Wednesday, November 26, 2014

The TGC Returns!

So last year, my good friend/perpetual nemesis Flycatcher Jen and I participated in the first ever Taken For Granted Challenge (TGC). If you don't remember, the challenge was to find and photograph 5 birds (with a bonus 6th new county bird) as picked by each other. The idea had come about a few weeks earlier, as I was out birding and texting with Jen about how there were no good birds around. She asked what I was seeing, and I told her I was looking at 5 Crested Caracaras. She correctly called me out on my bullshit complaining. After that, we decided that the TGC would be a good idea, in that it would help inspire us to make sure we weren't taking for granted the awesome birds that reside in our respective home counties. The idea has recently spread, with Hoosier Greg challenging The Laurence last weekend. You can see their respective results here and here.

Sedge Wren was a bird on my list last year. I did not see it. In fact, this individual right here was my county Sedge Wren, and was seen just this past weekend. Stoked.

Anyways, back to me and Jen. It was a hard fought battle, both physically and emotionally. We both struggled with our darkest inner demons, but in the end I eeked out a win and Jen didn't talk to me for like a month and a half. Cut to this week, and Jen is hankering for a rematch. I don't know why; she hated it so much last time. My theory is that her hate for me burns stronger than her hate for competitive birding. Regardless, this shit is happening. And because last years competition was tarnished with allegations of "impossible" birds and whatnot, we've turned to an independent mediator to select our birds for each other. Who could possibly have enough knowledge about expected birds in two counties as far away from each other as Multnomah, OR and Travis, TX? Who could ever presume to be worldly enough to lay out a level playing field of birds that are equally tough to find, see, and photograph? Your answer? Number. Fucking. Seven. That's right, the honorable Seagull Steve has agreed to play judge and jury for this volume of the TGC, and bird blog readers of the world should unite in joy and reverence. This shit is going to be epic.

Le Conte's Sparrow was another bird I missed on last years challenge. This bird was seen with the Sedge Wren last weekend.

So yeah. The shit goes down on Saturday, December 6th. If you live in Austin, be on the lookout for my list that morning and hit me up on the FB if you see the birds that I'm looking for. I'll buy you a beer.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

The Bird Points System™

So, I recently spent three outdoor days with the founding members of The Bird Watchers Watchers (BWW), a highly exclusive cabal whose primary focus is studying bird watchers in their natural setting. Their studies cover everything from adornment to behavior, and they generally leave no stone unturned. As a certified bird watcher, membership in this club is not attainable to me, but I do have an inside track into their inner workings. And, as much of their research is mysterious to most bird watchers looking in, some of our unique habits are still not completely understood by the BWW. Over the course of our three days together, this became abundantly clear. Hoping to grasp an insight into the mind of the bird watcher, members of the BWW attempted to mimic the subject, mostly in the practice of pointing at random birds and yelling, "10 points!" Needless to say, these interlopers were quickly sniffed out and discarded as the trash that they are. And as poor as their futile attempt proved to be, it did get the wheels turning in my head. What of this points system? Why did I reject it so quickly? Surely it wasn't because birds cannot be graded; we all know that this is not the case. The fundamental error that the BWW made was not having an accurate grasp on what birds should be allotted what points. Rock Pigeons are not worth 10 points. Great-tailed Grackles are not worth 10 points, at least in Austin, Texas. Double-crested Cormorants are worth 10 points, although only so in very specific places.

This Wilson's Snipe was seen in at Hornsby Bend in Austin, TX 15 November 2014, thus giving it a BPS score of 13.

At the risk of offering the nefarious BWW a small glimpse into the customs of our culture, I think that the points system needs to be hashed out and explained. My vision is that this may eventually become a tool to help bridge the gap between bird watchers and non bird watchers, which is a constructive effort, and not a destructive effort, such as those employed by the BWW. I offer this more as an investigation and a starting point for discussion, as opposed to a peer reviewed dissertation on The Bird Points System™.

While this Cave Swallow may be capable of obtaining triple digit points in some places in the country, here it is awarded a paltry 18 points.

Let us begin by defining the upper and lower parameters of The Bird Points System™ (BPS). The range shall be from 0 to 1000. Notice that the range begins at 0, as opposed to 1. This is a very important function of the BPS, as many birds are worth 0 points on both hyperlocal and national levels. Some common examples are Rock Pigeon, House Sparrow, and European Starling. As a reference point for 1000, I submit the Rufous-necked Wood Rail found in New Mexico in July of 2013. I remain open to other suggestions as a better pinnacle for 1000 points.

Bronzed Cowbird at Roy Guerrero Park in Austin, TX. 29 points.

The most important aspect of the BPS, and one that may well prove to be the most difficult for the BWW to fully understand, is that points are awarded on the very, very specific criteria of time and location. For example, over shared drinks with two members of the BWW in my neighborhood of Hyde Park in Austin, I spotted an Osprey. I quickly informed the two philistines that the bird was a 32 point bird. Only by explaining that the same bird seen just a few miles away over the Colorado River would be worth just 8 points was I able to help facilitate an understanding as to the expected status of the bird in question. Note that without the Bird Points System™, this number is completely meaningless. Let's look at another example, this one focusing on timing. In winter, a White-crowned Sparrow in the Austin area will score somewhere between 4 points and 13 points. Now take that bird, and put it in the same location in the middle of the summer. Suddenly, that low scoring bird shoots up to a staggering 264 points. Astounding.

Travis County Curve-billed Thrasher. 389 points.

It is important to remember that the average, local birding adventure will be fortunate to turn up a bird that scores higher than 40 or 50 points on the BPS. The threshold for local Rare Bird Alert qualification is 45 points. Though not factually correct, the system seems to function much like the Decibel system, in that the Decibel system operates on a logarithmic scale. It can be quite confusing, but such is the nature of birding.

