Bird Taxonomy Information For Photosharing Websites

Update: The web based version of the R script below, plus fuzzy name matching, can be found at http://www.faintlake.com/birdname/. A big thanks to Kent Fiala for putting it together!

A few months ago I came across this Flickr photo via the eBird Rarity Photos group (which I co-moderate with Jon Isacoff) and was struck by the inclusion of common and binomial (scientific) names plus a few lines of additional taxonomic information (order and family) for the bird in the photo description.  It read…

Common Name: Crimson-collared Grosbeak
Taxonomy: Passeriformes/Cardinalidae
Specific Name: Rhodothraupis celaeno
February 22, 2012 – Hidalgo County – Pharr, Texas

My first thought: “Wow! Great idea!” I love finding ways to inject more science into the birdwatching scene, so I committed to doing this with all my photos on Flickr from that point forward.  My second thought was “I wonder how long it takes to do that for ALL your photos?” which made me reconsider that commitment…

Now, it’s pretty straightforward to generate those few lines of taxonomic information, thanks to a little R script I whipped together. The script pulls taxonomic info from the Clements Checklist of Birds of the World (eBird’s taxonomy), and can do different species with a single call of the birdlookup() function — so far, it works like a charm!

If you happen to have a bit more web programming savvy than I do, I have a few thoughts for you to consider:

  • Had I the time and the web server, I’d love to make an online, menu-driven version with fuzzy name searching capabilities, so I could quickly copy/paste the HTML snippet without having to fire up R.
  • Formatting options would be excellent, e.g., packing more or less info into each line like putting the binomial name after the common name in parenthesis versus having that info on separate lines.
  • Text boxes that automatically present you with options from the database (much as the Species box does on the eBird website’s Range and Point Map tool) would be ideal.

To see a few examples of how I’ve used it (some day I’ll go back and add such info to my other photos) check out my Flickr photostream and browse the recent photos.

R code:

## Script to spit out taxonomic information for a given
## bird species according to the eBird/Clements taxonomy.

## Load the database, downloaded as a CSV from
##   http://www.birds.cornell.edu/clementschecklist/download/
#Tax = read.csv(file.choose())
Tax = read.csv("Birding/Checklists/Clements-Checklists-6.8.csv", sep=",")

## Lookup function
birdlookup = function(common.name="Snow Goose (Lesser)") {
ID=which(Tax$English.name==common.name);
binomial.name  = as.character(Tax[ID,"Scientific.name"])
fam.name       = as.character(Tax[ID,"Family"])
order.name     = as.character(Tax[ID,"Order"])

## Print out HTML
cat(paste("\n\nCommon Name: <b>",common.name,"</b>
Scientific Name: <i>",binomial.name,"</i>
Taxonomy: ", order.name," / ",fam.name,"
Date - Location (County Co.) State\n\n",sep=''))

} # End of birdlookup()

## Example
birdlookup("Red-tailed Hawk (Western)")

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Western Red-tailed Hawk in central Ohio: An annual visitor?

This adult dark intermediate (dark rufous) morph individual was photographed near Glacier Ridge Metro park in Union Co. OH on 6 March 2014.  It may have also been photographed in this area in February of 2009 (Gene Stauffer), and November of 2011 (Irina Shulgina).

This adult dark intermediate (dark rufous) morph Western Red-tailed Hawk (B. j. calurus) was photographed near Glacier Ridge Metro park in Union Co. OH on 6 March 2014. It may have also been photographed in this area in February of 2009 (Gene Stauffer), and November of 2011 (Irina Shulgina).

Red-tailed Hawks (Buteo jamaicensis) are ubiquitous in North America, and are probably the most abundant and familiar raptor.  They’re also very diverse with over a half-dozen subspecies, a few of which are strikingly polymorphic showing a continuum of color morphs ranging from almost solid black down to very pale. Not to mention solid white individuals that pop up from time to time. But when different Red-tailed Hawk subspecies show up as vagrants on the wrong side of the continent, how often do we noticing them?

