Needles Found

"I wouldn't have seen it if I didn't know it was there."


The bright rusty brown back on the bird in the middle of this image belongs to an alternate-plumaged Dunlin. This species was once called "Red-backed Sandpiper" for obvious reasons.

I don't know who first offered the quote above, but it often plays out in birding. The power of suggestion sometimes leads us to abandon our own objectivity. By posting public comments, the early respondents led those who came later down the primrose path of group think. Those who looked and offered their responses later all found the same "Ruddy Turnstone" in the bottom right quadrant of the original image. Surely the bright rusty back of this bird is suggestive of that species, but even without zooming in there are aspects of this bird that tell us it is not a Ruddy Turnstone.

In the blown-up image one can see the reddish brown on the crown and the extensive gray on the nape (also noticeable in the original image), which tell us this bird is a Dunlin. If this were a Ruddy Turnstone it would show white and black across the nape and broad black bar on the scapulars and no reddish brown on the crown. There are at least two other Dunlin in this close-up, including the bird immediately behind and slightly to the right of the bird with the bright rusty back and the smaller white-breasted bird up and to the left a bit (note the black belly feathers molting in). 

Everyone managed to find the Willets in this image, including the bird in the very bottom right hand corner of the image above. Willets are large bulky shorebirds, nearly as large as the godwits, with a medium length bill (slightly longer than the head) and mostly grayish overall plumage. This bird is still in mostly basic (winter) plumage, but is starting to show some alternate feathers coming in on the back.


This Black Turnstone was in the bottom left quadrant of the original photo.

Similarly, everyone found the one Black Turnstone. Turnstones are rather distinctive plump, short-legged, and short-billed shorebirds that spend most of their time feeding on rocky outcroppings or cobble beaches. Like most of the other birds in these images, this Black Turnstone is in alternate plumage. Note the large white spot at the base of the bill and the white line over the eye. These white markings are not shown by a basic-plumaged Black Turnstone.

Including the Marbled Godwits, the Black Turnstone, the Willets, and the Dunlin, we are now up to four species in this group. I found two more. Many folks recognized that there were some dowitchers in this image, and those who offered that they looked like Short-billed were correct. I zoomed in on all the dowitchers and I didn't find any that I thought were Long-billed, though some are hard to tell for sure. By the date this image was taken (26 April) dowitchers should be showing full alternate plumage, which is the case with the birds in the quiz images. In alternate plumage, the westernmost subspecies of Short-billed Dowitcher (caurinus) differs from Long-billed Dowitcher in showing heavier alternating white and black barring (hash marks) down the flanks, extensive white on the belly, and a more golden look to the back and scapulars. Alternate-plumaged Long-billeds are solidly rufous below with obvious black barring down the flanks. The black bars have a slight edge of white that can only be seen at close range, so they will typically show no obvious white barring on the flanks. The upperparts of Long-billeds are darker overall with mostly dark feathers narrowly edged with rufous, rather than the broad buffy golden edges shown by Short-billeds.


The bird in the left center of this image is an alternate-plumaged Short-billed Dowitcher. Note the alternating black and white barring down the flanks (just above the pink and black godwit bill) and the broad buffy golden edges to most of the back and scapular feathers.


Though a bit out of focus, it is apparent that the sleeping dowitcher at the bottom of this image shows quite a bit of white on the belly, making it a Short-billed.

The last of six species that I was able to find in this image was a single Western Sandpiper. It was well hidden in plain sight, mainly due to the fact that it is the smallest species in the original image. Westerns have a fairly distinctive head pattern with a bright rusty crown and a mostly gray face with a rusty patch behind the eye. They are noticeably smaller and shorter-billed than a Dunlin, which can look somewhat like a Western from the back in alternate plumage. Westerns show more pattern to the back and don't look as solidly red-backed as the Dunlin. 


The tiny Western Sandpiper in the middle of this image is dwarfed by the Marbled Godwits that surround it. Notice that the back looks more brown rather than mostly rusty like the Dunlin. It is not shown well in this image, but alternate-plumaged Westerns typically show bright rufous in the scapulars that contrasts noticeably with the back and wing coverts.

Ultimately, I found six species in this flock. At least two respondents (one private) suggested that a couple of the larger sleeping birds might be Long-billed Curlews, which they may well be. Obviously, I had the advantage of being able to play around with close-ups of the original images. There could still be some other species that we all missed. So, as pointed out in the first paragraph, don't be limited or immediately influenced by the conclusions of others.

Needles in the Haystack: How Many Species Do You See?

One of the toughest challenges in birding is to pick out the bird or birds that aren't like all the others in a large tightly-bunched flock. The photo below, taken on 26 April 2006, offers an excellent opportunity to practice this skill.  It is also a good primer for the Spring shorebird migration, which will peak across North America in the next 3-4 weeks. We invite you to take a close look at this image and send us a comment telling us how many different species you find. Please include the names of the other species you see in this image.

We'll get you started by pointing out that most of the birds in the original photo (bottom) are Marbled Godwits. All the non-godwits are in the bottom half of the original photo, so we cropped that section (top picture).  One down...good luck finding the rest.


This group of shorebirds was photographed at Bodega Bay, California on 26 April 2006. I cropped this image from the larger one seen below in an effort to reduce the distraction of all the Marbled Godwits in the background. (Photo taken by Gary Palmer).


Separating Female Wigeon: A Little-known Field Mark

In recent decades Eurasian Wigeon have become increasingly prevalent across much of North America, particularly in the West. Along the Pacific Flyway, where wigeon winter by the hundreds of thousands, almost any flock of 100 or more American Wigeon might include a Eurasian or two. Males of these two species are readily separable (see images below), thus nearly all reports of Eurasians pertain to drakes. Despite the regular detections of male Eurasians, their mates, often swimming side-by-side with the male, go mostly unnoticed.


Unlike their female counterparts, male Eurasian (left) and American Wigeon (right) are rather easy to tell apart even from a distance.

With practice, the females of these two species are not overly difficult to separate. Since waterfowl typically remain paired throughout the year, one the best ways to pick out a female Eurasian Wigeon is to look for the females that appear to be associating with the male Eurasians. Female Eurasians look uniform reddish brown overall, showing no obvious contrast between the head, breast, and flank coloration. Their heads usually look solid brown and somewhat less spotted than the heads of female Americans (although at close range the spotting is about the same). It should be noted that there two color morphs of female Eurasian Wigeon. Some birds are warm cinnamon brown all over (like those shown below), while others are a duller earthy brown. In both color forms, there is no discernible contrast between the head and the rest of the bird. Conversely, female Americans present a similar overall pattern to males in the sense that they are brown on the flanks and breast and they have a somewhat grayish head with fine black spotting. In most cases, the contrast between the gray head and rusty brown body is obvious. Female Americans do not show the whitish cream-colored crown or the green head stripe seen on males.


This female Eurasian Wigeon, photographed at Westmoreland Park in Portland, Oregon 1 February 2009 shows fairly uniform warm reddish brown tones on the head, breast, and flanks, with no apparent contrast between the head and breast/flank coloration.


Notice the much grayer head of this American Wigeon, also photographed at Portland's Westmoreland Park 1 February 2009, and how it contrasts with the mostly reddish brown breast and flanks.

If you are not absolutely positive about which species you are seeing even after applying the field marks described above, there is one more excellent field mark for separating female wigeon. I was unaware of this mark until about a year ago when I noticed it illustrated in The Sibley Guide to the Birds (2000).  American Wigeon (both sexes) show a narrow strip of black at the base of their mostly pale gray-blue upper mandible (top half of the bill). Sometimes this black can be obscured a bit by feathering, but if you look closely it is always evident. Eurasian Wigeon do not have this narrow margin of black and the area where the base of the upper mandible meets the head feathering is pale gray-blue like most of the rest of the bill.  The close-up head shots below show this difference.


This extreme close-up of the head of a female Eurasian Wigeon shows the lack of black at the base of the upper mandible. Also notice that edge of the feathering around the base of the bill looks somewhat curved particularly around the gape.


Looking closely at this female American Wigeon's bill, notice the narrow black margin right at the base where the feathers meet the bill. As seen on this bird, this creates the illusion of a very straight vertical line where the feathers end and the bill begins.

Clearly, the latter field mark (black on the base of the bill) is not going to useful when sorting through a mass of wigeon hundreds of yards away. However, sizeable wigeon flocks often gather in urban parks and on golf courses where they quickly acclimate to the presence of humans. Once one develops a strong search image by experiencing these birds at close range, picking out a female Eurasian in a more distant flock becomes a lot less challenging. It stands to reason that there are just as many female as male Eurasian Wigeon wintering in North America, but the reporting of this species hardly reflects this presumed gender balance.

All photos taken by David Irons using a Canon EOS XSI 450D camera and an EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 lens

Breeding Bird Survey Misadventure: A Failure to Scout

SCOUTING:   Much time can be lost due to closed roads, washed out bridges, and wrong turns.  The importance of familiarization with the 50 stops and the proper turns before the day of the run cannot be overstressed.


This is the kind of surprise that might await you if you neglect to scout your BBS route before going out to run it.

Matt Hunter and I found this downed Douglas Fir in our path along Tidbits Creek Rd. in Linn County, Oregon in June 2006. (Photo taken by Matt Hunter using a cell phone)

The preceding statement appears near the top of the instruction sheets one receives with their Breeding Bird Survey route packets. In mid-June 2006 Matt Hunter and I neglected to heed this advice before setting out to run the “Blue River” route in Oregon’s central Cascades. Matt had been running this route for more than a decade when he asked me to take it over about six months earlier. I had expressed an interest in becoming actively involved in the BBS effort and Matt was similarly interested in divesting himself from this annual responsibility. Thankfully, I convinced him to accompany me on the first run knowing that I would probably need his assistance in locating the stops and navigating my way to the starting point, which was about 20 miles from the nearest paved road.

