Thursday, December 11, 2014

What Non-birders Need To Know About Birders - A Holiday Special

Winter is here, bringing extremely cooperative Ring-billed Gulls. Chatham County, NC.
As the holidays roll around, we birders will be momentarily forced into sitting around the house conversing with our families. This unfortunately coincides with Novembird and the ensuing end-of-year rarity extravaganza that tends to occupy most of our minds. While we are sitting around staring at the dead turkey at the center of the table, we can't help but lust for that Fork-tailed Flycatcher reported the night before. So here are some tips, to share with your non-birding family, to help prevent any misunderstandings and allow the holidays to run smoothly.

1. Family is Always There, Rarities are Not.
Many birders will at least make an effort to spend some time with family and friends over the holidays, and this is nice. But as soon as that rare bird is reported from the coast, just know that it pains us to be with you. Not because we don't like you, it's just that there is a bird out there that may never be seen in the state again. And we'd rather drive down to see it - you can join us if you'd like! (Side Note to Birders - Please do not abandon your fam too much. They can barely tolerate this).

2. There Will Always Be CBCs.
This is pretty straightforward. Christmas Bird Counts are a birding tradition - even more longstanding than most family traditions celebrated during the holidays. So just acknowledge that we will be out in the freezing cold for a few days this December. It's a part of who we are.

3. Bird Books Always Make Good Gifts
I remember last year I was gifted Seawatching and spent hours of Christmas Day just reading it again and again. Birders are a strange people that genuinely like to learn, so books are always an excellent present. Field guides to obscure countries are an especially good choice. Any day we get a new field guide is like's wonderful.

4. New Year's Day is Magical
You will NOT see us on New Year's Day. Do not worry. The new year resets our year lists and we feel obligated to get as many new year birds as possible, as soon as possible. For some bizarre reason, we just can't stand waiting until the Second. Some people may see this as futile because the list will just reset on the next New Year's Day, but whatever, we like it. Last year I picked up a Blue Jay at 12:10 AM after it called from being awakened by our fireworks. And I immediately eBirded it.

5. We Are Strategic in our Travel Plans
If a birder has family who lives in a state they haven't birded much, there's a good chance they'll want to scope out new territory. Or if said birder is a huge state lister, they may want to stick around to chase any CBC-rarities. But with any travel plans, the birder will have ulterior motives.

Hopefully these will help ease any tensions birders have with their non-birding families. Do you have any tips for the holidays?

Saturday, November 15, 2014

eBird Makes County Listing (Even) Easier, Again

Every county lister knows eBird makes their lives easier. There is no way we'd be able to keep track of our totals for every single county we've visited so efficiently. Well, now the folks at eBird have outdone themselves again, with the freakishly-useful eBird Targets function. It was the one thing this phenomenal website was missing (other than a County Ticks Top 100), and it has finally come to fruition. I could always see what birds I have seen, but now I can quickly and easily find out what birds I haven't seen, too.

After enduring a scary accident on I-40 that changed my birding plans for the weekend, I opted to take this new function for a field run. The testing grounds: Ebenezer Point on the shores of Jordan Lake. This is in Chatham County, close to my home in Wake County but relatively "undiscovered" by me. I'm trying to get up to 100 species in as many North Carolina counties as possible, and Chatham seems like an easy target - a huge reservoir, extensive woodlands, and a 20-minute drive from my house all make it ripe for the taking.

A quick walk through the forested margins of Ebenezer Point produced the usual Winter fare. A Ruby-crowned Kinglet here, a Hermit Thrush there. The Bonaparte's Gulls were out in force, and an American Pipit flew by and landed on the point for a few brief moments. I submitted my 26-species list, then checked Targets on my phone, setting the date range to include November only. I was still missing some easy birds - things like Eastern Towhee, Mallard, European Starling, and Winter Wren. So I headed to the other shore of the lake, looking for these birds I needed. I managed to find a Winter Wren and a Starling in just a few moments, and submitted another list.

My November needs chart for Chatham after today.
This technique may be critical in big day efforts as well - a quick check of eBird Targets after submitting a checklist from BirdLog will reveal the easy birds you've missed for the day. (Edit: This may be difficult to glean this information off of Targets unless they add a "day" filter option, I now realize. Nonetheless, it could still be useful.) Oftentimes, it can be hard to figure out that you've missed, say, White-breasted Nuthatch, but now it's easier than ever. I love eBird, and now I love eBird Targets.

I bet I can get 17 of these species in the coming weeks to get me to my goal. Eastern Towhee, I'm looking at you! Who knows, maybe Chatham will be a 200+ county for me. And I'm sure I'm not the only person who will benefit from this newfound technology.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Birds in Movies

These days, Hollywood seems to be going crazy over birders. So crazy, in fact, that we've had TWO whole movies made in our honor, The Big Year and A Birder's Guide To Everything, in the past few years. Unfortunately, these movies tend to flop when it comes to making money. Since we still believe we should spread the good word of birdophilia, we have suggested five excellent movie ideas to Hollywood's finest writers and producers. We drew inspiration from some already-popular movies to reach a wider audience. Here are our ideas:

The 40 Year-Old Virginia Rail is a lighthearted comedy about an awkward old Virginia Rail who has yet to mate. Helped along by his good friends, Sora and Marsh Wren, he undergoes a transformative journey to discover himself, and what it means to be a rail. And he gets laid.

