18 November 2014

Yardage

A simple thought:  I think birders are often people that enjoy keeping track of birds.  Lists, after all, are great motivators; they show progress (or lack thereof).

Along those lines, many birders decide to keep "yard lists", a simple list of the species they've seen where they live.  Although I live in an urban neighborhood south of Sacramento overlooking a busy 4-lane road, I too keep track of the species I see from home.  If you're used to large, wooded yards, streams and rivers, you'd look at my neighborhood in horror:
Who would pay attention to birds in THAT mess?  Well, me.  I still keep track almost on a daily basis every bird I see from home.  Because I use eBird to keep tabs of my records, I can see that I've submitted a checklist for 273 days for this yard since I moved here in September 2011.  I can also see that I've tallied more than 104 different species.  Yep, more than a hundred species from only my patio window.

Even now as I write this, it's 1 minute after dawn and I have a high powered scope sitting in my living room.  While most people don't even notice the flying specks a mile away, I find entertainment in finding those in my scope and realizing I'm looking at a flock of ducks called Common Goldeneye.  Or maybe I catch a glimpse of a speck a mile high, a migrant raptor called a Northern Harrier.   Absolutely no one around my neighborhood understands that.  But that's fine with me.

Numbers-wise, if I pay attention to the species flying by in a given morning, my list will likely be between 20-30 species per day at this time of year.  As an example, here's a checklist from about a week ago.

Today marks the 1-month milestone; I arrived back home from Alaska a month ago today.  Since then, I've submitted 22 daily checklists from the yard and have totaled 51 species.  Here are some highlights from the past month:

Ross's Goose (3 on 12 November; my 3rd record for the yard)

Tundra Swan (10 on 14 November; my 6th record for the yard)

Northern Harrier (1 on 3 and 12 November; my 7th and 8th records for the yard)

Long-billed Curlew (14th record for the yard)

Merlin (1 on 17 November; my 3rd record for the yard and my 7th record for the county)

Prairie Falcon (1 on 17 November; my 1st record for the yard)

Western Bluebird (1 on 6 November; my 1st record for the yard)

American Pipit (4 on 7 November; my 2nd record for the yard)

Pine Siskin (7 on 27 October and 1 on 4 November; my 1st and 2nd records for the yard)


Even the common species that I see from the yard could be pretty interesting depending on where you're from.  I often see species such as NUTTALL'S WOODPECKER, WHITE-CROWNED SPARROW, BUSHTIT, WHITE-TAILED KITE, SANDHILL CRANE, and GREATER WHITE-FRONTED GOOSE.  Not to mention the hummingbirds; I see hummingbirds every single day, year-round.  In spring migration, I've seen as many as 4 hummingbird species at my feeders (including this stunner, a CALLIOPE HUMMINGBIRD):

So hey, why not keep a yard list of your own?  It doesn't have to be a big list, it doesn't have to have rare birds on it; what's most enjoyable is watching the progress.

14 November 2014

Hybrid sapsucker?

You can imagine my chagrin in discussing hybrids just a couple of days after mentioning that most birders reel back in fear when you mention the "H word".  Good thing I quietly reside outside of the circle of most birders.

So here's the deal... I was birding at a local patch here in Sacramento County (Garcia Bend Park: 38.482632, -121.546743) when I found an interesting sapsucker.  I didn't get great looks or great photos; here are the only 5 in existence:





Luckily, because it's likely obvious to those who a) know sapsuckers or b) are willing to open a bird book, this clearly isn't a Williamson's or Red-breasted sapsucker.  So, yay, we're making progress!  In fact, I'm 100% positive that this bird is one of the following options:

1) a pure RED-NAPED SAPSUCKER

2) a pure YELLOW-BELLIED SAPSUCKER

3) a hybrid between those two species

That leaves us with one question ("What is this thing?!) that stems into a lot of questions ("Why is it that thing?").  You see, I discovered pretty quickly that this bird isn't very straightforward.  I mean, it lacks a red nape but has some red feathers in the lower throat.  Hmm!  So now the deliberation begins.

Before we go much further, there are a couple of other potentially important things we need to figure out.  Mainly, what sex is this bird and could it be a youngster?