Tricolored Heron at Anahuac NWR, TX. 15 points.

When assessing the scores of birds in your area, please remember that no two scoring systems look the same. While this is obvious in relation to California vs. Massachusetts, it is also of the utmost importance on a hyperlocal level (i.e. neighborhood to neighborhood).

That said, and with emphasis on the fact that this is a hyperlocal affair, I'll offer an example of the BPS for my home.

0 - Great-tailed Grackle
10 - Inca Dove
15 - American Robin (highly variable with timing of occurrence)
100 - Grasshopper Sparrow
500 - Northern Saw-whet Owl
990- Ivory Gull
1000 - Swinhoe's Rail

For good measure, the highest scoring bird I have ever seen was a Collared Plover, which came in with 763 points. In addition, for a bird to obtain #mega status, it must present at least 500 points.

Great-tailed Grackle. 0 points.

With that, I'd like to leave the floor open to discussion. I know that this is a frightening proposition, but I would argue that this is a function that has been in practice for hundreds of years. Ignoring it will not diminish its relevance; only with understanding may we harness its true power.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Tricky Identification Tips from This Machine

As a good friend of mine has said again and again, birding is hard. So many birds looks so much alike, and there are hundreds of different species. Birding can be intimidating and frustrating, especially when you are just beginning. Fortunately, there are many experienced birders among us, who are more than willing to offer tips and tricks gained from months and months of experience. The best forum to find these birding stars has proven to be The Facebook Bird ID Group of the World. However, if there are any of you not hip to the Facebook (it's pretty underground), you may find some of these identification tips useful. I'm here to serve.

This is a Clapper Rail, although differentiating Clapper Rails and King Rails can be difficult. The most obvious differences are that Clapper Rail is a half inch shorter from bill to tail and weighs about 3 ounces less than King Rail.
Herons and Egrets can prove especially tricky for birders to identify. This is a Great Egret, as demonstrated by the broken left leg. 
Compare this Greater Yellowlegs with the Lesser Yellowlegs below. Some people struggle with this complex, but it's actually very simple. The key thing to notice here is that GRYE weighs 160 grams, while LEYE weighs 83 grams. Shorebird identification is nearly impossible without my trusty Leica Avian Field Scale.
If a group of yellowlegs are in flight, you can see that the wingspan of GRYE is 28 inches compared to LEYE, which is 24 inches. Birding really isn't that hard, folks.
Terns offer another difficult identification challenge, especially in extremely poor light, as with this Sandwich Tern.  Fortunately, it is obvious that this bird is 15 inches long which, according to Sibley, rules out every other tern save for Bridled. Many birders will leave these two tricky terns as "Tern Spuh", but Sandwich Terns are usually seen near water.
Fortunately, Ammodramus sparrows are relatively easy to identify. This is a Nelson's Sparrow, as evidenced by the fact that is weighs 2 grams less than Saltmarsh Sparrow.
Ammodramus sparrows are notorious for giving great looks from high perches. They are easy to see, and easier to identify.
Although it is classified as an Ammodramus sparrow, this Seaside Sparrow is most often confused with White-throated Sparrow. It's an easy mistake to make, as they are virtually inseparable in appearance, habitat, range, and abundance. You will need to hear the bird sing in order to confirm the identification.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

HDNT: The Resident Vagrant American Flamingo of Texas

American Flamingo. What do we know about the status of American Flamingo in the United States? Well, it's a code 3 bird. It's annual-ish in Florida, but it's tough. I've heard unpleasant stories from folks who have unsuccessfully looked for Flamingo in the Everglades. The bird is rare at best in Florida, and is vagrant status anywhere else. They typically reside in the Bahamas, Yucatán, the north of South America, and oddly, the Galápagos. 

Except for one bird, whom we shall call HDNT. Let me tell you a little about HDNT. HDNT was born at the Rio Lagartos Biosphere Reserve in Yucatán, Mexico in 2005. We know this because HDNT has a band on its right leg, just above the knee. The letters on the band are, you guessed it, HDNT. So HDNT was born in Mexico in 2005, and was banded in August of the same year. In October of 2005, HDNT showed up on the Texas coast (at this point, American Flamingo was still called Greater Flamingo). That was a big deal; at least I assume it was. I was in my mid 20's and really into Bright Eyes; birds were not on my radar. So for the next 9 years, HDNT worked its way up and down the Texas coast, sometimes crossing over into Louisiana waters.

Surprisingly, a calling Osprey spooked these birds.

At some point, HDNT was joined by 492. 492, as evidenced and named by the band on its leg, is a legit Greater Flamingo, of the old world variety. On June 27, 2005, 492 and another Greater Flamingo successfully launched a harrowing escape from the Sedgwick County Zoo in Wichita, Kansas. The partner has not been seen since, but after some meandering around the country, 492 made its way to the Texas coast and made best friends with HDNT. It's a pretty heartwarming story. These days, HDNT and 492 spend their time foraging and being badass along the Texas coast. Once they are spotted, they seem to be somewhat reliable. Last winter, they were stationed along Cox Bay, near Port Lavaca, Texas. I recently received word that they had again taken up residence in the area, and with great fortune and the help of one of the most experienced and generous birders in Texas, I got a hookup with Port Lavaca birder Bob and his uncle Jay. Long story (not so short), Jay graciously offered to take myself and a couple others out on his boat to finally meet the famous HDNT and 492. And that shit was EPIC.

And so that's the story of HDNT and how I now have American Flamingo. I have to extend many, many thanks to Eric, Bob, and Jay. My life is different now: better, richer, and more at peace.  No, I'm kidding. I'm still an asshole, but now I'm an asshole that has seen a wild American Flamingo. Boom!