Category: Atypical

Right. No Blog Post For Months… Where Have I Been?

Red Eft

It’s been WAY too long.

Flickr, the software to which I upload photos for this blog, was downgrading its storage of my pics to the latest 1000 photos, unless I bought Pro.   So I bought Pro- not thrilled about it but I had to do something. This decision was only reached recently- I’ve had a lot going on in my personal life and needed a break from blogging.  That being said, I enjoyed it so I’m going right back to it, and purchasing Flickr Pro was a step forwards.

While I took a break from blogging, I started uploading to iNaturalist, sparked by a friend’s interest. For those who don’t know what iNaturalist is, it’s a citizen science database where anyone can upload their photos or sound recordings, along with a date and GPS location and get their organisms identified.  This data can then be used for research- indeed, I personally know a professor who uses it sparingly for his own research into plant systematics.

I uploaded most of my back catalog of  photos (some 6500+!) into iNaturalist, which got  SO MANY species I’ve photographed identified, far beyond my wildest dreams.  It also resparked my interest in plants, which had faded slightly while I focused on birds in 2017-2018, and sparked a new interest in odonata and lepidoptera- or in English, dragonflies and butterflies.

What does that mean for this blog?  Well, I’ll be shrinking the length of posts by cutting out some of the pictures, focusing on a broader range of species, and still try to present a similar informed, enjoyable commentary to what I have in the past.   Interspersed with that will be longer posts on differing topics as I have time to do them.   I look forwards to the coming spring of 2019!

PS. Photo is of a Central Newt eft taken last fall.

The Strangest Bird Records of All US States and Canadian Provinces

I feel uninspired to write about my adventures of late.  I’d rather write about other people’s.  So I am.

Alabama- Black Swift?

https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S17854301

Alaska- The Big One- Gray Nightjar

https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S21527383

Alberta- Crested Caracara?

https://ebird.org/canada/view/checklist/S38460357

Arizona- Juan Fernandez Petrel

https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S31498024

Arkansas- Tundra Bean-Goose

https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S46264937

British Columbia- Xantus’ Hummingbird

https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S13446639

California- California has had so many uncommon and bizarre birds that picking just one is extremely difficult.  There’s over a dozen species that California and only California has had among all 50 US states.  Going by global rarity and size of population, I incline to say that the Chatham Albatross is the rarest bird recorded in California, because there are only about 11,000 of them in the world and none had been recorded in the Northern Hemisphere before.

https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S35258652

Colorado- Variable Hawk (not accepted but it might be today)

https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S26265755

Connecticut- Brown-chested Martin?

https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S15455535

Delaware- Whiskered Tern

District of Columbia- Prairie Falcon?

Florida- Red-legged Thrush?

https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S20758747

Georgia- Green-breasted Mango

https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S15535059

Hawaii- Snowy Owl

https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S9296223

Idaho- Siberian Accenator

https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S8862648

Illinois- Large-billed Tern, but elania sp. is technically better

Indiana- Spotted Redshank

https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S14026164

Iowa- Bar-tailed Godwit

https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S38758125

Kansas- Brown Booby (perched on windmill)

Kentucky- Red-necked Stint- this is entirely personal bias because this is also the only bird on this list I’ve personally seen.

https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S38757141

Louisiana- Crowned Slaty Flycatcher

https://ebird.org/la/view/checklist/S4392016

Maine- Great Black Hawk

Maryland- Shiny Cowbird

https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S41928368

Massachusetts- Red-footed Falcon

Manitoba- Eurasian Siskin

https://ebird.org/canada/view/checklist/S15726473

Michigan- Beryline Hummingbird?