Age:  I've done some reading on this issue and discussed this bird with several people now.  One thing that came out of these discussions is that this is an adult bird.  I've heard from multiple sources that the black shield on the breast isn't shown on first-year birds until spring, even for RN.  And it's certainly not a young YB; they don't finish their molt until much later.  So, if you're willing to believe that, we're dealing with an adult!

Sex:  So knowing the age really helps us determine the sex.  Very simplistically, adults males of both RN and YB always show completely red throats.  So there you go, we're dealing with an adult female.

Nape:  Many of the books I have say nebular things like "Red-naped doesn't always have a red nape".  That gave me pause before reading Mlodinow et al. (2006).  That article discusses how this point is essentially due only to wear and that it's most likely to occur in the summer months.  They conclude that any sapsucker without a red nuchal patch between 1 October and 1 May is almost certainly not a RN.  Although this picture doesn't show the best angle, I think it's enough to suggest that this bird doesn't have red on the nape:
So with our bird, that's a likely strike against a pure RN.

Throat:  One of the things that makes this mystery bird so interesting are the few red feathers on the lower throat, visible here:
I had always been under the impression that a pure YB never showed any red in the throat.  Now I know that's incorrect!  Mlodinow et al. (2006) stated that up to 7% of female YB have varying amounts of red in the throat (they even have a cool photo of one in the article that matches our mystery bird quite well).  They also include photos of a hybrid female and state in the caption that "the white throat with red corners is not uncommon among hybrid females".  Thus, it's safe to say that our mystery bird has the throat pattern of either a rare YB or hybrid.

Supercilium:  A fieldmark that I hadn't focused on until recently is the thickness of the supercilium; roughly speaking, RN have thinner white superciliums compared to YB.  Mlodinow et al. (2006) discuss this fieldmark in their article and conclude that, although there is probably overlap, the subtle feature can be helpful.  In looking online at lots of pictures, I agree that it's quite noticeable.  It's my opinion that our mystery bird shows this relatively thin supercilium that doesn't flare out towards the rear and thus favors RN.

Malar:  Although less helpful (at least I think so), the relative thickness of the white malar stripe can also be used as a supporting fieldmark.  Generally speaking, RN have thinner white malars than YB.  Like with the supercilium, I think our mystery bird fits well with RN on this trait.

So maybe it's time to summarize some things about our mystery bird...

Marks that favor RED-NAPED:
  • Narrow supercilium
  • Narrow while malar stripe

Marks that favor YELLOW-BELLIED:
  • Lack of red on the nuchal patch
  • Throat pattern (although only rarely; this also favors a hybrid)


Clearly I think it's time we should consider the third option; a hybrid.  Mlodinow et al. (2006) discusses how these species are only known to hybridize in a limited part of southwestern Alberta.  Although they were said to interbreed freely there, it's estimated that only about 5,000 of these hybrids exist.  In other words, they're hella rare.  However, it's also stated that their wintering range isn't known.  "Hmmmm" said the Central Valley birder.

I should add a caveat; I wasn't able to see the pattern on the back of this bird which could be another helpful trait to study.  Similarly, if someone were able to take better photos of the nape, that could also be helpful.  In fact, those photos could turn this silly analysis on its head.

But seriously, does this bird fit the model of hybrid?  I believe the above conflicting identification points are enough to call this a hybrid.  We have fairly reliable traits pointing to two different species.  Is it possible that this could be a pure RN or YB?  Well, I suppose so but I personally don't see that as likely.

If you want to read more, I highly recommend this article that was published in Birding in 2006.  It goes way more in-depth than I do!
Mlodinow, Steven G., Jessie H. Barry, Cameron D. Cox. 2006. “Variation in Red-naped and Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers.” Birding 38:6 pp. 42-51.

Hybrids.  See, wasn't that fun?

12 November 2014

1200 shears

It's not too uncommon to have a couple of warbler species stick around this part of the Central Valley during the winter months.  Of course, the YELLOW-RUMPED WARBLERS are by far the most expected but sometimes you bump into species like ORANGE-CROWNED, BLACK-THROATED GRAY, or TOWNSEND'S WARBLERS.  Here's one of the latter at the City Cemetery here in Sacramento County:
I've visited this location several times in the last month hoping for a year bird like RED-BREASTED NUTHATCH or EVENING GROSBEAK but no luck so far.

