Thursday, March 17, 2011

March [gull] Madness

Today is the first day of the NCAA basketball tournament, also known as March Madness. Or as I like to call it, the best day of the year.

But this time of year marks the start of a different month-long event along the CT coast - the coastal gull show. For the next few weeks, gulls will likely congregate in large numbers (in the thousands) along the central and western coasts, where in recent years a large plankton concentration/bloom has occurred from March into early April.

These gull numbers, impressive in their own right, sometimes include rarities. 2009's finds included a "Common" Mew and probable Thayer's Gull. Anything is possible.

For more info on this event over the past couple years, click HERE.

- NB

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Comparisons of closely-related Western taxa: Sage Sparrow ssp, Savannah Sparrow ssp, Scrub-Jays, Aechmophorus grebes

While birding southern California last month I was able to study some interesting closely-related taxa. Below are some side-by-side comparisons with a few of my better digiscoped photos.

Note: ALL photos below were taken during the month of February ("Belding's" Savannah Sparrow from Feb 2010 and the rest from Feb 2011). Click to enlarge.

"Interior" Sage Sparrow (Amphispiza belli nevadensis group) vs. "Bell's" Sage Sparrow (Amphispiza belli belli)

"Interior" Sage Sparrow near Borrego Springs, CA (Feb 2011) and "Bell's" Sage Sparrows near Pine Valley, CA (Feb 2011)

Sage Sparrow is comprised of several subspecies, often divided into the two groups "Bell's" and "Interior." "Bell's" is the largely-resident coastal Pacific group while "Interior" birds are widespread between the Rocky Mountains and California. Multiple subspecies make up the "Interior" group, the most widespread of which is the migratory nevadensis, which is a migrant and winter visitor to southern California and is likely the subspecies photographed here.

The Interior group is paler overall, with a rather pale gray head, weak lateral throat stripes, and dark streaking on a pale brown back. This color scheme blends in with the pale sagebrush habitats they prefer. Bell's is darker, showing a medium-gray head, dark and distinct lateral throat stripes, and a darker brown back that is quite uniform with very indistinct streaking. The darker head on Bell's allows for its white eye-ring to jump out even more.

"Bell's" Sage Sparrow near Pine Valley, CA (Feb 2011)

"Belding's" Savannah Sparrow (Passerculus sandwichensis beldingi) vs. "Large-billed" Savannah Sparrow (Passerculus sandwichensis rostratus)

"Belding's" Savannah Sparrow near San Diego, CA (Feb 2010) and "Large-billed" Savannah Sparrow at Salton City, CA (Feb 2011)

"Large-billed" Savannah Sparrow at Salton City, CA (Feb 2011)

Savannah Sparrow has recently become one of the more interesting taxonomic subjects in the birding world. At the center of the debate are the two subspecies depicted above.

Belding's are a resident subspecies of southern California's coastal marshes. As opposed to the Large-billeds and nominate "Northern" birds seen on this trip, Belding's were actively singing on territory in mid-February. These are dark and heavily-streaked birds, particularly along the flanks. Bill shape as compared to Large-billed is proportionally longer and thinner. To my eyes the head/bill GISS appeared somewhat Ammodramus-like, owing to that bill shape and possibly flatter crown.

Large-billed breeds in Baja but disperses in several directions during winter, including north to southern California. The most reliable winter location in CA is along the shores of the Salton Sea. Its most obvious feature is that big honkin' bill with a clearly curved culmen. Otherwise, the plumage is of rather low contrast. The upperparts, at least of these birds in February, were a plain gray-brown. I've read that they look somewhat House Finch-like which I can see in terms of the overall bland plumage. I had to look closely to notice the yellow in the supraloral on the two Large-billeds I saw at close range.

Island Scrub Jay (Aphelocoma insularis) vs. "California" Western Scrub-Jay (Aphelocoma californica californica)

Another taxonomic conundrum, the Scrub-Jays have undergone some changes in recent years, and more change may be in the cards. Not too long ago we had only one Scrub Jay species, but a split in 1995 created the Island Scrub-Jay, Western Scrub-Jay, and Florida Scrub-Jay. The Island Scrub-Jay is endemic to Santa Cruz Island off southern California. Florida Scrub-Jay is endemic to, you guessed it, Florida. Recently there has been talk of splitting Western Scrub-Jay into their "Woodhouse's" (AKA Interior West) and "California" (AKA Pacific) forms.

Island Scrub-Jay on Santa Cruz Island, CA (Feb 2011) and "California" Western Scrub-Jays from southwest California (Feb 2011)

These photos are not the greatest and were taken in a variety of lighting conditions making comparison difficult. However a few differences are still apparent, notably the more substantial bill and darker/more intense blue color of the beefier Island Scrub-Jay. The white eyebrow of the Island Scrub-Jay is also noticeably thinner and less striking.