Minnesota- Northern Fulmar?

https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S36306852

Mississippi- Citrine Wagtail

Missouri- Band-rumped Storm-Petrel

https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S3709820

Montana- Manx Shearwater

https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S12722498

Nebraska- Hooded Crane

https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S8018020

Nevada- Olive-backed Pipit

https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S20448016

New Brunswick- Mistle Thrush

Newfoundland- Eurasian Curlew

https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S4528826

New Hampshire- Western Reef-Heron

New Jersey- Buller’s Shearwater

https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S12033791

New Mexico- Rufous-necked Wood Rail

New York- Azure Gallinule

https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S41295730

North Carolina- Swinhoe’s Storm-Petrel

https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S37496175

North Dakota – Garganey?

https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S21439439

Northwestern Territories- Cattle Egret?

https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S16828209

Nova Scotia- Brown Shrike

https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S28158959

Nunavut- Purple Gallinule

Ohio- Atlantic Puffin?

https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S2853557

Oklahoma- Great Frigatebird

https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S3330052

Ontario- Siberian Rubythroat

https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S12085316

Oregon- Common Scoter

Pennsylvania- Black-backed Oriole (since it was accepted by the ABA, I have to accept it…)

Prince Edward Island- Black-tailed Godwit

https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S12229352

Quebec- Amethyst-throated Hummingbird

Rhode Island- Black-whiskered Vireo

https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S45913023

Saskatchewan- Fieldfare

https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S44310723

South Carolina- House Crow

https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S29972713

South Dakota- Orange-billed Nightingale-Thrush

https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S6652511

Texas-?

Utah- Yellow-footed Gull?

https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S16922969

Vermont- White-tailed Tropicbird

https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S3052583

Virginia- Western Marsh- Harrier

https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S13990554

Washington- Swallow-tailed Gull

https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S39006091

West Virginia – Great Knot

Wisconsin- Smew

Wyoming- Whooper Swan

https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S13796265

Yukon Territory- Far Eastern Curlew

https://ebird.org/canada/view/checklist/S37940368

Hardin County Showdown- Prelude

My friend Kyle and I have been planning a Hardin County Big Day pretty much since the day we met in person.  And so, that’s what we’re doing this Saturday.

What’s a Big Day?  It’s a competition to see as many species as you can in a limited geographic area, in this case Hardin County Illinois (far southeastern corner).  Hardin county is virtually unexplored, so Kyle and I wanted to find unrecorded species there.  We’ve gotten 40 species there together back in February, sort of scouting out what we might find in April (ok, there’s a major species turnover between then and now, but we just wanted to see what we could find and what habitat might be good).

After some consideration, we decided to sign up for the Birding Blitz of Southernmost Illinois, being run the same weekend.  It’s basically a competition to see as many birds as possible within southern Illinois, and there’s separate one-county completions, multi-county competitions, etc. where we raise money to participate. The money goes to supporting restoration efforts in the Cache River watershed, one of the greatest wetlands in the world (and I say that with no exaggeration, it’s internationally recognized as a “Wetland of International Importance” by the Ramsar convention (basically the international group that decides these sort of things.)

We’ve named our team “Hey Look, It’s Cranes” because- insomnia, mostly, and a slight lack of more relevant creative names. Also because Kyle and I met for the first time to go look at a Whooping Crane.

Unbeknownst to us, Craig Taylor, one of the best birders in Illinois (tied for highest state lifelist on eBird) has been planning the same for, what is in my understanding, years.  He’s set up a rival team and we’re doing Big Days, on the same day, in Hardin county.  And, this actually matters, because both of our teams are competing for the County Big Day top spot in the Birding Blitz- in the same county.   I’ll be like one of those sports movies where we’re the underdogs and he’s the defending champion.  Head to head, binoculars to binoculars.

Just to be clear, Craig’s a great guy.  I’m still indebted to him for driving me around on the Carlyle Lake Pelagic trip last September. So I don’t mind losing to him.  I’m certainly not to the level to bird with him yet as part of a competition, and having the competition will be fun.

I’m definitely the weak link here.  Kyle’s got considerably more experience than I do. I’m listening to warbler calls like a madman trying to memorize all the ones we *might* need to know… should be fun.  I did find an American Redstart today by listening for one (and then seeing it), so it’s working out so far.  Half of the birds I’m learning aren’t even in Illinois yet because spring was rather slow to start this year.  Cerulean Warblers finally showed up in numbers only today (4/25/18) to my knowledge.  It will be hard to determine what might be at what spot.  All we can do is try for everything. We’ve got a couple spots up our sleeves.  Kyle and I don’t have the time or resources to do much scouting, so instead we’re just delving into Google Maps and reading over all reports we see of the area.