We met in a grocery store parking lot in Springfield, Oregon at about 2:30 a.m.  I know that most of you are thinking, “What sort of birds are they going to find at this horrific hour?” From Springfield it is about a 45-minute drive east on U.S. Hwy 126 to the town of Blue River. From there it's another hour of driving up a winding, single-lane, gravel Forest Service road to the starting point. The protocol for these routes calls for starting 30 minutes before official sunrise, which on this day was about 5:15.  Matt had suggested that we plan an extra half-hour into the schedule to account for “sawing” and “rock-moving.” A small hand saw was among the items Matt pulled out as we moved his gear into my car. “What are we going to need that for?” I queried. Matt explained that the road up to the starting point gets virtually no travel, especially this early in the year when the winter snow has just melted off. “We might come across some downed trees, or limbs across the road. We’ll probably have to move lots of rocks too.”

Forty-five minutes later, we left the highway and drove another five miles to the base of
“Tidbits Creek Rd.” (U.S. Forest Service Rd. 1509).  The next five or six miles were pretty tame as we gradually made our way up into the Willamette National Forest. We gained elevation steadily, climbing through the darkness to above 3000’ in the first few miles. At about the seven-mile marker, we came to a hairpin curve. We found it a bit odd that in the middle of the curve there was bright orange rubber pylon and an orange line spray-painted on the road. We stayed as far left of the pylon as possible without sliding off into the ditch on the uphill side. “Wonder what that was about” we pondered audibly.  

At about 4000' we started finding shaded curves and banks that still had remnant patches of snow. As Matt had predicted, we found several places along the way where the melting snow had dislodged rocks that now lay in our path. We drove around many, over the top of the small ones, and Matt jumped out several times to move the rest. We pressed on. About ten miles in we noticed something massive and dark in the headlights that appeared to be blocking the road. As we drew nearer it was clearly the main trunk of a Douglas Fir, about five feet in diameter, that had come to rest one end on the roadway and the other end about 12 feet higher on top of the road-cut. We weren’t going to saw our way through this one. We piled out, surveyed the situation, and determined that we could probably drive under it, which we did. After a few dozen more stops to move rocks, and gingerly squeezing around another downed tree, we finally made it to the starting point at the top of the ridgeline. The extra stops had erased most of our half-hour buffer. It was now 4:36 a.m., just a few minutes from our start time. 

Since I was taking over as the official “observer,” it would be Matt’s job to keep time at each stop and record data as I called out what I was seeing and hearing. He eyed his watch in the glow of a flashlight waiting for it to hit 4:45. “Start” Though it was still dark, we were already hearing a pre-dawn chorus of Common Nighthawks, Hermit Warblers, Golden-crowned Kinglets, and Swainson’s Thrushes. The sun finally peeked over the horizon at about stop 5 or 6 and we quickly added Hammond’s Flycatchers, Olive-sided Flycatchers, Mountain Quail, and Chestnut-backed Chickadees to the list of species we were hearing. Hermit Warblers and Swainson’s Thrushes were a constant, with each species averaging 4-8 birds per stop.

As we continued making our way downslope, we enjoyed a cloudless and, aside from the cacophony of bird sounds, quiet morning far from human activity. Driving was now easier since we’d already moved all the rocks. We once again inched around the downed fir tree and after a couple more stops we were back at the “drive under” tree. We had no camera, but Matt pulled out his cell phone and captured a couple images of the tree and then me driving under it. We were happy to be able to record the moment, knowing that it would provide a lot of laughs for our friends and family, who often question our sanity anyway. 


One of the advantages of not owning an expensive gas-guzzling SUV, you can drive under the occasional fallen tree, but you have to stop more often to move rocks because the ground clearance leaves a bit to be desired. (Photo taken by Matt Hunter using a cell phone)

Our moods were decidedly more sober a few minutes later as we returned to the hairpin curve with the pylon. The bank underneath the road was completely eroded away leaving just a few inches of compacted roadbed hanging out about ten feet over NOTHING! Suddenly it was crystal clear why the road had been painted. Had we driven over what was left of the outer half of the road it would have certainly given way. Our next stop would have been about 500’ down a steep embankment. We carefully renegotiated the curve staying even farther towards the bank than before. I think we both exhaled audibly once we were comfortably out of the danger zone.

Our focus returned to birds as we were once again on the well-maintained lower section of Tidbits Creek Rd. We soon enjoyed the bird highlight of the day. As we slowed to a stop, Matt offered a teaser. “We may hear a real fun bird here.” He refused to let the cat out of the bag until we’d completed our point count. Soon after saying “Stop” Matt offered up his best Northern Spotted Owl imitation. Almost immediately we heard a deep “hoo hoo-hoo hoooo” answer back from a steep drainage across the narrow valley. Matt laughed as I grinned broadly. This was an unexpected treat. He had lucked out with this pair of birds several years earlier when one voluntarily started calling during his point count at this station. Unfortunately, vocal chumming is not allowed during BBS routes, so one can only count those birds that happen to sing or call during the three-minute count.

The rest of the morning was comparatively uneventful aside from narrowly missing a small sinkhole and having to drive through a spot where water was flowing over a rather saturated section of roadway.

I have since taken on two additional BBS routes and as you might expect, I scout each of them thoroughly before the run date. I ran the Blue River route again in 2007 and since snow was pretty light that winter, there were no downed trees and far fewer rocks in the road than there were in 2006. However, the winter of 2007-08 saw some of the heaviest snow accumulations in decades in the Oregon Cascades. During my 2008 scouting run I encountered several spots were the road was beginning to fail. The hairpin curve that was badly eroded in 2006 was now totally impassable. With no current logging activities in this area and none planned anytime soon, this road is not a priority and there is no indication that the Forest Service plans anything beyond patchwork repairs. Hence, I recommended that the Blue River route be abandoned for safety reasons. The folks at the U.S.G.S. have already created an alternate route. I look forward to scouting and running the new route this coming June.


This is the largest of a series of sinkholes that I found along the lower section of Tidbits Creek Rd. on 17 June 2008. This hole was about nine inches wide, fifteen inches long and more than two feet deep. Wouldn't want to drop a tire into this one. (Photo taken by David Irons using a Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ8)

These events have in no way dampened my enthusiasm for running BBS routes. Besides, if we had just scouted in this case, there would have been no surprises. Breeding bird surveys contribute to a greater understanding of what is happening within the populations of sampled species and they also provide a window into the overall health of your local ecosystems. Running BBS routes is also a wonderful way to build your ear-birding skills. I would highly encourage you to go online and see if there are open routes in your area. Most routes are designed to be off the beaten track and there is an understandable joy in spending a morning listening to the birds, the wind, and the occasional babbling brook.


This vista is representative of what you might enjoy when running many of the North American Breeding Bird Survey routes. This image was captured along Lobster Valley Rd., Benton County in Oregon's Coast Range on 25 June 2008. (Photo taken by David Irons using a Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ8)

For more information about the North American Breeding Bird Survey visit:

Call to Action: "Citizen science rocks"

On 19 March 2009 newly-appointed U.S. Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar joined a panel of scientists and representatives from the country’s leading conservation organizations to release a comprehensive report entitled, “The State of the Birds: United States of America 2009.” This report takes a holistic look at the roles that birds play in our culture, our economy and, most importantly, as a barometer of the health of our environment. Birding listservs across the country are abuzz over this landmark report. The full report, an audio capture of the 19 March press conference, and a short video presentation can all be found at:

Over the course of our nation’s history, population growth and habitat loss have moved along hand in hand, depleting the total numbers of many species and resulting in the eventual extinction of several others. Faced with mounting evidence of ongoing degradation and outright loss of certain types of habitats, those of us who care so deeply about wild birds find ourselves asking, “What can I do?”

During the 19 March press conference, John Fitzpatrick, Director of the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, provided part of the answer when he enthusiastically stated, “Citizen science rocks!” Fitzpatrick pointed out that citizen volunteers collected and submitted much of the data used in crafting the State of the Birds report. There are numerous projects that utilize volunteer efforts. Most notable and oldest among these is the Audubon Society Christmas Bird Count. Since Frank Chapman originated the idea in 1900, hundreds of thousands of bird enthusiasts have dutifully surveyed local “count circles” across the continent, producing a database of North America’s early winter avifauna. The data these birders have collected have been instrumental in evaluating the health of many species and, in some cases, have provided the first indication of serious population declines.

Other projects, such as Cornell Lab’s Project Feeder Watch and the Audubon Society’s
Great Backyard Bird Count continue this tradition by amassing our collective observations into a meaningful pool of data. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Breeding Bird Survey is somewhat more regimented. One must be willing to start their day long before sun-up to participate in this effort, but I can tell you from personal experience that it’s a great way to spend a morning or two each summer. Each BBS route is 24.5 miles in length and involves making 50 stops, one every half mile, and doing a three-minute point count at each stop. Every individual bird seen or heard is logged. These routes are run year after year, with some having been run for decades. The resulting index tells us much about what is happening within the sampled habitats by monitoring the health of local breeding populations of birds.

Doing BBS routes requires strong ear-birding skills, especially during the first 30 minutes of the route. The required start time for a BBS route is 30 minutes before official sunrise, when visibility is limited and the dawn chorus is in full swing. Regardless of your skill set, most BBS observers would welcome the company of a less experienced birder, if for no other reason than to have them keep time and record data. By the end of this intense morning, you will know more bird songs and call notes than when you started.

While the report paints a grim picture for some groups of species and several fragile ecosystems, it also points out that human efforts have effected positive outcomes for many species (see “Outfoxed Aleutians: Back in the Skein Lane” in this journal). The State of the Birds report opens with the following statement, which encapsulates the many ways in which birds touch our lives:

“Birds are a priceless part of America’s heritage.
They are beautiful, they are economically
important, and they reflect the health of our
environment. This State of the Birds report
reveals troubling declines of bird populations
during the past 40 years—a warning signal of
the failing health of our ecosystems. At the
same time, we see heartening evidence that
strategic land management and conservation
action can reverse declines of birds. This report
calls attention to the collective efforts needed
to protect nature’s resources for the benefit of
people and wildlife.”
(NABCI, U.S. Committee 2009)

In the State of the Birds report we learn that “one in every four American adults is a birdwatcher” and that our activities contribute $122 billion annually to the nation’s economy (NABCI, U.S. Committee 2009). Call it birding, birdwatching, or wildlife viewing, it is a “growth sector.” No bailouts are needed. Our friends, neighbors, family members, and coworkers represent the other 75% of the nation’s adult population. Each of us should make it our personal mission to educate these folks and open their eyes and ears to the abundance of birdlife in their midst. We are most inclined to value those things we know and appreciate on a personal level.

