Saturday, August 29, 2015

Fri-D: The Other Two Scarce Peep, and How to Get the Boink

A couple weeks ago I wrote a post about identifying shorebirds in general, and White-rumped Sandpipers in particular. If you missed that post, you might want to check it out.

So in North America we have 5 small sandpipers (not counting extreme rarities, i.e. stints) that are usually collectively referred to as peeps.  Three of them are smaller: Least, Semipalmated and Western Sandpipers.  Two of them are bigger, though certainly not big: White-rumped Sandpiper and Baird's Sandpiper.

Let's talk briefly about spring. In the mid-Atlantic, in spring, there are NO Western or Baird's Sandpipers. None. Nada. Zip. Well, ok, maybe one Western. Maybe.  I should perhaps clarify that as late as late April I have seen Western Sandpipers in the mid-Atlantic.  These, I believe, are birds that wintered locally, and it can be fun to watch them over the weeks as they transition from winter/basic plumage to breeding/alternate plumage.  Those birds invariably leave by the end of April.  So come May, no more Westerns. Trust me on this one.  As to Baird's, in both spring and fall it is a mid-continent migrant, and we only get a smattering of them in fall, usually juveniles. 

On to "fall," meaning southbound migration, which begins in the last days of June for shorebirds. The photo above was taken in the South Cape May Meadows, NJ on August 8, 2015.  This bird has everything going for it as a Western Sandpiper, except maybe that its bill is not one of those has-to-be-a-Western-because-the-bill-looks-like-it-came-off-a-Dunlin.  However, the bill is still fine for a Western, long enough with a slight droop. The first thing I noticed on this bird was that it was well on its way to basic plumage. It's gray.  The competing i.d. for Western Sandpiper is Semipalmated Sandpiper, and we pretty much don't see semis looking like this in the mid-Atlantic, and certainly not as early as August 8. Why? Because these species don't complete their pre-basic molts until they get close to, or are at, their wintering grounds.  Semipalmated Sandpipers do not winter anywhere in North America, other than a few in south Florida.  You might want to make a note of that; please do not report a Semipalmated Sandpiper in the mid-Atlantic or northward from December through March.  As in all birding mistakes, this is a forgivable sin, but what you saw was certainly a Western Sandpiper or maybe a Sanderling, and your eBird reviewer is not going to validate a semi in winter.

Other things that are good for Western on the photo above include a thicker looking neck and bigger looking head than we see on Semipalmated.  If you want more confirmation, click on the photo below to get a larger view, and look at the lower scapulars on either side of the bird.

This Western Sandpiper has molted and replaced many of its upperpart feathers, but it has retained one lower scapular on either side.  Westerns are well known for having a lot of rufous above, specifically rufous concentrated on the scaps, and we can see that on these retained feathers.

All this Western Sandpiper plumage talk pertains only to adults.  Juveniles are different, although they too have rufous concentrated on the scapulars.  That's a post for another time. I have not yet seen a juvenile Western Sandpiper this fall.

On to the other eastern peep rarity: Baird's Sandpiper.

The photo above was taken at the South Cape May Meadows NJ yesterday, August 28, 2015. Richard Crossley had found this Baird's Sandpiper (left) the evening before, and I had just enough time before I had to head to work the next morning to walk down the Meadows east path to look for it.  So I did. And I was able to look over the peep naked eye from fairly close range and go, "Oh.  There it is."

Baird's and White-rumped Sandpipers are bigger than the other peep, and that is clearly obvious in the above photo. The bird on the right is a Least Sandpiper.  Baird's and White-rumped Sandpipers also share the trait of long wings (being longer-distance migrants than the other peep), and their wingtips project well past the tip of the tail. They look decidedly pointy or attenuated in the rear. To my eye this is more obvious on Baird's than White-rumped. Baird's is also one of the "grasspipers," meaning its preferred habitat on migration is very short, often slightly damp grassy vegetation. You don't often see Baird's wading in water, but it can happen. . .and Least Sandpipers like grass, too. And so do Pectoral Sandpipers, which are also scaly looking above. But pecs have yellow legs, and so do Leasts.

By far, most of the Baird's Sandpipers we see on the Atlantic Coast are juveniles.  I don't even have a photo of an adult Baird's Sandpiper to show you.  Juvenile Baird's Sandpipers are beautiful birds, usually richly buff with a neat, scaly pattern above created by pale edges to the upperparts feathers. A final tip: Baird's Sandpipers look the part, in shape and in pattern.  If you're not sure, it's probably something else. Consider other juvenile peep or Pectoral Sandpiper.

