Thursday, February 11, 2010

I've moved.

I have actually migrated this entire blog to Wordpress, and you can find me and my more recent postings at Contact Calls, or Even though I had just done a revamp of this blogspot page, I soon remembered why I had let the blog atrophy a couple times in the past few years. I've always had trouble posting images to this blog, and getting them formatted and to display the way I wanted. Maybe other blogspotters don't have this problem, but I just could not find a way around it, so I checked out Wordpress and was pleased with their editing interface.

I still have to keep this blog at least for a while though, because the images I'm displaying on wordpress are still linked to blogspot. But I wanted to make sure people coming here realized that I am still actively posting elsewhere. So please come by and take a look!


Friday, January 22, 2010

Macaulay Recording Workshop

A few weeks ago Nathan Pieplow explained on his excellent blog Earbirding how he got into recording bird songs. In his post he also put out a call to arms as it were to his readers to go out and get more involved in recording as a means of making real contributions to the science of ornithology, and a couple weeks later he provided a short, off-the-cuff sample of the myriad of topics and areas of research that are still essentially wide open to study.

I took the posting very seriously, and almost personally. If you know me you know that I've been immersing myself the past few years in bird song, studying it continuously and spending more than just a few dollars on CDs and a few hours organizing my iTunes library to do my own systematic study of bird vocalizations. And I definitely have contemplated getting into recording. Every time I did though I tended to dismiss it however, thinking that people like Nathan and Andrew Spencer and the dozens of other regular contributors to basically have the situation covered, and that I'm just a little too late to the game to contribute all that much. I'd enjoy it as a personal pastime, sure, but I wasn't sure I could rationalize the initial expenditure on recording gear, and then later the other time and money expenditure on 'support infrastructure' needed to do justice to the pursuit. Think of it this way -- when you buy a nice new digital camera, say a Canon Digital Rebel XTi, you are effectively buying more than just the camera itself. You are also buying into batteries, memory cards, a laptop, a storage system, maybe a website subscription for posting your photos, basically all the things such a camera needs if you are going to use it on a regular basis. I just figured that going into sound recording would entail a similar approach, and although that itself doesn't scare me, it seemed like that wasn't something I should distract myself with right now as I am trying to finish my ongoing book project.

Well, I finally changed my mind, and have since reserved a spot in this year's Macaulay Library Recording Workshop out in the northern Sierra Nevada's in June. I didn't come to the decision easily, but I figured that it's an excellent deal, and if I ever do want to get into recording on a larger scale, I shouldn't just assume that this workshop will be around forever, at least not with this level of accessibility and affordability. Also, I've been toying with the idea of going back to graduate school (again), this time in something ornithological; if I ever do that, I'm definitely going to do something with bird vocalizations, ethology and field work. It'd be silly for me to pass up this opportunity to get some hands-on training and explanation from experts. Greg Budney helps teach the class, and he's a celebrity in the admittedly small circle of bird sound people.

Thanks Nathan for your encouraging words on your blog, and showing someone like me the way. I'm really excited about this class!

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Brushes With Greatness: the Snowy Owl

On Monday the 11th I left the house at 4 am and made the 2 1/2 hour drive from Fort Collins down to El Paso County, to search for the recently reported Snowy Owl that had been seen frequently in a subdivision northwest of Falcon, CO the day before. I was not sure of my prospects, knowing that this species can be quite hard to chase because of their nomadic qualities. Nonetheless, I felt that leaving so early would give me the best chances of seeing it if it were anywhere in the area.

I had wondered what the feeding habits were of the Snowy Owl, if these birds hunted at night. If they did, I felt like my chances were reduced, as the bird would likely forage away from this accessible area and head towards who-knows-where. My book "North American Owls" by Paul Johnsgard made no mention of their foraging styles, and the Birds of North America Online entry for Snowy Owl plainly states that it is "[n]ot known if these owls hunt at night, or even by moonlight, during winter darkness." Fascinating - and this is in fact typical of a fair number of species even here in North America, in that there is still a lot we don't know about how birds actually live.