The Hunt for Red Phalarope
A Soviet nuclear submarine captain becomes obsessed with birding amidst the height of the Cold War. He risks life and limb to find his pelagic nemesis - the Red Phalarope. His insatiable quest ultimately places him in the last place imaginable - the Atlantic coast of the United States.

Junco Unchained
Forced into subversion by the American Ornithologist's Union, a conglomeration of Oregon and Pink-sided Juncos must fight for their independence against the tyrannical nominate hyemalis Juncos. This rip-roaring and violent comedy will leave quite an impact on any audience.

Citizen Crane
On his deathbed, a Floridian Whooping Crane re-lives his life through a series of flashbacks from meeting his mate to his childhood migration through Colorado. Though estranged from the local population, the story of his life ends up bringing the Sandhill and Whooping Cranes of central Florida closer to each other as they all realize the struggles of being threatened.

The Color Purple Swamphen
This movie chronicles the life of a Purple Swamphen in the American South being subjected to ridicule and oppression from the ABA due to her status as an exotic. Eventually, however, she is transformed into a countable species and finds strength in her new status.

We personally think that these movies could make millions. What bird movies have you seen lately? Are there any that you'd love see get made? We'd love to hear from you.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Why Can't The Weather Be Worse? and Other Meteorological Musings

North Carolina has pretty much had a perfect year in terms of weather. Sure, we had a few days that didn't get above freezing back in January, but overall it's been comfortable. The summer wasn't hot, we got more than enough rain, and the sunshine was almost always out. No droughts, no severe weather. Just about perfect. Unless you're a birder.

As a Piedmont-bound avian enthusiast, I always hope for two things: hurricanes and droughts. This is backwards. This is wrong. This might make me a terrible person. But it's the truth. I have yet to experience real hurricane birding. Instead, I find myself salivating over the post-Fran and Ernesto lists from several years ago. I thought I would finally get my chance this year, as Arthur barreled toward the coast. But the bastard curved away, sparing the coast from damage but also sparing my list from a bird or two. I scoped the ocean for hours, and all I got was a shearwater sp.

I thought this storm, Hurricane Arthur, would be my chance. It wasn't.
I'll be honest - I'm an obsessive county lister. It's a fact. And nothing would improve my Wake County list (my home county, also where Raleigh is for any out-of-staters) more than a few big mudflats and a strong tropical cyclone. This list's rate of expansion has ground to a near halt, save for the occasional fall warbler. Bring on the storm-petrels, the Pterodromas, the sooty terns; the American Golden-Plovers, the Ruffs, the phalaropes. I need them.

Wilson's Storm-Petrel is a bird I'd love to add to my Wake County list some day. But I can't in this perfect weather.
This brings me to my second gripe with this weather - the rain. Every rain shower keeps some shorebirdy mudflat underwater. In my pre-birding days, back in elementary school, it seemed like every year was a drought. The mudflats, I hear, were nothing short of epic. Even last year saw a dry enough spell to produce two Baird's Sandpipers at Lake Crabtree's ephemeral mud island. But this year, it's rained too damn much. The reservoirs are more than full, making city officials happier than Pine Siskins at a thistle feeder, but leaving me shorebirdless. Is it too much to ask for a dry spell each Fall Migration for my plovers and sandpipers to show up? I don't think so.

Why has the weather been simultaneously great and terrible this year? I blame El Niño, the famed climatic event centered around the Eastern Pacific. This giant pool of hot water off the Peruvian coastline gives the Pacific jet stream a straight trajectory across the North American continent. This shears and pushes away any hurricanes trying to form in the Atlantic, and brings above-average rainfall to the southern half of the country. How annoying.  It might make West Coast birding a little more exciting, but it certainly does nothing to help out North Carolina birders like me.

Pacific Jet Stream under El Niño conditions.
Now let's just hope for a brutal winter, which the four-lobed Polar jet stream should give us. I could go for some nice waterfowl right about now.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

NFCs- An Expert's Perspective, from a Very Special Guest

Nocturnal Flight Calls: the most accurate and conclusive method of identifying species of thrush, warbler, sparrow, rail, etc. during migration, or any time of year, for that matter. Through many years of intensive research, Dr. N. Seeper has formulated a multitude of theories associated with Nocturnal Flight Calls. Read his in-depth account here, a Birder's Conundrum special guest! Note: We here at TBC do not condone the information presented here, nor do we agree with it.

Dear birders: I am here to clear something up. I have been slighted, intimidated, and belittled by some members of the birding community, and some of these members are professional people. I will have you know that I can be considered a true expert due to my prestigious education as a former student athlete at UNC-Chapel Hill. I know very little of NFC. But in my 18 years of living with NFC, I have learned their ways. Let me teach you all about NFC - so here, eat this!

