Record Breaking Nevada Big Day, May 2016

Running a successful Big Day requires local knowledge, lots of scouting, a well-planned route, some skill, and a fair amount of luck (among other things, e.g., a lot of caffeine). This past Sunday, May 15th, it all came together for four of us doing a Nevada Big Day: we tallied 171 species, surpassing the previous record of 162 and our 2015 Big Day total of 158! Continue reading for a a few highlights, and our full checklist for the day.

One year ago…

Last year around this time, Brian Steger and I – both recent arrivals to Reno – decided to do a Big Day despite having minimal knowledge of the area’s birding sites, minimal time for scouting, and very little experience with the route we ran. Why? It was a great excuse to get out and bird some new areas, to add some birds to our state and life lists, and (most importantly) to have a little fun!

We were able to tally 158 species that day in 2015 thanks to input from several local birders with more experience birding “Northern Nevada” (the local term for west central Nevada; the region within an hour or two of Reno). That included a lot of help from our friend Rob Lowry (an Ohio native who moved to NV a few years ago), who was only able to join us for half of the day due to work obligations. Having Rob join us for only part of the day, according to ABA rules, meant our Big Day wouldn’t officially count, but we greatly preferred Rob’s good company and were more than happy to have him join us.

This year, however, I hadn’t even entertained the possibility of running another Big Day until just a couple of weeks ago. My wife brought two adorable little twin girls into our family this past December, and two infants plus a four year old (plus work obligations) pretty much meant that I had zero time for big birding trips.

Photo of the twins: "You want to go on a Big what, daddy?"

“You want to go on a Big what, daddy?”

Brian, however, had other plans! He had convinced Rob and another local birder, Dovid Kozlovsky (a graduate student at UNR), to run a Big Day on May 15th. As luck would have it, a few weeks before the Big Day, my in-laws decided to plan a two week visit to see their grandchildren. A visit that just happened to overlap with the 15th! Brian, with almost perfect timing, sent me one last invite to join them (the day after I heard about my in-laws plans) and my wife excused me from daddy duty. Big Day 2016 was on!

Unlike last year – when Brian and I were happy to just get out and explore new birding sites and add to our Life, State, and County lists – this year we took aim at the Nevada Big Day Record: 162 species seen and/or heard on May 10, 1997 by Larry Neel, Graham Chisholm, Keith Geluso, and Bob Flores.

Unfortunately, we had very little time to go scouting this year. Rob was working 50-hour weeks in Yerington. Dovid was also busy preparing for and taking his comprehensive exams while simultaneously working on his Ph.D. research. Brian, who did the bulk of the planning, had just returned from his honeymoon and felt guilty for neglecting his new wife every time he needed to adjust the route or go out scouting. And I had to wrap up my teaching for the semester.

Fortunately, despite not having much time to properly scout our route, our experience birding in Northern Nevada had grown by leaps and bounds, and we were confident the new route that Brian had put together would give us a legitimate shot at the record.

The Big Day Begins

We started the day much the way we did last year – we met up at my place, and at midnight on Saturday the 14th we were at Damonte Ranch listening for rails and looking for Barn Owls. We quickly nailed Virginia Rail and Sora before finally seeing and hearing a Barn Owl. Three target species down as planned at our first stop.

Our second stop also went smoothly, as we added Long-eared Owl and Common Poorwill at Deadman’s Creek on our way down to the Carson River. The night before, Rob had heard a Western Screech-Owl there, but we had no such luck. We did hear several Great Horned Owls, which was nice to get out of the way, and had Wilson’s Snipe calling at the nearby Silver Saddle ranch.

From Carson City, we headed up into the Sierras and made a quick stop at Spooner Lake to pay our entrance fee to save time later and to listen for more owls, but we added nothing but a distant Canada Goose.

Last year at Chimney Beach we had two Flammulated Owls and a Saw-whet Owl heard from the parking lot, but this year only a distant Great Horned Owl. None of the Flamms, Saw-whets, and Northern Pygmy-Owls we had hoped to hear.

