28 January 2014

Finally a teal

So far this year I've limited 100% of my birding to two counties in California; Solano and Sacramento.

Even though there aren't life birds or mega rarities in these parts at the moment, it's been enjoyable keeping tabs on county birds this year and trying my best to stay on top of things.  Even though I reached 150 species in Sacramento County this past week, I've been keen to continue finding species that have escaped me so far.  At least for me, birding is at its most interesting when there are goals and targets involved.

One such target was HUTTON'S VIREO, an uncommon year-round resident in the Central Valley.  I finally tracked one down the other day at Cosumnes River Preserve (with such a distinctive song, it was straightforward to pick out).  To untrained eyes, this species can resemble RUBY-CROWNED KINGLET but note the thick bill among other things:

The vireo was in good company; we tallied 70+ species on that checklist.

Another species I was missing was BLUE-WINGED TEAL (no, they're NOT common here).  After quite a few checks at Cosumnes River Preserve, I finally found two males there this morning.  Here's one of them:

Here's a pintail from this morning as well:

So here are some other species I'm still hunting for this year in Sacramento County:

California Quail
Great Horned Owl
American Bittern
Brown Creeper
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
Purple Finch
Lesser Yellowlegs

The first three are giving me a major headache....

23 January 2014


In the same vein as my other 2014 Sacramento County birding exploits, one could include my recent trips to Nimbus Fish Hatchery.

Although this well-known birding hotspot along the American River is at least 30 minutes from my house, I've made the trip several times this year already (remember, I'm pretending that I'm reluctant to leave this county; I'm still grounded).

Nimbus Fish Hatchery is along the American River which flows between Folsom Lake and its junction with the Sacramento River in... ta-da... Sacramento:

View Nimbus Fish Hatchery in a larger map

Parking at the Nimbus Fish Hatchery is free at the access off of Gold Country Road (which travels southwest off of Hazel Ave).

Although I never visit to actually watch the fish jump the ladder, this spot has been providing mitigation for habitat loss since 1958.  However, the annual fall migration of salmon and steelhead in the lower American River is still of interest to me... the birding here is great!

There are a couple of main attractions for birders; first might be the flocks of divers that congregate on the river near the fish ladders.  For example, the male COMMON MERGANSERS here practically glow when the light is at your back:

There are always females loafing around too.  These are separated from the much-rarer Red-breasted Merganser by the white chin and the much thicker bill:

-whistle-  Yes, she makes me turn my head too.

Usually more numerous than even the mergansers are the goldeneye that congregate here (I counted more than 80 goldeneye on my last visit).  Arriving in November and then wintering until April, both COMMON and BARROW'S GOLDENEYE are found here although Common is always more... common; the ratio as of late is about 1 Barrow's for every 12 Common.  Here are some Common Goldeneye of various sexes and ages:

The gleaming male in front is an adult whereas the two middle birds behind him are young males.  You can see that their flanks and scapulars aren't clean yet but the head pattern is mostly there already (although their heads still lack that fine, glossy finish).  The two outer birds, the shy ones that won't look at the camera, are females (note the darker gray flanks).

I mentioned BARROW'S GOLDENEYE so here is a sharp-looking female:

The main field mark to note is the screaming yellow bill; female Common Goldeneye will absolutely never show quite this much yellow.  You'll also note the angle of the forehead just above where it meets the bill.  Barrow's Goldeneye have a smaller, more triangular bill along with a different head shape.  Here is that same female with a male COMMON GOLDENEYE; note the different bill size: 

Some of the female BARROW'S GOLDENEYE aren't quite as obvious.  Here is a female (right) with two COMMON GOLDENEYE.  Note especially the angle of the forehead compared to the Commons:

To make matters worse, but more interesting, the two species of goldeneye DO hybridize from time to time, and guess what, I happened to find such a bird on my last visit (the first COGO X BAGO hybrid ever entered into eBird for Sacramento County).  Here's the male hybrid (right) along with a male HOODED MERGANSER (middle) and a male COMMON GOLDENEYE (left):

You'll notice a couple of interesting things about this bird.  First, the bill is smaller than the Common's and I'd say it looks fine for Barrow's.  Secondly, the forehead is steeper on the hybrid (again, I'd say it looks fine for Barrow's).  However, the facial crescent is intermediate in shape and maybe even a touch closer to Common than Barrow's.  Lastly, you'll see that the black on the scapulars is intermediate between the two species and the "black spur" is... kind of there but not as pronounced.