In the west, both Harlan’s (B. j. harlanii) and Western Red-tails (B. j. calurs) come in a whole range of colors, from light to nearly black, and these are typically categorized as either light, light intermediate, intermediate, dark intermediate, or dark, with very few birds being solidly dark enough to qualify for the latter category.  Westerns tend to show lots of rusty/rufous tones in contrast to the colder colors of most Harlan’s, so when talking about Westerns many often relabel the above categories using “rufous” instead of “intermediate.” It’s all rather unfortunate terminology, really, as most non-experts are prone to call any bird darker than a typical light morph a “dark” Red-tailed hawk.

Dark Adult Western Red-tailed Hawk in Union Co, along US-33 by Irina Shulgina, on 5 March 2014.The same bird as above, along US-33 in Union Co. on 5 March 2014.
Photo (C) Irina Shulgina.

In the eastern part of the continent, the Eastern Red-tailed Hawk (B. j. borealis) dominates, and is in fact the only subspecies you’ll likely encounter save the Northern Red-tail (B. j. abieticolis) which may just be variation within borealis and not be a legit subspecies, but is distinctive in that it appears to be a bit more richly colored, and more heavily streaked, than other borealis (sensu lato).  That said, there is currently zero evidence that these eastern subspecies exhibit and dark or intermediate morphs.

In any case, the big “take home message” here is that very dark birds (from light intermediate on up to dark) encountered anywhere in the U.S. are very likely to be one of the two western subspecies: harlanii or calurus.

So what does all this have to do with the central Ohio bird?

First, this dark intermediate (aka dark rufous) individual is a pretty typical dark rufous Western in all respects.  No question about the ID once you dig into the details.

Second, and most intriguing, is that reports of a darker Western (calurus) bird have been surfacing from this area west of Columbus, OH sine February of 2009!!!  Given the great rarity of these western birds in the east, I can’t help but wonder this isn’t the same bird returning year after year to the same area during winter! 

eBird Reports of Western Red-tailed Hawk near the eastern border of Franklin Co., Ohio.

eBird Reports of Western Red-tailed Hawk near the eastern border of Franklin Co., Ohio.

Update:  Below is Gene Stauffer’s photo of possibly the same bird from 9 February 2009, just a short flight from where I and other have seen the bird during early March, 2014.

"Western" Red-tailed Hawk (B. j. calurus)

Photo taken on 9 Feb 2009 by Gene Stauffer (shared here with his permission)
at the entrance to Glacier Ridge Metro Park in Union County, north east near Columbus, OH.
eBird Checklist: ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist?subID=S4550854

For additional photos of the Central Ohio bird(s) depicted above, see these photos and perhaps others on Irina Shulgina’s Flickr page.   These include photos from March 2014, and from what appears to be the same or a very similar bird on 11-10-2012 a few miles south of the above locations along Amity Rd. (Franklin County).

These darker western birds also prompt another question: how frequently do light morph western birds (yes, both calurus and harlanii have light morphs), including Krider’s, stray into the east? How many of these are we overlooking? As far as I can tell, most western (i.e., calurus and harlanii) Red-tailed Hawks that are observed in the east are darker morphs, which understandably stick out like a sore thumb against the backdrop of our entirely light morph Eastern Red-tails (B. j. borealis), but I suspect that many light morph western birds simply go unnoticed.

Perhaps some day I’ll find the time to put together an informative “crash course” in subspecific Red-tailed Hawk ID, but until that happens, you may want to check out some of the resources below. Additionally, consider purchasing (or acquiring through your local library) the Wheeler Guide to Raptors of Western North America and other raptor-specific field guides that treat these subspecies in detail, and of course make it a point to chase after any western birds that show up in your area and/or pay attention to the local Red-tails next time you find yourself west of the Central Time Zone.

