20 August 2009

Savor those rare occasions when your 'instincts' prove right

I moved to the Rockies about nine years ago, after having been "on the coast" for 25 years - the west coast. I birded a bit down there, did some salmon fishing in the summer, and travelled on the ferry to the Queen Charlottes a couple of times.

I guess I must have absorbed some knowledge of pelagics in that time. I say "guess" because it really is stored waaay back in my brain as events of this weekend proved.

Yes, folks, a pelagic bird in the Rocky Mountains.

This is how it happened (birder's point of view):

We were on our club's annual August shorebird 'jaunt' and had yet to find enough mud to interest migrating shorebirds. It's been quite rainy here this summer so all the ponds we regularly visit are high and edged with vegetation. No exposed mud; and shorebirds need mud. Our last hope was the south end of the 'Effluent Reservoir' where the nearby city stores its treated sewage for re-use as irrigation water on its hay fields (alfalfa, whatever, I really should pay more attention to plants).

Really, if you are any kind of birder, you KNOW anything to do with sewage is well-liked by many bird species, so ... it's well-liked by birders, too. The two exceptions are 1) on very hot summer days when the smell can be a bit much and 2) when the huge sprinklers are 'spraying' the fields - and your vehicle. My my, what we are willing to put up with in pursuit of our passion.

Prior to this, there had been some contention of exactly who was leading our convoy of two vehicles. The 'senior' birder of the group was a passenger in the other vehicle with some novices. They had taken the lead on the highway, but in my mind they were going too slow on the back road between ponds. I was the official field trip leader so I scooted ahead first chance I got and blamed it on 'R.' my birder friend traveling with me. There were a few rebellious residual attitudes wafting around though.

Fortunately for tempers and odors, the heat of the day was quite bearable. The mercury usually hits 34 C in mid-August, but today's morning was actually down right chilly. It's like that in the mountains - day heat disappears overnight but the thin air lets in the afternoon heat from the sun.

We'd sniffed out (pun intended) some Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs, Westerns and the usual Spotted Sandpipers on one shore then the others wandered over a knoll to another bay. Staying behind, I got a good look at several birds bunched together - the best for size comparison - and added Baird's to my day list.

It was time to go see if the others had found anything interesting. There's always some insecurity that one might miss something! Sauntering over the knoll, I found a couple of the uncommon Napping Birders. My car-mate came striding up and said "Say, what do you think that bird is?" pointing to the water's surface behind a small lodgepole pine. There, dabbing at the surface, was a dark gray gull-like bird daintily floating about.

How my subconscious made me blurt something out:

Simultaneously I got two flashbacks of my coastal days. One was of thousands of Bonaparte's Gulls I'd seen while salmon-fishing off Race Rocks near Victoria. The flock was so extensive, yet so intent on their floating dinner, they just tippled off to the side as we eased through them at regular trolling speed. The bird in my real time was quite content to ignore us and continue feeding, just as the Bonies had and it also was delicately picking stuff off the top of the water in the same way -- imagine a huge dark Phalarope -- that's how it was feeding.

But the other flashback prompted me to quickly blurt out, half-jokingly, "That looks like a Jaeger!" These blurts of mine usually get me in more trouble than they're worth and don't help my reputation but I like a bit of rabble-rousing with my good friends, don't you?

I'd subconsciously remembered a specimen I'd seen in the Royal BC Museum pointed out by an incredulous museum technician. It was skinny, dark, and pointy-winged like all the dozens of others in the trays held in 'the stacks' but this one had been collected from Kootenay National Park - one of our most elevated parks in the Rockies. Yes, it was strange. This pointy-winged robber had somehow run up against the continental divide then died where someone found it, somewhere near Sinclair Canyon, where the two-laned highway snakes through a pass walled by solid rock hundreds of feet high. That little guy must have given up hope of ever skimming over the Pacific waves again and was now evidence of his inland meanderings.

Besides, it was the silliest thing I could think of even though I hadn't seen one since starting my 'New Life List' in 2000 (long story).