I arrived at the subdivision (which I later learned is technically part of Peyton) around 6:40am. The eastern horizon was getting light, and I began my search in earnest. My plan was to go to the western portion of the network of accessible roads and scan the rooftops and antennas for large birds perch atop them, and hope to find silhouettes while scanning with my spotting scope. To my utter amazement my plan worked brilliantly, as I found a suspicious-looking character on a chimney/stovepipe vent some distance away within just 5 minutes. He didn't stay put for long, but he also didn't go far, as after a few minutes watching it became apparent that what he was doing was moving around from one perch to the next trying to improve his vantage points for finding prey in the open grassy fields surrounding the widely-spaced homes.

Eventually he found a nice TV antenna to search from.

After I took this shot, he launched again into a distant field, and for a moment I lost track of him. But he emerged again a minute later, and as I followed his flight in the scope I could see that he had something underfoot. I never got a clear look at it, but it was fairly large and dark, like a rat perhaps. That's all I could tell as I watched him start to tear into it from quite a distance. The light was increasing, and I set up my rig for digiscoping, which I hadn't tried doing for nearly two years. I hoped that I could just remember how to do it!


The light grew brighter as the sun finally peeked up from the horizon. I realized I could probably swing around and get a better-lit vantage point, and perhaps be a little closer. These digiscoped shots were made from about 250 yards if I had to guess, in very suboptimal light.

These next shots were made from the other side of the cul-de-sac, and the bird is in the same spot as before. I snapped about 2 or 3 dozen digiscoped shots, the vast majority of which were blurry. I blame the camera for most of that, but user error certainly played a part too. Still, a couple images came out ok. This time I was closer, and I estimate the range of these shots to be around 75-100 yards.

The next photo was taken with my handheld SLR and gives you an idea of what the actual distance between me and the bird was. This is fully zoomed out (300mm).

The bird had stayed put in this spot for over 40 minutes. Apparently after eating that large rat, he was fat and happy, and just digesting. A few other birders had arrived and all got terrific looks and photos from here as well. Finally, the bird flew a bit further westward to another grassy spot closer to a house and the road, and the several of us scooted the couple hundred yards along to follow. He perched with a residence in view behind him, which belonged to a fellow who later emailed me and asked for a copy of some of my photos.

At this point my remote shutter-release for my digiscope camera (an ancient Nikon Coolpix 995) had stopped working presumably due to the cold, so the only way I could take steady pictures with it was to use the timer. And that worked fine, although it also meant waiting 10 seconds every time I snapped a picture, and also not knowing where the bird would be looking when I snapped it. But then, as is the case with digital under any circumstance, just snap the hell out of it and see what comes out. Eventually I got a couple real winners:

After a few minutes here the bird flew across the road and into the field just south of us. It was quite a bit further away and in poor light, so my bird photography was done for the day. I needed to head back north to Fort Collins anyway, but I was thrilled about having seen this lovely animal under good light and mild weather. Here was the birder scene as of 8:30am:

The last photo actually has the bird in it too - you might zoom in though. Look for the small white dot in the middle of the field.

Heading back was the happiest 2+ hour drive I've had in quite a while. Not even the Denver traffic got me down. How many of those schlubs on I-25 had seen a Snowy Owl that morning? Not many, not many at all.

Friday, January 08, 2010

Trashing my ABA list

I'm about to do it. Yep.

I'm going to give up and throw away my ABA lists. I'm not going to maintain them any longer. I'm going to take the data contained therein and transfer them where applicable to other lists. But I will no longer recognize the "ABA area" as one worth keeping a list for.

I dunno. Is this a big deal? Seems like it. The ABA is a pretty big, established, prestigious organization, with a storied history. I've never heard of anyone else doing something like this - forswearing the bird checklist for the ABA. Or at least, I've never heard of anyone being as theatrical about it as I am. Still, the point stands - it's rare to trash one's ABA list, perhaps unheard of, except maybe by those who give up birding altogether.

So what brings this on? What's my story? Why am I pursuing this seemingly radical track? If you're thinking that maybe I have a beef with the ABA, you'd be right.

Well, let me temper that a bit. I don't really have a beef with the ABA per se. Actually I like the ABA. I'm a dues-paying member, and I eagerly await every issue of the magazine. What I don't like anymore is the ABA listing area. I've never really understood it, and I've reached a point in my birding and bird study that the more I think about it, the more ridiculous and nonsensical it seems. And in light of the ABA's recent decision to keep the ABA area as it is currently defined for no other reason than historical consistency, well, I feel the need to take up arms against a sea of troubles the only way I can and rage, rage against the dying of the light. Or at least breath life into mixed literary allusions.

