Saturday, December 7, 2013

Not the Pacific Northwest

December 6, 2013
 As you can see from the photo above I am no longer living in the Pacific Northwest.

At the end of September Marlene and I made a long-dreamed move to the San Diego area. We thought we had a great job working together in a beautiful area. Our best-laid plans didn't work out exactly as we hoped. Our job lasted only 3 weeks. We thought we were going to have to move back to the Pacific Northwest and abandon our dream. It wasn't until December that we found another job in San Marcos in San Diego's "North County." [The city of San Diego is about 20 miles north and south and 10 miles east and west. Every area of the very large San Diego County not in the city limits is either North County or East County.]

So this is the end of this blog. It started covering backyard birds of the Pacific Northwest [See Backyard Birds of Portland, Oregon for links to each common backyard bird]. When I had covered those adequately, I went on to more advanced topics [See Advanced Birding means learning the basics]. In most cases this has been an educational blog, not a personal blog.

I have been thinking about my next blog. Do I really want to start another? Why? What would be its topic? I think a personal blog might be what I want to write. It would still intersperse photos and commentary of birds I see in San Diego, but also cover a myriad of other personal interests and observations. If/when I start such a blog I will put the link below. For now, it is goodbye...

See my new blog: Greg in San Diego

Greg Gillson

Friday, October 4, 2013

Wetlands Restoration FAIL

In the Pacific Northwest there are several invasive species that wetlands managers attempt to control. These include animals such as bullfrog and nutria, as well as plants such as reed canary grass and Himalayan blackberry.

Certainly I applaud all efforts to restore wetlands. It is very encouraging to see such efforts and associated costs going in to try to fix some of the damage we humans have inflicted on this planet due to ignorance and greed. My complaint here is with the bird aspect of wetlands restoration.

When trying to restore wetlands, I'm not sure that managers are thinking long-term. The word is "succession." If you remember back to 7th grade science class, you will remember that this refers to the changing of habitats over time. So, scrape the land bare of all those evil invasive plants and level to create a shallow pond, plant some native shrubs and trees to shade out the reed canary grass and try to out compete the blackberries, and voilĂ : a restored wetlands, right? Well, not for long. You see, the wetlands tend to channelize over time, the grasses and sedges are replaced by trees, and the ponds dry up.

This action is sped up by a certain plant I call a "native invasive species." It is the willow. This pernicious weed is a favorite of wetland plant ecologists--it grows well--really, really fast and dense. It quickly gives the appearance of a restored wetlands.

As far as bird watching goes, willows tend to clog up and destroy wetlands. They block the view and reduce avian biodiversity. Instead of numerous ducks, herons, and sandpipers, a few rather uncommon yellow warblers and willow flycatchers are found in summer, and not much else the rest of the year.

Here, let me show you. I have birded at Jackson Bottom Wetlands in Hillsboro, Oregon, since the mid-1980's and watched the changes. I love this place and know and respect many of the people that work here. It is a sample of many other locations--not an indictment of this one locale.

Wetlands FAIL
Ducks Unlimited pond at Jackson Bottom Wetlands, Oregon. Created 2012.
Above is a newly restored wetlands. This was formerly an annually flooded grassy field (Meadow Mouse Marsh). In winter it may flood 8 feet deep after rains. It dries out almost completely in summer. In the past 2 years this new wetland has attracted numerous migrant shorebirds, breeding ducks, raptors, herons, and other birds. Wonderful. But do you see the problem? Planted rows of willows--native invasive species alert!

This pond is not too different from that created adjacent to this 25 years ago. Do you want to see what this older pond looks like now--and what this new one will look like in a few years?

Pond at Jackson Bottom Wetlands, Oregon. Created about 1988.
What happened? Willow clumps grew up. The edges, rather than shallow and sloping as originally created, eroded and deepened. The bird species diversity that abounded for a few years immediately after the ponds were created are now reduced. Mudflats have disappeared and the open edges that birds wanted in order to watch for predators closed in. So they left. What happens next?


Kingfisher Marsh
Kingfisher Marsh, Jackson Bottom Wetlands, Oregon.
Yes, there is some nice restored native wapato planted in a swale. But 3 years ago there were mudflats here, grasses, sedges, rushes: herons, shorebirds, ducks. Now? Well, it is on its way from being a grassy marsh (the intent) to a wooded swamp (not the intent).

The view stands (not to mention the huge and expensive back deck of the nature center) now look at nothing but dense willow thickets. Gone are the expansive views of the marsh. Forever.

When restoring wetlands, land use planners should plan in willow removal every 5 years. I recommend burning, as every little cutting of willow that falls on the ground will grow. I know this is completely opposite of recommended wetlands restoration theory. But I have warned you! The wetlands you think you are making today will soon be consumed by willows.

Oh, and one other thing since I am on my soap box, wetlands restoration planners.... The photography blinds and view stands should face north or west--not east or south into the early morning sun. Doesn't the person designing these structures have any insight into their use?

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Juvenile Spotted Sandpipers masquerading as Solitary Sandpipers!

"Now I suppose you're going to tell me that juvenile spotted sandpipers don't have spots."

Well, yes; that is true. I know, fall shorebird identification is complex.

As a volunteer eBird reviewer I want to make sure birds reported into eBird in my local area are correct. Too many incorrect reports can really corrupt the data. Without this volunteer "cleaning" of the data, eventually every bird would be reported from every location. It becomes harder to find errors when birders are misidentifying birds that do occur in small numbers.

As reviewer I try to make these requests for more details a non-confrontational educational experience. [Oh-oh, the "E" word that my children used to dread!] It is my desire to create better birders submitting more accurate and complete lists of birds. When I go birding far away from home, it is not unusual for me to receive such "are you sure?" requests from other local reviewers asking about unusual species I may have reported. So don't take it personally.

For instance, when I see checklists with reports of Solitary Sandpipers (which do occur in small numbers in fall), but no reports of the abundant breeding Spotted Sandpiper, I ask the observer for more details for confirmation. [You can look up eBird fall reports of Solitary Sandpipers in your own county and check for this possible ID error yourself.]

Both Solitary Sandpipers and juvenile Spotted Sandpipers are medium small shorebirds with yellowish legs, a white eyering, and rather plain brown upper breasts. They are smaller than Lesser Yellowlegs, but barely so. Yellowlegs have a pale eyebrow stripe and longer, bright yellow legs.

Compare the following two photos taken at Fernhill Wetlands in Forest Grove, Oregon. Then we'll discuss them below. Initially they look much the same. Can you find 4 significant differences?

Juvenile Spotted Sandpiper
Don't let it fool you! This is a juvenile Spotted Sandpiper. Photo August 2, 2013 by Sandi Morey.

Solitary Sandpiper. Photo April 24, 2005 by Greg Gillson.
Did you find 4 differences in the above photos? Go ahead. Look again. I  have time...

OK, here they are.

1. Habitat. Empty mudflats on top, emergent weeds on the bottom. Yes, habitat is a key field mark for Solitary Sandpiper. Farm ponds, grassy edges. In contrast, the Spotted Sandpiper likes it a bit more open and often rocky--including rocky stream edges and lake shores.

