Long-billed Murrelet?

On January 7, a murrelet was recovered from the driveway of a house in residential Hood River.  It was emaciated, but alive.  The bird spent several days in a facility in Hood River being stabilized before attempts to transport it were made to Astoria where personnel have more experience with sea bird recovery.  The bird died in spite these efforts.

My initial reaction to the first pictures which were provided last Wednesday was that it was a Long-Billed Murrelet (or maybe a Craveri’s we couldn’t see the back).  Subsequent side-on photos showed a bird with white scapulars and an extensive white collar.  The white collar is supposed to be a field mark for Marbled Murrelet.  A note from Kim Nelson, however, corrected this notion.  Apparently, the collar character is quite variable.  She said Long-billed Murrelet could not be eliminated, and pointed to the long-looking bill and well defined broken eye-ring as arguments in favor of Long-billed.

I made measurements and took a full photo series this morning.  Some of the measurements line up with Long-billed Murrelet, some favor Marbled:

                                      MAMU           LBMU
Exposed Culmen 18.3mm               13.0-18.3      17.9-23.1
Nares to tip   15.0mm
Bill depth      6.0mm                5.6-6.5        5.9-7.1
Wing chord  R 123.5mm  L 125.5       121-135        134-146
Tarsus      R  19.0mm  L  18.0        14-19          16-19
Tail           30.5mm                 27-35          31-38




I’m waiting for an opinion from folks with more experience than me, but it may come down to a DNA test…

If it turns out this is a Long-billed Murrelet, it will be Oregon’s third record and the first winter record.  Long-billed Murrelet records in North America frequently occur in weird places well away from the ocean.  That alone is an argument in favor of Long-billed.

If it turns out to be a Marbled Murrelet, its occurrence in Hood River will be unprecedented.  Marbled Murrelet records more than 50 or 60 miles away from salt water are extremely rare and inland winter records, even within their normal range, are unusual.  Hood River is 110 miles away from Puget Sound and 120 away from the Pacific Ocean.  That puts it at least 60 miles away from the nearest known breeding locations.  And unlike Long-billed Murrelets, Marbled Murrelets are not known for long-distance wandering.


Grenier, J.J. and S.K. Nelson. 1995. Marbled Murrelet Habitat Associations in Oregon. Ecology and Conservation of the Marbled Murrelet, General Technical Report PSW-GTR-152, USFS.

Howell, S.N.G., I Lewington and W. Russell. 2014. Rare Birds of North America. Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ.

Pyle, P. 2008. Identification Guide to North American Birds: part II. Slate Creek Press, Bolinas, CA.

Raphael, M.G., J.A. Younger and B.M. Galleher. 1995. A Landscape-level Analysis of Marbled Murrelet Habitats in Western Washington. Ecology and Conservation of the Marbled Murrelet, General Technical Report PSW-GTR-152, USFS.

Undisclosed location

Friday, while on walkabout, I was stopped 5 different times by people who I don’t know (at least not very well), but they know me.

“Aren’t you the bird guy?”  I am the bird guy.

The woman at the coffee shop wanted to talk about her nesting eagles.

The woman on the tractor wanted to know how many bird species there were in the area around the sewage treatment plant, because the city is thinking of putting in a dog park there.  The man with the Texas Lacy wanted to talk about that, too. They were hoping to use that information as a part of the campaign to stop the dog park (word is they did stop it, but probably not because of the birds).

And the two ladies with the small dogs wanted to show me the photos of the oriole coming to the bird feeder between their houses this winter.

I value the trust that these strangers offer me.  It is a gift.  People are sharing information with me.  A new eagle nest.  Activities that might have environmental consequences.  Unusual birds.  And I am obliged to use all that information responsibly.

This season we’ve had several interesting birds show up in yards.  When the Indigo Bunting showed up in Steve’s yard, he and I discussed whether he wanted a bunch of out-of-town birders standing in his yard waiting to see it.

