Thursday, April 26, 2012

Lincoln's Sparrow: the skulker

Lincoln's SparrowLincoln's Sparrow amid purple dead nettles, Forest Grove, Oregon on 13 April 2012 by Greg Gillson

If I were to ask what comes to mind when I say "spring migration," I bet it wouldn't be Lincoln's Sparrows. Certainly, colorful neo-tropical migrants such as warblers, orioles, and tanagers, or even the drab green flycatchers, would come to mind first.

Earlier this month I found an unusually high number of Lincoln's Sparrows at the Fernhill Wetlands. It seems that there was a fairly decent migration of these birds overnight. One corner of a cut corn field had a "flock" of a dozen birds in a very small area. I found an equal number elsewhere, scattered around as is more typical.

Lincoln's SparrowLincoln's Sparrow on a blackberry cane, Forest Grove, Oregon on 13 April 2012 by Greg Gillson

These birds breed in high mountain snow-melt meadows throughout the Pacific Northwest. Some birds winter where water remains open. But numbers of migrant birds move through in spring and fall, hiding in the tall grass--stealth migrants--their retiring ways hiding their actual numbers. It doesn't help that they appear very similar to the abundant resident Song Sparrows and the abundant migrant Savannah Sparrows.

Unlike the Song Sparrows--which are highly interested in investigating anyone venturing near--Lincoln's Sparrows often slip away quietly and hide.
Lincoln's SparrowLincoln's Sparrow on a cut corn stalk, Forest Grove, Oregon on 13 April 2012 by Greg Gillson

Song Sparrows in the Pacific Northwest are rather dark rusty with longer rounded tails they pump in flight. When they flush, they often land in the tops of shrubs to keep an eye on you. Savannah Sparrows appear more straw yellow, with forked tail. When they fly off they generally go quite a ways to land in grass or on the bare ground. They undulate like goldfinches in flight. Lincoln's Sparrows are shorter tailed and gray-brown. When they take to flight they often pop up in the air nervously before diving for nearby ground cover. All three sparrows occur together in wetland areas. But these color shade, shape, and flight style differences all help separate them with only a brief view.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Field-friendly bird sequence
Flying Waterbirds

California GullCalifornia Gull, off Newport, Oregon, 1 March 2008 by Greg Gillson.


The 13 categories of North American birds listed in the Field-friendly bird sequence: Part II are:

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.

The flying waterbirds are web-footed birds. While they can and do swim, they are often observed flying over the water looking for food. When they find it they either pick it off the surface and keep flying, or plunge into the water from the air for food, then fly up to do it again. While the swimming waterbirds are represented by ducks, the flying waterbirds are represented by the gulls.

Flying waterbirds include Albatrosses and petrels, pelicans, gulls and terns, skuas.

Black-footed AlbatrossBlack-footed Albatross, off Newport, Oregon, 6 March 2010 by Greg Gillson.


Brown PelicanBrown Pelican, Newport, Oregon, 2 October 2009 by Greg Gillson.


Arctic TernArctic Tern, off Newport, Oregon, 10 August 2008 by Greg Gillson.


Pomarine JaegerPomarine Jaeger, off Newport, Oregon, 1 March 2008 by Greg Gillson.


Monday, April 16, 2012

Where should I go birding in May?

Glorious migration! How can one possibly plan to be EVERYWHERE at DAWN in May?

In the Pacific Northwest, Memorial Day Weekend is synonymous with "MALHEUR Day Weekend." Indeed, this 3rd or 4th weekend of the month hits the peak migration window of many vagrant eastern warblers and other neo-tropical migrants. Plus, most of the breeders have arrived. The last regular migrants include Willow Flycatchers, Bobolinks, Common Nighthawks, Flammulated Owls, Red-eyed Vireos, American Redstarts, Eastern Kingbirds. Last year it was cold and snowy all through May--migrants fresh from the tropics were desperately trying to find insects to eat as they covered the sage flats. Maybe this year will be warm!

I've got other plans that weekend, so I'll likely go to Malheur in June, instead. But May 5th I'll be on a pelagic trip off Newport, Oregon. Besides the regulars such as Black-footed Albatrosses, Sooty Shearwaters, Fork-tailed Storm-Petrels, Sabine's Gulls, and Rhinoceros Auklets, target birds include Long-tailed Jaegers and Red Phalaropes in breeding plumage.

The first week in May is the end of shorebird migration. So, I'll be hitting the local inland puddles and perhaps my schedule will work out to hit the tides right at the coast (rising tides force shorebirds closer to shore--and thus to observers. A high tide at 9 AM would be perfect for an early morning visit!).

