Tuesday, July 22, 2014

On Warranting Caution: Angles and Lighting

Birders have a lot of cliches. One you hear over and over again, in heated, sweaty-palmed and pained discussions on advanced bird ID (and occasionally, with regards to provenance) is "caution is warranted". What birder popularized this phrase? We may never know. One thing that is not uncertain is that it is good advice, albeit phrased in such a melodramatic and painfully nerdy manner that I wince when I try to say it.

An occasion in which a birder should not throw caution to the wind is when we don't get to see all we want of a bird, even when we think we do. Take the Black Tern above, for example. This is a pretty good look, right? It's almost a crush. But something is off...why does it have dark gray wing linings? It's not a shadow. What is wrong with it?! Call the bird police!

Oh, wait. That looks better. What happened?

What happened is angle. What happened is lighting. The effects even minute changes in angle and lighting can have on a bird's appearance is monumental. The above photo was taken less than a second after the top photo, and tern looks like it changed wings in between frames. Sure it's hard to see birds when its dark, and obviously looking at backlit birds sucks, but I don't think birders fully appreciate how subtle changes in lighting and angle can fully transform a bird.

Cool. A quick glance at this photo may make a birder guess Caspian Tern. It's a good guess. That's a dark bill.

And here it is a second earlier. Obviously a Royal Tern. That bill is no-doubt-orange, not the slightest bit red.

Philadelphia Vireos are notorious. Notorious for being yellow. Not yellow like a Yellow-green Vireo, or a Yellow-throated Vireo...or a Thick-billed Vireo...but you know what I'm talking about. If you don't, you are probably unskilled at Philadelphia Vireo identification. Not that there is anything wrong with that...or so I'm told.

But I digress. Here is a vireo. Obviously a Philadelphia or Warbling. Yeah, the lores dark, but this thing is bland. Could it just be a funky Warbling? The head looks numbingly gray, the throat an unfathomable shade of drabness. Where is the yellow? Show me the yellow!

Oh. There it is. It obviously is saturated with yellow. That's funny. Do you see where I'm going with this? Not only am I trying to address problems of birding in the field, I'm talking about how misleading photos can be.

Of course, I can't talk about issues with lighting and bird ID without talking about gulls. Here is an ostensible Western Gull taking flight. Quite the dark mantle, eh? Looks pretty normal.

Oh. That looks pretty pale now....disturbingly so. Clearly not a pure Western Gull.

Oh wait. It's super dark. It looks like a Western Gull. What is going on? What is the real shade of its mantle? This is all the same bird, and the photos were all taken within ten seconds of each other. Questionable gulls (and even some unquestionable gulls) require a lot of study, and a large dose of caution. When you are trying to ID a gull based on someone else's photos of one (an increasingly common practice), I suggest even more caution. Huge amounts of it. You should be getting drunk on caution, because you didn't get to see all the angles and lighting on the bird in the field. This is one of the many reasons gulls suck and I hate looking at photos of "mystery gulls", addicting as they may be. And yes my nerds, the mild mottling on the nape is indicative of some Glaucous-wing ancestry.

Let us look at the gull in front (although you have the freedom to ponder the other one). It looks almost textbook for a Thayer's Gull. But why is the mantle so dark? Surely this is a dark-mantled species of some sort, or at least a hybrid of one, because look how pale the other bird's back is in comparison.

Here is the same bird. Why, it doesn't have a dark back at all. Suddenly, it becomes a pristine Thayer's Gull. The only difference is that the bird is turned a few degrees to the right, compared to the previous photo.

Despite the misleading bird-to-bird comparison I offered two photos above (that was more of a don't-ID-gulls-by-just-one-photo-sometimes kind of warning), comparing birds directly is the way to go. It can be gulls, it can be vireos, it can be various strolling Siberian ground-dwellers.

California birders still remember what happened last year...Savannah Sparrows were being misidentified time and time again as Red-throated Pipits. It was an outrage, a debacle of the highest order. GBRS ranks were in freefall all over the state. There was even a backlash counter-outrage to combat it, defending the rights of stringers everywhere. It was a sad state of affairs, and we may only be a few months away from history repeating itself. At any rate, when the two species are side by side, is it really that confusing? You can't even claim that they are both brown. The bird on the right almost looks like a fucking Prairie Warbler. This is a story of what happens when overenthusiastic birders don't bother comparing their bird of interest with what else is around...and when one Savannah Sparrow is around, there are more (that is a rule). Caution is hella warranted.

Remember my friends...angle and lighting make identification frightening. Take this to heart, and you will go far.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Sic Semper Tyrannus

Yellow-bellied Flycatcher is an Empid I hold, for some reason, in high regard. I first met the species in Pennsylvania back in 2009, and we have since crossed paths in Florida, Mexico, Costa Rica, and now Texas. Photographed at South Padre Island, TX.