2. Back and wing coverts. Both have brown upper parts. However, did you see the wavy black lines on the juvenile Spotted Sandpiper? What about the Solitary Sandpiper? It is lightly speckled with little white or pale cinnamon (western population juveniles) dots.

3. Breast. The upper breasts of both birds are rather smooth brown. However, the Solitary Sandpiper shows some streaking on lower breast.

4. Bill. The bill on Spotted Sandpiper is rather thick, especially compared to the needle thin bill of Solitary Sandpiper.

I hope this helps. The next time you record Solitary Sandpiper on your eBird list, go ahead and describe the habitat, wing coverts, breast, and bill in the comments section. Then anyone looking at your list will know that you didn't make this tricky identification error!

Friday, July 26, 2013

eBird best practices
Using BirdLog

The BirdsEye BirdLog is an application that runs on your smart phone and allows you to create and submit your eBird checklists right from the field. Brian Sullivan of eBird tells me that about 20% of all eBird checklists in the US are submitted by BirdLog and this number is rising rapidly.

I previewed this amazing technology when it first came out in March 2012: BirdsEye Bird Log: Killer app for eBirders.

eBird has their own best practices for BirdLog but I wanted to write my own best practices based on my experience over the last year or so. I'm using an Android phone; the fine details may be slightly different with the Apple iPhone. I do recommend looking at eBird's pointers, though.

Frankly, data coverage for cell phones is spotty in Oregon. I am using Cricket and they use the Sprint network for 3G data. This means that I have web access to the BirdLog phone application at home, up and down the I-5 corridor, and in major towns in the Willamette Valley and along the coast. When I am birding in areas with web access for the BirdLog app on my Android phone, it works quite well. For most of my countryside and forest birding, however, I do not have web access with my phone, and often not even roaming voice or text messaging. There is no web service in the Coast Range, Cascades, and most of the eastern two-thirds of the state. Thus I use the "Create offline checklist" feature of BirdLog on over 50% of my birding trips.

The main differences between the way BirdLog works with the online checklist and the offline checklist are primarily as follows. The offline checklist uses the entire default North American checklist rather than the local list of expected species for that time of year and county. It therefore doesn't know which birds are rare in your area, and sometimes requests confirmation for every species (a bug in the program of (only?) Android phones (has this been fixed in the latest update I just downloaded?). The offline checklist uses the sometimes inaccurate GPS alone to locate your position, and not the seemingly more accurate interactive map of the online checklist. Thus you can't locate your checklist on a hotspot, for instance, until you edit the location at home later. You can save your offline checklists to your phone, but can't submit them to eBird until you are back in the web coverage range again. These differences, however, don't significantly change the way I use BirdLog.

Start the application

When I first pull in to my birding location, before I even get out of the car, I immediately start up a new BirdLog checklist. Because GPS can be off, I always type in a descriptive location in addition to the longitude and latitude coordinates. I'll check, move if necessary, and rename the location later from within eBird, when I get home, using the "edit location/choose new location from a map" option.

Record species

As I bird, I record the new species I detect. This can get distracting, so I tend to bird slower than I used to--a good thing, as I detect more species! But don't miss birds because you have your nose in your phone! After I step out of the car I record what I can see and hear immediately, then only update the species list every 3 species (three being the number of things I can remember without forgetting...).

There are several ways to record species. You can scroll through the list. This is handy to make sure you haven't forgotten something. But if you are working offline you will have the entire North American list, so better only when you have the local list that comes with web access and cell phone coverage. BirdLog uses the bander's 4-letter code (KILL for Killdeer, AMRO for American Robin, WSJA for Western Scrub-Jay, etc.). But also, BirdLog will auto complete after the first 3 letters. So BAR will bring up Barn Owl, Barred Owl, and Barn Swallow for you to choose from. THR will bring up the thrushes and thrashers [Useful tip: if you have web access and are working online, and you see a bird that has a look-alike, say, one of the brown thrushes, typing in THRU will bring up all the local thrushes, but the most common will be listed first.]

Subspecies can be recorded too. MOF will bring up moffitti/maxima Canada Goose. AUD will bring up Yellow-rumped (Audubon's) Warbler. For Red-shafted x Yellow-shafted Flicker type FLI and hold your finger down on the drop down list to bring up further options.

Record numbers

I don't record numbers as I see them. Rather, I wait until I am returning to the car to make estimates. This is done by only looking at the species recorded, so I don't have to scroll through birds I haven't seen. When back to the car I check the numbers one final time.

For unusual birds I add COMMENTS to the field when I see them. One great tool is to be able to record the exact GPS coordinates in the comments field. This is newly computed and different from the initial checklist coordinates that were computed when you first started the checklist. This is a great way to give directions to a rare bird! My phone has both Swype and speech-to-text that work very well rather than typing to add comments in the field.

Time and Distance

I estimate how far I walked. Then I hit CALCULATE to record the time, which keeps track of my birding time from when I started the checklist. Since I always start the checklist when I arrive at a birding location, the time is accurate. 


I SAVE the checklist, but don't SUBMIT--even if I have web access. Invariably, as I drive away I'll see something in the parking lot that should be added to the list (or remember a bird I left off). So I'll wait until I am away from the birding area and back in cell coverage submit the list.

Since BirdLog is so easy to use, I create numerous checklists as I travel through the woods or country, often stopping at good looking habitat and doing a 5-15 minute Stationary point count.

More checklists. Checklists right from the field with no copying notes into eBird later. BirdLog is an eBirder's dream.

Friday, July 19, 2013

What is a County Birding Blitz?

On June 22-23 the Oregon2020 project ran its first County Birding Blitz. The purpose is to inventory the birds in a small location (county) on a single day or weekend. It is apparently modeled after a Bio Blitz, a word coined in 1996 by a US National Park naturalist for a public-assisted biodiversity census in Washington DC.

Twenty-seven birders participated, generating 436 eBird checklists throughout many areas of Polk County (results summarized here to OBOL email birding list). Polk, a county in the central Willamette Valley, was chosen as it is near a large number of birders yet under-represented in eBird.

As an example of the data they gathered, look at the eBird map of sightings for Chipping Sparrows in the northern Willamette Valley during May and June 2013. Throughout their range they like pine/oak, but in the Willamette Valley Chipping Sparrows here are hard to find and their preferred habitat is hard to explain. Generally, they like overgrown Christmas tree farms, filbert orchards, oaks, and small 5-acre horse "ranchettes," preferably all together adjacent to wheat fields. Such locations are found scattered around the foothills of the Valley, and I usually have to take several visits to favored locations near my home each spring in order to find one for my local county for the year. But look at all the Chipping Sparrows found on the Birding Blitz by hitting more randomized locations:

Chipping Sparrows on Polk County Birding Blitz (west of Salem)
Blitzing a county is sure to produce surprises. When the next Birding Blitz is scheduled I want to make sure to attend!

But even though I missed this one, I made sure to imitate this by making some "random" stops when I am out birding and record birds for 10-15 minutes at a stationary point for eBird (point count), especially when I am in unusual (not frequently birded by locals) habitats. I did this last week in my home county in agricultural areas hoping for Vesper Sparrows (found none), and later in the forest at several different stands of noble fir and clearcuts where I found Townsend's Solitaires and Hermit Thrushes).