We tried several more stops at promising spots in the Carson Range for owls, without success. Disappointed, we headed south to the Wellington area in the hopes of getting some desert birds at daybreak.

We arrived at our destination near Wellington shortly before daybreak and it was COLD!!! There were Horned Larks everywhere (last year we had only one) and lots of Brewer’s Sparrows singing. Shortly after dawn, a Greater Sage-Grouse flew over. It was hardly the kind of look you want for a life bird, which it was for Dovid and me, especially for such a magnificent bird, but it was a great bird for our Big Day.

We then headed over to Wilson Canyon in the hopes of adding Peregrine Falcon, Canyon Wren, and White-throated Swift. We were somewhat deflated after missing all three, but our spirits were lifted by the addition of many more common species: Bullock’s Oriole, House Finch, Lesser Goldfinch, House Wren, and Rock Wren were all species we’d see and hear throughout the day, but it was fun to tick them and lots of other new species off the list in that very birdy riparian corridor along the canyon bottom.

After emerging from Wilson Canyon we had nice and unexpected looks at a beautiful singing male Blue Grosbeak and Townsend’s Warbler thanks to driving slowly with the windows down. We also added Black-headed Grosbeaks and a few more expected species.

The next big stop was Mason Valley Wildlife Management Area, where our targets included the previously observed Blue Grosbeak, Lark Sparrow, Wild Turkey, Ash-throated Flycatcher, American Bittern, Willet, Common Yellowthroat, Black Tern, Forster’s Tern, and Caspian Tern. Common Yellowthroats were in abundance, but none of the other birds were in their expected locations. We got a little worried, however, we eventually added everything we had hoped for other than Caspian Tern. We left Mason Valley right on time and with most of the species we had hoped to get. Whew!

From Mason Valley we headed to Fort Churchill Road to drive along the river over to Carson City. In route, we added a Golden Eagle, a species we hoped and expected to see but had no sure spot for. Fort Churchill Road was our best chance at Wood Duck, Canyon Wren, White-throated Swift, Violet-green Swallow, and Lazuli Bunting. The Carson River was raging, and we missed Wood Duck along the river. We also missed Canyon Wren at the spots Brian had observed them just 2 weeks earlier. They were species we would end up missing on the day.

It was around 9am at that point, and the lack of sleep the night before had caught up to us! But, we carried on thanks to a little more caffeine and hopes of a full day of great birding ahead of us.

On the way to Mexican Dam to try for Pinyon Jays and Wood Ducks we lucked into a lone Franklin’s Gull in a large flock of California Gulls at Eagle Valley Golf Course. Franklin’s Gulls are uncommon in Northern Nevada in fall and rare in spring, so we were very happy to have found one. Just the boost we needed to forget how tired we were!

Unfortunately, Mexican Dam and the road in and out was a complete bust. It was valuable time we would not be able to get back.

Rob had a female Hooded Oriole visiting his feeder the day before, so we added a quick stop at the Lowry’s house. There was no sign of the oriole after several minutes of waiting, and we were getting ready to leave when Brian spotted it in a tree behind one of the hummingbird feeders. For the second year in a row the Lowry’s place produced our only Hooded Oriole and Cedar Waxwings of the day.

After quick stop at the Carson City Waste Water Treatment Plant failed to produce anything of note (other than an odd looking Mallard that might have had some Mexican Duck genes in it), we were off to the Carson Valley before heading into the Sierras.

Within a couple minutes of our arrival at the Bently-Kirman Tract Trail we heard our target – Vesper Sparrow. We then headed down Genoa Lane in the hopes of adding Sandhill Crane and Bald Eagle. We got the eagles at their nest, but we dipped on the cranes – a species we would miss for the day. One of the highlights of the day, however, was seeing a pair of Long-billed Curlews harassing a Red-tailed Hawk. Not only were the curlews unexpected, their behavior in attacking the flying red-tail was really quite remarkable!

