Christmas Bioblitz – 2016

Yesterday was the last day for making observations for the first annual Lower Columbia Christmas Bioblitz and I’d say it was a successful first try.  Thirteen observers managed to collect 433 observations representing no fewer than 203 photo-documented species (several observations are still floating in unidentified-status limbo).

Not surprisingly, the majority of observations and species recorded were birds (115 species, 55.3% of all species noted).  Bird species of note include: Emperor Goose, Long-tailed Duck, Northern Mockingbird, and two oriole species.  But birds are easy…

Bullock's Oriole - Seaside

Bullock’s Oriole – Seaside

The best photo-record has to be the Bobcat caught on a trail camera near the North Coast Wildlife Center.  The most interesting critter was a photo record of the wreck of glassy-looking tunicates, Pyrosoma atlanticum at Cannon Beach.

Bobcat – Photo © barlin, some rights reserved

A spring or summer bioblitz will tend to favor plant species.  What I discovered collecting plant records this time of year is how many I could not find, at least not as recognizable specimens (only 28.3% of species recorded were plants).  I couldn’t find Jaumea in the salt-marsh and the Salicornia was all withered and sad looking.  The same was true of forest plants.  Lichens and mosses, however, were easy to come by, but difficult to get identified (and before the inevitable corrections come, I know lichens are algo-fungal or cyanobacterio-fungal symbiotes, not plants).

Cladonia botrytes – Netul Trail, Lewis and Clark NHP

Many thanks to those who contributed to this effort (even those who did so by accident).  If you have photos taken between Dec 15 and Jan 5, but haven’t yet posted them, the iNaturalist system will still add them to the event based on the observation date.  And if you can help by identifying some of those lichens and mosses, please drop in to give us a hand.

Have a little faith

There are certain birds, regularly occurring birds, that I don’t normally go chasing.  They are birds that seem to evade me when I deliberately search for them, but turn up routinely when I’m looking for something else.  They are species that insist on being karmic surprises and include longspurs and Snow Buntings, kingbirds, Palm Warblers and most especially the fabled Callithumpian Duck.

But the other day I broke with protocol and went chasing the callithump reported at the Cannon Beach lagoons.  It had been there for two days.  How could I miss?

The Cannon Beach lagoons began their existence as sewage treatment settling ponds.  At the time they were built they were progressive, beyond state of the art in many ways, most notably for the presence of a bird viewing platform at the north end.  But times and technologies change.  Now most of the treatment is done at a facility in the southeast corner and the ponds function as reservoirs for storage and overflow rather than primary treatment.  The good people of Cannon Beach have built a walking path around the perimeter of the lagoons and ducks abound.

Northern Shoveler - 11/21/2016

I arrived late in the morning and there were ducks aplenty on the ponds.  At least ten species, but the target bird was nowhere to be seen.  After about an hour of not seeing the thing I was looking for, idle speculation began to intrude.  Could these other observers have misidentified a molting Ring-necked Duck? an odd Bufflehead? or one of those funky looking Canvasback?

It is easy to be cynical in a world that seems to have become increasingly cynical.  I have always been prone to cynicism, even in the times before it became fashionable.  I see my cynicism as a weakness, not a strength, and I work not to conflate honest skepticism with my cynical streak.  The possibility of error is always there and hypothesis testing and retesting to confirm are essential elements of the scientific method.  But lack of evidence is not evidence against and blaming my inability to find a bird on unsupported claims of possible error by others is something other than honest skepticism…

In the process of scanning and rescanning all the ducks in those ponds, I came upon a different duck…

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At the time, I figured it was a molting Redhead.  This is another duck on that list of birds I only seem to find when I’m not looking for them.  Had I not been putting in that extra effort scanning, I probably would have passed this off as a distant Ring-neck.  The search for one thing lead to another unexpected thing?  compensation for that alleged Callithump?  Karma?  I was too far away for proper photos and I had not brought my spotting scope along, but have since had the chance to examine all my mediocre photos and now suspect it is a hybrid Redhead x aythya sp. (most probably Canvasback or Ring-necked Duck).

