawkRough-legged Hawk, Worden, Oregon, 18 February 2012 by Greg Gillson.


Friday, February 17, 2012

Winter Wings Festival: Day 1

Collier State Park, Klamath County, Oregon, 17 February 2011 by Greg Gillson.


I don't attend very many bird festivals. The Oregon Shorebird Festival in fall is the one I usually attend, as The Bird Guide coordinates pelagic trips for that.

But I was asked to come to the Winter Wings Festival and present a slide show on pelagic birds off the Oregon coast, which I will do Sunday morning.

So I ventured out of my comfort zone, and headed up over the Cascades in winter to Klamath Falls. At 5000 feet elevation on the Willamette Pass, I was worried. But instead of 8 feet of snow there was only 8 inches! Roads were bare and the temperature was 45F--the same as in Portland! This is important as I don't winterize my cars with show tires and such. Nor do I "summerize" my car either (we only had 2 days over 90F this past summer, so no need to fix the leak in the car's air conditioner). But I digress.

I stopped at Collier State Park north of Klamath Falls about 30 miles. Not too many birds. But I did come across an obliging and out-in-the-sun American Dipper!

Tonight's BBQ Banquet was wonderful at the festival. And I listened to a presentation on citizen science by a member of the Klamath Bird Observatory.

Tomorrow I hope to do some more birding and photography. In the evening I will go to another banquet and Kenn Kaufman's keynote: "Kingbird Highway and Extreme Birding in Another Era."


American Dipper, Collier State Park, Klamath County, Oregon, 17 February 2011 by Greg Gillson.


Thursday, February 16, 2012

Where should I go birding in March?

It seems like it should be spring to me. But except for the first migrants--Turkey Vultures, Tree and Violet-green Swallows, Rufous Hummingbirds, and Orange-crowned Warblers--most of the birds think it is still winter.

This is a good time to find some hard-to-see woodland species, though. In March you will find Brown Creepers singing throughout the Pacific NW, and Hutton's Vireos singing away west of the Cascades. You may also practice learning the songs of Song Sparrows and comparing them with the songs of Bewick's Wrens (again, primarily west of the Cascades and along the Columbia River eastward). Especially on sunny days will these birds be belting out their songs in March.

But for me, March brings the first ocean birding boat trips of the year. Again, although the first month of spring, the target birds are "winter" birds: Laysan Albatross, Short-tailed Shearwater, and Ancient Murrelet. You may appreciate the post on the Oregon Seabirds blog: Winter pelagic trip: March 12, 2012. Or find out more about Oregon birding boat trips on The Bird Guide's Pelagic Birding Trips page.

Where are you planning on watching birds in the coming month and what species do you hope to see there? Are you a field trip organizer? We want to hear what you offer (fee or free). Leave your response in the Comments section as ideas for others.

Birding festivals:

San Diego Bird Festival
March 1-4, 2012
San Diego, California

Wings Over Water Northwest Birding Festival
March 17, 2012
Blaine, Washington

Othello Sandhill Crane Festival
March 23-25, 2012
Othello, Washington

Olympic Birdfest
March 30-April 1, 2012
Sequim, Washington

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Belted Kingfisher

Belted KingfisherBelted Kingfisher, Beaverton, Oregon, 9 December 2011 by Greg Gillson.


I've tried before to take photos of kingfishers hovering and diving and fishing--all without success. This photo, my best yet of this action, was a quick shot for "practice." Five seconds before I depressed the shutter I didn't even know I was going to take this photo!

You may wish to view a previous post about this species in At the pond... Belted Kingfisher.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

eBird best practices
Count the birds

Take your eBirding to the next level--count the numbers of individual birds you see.

Counts of individual birds help eBird's bar charts, abundance graphs, and frequency graphs be more accurate and, in fact, exist at all.

You don't have to be exact. 1, 2, 5, 10, 20, 50, 100, 200, 500, 1000... If you are in the correct order of magnitude, these estimates are better than X, which is what you use when you don't count. [Please remember that X is correct when you don't count. Don't enter 1 for each species when you mean X.]

More information on this topic can be found on the eBird site, The trouble with 'X'.

Read all posts about eBird

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Greater White-fronted Goose

Greater White-fronted GooseAdult Greater White-fronted Goose, Beaverton, Oregon, 9 December 2011 by Greg Gillson.


Greater White-fronted Geese visit the Pacific NW every fall and spring. A few birds spend the winter mixed in flocks of Cackling Geese or in city parks where they take on the habits of the local tame ducks and geese. Many of the local migratory flocks seem to go over at night, without stopping, on their way from the Central Valley of California to the Arctic of Alaska. So we don't often get to see large numbers on the ground. But they do stop regularly in the Klamath Basin and some other areas east of the Cascades.

Worldwide, the circumpolar Greater White-fronted Goose is found in nearly the entire northern hemisphere. And, yes, in case you were wondering, there is a Lesser Canada Goose found in Eurasia.

Like other geese, Greater White-fronted are grazers, eating grass, but also agricultural waste grains like corn and barley.

I photographed the birds in this post in December in a city park in Beaverton, Oregon. They were an apparent family group with only one adult (photo above) and 8 immature birds (one of which photographed below).

