How to prepare for international birdwatching adventures

2018-09-GREAT GREEN MACAW Mario Córdoba

Great Green Macaw, courtesy Mario Córdoba.

How to prepare for international birdwatching adventures

Published September 23, 2018, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle.

By Barb Gorges

The back-to-school sales reminded me that I have some studying to do. In a few months, Mark and I are going to Costa Rica on our first international birding trip. We are going with Bird Watcher’s Digest with whom we’ve birded before in Florida and Texas.

Our friend Chuck Seniawski has been to Costa Rica five times and recommended, as did BWD, The Birds of Costa Rica: A Field Guide, by Richard Garrigues and Robert Dean. It shows 903 species in a country 20 percent the size of Wyoming, which has only 445 species. About 200 I’ve seen before because they migrate up here for the summer or their year round range includes parts of both North and Central America.

2018-09-LONG-TAILED SILKY-FLYCATCHER Mario Córdoba

Long-tailed Silky-flycatcher, courtesy Mario Córdoba.

I asked local birder Greg Johnson, veteran of many international birding trips, how he learns the birds before heading to a new destination.

Greg said he starts with the country’s field guide, “I start reviewing it almost daily beginning several weeks or even months before the trip. For most trips, the tour company should be able to provide you trip reports from previous trips with the same itinerary. The trip reports should have a list of all birds they saw or heard. I then check those birds with a pencil mark in the book to focus only on those I am likely to see and ignore the rest. For example, if your trip to Costa Rica only includes the highlands and Caribbean slope, you can ignore those birds which only occur on the Pacific slope.”

Mario Córdoba of Crescentia Expeditions, trip leader, has provided a list of target bird species based on our travel route including several ecolodges we’ll stay at near national parks. No Pacific slope.

2018-09-RESPLENDENT QUETZAL (2) Mario Córdoba

Resplendent Quetzal, courtesy Mario Córdoba.

Greg’s email continued, “If you spend enough time studying the birds you are most likely to see, you’ll surprise yourself at how easy it is to ID birds you have never seen before at first sight. There are always some groups that are still hard to ID without help from a guide [bird expert] because differences between species are very subtle. In Costa Rica these would include woodcreepers, some of the antbirds, elanias, tyrannulets, other flycatchers, etc.”

There are recognizable genera in Costa Rica: hummingbird, woodpecker, wren, warbler. But then the others seem straight from Alice in Wonderland: potoo, motmot, puffbird.

Mark and I also went to eBird and looked at the bird lists for the hotspots we will be visiting and filtered them for the month we are there. Of 421 species we found, 338 will be unfamiliar birds.

2018-09-FIERY-THROATED HUMMINGBIRD Mario Córdoba

Fiery-throated Hummingbird, courtesy Mario Córdoba.

There is an alternative to thumbing through the field guide to study the birds. Our daughter-in-law, Jessie Gorges, with a degree in marine biology from the University of Hawaii, got a job one summer surveying birds across the Great Plains. She had a couple months to learn to recognize a few hundred birds by sight and sound.

Her solution is a free program called ANKI, https://apps.ankiweb.net. She created her own deck of digital flashcards with photos and birdsong recordings. It’s like a game and Jessie is the queen of complicated board and card games. The program prepares a daily quiz based on how much review and repetition it thinks you need.

But of course, even to make bird flashcards like I did 20 years ago for kids for Audubon Wyoming, printable from a CD, I need to find photographs. Finding them online or scanning pages of the field guide can help me study.

I take for granted the decades of familiarity I have with bird species in the U.S. There are groups in which I still can’t distinguish individual species well, for instance, flycatchers. But at least I know they are flycatchers. On this trip I’ll be leaving behind most of the birds I know.

2018-09-RED-LEGGED HONEYCREEPER Mario Córdoba

Red-legged Honeycreeper, courtesy Mario Córdoba.

But Greg assured me, “Once you go on an international birding trip, you’ll likely get hooked and won’t be able to stop. There are so many great birds that don’t occur in the U.S. I’ll never forget seeing my first keel-billed toucans in Belize or African penguins in South Africa.”

Preparing for this trip will make me appreciate the birds I do know when I meet their tropical cousins. I never thought about our northern rough-winged swallow having a counterpart, the southern rough-winged swallow. We could see both in Costa Rica.