But back at the ponds it was still a Redhead.  I gathered up my stuff in the gloom of an impending shower and headed back to the car.  And on the way back, entirely by accident and perhaps because I’d stopped looking, I noted…

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Hearing is believing…

A while back, I was out salamandering with Neal Maine and my daughter Michelle at Circle Creek.  I heard some chickadees and kinglets in the canopy and began tooting like a pygmy owl to see if I could draw them closer.  Much to the surprise of our group, I got a pygmy owl response.  We worked our way toward the call hoping for a photo opportunity.  What we found instead was David Bailey tooting like a pygmy owl and looking for the one he thought he heard coming from our direction…

That was not the first time I thought I was on to an owl, but discovered something else.  I’ve identified all sort of things as owls: chipmunks, Western toads, pigeons.  I once chased a call I was certain was a Long-eared Owl only to find a very uncontented cow.

Bird ID by sound can be tricky, in part, because many sounds can be imitated.  We imitate owls.  Jays imitate hawks.  Starlings imitate all sorts of things.  Then there are all those nearly-the-same calls.  I was pretty sure I was hearing a Swamp Sparrow at Wireless Rd the other day only have a Black Phoebe pop up (I’m still getting used to the idea of ubiquitous phoebes).  Weeks earlier, I thought I was hearing a Black Phoebe only to have a Swamp Sparrow pop up.

Swamp Sparrow - 10/28/2016

Which brings me to metadata.  For those of you unfamiliar with the term, metadata is data about the data.  Adding the statement “heard only” to the details of a record would be an example of including metadata.  It tells us something about how the data was obtained.  I routinely add “heard only” to records when I think the information might be relevant to reviewers.  In most cases, it’s probably not relevant.  Most of the Golden-crowned Kinglets I encountered are “heard only” as are a majority of Fox Sparrows.  I do a lot of ear birding.  Listing all the heard only kinglets as “heard only” is probably over-kill and I would take it as a given that most Virginia Rails records are “heard only”.

However, If I heard a Eurasian Wigeon in a flock of American Wigeon without actually seeing it, I would probably note that it was heard only.  Same with flyover American Pipits or a golden-plover.  I will probably also continue to note Clatsop County Long-eared Owls as heard only until I actually see one.  I think it is useful to those using the information I share.  I have no control of the value judgements they might make as a result.

On the other hand…

There was a time when not hearing the Tropical Kingbird you were watching meant you probably shouldn’t count it as a Tropical Kingbird (how could you possibly know it was not a Couch’s?).  Now that they’re annual on the coast in the fall and no longer subject to records committee review, nobody much cares whether you heard the Tropical Kingbird you claim, but you still better have auditory evidence if you go claiming a Couch’s.

Tropical Kingbird - 11/2/2015

Some birds are best identified by the noises they make and with all the recent splitting of cryptic wrens and flycatchers, heard only will have a much higher value than “seen only” for a growing list of taxa.

There is nothing wrong with “heard only”.  I am absolutely certain that I was within 20 ft of a Least Bittern at Malheur.  I listened to it for hours, but never saw it.  It is one of maybe a half-dozen birds on my life-list that I’ve never seen.  Yellow Rail, Highland Tinamou, Three-wattled Bellbird and a couple of species of Costa Rican wrens are all dutifully noted as “heard only”.  I also have “heard only” Blue Monkeys on my list from a hike up Mt Mulanje in 1983.  I view the “heard only” notation as important metadata that adds color my experiences.

I do not view the inclusion of “heard only” as devaluing or qualifying my certainty in my ID’s or the quality of “heard only” ID’s made by others.  There are plenty of other more precise pieces of metadata I can and do add to express my uncertainty in what I think I’m seeing…or hearing…

Avoid temptation…

The weather over the last couple weeks has pushed a great many RED PHALAROPES inland.  Hundreds are congregating in coastal puddles, river estuaries and sewage lagoons.

Red Phalarope - 11/28/2016

Most of us probably don’t get to see a large sample of phalaropes at one time. There is impressive variation in what they look like, some mostly gray, some gray and black, and some are strikingly dark.