Moving on from ducks, Nimbus Fish Hatchery is also one of Sacramento County's finest spots for gull watching.  At least 10 species of gulls have been seen here through the years which makes it one of a few Central Valley locations that can boast those numbers.  Here's part of roosting flock during my last visit:

However, I've only seen 6 of those 10 species at Nimbus so far.  Here's my list in order of most common to least common (based on my opinion):

California Gull
Ring-billed Gull
Herring Gull
Glaucous-winged Gull
Thayer's Gull
Mew Gull

The GLAUCOUS-WINGED GULLS, which are winter-only residents, seem to be fairly pure here which is a nice change (they hybridize rampantly).  Here are two recent photos of these large, dark-eyed, smudgy-headed behemoths:

It's not a great shot but this is an adult THAYER'S GULL that flew over Nimbus the other day.  Note the extensive white on the underside of the primaries:

In addition to the ducks and gulls that will probably keep you busy for a bit, there are other various things to ponder.  One such wonder is this famous PEREGRINE FALCON which has mastered the art of catching the local WHITE-THROATED SWIFTS!

Yes, WHITE-THROATED SWIFTS are common here year-round; I had 30-40 during my last visit.  But hold on, this species of swift is suppose to be one of the fastest fliers on the planet (after all, their speeds have been estimated to reach 200 mph!).  How on earth would a falcon deal with that?  Well, by being THE fastest flier on the planet.  So here's a swift sorry to the sorry swift.

Much less common at this particular location is ROCK WREN.  I found this bird feeding on the rocks along the fish ladder (yes, on the other side of a chain-linked fence, as you can see)

Turns out, this is only my 3rd sighting of ROCK WREN(S) for Sacramento County and the first away from Folsom Lake (which is the main, reliable location).

19 January 2014


Here we are again, this time reviewing another Crossley book.  "The Crossley ID Guide: Raptors", by Richard Crossley, Jerry Liguori, and Brian Sullivan, was published in 2013 by Princeton University Press.  It is 286 pages long and costs $29.95.

I'm glad I don't have to beat around the bush for very long to start this out.  In fact, the very first 9 words in the preface of this book are "The Crossley ID Guide: Raptors is for beginning birders...".  So there you have it.  I don't really consider myself a beginner anymore which will explain why I generally find The Crossley Guides a waste of my time.  If you want a review from a beginner who thinks this is a glowing gift from heaven, look elsewhere.  Granted, I will try my best to find some saving grace of this book but after that, it's going on the shelf.

Generally speaking, the first 173 pages are photos of our North American raptors whereas the remaining pages are all text, range maps, etc.  You're probably aware by now of how these photographs are laid out; they're edited and superimposed on a natural background.  You can expect to see some of the birds up close whereas others are distant, some perched and some flying.  And for this, "The Crossley ID Guide... has turned the traditional field guide on its ear", or so says The Wall Street Journal.  I just don't buy it.

So for example, the Bald Eagle images begin on page 26 whereas the species account begins on page 183.  And yeah, don't get me wrong, the background photos are great, stunning, sure.  But the beginning birder deserves more, in my opinion.  Here's the first spread included for Bald Eagle:

Because the emphasis appears to be on the photos, you'll see how all the text is crammed in at the bottom.  I'm not a huge fan of this but then again, I'm not sure how one can have any text if your emphasis is on the photos.  Here's the spread for ZONE-TAILED HAWK:

Here's another spread, this time of SWAINSON'S HAWKS:

 Things get a tad bit more interesting when the authors start giving you spreads of quiz birds:

Generally speaking, I AM a fan of the text in the back of the book.  I think it's here that the author that knows most about hawks, Jerry Liguori, flexes his muscles and saves the book's butt.  Liguori, who has authored books such as "Hawks at a Distance" and "Hawks at Every Angle", knows his stuff and you can rest assured that his contribution is solid.  Each species account gets a color range map and 2-6 pages of text which include headers such as:

Flight Style
Size and shape
Geographic Variation
Similar Species
Status and Distribution

And for all the quick and critical talk, I will say that birders could learn a good bit of information if they scour the material in the back and give all the quizzes a try.  That's an honest answer.

However, I wouldn't have imagined that authors intent on claiming this book as "innovative" would include text such as this:
It's been a good summer.  Easy living... just relaxing in the nest while Mom and Dad brought squirrels, woodpeckers, jays, and anything else they could find to keep me from begging.  But now I'm an outcast, first pushed out of the nest, and now out of their territory.  
I certainly don't find this tidbit from the Northern Goshawk species account innovative.  I'll move on.