Theory One: The Thrushold means you got a thrush!
Formerly known as the Thrushhold, the AOU Committee on Words recently voted to take out the second "h" saying that it was "unnecessary" and that it "made the word look made-up." Anyway, The Thrushold is the most important theory that I have developed. After poring over hours and hours of spectrograms, I have deduced that there is a threshold of sorts delineating thrushes from other migrants. The dark band of white noise located between 4 and 5 kHz acts as the dividing line between all thrush NFCs and all non-thrush NFCs. To put this into one definitive statement: If a call lies beneath the 4-5 kHz thrushold, then it is a thrush, if it lies above the thrushold, then it is not a thrush and is probably a warbler, sparrow, heron, trogon, owl, etc. 

Note the dark thrushold.

Theory Two: Light Rain means a good night for calls!
View the map below. Those clusters of green are a smattering of light showers picked up by the Doppler radar. This amount of light rain directly corresponds with heavy migration and, therefore, good flight calls. However, this is not only true during migration. Any time there is light rain, there will be beautiful migration and abundant flight calls, even if the rain occurs in February. It seems that much of this rain (rather mysteriously, I might add) does not make it to the ground, and the stars are even visible! It is a strange effect that I have a hard time explaining.

See all this rain? This shows that there was a good flight on 10/5/14.

Theory Three: Mourning Flight - the "Experts" have it all wrong!
If you are an "educated" birder, you may read about the so-called Mourning Flight from bird-rich places such as Cape May. These experts are mistaken, however.  The only species I have seen perform true Mourning Flight is Zenaida macroura, the Mourning Dove. After all, this is the very reason it is called Mourning Flight!  I was walking through a field mid-February at dawn, when a hundred or so Mourning Doves flushed from the ground. It was spectacular to actually witness Mourning Flight first hand, and is a memory that will stay with me for the rest of my life.

Exemplary Mourning Flight as seen in Southern Indiana.
(photo credit: almostdaily news)

P.S. I definitely recommend purchasing The Guide to the Common Towhees of the Carolinas and Virginia - I love that book! I use it for all of my towhsss identification problems when I visit NC!

Monday, September 22, 2014

Rarity Reactions - the Acceptable Methods

It's been far too long since I've met a good rarity.  I have found myself moping around campus, dragging my feet with the angst of a depressed 13-year old who just realized Fall Out Boy is not the greatest band on Earth. I need a rarity - something awesome. When I finally satisfy my thirst for rare birds, I will likely perform one of the following celebratory displays of raritiness. Such displays rival the lekking Andean Cock-of-the-Rock in terms of sheer beauty and elegance, and are used by many birders across the country. The following can be considered "acceptable" in some circles, and are used by the Birder's Conundrum team on many occasions:

The Relief - A wave of relief washes over the observer.  Usually happens when you've dipped previously, or really need the bird for your state list.  Most intense Relief occurs when one has at defeated their nemesis.  Muscles relax as the birder enters a zen-like state.

The Fist-Pump - as memorialized by that infamous Esquire article, explaining how birding is being made cool by "aggressive, fist-pumping birders - frat boys with binoculars." As someone who has personally witnessed fist-pumping birders (myself included), I must admit that they are certainly not cool.  Nevertheless, the Fist-Pump is an acceptable celebration for seeing a MEGA, a lifer, or just a locally rare bird.

A Clay-colored Sparrow in the Southeast is certainly a fist-pumpable bird. Fort Fisher, NC.
Photo by Lucas Bobay. 
The Rarity High-Five - A favorite of the Birder's Conundrum team.  Usually led by a "I got a (insert epic bird here) in the scope", a few quick glances, and a look of utter amazement.  The high-five itself isn't anything special, but it makes the observers feel even more accomplished about their sighting.

The Shakes - Birders are a naturally nervous people, and the sight of a bird they've been longing for can make their already-feeble bodies go haywire.  Combined with caffeine, can cause hospitalization.  Occurs with exceptionally beautiful birds most frequently, i.e. the Resplendent Quetzal.

This quetzal would initiate shakes in any birder.  Photo by Lucas Bobay. 
The Run (A Form) - No destination.  It often involves the tossing of a hat, followed by a strange and awkward run/dance.  This is best performed when others aren't around.  May be combined with other reactions, especially the Fist-Pump, to create an epic display of birdnerdiness.  Suitable for any good rarity.

The Run (B Form) - With a purpose, i.e. getting another person or a camera.  It's generally common courtesy to alert others of your sighting, and even better practice to photograph the bird.  Sometimes birders performing the B Form find themselves performing monumental acts of strength.

The Glimpse-and-Charge - A flash of a bird catches the eye of a wary observer.  The birder knows - it's a good one.  Instead of trying to creep up on the prize (like a rational person would do), the birder all-out runs to where the bird landed.  This charge can involve barreling through other people, crashing through marshes, jumping over electric fences, and/or wrestling bears. Utilized by the Birder's Conundrum team when they found a Western Kingbird in South Carolina.

The "I'm Out" - "I just won." Both hands are placed above the head, as if being arrested by the police, while a look of utter disbelief crosses your face. If an earlier conversation was something like "I bet we find (insert rarity) out there", and you then proceed to find that rarity, you can use this form.