Red Phalarope - 11/21/2016

One might be tempted to turn some of these dark outliers into a different species of phalarope.  Resist the temptation.  Hatch-year Red Phararopes start out dark and streaky.  They molt into their more characteristic gray plumage in the first basic molt.  This will leave the primaries and much of the head feathering dark.  We can’t depend on the ratio of dark to light feathers to sort one kind of phararopes from another.

Red Phalaropes have sturdy bills that are pale (usually yellowish) at the base…

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…and show very white underwings in flight.

Red Phalarope - 10/16/2016

Red-necked Phalaropes should have moved on by now with their needle fine, all dark bills and patterned underwings. So, if you find yourself tempted to call one of the phalaropes you are seeing something other than a Red Phalarope make sure you’ve looked at the whole bird.

Duck and cover

About 2 weeks ago, a COMMON SCOTER turned up in Siletz Bay, Lincoln Co.  This is the second North American record for this species since it was split from Black Scoter in 2010.  In the bird-listing world, this is a big deal that has attracted continent-wide attention from the birding community.

I have been watching the action from about 120 miles north via the rare-bird report function on eBird.  I get a dozen or so alerts per day from folks adding their list to the pile.  As of Monday morning, 151 lists had been submitted containing a record of the scoter and 139 of those list were marked as “complete” lists.  Of the 12 lists that were submitted as incomplete, 5 listed the Common Scoter only.

You may recall that I put some energy into critiquing birder behavior back when the TUNDRA BEAN GOOSE turned up at Nestucca NWR a couple years back using eBird listing data.  Well, I’m back…

cosc_chart02The good news is that the mode has shifted and the average list shows increased effort toward birding the place rather than the bird.  Perhaps the emphasis on complete lists instituted by eBird managers is paying off.

But here’s a more frustrating graph…

cosc_graph03

This is data taken from the all-years bar chart for Lincoln County on eBird, broken down by weeks in November.  When most of us look at an abundance bar chart, we assume that the thickness of the bar equates to relative abundance and the key on the eBird bar chart confirms this: narrow = rare and wide = wide spread.  A novice (or some non-birder agency resource manager) reading this chart might conclude that Common Scoter is as likely as Harlequin Duck and more likely than either of the scaup species and make unwise assumptions as a result.

I don’t know enough about the underlying programming that goes into building these charts, but it seems to me that there is a fundamental miscalculation at work here that fails to take long-term data volume into account.  All those years when a Common Scoter was not reported in Lincoln County do not seem to be considered when building an abundance chart.  The old-school mechanism for solving this problem, from back in the day when we built bar charts by hand, was to replace the data point on the chart with an R (rare) or an A (accidental) in these special cases.  I suspect that a clever programmer could come up with a new-school fix that would serve to broaden the accuracy and utility of these charts.

Playing dice with the universe

We live in a universe where all things are possible, though most things are highly improbable.  We often mistake the high odds for or against something happening for certainty.  Nothing is certain.

The birth of my daughter Michelle was an improbable thing.  We were too old when we started.  We spent quite a lot of time and money fighting the odds and we beat them.  Within days of her birth, she began to exhibit a weird thing with her eyes that the pediatrician thought might be hydrocephaly.  What are the odds?  We prayed that it would not be so.  It turned out it wasn’t.  A week later she was diagnosed with a completely unrelated protein disorder that makes it difficult for her to metabolize branch chain amino acids.  She showed no outward symptoms.  It only showed up in the bloodwork and, then, only on the margin of the statistical curve.  We prayed that she not be afflicted with a disease that could impact her intellectual capacity and general health.  It turns out that the one in a million chance that she’d have the protein disorder was trumped by the even less likely probability that she had a form of the disorder that could be easily managed by diet alone.

We call these low probability outcomes miracles and we shouldn’t let the math get in the way of celebrating them as such.  I believe in miracles, because I live with one.  And I don’t dismiss the possibility that prayer works, because I have prayed and had my prayers answered.  I’m also human and we humans rationalize the irrational.