He decided it was okay.  He was rewarded by having his home declared a Hot Spot on eBird so that anybody could find it even after the bunting was long gone.  His house is not a hot spot (unless you’re really into House Sparrows), nor does he want it celebrated as one.  Whoever it was who did this thing didn’t bother to ask.  It’s these little things that make birders unwelcome.  What we birders might see as a harmless exercise of our constitutionally guaranteed right to free assembly often comes off as an intrusion into the constitutionally guaranteed right to privacy for those who have had their neighborhood invaded.  If handled improperly, I might lose the trust folks seem to have in me and they will stop sharing information.  For me, the information’s value is in the biogeographical record and if they have a good, identifiable photo I don’t really need anything else and neither does the larger Oregon Birding community.  Anything more is a very special gift that they are under no obligation to offer.

So I have this discussion with every home owner who shares a special bird with me.  How comfortable are you with having visitors come see your bird?  And if they’re not comfortable with visitors, I don’t disclose the location, not even to other local birders.  I will occasionally ask if they know Steve or Lee or Susan and suggest that they consider selective invitations for people they know, but ultimately the decision rests with the home owners and they do the inviting.  I don’t argue.  I don’t negotiate.  I used to live two houses down from the Goonie House, I will always side with the home owner.

The location of the Bullock’s Oriole will remain undisclosed.  It’s been photo-documented by the home owner.  [I've seen the photos, but do not yet have copies to share].

The location of the Prairie Warbler will remain undisclosed.  It’s been photo-documented by the home owner.

Photograph by home owner, name withheld - used with permission

And a Long-billed Murrelet? Well if it should turn out to be a Long-billed Murrelet, the folks in charge of its recovery and rehabilitation will have the final say on when and how that bird is released and who gets to be there to see it.  Not me.  I won’t argue.  I won’t negotiate.  And I will back whatever decision they choose to make.

The problem with big-years

I once got a phone call from somebody over in Washington, inviting me to come look at a rare bird.  It was, if I recall correctly, a Brambling.  I declined.  When asked, “so, you’re not a lister?” I replied, “I am, just not a very good one.”

Every day, I go out and watch birds. I keep track of the birds I see on a checklist.  At the end of the year I compare my checklist total with previous years.  Every year I try to see at least as many birds as I saw the previous year, maybe add a new species or two, if possible.  What I don’t do is drop whatever I’m doing to go add a new species to my list.  I am unwilling to drive for hours just to see a single new bird.  And I have almost no interest in how my year-list compares to someone else’s list.  I genuinely don’t care.  So when I read the suggestion on eBird that folks start up local big-year competitions, you can imagine my reaction.

I have a lot of problems with competitive listing and nothing exemplifies those issues for me quite like the competitive big-year.  If you’ve seen the movie Big Year (based on a much better book), you saw three guys running around North America trying to see more birds than anyone else so they could become “the greatest birder in the world”.  I could spend hours on how wrong the concept that biggest list equals greatest birder is, but my real problems go deeper.

A big-year mindset moves all birders to the same locations rather than spreading them out.  Listers, generally, follow the rarities.  Rarities, by definition, are not broadly distributed.  This is not a “best practice” for folks trying to encourage the collection of useful data about birds.  We can use the TUNDRA BEAN GOOSE at Nestucca NWR as an example.

Note that no one was paying much attention to Nestucca prior to the discovery of the Bean Goose.  Most birders had no idea the place existed and needed directions to get there.  I stop there some mornings in August and September on my way to work at Mt Hebo and look for passerines.  It’s a reliable spot for WESTERN BLUEBIRDS and NORTHERN PYGMY OWL in the winter, but is generally too far outside my range for regular visits.  In other words, only locals go there…

In the last two months, 177 lists have been posted from Nestucca on eBird, but most of the folks who visit are there for the goose, they might note one or two other goose species that happen to be nearby, but they’re not birding the refuge.  A single, very rare bird is being reported over and over again and not much else.  On the eBird bar graph for Nestucca Bay NWR, this 5th record for Tundra Bean Goose in the lower 48 shows as more common than American Wigeon.