Texas is a state rich in flycatchers...with only one exception (Gray Kingbird), every flycatcher that breeds east of Texas is found regularly in the state. And then there are Scissor-tails, and the valley species, and all the vagrants they have been blessed to receive over the years. I'm not ambitious enough to post pics of every flycatcher species I saw out there last spring...but I can do most of them.

Are flycatchers a major headache migraine? Does looking at them make you feel stupid? Do high-ranking birders with mysterious motives make false statements about how often they vocalize? Yes! But that is part of what makes them so great. You don't have to worry about them hybridizing (much) and they are a group of birds that your new birding app won't be able to identify for you for a very, very long time. And they do stuff. Good stuff.

When you get to the end of the post and are drenched in sweat, feel free to cruise over to The Powdermill Reserve (the only place I've seen Yellow-bellied Flycatcher in hand) for a nice post on more eastern flycatchers.

I'm itching to find one out here in California...most (not all) of the individuals I've seen have been pretty easy to ID, and they tend to stand out...they are yellow (er...olive and faintly yellowish) and have a call that isn't a damn "whit" note. South Padre Island, TX.

Least Flycatcher...the gray flycatcher of the east. It is the most basic Empid of the east, in terms of color and abundance. South Padre Island, TX.

Least Flycatcher, probably the same individual as above. Note the amount of darkness on the mandible (or lower mandible, as most of us say), which is atypical. I've always found the amount of paleness here to be dependably variable in many Empid species, and a field guide could potentially lead the birder astray with this character. South Padre Island, TX.

Acadian Flycatcher has a big head and big bill, a true loggerhead of the Empidonax. South Padre Island, TX.

Traill's Flycatcher (the pre-split name of Alder and Willow Flycatchers) is one of the most troubling species-pairs that eastern birders have to face. Even California birders are pained by this problem, as a handful of legit Alders have been documented in the state over the years...and guess what? We want more. South Padre Island, TX.

This is the same bird as above. Note the overall gray-brown on the upperparts that does not contrast with the throat, rendering it quite dull even by Empidonax standards. There is an eyering present, but it is extremely narrow, which is to be expected in eastern Willow Flycatchers. There doesn't appear to be any greenish coloration from this angle, aside from the inside of the folded wing; it is remarkably drab. By all accounts, this is a Willow Flycatcher.

Here is a different Traill's from South Padre Island. This bird is a bit greener and more contrasty in the throat than the above individual, has a more pronounced eyering and seemingly has a shorter bill. It actually looks considerably different than the above bird. I'm going with Alder Flycatcher on this one. Of course, empids can look quite a bit different in fall, so there's only so far one can go with some of these field marks without hearing a vocalization...but it never hurts to try. South Padre Island, TX.

Eastern Wood-Pewee has the distinction of being one of the most misidentified flycatchers in the U.S., despite being one of the most abundant. Learn the pewees, and then you will love them. Until then, you will not have a healthy relationship. South Padre Island, TX.

Couch's Kingbird. This is a typical brightly-colored bird with a smallish bill. Atypical is how the tail appears completely unnotched. Willacy County, TX.

Couch's Kingbird. There is variation in bill structure in this species, and you can see that this bird has a heavier bill than the above individual, being especially deep toward the base. I reckon Tropical Kingbirds have a more consistent bill length, and still appear longer-billed (and not so big at the base) than this individual. Sabal Palm Sanctuary, Brownsville, TX.

Eastern Kingbird, a true feel-good flycatcher. Everyone can love an Eastern Kingbird. South Padre Island, TX.

Brown-crested Flycatcher. This is cooperi, the subspecies found in Texas, and is less beefy than the magister that reside in Arizona. Note the unimpressive size of the bill. Hidalgo County, TX.

Great Crested Flycatcher. God, look at the tapering of the white border of the first tertial feather! That's what I'm fucking talking about. What I'm not talking about is why Great Crested Flycatcher and Brown-crested Flycatcher have more structural differences in the grammar of their names than the birds do in reality. South Padre Island, TX.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Your July Bird Quiz

Quiz #1.

Hey everyone. It's Monday, and people are already feeling weird...so why not put your bird skills to the test? Take a shot at today's quiz birds, and leave a comment with your votes. No hints on this one, and no prizes this time beyond moderate glory and narcissistic smugness...but does the birder even need anything else?

Lovingly Yours,

Felonious Jive (The Great Ornithologist)

Quiz #2.

Quiz #3.

Quiz #4.

Quiz #5. Good luck!