Related Online Resources:

Iron, J. Dark morph Red-tailed Hawk: calurus or abieticola? TOC Newsletter, February 2012, Toronto Ornithological Club. http://www.jeaniron.ca/2012/darkredtailsTOCNews.pdf

Liguori, J., and B. Sullivan. 2010. Comparison of Harlan’s with Western and Eastern Red-tailed Hawks. Birding 42(2)2:30-37. http://www.aba.org/birding/v42n2p30.pdf

Liguori, J. 2004. Dark Red-tailed Hawks. Birding 36(3): 278-83. http://www.aba.org/birding/v36n5p500.pdf

Pittaway, R. 1993. Subspecies and Morphs of the Red-tailed Hawk in Ontario Birds 11(1): 23-29. Ontario Field Ornithologists. http://www.jeaniron.ca/2010/redtailsRF.pdf

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Birding, Ecotourism, and Human Rights

Crested Crane

Crested Crane (Balearica regulorum gibbericeps) — Uganda’s national bird, which appears in the national flag. [Source: Wikimedia Commons]

Like it or not, birding is political. I’m not talking about the politics of your local birding clubs or the ABA or the AOU, but big-picture, global politics. As soon as we board a plane to go watch birds outside of our local haunts, we become part of a bigger community and a larger economy, and most of us take that pretty seriously.  When choosing local guide companies or accommodations, for example, most of us try and spend our money with the “good guys” — those who support local communities, local economies and local conservation efforts that ultimately serve our own interests in protecting native cultures and natural areas.

Recently, human rights issues related to the criminalization of homosexuality in Uganda and rise in violence against gays in Uganda, and related comments by a Ugandan birding tour company, have prompted me to do some thinking about these issues. In particular, surrounding the question:  Would I turn away opportunities to go birding in Uganda and other countries based on local human rights or environmental issues?  In short, my answer is largely yes. If you’re curious as to why, and perhaps what you can do to improve the situation in Uganda, keep reading…

As birders, we strive to visit places for the birds, but we often do it ways that lend support the communities we visit, and the natural areas they help protect.

So would you go birding somewhere where your visit had the opposite, negative effect?  Would you support efforts against your interests, just to see new birds and their habitats? How about taking it a step further: would you boycott a place to protest of actions that were negatively affecting local habitats or communities?

Like many of you, my answer to these questions is largely YES. I do think about who I’m indirectly supporting or not supporting when planning my birding trips and spending money on those trips. Sure, there are exceptions, like visiting areas to show certain locals that those areas have value. Or even visiting places I might otherwise protest if I new I could leverage my experiences to rally support for improving those situations. But while visiting the tropics, for example, I’d much prefer to avoid international resorts run by companies with deplorable environmental and human rights records and instead try and make sure my money stays in the local economy and doesn’t fuel activities that negatively impact local communities or natural areas. Likewise, there are certain parts of the world you would have to pay me a whole lot of money to visit, purely because I would have a hard time knowing that my visit would in some way support the  poor treatment of locals, some foreign visitors, or the unethical exploitation or destruction of local natural resources.

Sadly, Uganda is moving its way up on that list of places I might not want to visit.

I’ve met a number of people from Uganda, despite having never visited the region, and I can tell you that the Ugandan people are delightful. What tarnishes the countries reputation is a series of activity in recent years, partly fueled by anti-gay efforts from very conservative Christian American organizations in Uganda, that have culminated in the Uganda Anti-Homosexuality Act of 2014 that became law in February of 2014, which criminalizes homosexuality making it punishable up to life in prison (the death sentence was taken off the table at the very last minute, thankfully).

The new (horrible) law in Uganda also includes penalties for individuals, companies and organizations that support LBGTQ rights.  This REALLY complicates things! Why? Because the new law makes it almost impossible for Ugandans to speak out against anti-gay legislation and misinformation. Businesses, including birding guides, aren’t exactly going to have rainbow flags up in front of their office buildings and on their websites, which means tourists likely won’t have the luxury of choosing where to spend their time and money.