More stationary counts and less traveling counts in eBird!

Friday, July 12, 2013

ID: brown swallows

A family of Northern Rough-winged Swallows, 19 July 2011, Forest Grove, Oregon by Greg Gillson.
The identification of swallows is generally considered a "beginning birder's" identification problem. As Kenn Kaufman explained in Advanced Birding, it is not so much that swallows are misidentified, rather many swallows go unidentified as they fly by overhead twisting and turning, swooping and diving. As an eBird reviewer, however, I think that some misidentification is happening with swallows--and not just by beginners, either. The ID problem I want to highlight is the 3 brown swallows. Yes, three. Northern Rough-winged, Bank, and Tree swallows. Wait--Tree Swallows? Yes indeed!

You see, the first set of juvenile feathers on Tree Swallows are brown. Then these 3 or 4 month old swallows go through another complete "preformative" molt in fall--basically into an adult-like plumage. However, many of the first-year females have a dull brown plumage. They keep these feathers until the next autumn, so some first-year females arrive on the breeding grounds in spring a rather drab brown color. Thus, at any time of year you may encounter brown Tree Swallows. 

Northern Rough-winged Swallow
Rather evenly brown above. The throat and upper chest are pale brownish merging into white belly. Long winged and graceful languid flight. Call is a rough flatulent-like sound "pbbbt." Nest in single or small groups of burrows in sandy or muddy bank.

Northern Rough-winged Swallow
Northern Rough-winged Swallow, 9 August 2010, Forest Grove, Oregon by Greg Gillson.
Bank Swallow
Brown back with contrastingly darker wings. Underparts, including throat, white. Dark, full brown neck collar, sometimes with a central "spike" going down the belly. A small swallow; wings shorter and more triangular. Flight more direct with rapid wing beats. Call is a rough buzz like electric line, "bzzzt," or "prit-prit." Nest in large colonies of burrows in sandy bank or cliff.

Bank Swallow
Bank Swallow, 29 May 2013, Malheur NWR, Oregon by Greg Gillson

Bank Swallow, 28 May 2013, Hines, Oregon by Greg Gillson.
Tree Swallow
Adult males have metallic steel-blue back and wing coverts, black mask, gleaming white underparts. Females are duller. Some first-year females are brownish rather than blue, but usually have some blue feathers on the bend of the wing, at least. Juveniles are brownish with white throat and an indistinct (usually) grayish breast band. In flight the breast band can be conspicuous, but not as strong as Bank Swallows. Rather long wings and graceful flight. Calls are a liquid twittering. Nest in tree cavity or nest box.

juvenile Tree Swallow
Tree Swallow, juvenile showing Bank Swallow-like breast band, 10 July 2013, Hillsboro, Oregon by Greg Gillson.

female Tree Swallow
Tree Swallow, first year female, 17 April 2004, Forest Grove, Oregon by Greg Gillson.
Tree Swallow, male, 16 April 2010, Forest Grove, Oregon by Greg Gillson.

In 2008 Don Roberson wrote an article, Identification of brown swallows, on his Monterrey, California birding pages that provides additional ID tips.

Monday, July 8, 2013

eBird best practices
Recording hybrids, subspecies, and spuhs

There are many times when you are birding you may wish to record more than just species in eBird.

For instance, the mouth of the Columbia River is the center of the breeding range for hybrid Western and Glaucous-winged gulls. In winter these hybrids are quite common in western Oregon and Washington--perhaps more so than either parent species. You'll want to add Western x Glaucous-winged Gull to your checklist.

Throughout the Pacific Northwest the common Dark-eyed Junco is the Oregon form. However, one might encounter Slate-colored, Pink-sided, or even Gray-headed forms. These used to be considered separate species, but are now all considered varieties of just one species. But if you see an individual of the Slate-colored subspecies, such a unique sighting deserves to be recognized in your checklist as Dark-eyed (Slate-colored) Junco, not just as a comment under Dark-eyed Junco. [One caution. Don't record subspecies based only on range if you really can't identify them. For instance, in North America the default Osprey is the American form. There are other forms in Eurasia, the Caribbean, and Australasian regions that you can choose from eBird. But don't write down "Osprey (American)" for a bird in Idaho unless you have specifically identified that form and eliminated the others.]

What, though, is a "spuh"? Well, say you see some kind of swallow, but aren't sure exactly what species. Then the species is undetermined and you would record: swallow (species unknown), more often just abbreviated as: swallow (sp.), pronounced "swallow spuh."

You can add hybrids, subspecies, and spuhs to your checklist at any time. If they are common in your area, they may appear on the default area checklist already. If not you can add them. But how do you know if what you want to add exists in eBird? When you "add species" when submitting a checklist, a menu drops down. But what if the bird you want doesn't seem to exist in the list? One way to check is to broaden your search.

For instance, I just clicked the Add Species and entered Goose. All geese in the world come up. From there you can choose from several domestic types, hybrids, subspecies groups, and species pairs that often do not appear on the default checklist.

Remember, when you add a species to a checklist (hybrid or subspecies) it will go the the local eBird Reviewer for verification. So be sure to include a brief comment on how you identified it in the comments (size and shape, plumage, behavior, song, and habitat).

More help on this subject is available from eBird.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Inside Birding: ID Videos

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology has a new feature. It is a series of videos for newer birders to learn bird identification.

Presently there are four videos on this page. The four videos are:
  1. Size and Shape
  2. Color Pattern
  3. Behavior
  4. Habitat
These 10-minute videos are really well-done. They accompany the Birding 1, 2, 3 section of the Cornell site teaching how to identify birds. Check these out!

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Telling Swallows from Swifts

Tree Swallow
Tree Swallow, Beaverton, Oregon, 18 May 2011 by Greg Gillson.
Many beginning birders struggle to differentiate swallows from swifts. Even separating the different swallows from each other is one of the first identification challenges a beginning birder faces. No doubt part of it is that both swallows and swifts are most-frequently seen darting rapidly through the air, backlit against the sky. If you can't follow them or even find them in your binoculars, how are you to identify them and see those subtle field marks?

As Kenn Kaufman says, in his new Field Guide to Advanced Birding (2011), it's not so much that swallows are misidentified, but "simply left unidentified."

But, then, how do some birders identify them nearly instantly as they fly high overhead, not even using binoculars? They differ subtly in behavior, habitat and niche, seasonality, and voice. Structurally, the wing bones are different so that the flight styles are notably different. Specifically, swallows flap more slowly and swoop gracefully, while swifts have more direct flight with rapid wing beats and brief glides.


Swallows are often seen flying through the air darting after insects, or seen sitting on wires.

Habitat and niche
Most swallows are usually found over open country or water. They can feed low to the ground or quite high in the sky, sometimes over cities or forests. They frequently perch on telephone wires, bare tree branches, fence lines. Most are cavity nesters in trees, nest boxes, cliffs, or banks, some creating enclosed mud nests on cliffs, barns, or porches.

Flight style
Feeding flight consists of graceful glides, banking, and turns interspersed irregularly with snappy, irregular deep flapping on flexible, broad-based, pointed wings. Commuting flight is more direct, interspersing several flaps with short pauses or brief glides with wings partially open (or nearly folded so that the tips of the wing are back near the tail).