Literature Cited:

North American Bird Conservation Initiative, U.S. Committee, 2009. The State of the Birds, United States of America, 2009. U.S. Department of Interior: Washington, DC. 36 pp.

Shorebird ID Challenge: The Answers


Pectoral Sandpipers -- Birds “A” and “B,” which appeared at the far left and far right of the upper picture used in this ID challenge, are juvenile Pectoral Sandpipers. In the original image, which shows all six birds, it is apparent that these two birds are larger than the other species. Pectorals show proportions that make them look like an oversized “peep.” Their bills are about the length of their heads (nape to the base of the bill). They are not particularly long-legged, and the folded wingtips extend just a bit past the end of the tail. It should be noted that Pectorals are long-distance migrants, so they generally appear fairly long-winged when seen in profile (see lefthand bird above).


This juvenile Pectoral, also photographed at Soap Lake, Washington on 5 September 2008, provides a more close up view. (Photo taken by David Irons using a Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ8 camera).

The upperparts of a juvenile Pectoral exhibit the following characteristics. It shows a solid rusty brown crown that is bordered by a fairly broad whitish supercilium (the obvious light stripe above the eye); the rest of the face (below the supercilium) is warm reddish brown with some very fine dark streaking. The back feathers are mostly brown at the base, black near the tip, and are crisply edged with rufous and/or white. Several rows of back feathers have rufous margins to the inner webs and white margins to the outer webs, which creates several white lines running down the back. This is shown well by the lefthand bird above. The tertials (long folded innermost wing feathers that extend out over the tail) are mostly black with bright rufous to rufous-buff edgings.

The underparts of a Pectoral are mostly white, except for the breast, which is brown to brownish-buff with lots of fine crisp dark streaks. The brown on the lower breast typically comes to a bit of a point in the middle and ends abruptly where the white starts.

The bill of a Pectoral is mostly dark, fairly heavy, and usually appears to be slightly down-curved. When seen at close range, the base of the bill (particularly the lower mandible) varies from brownish to dingy orange.  Their legs are a straw-colored yellow. Apparent leg coloration is variable depending on lighting conditions and the nature of the substrate that the birds are feeding in. This image was taken late in the day at a site with very dark gooey mud, hence the rather dingy greenish-brown look to the legs on these Pecs. However, even in these conditions it is apparent that their legs are not black.

Those who responded to the ID challenge had no difficulty identifying these birds as Pectorals. If seen well, they are rarely confused with other species. The most likely species to be confused with Pectoral is actually Least Sandpiper, which looks nearly identical in plumage and proportion, but is much smaller. When seen together they are easily separable by size, but one or the other seen singly at a distance can occasionally fool even experienced observers.


This group of small sandpipers was at Soap Lake, Washington 5 September 2008. (Photo taken by David Irons using a Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ8 camera).

The Peeps -- Those who posted their identifications of the birds pictured above were overwhelmingly correct. The bottom bird (challenge bird "E") is a juvenile Least Sandpiper. As stated above, Leasts are very similar in overall plumage to a Pectoral Sandpiper. They have comparatively short greenish-yellow legs. Their back feathers are dark brown to black with rufous and white edgings. Like Pectorals, they also show multiple sets of white lines (often referred to as “braces”) running down their backs. The bill of a Least is shorter and thinner overall than other North American peeps (Western and Semipalmated sandpipers), and often appears slightly drooped towards the tip (as is the case with the bird above).

The two birds on the top left (challenge birds "C" and "D") are juvenile Semipalmated Sandpipers. Bill size and shape comprise one of the best field marks for separating juvenile Semipalmateds from the very similar Western Sandpiper. The bill of a Semi is quite thick, short, straight, and shows little taper. The tip usually looks quite blunt, and at close range may show a bit of expansion at the end (sometimes referred to as a “bulbous tip”). Unlike Leasts, their legs and feet usually look black. Note that some Semipalmated Sandpipers have dusky green legs.


This close-up of a juvenile Semipalmated Sandpiper, photographed at Port Susan Bay, Washington on 7 August 2007, shows many of the typical features exhibited by this species. Note the scaly upperparts and the lack of rufous in the scapulars, the short, thick, blunt-tipped bill, the smudginess around the eye, the lack of well-defined white braces on the back, and the fairly dark brown crown. As mentioned above, some juvenile Semis have greenish legs, which is obviously the case with this individual. (Photo by Steven Mlodinow using a Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ50 camera)

In overall plumage, Semipalmated Sandpipers usually look fairly even colored (gray-brown to earthy brown) above, and they rarely exhibit much contrast between the scapular feathers (where the wing connects to the body) and the wing coverts (the forward feathers on the folded wing). Their crowns are fairly solid brown with fine dark streaking and they have a bit of a “capped” look. The wing coverts have dark centers that vary from black to very dark gray brown and don’t seem to have much of an internal pattern. The edges of the back and wing covert feathers vary from pale gray to buff, typically creating a “scaly” look to the upperparts of a Semi. The long tertial feathers typically show gray to gray-brown centers with pale gray edges.

The two Semipalmateds above show a discernible difference in the brightness of the back pattern.  The front bird (challenge bird "D") shows very little white on the margins of the scapular feathers, while the back bird shows a fair amount of white edging on the scaps and seems a little more patterned overall. However, the margins of the back and scapular feathers of a Semipalmated Sandpiper do not create the obvious lines (“braces”) shown by other “peeps” and “stints.” I find that juvenile Semipalmated Sandpipers often have a “smudgy” look around the eye, and the area directly behind the eye is usually fairly dark brown. This mark is shown by both of the Semipalmateds in this image.

The top right bird (challenge bird "F") is a juvenile Western Sandpiper. Westerns are slightly larger than the other two  expected North American small Calidrids (Least and Semipalmated sandpipers). Like most Semipalmateds, they also have black legs. Their bills are fairly long, although this can be quite variable depending on the sex of the bird. Females have longer bills than males, and the shortest-billed males might suggest a Semipalmated Sandpiper. However, as a rule, Westerns have noticeably longer bills than Semis, and their bills will almost always look somewhat drooped and more tapered towards the tip. The amount of apparent droop and taper is more noticeably on longer-billed Westerns (like the presumed female above).

Westerns have more patterned upperparts than Semis overall with highly contrasting gray and rufous on the back and scaps. Their upper scapular feathers (at the sides of the back) are brightly edged with rufous on the inner margins and have broad white outer margins. This creates a bright line of rufous along the scaps that contrasts with gray tones on the back and the wing coverts. The white outer margins form a white line, which is quite obvious on this bird. The lower scapular feathers also show more pattern than those of a Semipalmated Sandpiper. They are gray to gray-brown at the base, and have a somewhat anchor-shaped black area towards the tip and black running back up along the shaft of the feather. These feathers show broad white margins, particularly on the tip and outer web, and the scapular feathers of a Western are a bit longer and more attenuated than the scapular feathers of a Semipalmated.

Though it is not shown on the bird in the ID challenge image, the area around and behind the eye is a bit less smudgy on a juvenile Western than it is on a  juvenile Semipalmated. Westerns usually show a faint wash of rufous behind the eye, but otherwise the face and crown are paler and grayer overall.

With practice, the structural and plumage differences described above can be learned and used effectively to sort out these similar species. Remember, when migrant shorebirds stop at your local estuary or muddy lake edge, they are urgently feeding in an effort to build up fat reserves needed for long migratory flights. This makes them quite approachable at times. If you move slowly, stop often and just stand still for a while before again proceeding slowly, you might find yourself within a few feet of these birds.


This image, taken at Florence, Oregon on 12 August 2008, shows nice comparison between a Western Sandpiper (left) and Least Sandpiper (right) in fresh juvenile plumage. Note the difference in bill length and thickness (Least's bill is slightly open making it look thicker than it is), the longer-legged appearance of the Western compared to the short-legged look of the Least, and the darker breast of the Least. This picture also captures the brightness of the rufous scapulars of the Western, which contrast noticeably with the mostly gray back and wing coverts. (Photo taken by David Irons using a Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ8).

In most of North America, the Calidris sandpipers seen after August 1st will be about 90-95% juveniles. The adults that one is likely to see at this time of year will already be well along with their pre-basic molt, which gives them a rather motley and inconsistent- looking plumage. They will stand out like a sore thumb among the hordes of fresh-plumaged juveniles. If you look at the juvenile birds in these images, the plumage looks consistent, with no feathers that seem unmatched to the others. The feathers also look fresh with unworn edges.

Outfoxed Aleutians: Back in the Skein Lane

Dramatic success stories in wildlife conservation are uncommon. While many citizens are aware of the recovery of the Bald Eagle and Peregrine Falcon, and the whisking-away-from-the-brink of the Whooping Crane, fewer may know the story of the Aleutian Cackling Goose (B. h. leucopareia

This medium-sized waterfowl, confined to the Pacific Flyway, was formerly considered a subspecies of Canada Goose, and has been reclassified as a subspecies of the “new” species, Cackling Goose. In times preceding scientific record, it may have been an abundant breeding bird on most of the Aleutians, the long chain of volcanic islands extending across the North Pacific in an arc from southwestern Alaska. During the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, Russian expeditions, looking to establish a future fur source, introduced foxes on a great many Aleutian islands to which those predators weren’t native. As a result, the Aleutian Cackling Geese disappeared everywhere—except on a couple of islands to which foxes, fortuitously, had not been transplanted.


