Sunday, February 20, 2011

Great Backyard Bird Count

This weekend is the annual Great Backyard Bird Count where innumerable birders from all over the country count birds in their "backyard" and submit their findings to the Cornell lab of Ornithology. Like the Christmas bird counts, this is a way to build a data base on the status of bird populations in the U.S. at various times of the year. My top photo is of one of my bird feeding stations, and the next one above is of one of the creeks on our land which is lower than normal for this time of year due to the drought conditions here in NC this winter.

I have been checking out our birds over the past 3 days to see what is around, including going for a walk with my sister this morning. We found nothing unusual but there were a fair number of our normal winter birds: robins, redwing blackbirds, eastern bluebirds, american crows, and blue jays in the dairy pastures; carolina chickadees and wrens, tufted titmice, american goldfinches, house finches, and juncos around the feeders; pine warblers, and brown-headed nuthatches in the pines; hermit thrushes, red-bellied, downy and pileated woodpeckers, plus northern flicker and yellow-bellied sapsuckers in the woods; winter wrens along the streams; and a pair of canada geese at our pond.

The photo above of a white-cheeked pintail (bird in center of photo; click on any photo to enlarge it) was taken last fall at Pea Island NWR. Bob Ake, his wife Joyce, and I met up to see this bird even though we had little hope that it would be accepted by the NC bird records committee as a wild bird. I spoke about this acceptance issue in my blog at the time, and did not count the pintail in my year total. Well, as predicted, the bird records committee met in January and voted 9-0 to reject the pintail because of unknown origin.

For birders, the unknown origin is like a catch 22. Because the powers that be in the birding community can not generally prove without a doubt that a bird is wild, they assume most birds that are far afield of their normal breeding or wintering areas, or migratory paths are domesticated birds that have escaped. Since the white-cheeked pintail is a bird of the Caribbean, and because it can also be a domesticated duck, unless it shows up in southern FL, it is almost never accepted as a wild bird. And even in FL many white-cheeked pintail sightings are not accepted. Now that the NC bird records committee has made its ruling, my white-cheeked pintail has been added to my list of birds seen last year but not countable.

In 1998 when Sandy Komito set the all time ABA area big year record, one of the very rare birds seen by him, and 1 of his 2 competitors (Al Levantin), was a xantu's hummingbird that "wintered over" in southern British Columbia. Since the xantu's normally winters in Baja CA, and had never been recorded in Canada, like my pintail, the xantu's was rejected by the BC records committee on the grounds of uncertain provenance. This bird is discussed in the book "The Big Year", but I do not know whether those birders dropped it off their big year lists once the BC records committee made their ruling.

This situation is one of many that birders deal with when it comes to their life lists, or big year lists. Since the various lists are all based on an honor system, each birder is left to determine how to proceed with any bird sighting. Most birders would never add a bird to a life or big year list without being confident that they saw and identified the bird.

One distinguishing feature of a birder's life list is whether all the birds were seen as opposed to a few only heard. In my case, my ABA area life list has only 1 bird on it that was only heard--the himalayan snowcock. This still counts, but most birders find it preferable to have no heard only birds on their list. For big year purposes, heard only birds are acceptable but again not preferred. In 2010 I ended up with 4 heard only bird species (boreal owl, black rail, bicknell's thrush and the snowcock).

As I have discussed in earlier postings, for the lower 48 states there are about 650 bird species that a good birder should be able to find during a big year. Any others become more iffy because of how rare they are in the lower 48 states. In this modern era of digital photography, wherever possible I would assume that a big year birder would prefer to have photographic proof of the birds seen, especially the rarer birds. If photos can not be taken, then having other quality birders on the scene when a rare bird is found is a good fall back because you have more eyes confirming your own sighting.

But even with photographs, a very rare bird may not be accepted. For example, last year Bob Ake, a Virginia birder, completed the 2nd best full ABA area big year with a total of 731 birds seen. One of his birds was photographed at Gambell on St. Lawrence Island, AK. None of the birders there were certain of the species, so the photos were sent around the world for review. The consensus was that the photo was of a Blyth's reed warbler--a North American first record. Bob just told me yesterday that the Alaska bird records committee did not accept the sighting because there was no "specimen", that is, a dead bird to examine. So even with witnesses and photos, Bob now has to decide what to do about counting this bird on his big year list.

I have a variation on this issue with my big year list that surfaced this week. When I was birding in northern CA in December with my friend Wes Fritz, we saw 4 rare birds together. One was the brown shrike that has kept birders going to northern CA for several months now to get this very rare asian species. Another was a slaty-backed gull that only Wes and I saw, but were not able to get photos of. The third was an immature gyrfalcon seen by Wes, Martin Meyers and myself. Martin got a few photos, but not very good ones. Wes and I were able to study it at close distance on a telephone wire but did not get a photo before it flew off. The 4th bird was an arctic loon that was seen at a distance in 2 scopes by Wes, Bob Ake, John Spahr and myself. Again no photos were taken.

In the case of the slaty-backed gull, I have seen this bird in Alaska. Wes and I found it mixed in with 2-300 gulls feeding in a field. We did not get a photo before it flew away, but it matched all the key field marks, so I counted it on my list.