David Sibley notes more subtle differences between the two forms in a thorough article on his blog.

Clark's Grebe (Aechmorphorus clarkii) vs. Western Grebe (Aechmorphorus occidentalis)

Another closely-related pair, these two species were split from one another in 1985. They can present identification nightmares, particularly distant birds in basic plumage. Out-of-range individuals can make things even worse if observers have little experience with the species pair.

Clark's (left) and Western Grebe

Clark's (right) and two Western Grebes

Clark's Grebe at Ventura Harbor, CA (Feb 2011)

I was fortunate enough to locate a small flock of Aechmorphorus grebes fairly close to shore in Ventura Harbor, allowing for a great side-by-side comparison between one Clark's and a handful of Westerns.

This is a nice, easy case (they can be much trickier!). Immediately apparent are the Clark's Grebe's bright orange-yellow bill and eye that is almost entirely surrounded by white. The Western Grebes all showed dull green-yellow bills and eyes entirely surrounded by dusky feathering.

Also, while not the best photo set to show this, the dark stripe down the back of the neck is thinner on Clark's versus Western. Clark's Grebe averages paler upperparts (particularly flanks) than Western, which can be seen in the photos above.

As always, comments welcome.

- Nick

Sunday, March 6, 2011

How modern technology saved my birding in SoCal

Once or twice before I've written about the usefulness of smartphones while birding. I personally own an iPhone (currently the iPhone 4 on AT&T) and use it nearly every time I'm in the field. Usually it's just to check CTBirds reports to see if anything really good has been reported. But the iPhone has many, many more uses for birders. I'll use my recent trip to Southern California as a prime example because never before had I needed to rely so heavily on the device.

My original itinerary was:
2/17 - Pine Valley for Bell’s Sage Sparrow, Salton Sea for the rest of the day
2/18 - Santa Cruz Island (via boat)
2/19 - Los Angeles for Spotted Dove & Red-crowned Parrot, Mount Pinos for White-headed Woodpecker -OR- Santa Cruz Island if the previous day's boat trip was canceled
2/20 - Inyokern for Le Conte’s Thrasher, Onyx for Williamson's Sapsucker if time allows (not a high priority) and Bakersfield for Spotted Dove if still needed
then drive back to San Diego for the night to catch the next morning's flight, with another afternoon stop at Mount Pinos en route if White-headed Woodpecker still needed

It seemed like a solid plan, with two days for Santa Cruz Island to allow for a weather cancellation, and the region's most reliable sites for Le Conte's Trasher and White-headed Woodpecker. Since I left myself multiple chances at most of my targets, I could probably absorb a day of crummy weather and still see most/all of them.

Well, as the dates approached it became apparent that the weather would take a serious turn for the worse over those dates. Multiple lows, bringing heavy rain and low elevation snow, were going to sweep through the area from the Gulf of Alaska. The general forecast was calling for periods rain over a 2-3 day period, but forecasters did not know where and when the storms would hit. I was forced to play it by ear.

I'll take it day-by-day and you can click on the date to view my trip report (with photos) for that particular date.

Feb 17:
This was forecast to be a pleasant day throughout all of SoCal, so there were no change in plans on this day. That evening, as I grabbed a burger and beer at Johnson's Landing in Salton City after dipping on the Pacific Golden-Plover, I checked the latest forecast via The Weather Channel and The Weather Underground apps on the iPhone. TWC app had only the basic forecast available. The Weather Underground, in addition to the same type of basic forecast, has a link to the "Scientific Forecaster Discussion" provided by the National Weather Service.

you can see the link here, just below the basic forecast

This forecast was SUPERB in its detail. Thankfully this report is not too dumbed-down like your basic weather forecast would be. In this report, the meteorologist predicted the exact timing, location, and intensity of the weather for the next couple days as best he could. He also mentioned the differences between particular computer models and relayed how much confidence he had in each. It was exactly what I needed to formulate a plan.

the start of the NWS detailed forecast; begins with a synopsis and then gets more detailed

The forecast predicted rain and wind in the LA area for most of the 18th into the early AM of the 19th. However the storm would be much later to arrive in the vicinity of the Salton Sea...getting there late afternoon on the 18th and lasting well into the 19th. SO, armed with this knowledge I realized that the trip to Santa Cruz Island would not be happening on the 18th and would be very questionable for the 19th because of persistently strong winds behind the front even if the rain ended early in the LA area.

Now I realized that my plans for the next 3 days would have to be seriously altered if I wanted to salvage my trip. Thanks to the detail of that forecast I pulled out the books and iPhone to check for places to see my target species further to the southeast (in other words, away from LA and closer to the Salton Sea, where the weather would be arriving later). So, I pulled out the ABA/Lane guide to Southern California and first looked up Le Conte's Thrasher. There is a spot, just one spot, to check east of Borrego Springs, which was less than an hour from my current location. But the book was published a few years ago, so I checked the internet via the iPhone for recent reports. I found a positive report from just a week prior on one of the listservs. I emailed the poster (again from the iPhone) to ask for more detailed directions if he had any.