When the only goal is to pile up as many species as possible over temporal space of a year, many will choose to tick the Bean Goose and ignore everything else, because they already got those other species earlier in the year and don’t need ‘em.  Not best practice for folks trying to encourage data collection.

My mantra has always been: bird a place, not a bird.  A bird is under no obligation to stick around.  The big-year mindset equates missing the bird with failure.  Going for the biggest list and not getting the biggest list equates to failure.  But we can’t all be number one.  Most of us will be hard pressed to even make the top 100.  Competitive big-year listing sets most of us up for failure.  Not much point in sticking with birding if the goal is fundamentally unobtainable.  A focus on competition may not be the best way to grow the birder population (or submissions to eBird).

Most people who watch birds (and there are millions of us) do not have the time, the disposable income or the skill set to be competitive at a big-year.   We have day jobs.  We have families.  We have lives outside of birding.  We are not even close to being in the running for Greatest Birder Ever.

The best practice for most of us is to live in the moment and make every day a personal big-day.  Do our best every day to see everything we can see.  Fill up 365 days with bird lists and see what happens.  If, by accident, those days add up to a biggish year- well done.  Now move on to the next big day.

The lists we post to eBird will be all the more valuable, when we do.

Alcid wreck

I got a phone call from Steve this morning reporting a massive wreck of CASSIN’S AUKLETS along Gearhart Beach, presumably the aftermath of yesterday’s very wet storm series.  I went to Sunset Beach to see if there was anything similar to report there.  There was…

I began at the access to Sunset Beach and walked south for 1.5km.  It was near high tide, so there was very little exposed beach.  My count was:

Northern Fulmar     1
Western Gull        1
Common Murre        1
Rhinoceros Auklet   1
Cassin's Auklet   192
Ancient Murrelet    1
Scripp's Murrelet   2


note the white wing linings

Most of the species encountered were at background levels normal for the season, but 192 Cassin’s Auklets works out to 1 bird every 7.8 meters.  And the Scripp’s?  I’ve never seen this species before in 25 years of beach walking…

The small murrelets and auklets do not have a very good record for recovery at the Wildlife Center.  I picked up three and took them to the Wildlife Center anyway.  One was DOA.  The other two were being cleaned and dried when I left.  I also left the Scripp’s Murrelets in the freezer at the Center to be sent along to the University of Puget Sound for inclusion in their collections.

UPDATE: Later same day BROWN BOOBY recovered from Rockaway Beach.

and an OLIVE RIDLEY’S SEA TURTLE from Seaview, WA (photos from Seaside Aquarium 12/22/2014)

Olive Ridley's Turtle

It has its uses

As some of you may recall, I spent 2 years with the Peace Corps in Malawi, East Africa (1982-84).  I did not do a very good job of writing down specific details related to my adventures.  I was young and undisciplined and probably thought these magic moments would last forever.  The only thing I kept any kind sequential record for were bird lists which I kept in two notebooks.  Those notebooks, 30 years later, are in pretty sad shape.

So I turned to eBird.  Yes, you read that right.  I turned to eBird.

As some of you know, I have been critical of eBird in the past, particularly for its over-emphasis on competitive listing features and lack of tools which allow the average person to aggregate data at local scales.  But eBird has an international database, and the eBird data entry interface is much less clunky than the two commercial international database programs I’ve tested for my computer.  All the name change and list order stuff gets updated automatically by somebody else.  And most importantly to me, the data is available to others, which for a country that sees very little constant effort data collection like Malawi, may actually be useful.

So, over the last few months, I have been entering bird banding records and day-lists from my two years in Malawi.  I entered the last list yesterday evening: 114 list entries, 90 complete lists, 357 species, 2972 individual datapoints.  This is about 10 short of my claimed Malawi life-list, but I only allowed myself records that have a date attached to them.  I did not keep counts of individuals, so the records reflect species noted on any given day without species density data.