With their white “chinstrap” and black “neck stocking,” Aleutian Cackling Geese are similar to other Cacklers. They may be distinguished by the variable, but typically quite prominent, white ring at the lower end of the neck, and a dark terminal ring or mark below the white. As they spend much time in a maritime environment, they have evolved an enlarged salt gland above the bill, which produces a high-domed or abrupt look to the forehead. This Aleutian Cackler was photographed at the Humboldt Bay National Wildlife Refuge, Humboldt Co., California on 24 January 2006 (Photo taken by Ron LeValley using a Canon EOS 20D camera with a Canon 300mm f4 lens and a Canon 1.4 teleconverter)


Dr. Paul F. "Doc" Springer 1922-2007 (Photo provided by Tom Leskiw).

Until the mid-1960s, this taxon was thought possibly to have become extinct. However, some birds suspected of being Aleutians were detected wintering in the Central Valley of California. Further exploration led to the discovery of their remnant breeding grounds, which supported only a precious few hundred geese. The bird was listed under the Endangered Species Act, and an intensive program of fox removal was undertaken on many Aleutian islands. The late Dr. Paul Springer spearheaded this U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service program. "Doc" Springer, as he was affectionately known, was also an Adjunct Professor of Wildlife at Humboldt State University (HSU) in Arcata, California, and an avid birder. In his 2008 master's thesis, completed at HSU, Dominic Bachman credits Springer's "tenacity" and his 30+ years of dedication to the Aleutian recovery effort with necessitating his research, which deals with managing pasturelands for this formerly rare goose (Bachman 2008).

We have since learned that, in autumn, Aleutian Cackling Geese migrate from their breeding islands southeastward directly across the open Pacific Ocean to the coast of southern Oregon and far northern California. They then continue across the Klamath Mountains and the Coast Range to wintering grounds which are chiefly in the San Joaquin Valley. In spring, the birds move northwestward, “staging” (essentially, fattening up) in dairy pastures of coastal Humboldt and Del Norte counties in California and in neighboring coastal Curry County in Oregon.

During the 1970s and 1980s, the recovery of Aleutians progressed incrementally, but about twenty years ago the population seems to have reached a critical mass and things really took off. Today the geese number in excess of 100,000! Especially in late winter and early spring, their burgeoning flocks concentrate on pastures where competition for forage with dairy cows can produce local “bio-political headaches” for landowners and wildlife managers. It has been stated that twenty Aleutian Cackling Geese may eat as much grass in one day as a cow! Today the dairymen most affected are allowed to “haze” the geese with dogs, propane cannons, and ultralight aircraft. The effect of this hazing has been to disperse the flocks and reduce foraging pressure. A limited hunt is now allowed. The occasional conflicts created by the exponential growth of the Aleutian Cackling Goose population reportedly led Doc Springer to quip, "“Some might say I have been too successful” (Bachman 2008).

During February and March, much of the population of Aleuts “bottlenecks” in time and space around Humboldt Bay, which is surrounded on three sides by thousands of acres of pastureland--lush with the sprouting grass the birds relish. Many Aleutians spend the night on managed wetlands of the Salmon Creek Unit of Humboldt Bay N.W.R. Rising before sunrise each day they fly out nearly en masse as they head for outlying foraging sites. The uplifting spectacle of tens of thousands of Aleuts flying off the refuge within the span of an hour has become a well-known phenomenon. In recent years, these daily flights have spawned the “Fly-off Weekend” in early March, during which the Refuge staff swings open the main gate before dawn on Saturday and Sunday to offer coffee, pastry, interpretive materials, kids’ activities, and a wildlife extravaganza to hundreds of visitors from all walks of life.


The skeins of Aleutian Cackling Geese visible in this image, taken at dawn on 10 March 2009 near Fields Landing, Humboldt County, California, represent a fraction of the typical morning fly-out one might expect to see over South Humboldt Bay in late winter/early spring. (Photo taken by Gordon Inkeles)

As spring arrives, the flocks begin to disperse northward, with many of the geese stopping over to make use of equally fertile pastures in neighboring Del Norte County. Many then roost at night on Castle Rock, a sea island just northwest of Crescent City. As Castle Rock is one of the most important seabird nesting sites along the West Coast, and is covered with fragile soils, biologists are concerned that mobs of geese may negatively impact burrow-nesting seabirds. In recent years, Aleuts have increasingly spent time in coastal bottomlands of the New River, in south-coastal Oregon. Small flocks now occur in migration or winter elsewhere along the Oregon and northern California coast. It seems that each year brings more geese, more public attention, and also subtle shifts in the habits of the birds. 

Their flight call is a loud yelp that is similar to that of the more widespread minima Cackling Goose, but a bit lower-pitched. Distant calls are often heard well before one catches the first sight of a skein of Aleuts coming in off the ocean. It’s a joyous experience indeed, and one that we might not experience if not for the work of Dr. Paul Springer and others.

Literature Cited:

Bachman, Dominic, C., 2008. "Managing Grassland Pastures at Humboldt National Wildlife Refuge for Aleutian Geese" M. S. Thesis, Humboldt State University.  34 pp.

Local Correspondents Needed

In recent days many of you may have seen introductory announcements about that appeared your local birding listserv. As a result of this effort, hundreds of new visitors sampled our site and journal for the first time last week. The feedback we’ve received has been quite positive. Hopefully, you found our postings of interest. Most of the folks involved in the ongoing development of this website, and those who’ve written posts for the journal, live and bird along the western edge of North America, which has created a bit of a Left Coast slant to our offerings. We are definitely looking to broaden the scope of our postings so that there will be both a continental and a local angle to what you see at

With this in mind, we would like to take advantage of our new-found connectedness and develop a weekly feature that highlights both rare sightings and other avian events going on across the continent. The posting of the introductory announcements required subscribing to each of the listservs, so we are now able to sample the postings from a wide range of states. Obviously, there is not enough time in the day  to read all the messages from each state (most members of our small team have day jobs). Even if we could, it would be hard for us to assess which sightings or local issues are of the greatest interest to the birders in your particular state, province, or region. In the coming weeks, there are whole host of local migratory bird festivals taking place around the country. As an example, there is a Sandhill Crane Festival in Othello, Washington this coming weekend (March 20-22) and in mid-April the Redwood Regional Audubon Society’s annual “Godwit Days” will be held in Humboldt County, California.  

We are looking for folks who might be interested in becoming a local “correspondent” for their area. If you are interested in acting as a correspondent for your state, province, or region, please contact me via e-mail at: We will put a premium on vetting and verifying all rare sightings before sharing them with our readers. Ideally, it would be nice if reports of extremely rare birds included a photo that we could include with the weekly summary. Currently, most statewide listservs are not set up to handle photo submissions.

We look forward to hearing from those interested in developing this feature and sharing exciting bird news from all over North America. We would also like to hear your thoughts on what you would like to see discussed in this feature and other journal postings.

Close Encounters: "Hummer Magic"

Yesterday, long-time Oregon birder and bird-bander Mike Patterson posted a note to our statewide listserv Oregon Birders On Line (OBOL). In the subject line, it read “Hummer Magic.” Mike shared the following hummingbird encounter:

“I've been handling hummingbirds for 25 years now, so you'd

think I'd be jaded....

While re-filling the feeder this morning, a female RUFOUS

came up and started probing the feeder spouts while I was still

pouring sugar-water.  Completely, unconcerned about my presence.”

I posted a short response, suggesting that “hummingbird” and “jaded” are mutually exclusive concepts.  I can't  imagine that a day might come when I no longer marvel at hummingbirds. They make birdwatchers of us all.

Today, several other OBOL posters shared similar sentiments and more stories about hummingbirds perching on their fingers or coming to feeders while they were still holding them after a re-filling. The best, however, was saved for last. Late today U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Roy Lowe shared the link to an amazing video that captures a male Ruby-throated Hummingbird (in Kentucky) feeding from several hand-held flowers and feeders, and then ultimately sipping sugar water right from the palm of the camera person’s hand (see link below).

ID Challenge: Cormorants Unveiled

When I’m in the company of less-experienced birders, I’m often asked, “How can you tell what that is from this far away?” The obnoxious part of my personality wants to quote a friend, who once responded to this question with, “The first ten thousand were a little tougher.” However, I prefer to use occasions such as these to share those clues that aren’t well communicated in most field guides. 

Newer birders tend to focus their attention on the plumage, bill, feet and other aspects of birds that require determinations of color. Unfortunately, birding does not occur in a paradise of ideal lighting and viewing conditions.

As Greg Gillson points out in his response to the Cormorant ID Challenge, some of us are reaching an age where our vision is a bit “compromised.” Living in the Pacific Northwest involves spending half of the year wiping liquid sunshine off one’s optics and recently acquired eyeglasses. In such conditions, discerning minor differences in color, particularly on all-dark birds like cormorants, is challenging at best and often impossible. Thus, learning differences in size, shape, and proportion is critical if you hope to avoid listing “cormorant, sp.” on your Christmas Bird Count tally sheet.

When I came upon this group of cormorants last December, I took time to examine them closely, reconfirming impressions of size and shape that were first learned nearly three decades ago. The photo used in the “Cormorant ID Challenge” was taken with the understanding that the subtle differences in hue would be lost due to low light and dense overcast conditions. In essence, the resulting image is reminiscent of those silhouette drawings that appeared in the early Peterson Field Guides.

Three species of cormorant--Double-crested, Brandt’s, and Pelagic--occur commonly along the Pacific coast of North America. All are likely to be seen flocked together in coastal areas. Only Double-crested is likely to be encountered away from the outer coast. The discussion below will outline the differences in shape and proportion that allow these three species to be separated at a distance. It will also make mention of field marks that may or may not have been of use in identifying the birds in the original image.

Double-crested Cormorant generally appears to be the largest of these three species (Brandt's Cormorants actually weigh more). While their overall length is nearly identical to Brandt’s Cormorant, they look heavier-bodied and have a larger and blockier head. The neck of Double-crested invariably looks thicker, and these birds hold their necks slightly crooked in nearly all postures. This is particularly obvious in flight. Their crowns generally look somewhat flat and there is normally a discernible angle between the hindcrown and the nape. Double-crested Cormorants often show a slightly brownish cast to their plumage, especially during the winter months, while other west coast cormorants look glossy black except when they are juveniles. All Double-crested Cormorants show a sizeable patch of orange or yellow-orange facial skin at the base of the bill. This is called the gular (think jugular) pouch. Their bill is paler (mostly yellow-orange on immatures) than those of the other two species, which have black bills.