I've never seen such an extensive black belly on any other Greater White-fronted Goose, as the adult above. This is simply individual variation, and seems not related to differences between the 3-4 described North American subspecies. Usually adult birds have black bars across the belly.

Immature birds in their first year lack the dark belly bars and the white ring of feathers around the bill is less well formed.


Greater White-fronted GooseImmature Greater White-fronted Goose, Beaverton, Oregon, 9 December 2011 by Greg Gillson.


Greater White-fronted Geese are just a bit larger than Cackling Canada Geese, but much smaller than Canada Geese and domestic farmyard geese, also known as Graylag Geese. (See this photo.)

Monday, February 6, 2012

VOE and taking notes

San Diego Co., California, 4 November 2008 by Greg Gillson.


"Gray back. Yellow-green breast. Light under tail and belly. Throat and side of head yellow. Head olive with yellow eyebrow and central crown stripe. Pink legs. Short tail. Bill straw with dark-ridged upper mandible. Dark eye."

Does the description above sound like it fits the bird in the photo? The California Bird Records Committee thought it did. Unfortunately, I wasn't submitting a report of the bird in the photograph. My report of a rare bird was rejected. Fortunately, I had VOE (verifiable objective evidence) in the form of a rough sketch made soon after seeing the bird that allowed the record to be accepted upon resubmission. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

In my previous post (VOE and reports of rare birds) I discussed including a brief description when reporting a rare bird to your online email list.

But there is good reason to make such notes in your birding notebook each time you see a rare bird. I know, few birders keep a field notebook of bird sightings. And most are nothing more than a list of birds seen during the day. My note taking took on added meaning after reading Van Remsen's article ("On taking field notes" American Birds, 1977). But my dedication to note taking and the amount of effort I put into it varied greatly over the years.

Lately I've been copying my historical bird records into eBird. I have entered checklists from 1972-1982 now. That was some time ago. And my enthusiasm sometimes exceeded my expertise. So, when I came across my own notebook report of a rare species, I wanted to have VOE (Verifiable Objective Evidence)--a description whereby I could judge the accuracy of my own sightings over 30 years ago. What did I have? Well, in accord with Van Remsen's suggestions, I had underlined unusual birds in my notebook. Rare birds? They were double-underlined. Descriptive notes? Rarely. And usually incomplete.

Sometimes my notes confirmed the bird I claimed. Other times my descriptions indicated I had seen a different bird than I had claimed. Most times, though, I had no description. Was I correct or not? Who knows? Those records don't go into eBird.

So what about the bird and description above? Well the bird in the photo is a female Red Bishop, a native of Africa that escaped their cages and established populations in southern California. That's what the Records Committee thought my bird might be. If I had included a copy of my notes for that day in October 1983 that included the head sketch I made, it would have been accepted right away.



My field notes do accurately describe a Worm-eating Warbler, but NOT ONLY a Worm-eating Warbler. As you can see, my notes could also describe a female Red Bishop! My description didn't have anything about shape of the bill that would have cleared up the ambiguity. Rare bird descriptions always first need to answer the question "why was it a warbler?" before going to the eyebrow and central crown stripe that would separate one warbler from another. This is true whether one is submitting a report to the Rare Bird Records Committee or writing your own notes that you might question 30 years later.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

American Crow portrait

American CrowAmerican Crow, Beaverton, Oregon, 9 December 2011 by Greg Gillson.


We have discussed this species previously on In the backyard... American Crow.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

VOE and reports of unusual birds

"May I see your license, registration, and proof of insurance, please?"

What does this officer want? Verifiable Objective Evidence. Business records verifying compliance to environmental regulations, tax statements for the last 7 years, proof of residence after moving to get your driver's license updated. All these are familiar situations that require VOE, some form of documentation that gives evidence of something.

Birding is the ultimate form of trust. I trust that you actually saw the bird you told me you saw. You trust that I didn't just make up a rare bird to get attention. In England (Bill Oddie's Little Black Bird Book), the term "stringer" is used to describe a birder who claims rare birds that no one else believes--untrustworthy, whether a deserved reputation or not.

Birding email lists are popular, with people of varying skill levels reporting common birds at their feeder or experts reporting the results of their latest rarity chase. When planning my precious birding time, I may want to look for rare birds that someone else found recently--perhaps a bird I've never seen before. If someone reports a "good" bird far away, I want to at least believe that the bird was identified correctly before I invest my time and fuel to go look for it.

So what do I make of a birding report from a birder I've never heard of, at a place rather distant, with 4 or 5 rare birds on it? An expert birder who just moved into the area? Or a beginner with more enthusiasm than accuracy?

It doesn't take much VOE to help me make up my mind. With the advent of excellent digital cameras, it'd be great to have a photo. But a simple description of the bird, written soon after the observation, would be nice. Don't tell me that you are very familiar with the species from somewhere else. Don't tell me you're positive of the identification. Tell me what you saw--not what you concluded. You don't have to write a Bird Records Committee-worthy description. Just tell me enough of what shape, color, field marks, calls, and behaviors you observed and let me draw a conclusion as to what the bird was.

The importance of writing descriptions of rare birds for my own personal records was brought to my attention recently. My next post (VOE and taking notes) will articulate.