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Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Rare Birds of North America

When I was in high school, one of my favorite books was Don Roberson's Rare Birds of the West Coast.  The only copy available to me was in the Portland Public Library, and I would have to ride the bus downtown to check it out on a special out of county loan.  I would then spend hours looking at all the vagrants recorded in Oregon and nearby states, and dream about what it might be possible to find.  When I got kicked out of my Junior year English class for being obnoxious and had to come up with a self-study unit to pass the time, Rare Birds of the West Coast was my principle source in compiling a paper on which birds were most likely to be added to the official Oregon state list.  Roberson's book, though very dated now, is still one of my favorite bird books of all time.

When I heard that Steve Howell, Ian Lexington, and Will Russell were coming out with Rare Birds of North America (Princeton, 2014), I was very excited to get my hands on the definitive guide to rare birds of the whole continent!

The book has been out for months now, and there have been many excellent reviews (including BirdGuides, Birder's Library, Birdwatch, and ABA).  These reviews are all pretty much glowing, and I recommend going there for more details that I may skip here.  Most reviews come out when a book is released.  Now that I've lived with and used this book for a few months, perhaps I can offer a different perspective.

Rare Birds of North America has a lot going for it.  Let's start with the illustrations.  For me, the gouache paintings by Ian Lewington are the best thing about this book--and blow the socks off the color plates in Rare Birds of the West Coast and they pretty much trump any current field guide illustrations found in North American guides. The illustrations--from the accentor on the cover, to the very last of the 275 color plates--are stunning.  They are clear, large, and a joy to behold.  They've got my mouth watering for the future publication of a field guide to North American birds that will feature Lewington's work.  These illustrations have made this book my second stop (after my trusty Sibley) when considering the identity of a possible vagrant bird.  I even carried it around in my car for awhile.  I expect I'll be using and enjoying these illustrations for a long time.

Sample plate from Rare Birds of North America

The text of Rare Birds of North America is exhaustively researched and documented and the format and layout is fantastic, with great introductory sections on vagrancy as well as molt and topography of bird plumage (but what else would you expect from the author of Peterson Reference Guide to Molt in North American Birds?).  The species accounts are also well thought out, with information on occurrence, possible patterns of vagrancy, and identification and habits of each species covered.    In summary here's what works best for me:

  • Discussion of vagrancy--good review of literature and speculations
  • Molt and topography section--concise review
  • Species accounts organization and layout, especially the--
  • Comments section--where we get the clearest access to the authors's thoughts on these birds and their occurrence, including fun speculations about how, why, and where these birds might possibly turn up next.
In living with the text of this book, there's a few things that have been a little irritating for me:
  • Division of the species accounts based on geographic origin of vagrants.  For each taxonomic group of birds, birds of New World and Old World origin are split from each other, sometimes them harder to find in the text.
  • Field Identification section--generally good information, but sometimes vague and frustrating.  Many times I'm left wondering what field marks are really diagnostic, or if I would be able to really identify one of these vagrants based on the information provided.  A case in point from an actual frustrating ID I faced here is Yellow-legged Gull.  This is a real possible vagrant where I live (and I had a candidate bird last year), but one that might be impossible to distinguish from a hybrid Herring x Lesser Black-backed Gull.  The text mentions this challenge without really providing a good discussion of how to actually make the distinction.  Granted this may be a frontier of bird identification, but I was hoping for some more clarity here from the founder of the Bird ID Frontiers listserv!  Likewise, when a possible New Jersey first European Golden Plover showed up in a sod farm field a few miles from my house, the ID text offered some hints (underwing pattern and body structure), but left me hanging in describing the plumage.  In fact there aren't detailed plumage descriptions here--just comparisons between the vagrant birds and more familiar North American species, or between the ages and sexes of the vagrant species.  So where I would hope a book like this would provide the definitive descriptions and field identification discussions, after using this book a few times I feel like it is a good reference, but not the final word, and that more research in other references will often be needed to actually identify a vagrant.
  • Summaries of vagrant records are generally good, but when I found that the 1996 Common Crane record from Nebraska that I and many other North American listers twitched (this was the first twitchable Common Crane in 20 years) was not included, it made me wonder how exhaustive these summaries actually are.  I suspect they are pretty thorough, but you hate for there to be a doubt.
That said, and my petty quibbles aside, Rare Birds of North America is an impressive book.  While I may not actually work as the best source of ID info on some of these birds, it will still be helpful, the illustrations will be very useful, and the summary of bird records will still inspire the imagination.  If it helps birders find and recognize more of these mega vagrants, than it will have fulfilled its purpose and provided a lot of enjoyment to twitchers across North America.  I personally look forward to spending additional time with this book, and using it to help me when I'm birding on my own or twitching somebody else's good find.