In the image presented, bird “E” is the only Double-crested Cormorant. It is clearly looks a bit bulkier, heavier-necked, larger-headed, and holds its neck more crooked than the other birds. Even in the original picture the orange facial skin and lighter bill can be seen.


These two birds (“D” and “E” in the original image) offer a nice comparison of Pelagic (left) and Double-crested (right) cormorants. Note the much smaller size, extremely thin bill, slight crest on the forecrown, and slender head and neck of the Pelagic. Conversely, the Double-crested looks much bulkier and shows a yellow-orange bill, orange facial skin, slightly brownish plumage color, a heavy neck, and a large blocky head.

Now to Brandt’s Cormorant. As stated above, they’re close in length to Double-cresteds, but they are more slender-bodied, and their heads are a bit smaller. Additionally, the necks of Brandt’s are thinner than those of Double-crested. In most postures, Brandt’s hold their necks only slightly crooked, and in flight the neck is almost always fully extended. Both in flight and when perched, it’s possible to see that the head of a Brandt’s presents a “bulbous” look, meaning that it is slightly greater in diameter than the neck. Their bills are slightly less heavy at the base than Double-crested, but often look proportionally longer, which is probably due to the difference in head size. The head shape of a perched Brandt’s is more rounded than the other two species. Brandt’s often appear to have a steeper forehead than the other two species and the crown and nape typically look more rounded. Bird “C” offers a good example of this head profile. In nearly all lighting, the plumage of Brandt’s Cormorants looks jet black. Their bills are entirely dark at every age. Adults in high breeding condition show brilliant blue gular pouches bordered below by a patch of pale tan to cream-colored feathering. When seen well, tw0 long thin white back plumes may be evident. The light colored feathering on the throat is retained throughout the year and is diagnostic for Brandt’s. Looking closely, you can see this light patch on a couple of the birds in the photo (especially if you break the unstated BirdFellow ID Challenge rules by enlarging the photo!). In the original photo, birds “A,” “C,” “G,” and “H” are Brandt’s Cormorants.


This cropped image offers an excellent comparison of the size and shape of Pelagic and Brandt’s Cormorants. The tan throat feathering is apparent on both of the Brandt’s (lower right and top middle birds), while the smaller-billed Pelagics are entirely dark-faced. Note also that the Pelagic on the far left shows a slight crest on the forecrown. This peaked this minor feature contributes to the rather flat-crowned appearance of Pelagics, while the upper Brandt’s shows a characteristic steeper forecrown and rounded hindcrown and nape profile.

Pelagic Cormorants are decidedly smaller and more slender overall than the other two species, and this is typically obvious in mixed flocks. In the referenced image, birds “D,” “F,” and “I” are noticeably smaller than the others. They are smaller in both length and bulk, and they have very slender necks, often described as “snaky.”

Their somewhat flat-crowned heads are also small and slender, typically showing little if any of the bulbous effect exhibited by Brandt’s and Double-crested. In flight the neck and head are always fully extended, and the head will appear to be the same diameter as the neck. When perched, one can often see a noticeable peak or slight crest on the forecrown of a Pelagic. This feature can be seen on both birds “D” and “F.”

The all-dark bill of a Pelagic is shorter and much more slender than those of the other two species. Compared to Brandt’s and Double-crested cormorants, Pelagics have a tiny gular pouch, which is all but invisible most of the year. In alternate plumaged birds, it is possible to see the small dark red pouch in good light. During the winter months their faces and throats look all black.

During the breeding season, adult Pelagic Cormorants also develop gleaming white flank patches at the base of the tail, which are diagnostic for Pelagic when seen. By now you may have noticed that “B” has not been mentioned. This is the wild card of the group. In size, it appears to be as tall, or nearly so, as the Brandt’s (birds “A” and “C”) on each side of it. This is an optical illusion, which illustrates the time-honored axiom that apparent size difference does not always translate to an actual size difference. It is important to use multiple characteristics when identifying birds.

Looking closely at bird “B,” you can see that the neck and head are both thinner and smaller than those of the neighboring Brandt’s Cormorants. Also, the bill is much thinner, and the head is about the same diameter as the neck. Though the lighting is poor, you can see the outline of the pale throat feathering on the two Brandt’s, but bird “B” shows no pale area on the throat. This bird is also a Pelagic Cormorant.


This close-up of two Brandt’s Cormorants (on the left and right) and a Pelagic Cormorant (middle) show the differences in head and neck proportions and bill size that allow them to be separated at a distance. This cropped image also shows the paler tan feathering on the throats of the two Brandt’s, while the Pelagic is completely dark-faced.

Those of you who responded publicly were quite successful in correctly identifying these cormorants. The apparent size of bird “B” was understandably confusing to a couple of respondents. We hope that this exercise will aid you in your efforts to separate distant cormorants during your next visit to the Pacific Coast. If you have a group photo that includes several similar species, please send it our direction. We hope to make this sort of ID Challenge a regular feature of the journal.

Photo taken by David Irons using a Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ8

Shorebird ID Challenge

If you were to ask almost any North American birder which group or groups of species are the toughest to identify, shorebirds, in particular small Calidris sandpipers, would likely be near the top of their list. This genus includes birds that range in size from the largest, Great Knot, which is about 11" in length, to the smallest, Least Sandpiper and Little Stint, which are about 6" in length. The latter two are among a group of similar small waders that we collectively refer to as "peeps" in North America (called "stints" elsewhere in the world); all are between six and seven inches long. While all of these species may be found in homogeneous flocks, it is more typical to see them mixed together, sometimes with a few slightly larger members of the Calidris genus, on the same expanse of mud. 

Speaking of mud, we hope this exercise leaves you with an understanding of shorebird ID that is clearer than that substrate. We've chosen a photo that offers a sampling of the expected Calidris sandpipers (no Asian strays) that occur in the U.S. There are only six birds in the picture, which you can study at length in the privacy of your own home. Ideally, the ID tips and clues that are shared here will help you the next time you come face-to-face with a flock of shorebirds. After all, there is no substitute for seeing these birds in life and for most of us the height of spring shorebird migration is just a few weeks away.


This group of six sandpipers was photographed at Soap Lake, Washington on September 5, 2008. Hopefully, you can identify the birds on the far left and far right based on size (compared to the group of "peeps" in the center), the overall color, bill length and leg color. We call these birds "A" (on the far left) and "B" (on the far right). Hint: These two larger birds are the same species.


Here is a blown-up version image the four peeps seen in the middle of picture above. This close-up should give you a fighting chance of correctly identifying these four juvenile sandpipers. For the purposes of the ID challenge, we'll start with the top left bird and label the left hand group "C," "D," and "E" going top to bottom and the lone bird on the top right will be "F."

We invite you to send us your identifications of all six birds referencing them A-F (including the two larger birds in the top picture) and submit your answers by clicking on the "comments" link just under the title of this piece. We encourage you to share the field marks you used to sort out this group. Good luck, and most importantly, have fun. We'll post the answers on Monday morning.

Photo taken by David Irons using a Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ8.

The strange places birders visit

I will not eat oysters. I want my food dead – not sick, not wounded – dead:  Woody Allen

If you can’t annoy somebody, there is little point in writing:  Kingsley Amis

“Buffalo coming up fast from behind,” Brad warned me.

“Big one or small one?” I asked with a hint of annoyance (okay, more than a hint) leaning out of the car window, index finger steadily depressing my camera’s trigger. The camera, shooting at 6 frames per second, sounded like an automatic weapon as it captured images of the peculiar gull we were studying.


The Sequim Game Farm is a fantastic place to see gulls at close range, unless you have issues with large ungulates invading your personal space. This elk got chummy with the author in February 2009. (Photo taken by Steven Mlodinow using a Nikon D300 camera and a Nikon 18-55mm lens)

“This one has definite snot potential.” Brad responded with increased urgency.

I quickly recoiled, withdrawing my camera as hastily as possible and narrowly missing the large set of nostrils that lunged into the vehicle after me.  The vague aroma of silage encompassed us, and then the massive bovine head retreated as Brad set the car in motion. At the same moment, there was a soft thump against Brad’s closed window as another buffalo attempted to invade from his side, leaving a large greasy streak on the glass.

“Brad, you’ve been slimed again, dude.”

“I am going to love explaining this to Helen.” I looked at his side window. It was half obscured by the nasal secretions of at least four species of ungulates. Earlier, an Elk had attempted to French-kiss us, a Fallow Deer tried to nibble, and a yak tried to… well, tried to do whatever it is that Yak’s do. 

Non-birders tend to have this image of birders (a.k.a. birdwatchers) traveling patiently and stealthily through pristine wilderness: mountain meadows, dank rainforests, rocky shorelines, and the like. In reality, we spend much of our time in places that are rather the opposite. At least the ungulate adventure took place at the Sequim Game Farm, a place that normal people might visit. I hesitate to tell my non-birding friends precisely how much time I’ve spent at garbage dumps and sewage ponds. When asked, “Where is your favorite place, in the entire world, to look at birds,” I stutter and mutter my answer, “The La Paz Sewage Treatment Plant (if I am trying to be decorous, I can use its exotic pseudonym, “Lagunas de Chametla.”) However, whether you call ‘em sewage ponds or lagunas, the odor is just as pungent. The smell of sewage is, however, the smell of victory. 


