On a Clear(cut) Day…

I’m born and raised in the Pacific Northwest and went to school back in the day when educators explained to us that clearcut timber harvesting mimicked the natural succession forests go through.  In a timber economy, the only way to restore a forest after harvest was to cut everything, scrape and burn to bare soil, then re-plant.  We were told it was nature’s way; good for the land and good for the wildlife.

That is, as any honest ecologist will tell you, utter nonsense.  We clearcut forests to replace unruly, mixed-age, high diversity forest ecosystems with even-aged, easy to manage, higher profit mono-cultures.  In other words, we replace wild spaces with tree farms.  None of the conifers in these plantations are likely to be allowed to live past 50 years.

I am not a big fan of the practice of clearcut logging.

Most of Clatsop County is one giant industrial tree farm on a tight timber harvest rotation driven by the timber market.  Spending the day in clearcuts, most of them anyway, is not a particularly interesting or productive way to spend one’s time.  But not all timber harvesters are equal in their practices.  Those managers that leave the slash-piles and a scattering of stumps, and snags and nurse trees, create a window of opportunity for wildlife in a recovering clearcut.  Somewhere between year three and year seven, when the shrubs and forbs have filled in the gaps between the stumps, but the newly planted conifers have not yet taken over, there is an ecologically diverse sweet-spot.  I spent my day in one of those spots today…

Western Bluebird - 6/5/2015

I spent just over 2 hours exploring the area along Beneke Creek around mile-marker 4.5.  This is a spot near Jewell off hwy 202.  I found a total of 30 species of birds, plus five species of butterflies.  I also discovered nesting HOUSE WRENS in two spots, a GRAY JAY and a pair of WESTERN BLUEBIRDS that had moved into a cavity in an old stump.

Western Bluebird - 6/5/2015

That stump probably pre-dates the most recent clearcut and represents the stand of trees that was cut 40 or so years ago.  There are stumps in the area that were probably left from two harvests ago, 80 or 90 years…

Silver-spotted Skipper - 6/4/2015

This spot will almost certainly follow the same pattern I’ve watched at other spots.  The conifers will grow up to cover the area, shading out the undergrowth in a dense impenetrable tangle.  Most of the species I saw today will have moved on and there won’t be many other kinds of birds and butterflies to move in.  The ecological reality is that the Oregon Coast Range does not have many species that are adapted to densely planted, even-aged, conifer mono-cultures.  I’ll be obliged to move on, too.

My day-list at eBird

I have seen the future, and it works (about 90% of the time)

I noted on the eBird news page this morning that they are promoting their new Merlin ID app. This is a (currently web only) bit of photo recognition software for bird identification. Those of you who watch police procedurals on the TV are no doubt familiar with facial recognition software which can (at least on the TV) compare photos of suspicious characters picked up on surveillance cameras with a database of known faces and spit out the name of the perp and his last known address in seconds. Well, the Merlin app does the same thing except with birds and, during the beta test, for only 400 common species in North American.

So, is a computer as good a bird-watcher as I am? No, and we covered this ground way back in 2011 when I mused about the ramifications of a computer named Watson winning against two Jeopardy champions. Merlin is a specialized search engine, nothing more.

But how does it fair as a specialized search engine?

The claim is that it can identify a bird in a photograph 90% percent of the time. That’s mighty bold talk, so naturally I set out to test it. The instructions tell us that “High quality images of birds in typical poses work best, but feel free to try any image of a common North American bird. You’ll help us learn how Merlin performs.” Naturally, I went for marginal photos in unconventional poses. I mean, what’s the use of ID software that can only identify perfect photos of stuff in perfect poses?

Let’s see if you all are as good as the software. My first photo was…

wavi20150505ss003Typical pose, but the beak obscured. Merlin got it right.

Merlin failed on the second try, but it turns out this one isn’t on the current list of 400. In fact, the shorebird list is missing quite a few species. This is the beta test though, so I can’t fault the machine for guessing Short-billed Dowitcher.

Hudsonian Godwit - 5/16/2015

The next one is also not on the list, but I don’t know how Merlin got to Cackling Goose from the photo.