Something unusual has been happening in Sacramento County so far this fall (and it sounds like other places have seen it too).  We're going through a very notable invasion by several species that don't normally winter here.  This includes BAND-TAILED PIGEONS and STELLER'S JAYS.  Most of these sightings have occurred along the American River and finally, after a try or two, we connected with some STELLER'S JAYS at the Folsom City Park and Rodeo Grounds.  This was a county lifer for us.

We heard the distinctive call of the jays as soon as we got out of the car and we eventually traced them back into the woods between the canal/trail and the rodeo grounds.  I eventually got a clear shot of one high up in a pine:
We've been seeing continuing numbers of LEWIS'S WOODPECKERS although this is less of a story than the pigeons and jays.  A late-morning visit to Latrobe Road and Michigan Bar Road in eastern Sacramento County yielded 60+ LEWIS'S WOODPECKERS including several that visited this puddle in the road:
Again, Ashley made a photographic contribution; this ACORN WOODPECKER clinging to some non-wood along Latrobe Road:
Michigan Bar Road provided a couple of other surprises.  Mainly, we lucked into a flock of 6 MOUNTAIN BLUEBIRDS up at the top of the road (3.1 miles north of the highway).  This is a pretty uncommon species here in Sacramento County but many winters see a report or two.  Here's a photo showing 4 of the 6:
Not all that unexpected given their invasion status, we bumped into two more STELLER'S JAYS along this road.  But because it was flagged, I tried for photos anyway (and only managed a terrible backlit photo):
For some reason, I've gotten closer to HORNED LARKS in this part of the county than maybe anywhere else in the world.  Here's one perched tamely; from the looks of it, it might be one of the rubea birds that breeds here in the Central Valley:
Switching gears and location, this might look like an art piece but it's an actual photo Ash took at the Monterey Bay Aquarium:
Yes, we were in Monterey and so, naturally, we stopped at Point Pinos for a quick 40 minutes of seawatching.  Highlights included 1200 BLACK-VENTED SHEARWATERS, a treat considering I'd only seen this species 3 times prior.  You can see that checklist here.

06 November 2014

I Wanta WETA

I've continued to make my rounds to local patches around this part of Sacramento County.  I haven't turned up anything truly amazing but it feels good to cover ground that might not be getting covered at all.

I suppose the best bird I've stumbled on was this WESTERN TANAGER at William Land Park up in Sacramento.  Although it was flagged, this species has been findable there this fall (and last winter) so it's really not all that unexpected anymore.  I only managed a backlit photo from a distance:
The rock garden there is always interesting.  There aren't always birds in it but the garden remains interesting!  This BLACK PHOEBE stationed itself right next to the water feature; fitting for a species that is often found near water:
The FIERY SKIPPERS were very obliging; probably because it was a chilly morning and they hadn't warmed up yet:
At a different local patch, Don Nottoli Park here in Elk Grove, I spied this PRAIRIE FALCON perched way up on a powerline tower.  This powerful predator is a denizen of wide open spaces here in the Western US.  It's actually pretty uncommon at this particular local patch (and only during the winter months).  In fact, this is only my 4th record there since we started birding it in 2011:
And now switching gears.  A lot of birders groan when you mention the H word.  Hybrid.  I get the feeling that many birders don't like them because, well, birders are eager to check off a species on their list, not a halfsie.  I mean, any birder can do whatever with whichever list they want but they probably shouldn't count something if it's not pure, right?  I would say that the Yellow-shafted vs. Red-shafted flicker conundrum is a good example of this but that'd be incorrect; hybrids are generally the offspring of two different species, not subspecies.  Thus, this flicker example is more about intergrades instead (remember, all hybrids are intergrades but not all intergrades are hybrids).