Meanwhile, excuse me while I begin studying in ornithological order: “Great Tinamou, Little Tinamou, Great Curassow, Gray-headed Chachalaca, Black Guan, Crested Guan, Buffy-crowned Wood-Partridge, Least Grebe, Sunbittern, Fasciated Tiger-Heron, Boat-billed Heron, Green Ibis, Southern Lapwing, Northern Jacana, White-throated Crake, Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture, King Vulture, Gray-headed Kite, Tiny Hawk….”

2018-09-SCARLET MACAW Mario Córdoba

Scarlet Macaws, courtesy Mario Córdoba.

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“My Garden Neighbors,” L.A. Reed, book review

My Garden Neighbors book cover

The cover of “My Garden Neighbors” features a drawing by the author. Courtesy archive.org.

Published Jan. 19, 2005, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Birder’s interest piqued by book a century old.”

2015 Update: A new online search shows the author’s full name is Lucas Albert Reed. He wrote mainly on religious subjects. Many copies of this book are available online for sale. Read a digitized version, complete with drawings by the author, at https://archive.org/details/mygardenneighbor00reed.

By Barb Gorges

My Garden Neighbors, True Stories of Nature’s Children by L. A. Reed, B.S., M.S., with illustrations by the author, Review and Herald Publishing Association, Washington, D.C., 1911, copyright 1905 by L.A. Reed.

A couple months ago, Edna Hudson called me to see about donating bird books. I found a home for them at the Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory (www.rmbo.org), which will either put them in its library or sell them at a fundraising auction in April.

But one book, the subject of this review, caught my eye and I will either mail it or a check to Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory later. Edna said she bought it for resale at her shop long ago, but had no other information.

My Garden Neighbors, by L.A Reed, is apparently written for children. One of the last pages is in smaller type and is addressed to teachers, giving them study ideas and informing them outdoor study aids body as well as mind.

Then there’s the cover’s patina of hard use. Another clue was stuck between the pages, a certificate for junior membership in the Seventh-Day Adventist Young People’s Society of Missionary Volunteers, dated 1929, for William Archer, Boulder, Colo.

A search of the online used book seller, Alibris, shows two copies in much better shape available for $16 and $37, but no background information available.

With skepticism, I Googled the publisher’s name. What I found is no doubt familiar to some of my friends because Review and Herald has been the publishing house of the Seventh-Day Adventists since the 1850s. They still publish children’s nature literature.

Too close to deadline, I can’t find out more about the author, whom I suspect is a man. For one, it would have been highly unusual in 1905 for a woman to have a Master of Science degree. Plus, even though the stories in each chapter are told in the third person, they are told from the point of view of “the man.”

Book page

The author has little respect for bird-eating cats. Courtesy archive.org.

And while the animals are referred to in that quaintly polite, somewhat anthropomorphic style characteristic of the age, there’s no softening of the reality of nature.

For instance, Mr. Sparrow, after suffering the loss of a leg by slingshot, nearly loses his mate to another male before adapting.

Reed draws parallels to the way animals handle life and the way people could learn from them, but by no means is he as sentimental as other writers for children of the same era. In fact, when the man’s adopted stray cat begins “going to the bad,” killing several birds a day, the man chloroforms it without a sugar-coated euphemism.

In this modern age of effective kitty litter, the man may have been able to keep his cat indoors. However, on other topics he shares a modern birder’s viewpoint. For instance, house sparrows (he calls them English sparrows) are not to be encouraged since they are an invasive species that competes with the natives.

After the twelve chapters of stories about birds, spiders, and other garden neighbors, Reed provides “An Invitation to the Birds.” His admonition against loose cats, red squirrels and house sparrows, and his prescription of tangles of bushes and shrubs, watering places, nesting places and various grains to feed is hardly different from that of modern experts, although, finding hemp seed at the feed store today may be difficult.

Book illustration

Some illustrations are color plates, like this meadowlark. Courtesy archive.org.

Also at the end of the book are individual species descriptions, including range. This is where I thought I might learn what part of the country Reed gardened. First, I had to translate some of the old-fashioned names. I think “The Snowflake” should be revived for the snow bunting.

Reed mentions some other former names such as Summer Yellowbird (yellow warbler), Myrtlebird (yellow-rumped warbler), Cherry Bird (cedar waxwing), Thistlebird (American goldfinch), Chewink (eastern towhee), Firebird (Baltimore oriole), Blue Canary (indigo bunting) and Yellow-Hammer (northern flicker, yellow-shafted race).

Did you know that Lewis and Clark first collected for science what was originally known as the “Louisiana Tanager”, named for the Louisiana Purchase? Now we call it the western tanager.