Once again, I need to temper my rhetoric. Calling it an act of rage really overstates the case. I'm not really angry. I'm not really angry at all. But I do finally feel like I understand the situation well enough, and that I don't feel the need anymore to simply follow along just because it's easier, if I perceive something as redundant or overly contrived. In the case of the ABA area list, I definitely find it overly contrived, and essentially uninteresting. That many thousands of birders will certainly continue to keep an ABA list fascinates me, in the way that a slow-motion train-wreck is fascinating. Sure, you can't take your eyes off it, but you sure as hell don't want to be a part of it if you can help it.

About 5 years ago the only list I ever kept was a life list. Most of my birding had been pretty solitary, and I liked it like that. I never even thought of things like state lists or year lists even. I just figured that all there really was were life lists. But when I moved to Colorado and got to know other birders better, I came to understand the appeal and utility even of keeping many more lists. I joined the ABA, and of course started keeping an ABA-area list. After all, I wanted to fit in with the kool kids and be able to measure my progress as it were against other ABA members. I did note the ABA area definition at the time, but didn't really think about it much.

The ABA area is defined as follows:

The geographic area covered (sometimes referred to as the ABA Checklist Area) is essentially North America north of Mexico. Specifically, the area encompassed is the 49 continental United States, Canada, the French islands of St. Pierre et Miquelon, and adjacent waters to a distance of 200 miles from land or half the distance to a neighboring country, whichever is less. Excluded by these boundaries are Bermuda, the Bahamas, Hawaii, and Greenland. A subarea of the ABA Checklist Area, or other prescribed area, is as defined by its legal boundaries. If not legally defined otherwise, it includes adjacent water (rivers, lakes, bays, sounds, etc.) out to half the distance to a neighboring area, but not beyond 200 miles. Birds observed on or over an ocean are counted for the area having jurisdiction over the nearest land, if within 200 miles.

Basically, this boils down to saying the area includes mainland Canada and the continental USA (49 states). And that's it. Nothing south of the Rio Grande, no Hawaii (even though Hawaii is part of the United States of America, last I checked, unless the anti-Obama birthers recently took over the country), and no Greenland for that matter. But it does conveniently include any ridiculously remote islands that happen to be politically connected to a mainland continental political entity, like a US State. In other words, if a Eurasian vagrant like, say, a Common Nightingale lands in Kap Farvel in Greenland, that's not countable, but if one lands on Attu on the very end of the Aleutian Island chain off Alaska, then break out the champagne, we've got ourselves a new bird for our lists! Never mind that Kap Farvel is closer to Labrador and the Canadian mainland than Attu is to the Alaskan mainland. For the purposes of the ABA list, political boundaries are paramount, as is the peculiar artifact of Attu being not just US territory but technically part of the United States proper.

Which is fine. As part of the United States, Attu should have the benefit of having its bird list included with that of the rest of the country. In this way, what you see birdwise in Attu is as countable as what you see in Central Park in Manhattan. But what about Hawaii? What if that White-tailed Eagle leaving Kamchatka takes a wrong turn and instead of landing in countable Attu, it lands on Kauai? Sorry, as far as the ABA is concerned, a bird in Attu is more important than one in Hawaii, even though Attu is practically as far from North America as Hawaii is.

OK then, so we're keeping to islands that are at least connected geologically (if not so much geographically) to mainland North America. I get it. Attu is OK, but Bermuda is not. But then why is it that if I travel north of the border, I can count a Boreal Chickadee in the heart of British Columbia, but I can't count that Hook-billed Kite on the other side of the Rio Grande riverbank at Santa Ana in Texas? What is so magically important or different to the ABA about birds in Canada as opposed to birds in Mexico?