Next, I looked up places for White-headed Woodpecker near the Le Conte's Thrasher spot. I came up with the mountain town of Idyllwild, about a 2-hour drive from the thrashers. A cross-check of listservs came up empty, but I checked the BirdsEye app for any recent WHWO reports and came up with a few from the Idyllwild area.

two spots near Idyllwild with recent reports

How do I get there from the Le Conte's Thrasher spot near Borrego Springs? Easy to find out!

According to the detailed forecast, both of these areas would be precipitation-free for most of the day (unlike LA). Neither location is as reliable for the species as my original spots north of Los Angeles, but at this point this looked like my best (only?) option. So I crashed at a motel near Salton City, located by searching on the iPhone.

Feb 18:
When I woke up I checked my email on the phone and read a reply from yesterday's inquiry about the recent thrasher listserv posting, confirming the location and proving a couple useful tips. I arrived at the Le Conte's Thrasher site at dawn and had great looks at one. Later in the day, after a few hours of searching, I also turned up a pair of White-headed Woodpeckers in Idyllwild. Thanks mostly to the iPhone, I had seen my two biggest target species in the same day at locations far from the original planned spots.

At this point it was mid-afternoon and I could continue 2 hours northwest to LA or 2 hours back southwest to San Diego. I checked the current radar loop on my phone and saw that LA was going to be rained-on for the rest of the day as forecast, so I wouldn't be able to bird at all there. I noticed that a band of rain was moving out of the San Diego area and appeared to have a good-sized pocket of dry air behind it. The only bird left for me down there was a Pacific Golden-Plover, but I figured that I would have at least an hour to look for it before it got dark as opposed to zero chance at birding in LA due to the rain.

I got to San Diego just as that band of rain was ending and even caught a few brief rays of sunshine as I looked unsuccessfully for the plover. No bird, but the ability to view the radar gave me a chance at that bird I would not have had otherwise.

I checked the detailed forecast again and realized that the Santa Cruz Island trip would again NOT be running on the 19th so there was no reason for me to drive to LA or Ventura for the night. The rain would be ending early in San Diego so I would take another early AM shot at the plover and then run north to LA for the afternoon.

Feb 19:
I again dipped on the plover in San Diego in the morning. Another check of the detailed forecast gave me another priceless piece of information: the final bands of heavy rain would be moving through Los Angeles during mid-to-late afternoon today. So I went straight from San Diego for my first of two target birds in the greater LA area.

First, I got Spotted Dove without much trouble around noon. Now I was faced with another minor issue. The listserv reports of Red-crowned Parrot (LA target bird #2) only discussed their evening roost location. Here I was with several hours before they would appear at the roost, and with a decent chance that an evening downpour would screw up my plans.

Here I pulled up the BirdsEye app again in search of any parrot reports from places other than the well-known roost. Sure enough there were a few reports away from the roost. I chose to stop at Tournament Park on the Caltech campus.

It didn't take long to locate a few Red-crowned Parrots in the park. Storm clouds were building to the west...BirdsEye helped me get the birds just before the skies opened up.

Another check of the National Weather Service forecast via The Weather Underground confirmed that tomorrow's weather would be pleasant enough for the Santa Cruz Island boat to run, so I drove up to Ventura for the night.

Feb 20:
The Santa Cruz Island trip went off without a hitch. My only need for the iPhone today was to use its Traffic feature on Google maps to find the fastest route through Los Angeles on my way back to San Diego that night!

Green for no delay, yellow for slight delay, red for major delay. Lots of green, a little yellow around LA, but no red on the example pictured here.

So that's how the iPhone saved my birding in California. As you can see, quite a few features and apps are available for birders to use. I would think that other top smartphones out there offer similar abilities, particularly now that BirdsEye will be coming to the Android platform in the near future.

- Nick

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Birders'-only Fantasy Baseball league

For any baseball lovers out there, Scott Kruitbosch of Stratford, CT and I are putting together a fantasy baseball league for birders this season. I had this idea toward the end of last season when I found myself discussing fantasy sports with multiple local birders. Thankfully Scott has taken on the role of commissioner to officially get the league started.

We've filled most of the spots with local friends, but we still have a few spaces remaining as of this writing. We're opening things up to anyone interested in playing. If you'd like to play, email me (you can get my email address from my Blogger profile) and let me know. There's no cash at stake here, just bragging rights.

Also, just for fun, we'll make the results of the league public. I'll provide periodic updates via this blog for those very, very few of you who would care to know :)

- Nick