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Things are going to get worse before they get worse – Lily Tomlin
One original thought is worth a thousand mindless quotings – Diogenes
Glistening white. I sighed. At that moment my emotions were quite mixed: The joy of victory and the agony of defeat, or perhaps more accurately, the shin.
Just a couple hours earlier on that June day, I had joyfully shared lunch with a formerly-young-lass whom had been a work colleague some time ago. But a few years earlier, I was soooo much older than she. Suddenly, we were contemporaries. I contemplated why her slightly off-kilter smile made her so dazzling. After an hour of festive gossip and catching up on old times, I stumbled out of the restaurant into the brilliant sunlight, brain unencumbered by alcohol or any other mind-altering substances.
On the other hand, in the Pacific Northwest sunshine is considered an intoxicant. If you don’t live in western Washington, you might think of June as summer. However, out here, sun is nearly unknown during the month of June, hence its nickname, Juneuary. May… now May feels like spring. The weather starts to warm up, the sun breaks out here and there causing traffic jams (known locally as “sunjams”), and everyone gets slightly giddy, expecting the arrival of that mythical beast, SUMMER. You start to daydream about lazing about in shorts sipping mint juleps whilst lightly perspiring in warm sunshine. It is all a mirage.
The same increase in sun and warmth that make May so tantalizing, also cause the land to heat up. In turn, the now warmed air above the land rises, sucking in cool and moist ocean air. Every year, our May hopes are dashed upon the cool drizzly days of Juneuary. But that particular day was a precious sunny June day -- and I had just had a festive lunch with a good friend, and I was headed off to my favorite birding spot, and I was dazed and confused by this incredible infusion of pleasure and anticipation.
That’s when it happened.
I walked into a parked car.
Actually it was a long-bed pickup truck, but it was, indeed, parked. As in, stationary. My shin, I am sure, made a fine thwacking sound against the metal of the rear fender. Of course, I continued walking straight ahead, not stopping to check myself or the vehicle for damage. Being a guy, evaluating whatever damage had been inflicted upon my body or the vehicle was totally secondary to pretending that nothing had actually happened. If anyone turned in response to the rapport of the blow, it was of utmost importance no one consider that some idiot (i.e, me) might have just walked full-speed into a parked vehicle in broad daylight. I was feeling pretty smug about my acting abilities when I reached my car. Unless someone had been looking directly at me at the moment of impact, no one would be aware of my vehicular collision. Besides, there were no longer little sparkly lights flitting in front of my eyes. I did direct a few well-chosen curses at pickup trucks in general, and long-beds in specific, not to mention my lack of coordination, the brilliance of the sunshine, the rotation of the earth, and the waning of the moon… heck, why not be inclusive. After this joyful catharsis, I tried to look at my leg, but the steering wheel and a general lack of flexibility prevented me from doing so. The pain, though, was nearly gone, and I couldn’t feel any blood trickling down my hairy leg. So, why let such a stupid little thing interfere with me visiting my favorite birding spot on such an unexpectedly beautiful day? I turned the ignition over, put my Trooper into gear, and drove to Port Susan Bay.
When I stopped to park 30 minutes later, I shifted my leg and felt an odd cool wet sensation where my pants brushed my leg. “Shit,” I thought. I looked down, and not to my surprise, there was a dark red stain on my pants. With a certain feeling of resignation, I stepped out of the car, put my foot on the bumper, and rolled my pant leg up. Across my shin was a gaping elliptical wound about 2 inches long. Bleeding. Not profusely, but steadily.
To bird or not to bird? That was the question. To suffer the slings and arrows of necessary suturing, or by ignoring my wounds, thus go birding? It was hardly a question at all.
Despite my cloak of machismo, I must admit that the thought of tramping out into a marsh rich in anaerobic mud with an open wound was a bit worrisome. I looked at my shin, looked into my car, looked at my shin, and looked back into the car. Kleenex! I reached for the box, tossed the top few tissues away (uncertain of what lovely substances they might have encountered in the back of my vehicle), and then filled the hole in my shin with several “clean” tissues from below. This successfully filled the crevice and prevented any more oozing of blood. Then I grabbed a roll of electrical tape and wound it around my leg several times. Voila! A waterproof semi-sterile dressing (By the way, as an MD, I must state that this procedure is to be performed only by professionals under controlled circumstances; do not try this at home.)