Hardin is mostly hilly forest, which is good for some things but will be a struggle for many others. Waterfowl and waders are going to be hard.  Grassland birds will be a bit difficult.  Currently the weather looks great, even if the winds could be better directionally (a south breeze would bring more species north).  I look forwards to the challenge (and to seeing Avengers: Infinity War just beforehand!)

If you want to donate to the Birding Blitz,  I’ve set up a GoFundMe to raise our portion of the funds. We’d appreciate every penny, and it all goes to bird conservation in the Cache River Watershed.

https://www.gofundme.com/birding-blitz-of-southern-il

 

 

Why The Big Year Is Over

Alright, I think it’s fair to fully disclose why I stopped the Jackson County Big Year 2018 a month in. I’ve had two birders whom I respect considerably and whom have significant experience in birding Southern IL both question or received questions about my sightings of late.  I got an email from one of them:

“Just a word of caution. I’ve received several messages from birders across the state inquiring about ALL of your recent sightings. Dude, no offense, but people realize you’re fairly new to birding and finding something rare, every day or most every time you’re out, just doesn’t happen.  It doesn’t help your cause that you’ve admitted you are doing a Jackson County Big Year.   Just trying to offer you some advice. SLOW DOWN. Your list of questionable finds is growing leaps and bounds. That throws up flags in eBird but also in people’s minds.   Your best defense is get photos!  I know, sometimes that is quite difficult. But you could hush your naysayers with positive ID’s from photos you take.   I’ve had to do the same sort of thing back in my beginning days… (Trails off in an encouraging story)”.

Yeah, that was a terrifying thing to read at the beginning of the day. Birdwatching is my escapist hobby (other than writing).  If people don’t trust me… that’s not good. There’s another young birder in my state in whom no confidence is given, as he regularly reports the most unlikely birds.  It’s always been my goal to not end up like him, and today I realized how close I’m coming, in people’s minds, to ending up that way.

I’ve been doing this for two, three years.  I think that’s long enough to become overconfident in my ability to correctly identify a bird.  I’ve certainly been overconfident in my ability to correctly ID Red-tailed Hawk subspecies.  As a result, I’ve removed all records of those on eBird, except for the ones in which I have absolute confidence, witnesses, and/or photos.

I’ve made some mistakes, the most public of which was a Slaty-backed Gull retraction last month, twice, in the listserv, when I mistook two different gulls for the bird.   Back in December 2017 I also had to retract a Golden Eagle sighting, when a friend and I mistook an immature Bald Eagle for a Golden Eagle.  I’m sure neither of these retractions has helped my believability in any way.

There’s also a few records for which I have limited evidence- a recent, unusual LeConte’s Sparrow, a very early Lincoln’s Sparrow the day before the LeConte’s, a Greater Scaup a few days before that, and going back into last year, some of the more notable ones include Red Crossbills and Long-eared Owl in southern IL.  Now, I firmly believe that I saw all the aforementioned birds (or heard, in the case of the owl), but I can understand why people would doubt them.

Younger birders (those below the age of 30) are not generally trusted anyway.  That’s understandable- birdwatching is a hobby that is built on experience.  Those who are younger have less experience-even if they have sharper eyes and more acute hearing.  It’s a bit of stereotyping of which I’m not particularly fond.  That being said, I also make mistakes due to my lack of experience.  For instance, I reported a male Brewer’s Blackbird from a field with Rusty Blackbirds near one of the best spots for Rusty Blackbirds in the state (and a bad spot for Brewer’s Blackbird).  I forgot that midwinter-onwards, male Rusty Blackbirds can start to change into breeding plumage and resemble male Brewer’s Blackbirds.  (That sighting is now “blackbird sp.” on Ebird.)  I was told of this by another birder with much more experience.  Remembering when plumage changes occur is one of the thousands of little bits of information gained through experience (and extensive internet research).  While I’ve done much of the latter, I still need much of the former.