I told my dad Oregon Inlet, NC would be a good place for Snowy Owl. It was.
Photo by Lucas Bobay
So, next time you find a particularly exciting bird, remember these celebrations.  It may exile you from the rest of society, but at least you'll feel exponentially more satisfied about the Citrine Wagtail in your scope.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Birding with Non-birders

At one time or another, all birders have had to face the problem of trying to bird in the company of non-birders.  Others will ask: "Can't we just go for a hike...without birding?" The answer, quite simply, is no.  Birders will always bird when given the opportunity, from hiking in pristine wilderness to driving down the highway.
When I am birding on a trail I take my time.  The rest of my family will be half a mile up the trail from me because I've just located a mixed flock and am pishing my brains out.  I lose track of how long I've been staring into the trees, especially when there is a Townsend's Solitaire staring back at me. 

I tried to get a picture of a MacGillivray's Warbler (lifer for me),
but this is the result when being hurried along by my family.
It's difficult to bird in secret when in the company of non-birders, so we have developed a list of tips for birding with non-birders.

1. Use your keen observation skills to find a cute, non-bird, creature to distract the group while you find more interesting animals (e.g. birds).

Golden-mantled Ground Squirrel- the perfect distraction while I go find an American Dipper.

2. Make the group want to go to a birding destination by enticing them with mind-blowing scenery.

Little do they know, a Townsend's Solitaire is lurking in those shrubs.

3. Just Keep Truckin' 

When everyone else stops to look at a tree or at a mountain that the whole group has seen a hundred times already, just keep hiking. This gives you a good buffer zone so if you locate a mixed flock or find a good bird, you have time to get a good look in before the group catches up. 

4. Use Guilt.

This one is sort of mean, but if you're looking at a bird and a non-birder comes over to tell you to keep moving, act all exasperated and pretend that they just scared off some cool bird. 
Example: "Hey! Let's keep it moving!" "Ahh! No! You just scared off a ________! Ugh!"
This usually makes the non-birder feel bad and let you keep birdin'.

5. Whatever you do, don't go to a sod farm.

Take a minute.  Look at this image.  If you think this looks like fun, then you are definitely a birder, no doubt about it.  Driving two hours to stare at grass is not a family-friendly activity.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Graph - Birdiness vs. Social Acceptability

Birders aren't known for being cool.  This is partially due to the inherently obsessive nature of our hobby, but also because of the, um, obscure places we tend to visit.  When was the last time your neighbor dropped by the local waste treatment plant just for the hell of it?  Never.  Because they are normal.
(Click to enlarge)

Our high-tech graphics department produced this precise visual representing several popular destinations, comparing social acceptability among non-birders to the locale's birdiness per acre.  It is generally frowned upon to stare into someone else's backyard with binoculars, but this awkward endeavor can yield some great birds.  In the unlikely event a birder is concerned about their "coolness", this graph can help them weigh the worth of each location before committing social suicide.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

United States of Birds - All-time High Counts

Have you ever witnessed a mega-flock of birds?  Perhaps it was thousands of Red-winged Blackbirds undulating above a field, or Snow Geese congregating before a long migration.  eBird has a feature where users can observe the all-time high counts of all species within a given state.  We used this feature to find what species had been seen in the highest numbers in that state at one point in time.  For example, the report of 500,000 Sooty Shearwaters from Oregon was the largest flock of any species ever seen there (according to eBird data, which ranges from 1823-2014).  We did this for each state and plotted the species on a map using our revolutionary Birder's Conundrum mapmaking software:

Clearly, a few states have had vast flocks of some awesome birds.  Crested Auklets in Alaska, Sooty Shearwaters in the Northwest, and Red-necked Phalaropes in Maine.  Other, more unfortunate states have shitty birds like Starlings (sorry Massachusetts and Kentucky, but really?) or the Brown-headed Cowbirds in Lousiana.  In fact, the all-time high count of any species in the entire country belongs to those that Cajun flock of cowbirds.  It's probably no surprise that many of the more southerly states are represented by the rather ubiquitous Red-winged Blackbird, as many birders in the Southeast probably come across a sizable flock of these icterids at some point each year.  Snow Geese, with their habit to conglomerate en masse, also made quite a showing, filling 6 of the states.

Note: We are not saying that these counts are necessarily accurate, we are just reporting what is out there.

The full run-down:

Red-winged Blackbird (12 states)
Arkansas- 1,000,000
California- 1,001,000
Colorado- 75,000
Delaware- 900,000
Georgia- 2,000,000
Illinois- 1,080,000
Kansas- 1,600,000
Mississippi- 1,000,000
Missouri- 7,200,000
North Carolina- 1,000,000
Pennsylvania- 1,000,000
Texas- 1,000,000

Snow Goose (6 states)
Montana- 300,000
Nebraska- 900,000
New Mexico- 50,000
New York- 1,000,000
South Dakota- 400,000
Vermont- 44,000

Common Grackle (4 states)
Indiana- 750,000
Maryland- 502,000
New Hampshire- 343,000
Virginia- 1,500,000

Purple Martin (3 states)
South Carolina- 800,000
Tennessee- 1,000,000
West Virginia- 40,000

