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…

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

the X Bills

Sometimes you just get lucky…

Red Crossbill

I was taking a walk along the jetty trail at the Ft Stevens Historical Area and came upon a SITKA SPRUCE tree full of Red Crossbills.  The tree was loaded with cones which hung from branches all the way to the ground,  The crossbills were working the spruce cones in the tree at eye level.  The light was adequate, though I had to set the ISO kind of high.  I spent at least a half-hour watching and photographing birds as they focus all their attention on extracting seeds from cones, oblivious to me.

Red Crossbill

While they did a lot of hanging, many times they would pull a cone off the tree and fly away up to the top of a branch where they could sit and pull seeds in comfort.

There were red ones and orange ones and greenish ones and streaky ones.

They talked as they worked, making the chittery pip-pip-pip noises of crossbills chatting. The accompanying crackle of cones being disassembled was louder than any of the conversations the birds were having with one another.

As some of you may be aware, the taxonomy of crossbills in North America is in a state of limbo.  There are ecologically differentiated groups referred to as “types”.  The differences are related to the types of conifer cones eaten.  Small-billed types focus on hemlocks, spruces and Douglas-fir.  Large-billed types go for the pines.  These types may be subspecific units or they may represent genuine species level units that, taken together, form a complex superspecies.  There may be three or four of these species level units.  There may be 10.  There may over 20.  It really depends on who you talk to and what kind of definitions they use for what constitutes a species.  A serviceable summary of the North American crossbill types can be found at eBird.

Here on the Oregon Coast, we regularly get three of the types (3, 4 and 10) and, during a good summer shorepine crop, we are often visited by a fourth (type-2).  Based on the size and the calls being made today, most of the birds in the spruce tree were probably type-10, though I may have seen several type-3 crossbills hanging out with the PINE SISKINS in an alder near the museum.

And that’s part of the difficulty in sorting through this species complex.  The different types probably hang out together in places where small and medium cone trees like Western Hemlock and Sitka Spruce are found in the same forests.  If you have the ear for sorting bird calls, you will probably be able to learn to pick out one call type or another, but there is some evidence that individuals that hang out with “wrong” types may pick up the lingo.  We may think we’re hearing one particular type, but we can’t necessarily exclude the polyglots.

There are plenty of crossbills in the area right now, taking advantage of a good spruce crop (as well as alder cones).  Watch (and listen) for a crossbill flock coming to a woodland near you.

Red CrossbillMore photos HERE.

the CODE

“What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate…” ………………………………………………– the Captain in Cool Hand Luke

My dear wife is an English teacher, the hardest working kind of teacher there is.  I say this as a former science teacher, but I still expect arguments from somebody.  One doesn’t spend 30 years sitting on the couch next to someone while she grades essays for 180 students week after week without learning a little bit about the state of communication skills in America.  If you want to really start something, ask her about textspeak, which turns up in student writing with frustrating frequency.  Let me warn you: OMG MsP B A txtspk h8r.

Of course textspeak is just one of many examples of language short-cuts driven by technology.  As a long-time bird bander, I’ve been using standardized bird name abbreviations for over 30 years.  These were born out of the same need to conserve computer space that originally drove textspeak.  Back in the day, memory was expensive, because it required physical space for the main frames that stored the data, so folks who collected data at large scales looked for ways to reduce the number of characters stored.  Those of you old enough to remember Y2K, may recall that many computers weren’t even storing whole dates. December 31, 1999 was stored as 12-31-99.  Cutting out those two numbers when writing a date saved billions of bytes.  The panic came at the end to the 1900’s when the calendar turned over.  At midnight on December 31, it was feared that computers might not know the difference between January 1900 and January 2000 and the world economy would collapse in the electronic confusion…

But I digress.

The 4-letter bird banding code was a standardized way for bird banders to send banding records to the USGS where the data could be scanned and put into the computer database without using up too much memory space.  It really isn’t all that surprising that some birders picked up the 4-code and started using it for their own purposes.  The 4-code can be a convenient way to note birds seen on personal field lists.  But the practice is not without many, many pitfalls and is, more often than not, a bad way to communicate with others.

To navigate the bird 4-code, one needs to know the rules for breaking down names AND all the places where the rules are modified to account for overlaps.  Northern Pintail becomes NOPI.  Green-winged Teal becomes GWTE.  BUT Northern Shoveler does not become NOSH, because it overlaps with Northern Shrike.  The shoveler becomes NSHO and the shrike NSHR.  The overlaps are reason one why 4-codes are an inefficient way to communicate with other birders.  It assumes the user knows what he’s doing.  Reason two is that it assumes folks at the other end of the message have the skills and knowledge base necessary to decode the information.

There are other reasons as well.  The code changes when birds are split or lumped.  Yellow Warbler used to be YWAR because it conflicted with Yellow Wagtail.  Now Yellow Wagtail is technically Eastern Yellow Wagtail (EYWA), so Yellow Warbler is YEWA, which I didn’t discover until I downloaded the new USGS banding software and got corrected by the error filter.  I still use GBLH for Great Blue Heron because that’s what I started with back when there was still a creature called a Green-backed Heron and the Canada/Cackling split messed me up enough that I just made up my own code for Cackling Goose (CKGO) instead of looking up the new codes and making a change… and I don’t feel a bit guilty.

But then, I don’t report to birding forums using 4-codes.

Bird banders are not the only folks who use 4-codes.  There are actually multiple bird 4-codes used by different wildlife agencies.  There are also plant 4-codes.  When doing Coastal Plains plant inventories, I need to remember that SOSP (among others) doesn’t mean what I think it means.  Herpetologists doing salamander counts also use (or at least used to use) 4-code based on the Latin names of amphibians (Dicamptodon tenebrosus = DITE).  I use a 6-code for non-avian species in my field notes (DICTEN for D.tenebrosus), but I am shamefully inconsistent with regard to Latin vs English derivations (sometimes VARMEA, sometimes SYMCOR).

But then, I don’t report any of these critters to other forums using 6-codes.

There are folks in the bird counting community who have been promoting a shift to 6-code reporting for everyone.  There are fewer conflicts so there are fewer exceptions to learn.  There’s also a 4-code for English names, 6-code in Latin camp within the bird counting community.  Each has a website with lists of what those codes would look like and all sorts of reasons why their way is the best way.  None of them confront the main problem.  Most (non-science) people don’t want to learn new names for everything when they already have perfectly good English vernacular names.  It’s harder to decode someone else’s list than it is to encode your own when using 4-codes or 6-codes or even Latin.  The logic behind creating standardized English vernacular names in the first place was to facilitate communication.  All these secret codes are fine for communicating with a computer, but people? not so much.

So, yes, I use a 4-code shorthand in my field notes for the stuff I see.  It is more or less the same code I use when reporting stuff to the Bird Banding Laboratory.  Lots of other people do to.  It doesn’t make me a better birder, a smarter birder, a more with-it, sittin’ at the table with the cool kids birder.  It’s just a tool.  It’s the right tool for a person to use when talking to himself or to computers.  It’s the wrong tool for communicating with the larger birding community, where (as any good English Teacher will tell you) clarity and conciseness should be the codes we use.

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.