Centerville Marsh also failed to produce any cranes, but we did get a lone male Tricolored Blackbird at the spot that held 25 or so just 2 weeks earlier. This little population on “the wrong side” of the Sierra Nevadas is always a treat to encounter, so we were happy to see at least one!

We then headed back up to Spooner Lake for the start of our all-important leg of mountain birding. Spooner Lake delivered several target species, including Ring-necked Duck, Hairy Woodpecker, White-headed Woodpecker, White-breasted Nuthatch, Pygmy Nuthatch, Golden-crowned Kinglet, and Green-tailed Towhee.

Quick stops at Bliss Creek and Secret Harbor Creek added Brown Creeper, Hermit Thrush, Red-breasted Nuthatch, and Fox Sparrow.

From there it was off to Chimney Beach, which, thanks to Rob’s scouting, produced a number of key birds – Pileated Woodpecker nesting near the parking lot, Pacific Wren, Northern Pygmy-Owl, Sooty Grouse (my 2nd life bird of the day), MacGillivray’s Warbler, Band-tailed Pigeon, and Ruby-crowned Kinglet.

The Tahoe Meadows area produced the expected Clark’s Nutcracker, Lincoln Sparrow, and Mountain Bluebird but was otherwise disappointing. The snow cover made it impossible to reach known locations for Williamson’s Sapsucker and other high mountain specialties.

Just down the road from Tahoe Meadows we picked up our first and only Townsend’s Solitaire perched at the top of an evergreen.

We then headed down the mountain to Davis Creek Park still needing several mountain species we were unlike to get anywhere else. Davis Creek delivered in a big way with our only Calliope Hummingbird, Chipping Sparrows, Cassin’s Finches, and Cassin’s Vireo of the day. We also picked up our first Western Bluebird of the day, and thanks to Brian and Dovid we all got good looks at a distant Peregrine Falcon just as we were about to get in the car to head to Reno.

Leaving Davis Creek, we decided to modify our route to maximize our chances at getting new species. The first detour was to try for Wood Duck and Red-shouldered Hawk at known locations in South Reno. We whiffed on Wood Duck for the third time, but we did get a Red-shouldered Hawk exactly where we expected one near a traditional nest site rumored to have been used by Red-shouldereds for nearly two decades.

We then raced to Mayberry Park in the hopes of getting American Dipper. But with the high river levels, for the second year in a row, we dipped on dipper.

Disappointed, we headed to Crystal Peak Park in the hopes of adding Vaux’s Swift, Evening Grosbeak, and Red-breasted Sapsucker. The grosbeaks were gone, but we did add the other two.

Anna's Hummingbird on her nest, UNR campus. (Photo taken 9 May 2016)

Anna’s Hummingbird on her nest, UNR campus. (Photo taken 9 May 2016)

From there we headed to the University of Nevada, Reno (UNR) to look for staked out nesting Anna’s and Black-chinned Hummingbirds. We added both species within just a few minutes and headed north toward Lemmon Valley. A quick count reminded us the record was within reach!

We tried first at Silver Lake to relocate the Cattle Egret I had seen there just two days earlier. We had no luck with the egret, but we did find Western Sandpipers, an American Wigeon, and a few Bonaparte’s Gulls.

We then headed to a business property that has been home to an out of range Greater Roadrunner for the past 4 weeks. The first documented in Washoe county! This bird is well north of the nearest population (Mono Lake area) and while they rarely wander far they have been known to turn up far north of their usual range elsewhere in Nevada, Utah and Colorado. The security guards didn’t want birders visiting the private property (hence the obvious lack of location information here) but they granted us permission to visit that Sunday. The bird had been observed trying to feed lizards to it’s reflection in the building’s mirrored glass windows, and has built at least one “practice nest.” A more well maintained nest is located right next to the building, where I suspect the bird has paired up with it’s (frustratingly coy) reflection. As we pulled into the parking lot we were able to quickly spot the bird. After a few good looks, we then left the premises to capitalize on every last minute of daylight we had left.