American Coot (3 states)
Alabama- 111,750
Nevada- 75,000
Wyoming- 8,000

American Robin (3 states)
Florida- 5,000,075
New Jersey- 250,000
Oklahoma- 460,000

European Starling (2 states)
Kentucky- 2,500,000
Massachusetts- 2,000,000

Tree Swallow (2 states)
Arizona- 1,200,000
Connecticut- 1,000,000

Sooty Shearwater (2 states)
Oregon- 500,000
Washington- 500,000

Canvasback (2 states)
Iowa- 330,055
Minnesota- 93,505

Franklin's Gull (1 state)
North Dakota- 340,000

Eared Grebe (1 state)
Utah- 500,000

Mallard (1 state)
Idaho- 100,000

Crested Auklet (1 state)
Alaska- 2,000,000

Wedge-tailed Shearwater (1 state)
Hawaii- 50,000

Red-necked Phalarope (1 state)
Maine- 200,000

Brown-headed Cowbird (1 state)
Louisiana- 76,000,000 (<--What?!)

Canada Goose (1 state)
Rhode Island- 12,000

Double-crested Cormorant (1 state)
Wisconsin- 300,000

Broad-winged Hawk (1 state)
Michigan- 255,641

American Crow (1 state)
Ohio- 500,000

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

The Bird Color Conundrum - 17 Shades of Gray

We already covered the colors that span the gap between red and brown - so now we can move on to the equally perplexing realm of the grayscale.  Many birds have some sort of coloration between white and black - and from the Slaty-tailed Trogon to the Snowy Egret, these colors can be baffling to the average observer.  This post, organized from lightest to darkest, should help quell your worries about this color conundrum:

White - The presence of all color - everything is being reflected back into your eyes.
Example: White-throated Sparrow, White Ibis, White-eared Ground-Sparrow

Snowy - This color is so ridiculously close to white it shouldn't even exist.  But "Snowy Owl" sounds a hell of a lot cooler than "White Owl", so we'll keep it.
Example: Snowy Owl, Snowy Cotinga, Snowy Egret, Snowy Plover

Snowy Owl - Dare County, NC
Ivory - The color of ivory, a yellowish off-white - it's the stuff they killed elephants for, and why there are all those Europeans hanging out in Africa in Heart of Darkness.
Example: Ivory Gull

Ash - The color of ash - like the bottom of the fire pit at the campground.  A light, washed-out gray.
Example: Ash-throated Flycatcher

Ash-throated Flycatcher - Dare County, NC (same day as the Snowy Owl above, I might add!)
Ashy - Almost the color of ash.  Almost.
Example: Ashy-headed Greenlet

Glaucous - In Latin, glaucus means blue-gray.  In English, it's basically a light gray with a slightly bluish tone.
Example: Glaucous Gull, Glaucous-winged Gull

Cinereous - Quite similar to ash, but slightly darker and tinged with brown.  Cinis means "ashes" in Latin.
Example: Cinereous Tinamou, Cinereous Finch

Grayish - Another one of those "-ish" suffixes.  It's pretty much gray...
Example: Grayish Saltator

Gray - Just saying "gray" can be a bit vague - but specifically, it is the exact halfway point between black and white.
Example: Gray Catbird, Gray Gull, Gray Flycatcher, Gray Hawk

Silver - Ag. The color of the element. A shining, sparkling, gray...but on birds it's really just gray.
Example: Silver-breasted Broadbill, Silver Oriole, Silver-beaked Tanager

Dusky - The color of the sky as the last wisps of sunlight recede o'er the horizon. Dark gray.
Example: Dusky Flycatcher

Sooty - The stuff that collects on the inside of chimneys and covers the living room carpet every Christmas morning. The color of burned carbon.
Example: Sooty Tern, Sooty Shearwater

Slate - One of my favorite colors - a dark gray, with a bluish tinge (like the metamorphic rock).  Basically a much darker version of glaucous.
Example: Slate-throated Redstart

Slate-throated Redstart - Santa Elena, Costa Rica

Slaty - Almost the color of slate.  Almost.  It seems like this is the form of "slate" used to describe birds more frequently, but I may be wrong.
Example: Slaty-backed Gull, Slaty Antwren, Slaty-tailed Trogon

Plumbeous -  Lead-colored. Like Ferruginous, this color comes from the latin name of the element.
Example: Plumbeous Vireo

Coal - The color of the fossil fuel West Virginians and Tea Party-ers love so much.  Almost black, like how snowy is almost white.
Example: Coal-crested Finch

Black - The absence of color.  No light is reflected back.  Everyone knows this.
Example: Great Black-backed Gull, Black-cheeked Woodpecker, Common Black-Hawk, Melodious Blackbird

Black-cheeked Woodpecker - La Selva, Costa Rica

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

10 Signs You May Be A County Lister

County listing... perhaps the most obsessive activity a birder can do.  Life lists get boring.  State lists get boring.  So why not county list?  It opens up a whole new world.  A world where European Starlings and Rock Pigeons are no longer trash.  Where you feel elated upon reaching 10 species in a county, because it means a new color on your map.

If you can relate to the following statements, odds are you're a county lister too.