Reed lists a couple other western species, but I don’t think he did more than travel through the west because he lists the red-breasted nuthatch, white-breasted nuthatch, brown creeper, yellow-breasted chat, and chipping sparrow as eastern-only species. I’m pretty sure they’ve been breeding in Wyoming and the west more than 100 years.

On the other hand, Reed lists the blue jay as being found in North America in general and we know it is a species still expanding its range into the west, though there are other blue-colored jays already here.

More than the change of bird names and distribution in the last hundred years, what is notably different in Reed’s book from our modern lives is the amount of time “the man” has for nature observation. It is explained, “The man’s health had failed, and the doctors had advised him to live more out of doors. That is how he came to have a garden.”

Perhaps we too should take the doctors’ advice and learn to take time to observe such events as construction of a spider’s web—from start to finish. It may be healthful as well as instructive.

Keeping juncos straight isn’t for bird-brains

Junco

The different races of Dark-eyed Junco can be difficult to identify because they can hybridize. This appears to be the Slate-colored type. Photo by Bob Vuxinic, courtesy Project FeederWatch.

Published Dec. 13, 2001, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Keeping juncos straight isn’t for bird-brains.”

2014 Update: The juncos remain lumped into one species and ornithologists keep hoping we citizen scientists will differentiate between the types and all the hybrids.

By Barb Gorges

It’s that Christmas Bird Count time of year again. Jane Dorn, our local count compiler, is going to ask me what kind of juncos I counted.

Sometime between the 1966 and 1985 editions of my favorite field guide, four species of juncos were lumped into one, the “Dark-eyed Junco.”

On the off chance that the American Ornithologists’ Union could someday split them out again, we should keep track of all the different kinds. But it isn’t easy.

Let Roger Tory Peterson refresh your memory. “Juncos are unstriped, gray, sparrow-shaped birds with conspicuous white outer tail feathers, gray or black heads, pale bills.

“Species with gray sides: White-winged Junco (white wing bars); Slate-colored Junco (fairly uniform gray); Gray-headed Junco (rusty back).

“Species with rusty or ‘pinkish’ sides: Oregon Junco (rusty or brown back).” The pink-sided junco, a paler version of the Oregon, was lumped with it prior to 1961.

But even if you can remember all these side and back color combinations, consider that the Oregon female, paler than the male, looks an awful lot like the pink-sided, except the pink-sided has an even paler throat.

One junco species didn’t get lumped, the former Arizona or Mexican junco. It was renamed the “Yellow-eyed Junco.” You have to go to Mexico or southeastern Arizona to find one.

Cheyenne in winter, however, is a great crossroads for the other juncos.

The white-winged breeds in the Black Hills and winters in southeastern Wyoming and eastern Colorado.

The slate-colored breeds in Canada and the northeastern states, but winters just about everywhere between our borders with Canada and Mexico.

The Oregon breeds in the Pacific Northwest and may travel in winter as far as the western Great Plains. The pink-sided sub population breeds in Montana and northwestern Wyoming and winters in the southern Rockies.

However, according to Sibley’s range maps, the gray-headed breeds only as far north as Colorado and Utah and winters south into Mexico.

But birds don’t read field guides so I can understand why Jane is interested in knowing exactly which juncos we see. Recorded observations are what continually redefine a bird’s actual range.

What makes it tough to identify the juncos feeding under my kitchen window is that they hybridize. Peterson said, “There is frequent hybridization or integration; therefore it is impossible to name all individuals.”

When Dave McDonald, University of Wyoming zoology professor, spoke at the Cheyenne High Plains Audubon Society meeting last month, he described his work with rosy finch species: black, brown-capped and gray-crowned.

To my untrained eye, they look like another group ready to be lumped, and in the past they sometimes have been. But genetic comparisons of blood drawn from birds captured and released shows they are quite distinct.

Dave thinks it might have to do with their preferred breeding habitat being high mountains which act like isolating islands, or maybe a predilection for breeding in the same place they were hatched.

On the other hand, one of Dave’s graduate students did extensive genetic comparisons of burrowing owls and found those living as far apart as California and eastern Wyoming were genetically indistinguishable.

I wonder, are their wintering grounds like Club Med and they leave in spring with new friends for locations other than their birth place?

In the discussion after Dave’s presentation, he mused on what genetic testing for juncos might show. I hope, should he ever get funding, he remembers I volunteered the flock in my backyard.

So Jane, until I get the blood tests back, I’m afraid many of the little gray birds I count on the CBC will merely be listed as “Dark-eyed Junco, subspecies unknown.”