Back to real time:

In a very laid-back manner, we hummed and hawed, estimated the bird's size and eventually someone got the bright idea to go back to the vehicles for a field guide. On their way back, they quickly scanned the gulls and proposed that it was a juvenile Mew Gull. I said "But, we decided it was about 15 inches, not 21!" and I flipped back to the Jaegers, and of course, there it was ...

Long-tailed Jaeger, 16 August 2009, Cranbrook, BC, accidental. Shocked the heck out of myself that my flashbacks were right!

This is how it happened (bird's point of view):
I was paddling about enjoying quite a few tasty tidbits on this terrific sweet-smelling lake, when a bunch of those two-leggeds with weird eyes came along and started talking about me. "How rude!" I thought, but they were soon forgotten as I pondered once more how to get back to that Really Big Salty Lake where the sun sets in the water and the marks are easy. Later that same day, a single two-legged came along to 'confirm' my existence. Humph, I know who I am. I don't need any two-legged calling me names.

PS. A quick scan of the BC Yahoo groups shows there are usually a few Parasitic, Long-tailed, and /or Pomarine Jaegers in the interior per year. Sibley's shows may dots all over the place.

(Moral of the story, perhaps? Always be open to possibilities, use your mistakes and embarassment as learning opportunities!)

Happy birding,


17 July 2009

Great Blue Herons at Sapsucker Woods

Check out this SlideShare Presentation:

Rough Roads and Point Counts

Many hours were spent on some pretty rough roads this past month - scouring hillsides for the exact spot matching the UTM of the recommended point counts.

'De-commissioned' logging roads come in various levels of de-commissionment! Thank goodness the return trip always seems shorter than the neck-jarring, bladder-pounding ride to the 'point (just short) of no return' - that final wash-out you really really really cannot pass.

"Thou shalt not pass!" declared Gandalf in the caverns of Kazadum. But the Balrog was not convinced, not until the rock bridge was smote from under him and he tumbled into the rent of his revenge.

"De-commissioning" in British Columbia seems to mean simply ripping out all the culverts leaving wide, deep, muddy rents every 50 metres in other-wise sedate old roads. Someday, trees will grow on those roads, but not this day.

Twenty years from now, when the next Breeding Bird Atlas is proclaimed, saplings will hinder any chance of finding these point counts again, won't they? Can you picture this septuagenarian on a dirt bike? A tough leather jacket will be my only defence against prickly pine needles whipping past.

Never mind the roads the map says should be there but don't actually exist! We're already using game trails to find those ones!

07 June 2009

Personal Use Sonograms

To help me learn bird songs, I have taken screen shots of sonograms off websites and printed them:

  • sonogram
  1. find one on web
  2. alter viewing options, (if possible) such as upper limit of frequency displayed and
  3. NOTE: try to use the same upper limit and time scale so you can compare sonograms quickly and maybe even time songs in the wild. Try 10,000 Hz as the max frequency shown (good for warblers) and about 1 second per centimeter (good for warblers, individual phrases of vireos, some of robin-like bird's songs)
  • capturing and printing
  1. print screen sonogram
  2. paste to new file in photo-editing program
  3. desaturate so you're not using up all your ink
  4. print
  • to take birding - put your 6 inch by 4 inch printed sonograms in a photo album such as the two-to-a page slide-in ones - sonogram in the top slot, index card for notes in the bottom!

01 June 2009

Bird Songs, Words to Describe 'em - Working

A 'complex' bird song is made up of one or more phrases?

A song is complex if it has more than one tone, discernable elements and / or different or variable phrases?

A 'confusing' bird song is one that sounds very similar to another species and needs to be studied to be able to tell them apart. lol.

This Yellow-rumped Warbler sonogram shows a one-phrase song. Remember: not all individual Yellow-rumps (aka Butter Butts) sing this song; probably not a good example because of the Myrtle's / Audubon's lumping but a good example of a one-phrased song with a monotonous trill.

