Friday, June 27, 2014

The Quest for 300

People like numbers. Actually, let me rephrase that.  People like round numbers. They're pleasing, they make sense, and they feel oh so silky smooth. Admittedly, the only real difference between 99 and 100 is 1, but you have to admit that 100 feels so fulfilling and rewarding, and 99 feels like you got caught in the closet with your high school girlfriend just before things got interesting. It just hurts. So, we strive for round numbers. Baseball has the Mendoza Line. Everybody has the "turning 30" thing. These are significant milestones for no other reason than the fact that they are divisible by 10. Like most things I write about in this safe little space, it's trivial. Trivial, but undeniable. And with that in mind, I want to tell you about my Quest for 300.

Going through old reports tells me that Common Yellowthroat was #95 on my Travis county list. This is a different individual. Duh.
#199 - How did Magnolia Warbler elude me for so long?
#291 - My latest addition, Gray-cheeked Thrush. 
A very, very warm looking Gray-cheeked Thrush.  If only we were on the east coast, we could try to string this thing into a Bicknell's.

I started the year with 287 birds on my Travis county list and no doubt in my mind that 300 would come and go before I made it to the other side of December. There were a couple easy birds to pick up, and there are always one or two random things that show up each month. But now we find ourselves smack dab in the middle of this year, and I've only picked up 4 of my needed 13 birds. That is not a good pace. Part of it is my fault for being out of town during whatever migration we got here in central Texas; fair enough. But a more important factor, one which I all too easily forget, is that each new bird on your list is twice as hard as the one before it. Basically, you run out of shit to see. And so now I'm fixated.  Fixated on this magical round number 300 that will simultaneously give me ethereal fulfillment and an excuse to have that third glass of whiskey on a Tuesday night.

#86 - munching on some kind of big red bug.
#96 - Fortunately, my actual county Redstart was a sharp looking dude, as opposed to this study in subdued.
#51 here laid eggs in the middle of the road at Hornsby. She is now surrounded by orange cones.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Aechmophorus Grebes for my Texas List

There are 639 birds on the Official Texas State List. I have seen more than 400 but less than 500 of these birds. Like any good state lister, I want to add to my state list. I'm missing some migrants and the random vagrants that will eventually show up through no extraneous effort of my own. The tough part about building a Texas list is that Texas is sooooooo big and many of these birds are eight or nine hours away. That's not an easy day trip. So, when I was driving home from Arizona, I figured I should make a couple of quick stops at Tornillo Lakes and Balmorhea Lake for two easy and closely related birds, the Aechmophorus grebes, professionally known as Western and Clark's. I'd seen them both in California, but needed them for my home state.

Western Grebe was pretty accommodating at Tornillo Lakes, not far outside of El Paso. They were at Balmorhea as well, but far outnumbered by Clark's Grebe. 
Aechmophorus grebes can pose an ID challenge in basic plumage, but these birds were close and had their plowing feathers on. Western has a dark bordered eye and a thicker stripe on the back of the neck. This stop also gave me my state Gambel's Quail. Bonus.
Balmorhea Lake was thick with Clark's Grebes, which outnumbered Western about 10:1.
I really appreciate the diamond shaped head of these birds. It seems dignified.
I was lucky enough to get to see the grebes dancing, but it was in the worst light possible.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Nuthatch Redemption and The Bests

We knew it had to come to an end; things couldn't be this good forever, and now we have found ourselves here: the end of the Arizona posts. These last shots didn't really fit in anywhere else, so they were shoved in the junk drawer until there were enough to do something with. This is that something.

You knew there would be a Black-headed Grosbeak shot at some point. Here it is.
This stunning lep is an Arizona Sister. #themoreyouknow
Bridled Titmouse is the best titmouse, hence its inclusion for a second post.
Palmer's Thrasher? Eh?
Gunderson Ground Squirrel with a fly on its head.
When I was in California last year, I missed Pygmy Nuthatch. It was painful. This is my redemption.
Yellow-eyed Junco is most likely the best Junco.
There are so many things that are great about this bird; the reddish back, the black mask, the yellow eye, and the hint of an orange orbital ring.
I have seen Zone-tailed Hawk before, but this is the first time I've been able to put my binoculars down and pull my camera up. It was not easy. Fortunately, it hung out with me for about 10 minutes or so.
The best hawk.
Ocotillo flower.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Patagonia-Sonoita and The Paton's

The two keys to birding in awesome locations are time management and planning, two qualities that I've never personally excelled at. This can prove quite frustrating in a place like Southeast Arizona, where a birder can realistically spend two weeks and not hit the same place twice. I had 5 days. One area that I would have liked to spend more time was the Patagonia area, but it was unfortunately not in the cards. I was able to bird the better half of a day at the Patagonia-Sonoita Creek Preserve and the Paton's House in Patagonia proper, and I'm sure I left some disgusting birds and some killer crushes behind. Regardless, some good birds were seen.  These are some of those birds.