I certainly believe that people and even institutions are free to create and adhere to lists of whatever nature they like. That's our prerogative, one for all of us. But that prerogative says nothing about whether or not it makes any sense to follow it. And the more I think about the ABA area as it is currently defined, the less and less sense it makes. And to have an institution like the American Birding Association continue to ignore rather conspicuous parts of America, defined either geographically (Mexico) or politically (Hawaii) when it had the choice not to, makes me think that it's not worth keeping up a list for the birding area that they most proudly lay claim to. (note - link requires ABA-member password to access) The continuing insistence of allowing freaky Attu birds to count on an ABA list just because Attu has had some awesome vagrants just by conveniently being downwind of Asia, while the Bahamas are likely excluded because they will never be able to keep up with the Attu'ses birdwise, shows me that the ABA doesn't really have its priorities straight. But just because they don't doesn't mean I have to follow suit.

So instead, I'm going to convert all my ABA lists to AOU lists, and USA lists. I'm also going to integrate my Hawaii and ABA lists to create a USA list. (This won't be too hard for me, since I've not yet been to Canada or Mexico anyway.) I'm also going to forget ABA year lists, and convert those to US and North America lists. My ABA lists will be dismantled and forgotten, and I will instead focus on lists that make more biogeographic or more political sense. Continent or biogeographic regions, like say, North America, the Western Palearctic, or Australiasia make sense to me. Country lists make sense. State lists make sense. County lists make sense. Yard lists make sense. But does the ABA list make sense? Nope, not really. It never could decide whether it's a political or a biogeographic list, so it tries instead to be a mysterious hodgepodge of both. It's just there anymore because some people (OK, lots of people) are stuck in the past, and don't want to lose whatever sense of prestige gained from keeping a list based on such a strange definition.

And again, that's fine if that's what they want. They're allowed. But I'm allowed to call that kind of thinking ridiculous, and move on to something that makes more sense.


Sunday, June 29, 2008

Give me Gallinule

This is one of those topics that doesn't really matter a whole lot in the scheme of things, yet seems to bring out the strongest and most fiercely guarded opinions - the names of things.

The species Gallinula chloropus has been a problematic one apparently with regard to its name, although for as long as I've been birding, I've known it as the Common Moorhen. I've been blissfully unaware of the history of the naming of this bird until recently, where I've learned that it used to be known as the Common Gallinule. In fact, on some web pages including the very Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology page that I referenced in the link to Common Moorhen, under Cool Facts, the last bullet item uses the old name 'Common Gallinule' whereas the rest of the page uses Common Moorhen. Obviously the content writer still hears the old name in his or her head.

But change is afoot again! Just last month the South American Classification Committee, a subcommittee of the American Ornithological Union, passed proposal #335 which will return the name Common Gallinule to the species. This will be a reversal of the naming convention adopted in 1983, as stated in the proposal's background section:
Gallinula chloropus was known in the W. Hemisphere as "Common Gallinule" in the 1957 AOU checklist but was changed to "Common Moorhen" in a Supplement sometime in advance of the 1983 AOU checklist. For more than a century prior to the 1983 list, it had been known as either the Florida Gallinule or Common Gallinule, but always a Gallinule. The change was a concession to the BOU to keep the "Moorhen" in the name; the species there had been known "forever" as the Moorhen.

The 'BOU' referred to here is the British Ornithological Union, which oversees among other things the English naming conventions for Old World birds, like those in Europe, Asia, and Africa. Gallinula chloropus is a wide-ranging species with subspecies in the Old World, and those birds have long been called 'moorhens'. There are also several other species of closely-related birds in the genus Gallinula, also commonly called 'moorhens'. Still, as the proposal states:

The breaking point for me came when, at the Neotropical Ornithology Congress in Venezuela this year, even the Spanish-first speakers were ridiculing it and using it as an example of an absurd common name. To make matters worse, the endemic Neotropical species of Gallinula still retains the name Gallinule (Spot-flanked Gallinule, G. melanops). The credibility of NACC as a body capable of governing English name usage was questioned. [Yes, I mentioned to them that this change happened before I was on NACC.]

Although most Old World Gallinula are now called Something Moorhen, two Australian species are called Native-hen, so the genus itself already does not go by a single English name.

The globalizers will go ballistic if we backtrack on this one, and there will be some who say that, heck, we've lived with Moorhen for 25 years and to backtrack now looks bad. I am reasonably certain, however, that the vast majority of our clientele, professional and amateur, will welcome a return to a better and historically traditional name. In fact, many of you may have noticed that many people refuse to use Moorhen in the field anyway except to fill out official checklists, and that many state game agencies retain Gallinule.