Book review: “Peterson Field Guide to Birds of North America”

Peterson field guide

Peterson Field Guide to Birds of North America

Published Oct. 7, 2008, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “New Peterson’s Field Guide has it all together.”

2014 Update: This field guide is still available. There are so many field guides to the birds of North America. Check out a few from your library and compare them when you are trying to identify an unfamiliar bird. Chose the guide you like and buy a copy of the most recent edition.

By Barb Gorges

Peterson Field Guide to Birds of North America, by Roger Tory Peterson, 2008, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 544 pages, $26.

This year publisher Houghton Mifflin celebrated the 100th anniversary of Roger Tory Peterson’s birth with a brand new edition of his flagship birding field guide. Without Peterson, who died in 1996, the updating took the skills of six people.

In 1934, Peterson was the first to publish a field guide for identifying birds. Before that there were books about birds, but the descriptions were so thorough, from beak to toe, it was hard to find what set one species apart from another.

Peterson was inspired by an Ernest Thompson Seton story in which a character was able to identify ducks at a distance using their easy to see markings. As a trained artist, Peterson could make simple illustrations of birds showing their color pattern—just what the modern birder needed who wanted to bird with binoculars rather than a shotgun.

The Peterson technique has since expanded to hundreds of natural history titles including field guides for identifying everything from shells to stars.

If you grew up using one of the famous blue or green-covered “Peterson’s,” you’ll soon realize this isn’t the same old, same old. This one is titled “Peterson Field Guide to the Birds of North America.” That’s right. The eastern and western guides have been combined.

It’s about the same thickness, but each page, 6 inches by 9 inches, has 23 more square inches than previous editions– hardly a book to slip in a pocket anymore.

I’ve always had a problem using Peterson’s. The second western edition (1961) had all the plates of bird illustrations in the middle of the book and all the range maps at the end, unlike the Golden Guide of the same era where all information for a species was on the same page.

The third western edition (1990) finally put the pictures and descriptions together, but left the maps at the back of the book.

When I opened this new Peterson’s, I was looking not only for improvements, but innovations over other recently published field guides.

I looked up “Mountain Chickadee.” First is the family description which characterizes the size and behavior of chickadees and titmice and lists what they eat. It mentions the family’s worldwide range, which few other North American field guides do. Also, the family name appears on the bottom of each page, color coded for speedier referral.

In this larger format all six chickadee species are on one page, with their trademark (yes, actually trademarked) arrows pointing at the important field marks that distinguish each from the other. All the portraits seem more detailed than the last edition’s, but that’s because they’ve been digitally enhanced. The birds are bigger, which is good for those of us fighting the need for reading glasses.

Finally, there are thumbnail range maps right next to each bird’s description so those cryptic, written range notes, oversimplified and heavily abbreviated, are gone. A picture is worth a thousand words, after all. The larger maps, with notes, are still in the back.

Also new, in the heading for each species, is an abundance rating. How common is the mountain chickadee within its range and preferred habitat? “Fairly common.”

Continuing the third western edition’s tradition is the habitat description—good for people out in the field working i.d. the other way around and searching for a species. The voice descriptions are more detailed, harking back to the first western edition. And when appropriate, names of similar species are listed.

One of the recent improvements in field guides is a one page index of bird names. In this guide it is inside the front cover rather than in the back which makes it much easier for right-handers to balance the guide while consulting the index.

Inside the back cover are all of Peterson’s original silhouettes for shorebirds, roadside birds, etc.

And here’s what no other major bird field guide has so far: 35 video podcasts. Even before you buy this book, you can go to www.petersonfieldguides.com and download these to your iPod or watch them on your computer.

Other sources have excellent free online bird information in a species by species format. These videos have family overviews that complement the field guide. I recommend also watching the videos with birding tips and Peterson’s biography. Bill Schmoker, a bird photographer from Colorado who spoke at a Cheyenne Audubon meeting once, is listed in the credits for many of the videos.

Field guides just keep getting bigger and better. For one, we know more about birds than we did when Peterson published the first edition of his eastern guide. And also, technology keeps improving, whether printing books or providing digital information.

But I still like the feel of the green, cloth-covered 1941 western edition. It is slim, but with the dense feel that promises so much. I like its creamy, uncoated pages of text and simple, schematic bird drawings.            Maybe someone could put a nice green cloth cover on one of those new fangled, hand-held electronic “bird finder” contraptions.

The measure of success of the new Peterson’s bird guide will be not how many copies are sold, but how many battered copies lie next to binoculars in years to come.

 

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.