Swallows have very short necks and very short, broad bills. They have rather short tails--look at the photo of the flying swallow below and note that the white undertail coverts (body feathers) come nearly to the end of the tail. Swallows have pointed wings. Look how far the flight feathers extend past the rump in the photo above. But notice that it is only the the outer part of the wing that is long. The inner arm part of the wing is exceedingly short compared to the outer "hand" portion of the wing--look how close the wrist is to the body! The base of the wing is quite wide, creating rather triangular shaped wings in flight.

In the Pacific NW, swallows are present in good numbers primarily from late March to early October, with some species arriving earlier (late January), with stragglers occasionally seen through the winter west of the Cascades.

Swallows have various chirping and grating calls, strung together into "songs" that can't be considered very musical!

Tree Swallow
Tree Swallow, Forest Grove, Oregon, 6 July 2007 by Greg Gillson.


Swifts are almost only seen flying through the air darting after insects. They have weak feet and are not able to perch on wires or tree limbs.

Habitat and niche
Depending upon species, swifts are found over open country, towns,  forests, or cliffs. They usually fly quite high in the sky. They fly into and cling to the insides of chimneys, cracks in cliffs, or hollow trees. During migration thousands may converge at dusk to roost for the night in old stone chimneys at favored locations.

Flight style
Direct flight with rapid wing beats interspersed with occasional set-winged glides.

Vaux's Swift
Vaux's Swift, Forest Grove, Oregon, 22 September 2009 by Greg Gillson.

The arm bones of swifts are so short that only the outer hand is present--very much like the wing of a hummingbird. Flight is thus twinkling with rapid wing beats on stiff, narrow pointed wings. The tail on Vaux's swifts are short to nearly absent; others have forked tails.

In the Pacific NW, swifts are present from mid-April to early October.

Swifts have squeaky, chipping calls.

Vaux's Swift
Vaux's Swift, Hillsboro, Oregon, 3 August 2008 by Greg Gillson.
Range in the Pacific Northwest

The following are the locations where swifts and swallows are most often encountered in the Pacific Northwest.

Tree Swallows are abundant over ponds. They use nest boxes placed very near water.

Violet-green Swallows are found in town and over forested lands. They nest in holes under eaves or nest boxes in yards.

Barn Swallows are found in country and towns, nesting in open barns and sheds.

Cliff Swallows nest under barn eaves and cliffs.

Banks Swallows nest in colonies in river banks. They are rather rare west of the Cascades.

Northern Rough-winged Swallows nest in river banks.

Purple Martins are rather rare and local in the Pacific Northwest, along the coast, Columbia River, and mountains.

Vaux's Swifts are regular over towns and forests.

White-throated Swifts are local over cliffs and rimrock in the Great Basin.

Black Swifts are rare in mountains.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

75 years of bird population changes in Oregon

During the age of dinosaurs Oregon was under the ocean. Eventually, lands rose and the Pacific Ocean coastline, formerly near the Idaho border, moved westward. The history of Oregon's previous life is preserved in volcanic ash deposits that buried plants and animals several times in the past at the John Day Fossil Beds.

It was warmer and wetter than present when Oregon first emerged from the ocean during the Eocene. Larger trees included palms, nut trees, and avocados, and large grazing herbivores (rhinoceros-like brontotheres and hippo-like amynodonts) ruled the swamplands, hunted by hyaenadons. Later still, during the Miocene, the climate dried in central Oregon as volcanoes formed a ridge of mountains to the west, blocking some of the damp Pacific weather. Various savanna animals ruled including saber-toothed tigers, pig-like oreodonts, camels, and ancient horses. Metasequoia, the dawn redwood, was abundant. As the Cascades rose, the climate in central Oregon cooled and dried. Among the oak, sycamore, maple, gingko, and elm lived horses, camels, rhinoceroses, bears, dogs, cats, and sloths. Much more recently, but not documented by the older John Day fossils, an ice age came and went, with mammoth fossils in western Oregon. Since then the John Day Fossil Beds area has become a high sage desert and grassland with scattered juniper. Deer, pronghorn, and coyotes are the primary large native animals.

The point is, climate change is not unique to our time. Changes in bird populations have been happening in Oregon ever since it first rose from the sea. When people ask me if I see evidence of climate change or global warming in bird populations here, how can I answer? Bird populations are constantly changing. Bird populations may be changing more quickly now, in the last 50 years, than in the previous 100 years, but data from the reports of naturalists before the 1880's is quite limited. Earlier than that we have a very few fossils that show that some birds remained the same while others have changed.

Even in my own limited lifetime I have seen many changes in bird populations. When I started birding in the 1970's I read the 1940 book Birds of Oregon by Gabrielson and Jewett. I was surprised at all the changes to bird populations that had occurred in the previous 35 years. It is far easier to notice range expansions into new areas than to note gradual decreases in numbers or range reductions.

Most of the changes in bird populations in Oregon are of two kinds: man-caused (both increases and decreases) and expansion of California birds into Oregon due to assumed long-term climate warming. Some of the causes of population changes are obvious (see Bald Eagle and European Starling) while others are complex (Western Bluebird) or unknown (Common Nighthawk). It's almost always more complex than we can know.

Man-caused bird population changes

The activities of man have directly caused extinctions and also increases in and rearrangement of bird populations. The following list includes some notable examples of birds found in the Pacific Northwest whose population change I have noted and is presumed to be primarily man-caused. This list does not include climate change causes, whether man-made or "natural." Such climate-caused bird population changes are noted in a section following this. 

Bald Eagle, Peregrine Falcon, Osprey:  The year I started birding, 1972, DDT was banned in the United States. It had been used as an insecticide since World War II. The harm to fish-eating birds was obvious. DDT got into the water supply, fish ate contaminated insects, and fish-eating birds ate then-contaminated fish. Top predators like the Peregrine ate other contaminated birds and became contaminated themselves. Egg shells were so thinned by DDT poisoning that they would break when the adults tried to incubate the eggs. The population of these species crashed. It was a red letter day when I would see a Bald Eagle, Peregrine Falcon, or Osprey. These are now common birds in the Pacific Northwest. There are are about 7 Bald Eagle nests within 15 miles of my home now. The populations of these three species are probably higher now than ever in recorded history. Why? In addition to the US DDT ban (DDT is still used to control malaria in some countries) the birds of prey were highly persecuted by man prior to World War II. Concerning the Osprey, Gabrielson and Jewett wrote in 1940: "formerly common,... must now be considered one of the rarer Oregon hawks.... They are killed at every opportunity, both by farmer boys and... sportsmen." Such species now are protected by law and public opinion.

House Finch: I was surprised to learn that House Finches used to be restricted to the drier valleys of SW Oregon and ranches of eastern Oregon and eastern Washington. Now, of course, they are abundant throughout all human-inhabited lowland areas of the Pacific NW, especially in the Willamette Valley and Puget Trough, and to the coast. In the 1953 book, Birds of Washington State (Jewett, Taylor, Shaw, Aldrich) the authors noted that the House Finch was extending its range northward, but still not west of the Cascades. By 1966 the map in the Golden Guide (Birds of North America by Robbins, Bruun, Zim, and Singer) showed House Finch all the way to the coast from southern Canada southward. Evidently, House Finches exploded in western Oregon and Washington in the late 1950's. No doubt they were able to spread so rapidly due to backyard bird feeding growing in popularity along with an increase in the human population of the area.