This book does manage to do some new things though.  For example, they include entire spreads of quiz birds that are "Going Away" or "Into the sun" or "Sunrise on the East Coast" or "Black and white" or "Topsides" or.. well, you get the idea.  I'd say that's a good thing for a beginner to look at once or twice because, yes, lighting can change everything.  Kudos to them for including those scenarios that many field guides don't.

On the inside flap it says this book is "the first raptor guide using Richard Crossley's acclaimed, innovate composite images that show birds as they actually appear in the field."  I'm not sure about you but when I see birds as they actually appear in the field... they're moving.  Sounds silly, sure, but I think instead of spending your days inside combing over the quizzes, you should get outside and see how hawks behave, how they move.  After all, it's experience that makes you.. well... experienced.

If I boiled down all my thoughts about this book and put them into a short list, it would go like this:

1) There's no denying that the photos are great.  I'm jealous of his camera gear, whatever it is.
2) The saving grace of this book is the text in the back by Liguori.
3) The quizzes are interesting and potentially helpful; thanks, guys, for putting those in.
4) The sections on "raptors going away", "backlit raptors",  etc make for new field guide material.

So although I find myself being quite critical of this style of guide (at least for my purposes), at least I can comfort myself in knowing that I don't have any other Crossley books to review just qu.... oh wait... I have another one right here!  On the plus side, this next one I have seems more interesting so that's a start!
I received a complementary copy from the publisher for review purposes, 
but the viewpoint expressed in this article is entirely my own.

16 January 2014

Camden Park

You've probably seen me mention "local patches" before but do you know what I'm referring to?  Or maybe you've heard some other birder mention their "local patch"?   This blog entry is devoted to that idea, or more specifically, one particular local patch that I recently discovered.

Simply put, I consider any local park that I bird from time to time a "local patch".  For example, I live in Elk Grove and there are 3-4 parks within a 10 minute drive that I consider my local patches.  These aren't glorious tracts of untouched forest or grassland, they aren't attracting any other birders (which, I won't lie, is kind of nice); these simply are little patches of "slightly birdy" habitat.

My recent discovery started when I was fooling around on eBird the other day, specifically the "Hotspot Explorer" function that was added recently: 

Once there, I zoomed in on my neighborhood using the map and found a couple of pins where existing hotspots already existed.  One of them I didn't recognize, it was labeled "Camden Park" and was only 7.4 miles from my house.  Interesting.  So I hopped in the car and went there.

Here's a map of the general area (note, you can switch it to "satellite view" to see more detail): 

View Camden Park in a larger map

I wasn't expecting much, honestly (you can't let yourself get too hyped up about junk like this).  However, after spending a few minutes there, I found myself impressed with the variety.  Remember, this is a pretty urban park in an area where urban parks can be pretty disappointing.  However, there were some nice marshes with lots of thick veg, some open water, etc.

It didn't take long to notice the waterfowl on the small ponds.  Included were things like MALLARDS, GADWALL, AMERICAN WIGEON, and a plethora of CANADA GEESE.

The BLACK PHOEBES (abundant, year-round residents) were seemingly omnipresent here as well:

Camden Park offers a couple of things that my other local patches just don't.  For example, BLACK-CROWNED NIGHT-HERONS often roost in (or on) the thick veg.  Today I ended up with 3.  

The most common bird of prey at Camden Park seems to be the 2-4 resident WHITE-TAILED KITES.  Here in the Central Valley, you can sometimes just find them perched in your neighborhood trees:

I was even more surprised to find this RED-BREASTED SAPSUCKER in the park today.  I looked around and didn't see any of the evergreen trees I would have expected it to be near:

At one point, it flew across the street and landed on a palm!  I can safely say I've never seen any species of sapsucker on a palm tree before today:

However, probably the most bizarre sighting today at Camden Park was this RING-NECKED PHEASANT that was strutting about on the mowed grass.  With so little suitable habitat, I was pretty stunned to find this species in such an urban environment:

So all in all, I tallied 50+ species today in less than 90 minutes, not a bad feat for being in the middle of winter (and town!).  If you want further details about what I saw today, you can see my checklist here.

Before I go, here are two photos I thought I'd share.  I took recently but from a different local patch (Elk Grove Regional Park).  First is a YELLOW-BILLED MAGPIE:

... and then this WESTERN SCRUB-JAY:

That's all for now.  You can expect a book review just around the corner...