I hope it's widespread knowledge around here that the flicker you casually see might NOT be a pure "Red-shafted".  It's actually especially easy to tell on flickers because of the red crescent that is or isn't on the nape.  You can break it down like this:
If a flicker has ANY HINT of a red crescent on the nape, it's NOT a pure Red-shafted and shouldn't be called that on your checklist.
So congrats, you heard a flicker and didn't eBird it as a Red-shafted because you know NO ONE can tell by calls.  Or hey, you see a flicker fly by and it had reddish flight feathers... and you DIDN'T call it Red-shafted because, let's be honest, you have no idea if had a faint red crescent on the nape.  You get the idea!

Taking it one step further though, I started pondering this bird from William Land Park:
Yep, by this logic, red crescent = this is either an intergrade or a Yellow-shafted.
So looking at the flight feathers....

Aha!  They look rather yellow... right?  So this is a Yellow-shafted?  Right?  I'm not so sure.  And here is where I'll probably lose you...

I don't think this is a pure Yellow-shafted.  First warning to me was the red crescent on the nape; it doesn't look as bold as it should, or at least I don't think it does (feel free to Google images of other YSFLs and compare the red on the nape).  Secondly, I think some of the feather shafts, especially in the tail and outer primaries, look orangey and not the bright yellow I was looking for.  Together, to me, those things point to this being some kind of YSFL backcross.  So although I'm guessing a lot of birders here would call this a YSFL, I'm not comfortable with that.  Thoughts?  Have I lost it completely?

04 November 2014

90 in a day

While a lot of the country is grappling with the onset of winter, things here in the Central Valley of California remain... well... rather pleasant.  

I've done a fair bit of birding locally but haven't branched out to any destinations very far away quite yet.  I've seen about 125 species locally since I've returned from Alaska and hopefully it won't end there.

Here's a random assemblage of photos from the past few days.  First up is a PIED-BILLED GREBE, a common year-round resident in marshes, lakes, and slow-moving rivers:
A couple of steps away from the grebe was this regally-perched flycatcher.  Of course, this is the exceedingly abundant BLACK PHOEBE:
One out-of-county location I ventured to was Staten Island in San Joaquin County.  The wintering flock of "Aleutian" CACKLING GEESE is back again in the pastures.  I spent several hours carefully scoping the various flocks for geese with neck-collars; I ended up finding 27 different banded geese that day.  Here's a look at part of the flock:
I birded along Meiss Road a couple of mornings ago.  This rural dirt road cuts through a quiet and not-often-visited part of Sacramento County.  In the summer, GRASSHOPPER SPARROWS breed here... but imagine my surprise when I found one lingering this late into the season!  A good bird this late in the season, I was happy it perched contently on the fence while I snapped a few photos of it:
Later that day, I visited Latrobe Road which is also in eastern Sacramento County.  The numbers of LEWIS'S WOODPECKERS are quite impressive there right now; I had about 25 from one spot.  This species, which comes down into the foothills in varying numbers from year to year, is both reliable and photogenic at that location right now:
Not to be outdone, the ACORN WOODPECKERS are, of course, still common too:
I visited the Nimbus Fish Hatchery to see if any wintering ducks had shown up on the American River yet.  They hadn't.  But I had a ROCK WREN near the fish ladder; this is the second time I've had one there this year:
In terms of nice, sharp photos, this CEDAR WAXWING takes the cake (but I didn't take the picture; this is what happens when Ashley gets ahold of my camera):
Just yesterday I spent 4-5 hours birding Cosumnes River Preserve in southern Sacramento County.  It was a very birdy morning and I ended my visit with 90 species (you can see that checklist here).  One highlight were the VARIED THRUSHES including this one that perched out in the open and sang repeatedly:
This WHITE-THROATED SPARROW, who didn't want to pose for very long, was near the visitor center (one was here last winter too):
By the time I was finishing my hike, it was warming up and the insects became a lot more interesting.  This VARIEGATED MEADOWHAWK was a stunner in nice light:
More butterflies started flying around in the warmth as well.  This butterfly is a GRAY HAIRSTREAK, the only hairstreak species I've seen on the valley floor:
There was another butterfly that I hadn't seen in a long time, a EUFALA SKIPPER:
Well, hopefully I'll update the blog within a week with more pictures.  Until then, feel free to shoot me an email if you'd like (arcticory@gmail.com).