Anna's Hummingbird: These little California birds began to be a regular part of western Oregon's avifauna in the 1960's. They are now widespread throughout western Oregon and Washington, especially in and near towns. In the local area I noted that they were most common in nurseries near Portland in the late 1980's and spread to the more rural areas of Forest Grove in the 2000's. They are still increasing in population and being found in more and more areas, including away from the immediate residential backyards. They are now found year round along the coast and inland valleys to southern British Columbia, and even in towns immediately east of the Cascades. The first commercial hummingbird feeder in the US was sold in 1923. No doubt the popularity of hummingbird feeding is a significant cause of the increase of this species, along with plantings of winter blooming non-native bushes.

European Starling: Most birders are aware that European Starlings were introduced into New York in the late 1800's and they spread across the continent. However, most birders do not know that there were Starlings released in Portland during the same time period. The Portland releases died out by about 1902. Gabrielson and Jewett wrote in 1940: "Introduced in Portland but now, fortunately, extinct." Well, the birds from New York spread to Oregon in the 1960's. They did, indeed, cause the destruction to the small-fruit industry and other cavity-nesting birds that Gabrielson and Jewett worried about.

Eurasian Collared-Dove: Released or escaped from cages in the Bahamas in the 1970's, made their way to Florida in the 1980's, and spread across the North American continent (primarily west and northwest) to reach Alaska by 2000. One of the fastest spreading non-native birds in North America. It is still increasing and filling in areas it "jumped over" in its rapid spread. Interestingly, they also spread northwest across Europe from Turkey/India/China region in the same manner starting about 1900, reaching the British Isles in the 1950's.

Ring-necked Pheasant, Northern Bobwhite: The pheasants were brought from China in 1880. The Oregon Game Commission raised and released "many thousands" each year by 1940. That practice continued with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife until the 1980's. Since then, fewer pheasants have been released in western Oregon as they didn't do well, and it wasn't cost effective. The damp spring weather, loss of farmland, predation by dogs and cats, all combined to decrease the number of birds successfully breeding in the wild. They were certainly more common in the 1970's than today. In 1967 almost 100,000 pheasants were harvested in western Oregon. Only 2500 pheasants were harvested (shot by hunters) in the Willamette Valley in 2005, out of 65,000 state wide. They still do quite well in the drier lands east of the Cascades, but the number released is far smaller than formerly. Northern Bobwhites were also first released in the 1880's. They did very well, too. In 1940 it could be said "In every county of the Willamette Valley from Multnomah to Lane, the diversified farming practiced there provides conditions suitable for these quail" (Gabrielson and Jewett). Well, after World War II, and especially from the 1960's to today, farming practices changed considerably, and residential areas spread. The last "wild" populations disappeared from eastern Oregon in the 1990's. They were gone in western Oregon by the time I started birding in the early 1970's, though sometimes birds are released to train hunting dogs on Sauvie Island, and escape for a while.

Sharp-tailed Grouse: Gabrielson and Jewett quoted others that this bird was formerly "exceedingly abundant" in the grasslands east of the Cascades in the mid 1800's. However, by the time of writing their book in 1940 they said it was "apparently headed for early extinction" due to hunting and livestock pressure. They were right. The birds were gone by the 1970's. In the 1990's a reintroduction effort began in NE Oregon and some birds are seen occasionally in that area.

Western Bluebird: "Vies with the robin for first rank as a dooryard bird." Wow. In the 1970's when I read those words from 35 years earlier, nothing could have been further from reality. No more is every house a little farmstead suitable for bluebirds. Insecticides since World War II and European Starlings since the 1960's perhaps added to the pressure. A severe winter in the late 1960's caused a population crash in the Willamette Valley when I began birding. Since then, though, bluebird nest box trails have brought back more available nesting cavities and bluebirds are again to be found in the Willamette Valley, though they are not a dooryard bird.

Western Meadowlark, Short-eared Owl, Vesper Sparrow: These grassland species have disappeared as breeders from large portions of the Willamette Valley as farming practices changed to eliminate weedy field edges. Western Meadowlarks were fairly common in the Valley when I started birding in the 1970's, but now have joined the other two in being quite unusual breeders. Even the starlings have forgotten the meadowlarks near Portland; I never hear meadowlarks being mimicked anymore--a previously popular stolen song of the starlings. 

Canada Goose, Cackling Goose: In order to get white-cheeked geese to land on several wildlife refuges for hunting and preservation purposes, wildlife managers introduced the mostly non-migratory Western Canada Goose to many areas. Success. More success than they could have imagined. Yes, the populations of Aleutian Cackling Geese and Dusky Canada Geese recovered from the brink of extinction. But the Western Canada Goose is now something of a pest in many areas, behaving more like domestic geese. A significant portion (tens of thousands) of the Ridgway's Cackling Geese now winter in the Willamette Valley rather than flying all the way to the Sacramento Valley as they did 40 years ago. 

Marbled Murrelet, Spotted Owl: The timber wars of the 1970's and 1980's pitted the timber industry and related jobs against the requirement of these species for rather large tracts of unbroken old growth forest. In all my 40 years of birding, I've only come across Spotted Owls 3 times without a forest service guide. I volunteered to survey breeding Murrelets one summer in the Oregon Coast Range. My feeling is that the Spotted Owl is a "dead man walking." The remaining old growth is too small and fragmented. My pessimistic guess is that this species will probably be extinct within 50 years (see next species). The murrelet may last a bit longer in the Pacific Northwest, but become quite rare. There are still places where it can be found in good numbers off sandy beaches just beyond the ocean breakers--but for how much longer?

Barred Owl: First recorded in Oregon in 1974. Now an uncommon and increasing permanent resident throughout forested areas of the entire state. Birds followed the fragmented forest openings from the Rocky Mountains of British Columbia southward along the Cascades and Coast Range into California. It displaces, and even kills, the endangered Spotted Owl. Expansion of this species is directly tied to logging of forests.

Brown-headed Cowbird: The Buffalo Bird; it expanded from the Great Plains into the East after forests cut down there. In the West it has expanded following timber cutting and cattle. By the end of the 1800's it reached Eastern Oregon, but was considered "not common" in Oregon by Gabrielson and Jewett in 1940. There were only a few records for western Oregon then. Now it is a very common summer visitor. It is a brood parasite, laying its eggs in the nests of smaller birds such as warblers and flycatchers and making the adoptive parents raise the larger young which starves out the hosts' chicks by eating everything the parents bring to the nest.

Common Nighthawk: This crepuscular insect eating bird has shown a major population crash throughout North America, mirrored by near-extirpation as a breeding bird west of the Cascades in Oregon. In the 1970's when I began birding it was not unusual to see these birds nesting on gravel roofs in towns throughout western Oregon or gravel bars on the Willamette River or on logging landings in the Oregon Coast Range. Now, a couple of migrants are noted each year, but actual breeding birds are noteworthy. The cause(s) of the significant decline is unknown and probably complex. It could be that insecticides have eliminated prey species. Flat gravel roofs are less common now than formerly (no longer use real gravel). American Crows are no longer persecuted (shot) and their population in town is quite high--they would find any nest on flat roofs and eat the eggs. Nighthawks are less common, but still regular around Cascade lakes and in the high desert of central and eastern Oregon. The cause for the population decline is simply not known.