Off I went into the marsh, looking for southbound shorebirds (that is, sandpipers, plovers, and the like). It may surprise many of you that “fall” migration begins in June, but it does. Typically, by the last few days of the month, thousands of shorebirds are passing through Washington. These first arrivals are likely birds that failed at nesting: one-year old birds that couldn’t find a mate, or birds whose nest was destroyed. However, that particular day (21 June) was a bit on the early side, and I really didn’t expect to find much. I strolled around the marsh, happily greeting the Wilson’s Phalaropes that breed there (Port Susan is the only place in western Washington where they breed regularly; I must admit, that I am not certain that the breeding phalaropes were as happy to see me as I was to visit them.) Besides the breeding phalaropes and a scattering of ducks, I had encountered only a few Killdeer by the time I’d reached the far end of the wetland. This lack of stimulus allowed me to fret about my wound. “Where should I get it looked at? Could it be sutured? How long will this all take?” -- that kind of thing. The Gods reprimanded me for such inattention when two Killdeer exploded out in front of me, screaming as only Killdeer can, as if their feathers had burst suddenly into flames; in doing so, they had flushed a small flock of peeps (small sandpipers) into the air.
“Please come back, pretty please,” I begged pitifully in my head. The flock, numbering about a dozen birds, circled me. As they passed, sun to my back for the moment, I realized that one had an orange-red head. “Omigod, A STINT!” Now I was really pleading for their return. “Oh, just land, pretty please. I’ll be so good if you just land. I will kill every Peregrine Falcon on the planet. And I certainly don’t want to eat you. Truly, nothing here wants to eat you. Ignore those Killdeer louts, no creature here would dream of harming a poor little sandpiper. The Killdeer, THEY ARE LIARS.” The peeps (including the stint), wheeled about me a few more times before settling on the mud only 20 meters or so away … behind a small scrap of weeds… and directly between me and the sun. I stood totally motionless. After a moment or two, I cautiously looked around. Staring at me were a dozen immobile Killdeer, all poised to shriek like banshees at the slightest provocation. A single “kill-DARE” would set every bird, including the stint, into motion. It was low tide. On the other side of the dike was more than a square mile of enticing mud. If the flock headed over the dike, they would be totally lost to me. The odds did not seem particularly favorable.
At this moment, I should point out that stints are a group of small sandpipers from Eurasia, and any one of them would therefore be a rather remarkable bird to encounter in Snohomish County, Washington. Additionally, the reddish-orange on this bird’s head limited its identification to two species, Little Stint (which is more from western Eurasia) and Red-necked Stint (from eastern Eurasia). Looking at their breeding ranges, one would think that Little Stints would wander only to eastern North America (they are regular migrants through Britain and very rare in Japan) and that Red-necked Stints would occur only in western North America (indeed, Red-necked Stints have bred in Alaska). However, there are a surprising number of records of Little Stints from the American Pacific Coast as well as a number of records of Red-necked Stints from the Atlantic Seaboard. The latter probably migrated from Asia across northern North America to get to North America’s Atlantic Coast, hence the far greater number of records from the US Atlantic Coast than from heavily birded Great Britain; but I digress, and this topic deserves its own article.
At first, the entire flock remained behind the small clump of sedges. Slowly, as they felt safer, one after the other would wander into view, pecking and probing the mud for dinner. All except one. The one with the orange-red head. Occasionally, I’d glimpse that orange through the sedges, confirming that my earlier views were not some injury-induced hallucination. After about 3 days, well probably 3 minutes in real time, the stint tentatively poked its head into full view. I held my breath, waiting for the fates to push the Killdeer alarm button… but the treasured silence persisted. I allowed myself to exhale. As I did so, the stint backed up behind the sedges once more. Its comrades, of course, paraded about without apparent concern upon the open mudflat. Yes, I was feeling picked-upon. My heart continued to race. Would I actually get to see the bird or would the dice of destiny come up snake eyes?