1. This is your favorite page on eBird.

2. You like maps... a little too much.

Like this.

3. You view this otherwise boring drive as an opportunity.

Flyover Barn Swallows, here we come!

4.  You've used BirdLog at a rest area.  More than once.

White-throated Sparrow? Hell yes

5.  You've looked behind you while driving, just to make sure that vulture you saw wasn't a Black.

I still need you for Brunswick, you bastards.

6. While driving down the highway, you got mad at your friend for seeing a bird that you didn't see.

Sam being too happy about some bird Lucas probably did NOT see.

7.  You actually notice these signs.

8.  You think the Texas Century Club is the best idea ever.

I also thought that making this gimmicky map thing was the best idea ever.  Go figure.

9.  You've drawn county lines across a map of a refuge so you can accurately make two separate eBird lists while in the field.

This was actually a big issue for Lucas and Sam.  Feelings were hurt.  Checklists were deleted.  But this map solved the problem.

10.  People know you have a problem, but you don't care.

After all, you're probably having more fun than they are.  By the way, this was a twitch and technically not a county-listing trip, but whatever. #NOLA

Thursday, July 17, 2014

What Audubon Called the Birds, Part II

In the last edition of What Audubon Called the Birds, I focused on some old bird names that we should go back to using.  Well, I'm back with more bird names - straight from the 1800s.

Carolina Turtle-Dove - now known as Mourning Dove
As a Carolina-born birder, I get a little sense of pride every time I hear a bird with "Carolina" in its name.  Carolina Chickadee, Carolina Wren, Porzana carolina - why not have Carolina Turtle-Dove join the ranks?  Have you ever seen a Mourning Dove actually look sad?  Hell no.  They sit on tree branches and power lines, chase each other around, and eat seeds.  Sure, their call is "mournful", but so is literally every other dove's song.  Carolina Turtle-Dove only makes sense here (though I would accept a shortened "Carolina Dove" as well).

Much better.
Ferruginous Mocking-bird - now known as Brown Thrasher
I love the word "ferruginous", so I may be a little biased.  But Brown Thrashers aren't exactly brown, as I found out.  They are, indeed, the rusty iron color of ferruginous.  I do like the word "Thrasher" though, so I think a compromise may be needed.  Let's go with "Ferruginous Thrasher" and call it a day.  It's a more accurate name, plain and simple.

Bergomaster - now known as Glaucous Gull
Burgomaster is German for "Mayor" or "Master of the Town", a fantastic moniker for this large and somewhat intimidating Larus.  I don't have any idea who started calling them Bergomasters, but I like it.  Glaucous makes me think of Glaucoma anyway, which is definitely NOT a disease a birder wants to get.
The most badass name for the most badass gull.
Great Cinerous Owl - now known as Great Gray Owl
C'mon.  Great Gray Owls aren't just gray.  They are cinerous, which is an ashy gray tinged with brown.  "Cinerous" is also tinged with just enough 19th-century romanticism to make this already-majestic bird even better.  Slam dunk.  Now if only I could see one...

Hudsonian Curlew - now known as Whimbrel
Ignoring the fact that we may return to this name anyway (or to the similar "Hudsonian Whimbrel"), I think "Hudsonian Curlew" bears a more authentic North American flair than "Whimbrel" does.  Why do we use the European name here anyway? Do we call Black-bellied Plovers "Grey Plovers"?  Or Brants "Brent Geese"?  No, we're not British.  And I want to start calling them HUCUs (pronounced HooKoos).  "Hey, did you see the big flock of HUCUs at the inlet?"  Yes, yes I did.

HUCU in North Carolina, at the aforementioned "inlet".
Acadian Owl - now known as Northern Saw-whet Owl
Some may object to changing the name of what is arguably the cutest of America's birds, but hear me out.  We need more "Acadian" birds to join the ranks of my local "pizza!" spewing Empidonax flycatcher.  Acadia was an area in the Northeast settled by the French (Acadie was the French name for Nova Scotia), a fitting location name for this little owl.  And no one knows what the sound of a "saw whetting" even is these days, so the new name is obsolete.

This owl is angry someone changed his name to Saw-whet.
I challenge the birding councils to consider my requests.  Our pastime would be much richer if we could return to these antique names.

Audubon's images from's page on Birds of America.  I feel like I should owe them something at this point.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Map - How Birders See America

When the average person sees a map of the Lower 48, they may have a few ideas about what's where.  Pizza in New York, surfing in Southern California, jazz in New Orleans, Old Faithful in Yellowstone... you get the idea.  But birding changes your perception of the map.  No longer is South Florida "only" the land of retirees - it's also the place to pick up nearly every introduced exotic species known to man.  We originally wanted to do a map of the entire ABA area, but I have no clue what birding is like in about 80% of Canada (though I could have smacked a giant "Tim Horton's" across the country).  It still proved to be a challenge to fill some of the more under-birded and unknown regions of the United States - but we finished up with (what we think is) a good representation of a Birder's Map of America. Some of the stereotypes are based on recent rarities, while others are based on what we deemed to be the species most representative of the region.

Click to enlarge.