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:

Grays Harbor Shorebird Festival
May 4-6, 2012
Hoquiam, WA
Featured speaker Richard Crossley

Wings Over the Rockies
May 7-14, 2012
Invermere, BC

Fern Ridge Wings & Wine Festival
May 12-13, 2012
Veneta, OR

Leavenworth Bird Festival
May 17-20, 2012
Leavanworth, WA
Keynote speaker David Craig

Meadowlark Nature Festival
May 17-21, 2012
Penticton, BC

Ladd Marsh Birdathon
May 18-20, 2012
La Grande, OR
Noah Strycker talks about his penguin adventures

Tualatin River Bird Festival
Sherwood, OR
May 18-20, 2012

Snake River Birds of Prey Festival
Kuna, ID
Cancelled for 2012

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

eBird best practices
Bird the same place

By repeating surveys of the same area throughout the year you build up an accurate abundance bar chart. eBird's bar charts have a resolution of one week--four weeks assigned to each month.

Every time you bird your favorite birding area, you add to the accuracy of the bird list in that location. Additionally, you increase accuracy of frequency and abundance for the county, state, and country.

Other ideas for repeated bird counts:

Keep track of birds out the window at your bird feeder for 10 or 15 minutes, and do so several times during same day. Each time you look is a different stationary count.

Occasionally, I take the dog for a 20 minute walk around the neighborhood on the same route.

Get out of the office! Take a lunchtime walk at work and keep track of what you see.

If you have a special place that you bird every week or more often, then you may want to consider a special eBird Site Survey.

Read all posts about eBird

Friday, April 6, 2012

Audubon's Warbler

Yellow-rumped WarblerYellow-rumped Warbler, Forest Grove, Oregon on 23 March 2012 by Greg Gillson

Both the white-throated Myrtle form and yellow-throated Audubon's forms of Yellow-rumped Warbler are migrating through right now. Interestingly, the Myrtle Warblers are still in dull winter plumage, while most of the Audubon's Warblers are in bright breeding plumage--and the males are singing!

There have been rumors for a couple of years that these forms will be re-split. They hybridize where their ranges meet in western Canada. They were lumped back in 1983.

I have written a previous post on Yellow-rumped Warblers.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Book Review: How to Be a Better Birder

Princeton University Press recently sent me a review copy of the new book How to Be a Better Birder by Derek Lovich.

Improving birding skills is a subject near and dear to my heart. I was wondering if any new information really could be said about this subject that hasn't already been covered by excellent recent similar titles (see my previous post, Advanced birding means learning the basics, which introduce Kaufman's Advanced Birding, Sibley's Birding Basics, and Alderfer and Dunn's Birding Essentials).

Frankly, I was confused when I started reading--I wasn't sure where it was going--it was more story than instruction. However, it became increasingly more interesting and useful when it tied up introductory chapter titles such as Birding by Habitat, Birding with Geography, and Birding and Weather with the culmination in Chapter 5 of Birding at Night--an excellent how-to primer of using NEXRAD weather radar on the web to observe bird migration in real time. This book cleared up the questions I had about this subject--and made me excited to delve into it a bit more.

For instance, since getting heavily interested in photographing birds in 2007 I started noticing an interesting phenomenon. On those mornings I stayed home because the rainy spring weather would be poor for photography, other birders were out discovering great birds! I should have been listening to Lovich's rule of thumb from the chapter on birding and weather: "if it begins to rain in the middle of the night during migration, go birding in the morning!"

The skills taught in this book--namely a knowledge of habitat, geography, and weather--will make one a better birder. But these are only part of a birder's fieldcraft skill set. Other than an overview of "the whole bird and more" in Chapter 1 (what, but not really how) this book doesn't discuss identification topics at all. The identification of birds by ear, identification of birds in flight, external anatomy, and molt are topics not well understood by many birders. From the title I was expecting this book would discuss these topics as well. A subtitle such as "Find more birds using habitat, geography and weather" would have cleared my initial confusion over the main subject of this book.

Now that I've got that out of the way...

Following chapters covering conservation and citizen science, Lovitch again picks up the habitat, geography, and weather theme to discuss his passion. The author uses his knowledge to pick weather patterns and locations to search for specific rarities.

The book closes with Patch Birding, becoming intimately familiar with a nearby area, birding it weekly. Of course, use your knowlege of habitat, geography, and weather to first select a good patch, then to search for new birds in your patch.

This was an enjoyable book to read, but it isn't a reference book that you'll want to return to over and over. If you want to explore the topic of birding by habitat, geography, weather, and NEXRAD, then this book is a good start.