Black-headed Gull - 1/28/2015

It did put the right bird in the top 3 choices for this next photo, however, and given that it is an immature gull, that’s arguably better than the average birder would do.

Ringed-billed Gull - 8/7/2014

For birds that were in the database, the software managed to get 8 out of 10 of the birds I threw at it. It missed the leucistic Red-winged Blackbird and Orange-crowned Warbler that had its middle-third obscured by a tree branch. That’s not too bad, but as a “local expert” who gets photos of leucistic blackbirds and blurry or partially obscured warblers routinely, I have to say I don’t get the feeling this software will be diminishing my load of emails, yet.

I suspect that any controversies that result from software like this, once it finishes the bench tests and fills out its database, will revolve around fairness issues. It will be thrown into the pile of technology vs no technology arguments that birders have with one another. The capacity to take a photo with one’s smart phone, plug it into an app and let the search engine do the ID’ing does seem kind of like cheating, but I’m old school. I don’t even own a smart phone and I don’t see myself throwing away my 300+ field guides and getting a smart phone any time soon…




“…that and $3.50 will get you a 16oz mocha at the Yellow Dog in Hebo.” ———————————————————————————-– American proverb (var.)

I’ve been bird-watching for a very long time. I have some measure of experience and even what might be considered a reputation (the specifics of which probably vary depending on who you talk to). I have what the kids call street cred, I guess.

One of the things experience has taught me is that EVERYBODY makes mistakes and that NOBODY should be allowed to get by on their reputation or experience alone. That’s why I’m always harping on the importance of written details or photographs. The experienced birder knows the importance of details and understands that being asked to provide them is nothing personal. There are nearly 7 billion people on the planet. Not everyone is up to speed on my reputation…

So when I encounter a statement in the rare species description box on eBird that says “I’ve been a birder for 20 years and have seen many…” without any mention of what the bird looked like, I know I’m not dealing with a truly experienced birder.

This brings us to the dilemma. As an experienced birder living in Clatsop County, I know the common species and the rare species in my home patch, but when I’m traveling elsewhere, the depth of my knowledge regarding avian biogeography becomes less dependable.

I stumbled into this chasm just last year when I reported a Black-capped Chickadee in the Bend area [Central Oregon]. Black-capped Chickadee is very rare in Bend, but very common here at home. When I reported the sighting to eBird, it flagged as rare, but it didn’t occur to me when I was making the observation that I might be dealing with something unusual. No photographs, no in situ written description, only my experience…

Yes, I have plenty of experience with Black-capped Chickadees. Yes, I’ve been birding for 45+ years. Yes, I have a reasonably good reputation for not being too stringy. None of that eliminates the possibility that I may have depended too much on expectation and personal bias; that I may have made a mistake. My experience tells me that I have to consider the possibility that I have made an error, reconsider the report and make some decisions:

1. Can I recalled enough details about the observation to provide clear field marks and a location so others might follow up on my claim? If so, those details go into the description box, not my birding resume, and if those details are lacking…

2. Can I return to the place where I saw the bird and collect more data? Photographs? Recordings? Drawings and written details? This is my favorite option. I enjoy testing my claims by gathering more data when my observations fall short of confirmation, but this option is not always feasible, especially when I’m on a traveling schedule (or the bird in question is). Which brings us to the last option…

3. I may want to consider demoting the observation to “chickadee sp.” on the eBird checklist, perhaps with a note in the details box explaining that it was originally identified as Black-capped, but details are insufficient to eliminate more common species.  This was the eventual fate of my Deschutes County Black-capped Chickadee.

That last choice is a hard one for some folks. Admitting to uncertainty takes courage. In a hobby that is all about putting names on birds, uncertainty might be taken for a sign of weakness or a lack of competence. It also means that I won’t get to keep Black-capped Chickadee on my eBird list for Deschutes County and those numbers are ever so important in the listing game.

Mountain Chickadee - 7/10/2014

But here’s the thing: eBird is first and foremost a crowd-sourced data base for collecting quantitatively useful data. It needs to have some mechanism for filtering potential error. I need to rein in my ego and accept that the editor for Deschutes County may have more experience than I do when it comes to the local chickadees. I am obliged to document those events that contradict his experience or let my claims go. That is something experience has taught me.