A few more days -- okay, minutes -- passed before my red-headed amour finally appeared again. The orange-red was evident as was the presence of markings on the chest. The location of these spots and streaks relative to the orange-red provides one of the key features that allow identification of the two species in question. In the horrid lighting, it was nearly impossible to tell where the marks and coloration lay in relation to each other. The markings seemed within the orange, pointing to Little Stint. There are a number of other, albeit mostly subtle, distinguishing characters. And as I prepared to assess these, the Killdeer detonated. The stint leaped into the air with its comrades and flew over the dike and out into the bay leaving me motionless, at least externally. Internally, I was seething with a hundred curses hurled at generations of Killdeer.
For 30 minutes I dithered about, hoping that the peeps would return. Nada. As time ticked past, I began to worry ever more over my dinged shin. Finally, the wise part of my brain took control, and I departed the marsh to seek medical care. At my car, I unwrapped my home- made bandage to re-assess the damage. When the tissue was dispatched, the underlying wound had been cleared of debris; what stared back at me from the wound’s depths was glistening white periosteum. In other another word, bone, or more precisely, the layer of material that covers bone. I sighed. This was not going to be a quick suture and run.
When I arrived at the walk-in clinic, the staff was most disappointed that the bandage had been dispensed with, but they were most satisfied to have a wee sight of exposed bone added to their day’s events. These types of wounds aren’t sewed up, even if they occur in a clean environment and haven’t been dragged through a mucky marsh for hours. Infection would be nearly guaranteed. Instead, gentle irrigation (to flush out dirt and bacteria) followed by gentle packing is the standard. It took weeks for the hole to close and the resulting scar is now is part of a collection of such marks upon my lower legs; tattoos that label me “Klutz.”
As for the stint, it returned and was seen later that day and for a couple days thereafter. In good lighting, other observers were able to see key marks well, and the bird was identified with fair ease as a Red-necked Stint, later to become the second accepted record of that species for Washington. As for that festive gathering at the walk-in clinic, well, my partners still refer to that as “Steve’s Shindig.”
On of my true birding passions is studying the juncos that visit my feeder in Ashford, Windham County, Connecticut. Since realizing that this common wintering species and locally uncommon nesting bird can show a wide variety of plumage characters, I have been hooked on cataloguing the range of variation exhibited by Slate-colored Junco (Junco hyemalis hyemalis).
A bonus has been finding an occasional Oregon-type Junco in wintering flocks in Connecticut. On 14 January 2008, while photographing a beautiful presumed hatch-year female Oregon Junco (J. h. oreganus) at my feeder, I found one, and then another, junco exhibiting characters that indicate probable hybridization with another common wintering and locally uncommon nesting species, White-throated Sparrow (Zonotrichia albicollis).
What first attracted my attention to these birds, two of about 50 juncos using my feeders, was the presence of a pale throat. Typically, Slate-colored Juncos show a throat that is the same color as the breast. It should be noted that hatch-year birds sometimes show a slight paling in this area. One of these birds showed an extensive pale area below the chin that extended to the top of the breast. It also showed faint sub-moustachial marks reminiscent of those shown by White-throated Sparrows. The other bird showed a similar but less extensive white area on the throat. Both birds showed spots in the supraloral area, again similar to where a White-throated Sparrow shows yellow.
Both birds showed white tips to the lesser coverts and limited dotting on the greater coverts that formed dotted wing bars resembling those shown by the genus Zonotrichia ('crowned' sparrows). These were different than the white edgings that form wing bars in some Slate-colored Juncos.
These birds also showed brownish streaking dorsally and one showed buffy coloration to the bib and had one greater covert feather that looked similar to a Zonotrichia covert. These birds were not captured so age and sex determination would only be speculative.
The one previous Junco X White-throat hybrid I have seen in Connecticut looked much more like a White-throated Sparrow. That bird, found and photographed by Bruce and Kevin Finnan , was the White Memorial Foundation feeders in Litchfield, Litchfield County, Connecticut during the winter of 1999.