Aspects of a song
  • pitch
  • duration / length
  • tempo / speed
  • phrase, phrasing
  • transition / change to next phrase
  • melody
  • song type
  • voice
  • rhythm
Aspects of a phrase
  • pitch
  • duration / length
  • emphasis
  • element / part
  • pattern
Words that describe the aspects:
  • moderate - pitch
  • rising / ascending - phrase
  • falling / descending - phrase
  • pure - tone
  • fast - trill
  • slow - trill
  • piercing - tone, voice
  • melodic - voice
  • variation - between, within, or of phrases
  • thin / weak / soft (quiet) - tone, voice
  • strong / loud - tone, voice
  • pick-up tone - rhthym
Looking for words to describe the following, and for clarifying all this attempted organization.
  • the transition speed between parts of a phrase

Bird Songs, Individual Differences

Yesterday I sat at a picnic table in a local regional park for a couple of hours 'studying' the bird songs around me and thinking about how best to describe them. A Yellow-rumped Warbler called the whole time and I took quite a good set of field notes of his song - as in, I could actually interpret them when I got home and almost recall the song in my head.

I wrote:
phrase of two parts:
  • first part consisting of a monotone or slightly ascending trill, moderate speed. Trill equal to a twitter, very slightly buzzed, mostly clear tones;

  • second part, executed immediately after first part, higher pitched, ascending, variable warble of slightly shorter duration than first part (warble = more than two tones) consisting of a variable ascending trill.
Then! I played some warbler calls LOUD on my mp3 player through little portable external speakers I pack around with me (I don't like headphones cuz they get tangled with my bino strap and my eye-glasses cord that I need so I don't lose my glasses when I take them off to read because I'm getting old, you know).

Anyway, the Yellow-rumped Warbler changed its song! After singing the same song for an hour, it changed, seemingly, in response to my play-back! The first part was noticeably higher pitched and definitely ascending and the second part was even shorter than before. Then this new version, Song B, slowly evolved back into Song A, with the second part going back to the Song A sooner than the first part. It repeated Song A again several times, then burst into song B, which again morphed back to song A over several repetitions.

Today, as I sit writing this, with my office window open, a Yellow-rumped Warbler is calling from a nearby fir tree.

Is it singing the exact same song as the one in the park yesterday? No, not really! This song is not in two discernable parts - the monotone trill grading into a more warbling ascending trill at the end. This one is more just a single phrase with the whole thing starting with the monotone trill, upwards, to end in almost individual cheeps. What can I say - it's hell to be detail oriented, and probably boring to read.

Bird Songs, Working Thoughts 1

Complex bird songs don't stick in my head from year to year. I have been birding for 30 years and recognize many sounds of my local species but the complex songs of warblers, vireos, and robin-like ones, for example, have me shredding my auricles.

I've been look at sonograms (spectrographs) from the macaulaylibrary.org in an effort to find a way to remember them. Browsing through the library I finally realize there are many dialects and even individually unique songs for one species. I feel better about myself - it isn't necessarily me being dense - the song I'm hearing for that species IS different than ones on recordings and may be an individual bird!

Recommendations for learning bird songs include:
  • Do your learning in the field
Follow the bird singing and identify it; associating the song to the bird is more likely to stick in your head then.

That would be great with all the time in the world and the ability to 'crane' your neck for hours until the little blighter in the top of a 60-foot spruce tree held still long enough in good light to show its field marks!

Fellow birder Rick Howie wrote: "After making such an effort, it was counter-productive to forget the song until the next time for fear that you would have to spend so much time tracking the beasty again."

This seems to work best for common species you see easily and frequently and are easy to identify. I guess that is how all the buzzes of the Pine Siskin got burned in my brain.

  • Describe the song to yourself and identify it every time you hear it
What words do I use to describe the song? Study sites and guide books use words like "buzz" and "trill" - what's the difference between a slow buzz and a trill? And what's the difference between a 'bounding' warble and a 'flat' warble, as I read on one site?

That's great if you know what species you're hearing in the first place (and you can hear, in the first place) - Catch 22.

  • Trust a fellow birder to tell you what it is - ah, ummm, well, need I say more?
  • Compare the song to a recording which you either
  1. take with you on a CD, tape, mp3 player, or iPod with "Bird Jam" software or
  2. have made written or mental notes to compare with your recordings back home
Have you noticed yet that air temperature, wind, human activity, distance from bird, etc. affect what you hear and which tones are carried?