Consider, for example, the following story.  A few weeks ago, a U.S. birder sent a message to Ugandan birding tour companies warning them that the new law will likely turn many birders away from visiting the country.  Heck, foreign governments are pulling their support from the country over the new law, why wouldn’t foreign individuals do the same?  Instead of those ecotourism business expressing concern about the law and it’s effects, which they might rightfully be weary of expressing, the only response for a while was silence.  Then, finally, the first response came back (from the Uganda Bird Guides Club), and it read:

“I guess there are more straight birders than GAY ones! We shall go with those.”

Anti-gay sentiments in the country are high, and as you might expect, widespread beliefs and sentiments about gays are based on a whole lot of fictitious bullshit and misinformation regarding gender and sexuality. In case your thinking it’s just the state that’s silencing pro-gay voices, members and supporters of the LGBTQ community face an even higher risk of physical and other attacks … 


“Members of Uganda’s gay community attend the funeral of David Kato, the gay rights activist murdered in 2011.” [Source]

This isn’t just about gay rights, it’s about protecting people from mob violence and insane abuses like “corrective rape” for lesbians.  Birding guides who don’t share the above sentiment aren’t exactly going to be advertising their pro-gay opinions to like-minded tourists! Those individuals live with very real fears about their words being construed by their compatriots as being (criminally) supportive of homosexuality… and for that they have more than just the legal system to worry about.

So should we birders visit Uganda to tour their beautiful country, despite it’s hateful laws? That’s a tough question, and the answer likely depends a lot on individual situations. Should the birding community boycott them entirely? Another tough call, since it isn’t clear how the negative effects of isolation compare to the economic impact of such a boycott.  As birders and ecotourists, we’re left with the implication that “the right thing to do” is not so clear cut.

But as people — who believe in the basic human right to love whomever you love, and that governments shouldn’t dictate sex lives — perhaps “the right thing to do” is much more clear. Whether or not you’re ever fortunate enough to visit Uganda’s huge diversity of habitats and wildlife, I hope you’ll still do what you can to make Uganda the kind of friendly and egalitarian country that also values and respects the huge diversity of people who live there and elsewhere in the world.

Related Links and Organizations

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Too many birding forums in Ohio? (Part II)

About a year ago, I posted some summary graphics showing the size of the Birding Ohio facebook group and the number of posts to the Ohio Birds email list, in response to the concerns some had expressed about there being too many birding forums in Ohio.

Before continuing, go check out that short post for a quick refresher.

Today, I decided to update those data by again scouring the Birding Ohio group wall for mentions of the membership numbers, and skimming the Birding Ohio email list archives to update the posts per month.  The updated figures are below.

Birding Ohio FB group size since the start of 2012.

Birding Ohio FB group size since the start of 2012.

So how has the email list been this year?

Ohio Birds email list posts per month over the past few years.

Ohio Birds email list posts per month over the past few years.

A little low for the first half of the year, but otherwise it appears to be pretty much on track!

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Describing and Documenting Birds

Over on the eBird website, there’s a post about a new article (which first appeared on eBird Reviewer Lauren Harter’s blog here) titled Reporting Rarities–Elements of a Bird Description.  It’s a great article, and I highly recommend you read it in full, but I suspect a whole lot of people who we’d like to read it … won’t.

Why?  Because this is the internet, and at just shy of 1800 words, that article was way too long!  Personally, I like to give shorter advice, like this.

When I first saw this same article on Facebook back in early August, I left the following comment:

For what it’s worth, here’s my short version of this advice: The goal is to describe the bird in a way that the reviewer will make the ID before you even type the birds name. This requires two key steps:
1. DESCRIBE the bird (e.g., in details that an artist familiar with common birds could use to sketch what you saw). Mention supporting info for how well you saw/heard it.
2. Next, DISCUSS the ID by walking the reader through how you ruled out other possible species.

Beyond living up to your birding communities norms and contributing your observations to science, it’s worth noting that there are excellent self-serving reasons to document birds well!

