Rare birds don’t read field guides

Lesser Black-backed Gull

Lesser Black-backed Gull. Courtesy Wikipedia.

Published October 3, 2007, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Going by the book doesn’t prove bird’s existence.”

2014 Update: Rare bird sightings in Wyoming continue to be a source of amazement and a topic of discussion.

By Barb Gorges

If a bird flies through the forest and there is no one to see it, does it exist?

Conversely, if the annual conference of the American Ornithologists’ Union is held in your state, will birds be found never before seen there?

Yes and yes. Several of the 500 attendees of the conference held in Laramie in early August observed what may be the first two records of lesser black-backed gull for Wyoming, if accepted by the Wyoming Rare Bird Records Committee.

One of the gulls was hanging out at Lake Hattie on the Laramie Plains and the other at North Gap Lake high in the Snowy Range.

Wyoming does not have a huge number of resident ornithologists or expert birders to cover our vast plains and mountain ranges so one has to wonder how many lesser black-backeds have visited previously.

The lesser black-backed is essentially a European species, but gulls are likely to travel long distances scouting new territory. North American birders started seeing this species in the winter along the Atlantic coast in the early 1970s.

Field guide range maps indicate at least a single record up to a few sightings every year for states in the eastern half of the U.S., but with a heavy concentration along the Front Range of Colorado.

This makes me smile. Several years ago I went on a late fall field trip led by Tony Leukering and Doug Faulkner to look for gulls at the reservoirs around Fort Collins. We saw several rarities.

Are these guys gull magnets? Or do they have more knowledge of how to recognize species that aren’t expected?

So I asked Doug about the new gull in Wyoming. He wrote back:

“You should look at Sibley’s Lesser Black-backed range map.  That one is pretty accurate, although as with most publications, it was already out-of-date before it hit the printers.

“LBBG is annual in winter in Colorado in small numbers (about 8-12 per winter; I often see 6 or more).  In fact, it is regular enough that the Colorado Bird Records Committee no longer requests documentation.

“Colorado’s first record is from 1976.  It wasn’t until the 1990s, though, that the species really took off and started to occur annually, then in the early 2000s in relatively high numbers for an inland state.

“The Wyoming Bird Records Committee is reviewing documentation of one at Casper from winter 2004.  If accepted, that would be the first state record.

“LBBG has been slowly expanding, geographically, westward as evidenced not only by Colorado’s records, but also those from other states.  More interestingly, the species has broken out of its “rut” of only occurring in winter inland. It is now being found more often in summer (Wyoming’s two birds this year, plus several for Colorado and Nebraska in recent years), as well as earlier in the fall and later in the spring.”

How many observations does it take before the field guide maps are altered? Last winter a lesser goldfinch, easily distinguished from our usual American goldfinch, was seen at a Cheyenne feeder almost daily, for months. The Sibley Guide to Birds shows a couple green dots meaning that there were already a few records for Wyoming.

But then came this summer. We had one visit our feeder. And so did people from Green River, Casper, Buford and Newcastle who posted their observations on Wyobirds, the e-list for learning about birds in Wyoming (http://HOME.EASE.LSOFT.COM/ archives).  Doug posted a report of small flocks around Guernsey when he birded the area.

Is this the beginning of a trend, an expansion of the lesser goldfinch range north or a one-time phenomenon? Time will tell.

Wyoming is woefully short of expert observers, though not short of people interested in watching birds. I take a lot of bird identification questions over the phone from people who want to know more about the birds in their yards.

On the other hand, I’ve also taken calls from visiting birders, who, having looked at the Atlas of Birds, Mammals, Amphibians and Reptiles of Wyoming edited by the Wyoming Game and Fish Department (http://gf.state.wy.us/wildlife/nongame), are quite positive that they have seen a first Wyoming record for a species they are very familiar with back home.

Are these visitors making a familiar species out of one of our similar local species, or have we locals not recognized an unusual species because we aren’t familiar with it?

The Wyoming Bird Records Committee judges the credibility of all rare bird records for the state. A few folks looking to bag state records have been deeply disappointed at the slow speed of our committee, but it is staffed by volunteer experts with full-time jobs and they do the best they can.