Great Egret: A symbol of bird preservation for the nation. These birds were hunted for their 2 breeding plumes to adorn women's hats. Breeding birds in the Harney basin were slaughtered each year until the Malheur NWR was established. Prior to the plume hunters (1875) there were at least 300 nests. The low point was 2 birds in 1908. Attitudes and fashions changed. Some time in the 1980's birds began wintering west in the Willamette Valley rather than south. In 1940 there was only one record for the Valley, now it is not unusual to see 50-100 birds in marshes around Portland in winter. How long before they start breeding there? 

Climate-caused population changes

Most of the species on this list have expanded from California into Oregon in recent years, or small populations in the California-like habitats in the Rogue Valley of SW Oregon have expanded northward through the Willamette Valley. This follows at least a hundred years of general climate warming. One species (Sooty Shearwater) is affected by climate change of the entire Pacific Ocean. More species of seabirds are probably being affected but they are so hard to census off the Oregon coast that determining changes in populations is difficult.

Western Scrub-Jay: Gabrielson and Jewett indicated in 1940 that these jays were represented in the Portland area by scattered pairs and they rarely ventured across the Columbia to Washington state. Now they are abundant in the Portland area. Since I started birding in the 1970's they have expanded to the northern Oregon coast and eastward into towns in central Oregon. They have also expanded northward in Washington state to Olympia and farther. I suppose that the increase in these birds could be connected to expansion of people, but the jay's increase lags human city population so long that more must be involved.

Red-shouldered Hawk: The first modern record of Red-shouldered Hawk was reported in southwestern Oregon in 1971, along the California border. Since then they have become rare, but regular, northward through western Oregon (including the coast) and in western Washington state. When they first appeared they were immature birds coming north in the fall and returning toward California in the spring. But now they breed northward to the central Willamette Valley. Birds are also regular in Klamath area and Harney County. There were reports of Red-shouldered Hawks in the 1880's and 1890's, but Gabrielson and Jewett thought these to be misidentifications. Perhaps these were correct, after all.

White-tailed Kite: Another hawk of California's Central Valley. Gabrielson and Jewett recorded 2 birds for Oregon by 1940. These hawks really increased into SW Oregon in the 1970's and quickly moved north along the coast and to the mid-Willamette Valley and into SW Washington state. The advance seems to have halted by the 1990's, and perhaps they have declined in recent years.

Black Phoebe: Gabrielson and Jewett listed this species as hypothetical in their 1940 book based on unverified reports in the late 1800's. However, there were apparently Black Phoebes in the Rogue Valley beginning in the 1930's. When I began birding in the 1970's birds were found only in three SW Oregon counties--in the Rogue and Umpqua valleys and along the adjacent coastal meadows. Birds began expanding their range much more rapidly in the 2000's, with birds found in coastal marshes and dairy farms the length of the Oregon coast and regularly in the southern Willamette Valley. In my local area west of Portland in the northern Willamette Valley, half of the 10 records for Black Phoebe in the local county have been since 2011.

Wrentit: Formerly (pre-1940's) restricted to the Rogue Valley and immediately along the coast from California to the mouth of the Columbia. Entered the Umpqua Valley and then Willamette Valley to Eugene and expanded north to Corvallis in the 1970's. In the 40 years since I began birding Wrentits in the Willamette Valley have expanded along the east slope of the Coast Range from Corvallis northward about 40 miles to Grand Ronde. Other Willamette Valley birds in recent years have pioneered apparently isolated outposts at Lebanon, Minto Brown Park in Salem, and Troutdale near Portland. The coastal population has apparently not expanded at all in over 100 years. They are found to the Columbia River to Brownsmead, but are not advancing up the river.

Acorn Woodpecker: In 1940 there was only one record for Lane County where Eugene is located. All other records were from the Umpqua and Rogue Valleys to the south. Expanded into the Willamette Valley in the 1960's where common in the southern half to Corvallis and Salem. Isolated colonies in the NW Willamette Valley to Forest Grove. Largely absent north of Salem on the east side of the Willamette Valley. A small isolated colony was present 1960-1990's at The Dalles and across the Columbia River in Washington State.

Elegant Tern: First detected in Oregon following the major El Nino event of 1983 when hundreds invaded coastal waters from the south. They have occurred in about 2/3 of the summers since then. The timing is very strict--primarily only August and September. When they do occur they are often in larger flocks, more common on the southern Oregon coast.

Sooty Shearwater: There are 20 million of these birds in the world. Many migrated past Oregon's shores in the past. In fact, this species graced the cover of a state checklist in the 1970's, likely as it was the most abundant bird in the state. The past 15 years or so have seen a significant reduction in number detected off Oregon and California. Where did they go? It seems changes in ocean currents and temperatures have made them change their migration route.
Franklin's Gull: This species nests in the Harney Basin of SE Oregon. It had never been found in the state up to 1940 when Gabrielson and Jewett wrote Birds of Oregon. Now it breeds commonly at Malheur NWR and a few other locales in the remote alkaline desert lakes of SE Oregon. A bird of the northern Great Plains, mostly nesting on Canadian prairie potholes, but south to the Great Salt Lake.

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

eBird best practices
Add photos to your checklist.

You can embed photos, videos, and recordings of unusual or exciting birds to your checklists.

If you have a photo sharing website you can find the URL of your image and insert it directly as:

HTML code: <img src="http://your-photo-sharing-site/your-photo-name.jpg" />

If you use Flickr you can use the "share" function and copy the code.

Here are two things to remember:

1) Add the photo to the species comments section for each species (NOT checklist comments).

2) Use "medium" size (about 400x400 pixels).

3) Use no more than 2 photos per species.

Example eBird list with several photos embedded.

There are two pages on the eBird site that will provide more details.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Beginning Bird Identification

Back in January 2012 I discussed how birds that look alike aren't always placed in field guides next to each other (Field-friendly bird sequence: Part one). Instead, they are arranged by presumed relationships (taxonomic order)--and these constantly changing.

Next I looked at some previous attempts to organize birds by general external physical characters. I proposed a sequence that placed all North American birds into 13 categories (Field-friendly bird sequence: Part two). Beginners should be able to quickly place a bird they see into one of these categories, then search for the exact species more accurately than in field guides ordered in taxonomic sequence.

Over the subsequent year I discussed one of the 13 categories each month. It is now completed. I've gone back and updated Part two with links to each discussion. I repeat it below for your convenience.

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

What do you think? Do you find these categories useful for beginning birders?