I don’t pray very much, because I believe that we celebrate that divine purpose for the universe we call God by doing good works.  I practice what I call Zen Deism and believe we should thank God with our good deeds, not empty words and the hope of divine intervention.  I save my prayers for the big ticket items – healthy children, healthy planet, healthy universe, but I believe these goals are achieved through my actions, not passive pleas to the only thing greater than ourselves.

Whatever the outcome of the recent presidential election, someone will break out the word miracle.  Many will claimed that the outcome was produced by divine intervention and prayers.  I won’t be able to argue against that notion, but I would argue that getting cancer or being struck by an asteroid is no less miraculous than beating cancer or having that asteroid miss us.  We color our perspective with hubris and self-interest.  Hubris and self-interest will be the death of us.  We all have expiration dates.  At some point miracles fail the individual, probably because they were never about the individual to begin with.

Albert Einstein, the source for the quote that titles this essay, was both architect and skeptic in the creation of Quantum Mechanics.  He recognized the predictive power of the statistical math that describes a quantum universe.  He also believed in a purposeful God and could not fathom a universe that was so seemingly random at its core.  But we find God through the miraculous, those low probability statistical outcomes.  We ask God for miracles and we deny God when the miracles break in the wrong direction.  We have the temerity to claim that miracles are a reward or a punishment.  We take them personally.  The miracles we witness may well speak to a higher purpose for the universe, but our ability to define that higher purpose is certainly lacking and some miracles, like the Cretaceous comet that killed off 75% of all the living things on Earth and in turn brought about the rise of intelligent shrews, should serve as a warning to all of us about how we interpret a miracle.

We do, after all, continue to live in a universe where all things are possible, but most things highly improbable.  And sometimes we have to live with the consequences…

I heard the news today…

I was out salamander hunting this morning on the Shingle Mill.  While standing along side the road, a pick-up came by with a couple guys in it.  The driver had a semi-automatic rifle on his lap with the muzzle pointed out the window.  They had assumed I was mushroom hunting.  They asked me if I was having any luck.  I explained that I was looking for salamanders then asked if they’d had any luck hunting.  We chatted a bit about shooting stuff and then they drove on.

I am not a hunter.  I do not own any firearms.  I’m pretty sure, however, that much of what these two gentlemen were doing was illegal. I am, as always, willing to stand corrected.  Even if the law says it’s okay to drive down the road with a loaded semi-automatic weapon on your lap, muzzle pointed out the window – presumably to make shooting roadside deer more efficient –  even if  that is perfectly legal – encountering guys with guns on a deserted logging road is always a bit unnerving and has become even more so these days.

I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised by guys with guns in pickups disregarding laws.  It turns out that there are no longer any rules about firearms – only 2nd amendment solutions. Stand your ground laws impart more rights to the guy carrying a gun than the folks around him who are not.  I can (apparently) take my guns (if I had any) and march into a government office, threaten the employees and occupy the place for as long as I wanted and, as long as I could make the case that it was a spontaneous act of civil disobedience – no worries about accountability.  This assumes, of course, that I am not a Native American defending sacred tribal lands or a person of color with an interest in policing policy in my community.

The news today that Ammon and Ryan Bundy were acquitted of all charges in the armed occupation of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge last January has put me in a pretty dark place.  Given all the other troubling stuff that’s been going on over the last year, this is not the kind news I needed to hear.  I’m having trouble not going down into that dark gloomy tunnel of abject, why bother? despair.  But I’m going to try…

It’s hard not to be afraid in these frightening times.  The Bundy armed occupation of a government facility was an act of terrorism and when it can be dismissed as a mere act of civil disobedience, it’s hard not to give in to the scared little voice in my head that says hide, run away, stay safe, hide.  Acts of terror are meant to be terrifying and I am terrified that these behaviors are going to spill over into polling places, school houses and public gathering spaces.

But…

Somebody famous once said the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.

Somebody else famous once wrote: I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.

Fear is the mind-killer and that is what the bullies and terrorists in this world are counting on.  We must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off and keep on keeping on.