In just the right light, even a sewage pond can look pretty good. This shot captures one of the Everett, Washington ponds looking particularly inviting. Thankfully, a picture isn’t worth a thousand smells. (Photo by Steven Mlodinow using a Contax U4R camera)

“Why,” you might ask, “are sewage ponds so attractive to birds?” Of course one might reasonably ask, “Why would you go there anyway? It’s a sewage pond.” Answering that question, however, would require a course in addictive behavior. Sewage ponds attract birds for several reasons, which are somewhat dependent on the type of facility (it’s perfectly okay to think “Ick!” at this point). The old-fashioned sewage ponds, much like the one in La Paz, have some impoundments that contain water and others that are “drying ponds,” in which the sewage forms a mud-like surface (now it is really okay to think “Ick!!!”) These ponds are loaded with organic material (nice euphemism, eh?), which in turn is a breeding ground for micro-organisms that then feed a host of invertebrates. The invertebrates are what attract birds. Typically, the deeper ponds are favored by ducks, especially Northern Shovelers, which use their spatulate bills to filter small organisms from the water. This is something to remember if a hunter ever offers you shoveler breast au gratin. The shallower or muddy ponds are often fantastic places to look for sandpipers and their ilk. As evidence of their avian richness, the Lagunas de Chametla have attracted more than 171 species, which is greater than 40% of all species recorded in Baja California Sur. Several of those birds are exceptionally rare, including Baja California’s first Great Frigatebird and Chimney Swift, Mexico’s 2nd Harlan’s Hawk, and other exotic species such as Eurasian Wigeon, Curlew Sandpiper, Ruff, Red-throated Pipit, and Siberian Pipit (all of which strayed to Baja from Asia.)


This Great Frigatebird, Baja's first, was found as it arrived with Magnificent Frigatebirds to bathe at Lagunas de Chametla on 17 July 2007. Note the buffy head and yellow-flesh feet, which are two of the marks that separate it from Magnificent Frigatebird.  This bathing on the wing routine must be seen to be believed. (Photo taken by Steven Mlodinow using a Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ50 with an Olympus 1.7 teleconverter)

The more modern sewage ponds, such as the delightful Lagunas de Everett, a.k.a. Everett Sewage Ponds, near my house are entirely deepwater impoundments. These, too, are rich in organic matter and thus invertebrates. Because the water is usually quite deep, shorebirds are generally not numerous here, though some puddles along the sides have padded the bird list nicely. This deeper water does, however, attract an impressive array of waterfowl, gulls, and even terns. Even the odd marine bird, such as Leach’s Storm-Petrel, has been found here. The real emblem of the Everett Sewage Ponds, however, is the Bonaparte’s Gull, named after Napoleon’s nephew. This small elegant gull can occur here in numbers exceeding 10,000. The odor wafting about you is easily forgotten as hundreds of Bonaparte’s Gulls swoop through the air after airborne insects. When not bathing, these flocks bathe (yes, bathe) in the water all the while quacking quietly among themselves. The Everett Sewage Ponds has hosted approximately 200 species, which is more than 40% of the species recorded in Washington. Finally, sewage ponds are beloved by birds for reasons beyond their organic richness: they are often surrounded by riparian-like habitat, which attracts birds fond of trees. They are also somewhat protected, as human activity is generally low, especially gun-bearing human activity. 


At times it seems as though most of the world population of Bonaparte’s Gulls is on the Everett, Washington sewage ponds. It is a great place to study and learn to full array of plumage variations one might see in this species. This lovely hatch-year bird, photographed there in October 2008, is still showing a smattering of brown juvenile feathers on its crown, nape and back. (Photo taken by Steven Mlodinow using a Nikon D300 camera with a Nikon 300mm lens and a 1.4 teleconverter)

“But garbage dumps?” you ask.  “Leftovers,” is the answer, at least in temperate climes. As unsavory as sewage ponds seem on the surface, some are actually attractive. Okay, that is a bit of an exaggeration, but many at least are not downright ugly. Garbage dumps, however, are never attractive, at least aesthetically. They can be smelly, fly-ridden, dangerous, and occasionally in flames -- but pretty -- not even remotely. In the U.S.A. and Canada, garbage dumps are mostly known for attracting gulls, which will eat almost anything from Doritos and Wonder Bread to “I wonder what that once was.” Even vultures look askance at some of the ex-animal material that gulls scarf down. But if you live in places that are frigid in winter, gulls are a winter birding staple, and few places bring in the gulls like piles of fetid garbage. Interestingly, in tropical climates, garbage dumps often have a completely different bird-allure. From the Belize to Malaysia I have visited small to medium sized dumps looking for insect-eating birds. All that rotting food attracts bugs, and bugs attract insectivores, especially if there are trees or brush nearby for cover. I have many fond memories of tropical/ sub-tropical garbage dumps. 

For instance, there was this garbage dump on Andros Island in the Bahamas. The edges were active with warblers and flycatchers, but in the middle, lording over this splendor, were dozens of Turkey Vultures, Turkey Vultures that happened to be perched on a rusting school bus sitting askew amongst the heaps of trash. The bus was clearly a favored vantage point from which they surveyed their domain, perhaps hoping that small children in poor health would suddenly appear. By itself, that image was sufficiently bizarre, but there was also the Barbie Doll that looked half eaten, causing me to wonder what frustrated predatory lurked nearby. Stranger yet, though, was a battered copy of Moby Dick. Peering at the exposed pages, I read “In one word, Queegueg, said I, rather digressively; hell is an idea first born on an undigested apple dumpling; and since perpetuated through the hereditary dyspepsias nurtured by Ramdadans.” I wondered what some Bahamian high school student made of that. Heck, I wondered what the vultures made of it, being the experts on dyspepsia that they are.

My favorite “dump experience,” however, was in Malaysia at Bukit Fraser. Bukit Fraser is in the mountains and formerly served as a place to which the ruling Brits could retreat and seek respite from the steaming hot lowlands. In general, Bukit Fraser is incredibly scenic. One of the best birding sites, however, was the local dump, called The Rubbish Tip, partly because of the British influence, and partly because the garbage there had simply been tipped down a hillside. My friend Charles Hood and I found it not nearly as odiferous as we’d been warned it would be, but it compensated for this by smoking continuously. We wondered precisely what festive toxins might be buried within the rubble as gray-brown tendrils spiraled upwards, especially when we found dead leeches strewn around the dump’s edges. Nonetheless, it was packed with flycatcher-shrikes, shrike-babblers, minlas, drongos, yuhinas and other such exotic birds, so we were delighted. On our last morning, though, the rubbish tip added to the air of excitement by bursting into flames. Our recently met companions were unfazed by this sudden inflammation and continued to look for the White-tailed Robin we’d seen the day before. Charles and I, pondering the possibility of exploding paint cans, fled, not embarrassed by our relative cowardice.

So, next time you consider asking a birdwatcher about their favorite birdwatching spot, be prepared to hold your nose.

Cormorant ID Challenge

The photo below offers a nice opportunity to hone your cormorant identification skills. Along the Pacific Coast, it is fairly common to see mixed groups cormorants in this type of light, where the finer details of plumage and skin color are not readily apparent. Such conditions can make cormorant identification challenging for experienced observers and nearly impossible for newer birders. However, if one studies the shape and proportions of these birds, they can typically be identified based on subtle but consistent differences in size and shape. Let's start by using letters of the alphabet to reference these birds from left to right, "A" being the left most bird and "I" being the right most bird. To avoid confusion on the two right hand birds, the lower bird will be "H" and the one behind and slightly to the right will be "I." By reading the caption and checking out the cormorant range maps in your field guide, you should be able to narrow the list of possibilities. These rocks are rarity-free, thus there are no Red-faced Cormorants in this picture.


This mixed groups of cormorants was photographed at Newport, Oregon on December 1, 2008. Photo taken by David Irons using a Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ8.

I invite you to offer your identifications of these nine birds using the "comments" link that appears right below the title of this post. Feel free to share the clues you might have used in making your identifications. Remember, the goal is to exchange knowledge. We should avoid making cormorant identification seem like rocket science (it isn't). At the end of the weekend, I will tally up the responses and post the identity of these individuals along with a discussion of how to tell them apart based on shape.

Why Do Kestrels Wings Look More Rounded?

An American Kestrel clinging to a section of telephone wire is a common roadside sight across much of North America. This species is the smallest of North America's falcons (genus Falco) and also the one we are most likely to encounter. Falcons are generally characterized as fast fliers and described as having pointed wingtips. However, in my experience American Kestrels are decidedly weaker fliers than other falcons. Their flight style can be described as more buoyant and their wingbeats have a bit of a rowing motion. Additionally, their wingtips often look blunt and somewhat rounded at the tip when fully extended.

It's funny what you discover when editing photos. While struggling to find a keeper among a bunch of modest to dismal quality flight shots I'd taken of an American Kestrel, I noticed several shots in which the bird appeared to have rather rounded wingtips. This rounded shape has always been one of those nagging sub-conscious birding questions that I never invested the time to answer. But on this occasion I began taking a closer look at the wing shape and the feathers that create it.

The outermost 10 feathers on a falcon's wing are its primaries. These feathers, along with the secondaries and tertials, comprise the flight feathers of a bird. In general, a falcon's primaries vary in length, getting progressively longer towards the wingtip. When these feathers are fully extended the trailing edge of the wings is very even and fairly straight, which creates the somewhat pointed wingtip we associate with falcons. The outermost primary (P10) is foreshortened a bit, so P9 appears to be the longest feather on the wing of most falcons.


This female Peregrine Falcon, photographed at Chametla, Baja California Sur, Mexico on 13 January 2009, exhibits the wing shape of most falcons. Looking closely at the right wing, note the fairly straight trailing edge of the wing and that P9 (second to outermost wing feather) is bit longer than P8, which is just a bit longer than P7. The relative lengths of these feathers create the attenuated or pointed look of a falcon's wingtips.

The 8th and 9th primaries (P8 and P9) of American Kestrels are distinctly longer than the other primaries and in flight P8 generally looks longer than P9, which breaks up the clean line along the trailing edge of the outer wing. This makes the wing look somewhat more blunt or rounded at the tip.


This male American Kestrel, photographed near Brownsville, Linn Count, Oregon 20 February 2008, shows a rather blunt and rounded tip to the right wing. Note the relative lengths of P10 (the outermost), P9, P8, and P7. P8 and P9 are much longer than the two primaries that bracket them, and P8 (rather than P9) appears to be the longest of the flight feathers.