In the case of the gyrfalcon, the bird first flew over us chasing a huge flock of blackbirds and starlings. We chased after it and were able to briefly study it on a telephone wire before it flew off across a field. We had gone looking for it that day because other birders in the area had reported seeing what appeared to them to be a gyrfalcon 2 or 3 days earlier. Also 4 or 5 days earlier a gyrfalcon had been reported from Crescent City which is about 85 miles further to the north of Eureka and Arcata. In comparing visual notes that day, Wes, Martin and I all believed that we saw an immature gyrfalcon. As a result, I also added the gyrfalcon to my list.

As for the arctic loon, one had been reported from Stone Lagoon 2-3 weeks prior to our sighting. Local birders said that an arctic loon had been seen on Stone Lagoon in recent years. I have seen arctic loons in Alaska. Bob and John had seen arctic loons in Alaska last year during their big year. All 4 of us believed that the bird we were looking at had the right field marks for an arctic loon. We drove around the lagoon to try to get a closer look, but were unable to relocate the bird. In the week after we saw the bird, 3 or 4 other birders also reported seeing an arctic loon at Stone Lagoon. As a result, I felt good about having put an arctic loon on my big year list.

But this week I heard that the birder who first reported seeing an arctic loon had submitted very distant photos of his bird to the CA bird records committee, and that its initial findings were that his bird was not an arctic loon. There is no way to know if the bird he saw and photographed is the same bird we looked at, but since his photos were not accepted it raises the question whether we made a "good call" on the loon we found at Stone Lagoon.

Wes has never been to Alaska, and was not doing a big year so pursuing a CA records committee submittal without a photograph of our sighting would not be productive. Bob and John had already seen arctic loons in AK for their big year lists so any doubt about the bird we saw together is not an issue for them. That just leaves me pondering what to do about keeping the arctic loon on my big year list. For now I am sticking with our initial "call" since it was consistent with my yearlong process of confirming sightings and adding birds to my list.

Since I am home talking about the Great Backyard Bird Count, it also means I did not end up going to Newfoundland this weekend. I could not make the travel schedule work with a trip I had already planned this coming week to go to Texas. It is too bad since not only did the birders who went see yellow-legged gull, but also a common snipe which if accepted will be the first seen on the Atlantic side of the continent. Maybe the yellow-faced grassquit that has been down near Corpus Christi, TX will hang on until next weekend when I could make the drive down from Austin to see it. Stay tuned!

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Rusty Blackbird Blitz

The past 2 weeks birders all over the southeast and as far west as Texas have been out looking for rusty blackbirds in an effort to collect wintering ground info on this species. According to Christmas Bird Count (CBC) data, the total number of rusties reported 40 years ago was around 1 million birds, but recent CBC's have reported only a total of roughly 20,000 rusties. So the rusty blackbird blitz is underway to try to understand why there has been such an apparent alarming collapse in the numbers of rusty blackbirds.

Last fall I began to check the areas near where I live here in Chapel Hill that historically have had rusties. My birding buddy Pam and I found 1 singing male last November, and then a group of 7 females on New Year's eve day. We went looking again over the past 2 weeks, but in a total of 3 different searches, we found only 1 rusty. We were very disappointed because last year's data indicated that 150 rusties had been seen in our search area. With no photo of a rusty I instead have posted the one above of an American robin since we are seeing lots of them at our neighboring dairy farm this week--remember you can click on photos to enlarge them.

I had been expecting to be doing a post this week about my planned trip up to the very tip of the Gaspe peninsula in Quebec to see a fieldfare that has been there for about a month. This is another of the rare European or Asian birds that have shown up in North America this past winter. I was going to fly to Manchester, NH and then drive another 15 hours with my birding friends Dan and Doreene to look for the bird. At the last minute I had to cancel my trip due to a pressing business matter here at home. The good news is that my friends did see the fieldfare, and I will get to hear about the trip when I see them in May in Ohio.

The bottom photo above is of a margherita pizza that I ate yesterday at the Bella Mia coal/wood-fired oven pizza place that opened last summer in Cary while I was out doing my big year. As those who have followed this blog all last year know, one of my goals was to try many wood-fired pizzas around the country. Until Bella Mia opened we did not have a high quality choice here in the Triangle, so I was extremely happy when my sister told me about it. We all tried it out for the 1st time about a month ago and I was delighted with how close it matched my experience of wood-fired Napoli style pizzas that I ate regularly the year I lived in Italy with my wife and daughter.

Since our first visit it was named the best restaurant in the Triangle in 2010 which of course has now made it tough to get in most nights. That is why Pam and I went at lunch yesterday as part of our rusty blackbird search. My only complaint is that it is a 30 minute drive from my house, but that is a world better than say flying to Phoenix to eat at Pizzeria Bianco, or Brooklyn to enjoy a pizza at Franny's.

I just received an email from a birding friend up in Seattle--John Puschock--letting me know that he had organized a trip next weekend to St. John's Newfoundland to look for some other rarities that have been found there this winter. I am mulling over whether I will make that trip. Stay tuned!