The process has also provided an opportunity for me to get back into the head of the 26-year-old me.  I was still working out a style for data collection.  I created short-hand names for common species and applied them with variable consistency.  I clearly misidentified things early on and corrected them later.  I began my time there with a single field guide, Birds of East Africa (Williams and Arlott 1981 reprint).  I can tell, from the changes in entries, when I got my copy of Roberts Birds of South Africa (McLachlan and Liversidge revision 1981) and the checklist style Birds of Malawi (Benson and Benson c. 1977), because I start using different names and “stopped seeing” certain species…

There is also an inexplicable gap.  Between January of 1983 and May 1983, I have no lists.  Not in notebooks, nor on any of the other scraps of paper that survive in the Malawi box.  During that period I know I took a trip (some of it by boat) to Northern Malawi.  This would have been in late-March and early-April.  I’m not sure why I have no material from that trip aside from a few photographs and a poem written on the boat.

I feel like a fifties movies
    on a slow boat, somewhere
I feel like I’m Richard Carlson
    on a slow boat… somewhere
Foreign sounds in my ears
    hanging in the musty warm air
I feel like a fifties movie
    on a slow boat… somewhere

I contracted malaria and spent time in the hospital soon after returning, but that does not explain the entirety of a 5-month data gap.  A mystery.  Something to keep me busy for the next couple weeks solving.

Once the data was entered into eBird, I was able to extract the entire data-file as an excel spreadsheet (though the file was all my eBird data, not a Malawi specific file) which will allow me to analyze relative frequency of occurrence data and possibly rudimentary phenological patterns.

Finally, the data in those two tattered notebooks has a digital backup, available to whomever might want to look at it, cataloged in proper taxonomic order, using names that correspond to our current, common understanding of what’s what.

and I can sleep easier…

A Monkey Puzzle

Yesterday, I saw my 5th TROPICAL KINGBIRD of the season while on walkabout.

At least 8 birds have been seen in the county over the last month or so.  There was a time when they were uncommon enough that the Oregon Bird Records Committee (OBRC) would request details from observers when they were reported.  They have become annual along the North Coast.  We might be inclined to make something of this trend in Tropical Kingbird occurrence and there’s probably stuff to be gleaned, but to get at the real stuff we will have to wade through a few potential observer biases…

The earliest published record of Tropical Kingbird for Oregon was in 1965 at Cape Meares, according to Roberson’s Rare Birds of the West Coast (1980).  Roberson also includes two additional mid-coast sightings from 1973.  Neither the OBRC nor Oregon Birds: a general reference (2003) include any Tropical Kingbird records for Oregon before 1976.  There are no known specimen records for Oregon.  Washington has specimen records from 1916 at Destruction Island off the North Washington Coast, Westport in 1927 and from Hoquiam in 1953.  All subsequent Washington records are from 1976 or later.  Almost all of these records are from the immediate coast.  Almost all of them from late-September through early-December.

Most birds seem to be closely associated with human habitations.  Here in Clatsop County, birds routinely turn up in the same spots year after year.   The neighborhood around Steve’s house.  The sub-station near the Yacht Club in Astoria.  There always seems to be a holly tree nearby and lately someone also suggested a relationship to Monkey Puzzle Trees (Araucaria araucana).

We humans put a lot of energy into looking for patterns.  Some of the patterns we think we are seeing may actually represent real stuff that’s going on, but some claimed patterns may be a product of selective bias: remembering the events that conform to our expectation of pattern and ignoring or even deliberately rejecting those events that do not conform.  It’s an adaptive behavior.  There was a time in human history when jumping to biased conclusions kept us from being eaten.

So, are the apparent changes in Tropical Kingbird numbers a real change in kingbird distribution? or a product of changes in observer coverage?  Are Tropical Kingbirds becoming more common in the fall?  Does the distribution pattern genuinely favor coastal locations?  Could there be a relationship between Steve’s house and kingbird habitat preferences? And what, if anything, do holly trees have to do with kingbirds?

Some of these questions are easier to parse than others.  For example: birder densities are greater in the Willamette Valley than along the coast.  Even so, Tropical Kingbird reports overwhelmingly favor the coast.