Makes good sense to me. Although I do have affinities for some bird names, 'moorhen' is not one of them. It has always struck me as a strange name, and I like that it now shares a common name with the Purple Gallinule, even though the latter species isn't even in the genus Gallinula. It visually makes more sense, given the similarities between the two North American gallinules.

And maybe it's just my naivete, but I am struck by the arguments against changing the name, made by a few of the committee members:

Comments from Stotz: "NO. I voted against this return to Gallinule in the North American committee, and I will vote against it here as well. I didn't like the change in 1983 and it took me a long while not to think of this bird as a Gallinule, but it has been 25 years now, and a large number of birders and ornithologists have never known it as anything other than a Moorhen.

Yes, and I am one of them. And yet, I love this name change, so please don't think you're doing me some kind of favor by voting against the name change in this instance! Honestly, it's this kind of argument that drives me bonkers: "Yes, we made a bad decision a while ago, but it's too late now to do anything about it, so let's ignore it." Good grief! You're the naming committee! That's what you do. I understand about the 'optics' of reversing a name change made only 25 years ago, but if it was a bad decision then, I see no problem of correcting it now. And really, of all the birds that people are likely to get huffy and defensive about, Gallinula chloropus is kinda low on the list. Are there really legions of birders who would 'go ballistic' by changing it back? Really?

NO. We made our bed, and we need to lie in it. Too many have switched to the dark side, but it would give our committee a lot less credibility if we whimsically switch back and forth without any real reason aside from personal opinion.

 This is another variant of the previous argument, but it does raise an interesting question, that of 'committee credibility'. I can at least understand the concern about name changes like this as it pertains to credibility, but again, as the proposal states, there are already state game agencies using the old term anyway, despite AOU official convention to the contrary. I really don't think the SACC is sacrificing any credibility here, because on the issue of Gallinula chloropus, they were being ignored anyway.

I think the worry here is way overstated, and that the gallinule-moorhen question is not going to be generalized and become a slippery-slope into ornithological common-name chaos like it is with botany. I think it is plain to see here that this is a very special case, and although it is a reversal of a position taken a short time ago, I really can't see it as having any significant impact on the seriousness with which the ornithological and birding community at large takes the committee's work. With all the highly technical taxonomic work they do, are there really people out there who would use the gallinule name-change as a reason to ignore, say, the removal of Saltator from Cardinalidae? I dunno.

In any case, this only applies for now to the South American lists - it has no bearing (yet) on the North American committee, until at least someone in the committee proposes changing its name to maintain consistency in the Western Hemisphere. But I would have to think that proposal will come within the next several months to a year, and after that we should start seeing 'Common Gallinule' back on the official state checklists and in bird guides. I'm fine with that, really.

I can understand the reluctance to change common bird names wholesale, for sure. I agree that there needs to be some measure of continuity, even if the current common name isn't fully accurate or sensible. But at the same time, that desire for continuity shouldn't rule out every single name change, especially when the change is actually to set it back to what many people are still using out in the field.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

The 5 Stages of Bird List Grief

I got back from a trip to New York City about a week ago. It was a cultural trip with my non-birding wife, and we mostly took in the big tourist sights like the Empire State Building, the UN, Brooklyn Bridge, Katz' Deli on the Lower East Side, the Natural History Museum, and even a couple TV show tapings. Great fun actually.

On the 3rd, we spent a good portion of the day in and around Central Park. I knew going in that there was some decent birding to be had in a few of the areas, so I brought my binos, "just in case". And I'm glad I did - even though I had to do my usual hemming and hawing to my wife about why I had them and why I wanted to go this particular route through the park. Fortunately, she's pretty accommodating, and I don't have to debase myself too much to get what I want.

We took a route through an area called "The Ramble", and just as we started to enter, I heard a sound that I'd never before heard in the field. But it was one that I had heard frequently on my "More Birding By Ear" recordings by the Peterson's Guide. It was an unmistakable thrush song, Bicknell's Thrush! Quickly I scrambled over to the area where the song was coming from, and not long after I got a few views of the bird in question. How exciting! I wasn't at all expecting to find this species on this trip, so what a great bonus to add to my newly-formed New York state list, which would only have a couple dozen species on it, but at least one new life bird!