I've examined numerous flight shots of American Kestrels both in books and online and found that this relationship between the lengths of P8 and P9 is consistently evident.   

All photos taken by David Irons using a Canon EOS XSI 450D camera and an EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 lens                                              

Using Your Vehicle as a Photo Blind

Many of you have probably already figured this out, but it bears repeating that you are sometimes better off staying inside your vehicle rather than getting out of it if you want to get close-up views of some birds. This particularly is true when photographing birds. For whatever reason, automobiles do not seem to alarm birds, whereas a human outside of a vehicle poses a threat.


Getting good pictures of a Golden-crowned Kinglets is tough when you are chasing them around the woods on foot, mainly because they are rarely at eye level. This Golden-crowned, attracted to my roadside pishing, came in low through the brush and then emerged in plain view about 15 feet away. It was photographed at the edge of a woodlot near Brownsville, Linn County, Oregon on 20 February 2009.

When I'm birding open country habitats I make a habit of slowly driving up to particularly juicy-looking hedgerows. Instead of getting out of my car, I just roll down the window and "pish" (see definition below). More often than not, the sparrows, chickadees, kinglets, and wrens that were previously unseen immediately pop into view on the outer branches of the vegetation and remain there as long as I keep pishing.

We know that raptors are typically quite wary of humans, surely the result of being shot at for generations. I have rarely been able to walk to within 50 meters of a perched hawk without flushing it. However, hawks on fenceposts, telephone poles, and perched on wires will often allow a slow-moving vehicle to drive right up to them. It is important to remember that quick or jerky movements will still alarm and likely flush these birds, so it is important to be very deliberate in your motions. If you plan to attempt pictures, I recommend rolling your window down before you get right next to the bird. With most newer vehicles, the movement of the window is accompanied by the motor noise of the mechanism that moves it. Even this slight extra motion and noise might flush birds that would otherwise stay put. In my experience, there seems to be an advantage to keeping all body parts and your camera inside the car. Once that big lens pops out the window, your subject is likely to bolt.


This rather bedraggled looking immature Cooper’s Hawk, photographed near Halsey, Linn County, Oregon 21 December 2008, posed for more than 20 minutes while Jennifer Brown and I sat in my car a mere 30 feet away. It was still sitting there drying off when we reluctantly moved on. 


American Kestrels are among the flightiest of all North American raptors, rarely staying put once you get close to them. On 20 February 2009 I made several unsuccessful attempts to capture images of perched kestrels, before finally getting a few shots of this male near Lebanon, Linn County, Oregon.

Hopefully, these tips will help you get close to some species that you normally don’t get to see up close and personal, and don’t forget to take along a camera.  

What is “pishing?”  Pishing is the act of using your voice to attract small birds. If you say “pish” with a heavy and protracted emphasis on the “SSSHHH” sound at the end, it is sonically quite similar to the scolding notes of chickadees and other small birds.  When passerines hear this sound they will often come in to check out what the commotion is about.

All photos taken by David Irons using a Canon EOS XSI 450 D camera and an EF100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 lens.

My “Bucket List” is One: Variegated Flycatcher

If you spend much time around birders, our conversations will eventually come around to a discussion or comparison of lists. These lists can have either spatial and temporal constraints, sometimes both. We keep world lists, continent lists, country lists, state lists, county lists, yard lists, year lists, month lists, and day lists. The most afflicted among us start all over each January 1st and spend the next 365 days keeping county and statewide year lists.

I’ve even heard tales of birders keeping event lists. My favorite event list story involved the outdoor wedding of two birders. Of course many of the attendees of these nuptials were also birders (listers). Most of you probably already suspect that they kept a list of all species of birds that were seen during the wedding and the reception. They did. Rumor has it that some shocking rarities were reported during the latter portions of the reception. Apparently, performance-enhancing libations were involved.

I am by no means immune to this listing bug. I keep lists for three of the four states that I’ve resided in. Unfortunately, I moved away from Pennsylvania (at 1.5 years of age) when I was still in my rather brief pre-birding phase of life. I maintain lists for all of Oregon’s 36 counties, plus a few counties in Indiana and Illinois where I haven’t lived, or even visited, since 1998. The last time I checked the county listing results for Illinois, I was still the top lister for Edgar County, which borders Indiana in east-central Illinois. Those of you curious enough to read the “about us” bios have already learned that I hold the county year listing record for Oregon. “Mr. Irons, please put down the pencil and step away from the checklist…slowly.”

Among all these lists, the shortest is my Bucket List. This is not the type of bucket list that Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman were ticking off in the popular movie of the same name. This is the list of birds that I’ve actually seen on a bucket.


This Variegated Flycatcher was many thousands of miles out of range when it was discovered at Windust Park, Franklin County, Washington. Collectively, the group of birders present took about 1000 pictures while it sat on this plastic bucket on 7 September 2008.

The only species of bird that I’ve actually seen on a bucket is Variegated Flycatcher. Crazier still, this Variegated Flycatcher was sitting on a bucket at Windust Park in Franklin County, Washington, about 6000 miles from its home range in South America. Mike and Merry Lynn Denny discovered this bird late in the day on 6 September 2008. Now I don’t normally think of myself as lucky, but on this weekend good fortune smiled upon me. Steve Mlodinow and I happened to have chosen this week to search eastern Washington oases for vagrant passerines. In fact, earlier that day (September 6th) we’d found a Bell’s Vireo, just the second ever in Washington, at a city park in the small isolated town of Washtucna. However, our thunder was muted once news of the flycatcher hit the airwaves.

We learned of the flycatcher, originally thought to be a Sulphur-bellied, from our motel in Othello, Washington, a little more than an hour from Windust Park. Once we viewed the Denny’s photos on the motel’s computer and exchanged some e-mails with a few other birders, we were certain the bird was not a Sulphur-bellied (which barely makes it into the southwest U.S.) because the bill was too small. Though the resources we had with us were light on information about flycatchers from Central and South America, we were pretty sure that this bird was either a Piratic or Variegated flycatcher, but which one? Charlie Wright, who had experience with both species was confident this was a Variegated.

Needless to say, Steve and I were up and on the road before dawn the next morning. When we reached Windust Park shortly after dawn, we were the first birders on the scene. It took us about 15 minutes to relocate the bird, which Steve found hanging around the back yard of a house just outside the park boundary. We watched and photographed the bird for more than three hours as additional carloads of birders continued to arrive. The flycatcher spent the first hour of the day feeding actively. Then, to our slack-jawed amazement, it dropped down nearly at our feet, where it then spent several moments bathing in a puddle of water that had formed beneath an air conditioner on the side of a small shop next to the house. A few minutes later it landed on the lip of a square five-gallon plastic bucket that was sitting near the corner of the shop. Incredibly, the bird perched there for about 15-20 minutes while several of us hammered away on the shutter buttons of our digital cameras.


These birders were among the dozens who came to Windust Park 7 September 2008 to experience this once in a lifetime rarity.


I happened to be standing near the garage when the Variegated Flycatcher landed on the bucket, thus I was only about 15 feet away from it when I took this picture on 7 September 2008.

Prior to this bird, there were only three previous occurrences of Variegated Flycatcher in the United States. To our knowledge, none of these were using similar “habitat.”
Unlike most of my lists, I am hopeful that my bucket list remains stagnant. I’d hate to see it get watered down by having to add Starling or House Sparrow. Of course, I could always claim that my bucket list is “N. I. B.” (No Introduced Birds).

All photos taken by David Irons using a Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ8.

Getting Lucky: A Primer on Finding Rare Birds

We must believe in luck, for how else can we explain the success of those we don’t like – Jean Cocteau

There is one talent essential for finding rare birds. Alas, neither study nor practice makes much difference. Scholarly pursuits are useless as are attempts to better your vision (by exercise or surgery). By in large, you’re either born with it or you’re not. If you have this talent, rarities magically appear where you do. If you are lacking, the world is full of House Sparrows and Rock Pigeons. No studies have been done to determine if it’s heritable, though a look at Paul O’Brien and his sons would cause you to believe that it is. On the other hand, I have occasionally found this characteristic enhanced by wearing the correct hat. Others have found certain tee-shirts to be of help. It’s fickle, a trait bemoaned in song by Frank Sinatra. It’s Luck. 

Though many a successful birder may howl in protest, good luck is an essential ingredient in being a repeat detector of rare birds. Some folks undeniably have the knack of being at the right place at the right time. They zig when others zag. It’s unfortunate for those lacking in fortune, but life is not always fair. For instance, my jump shot sucks and fastballs confuse me. Had it been otherwise, I might now be writing about my days with the Chicago Bulls or Boston Red Sox. But I’m not. I’m writing about birds--rare ones--and how to find them. All of the above being said, there really are some ways of enhancing your chances of finding rarities, even if you find yourself ignored by that most unlady-like lady, Luck.

Know Thy Neighbors: Step one in becoming a skilled and reliable finder of vagrants is to learn the birds around you. A pet peeve of Guy “Look, another first record” McCaskie is that too many people launch themselves at vagrant traps hoping to find misplaced avifauna without knowing the common birds first. So, if you want to be good at this game, and avoid embarrassing yourself, learn the Song Sparrows, Yellow-rumped Warblers, and other avifauna typical of your homefront. Learn not only their classic appearance, but also the variation that occurs within each species. The differences between one Yellow Warbler and the next can be terribly surprising and especially terrible if you think that dull fall female is some vagrant from Asia. It is important to not just look at birds, but to see them as well. Practice, Practice, Practice. Think about what you are seeing. Then, when a peculiar bird presents itself, you’ll be confident it isn’t just some oddball local.