This is why, I think, the opening tones of the Western Meadowlark are so piercing and loud - they carry quite far and can be heard in different atmospheric and sound-environmenent conditions. It is like they are saying "Here I am! I'm going to sing now! Listen up!"

The recordings are usually much better (more audible frequencies) than what you hear in the field. You can't always hear all the elements under field conditions! The buzzy quality of a weak buzzy tone might get drowned out by other sounds or temperature differences and you perceive more of a pure tone than the buzz on the recording.

Lower air temperatures = denser air = more energy required to move the air / create a sound wave = differences in distance sound carries and the frequencies carried / die-off of lower or higher frequency tones (I'm not sure which).

Also, as mentioned previously, different individuals may sing different songs, and different areas may have different dialects.

WhatBird.com says "Male Lazuli Buntings two years of age and older sing only one song, composed of a series of different syllables, and unique to that individual" OMG!

If you use a sound device in the field, your batteries could die. Then you'd have to rely on some other method - taking notes - or give up.

And, if you tried to remember / used notes - you've forgotten by the time you get back home to your CD player, computer, whatever or can't remember what your notes or musical notations mean.

  • Use a mnemonic such as 'sam peabody'
Who the 'h' is Sam Peabody and do the tones go up or down? Or "sweet, sweet, sweet, a little more sweet" or "chee-erp". I can't remember the mnemonic I chose as a memory jogger!

Who can interpret those descriptions in the field guides without some recording to reference?

Kenn Kaufman in "Advanced Birding" wrote about certainty of identification using all possible clues (re: Empidonax flycatchers) "If you reach the stage at which you feel you can name every Empid you see in the field, you are probably deluding yourself. . . I have studied these birds . . . and examined thousands of museum specimens . . . and individuals - and I believe I can confidently name about 80 percent of the Empids I see"

So, even a real expert puts his identification skills as a percentage of birds seen, not identifying every one. I can do that!

Following posts will list some of the words I am defining for myself to describe songs in 'lay' terms.

Happy avian eaves-dropping!

10 May 2009

Little Big Day 2009 Kootenay Style

Little Big Day (LBD) 2009
Location: East Kootenay, British Columbia, Canada
Team name: Gotta Be Quick
Species count: 115
Placement: finally placed - tied for first!

Weird / uncommon / surprise birds (my team):
  • Marbled Godwit
  • Trumpeter Swan
  • Williamson's Sapsucker
  • American PipiT
Should have but didn't get:
  • House Wren
  • Pileated Woodpecker
  • American Dipper
Complete List all teams (BC abbreviations)

01 May 2009

Star Trek XI and the ST Universe

The light-heartedness of the Star Trek universe and its faithful fandom can all be attributed to William Shatner's famous remonstration for us all to "get a life"!

This remark freed us to be regular human beings in between our escapades vicariously accompanying the characters in all the shows and movies (I haven't read any of the books). Because of this remark, we are free in real life to incorporate the ideals of the show as laid out by Gene Rodenberry and the positive qualities of the characters in our day to day achievments and interactions without being labelled a fanatic since we can prove by our meer presence we do indeed have "a life".

Also, I would even go so far as to say, that this remark was the beginning of the 'coming out' of nerds across the universe.

Yeah Star Trek! Yeah G.R.! Yeah W. S.!

19 February 2009

2009 BBABC Preparation

  • More fuel-efficient vehicle bought?
  • Personal database ready?
  • Protocols reviewed?
  • Point count locations located?
  • Songs reviewed?
  • GPS bought?
  • Last year's data entered?
  • Maps acquired?
  • Snow off ground?
  • Birds back?
All of the above in various stages of contemplation, completion, or achievement - except for the last two! - which have not responded to any of my pleadings!

This year's debate was: get a job or go birding.
Well, 'job', it's too late now! You missed your chance. Spring is coming and there are over 62 breeding bird atlas squares within easy road access, so you lose for now.