eBird user reality check #1372

Imagine my surprise when I discovered that I was among the top 20 checklist producers for Oregon on eBird in 2014.  I suspect that some will find that a frightening statistic, given my regular and occasionally unflattering criticisms of eBird.  I, however, find it a very telling statistic.  Even more telling is the graph that goes with it (what? you thought I’d forget the math?)

There were 85823 checklists posted to eBird from Oregon last year.  54.6% of these were posted by the top 100 contributors, 27.7% by the top 20 contributors.  What this tells us is that there are not nearly as many people using eBird as some eBird users might think (or want).  And that’s okay.  As I have stated before, eBird use is and should be entirely voluntary.

If the birds seen by eBird users are important enough to post on eBird, some of those birds are probably important enough to post to other information distribution hubs like Oregon Birders On-line (OBOL), Central Oregon Birders (COBOL), Willamette Valley birders, Tweeters, etc, especially if eBird flags them as rare.  The assumption that posting on eBird is reporting to everyone is clearly flawed.  Nevertheless, a surprising number of eBird users do not make the extra effort to report what they see to the larger community, even when those birds are flagged as rare by eBird.   How do I know?  I check the “recent visits” page at eBird…

And then there’s the way stuff gets posted to eBird…

If a user is reporting from GPS based app, the location is given as a set of lat-long numbers like:

46.07112,-123.65022, Clatsop County, Oregon, US

And all too often when one clicks on the map link, it looks like this:

Obviously, reporting what we see to all those list-serves and phone-trees is (and should be) just as voluntary as reporting to eBird.  An eBird user is no more obliged to report to OBOL than a birder is obliged to report to eBird, but if eBird users also want to share their observations with the larger regional birding community, they cannot depend on eBird alone as the mechanism for doing so.  Yes, there are tools eBird users can use to get the reports from other eBird users, but most birders are not eBird users and some of the reports provided to eBird do not provide location information that is intuitively useful to regular folks (kind of like using 4-codes instead of actual bird names frustrates regular folks).

If eBird users want to use eBird as one of the mechanisms for communicating information about bird status and distribution to the larger birding community, it behooves them to consider how they post their information to eBird (maybe use their words to describe a location in the comments section) and take the time to use alternate venues for reporting what they’ve seen to the clear majority who are not eBird users.

Inclusion, not exclusion.  That’s all I’m saying.

[Choose an adjective] Frigatebird

On February 6, I received multiple phone calls alerting me to the presence of a frigatebird at Seaside Cove. I hopped into my car and drove to Seaside where I found Jay Withgott (who originally found the bird) and Steve Warner. The bird had just disappeared behind Tillamook Head, but shortly reappeared fairly high up. I got to see it glide north, make a couple banks, allowing decent views through the spotting scope, before it turned, heading south and behind the Head again. It did not reappear again.

The white head tells us this is a sub-adult bird, variously described as a 2nd stage juvenile or 2nd basic in references.  There are two Pacific Ocean frigatebirds that look more or less the same at this stage in their life-cycle.  I’ve spent the weekend sifting through the arcanery of juvenile frigatebird identification and have settled on MAGNIFICENT FRIGATEBIRD and have produced the following descriptive account (others may disagree with some or all of my conclusions):

Magnificent Frigatebird (Fregata magnificens)

Number of individuals, sex, age, plumage: presumably “basic II” (juvenile 2nd stage in Harrison), based on extent of white in head and breast.  Sex probably not assignable.
Locality:  Seaside Cove, Seaside, Clatsop Co., OR
Dates:  2/6/2015
Time of Day:  14:15
Reporting observer address: Mike Patterson

Other observers: Originally reported by Jay Withgott, who was still present when I arrived.  Also present were Steve Warner, Neal Maine, Dave Hiebert and his wife.

Light conditions:  partly cloudy with filtered sun.

Optical equipment:  Bushnell Spotting Scope set at 20X

Distance from bird:  I only saw the bird from a distance of about 1km, though others who had more time with the bird saw it more closely.

Duration of observation: Less than 5 minutes, though others had considerably longer observational time.

Habitat: Near ocean

Behavior:  By the time I arrived, the bird was flying high and taking advantage of vertical lift along the edge of Tillamook Head.  I saw the bird soar north briefly then bank around to the south fairly high up.  It continued south until it disappeared behind the Head.  We did not see it again in spite of continued effort for another 45 minutes.

Description: Overall, large bird with long tapered wings, a long forked tail and a very white head and pale bill.  The bird soared and banked without much flapping.