This map is intended to show what birders actually see when they behold the beautiful map of 'Murica.  If you think we nailed it, or if you completely disagree and are disgusted that we even created this, comment below - we'd love to hear from you.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Vagrants, Before Birding

Everyone knows Audubon's paintings of extinct birds - the Carolina Parakeet, Great Auk, Passenger Pigeon, Eskimo Curlew, and Ivory-billed Woodpecker.  However, while working on my What Audubon Called the Birds post, I realized that the great American ornithologist also found some pretty incredible rarities.  He saw a male Smew in Louisiana.*  A pair of Snowy Owls in Kentucky.  Not one, not two, but THREE Curlew Sandpipers along the coast.   This left me wondering - what kind of birds were showing up in North America before birding even got started?  This was an age where, instead of reporting a rarity to eBird or the listserv, you shot it into oblivion.  It seems likely that birds such as the Smew and Curlew Sandpiper had much larger populations in the Old World than they do today - so did they visit America in proportionately higher numbers?  Were birds showing up back then that have yet to be added to the ABA Checklist?  Let's take a closer look at some of the more intriguing species recorded during the 19th century.  (Note - Reading Rare Birds of North America a couple times by no means makes me an expert on vagrancy, but it's fun to speculate sometimes. Enjoy.)

The "Mango Humming-bird"

The "Mango Hummingbird" was not actually seen by Audubon, but he received specimens from a friend.  They (at least two) were supposedly shot in the Florida Keys.  The Audubon website lists this species as the Black-throated Mango - which seems unlikely, considering it is a strictly South American bird.  My mind jumped to Green-breasted Mango, the Mango that strays into the ABA area with some frequency.  But the illustration just isn't right.  The juvenile male has a black throat, and the adults look a little "off" too.  The female specimen, Audubon admits, was likely not collected in the US - but the other birds probably were.  All three birds in his illustration closely resemble the Antillean Mango, seen below.  It is entirely within the realm of possibility that a Caribbean hummingbird would stray north into the United States - e.g. the Bahama Woodstar in Pennsylvania.  Additionally, Green-breasted Mango vagrants tend to go North and East from Mexico, bypassing Southern Florida altogether.  It seems plausible (though not probable) that the bird encountered in Key West by Audubon's friend was an Antillean Mango (or another Anthracothorax sp.), a bird not currently on the ABA checklist.
Antillean Mango - a possible 19th Century stray to Florida?
(From Princeton University Press, Birds of the Dominican Republic and Haiti)

The "Black-headed Goldfinch"

What Audubon depicts here is a perfect match for the Black-headed Siskin, a Mesoamerican species. Audubon claims to have seen five of these birds on "one cold morning in December" near his home in Henderson, Kentucky.  He goes on to say that "their notes resembled those of the Pine [Siskin]..."and that he managed to shoot and procure two birds. His description is quite detailed, and lacks the vagueness that some of his other species accounts are known to have. Finches do wander, sometimes in flocks - it seems highly unlikely, but not impossible (nothing with birds is impossible), that this Mexican species of finch would wander north into the Ohio Valley. The world was experiencing a substantially different climate than that of today - the Northern Hemisphere was still within the grips of the "Little Ice Age."

However, I don't think this report would pass muster with a state bird records committee, had one existed at the time.  It seems more likely that Audubon encountered these birds elsewhere, or obtained them from a friend. He may have wanted to include this striking siskin in Birds of America (which was basically his life list), and simply changed the report to the central US.  After all, birders have been known to see a species in one location and purposefully report it from another.  Maybe Audubon was America's first stringer as well...  At any rate, it is intriguing, especially since Black-headed Siskin has been predicted to be one of the next vagrants to the ABA area.

The Scarlet Ibis

The Scarlet Ibis is on the ABA checklist, but US records have been questioned on the grounds of provenance.  Audubon claims: 
"... I have found the Scarlet Ibis less numerous than even the Glossy Ibis; indeed I have not met with more than three individuals in a state of liberty, in the whole range of the United States. These birds occurred at Bayou Sara, in Louisiana, on the 3d of July, 1821." 
Scarlet Ibises occuring as vagrants in Louisiana make complete sense.  It is safe to say that these birds were natural vagrants (how many zoos had Scarlet Ibises in 1821?), and that Audubon did, indeed, see these birds.  Audubon was certainly lucky in finding this species for is ABA list!  I also like how he considers "even rarer than Glossy Ibis" to be a strong statement of this bird's scarcity.

The Gigantic Fulmar

We don't usually associate pelagic birds with antiquity, but many species were seen with more frequency than today.  Everyone travelled by ship - and although they weren't seeking out rarities, these sailors definitely took notice of tubenoses.  

I saw this and couldn't resist.
Giant Petrel, or "Gigantic Fulmar", from Eve of the Emperor Penguin: A Merlin Mission (Magic Treehouse #40).
Perhaps the most fascinating pelagic report from the 19th century involves a specimen of a "Gigantic Fulmar, shot at some distance from the mouth of the Columbia river" which was sent to Audubon by his good friend Townsend (of Solitaire, Shearwater, and Warbler fame).   It is said to be "frequent in the southern seas", scavenging on the remains of dead animals.  This, coupled with his description of an albatross-sized bird that resembles the fulmar "in form and proportions" matches that of the Giant-Petrels.   Both the Northern and Southern Giant-Petrels, like the Black-headed Siskin, were listed as one of the next vagrants to the ABA area back in 2000 (Pranty et al.).  Could it be that one of these two species strayed north toward the Oregon coast during the early 19th Century?