It seems pretty safe to say that the coastal pattern is not simply an artifact of birder densities, but what about the recent increase in occurrences?  The number of Tropical Kingbirds reported in Oregon and Washington has increased significantly, but the number of folks who actively spend time on the coast looking has also increased, beginning in earnest in the 1970’s, about the same time Tropical Kingbird reports become more common.  Can we separate one trend from the other?  Well, sort of…

If we stick with OBRC records, the first record north of Lincoln Co. was in 1986 and the second in1997.  I did not find Tropical Kingbird in Clatsop Co. until 1994 (and for some reason I did not send the report off to the OBRC).  By the early 2000′s, I was seeing them almost annually in the fall.  This pattern is very similar to changes for Red-shouldered Hawk and Black Phoebe (though the particulars of their phenological distributions are obviously quite different).  An increase in observers (and communication between observers) has probably had some effect on Tropical Kingbird records, but does not adequately explain the entirety of the trend.

Finally, Steve’s House, the corner of Hwy 202 and 5th St and the presence or absence of Ilex aquifolium.  Cities and towns create what are called urban heat islands.   Heat islands are good places to find flying insects even in colder northern climates.  Urban landscapes also have a variety of introduced plant species that provide sources of fruit not typically available in wildscapes.  It may be news to some, but kingbirds eat berries.  The bird in Astoria was caught on camera doing so in a holly tree.

I don’t think we have sufficient data to definitively associate kingbirds with urban heat islands and holly trees.  Correlation is, after all, not necessarily causation.  But there is circumstantial evidence that suggests these specific locations meet the needs of visiting Tropical Kingbirds and they may well preferentially choose them.  More observational data, both positive and negative, is probably required.

the dustbin of history…

It was the winter of 1982.  I had graduated from OSU the previous spring and was in between gigs; living at my parents house in Cottage Grove; supplementing my income two days a week at the Hyland Blood Plasma Clinic; waiting for word of my placement in the US Peace Corps.  I got myself some proper notebooks and began to keep track of what I saw while walking around Cottage Grove mostly just to keep busy and feel like I had a purpose.  I had not yet discovered the bird bander’s 4-letter code and took to a short-hand mix of real bird names and birder slang in my note taking.  It turns out, 30+ years later, that may have been a mistake.

I can figure out most of the birds (at least I think so), but one has me baffled.

That last bird on the list, chasu, I don’t remember what that is.  It would have to be something relatively common or I wouldn’t have a slang term for it, but I quite honestly don’t know what it is.

Kachasu is home distilled liquor brewed in the backrooms of village drinking establishments in Malawi.  I used that for pickling snakes and things for my science classes at the Natural Resources College.  Whatever meaning chasu may have had before my time in the Peace Corps has been lost among the cobwebs of distant memories, supplanted by the more memorable meaning.

There is a lesson here.  If you must use a secret code to record what you see in the field, either leave yourself a key or use a secret code that everybody knows.  Remember, the whole point of keeping records is to remember stuff.

And if there’s anybody out there that remembers me using chasu (or coined it first and I picked it up from them) feel free to help me out…

Bean Goose Taxonomy

There is a rare goose wintering with Canada and Cackling Geese at the Nestucca NWR in Tillamook Co. this season. It was discovered by an alert refuge volunteer on 9 November and has since been observed by (probably) 100’s of bird-watchers. The goose is an Asian stray called a Tundra Bean Goose (Anser serrirostris). It is the fifth occurrence of this species in North America away from Alaska, if you believe the American Ornithologists’ Union (AOU) and Dutch taxonomists…

There are many taxonomists who lump the Tundra Bean Goose with the very closely related Taiga Bean Goose (A. fabalis), in fact, the AOU considered them conspecific until 2007 when they made the split based primarily on work done by Dutch researchers. Using established differences in plumage, bill measurements, vocalizations and behavior, birds could be sorted with high reliability to one or the other of the two forms.

When these forms were banded and followed to their breeding grounds, it was found that they positively assorted to different breeding locations east and west of the Ural Mountains. The two types were recognizable forms and were reproductively isolated, which is pretty good evidence that they are different species (Sangster and Oreel 1996). But the Dutch research did not include any DNA work.