Gila Woodpecker is probably the most boring of the north American Melanerpes woodpeckers, possibly even the most boring Melanerpes in the world. Despite this fact (and it is a fact), I like this bird. It is aesthetically subdued and behaviorally rambunctious.
I really appreciate the plain white head of the female Gila Woodpecker. I don't know why, but it pleases me.
Gray Hawk is unarguably a good hawk, and is relatively "easy" in SE Arizona.
Bushtit is a bird that I had only seen once before. This is a bit of a ratty individual. That didn't bother me. 
This White-breasted Nuthatch is brown. I assume it's young, however I could easily be mistaken.
Abert's Towhee was my last Towhee. I don't really know what else to say about this bird. It has a black face.
As I've previously discussed, there are a few birds that are too vibrant for a camera sensor to make proper sense of. Vermilion Flycatcher is one of those birds. This is the best I've been able to do. At least this one didn't look like male genitalia.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

The Birdsnap App Review

Okay, so there's this new app out called Birdsnap, and I think it's something we need to talk about. The concept is that it uses facial recognition software to identify photos of birds to species. I honestly had no intention of doing any kind of write up or review about this app until 24 hours ago. However, yesterday I saw that the app was out and more importantly, that it was free. I figured I'd check it out with the full expectation that it would fail miserably. Let's explore.

First off, there are multiple facets to this app beyond the "visual recognition" application.  The app contains photos and information about 500 North American birds, the highlight for me being the animated occurrence maps. The app is very easy to navigate as well. My understanding is that, if available, the app will pull date and location data from your photo and use that information to help with the identification. There is also a Birdsnap website, which has a bit more functionality and is visually very engaging. Both the web and mobile formats are well put together. Honestly though, there are other websites and apps that do the same type of basic functions, so we're really just here to check out if the app can deliver on its bird recognition claims.

To get to the good stuff, you have to search by "Visual Recognition." From here, you can take a picture with your phone, or upload from an album. I tried many, many photos, all but two of which were taken with my DSLR and uploaded to and from my phone. The Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl and Yellow-breasted Chat were taken directly with my phone. Once you select your photo, you are instructed to tap the screen where the eye of the bird is, followed by another tap on the tail of the bird. 

The app then does some processing, which never took more than 15 seconds or so, after which it pops up with your photo at the top and suggestions for what your bird may be, ranked below. My first try was something I thought was relatively easy, Long-billed Curlew.

Boom. Got it, straight away. Good job, but not the toughest bird to identify, though I was impressed that Marbled Godwit and Whimbrel were the next two choices. Okay, let's get a little tougher. Rock Wren.

Dang. Two for two, although the other suggestions were a bit odd.  Still, Rock Wren.  Good job. Let's try Sandwich Tern.

Okay, not number one, but still number three, and it gets you in the ballpark. Now I really wanted to mess with it.  Lapland Longspur.

Number two.  This was when I started to get a little freaked out. My photo is not in profile, and Lapland Longspur can superficially look like a LOT of other stuff, especially in this plumage. Okay, bird in flight.  Black-bellied Plover.

Seriously? This was the point where my mind officially blew. Look, I'm not a computer guy, and I really have no idea what programmers and computers are capable of, but I did not think it was this. The idea that an app can be this accurate in identifying photos of birds is INSANE to me. Here's some other stuff I ran.

These next few were probably the most impressive to me.

So, the first picture demonstrates that the software can pick out the Tropical/Couch's complex from other Kingbirds. Next, was Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl, which was correctly identified from the other 13 owl species in the software (to be fair, Northern Pygmy-Owl does not appear to be in the system). And last, a female Rufous Hummingbird, which is not an easy identification. I thought I'd try and stump it with some underexposed and poorly lit photos, but I was wrong.

This thing can even identify dead birds.

I'm not going to pretend that the app is perfect. After taking out the birds that are not in the database, I ended up with 43 trials; of those, 6 did not have the correct bird in any of the suggestions. That said, there were some major misidentifications. Here are some of the more wild misses.

Orange-crowned Warbler.

American Redstart.

It's kind of ridiculous to expect this app to do anything with empids. The photo is of a Yellow-bellied Flycatcher, which didn't appear as an option.

Cooper's Hawk.

So, the only reason I'm dedicating a blog post to this app is because I am absolutely blown away at how accurate it is. I did not expect anything close to this; I really thought it was going to be a joke. And, let it be known that I have no affiliation with this company, whatsoever.

I'm not sure whether the Birdsnap marketing team has identified a target demographic, but I can tell you exactly who that should be: beginning birders and non-bird focused nature lovers. This app is not for me or anyone else who is even a relatively experienced birder. It will not help you with empids or young gulls. It will not teach you about molt or primary projection. What it will do is help someone who does not really "know" birds know what they are looking at. And honestly, I think that's okay. We could argue about whether or not that's "birding", but I think there a lot of people out there who just want to know what they're looking at and leave it at that. Fair enough. This app is an amazing tool for them.