As I mentioned, most bird books arrive with much aplomb and online reviews, then you don't hear much about them later.  I'd be curious to hear how Rare Birds of North America has lived up to its initial reviews, or what other thoughts folks have about it after living with it for half a year?

(Review based on a review copy provided by Princeton University Press).

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Pre Dawn Thrush Flight 30 September 2014

I recorded over 310 thrush calls between 5am and 6:35am at my home in Hunterdon County, NJ this morning.  Here's the eBird checklist.

As always, there are many calls that I'm still puzzling over.  Here's a spectrogram of a call sequence from 6:09am:

You can download the audio of this clip, and follow any possible discussion of it from my post on the Nocturnal Flight Call Facebook group.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Back in the NFC Saddle

This past spring I crashed the laptop I was recording night flight calls on, and I didn't get my MacBook Pro set up to record until last night.  But I'm back in business now thanks to my Griffin iMic adapter and Audacity software.  Still recording using the Oldbird 21c mic.  Since the Oldbird detectors aren't set up for the Mac, for now I'm just recording then browsing the spectrogram by hand to find and ID the calls.

Here's my eBird checklist from early this morning.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Neotropical Cormorant

Neotropic Cormorant, Clinton, NJ, 11 June 2014

After not seeing any reports of the Neotropic Cormorant I found in Clinton back in April, I stopped by the Red Mill pond downtown and quickly found the bird sitting on branches in the middle of the pond.  This will be the 1st New Jersey record pending acceptance by the NJBRC.  When I first found the bird, I guessed it would stay the summer (where else would it go?), so we'll see how long it hangs out.  It's got a nice river to fish in, and unless it gets lonely and wants to go off and look for a mate, I don't know why it won't just hang out here along the river.

eBird checklist

Monday, June 09, 2014

Grasshopper Sparrows

Grasshopper Sparrows are special hidden marvels that only birders get to enjoy.  They aren't a bird that the public would usually notice.  They are small, mostly plain brown, live in tall grass, and have a song that sounds like an insect (check out a video of one singing).  So they are easy to overlook.

Here in my part of New Jersey, Grasshopper Sparrows are uncommon breeders, nesting in a few scattered larger fields across the county.

Last week I got some photos of a couple of birds at the Horseshoe Bend Preserve.  I digiscoped a male singing from a pole in a field, and got shots from my car with my Nikon CoolPix P500 of another bird was seen along the fence line carrying insects for its young--presumably in a nest nearby.   Since most songbirds only carry food when they have young in the nest, this is considered confirmed evidence of nesting.

Just another hidden gem that only birders get to enjoy in the wild!

Nikon CoolPix P500 shot of the singing male, not as good as the digiscoped shots below

Singing male Grasshopper Sparrow, Hunterdon Co, NJ, 6 June 2014
Singing male Grasshopper Sparrow, Hunterdon Co, NJ, 6 June 2014
Singing male Grasshopper Sparrow, Hunterdon Co, NJ, 6 June 2014
Food carrying nesting Grasshopper Sparrow

Grasshopper Sparrow, food carrying, 6 June 2014

Grasshopper Sparrow, Nikon CoolPix P500, 6 June 2014

eBird post

Tuesday, June 03, 2014

Peek-a-Boo Chat

I spent an hour this morning trying to get a photo of a very vocal Yellow-breasted Chat singing in the dense shrubbery in a field near Flemington, NJ.  I got some OK sound recordings of the bird singing--it sang nonstop the whole time I was there.  But what a tough guy to get a photo of!  I did get some short but close looks at the chat, and even watched it sing in flight for over 50 yards.  I'm sure some of my friends with big lenses who are quick on the draw could have gotten some spectacular shots.

Unfortunately, most of mine look like this:

Can you see the bird in the oak tree?  Me neither!

The only shot I really got that shows anything is this sad shot here:

How about now?  Yes, there's a bird there.

And here it is cropped to show the bird.

Yellow-breasted Chat, 3 June 2014, Hunterdon County, NJ

Oh well, it was a nice morning out--at one point we accidentally flushed a Wild Turkey off her nest.  Here's the nest, with nine eggs.