Finally, about the "boink." I wrote in my White-rumped Sandpiper blog that "I hit a bird and my mind went "boink" - different."

Boinks have to be earned. The way to be able to boink on an unusual bird is know the common species cold.  In this case, rather than spending all your time looking for Baird's or White-rumped or Western Sandpipers, look at all the Semipalmated and Least Sandpipers. No two are alike, and they are also quite fun to watch as they probe and feed and squabble and fly and land again.  Before you know it, you will start boinking on the scarcer species.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

It's On Again Tonight

[Velocity radar from - just now, 9:44 p.m., Thursday night August 27, 2015. That ain't rain - it's birds.]

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Friday, August 21, 2015

Fri-D: Drilling Down to an I.D.

Hmmmm, you look like an Olive-sided Flycatcher.
That's how it started with the bird in the photo above. The bird is dead center in the frame if you have a hard time seeing it. This is an uncropped image, taken Sunday, August 16, 2015 at Cape May Point State Park, NJ.  If you figure that I was using a 300 mm lens with a 1.4x teleconverter on a cropped frame sensor (DX in Nikon terminology, adds a 1.5X multiplier), then in 35mm terms that's 630mm worth of lens.  If you use the old rule of thumb that you can estimate magnification by dividing lens length by 50mm, then this is the view you would get through 12X binoculars.
The math looks like this: 300mm X 1.4 X 1.5 /50 = 12.6
I was using my customary Zeiss 8X42's, so what I saw in my binoculars looked substantially smaller than this. But it still looked like an Olive-sided Flycatcher.  I knew this in part because I've seen a lot of Olive-sided Flycatchers (though they are a scarce to rare migrant in the east), and in part because it was August 16 and I had been thinking about OSFL all morning, and wanted to find one.  I wanted this bird to BE one, which is a very dangerous thing in bird i.d. If you want to find it, you will - even if you're wrong.
But supposing you came at this bird without pre-conceived notions.  Then what?  Well, for starters, a lot of bird identification is about what it is not. This is not a goose, swan duck, turkey, loon, grebe, shearwater, gannet, cormorant, pelican. . . you get the idea. . .then you get to some things that it could be, like a dove, cuckoo, flycatcher (ding ding ding!), jay, swallow, thrush, warbler, sparrow, finch.
It's smallish but not super small.
Then you can consider where you are, and where the bird is.  We're in Cape May, it's August 16, and the bird is perched on a prominent bare snag. It is not interested in leaving that area, as I learned by watching it for quite a while. It is perched in a fairly upright position. Now what are the possibilities?
Purple Martin. Red-winged Blackbird. European Starling. Or some kind of flycatcher.
The first thing I did was get down on my knees and prop the Zeiss on the railing of the observation deck, thus creating a very stable image.  It can be amazing what you can see through mere binoculars when you do this.  I was getting no color at all, just a silhouette, but I got a clearer picture of the bird's shape - upright, big-headed looking. At first I couldn't see its tail because of the way it was perched.  Then it preened briefly, holding its wing out to the side, and I could see it had looong wings, and for an instant thought to myself, "You dolt! Are you just looking at a Purple Martin?" But, even without a look at the tail, the shape was wrong for that. And long wings are just fine for OSFL.
Then the bird shifted position:
 You can click to enlarge these images, by the way.  Now I could see it had too much tail for a martin, the shape still seemed great for a flycatcher, and specifically an Olive-sided Flycatcher.  Then. . . waaaiit a minute, am I seeing white tufts on this bird's butt?  Why yes, I believe I am.

Then I cheated.  I looked at the back of the camera, and zoomed in on the bird as tightly as I could. This is what I saw:

 Olive-sided Flycatcher.

Here's a bonus challenge, if you're in the mood.  Yes, I know the camera's autofocus somehow decided the ripples on the water were more important than the totally obvious birds (grrrr), and the light is bad, but sometimes this is how we see things through binoculars.  And, you can study these at leisure, unlike conditions in the field.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Thoughtful Thursday: This Sign is Speaking to Me, But I'm Not Sure What It Is Saying

[Somewhere, South Dakota, July 2015. When you're on a vision quest, stuff like this makes you pause. . .]

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Wherein I Propose a Happier Ending for the American Wigeon

we WEW wew

In the dim light of dawn at the South Cape May Meadows, NJ, today, the continuing male American Wigeon whistled, unexpectedly for this time of year, as if to get my attention.

In my previous post, below, I revealed this bird is injured and probably doomed.

That's pretty depressing.  But in a sense, this wigeon has already beaten the odds if we think ecologically about it.  Why?  Because most birds, and most small animals of other classes, die in their first year of life. This bird is a little more than a year old, he made that first cut.