The images above were both taken at Sun Lakes State Park in e. Washington on 5 September 2008. They offer examples of birds that might confuse a birder who hasn’t taken the time to learn their subtle characteristics. Their shared similarities include, size, general coloration, habitat choice, apparent white eyerings, wingbars, longish legs, and streaking on the underparts. However, they are not the same species and, they are not even in the same family. The bird on the left is an American Pipit, while the bird on the right is a Yellow-rumped Warbler (subspecies auduboni). (Photos by David Irons using a Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ8)

Don’t be Lazy: Once you are comfortable and cozy with those birds that live around you (and this is, in reality, a never ending process), don’t become complacent and assume that every bird is what it appears to be. Lucky birders pull up to the reservoir and have the Ross’s Gull circle around in front of them. However, the best finders of rarities are those that work the hardest. When they flush up a flock of White-crowned Sparrows they don’t say, “Hey, nice flock of White-crowneds” and keep walking. No. They stop and work the flock: by pishing, by waiting, by whatever means. Often, that “good bird” is hiding among a flock of similar birds. Flamingos and pelicans will jump out at you – finding most other rarities requires a bit more effort on the observer’s part. Past companions have groused about my inability to drive by a goose or swan flock without stopping to scope them. Admittedly, there are a lot of goose and swan flocks where I live. Yet, their attitudes change on those occasions when I find the Emperor Goose or Bewick’s Swan amidst the swarm. If you assume the group is full of commoners, it will be. In addition to conjuring rarities, this combination of local knowledge and careful observation will bring about a sudden awareness that there are hybrids in them there duck flocks and unsuspected subspecies in your neighborhood, findings that can contribute to ornithological knowledge.

This image, taken at Mukilteo, Snohomish County, Washington in March 2007, offers a comparison between a male Common Goldeneye X Barrow’s Goldeneye hybrid on the left and a more typical male Barrow’s Goldeneye on the right. Note the more forward placement of the white spot at the base of the bill of the hybrid. This spot also has a slightly compressed oval shape rather than the more circular spot exhibited by pure Common Goldeneyes. It also shows more extensive black on the back and extending down onto the flanks, and the abbreviated “spur” of black extending onto the side of the upper breast. The original Sibley Guide to Birds (2000) presents an illustration of a hybrid that is near identical to this bird. (Photo by Steven Mlodinow using a Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ50)

It Pays to Get Around/Experience Counts: In many aspects of life, being faithful is an admirable trait, but if you want to enhance your birding luck, get around. After the birds in your area become ho-hum, start traveling a bit, because experience counts. If you visit other parts of your state, or other parts of the country, or heck, other parts of the world, you will not only be thrilled by the novelty of seeing new birds, but you’ll acquire the knowledge to identify one if it happens to wander into your neighborhood. However, in order to get the most from your out-of-town dalliances, you need to apply Rule One and not just look at the new birds but see them as well. A bit of study time in the field is worth a fistful of field guides.

Hang out with the Right Crowd: There are two parts to this rule. First, you’ll almost always benefit by spending time with birders better than you are. There is much to be said for grinding out bird identifications on your own, because that hard-earned knowledge sticks better, but too much time alone is no good (you stop bathing, start talking to yourself, think you’re the King of Sweden – definitely not good). Hook up with someone more experienced now and again and learn some of the tricks (and pitfalls) of the trade from them. Second, the more eyes the better, at least to some extent. I find that three birders in a group usually is ideal for land-birding (larger groups tend to scare those wee birds away). When looking at shorebirds, seabirds, or ducks, which are typically at greater distances and are viewed through scopes, “the more the merrier” is often true. In any case, it’s impossible to see everything yourself and having other birders around only enhances your chances of being there when a rarity is detected. It’s even better if your companion’s skills complement your own. My birding-by-ear skills are barely better than my jumping ability, so I like hanging with folks that are good with sound. 

Go to the Right Place: It is easier to get lucky at some places than others (If you’re older than 25 and haven’t figured this out yet, I’m truly sorry). When looking for rare birds, locations that concentrate migrants are typically best. So, that prairie reservoir or desert oases that attracts lots of regular migrants is likely to be good for vagrants as well, whereas searching for rare woodland birds in a vast expanse of trees is a “needle in the haystack” experience. Coastlines also tend to concentrate birds, especially if there’s a bit of land that sticks out into the sea. Migrants tend to concentrate at the tips of peninsulas for two reasons. Along the New Jersey coast, Cape May’s magic is in part due to being at the end of a funnel. Southbound birds crowd the point, hesitant to cross over a long stretch of water. At Point Reyes, in California, land birds that have strayed out over the Pacific during nocturnal migrations are desperately seeking land, and Point Reyes is often the first thing they see. Of course, peninsulas can also be excellent for “sea-watching,” as migrating waterbirds often pass closer to shore.

Timing is Everything: Well, not really, but that sounds good, doesn’t it? Timing is important, though learning the optimal time windows for certain birds takes some experience. Rare shorebirds, ducks, warblers, etc. can show up at any time, yet there is usually a prime time in each particular region to search for a given group of vagrants. Looking for rare gulls in Texas during summer may occasionally pay off, but you’re going to spend more time gazing at sunbathers than Larids (which, at times, might not be all that bad). However, if you go to Niagara Falls during early winter, and you may be a bit chilly (or frozen solid), but you’ll see an interesting gull or two.

In this image, taken near Wallula, Washington on 5 September 2005, the author takes advantage of one of his “tools of the trade.” Though surely not listed among the features on the brochure at the Toyota dealership, the state of the art reinforced roof design of Steve’s Highlander gives him a decided advantage when trying to see over those annoying embankments that impound the local gray (and brown) water. (Photo by Bob Flores using a Contax UR4 camera)

Tools of the Trade: Finally, have the right tools. A fabulous pair of binoculars does not a fabulous birder make. On the other hand, being able to actually see the bird has its advantages. Optics that provide a clear image are critical to both your enjoyment and rarity finding success. Another important tool of the trade is a good library. On those long dark rainy nights when the score of the basketball game is lopsided, pull a book or a journal off the shelf and teach yourself something. Next time you’re out in the field, try to put that study into play, and it’ll be less likely to leak back out of your brain. 

So, if you’ve ever wondered why Paul or Gary or Jon seem so good at finding rarities, you’ll know why. They’re damn lucky. 

And much more. They work hard at it. 

Take a Stand for Land

As naturalists, birders are attuned to the sweep of landscape about us in ways other citizens may not be. We know that an unheralded, ragtag woodlot surrounded by subdivisions may support the county’s last Wood Thrushes. The ravine with an empty shopping cart at either end and a moldering mattress halfway down the trail hosts wintering sparrows—and maybe, just maybe, a great Christmas Count warbler. The flood-killed cottonwoods that most locals view as deadwood we know to be vital to nesting Tree Swallows. The new cell tower that has filled a hole in the communications network may, we fear, extinguish a migrating Wilson’s Warbler or Virginia Rail some September night.

We have come to understand, as well, that the plant communities, landforms, treetops, and even the open skies we search for birds are increasingly affected by decisions, or non-decisions, made by people who may not yet embrace the values we hold dear. We may feel powerless to affect the future of Borneo’s old-growth, yet we certainly can go to bat for our local patch by letting our elected leaders, city managers, political appointees, and fellow birders know what we care about.

A few years ago, the city I live in purchased a parcel of ranchland, which cannot be developed because it is zoned as floodplain. Last year, with wildlife values in mind, they ran a fleet of big yellow earthmovers over it, creating a set of scrapes (broad shallow excavations that reach slightly below the water table) that will hold at least a little water much of the year. It was uplifting to know that the dirt-spattered Tonka Battalion was, in this case, not destroying wetland, but enhancing it.

As the last leaves fluttered from the alders and the Dunlin and Green-winged Teal began scouting for feeding sites, I felt that there was something amiss with this project. The site hadn’t yet begun to “come around” in the way I’d expected. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it until I paused and took a good long look. And then I figured it out.

Standing in and about the margins of the largest scrape were two dozen cattle. As I watched, one of them lifted its tail and did its unsavory thing. The others, hooves dripping with goop, were post-piling countless holes the size of tea saucers into the mud as they splashed through the shallows of the enhancement pool. In ten minutes, I had seen enough. Though I ordinarily keep a low profile on environmental issues, I knew I couldn’t look myself in the mirror if I didn’t try to affect better management of this site, a mere two minutes from home.

Realizing that I was pretty amped-up when I arrived home, I tried to curb my emotions. First I did some belly-breathing and then I held our old calico cat, Corina, on my lap as I flipped open the phone book and dialed the number for the city’s Environmental Services department. Getting only a woman’s voice on an answering machine, I identified myself, explained what I had seen, suggested the consequences of unchecked trampling by cattle, and asked for a call-back. Then I posted what I had seen, together with my concerns, on a regional birders’ listserv, knowing that it would reach many naturalists who regularly passed by the site. Bucking my zest for overwriting, I attempted to put as many ideas into as few words as possible. And I re-read it before I sent it.

I was gratified that a woman from Environmental Services returned my call. We discussed the issue. I explained that, although I understood the role cattle can play as “agents of vegetation management,” they can be an equally potent destructive force, damaging, setting back, and eliminating riparian and wetland vegetation, as well as trampling the hapless invertebrate communities living in the mud.

She as much as nodded over the phone as she informed me that, in the wake of my call, the city had arranged with the rancher who held the grazing lease to fence out his cattle in the future. She further explained that the beeves would only be allowed around the scrapes during the summer, when their grazing will help keep emergent vegetation from becoming established. I acknowledged that this was an acceptable compromise, and I thanked her.

Many other phone calls — inspired by my post to the listserv — reached her office, raising her awareness of a community of birders who will now pay close attention to livestock activities at this site. We will be watching for that fence to be built, as well as for the “trespass animals” that may blunder back onto the site during fall, winter, and spring. In the meantime we’ll enjoy watching the enhancement scrapes mature mostly free of cattle.

A famous scientist—Kelvin, I believe — once wrote that we can’t know about something until we measure it. Today, adrift in a galaxy of land-use data sets largely persisting only as soulless “zeroes and ones” in offices lit by banks of fluorescent lights, we’ve got to do better. While honoring that important maxim, I would suggest, as well, that we can’t save something unless we care about it, and we can’t care about it until the thought of its loss spurs us to do something other than reach for another sip of coffee.

All that was required on our end was to pick up the phone, and to press SEND. Good things happened. A public employee was educated, an understanding was forged — and next winter is looking a lot brighter for those Dunlin and Green-winged Teal.