Nine future Wild Turkeys

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Lighting strikes--thrice? 1st Neotropic Cormorant for NJ

Tuesday night I had to run to the store, and on my way home, I stopped by Demott Park in Clinton, NJ.  I stop by this little pond almost every day.  Sometimes more than once.  Its a quick stop to scan for ducks.  For over a week a Redhead had been hanging out with some Ring-necked Ducks.  In the winter there are always a lot of Gadwall, and usually some Hooded Mergansers.  And sometimes something even better.

Tuesday night, as it was getting dark, I noticed a long-tailed bird in the tree on an island in the middle of the pond.  As I got my bins on it, I was shocked to see it was a cormorant--but much longer tailed and smaller than a normal cormorant.  I jumped out of the car, grabbed my scope, and started taking pictures through my scope with my camera phone.

Light was fading fast, but I sent out a text with a  photo to a local birding friend (who I didn't realize was in Florida).  I try to be careful, and didn't want to claim it 100% until I could look at the photos--and I was just taking as many photos as I could, hoping to get ones that would prove the ID of this bird--since it really looked to me like a Neotropic Cormorant--a bird I used to see a lot of when I lived in Texas, but a bird never documented before in New Jersey!

As I took my last shot I realized I was 50 yards from my van, with the doors wide open, and the keys left in the ignition.  I also had ice cream melting in the van.  But that was the least of my concerns :-)

I got home and started going through the photos.  OK, they weren't great perfect.  But they seemed to show what I saw in the field--a very long-tailed cormorant, with dark feathering (instead of yellow flesh) in front of the eye, a dark chocolate brown breast and belly.  As far as I could tell, I had all the field marks for a Neotropic Cormorant.  Unfortunately the photos couldn't really show how small the bird was--which was the thing that really struck me at first.  Oh well.

I started sending the photos around to friends to get their opinion.  It was getting late on the East Coast.  A couple friends in Texas, Mexico, and Washington thought it looked good--though the photos were not perfect by any stretch, so caution was warranted.

By 1:30AM I was convinced I had something that others needed to see--and without being able to reach anyone else for the night, I had to pull the trigger and call it myself.  If I wasn't imagining things, this was a bird that others would want to see.  If I was somehow off, well, that would be embarrassing.  I bit the bullet and sent out word of a probable Neotropic Cormorant on the JerseyBirds email list.

Next morning I had some tasks to do that kept me from the park at first light.  By the time I got there at 6:45, no bird.  A couple friends showed up to look, but otherwise not many birders there for a potential first state record.  I guess my photos posted on Flickr weren't convincing enough.  

After I got home, I found out that Jonathan Klizas had been there earlier, and had seen the bird, and gotten some photos.  Though they were still a bit fuzzy in the early morning light.  

A discussion of the ID on the ID Frontiers email list went round and round.  Some birders thought it looked good for Neotropic Cormorant.  Others expressed caution.  There was a story about a mysterious cormorant in California that may not be identifiable still.  Some folks thought my photos showed a bird with a head and/or bill too large for Neotropic Cormorant.  Others couldn't get past the long tail and dark lores--usually classic diagnostic marks for this bird.  At one point some people were questioning if what if any marks really would be convincing for a Neotropic Cormorant in this plumage.

Fortunately, last night, Ellen DeCarlo checked out the island at dusk and relocated the bird sitting on the shore of the island and got a couple good clean shots.

Thank goodness for these shots!  Today, as more birders saw these last shots, those who expressed concerns were mostly won over.  Peter Pyle was even able to age this bird (a young bird from last year in the middle of a molt to an adult plumage).

So tonight, finally a crowd should be gathered to see this potential first record for New Jersey.  I don't know if finding a first state record is the birding equivalent of pitching a perfect game, or just winning the Powerball.  But that's three for me in 15 months here in NJ.  I'm feeling very blessed.  And I hope that it sticks around long enough so everyone who wants to see it can come and take a look.

My wife just thinks it is good karma for my going to get some stuff she needed from the store :-)

As with all good birding tales, this one is a mix of fun and passion and frustration.  Not sure there are any real lessons to be learned.  But I'm grateful for all who have participated in the discussion of this bird, and for all that I learned about cormorants over the past few days.  

Good luck to all the bird chasers out there.  I hope everyone who wants to gets to see this bird!
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