One thing bugged me though - how did I know it wasn't a Gray-cheeked Thrush? Come to think of it, I had no idea what their song was like. Is it similar? Would either of these species be singing if they weren't on territory? Lots of questions, and few answers to be found in my NYC guidebook. Well, I had to wait until I got home to look this stuff up. I eventually got home and began my investigation.

And if you are a knowledgeable East Coast birder, you can probably imagine my disappointment when I realized that Gray-cheeked Thrush does indeed sound a lot like Bicknell's. In fact, there's only one really helpful sound trait you can use to separate them in the field. And I probably heard it too - the problem is, I didn't remember it! I wasn't even paying attention to those crucial notes at the time, because I hadn't bothered to study the two species before I left for the trip. Who'da thought I'd be hearing any thrush songs in Central Park?

At this point, I should have known that I wasn't going to be able to count this as a Bicknell's. But I wasn't ready for that. I had to go through the
K├╝bler-Ross 5 Stages of Grief first apparently.


Well, I tried ruling one or the other out, based on the likelihood of singing away from their breeding territories. I thought maybe I could just eliminate Gray-cheeked just because it was much further from its usual breeding grounds than the Bicknell's, which breed in upstate New York. If only it were that easy - Birds of North America as well as a couple different comments over email from knowledgeable East Coast birders informed me that either one could well sing during migration. And as far as field appearance goes, as good a look as I got, it wasn't nearly enough for me to see any clearly distinguishing traits. I knew it wasn't a Hermit or Swainson's, or even a Wood. But that's as much as I could say.


I felt annoyed that I may not be able to count this as a life bird after all. (I already have Gray-cheeked in Colorado and Florida.) The supporting evidence I had used so confidently to call this a Bicknell's was falling away, leaving only uncertainly and ambiguity. I had already gone to the trouble of adding it to all my lists! Like hell if I'm going to take it off again!


So, given that Gray-cheeked generally occurs on more days in May and June than Bicknell's, it's likely that I heard the former instead of the latter. Of course it isn't ruled out completely - part of me still thinks I heard a rising note at the end. So maybe it was a Bicknell's! How about if I take off a different species from my life list, like Robin or something? Wouldn't that balance things out?




Well, in the greater scheme of things, I'd rather add a life bird to my list knowing without a doubt that it was that species, instead of scurrilously adding a bird with doubt, just to pump up the list. I'll just have to make a dedicated trip up to the Northeast some day and look and listen for Bicknell's properly. Dang it.


Saturday, April 12, 2008

As always, this is awkward.

It's time for another of my "gosh, I haven't posted anything new in a while, boy do I feel like a schmuck" postings.

Until this morning I wasn't even sure when the last time I posted here was, but I see that it was over a year. I didn't even have anything new for all over 2007! In the back of my mind over this past year, I remembered Feather Weather and knew that I would have to come back sometime. It rankled that I was leaving it unattended and forlorn, and yet I never felt overly compelled to write anything new. As is often the case when I leave the blog, it's not because I have nothing to write about (although there are sometimes 1-2 week spans where I delve into other interests that have little to do with birds and therefore I feel there's nothing to offer in the short term), but because I go through phases where I convince myself that my next blog post ideas are too perfunctory to merit the attention needed to make them interesting. Even if I have other more interesting ideas in the pipeline, sometimes I think the blog has little or nothing to offer me, in lieu of what I'm actually doing or preparing away from the computer. What do I mean by that? I think I mean that if I don't really have a readership (and I realize that a readership comes about only through regularity of posting, and that regularity of posting for me comes through readership), I lose the kind of motivation I usually require to post some of those more perfunctory items, before I get to the other more interesting stuff that doesn't require as much of a kick in the pants for me.

In any case, the past year was plenty full of bird watching, and bird learning. I just didn't write about it. But it was there. And now the pendulum is swinging back again, and I'm feeling the necessity of articulating and recording, because some different and very interesting things are starting to happen now.

If I can just get over the perfectionist streak that often prevents me from posting anything that I don't consider artful or illuminating, I think I can post a lot more often. Perfectionism isn't always bad, but it is often the impediment to progress. As Voltaire once said, "The perfect is the enemy of the good."