That work has since been done, but not by the Dutch. Ruokonen, et al. (2008) sampled mtDNA from multiple Bean Goose forms and Pink-footed Geese on their breeding grounds. Their data supports the distinction between Taiga and Tundra Bean Geese, but their interpretation of the distinction is that the differences do not rise to the level of species and conclude that the two types should be demoted to (or remain) subspecies within a single species complex.

Ruokonen, Litvin and Aarvak 2008

Ruokonen, Litvin and Aarvak 2008

On the other hand, they do recommend the elevation of Middendoff’s Bean Goose, which is currently considered a subspecies of Taiga Bean Goose, to full species status.

Does this mean that the AOU will be lumping Bean Geese sometime soon? I don’t know, but I have my doubts. The two forms are clearly on separate evolutionary trajectories, show reliably recognizable difference at the phenotypic and mtDNA levels and are reproductively isolated. Defining species solely based on degree of mtDNA differentiation is controversial.

Washington State has a record for Taiga Bean Goose from 2002, so there are some birders who might be sweating a lumping scenario relative life-list countability. Then again, it may be determined that the Washington bird was a Middendorf’s form (odds are good that it was), in which case the AOU giveth, the AOU taketh away and then they giveth, again…

Banks, R.C., R.T. Cheeser, C. Cicero, J.L. Dunn, A. W. Kratter, I.J. Lovette, P.C. Rassussen, J.V. Remsen, J.D. Rising and D.F. Stotz. 2007. Forty-eighth supplement to the American Onithologists’ Union Check-list of North American Birds. Auk 124(3):1109-1115.

Howell, S.N.G., I. Lewington, and W. Russell. 2014. Rare Birds of North America. Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ.

Madge, S and H. Burn. 1988. Waterfowl: an identification guide to ducks, geese and swans of the World. Houghton-Mifflin, Boston, MA.

Ruokonen, M., K. Litvin, and T. Aarvak. 2008. Taxonomy of the bean goose – pink-footed goose. Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution 48:554-562.

Ruokonen, M. and T. Aarvak. 2011. Typology revisited: historical taxa of the bean goose – pink-footed goose complex. Ardea 99(1):103-112.

Sangster, G. and G.Oreel. 1996. Trends in systematics: progress in the taxonomy of Taiga and Tundra Bean Geese. Dutch Birding 18:310-316.

Slow down, you bird too fast…

I am becoming increasingly finicky, as I get older, about how I spend my time and one of the places where I don’t like spending a lot of time is in my car driving somewhere. Even short trips to the South Jetty or Brownsmead have become a chore.  I’ve discovered that when I bird by car, I tend to develop a “nothing to see here, move along” attitude that I don’t have when I commit to a walk.  There’s something about being in a car that promotes that feeling that maybe, just maybe, there’s a place up around the corner that’s more happening than the place I’m at.  Driving makes me impatient.  Driving makes me hurry.

And that’s why, this last Friday, I decided to have a no car weekend then took the scenic route to the Post Office (red route) on foot.  2hrs 25mins, 7.1km, 25 bird species.

I failed to find the Tropical Kingbird even though I walked the entirety of Alameda Ave (it was seen the next day by others), but had a good time taking pictures of other stuff.

On Saturday I walked to Wireless Rd (blue route), 3hrs, 55min, 11.8km, 54 species.  Crazy PINE SISKIN numbers.  I found a big flock of AMERICAN PIPITS and momentarily mistook a very noisy WHITE-CROWNED SPARROW as a Swamp Sparrow…

Today I went east to the Astoria Sewage Ponds (green route), I forgot to put my knee brace on.  It made me slow down even more, but not in a good way, 5hrs, 25mins, 11.6km, 52 species.  Old Bulldog…


Walking allows me to check the shrubbery, follow the chickadees, poke around in spots that wouldn’t otherwise get poked in if I was driving by.  Walking puts me in touch with my place.  Walking makes me slow down and notice things.