As noted above, both Slate-colored Junco and White-throated Sparrow are locally uncommon breeders Connecticut. The nearest known nesting sites for either species is at Boston Hollow about eight miles north of my home. It is conjecture, but the presence of two birds suggests that they may have come from this area and are the product of limited mate selection for these two species.
Presumably, the words in the title of this piece caught your attention. That was certainly the case for me when I arrived home from work last evening and found them in the subject line of several posts to to IN-Bird--the statewide birding listserv for Indiana.
A subscriber to that listserv had posted images of tern (photographed in Texas) that they were having difficulty identifying. Unable to find a perfect match in the Sibley Guide, one respondent concluded that the overall structure and plumage of the bird best matched Sibley's illustration of a Royal Tern. Only one problem, it had an all-dark bill that appeared to have a light tip.
Several other posters suggested (correctly) that the bird was a Sandwich Tern, while someone else thought it might be a Gull-billed Tern. Ultimately, Sibley’s illustrations were called into question because he showed Sandwich Tern with paler wingtips and tertials and than those shown by the bird photographed in Texas. It was at this point that someone suggested “Sibley is lousy.”
Until you've worked on developing a field guide, or tried to illustrate birds, it might be wise to avoid casting too many stones. In my opinion Sibley's artwork is a step forward from the illustrations that are featured in various other North American field guides. Surely, some of his species are not letter perfect, nor do they look exactly like the live bird in front of you. However, I find that Sibley's paintings are better than most in terms of capturing the subtleties of shape and proportion and his colors seem to be very accurate.
Just yesterday, I referred a fellow Oregon birder to Sibley's dowitcher plates. His renditions of a juv. caurinus (western subspecies) Short-billed Dowitcher and a juv. Long-billed Dowitcher are excellent in my opinion. If you want to learn how to separate juvenile dowitchers without having to hear them call, the two-page set in his original big book is a perfect place to start your education.
One of the limiting factors to a field guide (if one expects to have their guide used) is size. Typically, they are designed to fit in a large pocket. Given these size constraints, field guide authors have to make thousands of decisions about what to include and what not to include. By default they cannot show every conceivable variation in plumage.
Complicating matters is the fact that a bird's plumage is never static. On some level, molt, wear and bleaching are going on constantly. Combine these factors with the infinite number of lighting conditions we may encounter and the limitations of our own eyesight and it's easy to understand how our mental image of a particular bird is somewhat subjective. Unless you are birding side-by-side with Sibley, you are unlikely to see a bird the same way he sees it. Even if you have the good fortune to share his company in the field, your eyesight and his are different. Additionally, you will not share the exact same viewing angle, adding yet another variable in the way each of you perceives an individual bird. I find it astonishing that any of his illustrations match my mental image of the species they depict. The fact that someone can take paint and paper and produce illustrations of birds that depict what I'm seeing is a marvel. I can't even draw the outline of a bird in proper shape or proportion, let alone start filling in the colors.
At BirdFellow.com, we are currently designing an online field guide. In addition to slightly lengthier species accounts, we will be building extensive photo galleries for every North American species. By doing this, we hope to capture many of the subtle transitional plumages and seasonal variations that will never appear in a printed field guide. We are of the opinion that there is a place for both painted illustrations and photo galleries, but the Internet lends itself to photo sharing and we will not be governed by the space limitations that dictate so many of the editorial decisions one is forced to make in producing a print field guide.
I have to thank those who engaged in the IN-Bird discussion for inspiring this piece. It is not meant to be critical of their questioning of David Sibley's artwork. On the contrary, I feel it is important that we think out loud about how our community is being served by these resources and figure out ways to make the next generation of field guides even better. In their time, Roger Tory Peterson's field guides were the gold standard, but very few of us use them now. New technologies and new information will likely have Sibley's guides collecting dust on our bookshelves in a few decades as well.
On many occasions, I've been among those who criticized certain aspects of one field guide or another. However, since taking on a lead role in the ongoing production of the BirdFellow online guide, I have new found appreciation for folks who undertake such endeavors. I can't begin to wrap my mind around the thousands upon thousands of hours that David Sibley has devoted to painting all the plates that appear in his guides. I suspect that Sibley would be the first to tell you that his illustrations are not perfect. But "lousy?" Hardly.