I remember teaching population ecology to my students at Rutgers, and when we got to this part, they were like, wait. . .what?  But it's true. Among other things, this explains why we can shoot hundreds of thousands of ducks per year without causing population declines.  Those ducks were going to die anyway.  This is called compensatory mortality - doesn't work for all species or situations, but with intelligent application, it works pretty well.

Anyhow, the wigeon's whistle made me think about him.  He's not going to migrate any farther south this fall, nor go north next spring.  He'll probably molt into a fine looking breeding plumage male over the course of this fall.  And there he'll be.

But, consider. . . ducks pair on their wintering grounds.  A boatload of wigeon winter in Cape May, at least until it freezes over, if it freezes over.  Suppose our wigeon attracts the attention of a female that arrives from the north, say Manitoba (you know some females, always worrying about the injured male and wanting to take care of him....). They fall in love, and become inseparable. We get lucky with a mild winter. April comes, it's time to go.  If our male wigeon were healthy, what would happen is the pair would migrate north together, back to Manitoba, the female's natal grounds.  That's how it's supposed to work.

It can't work out that way in this case. But what if, instead of heading north without her mate, the female wigeon stays with him?  I'm not saying this will happen. But it could. If it does, we get our first state breeding record for American Wigeon, our injured but tough male wigeon's genes stay in the gene pool where they belong, and we get to watch a brood of baby wigeon grow up.

Rose colored glasses sometimes fit well.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Why We Still Have An American Wigeon

[This is the male American Wigeon that has been summering in the South Cape May Meadows, NJ this year, an unusual occurrence for this species which breeds to the north and west, no closer than the Great Lakes or northern New England. We can see in this photo that he has molted and replaced all his primaries and primary coverts on the right wing, which is to be expected. North American ducks have a synchronous summer pre-basic molt of all their flight feathers, and go flightless for a time. Somehow, he's already managed to fray some of the middle primaries. We can also assess this bird's age as a SY, i.e. second year, i.e. he was hatched last summer, based on the details of the tips of his greater coverts; check your Pyle Guide for details. Saturday, August 15 2015. Click to enlarge.]

[Oi, look at the left wing.  It's, um, all messed up.  Injured - by a predator, a collision with something, perhaps a load of steel shot.  There is no sign of molt on the left wing flight feathers, which suggests this bird will never replace these feathers, will remain unable to fly, and will be with us in Cape May until it perishes - which, if we get a winter when everything freezes over, it will. Bummer. In this photo you can note the bright white axillars and underwing coverts, which separate American Wigeon from Eurasian Wigeon, which has gray feathers in those tracts.]

Friday, August 14, 2015

Fri-D: Thoughts on Silent Empids

A birder who I have been watching gradually develop into one of the most talented observers I've ever met recently sent me some photos of empids, i.e. flycatchers of the genus Empidonax.  Some of them I could do something with, some I could not.  Here is a paraphrase of the advice I emailed back on one of the photos (not the one above; that one is of a Yellow-bellied Flycatcher at Higbee Beach WMA, NJ a few years ago):

"Apparently absent eyering, moderate to longish primary projection past tertials suggest Alder/Willow.  Apparent paler gray color suggests Willow.  Timing leans towards Willow (Alders in fall begin slightly later and are much more predominate later in the season than Willow).

"I am not sure.  The Bird Banding Lab does not allow/accept i.d.'s to species for Willow versus Alder in the hand, by the way.

"Here's the thing.  Nobody should fool around trying to sight I.D. Empidonax flycatchers unless and until they have studied many known identity birds (i.e. singing or calling) of all the species reasonably possible at their location at length. And then you have to watch out for pewees, which I've seen pretty much everyone, including me, call empids, and not always self-correct.

"I've looked at a lot of empids, and have found that my perceptions of field marks on the same bird can change substantially as it changes position or the light changes. Eyerings appear and disappear. Primary projection past the tertials becomes longer and shorter.  Grayness becomes greenness becomes brownness all on the same birds.  But the songs tell all, and in fall, the calls do too once you learn them and are patient enough to wait for one to call. A lot of times I'm not patient, and they go down as Empid sp., because I figure in the time it takes to hear a call note or finally figure out the field marks confidently, I can find 8 species of warblers and some cuckoos. . .

"Of the field guides, Sibley is the best for Empids, but it would also be worth looking at Kaufman's Advanced Birding."

There you have it.

Friday, August 7, 2015

Fri-D: White-rumped Sandpiper, and Some Shorebird Generalities

[You can click to enlarge this photo.]