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

A Breast of Bay...Where is the DICK?...#failurethrush

Many years ago, as a young and stupid birder (not #7), I went out to California's Kern County to check the desert oases for migrants. We ran into some birders who directed us to a singing male Black-throated Blue Warbler. That was pretty sick. Then we were told there was a male Bay-breasted Warbler over at Butterbredt Springs, so we cruised over there. And there it was, hopping around the shore of a pond like a goddamn Song Sparrow. And then someone found a Prairie Warbler, which was easy to relocate. How fucked up is that?

That was my introduction to spring vagrant hunting in California; it was an accidental discovery. No one really understands why we get almost all our spring vagrants at the end of May and beginning of June, but that is when they decide to come through. But that is not the point...the point is that I have not seen a breeding plumage Bay-breasted again until this spring, when a handful could be found on South Padre Island, Texas. Stoked.

Acadian Flycatcher was a bird I had only met briefly, on a nest somewhere in Missouri back in 2009. I was only able to find one this spring, but one is all it takes. It was confiding as fuck, and didn't even bother me with demands of pizza.

It's a pretty distinctive bird, if you ask me, and I am ready to find one in California. We are overdue. Photographed on South Padre Island, TX.

Dickcissel is a fun name. It's a name people can get behind. I think "dickcissel" is a horrible way to describe it's song, but it's a great name. For all those people who are thinking about making shirts or stickers that consist of simply a bird's banding code, I can't fathom why I haven't seen any DICK in production yet. It's the best. Photographed at South Padre Island, TX.

After seeing hundreds this spring, the plumage of an adult male in spring still doesn't make any sense to me. There is nothing like it north of Mexico. Hidalgo County, TX.

I don't think I've posted any Magnolia Warblers this year. Birders would be more aware of their facemelt abilities if they weren't hella common in a lot of places. This fully black-backed bird has reached a crippling peak of spring finery. South Padre Island, TX.

This one has the facemelt turned down a notch, but is ultimately a gratifying bird to be around.

This horrible, haggard thing that bears a faint resemblance to a Magnolia Warbler is not at all gratifying to be near. Sorry. South Padre Island, TX.

Bell's Vireo was one of the "best" self-found birds I had at South Padre Island this year. Unfortunately, when I posted it on eBird, I found out that someone had found it earlier that day. Don't you hate it when that happens? Oh well, it was a nice year bird and the only one reported from the region this spring.

And now we come to The Thrush of Failure. This Hermit Thrush spent a couple weeks at the convention center on South Padre Island. Hundreds of people saw it. It was quite comfortable foraging on a small stretch of lawn, and was not shy. The number of people I watched misidentify it was staggering. Many birders suffered a blow to their Global Birder Ranking System scores when confronted with this very typical member of it's species.

Granted, the other Catharus species are all more common here at this time of year, but this bird was practically begging to be identified correctly. The complete eye ring, extensive spotting, and a red tail all scream Hermit Thrush, and there were often Veery, Swainson's and Gray-cheeked Thrush all present at the same site to provide convenient comparisons. Does this thrush stand as a hopeful monument for the number of new (aka inexperienced) birders out there? Or is it a testament to the dismal future of birding?

Much has been said about female warblers....mostly stuff along the lines of "males are better looking, but females are ok". I don't have much to add to that conversation right now. Obviously, there is no species of warbler with distinct sexual dimorphism where one would actually prefer to observe a female over a male. Here is a female (perhaps first spring) Black-throated Green Warbler. South Padre Island, TX.

A male Black-throated Green Warbler is almost obscenely attractive, in comparison. South Padre Island, TX.

Let's face it...Empids are a bitch. It's not their fault...but it kind of is. Here is an unassuming Least Flycatcher, the most abundant Empidonax that migrates through south Texas (Traill's and Yellow-bellied were also easy to find this spring). South Padre Island, TX.

Here is the same bird, doing something that approaches an Alder Flycatcher imitation. Pardon my grain.

You don't have to pardon my grain for this one. Here is a Common Nighthawk. As you may know, I have beef with animals being called "common", and this one is no exception. Yes, it is the more widespread nighthawk species in the U.S., but you know there is no such thing as "Greater Nighthawk", right? So why does Lesser Nighthawk even exist? Right...Common Nighthawk should be called Greater Nighthawk, although I admit "Bullbat" would be pretty sweet. Willacy County, TX.

There is nothing like a good Caprimulgid crush, is there? I love all the different patterns these duders sport. It seems like they would clash, but the nighthawk pulls it off.

Isn't birding funny? I can remember when I first saw Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks in southeast Arizona, back in the 90s. It was a Really Big Deal for me. They were flighty and more than happy to keep their distance from us. Now in 2014, I crush them at point blank range, and don't raise an eyebrow when I drive by one perched on a roof or a powerline. Familiarity breeds contempt. South Padre Island, TX.

Everyone loves Least Bitterns, and I am no exception. They are relatively common in parts of south Texas, and don't require much effort to find at places like the convention center and birding center on South Padre Island, where this photo was taken.