But it got a little harder today…

I can see for miles and miles…

One or two of you may remember that a little over a year ago I had my car broken into and lost a lot of stuff including two pair of binoculars, the telephoto lens for my camera and my venerable old Bushnell Spacemaster spotting scope.  I was able to replace everything with insurance money, but the new Spacemaster and tripod I bought were stolen a couple weeks later out of my car either while it was parked at home or at Fort Stevens.  I bought a used Leupold Sequoia, but it was not a very good instrument.  It was dim and did not focus very well.  I took to depending on my Zeiss Terras for everything including most seawatch efforts…

…until this last weather event drove me to make a change…

I decided to spring for a new spotting scope and started looking at instruments in the range of $500 to $700.  I had my eye on a Kowa standard 60mm which was going to run me just over $700 with the lens and was just about to put it in my shopping cart when the Nikon Prostaff 5 82mm popped up in the “people also looked at…” section.  The reviews were all very positive and it was $449 with the eyepiece.  It usually runs $600.

It came in the mail yesterday.  I took it out to the North Jetty today.

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I went with 20 to 60 zoom and spent most of the time today at x30.  I spotted several jaegers, two Short-tailed Shearwaters and a fulmar.  I haven’t had that much fun on a seawatch in a while…

It’s much bigger than a Spacemaster, longer, and the 82mm objective is, well, huge, but it is lighter in weight.  The eyepiece end is also large, but the telephoto is remarkably clear and comfortable to look through all the way up to x60 (though I don’t see using that very much).  And it takes a clean digiscope from just holding my Nikon D7000 up to the eyepiece.   I’m very pleased.

Now I just have to make sure I don’t give the car thieves any opportunities to take my new toy away from me…

Lapland Longspurs

Every year, beginning in mid-September, the Lapland Longspurs stop along the Oregon Coast on their way from their breeding grounds in the Arctic Tundra to points south.

Lapland Longspur - 9/15/2016

One of the best places to find longspurs in the fall migration is the Salicornia flats at parking lot C of Fort Stevens State Park. In a typical season, small flocks of up to 20 can be found feeding on the seed of salt marsh grasses and plantagos. In some years, the numbers are much greater. I remember one season, years ago, when I estimated a flock of nearly 300. Nobody believed me…

Yesterday Owen Schmidt reported a flock of about 70 at the the flats. He had photos. I went out today to see if they were still around and found that the flock had grown to more than 100.

Lapland Longspur - 10/8/2016

Lapland Longspur - 10/8/2016

My best shot of the whole flock hits the middle.  I count 76 in this photo and it does not represent the entire group which I reckon would be another 40 or 50 birds.

Lapland Longspur - 10/8/2016

I suspect the flock will remain as long as the weather stays icky and may even grow in size as more birds drop in.

On safari: Circle Creek Conservation Center

The folks at the North Coast Land Conservancy have nearly completed a raised boardwalk as part of their effort to create a publicly accessible trail system at Circle Creek just south of Seaside.  The trail starts at a building complex at the Conservation Center, tracks north through a flood plain restoration then along the base of Tillamook Head and through a wetland area we’ve been calling the Magnolia Patch.

20160912sm118This deciduous edge habitat is heavily used by migrating song birds, especially in the fall and the Magnolia Patch got its name from the Magnolia Warbler that showed up in 2004.  The general area has hosted many interesting vagrant birds including a Broad-winged Hawk, Eastern Kingbird, several vagrant warbler species, Rose-breasted Grosbeak and just today a funny-looking tanager that was quite possibly a Summer Tanager.

The big brush pile and garden areas around the buildings at the south end always have plenty of activity and would probably keep the average birder busy.

…but to properly explore Circle Creek, one needs to take a walk.  The beautiful map on the message board in front of the barn will point you in the right direction for the Wetland Walk Trail.

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Most of the birds moving through now are Nearctic migrants that will be spending the winter here – lots of kinglets and chickadees and sparrows.

But the bumper crop of crab-apples is attracting other species as well, so the walk can be quite birdy.

Anyone who would like to bird-watch at Circle Creek is welcome.  You are asked to sign the liability form inside the barn before your walk and please, no dogs.

September photos from Circle Creek can be seen at iNaturalist.