In writing this post, I think I have proven my obsession with historical records of rare birds.  Hell, these are so old they're not even considered records - more like "unconfirmed sightings".  Hopefully this has been a small glimpse into rarities from before birding was a "thing" - and I'm sure there are more old reports somewhere out there worth exploring, too.  

Thanks to's page on Birds of America for the illustrations and much of the information. 

*Correction 3/12/15: It was a female, not a male, Smew shot (or so he claims) by Audubon in Louisiana.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

The Bird Color Conundrum - Red, Brown, and Everything In Between

It seems like everywhere we turn, a reddish-brownish bird is there looking back at us. Birds with this relatively drab coloration are in no short supply, and scientists have concocted a somewhat ridiculous list of colors to describe these earth-tones.  While birding you may have wondered, what color is rufescent, anyway?  How is the coloration of a Rufescent Tiger-Heron different from that of a Rufous Hummingbird?  We are here to help answer these questions that have plagued the birding world for decades.
So, without further ado, we'll unveil a handy run-down of these colors.
Let’s start with the easy ones:

Red- Everyone knows this color. No description necessary.
Example: Red-capped Manakin, Red-rumped Cacique, Red-tailed Hawk, the list goes on…

Red-capped Manakins, Costa Rica.  Their heads are just red - no flamboyant adjectives required.

Brown- Yeah. The color you get from mixing all the colors.
Example: Brown Jay, Brown Thrasher, etc.

Now things get a little more tricky...

Crimson- It’s basically just red. Sometimes described as a “deep” red.
Example: Crimson-collared Grosbeak, Crimson Rosella

Vermilion- Red. It’s red.  Bright red.
Example: Vermilion Flycatcher

Ruddy- Often described as a "healthy red," more brownish.
Example: Ruddy Shelduck, Ruddy Turnstone

Ruddy Turnstone- Sunset Beach, NC.

Cinnamon- Reddish brown, more brown than red - like the spice.  
Example: Cinnamon Teal, Cinnamon Hummingbird

Reddish- Sort of red, hence the addition of the "-ish".
Example: Reddish Egret

Ferruginous- This one is an iron red; a rusty brown-red.
Example: Ferruginous Hawk, Ferruginous Pygmy-owl

Rusty- The color of oxidized Iron; ferruginous.
Example: Rusty Blackbird

Buff - A very light brown, often a "wash".
Example: Buff-breasted Sandpiper, Buff-bellied Hummingbird

Buff-breasted Sandpiper - Washington Co. NC

Chestnut- A deep, deep brown. Rich, smooth, chestnut...
Example: Chestnut-backed Chickadee, Chestnut-sided Warbler

Bay- The color used to describe a brown horse; so it's brown.  But a reddish brown, closely allied with chestnut.
Example: Bay-breasted Warbler, Bay-headed Tanager

Tawny- An odd mixture of brown, tan, and orange.  Sounds like a good name for a cat.
Example: Tawny-throated Leaftosser, Tawny Owl

Fulvous- Reddish-yellowish-brownish.  The full spectrum of reds and browns, mashed into one über-color.
Example: Fulvous Whistling-Duck

Rufous- Yet another reddish-brown.  There are over 160 bird species with Rufous in their name.
Example: Rufous Hummingbird, Rufous Antpitta.

Rufous Hummingbird- Raleigh, NC

Rufescent- Those bird-naming fiends decided there were too many Rufous birds, so they made up a new word, one that sounds like it's glowing.
Example: Rufescent Tiger-Heron

Bronzed/Bronzy- Resembling the metal Bronze, golden-brown.
Example:  Bronzed Cowbird, Bronzy Hermit

Brassy- Resembling the metal Brass.  They like these metals.
Example: Brassy-breasted Tanager

Russet- Potato brown, but more of a purplish-brown, maybe like those purple potatoes... I like those... Example: Russet-throated Puffbird, Russet Sparrow

Hepatic- Literally means "pertaining to the liver", so it's liver-colored - a deep, slightly brownish, red.  This may be the only useful thing I learned in Anatomy this year.
Example: Hepatic Tanager

Ochraceous- Ochre-colored. Nobody knows what the hell ochre is, so this probably isn't helpful.
Example: Ochraceous Wren

Coppery- Like the metal Copper, brownish-reddish-gold.  But not quite the color of Copper, so they added that -y on the end.
Example: Coppery-headed Emerald

Hopefully this was helpful for y'all to figure out your colors. Too bad we weren't taught "ochraceous" in kindergarten - that would have been useful.
We here at The Birder's Conundrum know that it is very important to know the colors of birds, so we will being doing more posts about bird colors. Coming soon we will have all of the azures, plumbeouses, violaceouses, and more.

All photos by Lucas Bobay