As of this writing, I was #3 on Ebird in Illinois for 2018.  I don’t know most of the people in the top 100, and they don’t know me.  I’ll be dropping ranks quickly when spring migration rolls around, but until then I’m this odd newer birder few people know up on the top.  (I’m up that high because I went from the top to the bottom of Illinois over winter break, and I’ve been out nearly every day in southern IL where there’s more wintering species than in most of the state.)

People trying to break records are also not trusted, since it’d be only too easy to lie about something in the on-your-honor system of bird records.

I tend to go birdwatching solo- this works best for me, as I don’t really have anyone to go with at present.  However, this also puts me in the position of being the only person witnessing what I see.  As a birder in my 20s, birding solo is a good way to be absolutely not trusted whatsoever.  Add to that a county big year, a few unusual sightings, and being #3 in number of species on Ebird in the state of Illinois for 2018 (so far), and you have the perfect combination for doubters.

To take the birder’s advice, I do plan to slow down.  I was tiring of the big year before all this blew up, as I like wandering around anywhere I want without regard to county lines and other political boundaries. Also, my school and work loads are only going to increase, and I won’t be able to handle trying to see every bird during migration, doing my job, and passing my classes at school at the same time.  This sudden development happening at the same time put several nails in a coffin that was already being built.

So- the steps I have taken/ plan to take.

IMG_0176

#1- Get more photos- I’m going to have a camera in hand more often, and get photos of more birds that I see.  It’s hard to argue with a photo. For instance, I saw a Loggerhead Shrike (Lanius ludovicianus) in a field in Randolph county recently.  I took a photo, and while it’s not a great photo, it shows that I saw the bird (one of my favorites, too!)

#2- End the Big Year- If I don’t have a reason to be constantly looking for new species, people might consider me more credible.

#3- Go birding with other birders- The more witnesses I have, the more trustworthy I am. Obviously these need to be witnesses with enough experience to correct me when I am wrong.  When, not if, because at some point I will be wrong.

#4- Avoid RTHA ssp.- This is a weak point for me, and I’m going to stop submitting them until I get more experience. I’ve gone back and removed a few of these, also.  I don’t think people realize this, but I do go back and remove records if I think I made a bad call after the fact.  I reported a Red-necked Grebe in December 2016 on Lake Springfield- I saw one November 2017 and realized the bird I’d seen was different enough that I couldn’t be sure of its identity.  So, I removed that record from Ebird, and from my life lists.  (Thankfully, I’ve seen Red-necked Grebes in Illinois since, albeit without a photo or witness… at least other birders saw them before and after I did!)

IMG_0199

#5- Publicize my correct ID’s with photos – In order to ensure that I rebuild my reputation, I need to show that I have one worthy of rebuilding.  So, any rare birds I see that I have photos of are going on Facebook.  I started this recently, with this photo of a Taiga ssp. Merlin (Falco columbarius) above. Merlins are an uncommon falcon, and I saw two of them on this day- with witnesses, to be sure, but by putting photos out, I’m directly counteracting people who think I’m making stuff up.  Here’s the other one, a less common Prairie ssp. Merlin:

IMG_0211

#6- Underestimate numbers of birds and use the “sp.” on Ebird-  If I’m not 100% sure of a bird, I need to put it as a vague species, like “sparrow sp.”  I do this on occasion, but not enough.  If it’s a flock of birds and the only ones I can see are X species, I tend to count them all as X species, even the ones that I didn’t look over as closely.   I also need to lower the numbers of birds I see.  I tend to count higher numbers than some people, because I have good eyes and ears and probably a bit of overconfidence in my ability to ID everything that flies my way.   However, if I lower my numbers so that they are in line with what’s expected (or even lower than that), I’ll still be reporting the birds I saw- just not all of them.  Think about it this way; there’s at least the lower number of birds that I put.  If I put a higher number and someone comes back to the spot and finds a lower number, they may believe that I overestimated the number in the first place.  If I put a lower number and someone comes back to the spot and finds a higher number, they know that I was right, plus extra.

I believe that if I do these six things for a considerable amount of time, people will trust me more.  Hopefully no more LeConte’s Sparrows come along and mess this up.  I really don’t want to find any rarities right now, for once in my life. That’s kind of a sad position to be in.