The personal list-building thing on eBird is cool and kind of useful, but it is not the main point of eBird. It’s a byproduct. Besides, if we really care about the credibility of our personal lists, shouldn’t we also care about whether what say we saw really was what we saw?

Let’s use those rarity flags as a tool for personal growth; as a means of growing our experienceness…

Another motorless adventure

Steve Warner found a HUDSONIAN GODWIT yesterday at Wireless Road.  I thought it might make a nice addition to my motorless list, but low tide was about 7:30 this morning meaning that it was more likely that the bird would be out on the mudflats than in the Wireless cow pastures in the morning.  A walkabout that included both the mudflats and Wireless was not practical, so I pulled out the trusty bicycle, filled the tires with air and had myself a bike-about.

My bicycle allows me to cover more ground and it’s also far easier for me to schlep my spotting scope and tripod around.  I made two stationary counts from the Youngs Bay Bridge and walked the dike at Warrenton.  I found RED KNOTS and a RUDDY TURNSTONE on the flats, along with about 200 WHIMBREL, but no godwits of any description.

The tide was turning, so I figured it was time to head toward Wireless.  The Lewis and Clark River Bridge is currently closed which meant I’d have to backtrack across the Youngs Bay Bridge to get there.  The large Whimbrel flock had moved into the field across from the old wireless radio facility (now just a cyclone fence) and it only took me a couple minutes to find the Hudsonian Godwit.

I also managed to find a WILLET.  It turns out that I’ve seen more Hudsonian Godwits in the county than Willets (though Willets winter annually in decent numbers up in Willapa Bay about 45km north of Youngs Bay).  The LONG-BILLED CURLEW, which has been hanging out in the area since April 25, was also in the pasture.

My motorless bird count for May currently stands at 94 species and my count for the year is 133 species.  Willet, Hudsonian Godwit, Ruddy Turnstone and Red Knot were all new species for my motorless life-list which brings it up to 209.

New personal motorless Big Day record

I did not start out this morning to set any records.  The goals were simple, as I always try to keep them: take a walk, see what you can see.  Today I was hoping to add LONG-BILLED CURLEW to my walkabout list.

The Astoria Walkabout South route begins at my house includes some Astoria Ridge forest and neighborhood habitats, but mostly covers the pastures and wetlands around Wireless Rd.

Round-trip, the route is about 13km and takes about 4 hours.  This past week the shorebirds have been migrating with the usual, ridiculously large numbers of WHIMBREL moving around between the pastures at Wireless Rd and the mudflat on Youngs Bay.  Hanging out with them are MARBLED GODWITS, BLACK-BELLIED PLOVERS and a mix of small Calidris sandpipers.  A LONG-BILLED CURLEW was seen at Wireless yesterday and I thought it would make a good addition to my over-all walkabout list.

Long-billed Curlew - 4/25/2015

The day was overcast with an expectation of rain by 11:00.  I took my umbrella along.  It was not the kind of day one would normally choose for breaking records.

The Long-billed Curlew flew over embedded in a flock of about 50 Whimbrels at around 10:00.  My final Whimbrel count was over 600.  My final shorebird count was 13 species.  When I got home and tallied up the full day-list, I discovered I’d seen 74 species.  This is my best single day species list for a motorless birding trip.  My previous best day walking was in the low 60’s and my best day with a bicycle was out to Ft Stevens for a total of 72 species.

Of course, calling it a big day is a bit presumptuous given that I didn’t get started until after 8:00 and had 12 hours left in the day when I got home.  I could have probably run up another half-dozen species, if I’d been motivated to do so.  I opted for a nap instead.

My day list is posted HERE.

the color challenged among us…

One of the many joys of having big migrant flocks of WHIMBRELS visiting the lower Columbia is the opportunity to spend time admiring the variations within the flock.  There are big ones and small ones, bright ones and dull ones.  There are variations based on age-class, gender and where they are in the process of molting.  None of those things explain this bird…

Assuming this is a Whimbrel and not some odd Asian stray (and there are no Asian curlews that are this dark) it is what the folks with letters after their names like to call melanistic.  Melanism is a genetic abnormality that produces more than the expected amount black pigments to be deposited in the feathers (and skin).