Fall (southbound) migration of shorebirds has been underway since late June, and will be peaking soon.  Today at the South Cape May Meadows, NJ, I encountered the first juvenile shorebirds I have seen this year, in the form of two Lesser Yellowlegs with the nice fresh plumage and sharply defined white spots above characteristic of juveniles of that species. In shorebirds, adults tend to migrate south before juveniles; in the mid-Atlantic, July is the month of adult shorebirds, while August and September feature both adults and juveniles.

Which reminds me, before I get to the picture above (also at the Meadows today): everybody who tries to identify shorebirds ought to know a few basic facts.

1. Shorebirds (meaning sandpipers, plovers and allies) are often more easily identified by size, shape and behavior (which includes range and habitat) than by plumage, but. . .
2. If you are going to identify shorebirds using plumage, you have to first know what plumage they are in.
3. Shorebirds have three main plumages plus transitional stages in between.  These are: juvenal plumage (for the retentive types, juvenal refers to the plumage while juvenile refers to the bird); adult breeding (also known as alternate); and adult non-breeding (also known as basic, or winter).  Many shorebirds also wear a first-summer plumage, which is a not-quite-adult plumage that young, often non-breeding one-year olds wear in the spring and summer following their birth year.
4.  In general, juvenal plumage is neat and uniform in wear, since all the feathers were grown at once, and often features neat patterning, especially buff or light edging to the upperpart feathers. In some species, e.g. Least Sandpiper, juvenal plumage can be quite bright and beautiful.
5. In general, adult breeding plumage features the strongest patterning and brightest colors, at least when fresh (in spring). In fall, breeding plumage becomes worn and less colorful. Many shorebird species adults will appear in the mid-Atlantic on southbound migration in worn breeding plumage transitioning to non-breeding plumage, i.e. wearing a mixture of older breeding feathers and newer but plainer non-breeding feathers.
6. In general, non-breeding or winter plumage is the plainest, featuring varying shades of gray above and white below.  Then the damn things all seem to look alike, color-wise, but remain quite different in their size, shape and behavior.

[A slight digression: back in the dark ages of approximately the early 1980's, if you were a birder, you would have given your left foot to have some seasoned veteran tell you the six simple points outlined above, because the Peterson and Golden Field Guides of that time weren't doing it. I owe a thank-you to Don Roberson, who in his November, 1982 "Changing Seasons" summation in the old American Birds magazine succinctly spelled out the plumage information in item #3 above, and also spoke to shorebird migration timing, because in so doing he got me thinking about the rest and so moved me years ahead in the game of identifying shorebirds. I xeroxed Roberson's article and tucked it away, and still have it.]

OK, so. . . White-rumped Sandpiper.  Here's one more thing that new birders need to keep in mind: you can't see a perched (or standing) bird's rump, because the wings cover it.  Experienced birders take this fact for granted, but lots of times folks new to our pastime want to know why, for example, Yellow-rumped Warblers don't have yellow rumps.  The answer is they do, but they have to lift their wings or fly for us to see it.

Yeah, okay, so today we were scoping the peep at the South Cape May Meadows and I hit a bird and my mind went "boink" - different. Different from the predominant Semipalmated Sandpipers and Least Sandpipers.  A little bigger, a little longer, a little more horizontal in stance, and, a little grayer.  What I mean is, a little (but noticeably) darker gray. Which is characteristic of the non-breeding feathers of White-rumped Sandpipers as compared to Semipalmated Sandpipers.  They're not quite as sooty looking as winter Long-billed Dowitchers, but it's a color that, with practice, can call your attention to them.

The photo above, taken Friday, August 7, 2015, shows a White-rumped Sandpiper adult on the left, in worn breeding plumage molting to winter (basic) plumage, next to an adult Semipalmated Sandpiper on the right in basically the same plumage state but wearing more breeding feathers (which are more patterned) than the White-rumped is.

A few particulars you can look for on White-rumpeds, other than those already mentioned, are: the prominent white eyebrow contrasting with a darker head; the attenuated look to the rear end created by the fact that the wingtips extend past the tail, while on all the other "peep" except Baird's, the wingtips fall even with the tail (you have to look carefully to see this), and, as long as a little breeding plumage is remaining, white-rumps have streaking extending well down the flanks.  On this individual, I could see just a couple remaining spots under the wing in front of and just behind the legs, but those spots are excellent field marks. A great clinching mark on White-rumped Sandpiper is the pale reddish base to the lower mandible, when you can see it, but on this bird I could not, even at 60X on a fancy scope. This is one of those field marks that when you see it, it works, but when you don't, it may still be there. So, if you see it, use it; if you don't see it, that doesn't mean it's not there.