Wings, tail, upper back and lower belly/undertail coverts were all a fairly uniform dark, blackish-brown.  From the distance I was observing, no finer detail was visible in these areas.

Head was dull white with no trace of darker feathering visible at the distance I was observing from.  The bill was long and pale.

Throat, breast and upper belly were white.  The white was restricted to the center and appeared to be cleanly bordered by dark blackish-brown.  I was surprised to see so little white in this area or farther down into the lower belly (which was my expectation given the all white head).

Similar Species:  The frigatebird group is more or less unmistakable, but within that group, sorting sub-adults can be problematic.  For species likely to occur in the North America the extent of white on the head and underwings can be used to eliminate LESSER FRIGATEBIRD.

Eliminating GREAT FRIGATEBIRD is more difficult.  Harrison (1985) states in his discussion of Magnificent Frigatebird: “Second-stage juveniles [2nd-cycle] probably indistinguishable from white-headed populations of Great Frigatebird until white tips of axillaries appear.”  I did not get views sufficient enough to resolve axillary characters.  Howell (1994) does not seem to depend on this single field mark and focuses more on the extent and shape of the white markings on the breast and belly which favors Magnificent Frigatebird.  The clean white head without cinnamon tones also favors Magnificent Frigatebird (Peter Pyle pers. comm.) though not all references agree on whether the lack of a cinnamon wash on 2nd-cycle birds eliminates Great Frigatebird.

Previous experience:  I have seen Magnificent Frigatebird in Costa Rica and Florida.  I have no experience with other frigatebird species.

This account is based on sketches produced immediately after the bird disappeared behind Tillamook Head.

References:

Harrison P. 1985. Seabird: an identification guide. Houghton-Mifflin Co. Boston.

Howell, S.N.G. 1994. A New Look at an Old Problem. Birding. 26(6): 400-415.

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

And an extensive search of images on-line.

A joyful noise

If this part of our country had no bird except the Meadowlark, it would, in respect of bird-song, be blessed above any other land I know.  Such a rarely beautiful, endlessly varied and wonderfully incessant singer!  No bird anywhere has a fuller or richer note; none such variety of songs, except, perhaps, the Mockingbird; none like this bird makes varied and joyous melody in the summer and in winter, too; in rain, in snow, in cold. – William Rogers Lord, 1902

Everybody has an opinion…

Unlike our experiences with seeing a bird, when we hear a bird song we are actually feeling something produced by the bird.  The experience is most literal when listening to a SOOTY GROUSE or a GREAT HORNED OWL which can be felt in the chest, echoing around in the air-sacs of the lungs.  When we hear a sound, we are feeling air molecules reacting to the movement of objects in the environment, transferring energy from one molecule to another until some of those molecules run into us and we feel the pulses of energy they carry.  The tactile nature of sound may explain why it evokes emotions and memories in a way that sight usually does not.

There are few sounds that are more likely to bring a smile to my face than the tentative rattle of a WRENTIT, the slightly maniacal giggle of a HUTTON’S VIREO, or the bop-bop-bop-bop of a Red-legged Frog.  These are all private joys; never sought out surprises that may or may not produce the same response from others.  Listening to nature is a subjective experience. Our interactions with the sounds produced in nature are often deeply personal and defy quantification.   This hasn’t stopped folks from trying.

From the late 18th Century and on into the early 20th Century, natural historians debated music in nature.  It was music.  It wasn’t music.  It could be described through musical notation.  It could not be described.  Sounds produced by birds were only songs if they included a succession on three or more different notes.  Song birds were narrowly defined based on the complexities of their vocal apparatus.  The sounds produced by birds that lacked these structures could not be counted as singers.  European birds were infinitely superior singers to any other species anywhere in the world.  And there were the rankings…

Barrington 1799 as re-printed in Cheney 1891

European assertions about the perceived superiority of European songbirds led to the many misguided attempts to introduce Nightingales, Skylarks, starlings and other species to other places around the planet including a significant effort here in Oregon by the Portland Songbird Club (Jobanek 1987).  All of the attempts in Oregon failed (including starlings which re-introduced themselves beginning in the late-1950’s).  Other places were not quite so fortunate (see: Quammen 1996; Todd 2001).

Those who heard the musicality in our native species did there best to quantify their own opinions.  One of the more detailed efforts was by S. P. Cheney, who attempted to transcribe the songs of birds using musical notations.  His book Wood Notes Wild (published posthumously by his son who also served as editor), is filled with transcriptions of common birds.

Transcriptions of American Robin songs by Cheney.