Most folks have probably heard about albinism (and leucism) which interferes with the deposition of feather and skin pigments leaving feathers looking white.  Melanism is the other extreme.

You’ve probably noted that this bird is not completely black.  This may be because there are different kinds of melanin, Eumelanins which produce blacks and grays and Phaeomelanins which produce browns and reddish colors.   It seems likely that the Eumelanins are being over-expressed in this bird, but the Phaeomelanins are not.  That’s just a guess though.

Also in the herd today was a particularly pale Whimbrel.

The plumage problems for this bird are more difficult to diagnose.  It could be that this bird is showing some incomplete expression of Phaeomelanins, producing an oddly pale individual, but I would not discount extreme feather wear, though the pattern is kind of odd for that explanation.

When sorting through birds in migration, these types of abnormalities tend to jump out at the observers.  A perfectly natural reaction is to try to make these into some kind of rare vagrant, but rare things are called rare for a reason.  When we encounter odd outliers within a herd, we should always take a deep breath, carefully observe and consider the funny-looking common species option…

The phenological margins

We are creeping up on the exciting part of spring when stuff starts migrating north to breed. The excitement of finding species, newly arrived, can sometimes lead to misidentification. Every season somebody, somewhere identifies something too early for the expectations of those with more experience. Purple Finches are called Swainson’s Thrushes. Orange-crowned Warblers in their bright breeding duds are called Yellow Warblers. Western Wood Pewee or Common Nighthawk turn out to be starlings.

The study of seasonal patterns in nature is called phenology and it is fairly well studied in birds. Birds in migration can be remarkably predictable. Those of us with lots of years behind us have a pretty good grasp of regional expectations.

But we don’t know everything…

If one doesn’t go looking for a bird until it’s expected, there is a chance early arrivals might be missed. And there are remarkable differences in arrival times and species densities between coastal, inland valley and Columbia basin locations. When I first started looking at Rufous Hummingbird phenologies 20 years ago, I was surprised to find as much resistance to the idea of east/west variation in timing as I did. Now days a simple check of the graphs on eBird show these differences quite cleanly.

Some of the imprecision in our understanding of these finer scale differences in timing are an artifact of observer distribution. The Willamette Valley has a higher density of observers, so the precision with which we can make claims about arrival times is greater. These differences also have the potential for creating biases. If a records reviewer hails from the valley, he or she may be evaluating records from other places based on experiences and expectations from the wrong part of the region.

For example, if we look at Cassin’s Vireo occurrences in Oregon. This species is invariably noted earlier in the Willamette Valley than elsewhere.

Cassin’s Vireo is rare in Clatsop County, but when it is noted, there is an obvious lag. Cassin’s Vireo detections in Clatsop County are probably an artifact of spill-over birds at the peak of migration. One would not get a particularly good picture of the leading edge of Cassin’s Vireo migration from Clatsop County data and folks from the Valley would be quick to correct me if I tried to claim valley Cassin’s Vireos were early based on experiences on my home turf.

This brings us to Hermit Warbler. I reported Hermit Warbler from Coxcomb Hill twice this week. I reported them to eBird where they are listed as rare. The reviewer asked me for details on the first report. I expect to start finding Hermit Warblers at Coxcomb Hill and Shively Park here in Astoria beginning in mid-April. It didn’t occur to me that others might think this was early, and was a bit surprised when the reviewer said the bird I saw was too early and asked for details. Then again, I am probably the only person looking for Hermit Warblers in Clatsop County in the second week in April. They nest 5 blocks from my house. They are the most common forest warbler in the county during the breeding season. My experience level with Hermit Warblers is almost certainly different than that of the eBird reviewer. HE WAS NOT WRONG TO ASK.

I went out the next day and easily found another singing bird too far up in the treetops to photograph, but my camera can record sounds.