First, people will respect you more both as a birder, and as a person. If they’re always doubting your poorly documented reports, it’s not just your reputation as a birder that suffers.

Second, it saves you time by avoiding the hassle of responding to emails from state records committee members to eBird reviewers on down to the skeptical birder one county over who urgently wants more details before they give chase.

Third, you learn faster when others can see more details of your ID process. Instead of pushy, probing questions about a (rightfully) questionable report, you’ll instead get feedback that helps make you a better birder.

Fourth, others learn from you about tricky IDs, which makes them better birders, which means they’ll find more “good birds” for you on field trips, for local listing endeavours, etc.  Yes, birding IS more fun when there are more good, and like-minded, birders around!

Fifth, “future you” will like “past you” more if you documenting things well! Nothing worse than going back through old notebooks and realizing that you don’t believe your own report because the memories are gone, the ID problem was harder than you thought, and you (gasp!) didn’t take good notes.  Not a lister? Well, neither was I a decade ago. Now, especially with the help of eBird, I keep county year lists, yard lists, office lists, etc. And yes, it can happen to you too!

BUT, there is one big downside to properly documenting your sightings, and that is that you may come to realize something very uncomfortable: you have serious doubts your own sighting. This is normal. This happens all the time. This might mean that you simply can’t put into words why that bird sounded like a Dickcissel, you just know it was a Dickcissel. Explain that, trust your gut, and know that sometimes, we just can’t document things well enough for others, and that’s alright.

So without further ado, here’s my short summary that I’d encourage others to use when nudging others towards better reporting practices and better documentation of rarities:

Advice for Describing (Rare) Birds
http://mostlybirds.wordpress.com/2013/09/11/describing-rare-birds/

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Advice for Describing (Rare) Birds

When documenting a rare bird, your goal should be to describe the bird in a way that others will make the ID before you get to mentioning the bird’s name. This is requires two key steps:

  1. DESCRIBE the bird in a way so that an artist familiar with common birds could sketch what you observed. Mention supporting info for how well you saw/heard it.
  2. Next, DISCUSS the ID by walking the reader through how you ruled out other possible species.

Examples:

1a. “Obviously a Scissor-tailed Flycatcher. Not that rare.” This is terrible documentation!

1b. “Seen as it flew over my car with the sun at my back. Kingbird sized, light gray, some pinkish orangish on the underside of the wing and armpits. The long, deeply forked tail was about twice the length of the body.” This is much documentation! You don’t even need to discuss the ID on that one! For eBird, this is fantastic. Give Harter’s article a read, and see what more could be done here to improve it.

2a. “Looked like a robin, but with a thick almost black necklace, dark grayish/blackish cheek patch and orange supercillium, two orange wingbars and two orange bars across flight feathers as well. ” See what I did there? See how you already know this is a Varied Thrush? Way better than…

2b. “New yard bird! Definitely not a baby robin, but similar looking, but I’m sure it was a varied thrush because I’ve seen them before on a trip to Alaska.”

3a. “Seen on the beach during vacation. My friend who is a good birder said it was a snowy plover.” Umm… no.

3b. “Seen on the beach during vacation. Also see by my friend John D. Birder from Oklahoma, who said he’s seen many of them on field trips back home. Same size as nearby Semipalmated Plovers, clearly much paler overall, with black on the sides of the neck just above the shoulder but no neck band (upper breast and neck solid white). John said the black bill meant it wasn’t a piping plover.” Yes! Again, see how we documented this Snow Plover without once asserting confidently that it was a Snow Plover?

4. As always, when you have good independent documentation, lead with that:
See photo of the Baird’s Sandpiper below
Baird's Sandpiper

For more on documenting rarities see Lauren Harter‘s blog post, Elements of a Bird Description, or the slightly modified version for eBird users: Reporting Rarities–Elements of a Bird Description.

