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.

Early morning visitor

Teresa had just gone out the door and off to work, but popped back in almost immediately, “come here, there’s something on the wire…”

In distributional terms, Barred Owl is a fairly recent arrival.  The first birds in Oregon were reported in the early 1970′s.  I started finding dead ones along roadsides or washed up on the beach in Clatsop County in the mid-90′s and didn’t actually see a live one until 2008 (though I’d been hearing them for a couple years prior). It’s one of Michelle’s favorite bird calls to do.  We would regularly get them talking (though never saw them) up in the Irving Forest when trail-blazing the route between the Column and the Cathedral Tree.

Now we have one on our yard-list.

A close encounter

I went out to the South Jetty of the Columbia River this morning to inventory phalaropes blown in by the current bit of weather.  I got there around 9:30.  The wind was blowing at a steady 20mph, but the rain had stopped so I put on my boots and walked out onto the salt marsh.  I saw a jaeger coming in from the northeast over the dunes.

I figured I was pretty lucky and started to snap some pictures.  I noted through the viewfinder that it was heading straight at me.  Cool.

Then it came right up to me and started kiting in the wind.  Close enough to touch.  Too close for the camera lens.  I reached up.  It looked at my hand.  I fought the urge to snatch it out of the air.  It fought the urge to bite me…

jaeger eyeing my fingers

The whole encounter seemed like several minutes, though it was probably much less.  Then the jaeger broke to its right and flew past me.

I was pretty excited and looked up to see if there was anyone in the parking lot who might have seen that jaeger and me together, but there’s never a smartphone shutterbug around when you really need one.  The parking lot was empty.  The jaeger made a sweep around the tidal channels then turned around and it all happened a second time as if the jaeger felt the need to reassure me that it had all really happened.

I have no idea what this bird was thinking when it came in to check me out.  The demeanor was not antagonistic or defensive.  It appeared to be simple curiosity.

I saw a second jaeger a few minutes later who didn’t pay me any mind.  I also counted 64 RED PHALAROPES and a single RED-NECKED PHALAROPE, 3 SEMIPALM- ATED PLOVERS and a couple DUNLIN.

It was a good day.


Seawatch – 10/26/2014

There was a pretty good storm late Saturday and into pre-sunrise Sunday morning.  Sunday sunrise broke showery with a west wind.  It was a good day to go seawatching for birds that would normally be out in the deeper ocean, but last night blown inland by the weather.

So Michelle and I hopped into the car and drove south to Silver Point, a view point along Hwy 101 at the south end of Cannon Beach.

We arrived at 07:50.  The light conditions were early morning dim, but held the promise of a not too rainy day.  We began the watch.  The protocol is not really that complicated: stand in one spot, scan the ocean, identify birds as they go by.

Northern Fulmars… lots of fulmars, scoters, loons… lots of loons, mostly Pacific Loons… gulls… more loons.

Then the odd kittiwake went by, not more than 20 minutes into the watch.

Kittiwakes have a particular look and behavior that is reliably distinctive.  The buoyant flight style of a small gull or tern and ink-dipped wingtips that show almost no trace of white, but this bird was darker looking and maybe a bit small; uniform gray from above all the way to the black wingtips and there were the dusky looking under-wings.  These were the field marks of the wrong kittiwake…

Black-legged Kittiwakes are pretty common on the North Coast in the fall and winter.  On a good, stormy day 100′s can be seen off the Columbia River.  Young Black-legged Kittiwakes have a diagnostic black “M” shape on the upper wings formed by the leading primaries and wing coverts.  Adults are gray above with paler inner parts to the primaries and those ink-dipped wingtips.  Their under-wings are white in both 1st winter youngsters and winter adults.

Black-legged Kittiwake

Seawatching is all about letting go of what just went by and staying focused for the next bird.  It is very rare for birds to linger long enough for a second look and even rarer that they are close enough for proper photo documentation.  I was left to make a quick sketch of what I saw and get back to watching.  And I saw plenty of Black-legged Kittiwakes over the next 2 hours.  None of them looked like this first, singular bird.  It kind of had to be the other kittiwake.  The rare one:  RED-LEGGED KITTIWAKE.  There are currently 10 accepted records for Oregon (including one that was found in Jewell and brought to the rehab center).  I’m not sure I got a big enough piece of this bird to pass muster with the OBRC.

Over rest of the morning we built up a list of 44 species with spectacular numbers of California Gulls and Pacific Loons.  We saw Elegant Terns, Common Terns, Sabine’s Gull and Bonaparte’s Gulls.  All kinds of good stuff.  The complete list is HERE.

Other folks, at other locations along the coast also saw plenty of interesting seabirds.

After two and a half hours of watching, we drove back to Astoria and I went chasing a Tropical Kingbird.