Friday, April 19, 2013

How to identify hawks and other raptors
Review: The Crossley ID Guide: Raptors

Photo from Princeton University Press.
As this blog focuses on birds and birding in the U.S. Pacific Northwest, readers may not be personally familiar with The Crossley ID Guide: Eastern Birds, published in 2011. That large 544 page book is stuffed to the gills with over 10,000 photos of birds from every possible angle set in museum-like panorama photographs (such as above). Each species is displayed with 3 or 4 larger images and many smaller images of as many different plumages and postures as possible. Text for each species is at a bare minimum. Richard Crossley's idea was that you could learn ID just from looking at the photos of birds alone. [I thought that not having text could also mislead. See my review of Crossley's Eastern Birds.] When the Princeton University Press offered me a review copy of Richard Crossley's latest field guide on North American raptors I jumped at the chance.

The Crossley ID Guide: Raptors (April 2013) is a 340 page book book covering the identification of 34 species of hawks, eagles, falcons, kites and other raptors found north of Mexico. As in the original Crossley guide, each page is like a museum panorama of dozens of bird photos backdropped by a photo of some well-known (often) North American scenic location. Most photo collages are 2-page spreads.

More than half the book is made of photo panoramic plates. The photos start with a couple of plates explaining the identification of each species and age. That is followed by a photo quiz plate! There are over 30 double-page plates of raptor quizzes, averaging more than 10 birds per quiz!

Whereas the original Crossley guide forsook text for photos, about a third of the book is textual species accounts written by raptor ID experts Jerry Ligouri and Brian Sullivan. Each species account begins with an interesting first-person introduction written from the perspective of the raptor itself--very unique! Subsequent sections in the species account include an overview, flight style, shape and size, plumage, geographic variation, molt, similar species, hybrids, status and distribution, migration, and vocalizations. Large 3-color maps show the breeding, resident, and winter ranges. The final 20 pages or so give the answers to the photo quizzes.

Three books in one!
  • Annotated ID plates similar to the original Crossley ID Guide to birds.
  • Expert in-depth species accounts covering status, distribution, and detailed plumage and flight style ID.
  • Photo quizzes and answers.
I really like this book. It teaches identification through both numerous photos and expert text. The photo quizzes aren't just a quick glance and a look at the answers. I went through the 15 images of birds on the flying Acciptiers quiz page and wrote down my answers. Twice. Then I looked at the ones I wasn't quite sure about to choose a final answer. My results? I got 13 of 15 correct, and feel like I improved my identification skills! Who could ask for more?

For your convenience you can follow the link below to order this book from Amazon. And, yes, a very small percentage of the sale will go to me.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

No Swainson's Thrushes before May!

All Swainson's Thrushes reported before April 28 in the Pacific Northwest are probably misidentified.

There. I said it. It may not be absolutely true, but true enough that if you think you saw one before May you better make doubly sure. In fact, it is possible that many Swainson's Thrushes reported before May 8 are in error, too.

In February I wrote a blog post for Birding is Fun! titled: Ten most-misidentified birds in the Pacific Northwest. The number one identification problem mentioned by a group of knowledgeable birders was the misidentification of Hermit Thrushes as Swainson's Thrushes.

Swainson's Thrushes vacate North America in late fall and do not come back until late spring. Nevertheless, numerous beginning birders every year report Swainson's Thrushes in April and even March. Hermit Thrushes are abundant early spring migrants and winter in good numbers in wooded areas west of the Cascades. Swainson's Thrushes nest in lowlands, Coast Range, and lower mountain slopes with deciduous or mixed woods. Hermit Thrushes in the Pacific NW nest in high elevation evergreen forests from the Cascade crest eastward (also in higher Olympic Mountains of Washington).

Take a look at the photos below. Do you see why many people have trouble telling these apart?

Swainson's Thrush. 28 June 2008. Timber, Oregon by Greg Gillson.

Hermit Thrush. 17 December 2010. Hagg Lake, Oregon by Greg Gillson.
If you happen to have the National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 6th Edition (2011), the Stokes Field Guide to the Birds of North America (2010), or the New Stokes Guide: Western region (2013) compare the Pacific coast (ustulatus) form of Swainson's Thrush and the western lowland (guttatus) form of Hermit Thrush. These are the two forms found most commonly west of the Cascades and look most alike.

Hermit Thrushes have slightly darker, rounder breast spots, and a reddish rump. Swainson's Thrushes have a pale supraloral area (the lores is the area between eye and bill, supraloral is above that). It makes the Swainson's Thrush look like it is wearing spectacles. Trouble is, this isn't that distinctive (see above photos). It doesn't help that these birds are shy and hide in the thick, shaded, understory shrubs.

East of the Cascades the subspecies look slightly less similar, but the Swainson's Thrushes east of the Cascades migrate even later in spring than those west of the Cascades.

Calls and songs are different. But Starlings and other birds can imitate the Swainson's Thrush's mellow whistled "whit" call. Hermit Thrushes give a blackbird-like chuck call.

Swainson's Thrushes reports in eBird for the Willamette Valley of western Oregon.

Notice the eBird history for Willamette Valley, 1900-2013 (above). Only a very few Swainson's Thrushes show up the first week of May; most arrive later in May. Earlier reports are either exceptionally early birds or (probably) misidentifications.

Let's look at just the last 5 years for all of Oregon.

eBird graph of Swainson's Thrushes in Oregon, 2008-2012.
There are a couple of things to note here.

1) The reports in March and early April are probably misidentified. Even if some are correct, they make up less than 1% of checklist frequency. Consider it data "noise."

2) Ignoring the early noise, the first birds for the year didn't arrive until the first week of May in 4 of 5 years. In 2008, perhaps due to weather conditions, Swainson's Thrushes arrived in western Oregon some time during the fourth week of April (April 22-30th; see the label on the above graph).

3) Notice the peak frequencies in the fourth week of May (migration) and the third week of June (territorial singing). Then notice more detections as they migrate south in September and are heard by birders at night as they fly over calling "weet."

4) A single bird with injured wing photographed in Portland in December 2008. Healthy birds are highly unlikely in winter anywhere in North America.

So that's it. Question the correctness of your identification of Swainson's Thrushes before mid-May. Try to really study both these rather common woodland and forest birds this summer and learn their calls, songs, behavior, and habitat. It's always fun to be the first one on your block (I mean, listserv) to report the arrival of a new spring migrant. It's better, though, to actually be correct.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Field-friendly bird sequence
Blackbird-like Songbirds

Brown-headed Cowbird
Brown-headed Cowbird, Hines, Oregon, May 24, 2009 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.

Smaller than crows, blackbirds, starlings, and cowbirds are primarily black in color.

Red-winged Blackbird
 Red-winged Blackbird, Sherwood, Oregon, May 9, 2009 by Greg Gillson.

Great-tailed Grackle
 Great-tailed Grackle, Hines, Oregon, May 23, 2009 by Greg Gillson.

European Starling
European Starling, Forest Grove, Oregon, April 11, 2009 by Greg Gillson.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Review: "New" Stokes Field Guides -- East and West

I was quite impressed with the 2010 Stokes Field Guide to the Birds of North America. So when Lillian Stokes asked me to review their new (2013) Eastern and Western field guides I looked forward to it with great anticipation.

The reason the 2010 Stokes guide was so good was that it used numerous photos of different plumages. Additionally, it was the first field guide to really describe all the variations of subspecies--with photos of many different-looking forms. The book had ample text, too, explaining ID, songs, and identifying birds in flight. To aid the user in general bird identification techniques the Stokes guide emphasized shape as the first ID criterion, before discussing color patterns. It is simply the best photographic field guide for North American Birds and competes nicely with the Sibley and National Geographic guides. [See my review of the 2010 guide.]