15 January 2014


Most birders probably thoroughly enjoyed the Field Guide to Warblers published in the Peterson series that came out in 1997.  Yeah, that came out in 1997, a full 17 years ago!  But now comes a warbler book with a very different approach and some very outstanding information that I've never seen before in a book.  The Warbler Guide, by Tom Stephenson and Scott Whittle, came out in 2013 and is published by Princeton University Press.  It is 560 pages long and costs $29.95.

Unlike many of the books I've been reviewing of late, this book actually seems to be more of a field guide than a reference guide.  Although it's shorter than the full-size Sibley Guide to Birds, it's a little thicker.  It has "flexibound" covers so I'm eager to report that it, too, will make for a far superior spider smashing utensil.

I'll get to one major point right away; I'm generally not a fan of photographic guides.  Yes, I know, you've probably heard me say it before (and will probably hear me say it again) but I just don't think a photographic guide can really shed new light on the intricacies of bird ID like an illustrated book can.  First, it's nearly impossible to standardize images in a way that an artist can ensure.  Not every bird will be in the same light and not every bird will be in the exact same posture.  HOWEVER, this book is not like most photographic guides and they actually do a fairly good job at standardizing things.  In other words, I won't be too quick to dismiss this very interesting book; the authors do try to cover new ground and for that, credit is deserved.

A little bit more about the book though.  First up, the 99 page introduction includes plenty of general information about warblers.  The sections covered are:

How to Use This Book
Icons and Key Terms
How to Use the Maps
Topographic Tour
What to Notice on a Warbler
Aging and sexing Warblers
Understanding Sonograms
How to Listen to Warbler Songs
Learning Chip and Flight Calls

You'll notice that the last 3 sections focus on bird songs and this is where this book distances itself with others of its kind; this book is LOADED with sonograms of chip notes, flight calls, multiple song types, comparisons between species, etc.  I can truly say I've never seen a field guide come anywhere close to including these kinds of details.

The book claims to have everything you need to ID warblers from every angle.  And although I don't strictly believe they do, they certainly try.  For example, there is a series of Visual Finder Guides at the start of the book.  First, here is the 45 degree Quick Finder:
As you can see, the above display is really just a collection of photographed warblers.  Does it shed any new developments on ID?  Not really.  Would it help a brand new birder?  Well, it very well might.  Because if you're just learning that spring Blackburnian Warblers have that flame/orange color on the throat, this page is for you.  If you prefer your quick finder to focus on birds just from the side angle (not 45 degrees), there's this:
The authors also break them down into which half of the country you're birding.  For example, here is a collection of spring-plumaged warblers of the east:
And one for East Fall warblers:
Or if you're a western US birder, there is also a special page for typical western species:

Here is yet another quick finder, this one using the underview:
You'll notice that those undertail photos are not standardized and quite small.  On some of the birds you have them looking down at you, others looking straight ahead.  Plus, the different branches they're all on (and the different angles of the branches) just makes it more busy than it needs to be.  I don't find that page useful at all.

And yet, here's another quick finder; this one of faces:
I should try to pause and remember that if you're just learning warblers for the first time, this collection might be useful for, say, IDing plain warblers with eye-rings.  And truly, who doesn't enjoy looking at the faces of these colorful birds?  But seriously, I just see this as an item we're supposed to be impressed with and not one that is going to help tremendously in the field.  Yes, these guys are skilled photographers but that alone doesn't make me want to use the book.

Now, perhaps my favorite of the quick finders is this collection of undertail patterns.  You'll note they AREN'T photos (and with it being perhaps the most helpful of the quick finders that they include, one would wonder why they didn't do the entire book this way):
You'll note that there are no ID marks pointed out in these quick finders, only the page number where you can read more about the species.  We'll get to that in a bit.  So, are these quick finders helpful to birders who are intermediate and above?  Not likely.  Sure, they're an attractive layout of attractive birds (something you'll find yourself thinking more than once as you flip through this guide) but that's a far cry from claiming this section as an epic step forward in field ID.  Thankfully, these quick finders are only found in the beginning of the book and the rest of the book takes a different direction.