If you don’t own a copy of Stephenson and Whittle’s Warbler Guide (2013) that sonogram probably won’t mean much to you, but this guide is full of, among other things, comparative sonograms of every warbler in North America. I know Hermit Warblers when I hear them, but producing a recording and a sonogram now means you (and the eBird reviewer) don’t have to take my word for it. We have a really good reference on the book shelf.

If we look at the eBird abundance graph for Hermit Warblers, it turns out that Hermit Warblers are much more abundant along the North Coast and appear to arrive at least a week earlier than they do in the Willamette Valley based on current data.

One might even argue that Valley detections are (perhaps) an artifact of spillover during peak spring movements through the Coast and Cascade Ranges in the same way that Cassin’s Vireo detections in Clatsop County represent spillover as birds move through more vireo friendly habitat in the Valley. That argument is, at this point, entirely hypothetical. The only way to get a proper answer is to collect real data. So, if you think you’ve seen or heard a bird too early for the experts, take a picture, record a song, collect some evidence.

My experience in the field means something, but so does the experience of other people in other parts of the State many of whom have taken on the irksome task of reviewing data. At the end of the day, reality still hangs on the quality of the data we provide not our credentials or our age in birder-years.

How many mockingbirds?

I stopped by the Astoria “mockingbird spot” this morning to follow up on a report I received on Saturday.  Wintering mockingbirds have been reported in the same 3 or 4 block radius since 2011.  I found it sitting on a power-line immediately upon arrival.

What I noticed about the bird today was that it seemed duller with less distinct wing-bars.  I suspect this individual may be a 1st winter (second-year) bird and if so, it cannot be the same bird that was here in previous winters.

The bird that was seen in the winter of 2011-2012 showed prominent white wing-bars and appeared to be an adult.

We sort of assumed the bird seen in the winter of 2012-2013 was the same bird, though looking at it now, I wonder…

A mockingbird was reported in the winter of 2013-2014, but I never seemed to be able to find it and have no pictures.

So, are there multiple mockingbirds turning up at the same little piece of real estate each year?  Is it something about the spot?  Is there breeding going on?  Shall we chalk this up to coincidence? range expansion? a fiendish plot by pet-trade mockingbird importers?

I don’t know, but we got used to scrub-jays on every corner, Black Phoebes and Red-shouldered Hawks.  Maybe mockingbirds are the next new normal…

Golden Eagle redux

Today while out at Brownsmead with the Lower Columbia Birders, I saw another GOLDEN EAGLE.  This was not the same bird I reported earlier in the week.  This one was a younger bird with bright white wing patches at the base of the primaries and secondaries…

Photo by Susan Boac, used with permission

Last week’s eagle was a second year bird.  Why was it not a Bald Eagle?  Well, it showed the “golden” nape and crown, barred secondaries and a broadly banded tail.  And it had a decidedly un-Bald Eagle profile.

As I mentioned in the last post, I had never seen a Golden Eagle in Clatsop Co. in 27 years of looking.  Why all of a sudden two in the space of a week?  I can only speculate and speculate I shall…

It is calving season at Brownsmead and lambing season.  There are placentae and still born animals in the fields.  Brownsmead farmers are shifting from Dairy farming to beef production and so the numbers of newborn calves is on the increase.  This may entice Golden Eagles to linger long enough to get noticed.

There may also be prey availability issues in other parts of their range (if this is true I’m sure someone will chime in).  Reduced access to prey elsewhere may be pushing Golden Eagles to stray farther from their tradition ranges.

Then again, maybe we just got lucky this year and lined up decent weather and timing with something that happens every year, but got missed by chance…

At any rate, I now have GOLDEN EAGLE on my county list…

Go ahead, talk me out of it…

I have never seen a GOLDEN EAGLE in Clatsop County.  I’ve chased plenty of reports.  All but one (a rehabbed bird at North Coast Wildlife that I only saw photos for) have turned out to be mistakenly ID’d juvenile BALD EAGLES.  I am thusly very skeptical of claims of Golden Eagles seen on the lower Columbia.

Today, I’m pretty sure I saw a Golden Eagle and I have bad pictures, blown out by the sun for evidence…




So what do y’all think?  Am I just another punter misidentifying Bald Eagles?  or have I bagged another Clatsop Co. jinx-bird?