That said, however, The New Stokes Field Guide to Birds (Eastern Region and Western Region) is simply a marketing version of their landmark 2010 book. I understand the reasons for producing Eastern and Western versions of their popular field guide. At 800 pages, their original was too large to carry into the field. So it made sense to create less costly guides with 500 (Eastern) and 575 (Western) pages. There's nothing wrong with these guides--the praise for the original guide still applies. For these "new" versions, if a species occurs east of the 100th meridian the publisher took the species photos and text in toto from the continent-wide guide and put it in the Eastern Guide. Same for the Western guide west of the 100th meridian. The only changes are updates to some of the scientific names (no more Dendroica warblers) and a split that gave us back the gallinule.

Since there were no changes to the text and photos in the Eastern and Western versions (except for a juvenile Saw-whet Owl), it creates some real oddities. For instance, of the five subspecies of White-crowned Sparrow, one subspecies occurs in the East, four in the West. However, the Eastern field guide shows photos of 2 Western subspecies and describes them in the text. Photos in the Eastern field guide of Song Sparrow show two from California, one from British Columbia, and one from Alaska--all of forms that look significantly different than Eastern forms of Song Sparrows. The Eastern guide describes 17 subspecies of Fox Sparrows in 4 groups, but only one subspecies of Fox Sparrow is found regularly in the East. Five of seven photos of Fox Sparrows are of forms that do not occur in the East. I think it would have been less confusing to show only the forms found in each region. It would have saved many more pages of the field guides, especially in the East. Perhaps more photos of different plumages of the correct subspecies could have been shown instead.

If one already owns the 2010 Stokes Field Guide to North America (north of Mexico), then I see no benefit to purchasing one of the regional guides. However, these regional guides are smaller and lower priced than the original. If one does not own the 2010 version then they should very definitely pick up the original or one of these "new" 2013 regional guides. They'd make great gifts.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Field-friendly bird sequence
Sparrow and Finch-like Songbirds

Sage Sparrow
Sage Sparrow, Malheur NWR, Oregon, May 26, 2007 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.

There are many sparrow and finch-like birds. Many grosbeaks, finches, and buntings are quite colorful. Some of the females, however, are streaky and brown--as are many of the sparrows. All share a thicker conical beak for eating seeds. Many are familiar backyard and feeder birds.

Longspurs, sparrows, weavers, finches, buntings, juncos, and others make up this varied group.

Lapland Longspur
Lapland Longspur, Newport, Oregon, September 14, 2008 by Greg Gillson.

Black-headed Grosbeak
Black-headed Grosbeak, Forest Grove, Oregon, August 12, 2009 by Greg Gillson.

Lazuli Bunting
Lazuli Bunting, Hillsboro, Oregon, July 6, 2007 by Greg Gillson.

Spotted Towhee
Spotted Towhee, Beaverton, Oregon, February 19, 2011 by Greg Gillson.

House Finch
House Finch, Bend, Oregon, June 13, 2008 by Greg Gillson.

American Goldfinch
American Goldfinch, Forest Grove, May 2, 2012 by Greg Gillson.

House Sparrow
House Sparrow, Beaverton, Oregon, February 16, 2011 by Greg Gillson.

Monday, March 18, 2013

eBird best practices
Be an eBird advocate: Share your lists!

I started eBirding just over 2 years ago. eBird, as a phenomenon, is probably unprecedented. I rank eBird right up there in importance to birding with Peterson's first field guide, email birding lists, and the recent abundance of low-cost powerful digital cameras.

How can I best share eBird with others? One way is that when I go birding with others I send them the eBird checklist by means of a "share." When they accept the shared list it adds the birds to their eBird lists. If they haven't signed up for eBird yet, perhaps my shared list will entice them to do so. After all, it is simply a name, location, and email to join the eBird community.

When leading a pelagic trip I use best practices to create smaller-area lists (harbor, near shore, 5-20 miles, and chum stop as separate lists). Then I share the lists and all observers then have their list show on the map at the same location flag, rather than a dozen lists in slightly different places, if they submitted their lists on their own.

Is there a way you can share your lists or otherwise become an eBird advocate?

I'm an eBirder. Are you?

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Thank you, Joseph, Oregon!

Joseph, Oregon sits below the Wallowa Mountains
Joseph sits over the rise below these Wallowa Mountains. February 2, 2013 by Greg Gillson (camera phone).

Last month I visited Joseph, Oregon. The "excuse" was a rare Siberian bird called a Little Bunting. Though I and most others who chased this bunting in the remote NE corner of Oregon never saw the rare bird, we had a good time and saw other winter specialty birds of the area.

You are to be excused if you have never heard of Joseph, Oregon. It has a population of barely 1000 and is quite isolated in the corner of Oregon next to Idaho and Washington state. This rural community feels the impact of the economy like most other small towns that formerly relied on agriculture, stock animals, and timber. But it has reinvented itself as an artistic location for bronze works. The city also sponsors four festivals, July-October: a rodeo in July, Bronze, Blues, and Brews in August, Alpenfest in September, and an Oktoberfest.

Rather than a closed community wary of outsiders, Joseph is friendly and welcoming--even to forty or more birders per day that descended upon the town during the first couple of weeks following the report of the Little Bunting.

The area where the Little Bunting was seen was in the middle of the residential area of town, maybe 6 blocks long and 3 blocks wide. Most of the side streets had 3-4 inches of snow on them. Birders would spread out and wander from one backyard feeder to the other in an effort to locate birds, keeping an eye out for the bird.

As I walked down the snow-covered residential street with my binoculars and camera dangling from my neck I heard: "Have you seen the bunting?" This was the greeting I received several times over the course of 2 days. The greeting wasn't from other anxious birders searching in vain. No, it was from local residents, pulling up in their vehicles beside me. Typically, I'd stay and talk with them 5-10 minutes--stopped in the middle of the road with their windows down. If I said the men were in flannel shirts and driving big pickups with country music on the radio, would that be stereotyping? Nevertheless, that's how most of the locals appeared. Traditionally, many birders tend to dress sloppily in layers and old beat-up cars--again a stereotype (however, in recent years there have appeared what might be called "Yuppie birders" with fancy clothes, cars, and expensive optics). There was a definite difference in cultures here--but a friendly one

"There's another bird feeder just down the street," or "My feeder is just down the street, be sure you stop by and look," or "I think I may have seen the bunting at my feeder a couple of day's ago, but I'm not sure." Friendly.

"Welcome birders!" read the sign on the coffee shop. As if we were an expected convention group or there for one of the town's festivals. Except for the coffee shop, the birders visiting during the two or three weeks following the Little Bunting sighting probably didn't bring much income to the town. Most restaurants, gas stations, and motels were 10 miles away in the larger town of Enterprise.

But with all the "no trespassing" signs and people who never greet you as you pass on the street in the major towns of western Oregon, this welcoming small town was a joy to visit. Thanks, you residents of Joseph, Oregon. It was a joy to meet you and your beautiful town.