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Birding Follow-up: Cerulean Warbler

Seeing birds in the field often prompts me to do a little follow-up when I get home. I might read up on natural history details for a particular species or group of species I encountered, maybe track down the natural history information behind certain behaviors I observed, or the biology behind plumage or structural details I noticed that day. Sometimes that information turns out to be worth sharing, so I’m going start posting some of that info here in the form of “Birding Follow-up” posts.

Cerulean Warbler by Alex Champagne, on Flickr

Cerulean Warbler at Glen Echo Park, Columbus, OH. 4.19.2013. Photo by Alex Champagne.
eBird Checklist: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist?subID=S13805495

Today I came across my second Cerulean Warbler of the year, which was a bit of a surprise given how little I’ve been out birding this spring!  The first individual was last weekend at Glen Echo Park in Columbus, and it put on quite a show (at eye-level!) for my wife and I.

Today, I found bird #2 on the Ohio State University campus, near Mirror Lake (an area I bird frequently during migration).  So why was I surprised?  Because Cerulean Warblers are on the decline, and while not rare, they’re by no means a common bird in Ohio during spring migration!

To illustrate that decline, here’s the BBS data trend for Cerulean Warbler from 1966-2011:

Cerulean Warbler population trend based on BBS data from 1966-2011 (survey wide).

Cerulean Warbler population trend based on BBS data from 1966-2011 (survey wide). These numbers were pulled from the BBS website using the trend analysis tool. The plot was made with the R code at the end of this post.

Not good! Why the declines? As with many species, there are multiple factors involved, most having to do with habitat loss and degradation resulting from human activity, both in North America as well as on their wintering grounds in South America.

For more details, see:


Code for the BBS data figure:

# Graphics package.
library(ggplot2)

# Load BBS Heirarchical Model Results from
# http://www.mbr-pwrc.usgs.gov/cgi-bin/tf11.pl
CEWA = read.table(header=TRUE, text="Year Index CI.025 CI.975
1966 0.91 0.65 1.40
1967 0.81 0.60 1.14
1968 0.86 0.63 1.24
1969 0.83 0.62 1.15
1970 0.83 0.61 1.27
1971 0.77 0.58 1.10
1972 0.76 0.57 1.06
1973 0.72 0.55 0.98
1974 0.66 0.50 0.90
1975 0.62 0.48 0.84
1976 0.69 0.53 0.94
1977 0.59 0.46 0.79
1978 0.53 0.40 0.70
1979 0.56 0.43 0.74
1980 0.50 0.39 0.67
1981 0.51 0.39 0.69
1982 0.45 0.35 0.60
1983 0.50 0.38 0.71
1984 0.46 0.35 0.62
1985 0.47 0.36 0.64
1986 0.44 0.34 0.59
1987 0.42 0.33 0.56
1988 0.43 0.34 0.57
1989 0.40 0.31 0.55
1990 0.41 0.32 0.56
1991 0.38 0.30 0.52
1992 0.38 0.30 0.50
1993 0.36 0.28 0.47
1994 0.34 0.27 0.45
1995 0.37 0.29 0.48
1996 0.38 0.30 0.52
1997 0.35 0.27 0.45
1998 0.30 0.24 0.40
1999 0.27 0.21 0.36
2000 0.27 0.21 0.35
2001 0.26 0.21 0.35
2002 0.26 0.20 0.36
2003 0.29 0.22 0.40
2004 0.27 0.21 0.35
2005 0.25 0.19 0.33
2006 0.25 0.20 0.33
2007 0.25 0.19 0.33
2008 0.22 0.17 0.29
2009 0.23 0.18 0.31
2010 0.22 0.17 0.30
2011 0.21 0.16 0.29")

# Plot
ggplot(CEWA, aes(Year, Index)) + geom_point() + geom_line() +
ggtitle("BBS Heirarchical Model: Cerulean Warbler (1966-2011)") +
geom_ribbon(aes(ymin=CI.025, ymax=CI.975), fill="blue", alpha=0.1)
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