I don’t read music and cannot evaluate his efforts, but for his review, F. M. Chapman hired a piano player and played the songs to experts in song identification.  “Thirty-three [of the transcriptions] conveyed no impression, we could not even guess at their identity; while, of the remaining eight, five were named correctly.” (Chapman 1892).

I might have hired someone in the woodwind section for the test, but I suspect the bottom line would remain the same.  What we hear is highly subjective.  What moves us is deeply personal.  So. as I go through the exercise of picking and choosing those sounds in nature that I find most special, I try not to let myself get too analytical.

Every sound in nature should have an advocate.

REFERENCES

Cheney, S. P. 1891. Wood Notes Wild. Lee & Shepard, Boston.

Chapman, F. M. 1892. Wood Notes Wild [review]. Auk 9(3): 280-81. https://sora.unm.edu/sites/default/files/journals/auk/v009n03/p0280-p0281.pdf

Jobanek, G. A. 1987. Bringing the Old World to the New: the Introduction of Foreign Songbirds into Oregon.  Oregon Birds 13(1): 59-75. http://www.orbirds.org/orbirdsspring1987.pdf

Lord, W. R. 1902. A First Book upon the Birds of Oregon & Washington. J.K. Gill Co. Portland, OR

Quammen, D. 1996. Song of the Dodo. Scribner, New York.

Todd, K. 2001. Tinkering with Eden. W.W. Norton Co., New York.

Unknown unknowns

There are known knowns… There are known unknowns… there are also unknown unknowns… There are things we don’t know we don’t know.
———————————————————————————–  Donald Rumsfeld

This recent Hood River murrelet thing has put me in the middle of an interesting confrontation between conventional wisdom and the possibility that everything we know is wrong.  Can a Long-billed Murrelet have a complete white collar?  Conventional wisdom says no.  Do Marbled Murrelets stray inland more than 50 miles?  I can’t find any previous records.  People who know a lot more about these things than me have come down pretty strongly on one side or the other on these questions.   One way or the other some bit of conventional wisdom is going to change.

A fundamental assumption we make in the process of bird identification is that the information we’ve been provided by field guides, mentors and personal experience represents a complete picture of what we think we’re looking at; what we think we know.  In the majority of cases, the information we’re working with works just fine for reliably connecting a bird to a name.  That reliability we enjoy for most things works so well that we get used to thinking we’ve got everything figured out and this often creates a false sense of security when we approach those species, subspecies and hybrids that are not so user friendly.

If some of the assumptions we use to make identifications are incomplete or wrong, then the conclusions we come to based on those assumption are also faulty.  Yet, there is an odd confidence placed in the circularity in some of the logic we use: All white-collared murrelets are Marbled Murrelets, because I’ve never seen a Long-billed with a white collar, because Long-billed Murrelets don’t have white collars, because all white-collared murrelets are Marbled Murrelets.

Circular reasoning is not considered a logical fallacy, but it is also not considered a useful persuasive argument.  It may well be true that all white-collared murrelets are Marbled Murrelets, but the proof of that claim needs to come from somewhere outside the field mark “white collar”.  So, when someone says, “that’s a Long-billed Murrelet with a white collar” we are obliged to use something other than the white collar to properly refute the claim.

We can be guided by a fundamental principal of bird identification which can be found in Paulson’s Shorebirds of the Pacific Northwest (1993), “well-known birds appear to vary more than poorly known ones.”  The more familiar we are with a particular species the more we know about variations in plumage and the more open we are to the discovery of individuals that fall outside our expectations.  The less we know about a particular species the more rigid many of us become about what can and cannot true.

It is this imbalance in our experiences that leads to the kind of circularity that is common in the birding world “it cannot be rare species X, because the far more common species Y is quite variable and species X never shows…”  When reading critiques of field descriptions watch for words like NEVER and ALWAYS.  A particular character may be statistically more likely or less likely, and should inform our course in unraveling the identity of a particular bird, but it is more of a guideline than a rule.  Declarative absolutes will come back to haunt even the most knowledgeable and experienced among us.

My spider sense is telling me the Hood River murrelet is probably going to turn out to be an out of place Marbled Murrelet, but not just because it has a white collar.  I’ve googled at enough photos of putative Long-billed Murrelets showing pale nape spots and whitish quasi-collars to suggest a white collared Long-billed Murrelet is possible, though probably very rare.

ARKive species - Long-billed murrelet (Brachyramphus perdix)

And I’d be willing to spend some grant money to go study the issue in Asia, if anybody out there has any.

 

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

lbmu20150112sm011

lbmu20150112sm003

lbmu20150112sm022

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.

References

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

Yes, two SCRIPP’S MURRELETS…

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.