Us average birdwatchers are as important as the expert in documenting changes in the ranges of species. So how do we make our observations useful?

Study birds. Participate in data collection efforts like Project FeederWatch and eBird. Learn when and how to file a rare bird form. To request one, call the Wyoming Game and Fish regional office in Lander, 307-332-2688. And keep looking.

After all, as birdwatchers are fond of pointing out, the birds don’t read the books.

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A bird by any other name still looks the same

AOU logoPublished Sept. 18, 2003, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “A bird by any other name still looks the same.”

2014 Update: The American Ornithologists’ Union continues to change bird species’ classifications, and consequently their names and or families, based on new science.

By Barb Gorges

It’s a bird book author’s nightmare and a marketer’s dream. It’s the American Ornithologists’ Union’s third supplement to their 1998 checklist of official bird names and taxonomic order as recently published in The Auk (and available online at www.Birding.com).

All bird publications, including the Wyoming Bird Flashcards CD I finished making last year, are seriously out of date.

Most of the AOU’s new changes don’t affect us in Wyoming, but this time there are some doozies.

The AOU has three goals when making changes to its official checklist. It wants each bird’s scientific name to reflect its relationship to closely related birds. It wants to comply with standardized common names for birds around the world. And it wants to list all birds in ornithological order, based on evolutionary development.

Because people in different locations have had different names for the same plants and animals—not to mention different languages, about 150 years ago scientists started using Latin, the historical universal language of scholars, to give them each unique names.

The Latin, or scientific, names are also part of the taxonomic system developed by Linnaeus to categorize living things. Each scientific name starts with the genus, which is shared with a plant or animal’s closest relatives. The second part is the species name, the plant or animal’s individual name.

On the other hand, common names for birds were originally whatever people observing them wanted to call them. There was some confusion as to which small yellow bird the name “yellow canary” referred to.

Evidently ornithologists gave up on the idea of all of us learning the Latin names because now organizations like the AOU are working hard to standardize common bird names—even from continent to continent. That is why our robins are listed by the AOU as “American Robin” because lurking out there are “European Robin” and “Rufous-tailed Scrub Robin.”

Ornithologists try to find the oldest common name and since ornithological study is comparatively young here in North America, we frequently have to give up our own bird names, such as sparrow hawk, pigeon hawk and chicken hawk for names based on older European terms: “American Kestrel,” “Merlin” and “Peregrine Falcon.”

So now the bird almost every English speaker anywhere would call a pigeon, and for which the AOU’s former common name was “Rock Dove,” will now be known as “Rock Pigeon.” I guess we commoners were right all along. “Rock” just distinguishes it from other pigeon species.

Three-toed woodpeckers, also found in Wyoming, used to be split into two subspecies, but those subspecies have been elevated to genus level. So now we’ll have the American three-toed woodpecker and across the Atlantic they will have the Eurasian three-toed woodpecker.

Genetic studies drive most AOU changes. Comparing DNA is more precise than examining the expression of genes, such as a bird’s internal structure and external looks, as was done previously.

Since new information comes to light constantly, conclusions often have to change. So in this supplement the AOU has also done additional shuffling, but luckily, most associated common names have stayed the same.

Finally, ornithologists worldwide have decided loons, long the first group of birds listed in North American field guides arranged in ornithological order, are no longer the most primitive. Geese, ducks, swans, quail and grouse will now come before loons.

I wonder how field guide authors feel about this—especially David Allen Sibley, who just came out this spring with his first eastern and western field guides. As usual, we’ll just have to remember all the previous names of each bird and look them up in the index.

So now “90 of Wyoming’s Most Noticeable Birds,” as listed on the Wyoming Bird Flashcards CD-ROM, are no longer in correct ornithological order either.

But the CD will need revision before its next printing anyway since the Wyoming Department of Education has rewritten its educational standards for which I wrote bird-related activity ideas.

[Flachcard CD availability—check with Audubon Rockies, http://rockies.audubon.org, or contact me at bgorges2@gmail.com.