So, let's imagine you had a side view of a Hooded Warbler and you matched it up to the East Fall Quick Finder, see that page 300 has more info, and you turn there.  You're now looking at the species account for Hooded Warbler.  This is where things start getting slightly more interesting.  At the start of every species account, there are a few icons at the top that show silhouette, general color scheme, undertail color scheme, roughly which half of the country they're found, and at what height in the forest they're likely to be seen at.  So, for the Hooded Warbler, this is what they show:

And here's an example of the same graphic but for Connecticut Warbler:

See the differences?  So, sort of clever, I suppose.  Instead of being all that helpful, though, I find them just amusing to look at.  I suppose it could be fun to quiz yourself by covering up the names.  Try this quiz bird:

Each species account comes with 1-2 maps.  Alongside the maps are timeline scales showing roughly when, compared to other migrants, this species is expected to migrate.  So for this Hooded Warbler map below, you'll see the arrows on the map point both directions with would seem to indicate that they follow roughly the same route to/from the breeding grounds.  Also, you'll see that timing-wise, they seem to migrate right down the middle:

 However, a different particular species has two maps and a different timeline:
You'll see that the map on the right shows a different pattern; the warblers migrating south follow a more easterly route.  You'll also notice that the spring migration is extremely late.  By these two indicators, it might be obvious that we're discussing Connecticut Warbler.

Oh, before I forget, the correct answer for the above quiz was Painted Redstart:

A major emphasis of this book, and perhaps where it surpasses all others, is the focus on songs and sonograms.  Remember the Quick Finder series at the start of the book?  Well, the authors also created one for warbler songs.  You'll see the authors break the species' songs down into categories like "Buzzy" (rising pitch, falling pitch), "Partly Buzzy" (rising pitch, variable pitch), "Trilled" (rising pitch, steady pitch), etc.  This really isn't a bad idea and it's pretty fun to test yourself by looking at the sonograms and seeing if you can ID them: 

The Quick Finder guides aren't the only places you'll see sonograms though.  In fact, each species account throughout the book has 2+ pages of sonograms.  In looking at those pages, first you'll see a "helpful hint" under the species name which may or may not help you remember what the song sounds like.  In the case of the Yellow Warbler, it says "Bright yellow lemon meringue pie is sweet, sweet, oh so sweet".  Or the Swainson's Warbler account says "Professor Swainson started classes with well, well, well, I'll teach you well".  Others are more of a stretch; like the Common Yellowthroat "Only in Wichita do common folk wear yellow bow ties on their throats".  Um.... whatever.

Here's a sample of the sonogram pages from the Yellow Warbler species account:

This page shows some sonograms of species that sound similar to Yellow Warblers:

As you can see, there is plenty of sonogram info to keep you busy for a while.  And as I said before, I think this is where this book goes beyond anything I've seen before in a field guide.

Another interesting portion of each species account is the "Distinctive Views" section.  Here they crop down photos into just pieces of the bird, maybe a tail here, a wing panel there, etc.  The whole idea is that even if you see that cropped view of a warbler in the field, you can conclusively ID it.  Here are some examples.  Do you agree that they're distinctive?

I admit that I kind of like this neat idea; it's like nothing I've seen before in a field guide.  Here are some without the names; can you ID them?

So after it's all said and done, here's a quick look at an entire first page of a species account:

Likewise, here is the first pages of the Yellow Warbler species account:

The first "Distinctive Views" quiz above is of course a Black-throated Gray Warbler.  The second one is less obvious, a Common Yellowthroat.

Lastly, the back of the book has a few interesting features as well.  For example, it has a 2-page spread of silhouettes (warblers and other similar species), a table of measurements, a diagram of North American warbler taxonomy, warblers in flight (photos), a couple of quiz birds with in-depth answers, and a table including brief foraging behavior, foraging location, general breeding habitat, and vagrancy.  These sections are easy to miss though, tucked away in a book with 560 pages.

Anyway, The Warbler Guide is an interesting book to flip through, especially if you're interested in sonograms.  But note, it doesn't contain much natural history information (other than the silly icons) like the Peterson Guide does.  I think a more accurate title would have been "The Photographic Guide to Warbler Sonograms and Quick Glances".  Even though it's a photographic guide, mad props to the authors for their hard work, stellar photos, and trying to include material never before covered in a field guide.  In the end, would this be my one-and-only warbler guide if I had to chose?  No!  I still strongly prefer the Peterson Guide to Warblers.  But don't take my word for it, pick up a copy of The Warbler Guide and see what you think.

I received a complementary copy from the publisher for review purposes, 
but the viewpoint expressed in this article is entirely my own.