Greater Roadrunner, Stead, NV (North of Reno), 5-15-16. Private Property (Restricted Access). Photo by Rob Lowry.

Greater Roadrunner, Stead, NV (North of Reno), 5-15-16. Private Property (Restricted Access). Photo by Rob Lowry.

Our next stop was the Lemmon Valley Waste Water Treatment ponds and Swan Lake. Luck was on our side as Rob spotted a pair of Blue-winged Teal before we added Red-necked Phalaropes, Lesser Scaup, Green-winged Teal, and Sage Thrasher.

Blue-winged Teal, Lemmon Valley WTP

Blue-winged Teal, Lemmon Valley WTP

With several stops yet to come and several expected additional species, we knew the record was in hand.

Our first stop was at Ohio Street to try for Black-throated Sparrow and Juniper Titmouse. We immediately got on a perched, singing black-throat but had not luck with the titmouse. Rob also spotted a Loggerhead Shrike, but it flew over the hill and out of sight before any of the rest of us could get on it.

Brian had located another spot for Juniper Titmouse during scouting along Matterhorn Boulevard, and we quickly headed there. Within a few minutes a titmouse appeared prominently on top of a juniper, and then a Gray Flycatcher made an appearance.

From there we headed down Antelope Valley Road in route to Range Land Road. We all got great looks at Loggerhead Shrikes and we were able to coax a single Sagebrush Sparrow off the desert floor onto a sage brush. A Burrowing Owl was added quickly on Range Land Road, and we were off to Pyramid Lake to try and add a few more species before dark.

We went straight to the south end and quickly added Snowy Plover. We had no luck finding the expected Caspian Terns or a hoped for Common Loon, but I was able to spot a single Semipalmated Plover. As darkness fell, we decided to head to the Sparks Marina to add one last species – Black-crowned Night-Heron – before calling it a day.

Shortly after getting out of the car and heading down to the water, we spotted an adult Black-crowned Night-Heron flying over to the rocky shore to feed. After hugs and high fives on a job well done, we were ready to call it quits. But then things got strange. I took a quick glance down the beach before turning back to the car, and I noticed a really small gull next to two larger gulls. Something didn’t add up – were these two Herring Gulls and a Ring-billed Gull? Two California Gulls and a small hooded gull? – so we went to investigate. Last year, our most painful miss of the day was a Mew Gull at the Sparks Marina that had been extremely reliable in the week leading up to our Big Day. This year, there had been no reports of Mew Gull at Sparks Marina or anywhere else in Northern Nevada for several months. Yet, there it was. On the beach, hopping around in the dark among a flock of sleeping Canada Geese, was a MEW GULL!!! We didn’t know it then, as we had lost an accurate count, but that cute little gull was species number 171 for the day (not counting Mute Swan and domestic geese at Virginia Lake). We couldn’t have had a more fitting ending to a most amazing day!

Mew Gull

Mew Gull, Sparks Marina. Found in the dark on the beach as our last bird of the day.

We suspect efforts like ours would almost certainly nudge the state Big Day record higher in the coming years. A total of 180 is very reasonable, and a strong effort on the right day following the right route could probably land a Big Day total closer to 200. We missed more than a handful of birds that we might have ticked with a little more scouting, and a little less sleep on Sunday: birds like Belted Kingfisher, Canyon Wren, Orange-crowned Warbler, Prairie Falcon, Pine Siskin, American Dipper, Sandhill Crane, Wood Duck, various owls, Williamson’s Sapsucker, Pine Grosbeak (Dovid’s nemesis bird!), Caspian Tern, a few flycatchers, etc. are all on the table for anyone who goes looking for them.

Species List

We followed the ABA’s Big Day count rules, including the 95% rule: I missed Hairy Woodpecker and American Goldfinch. Dovid missed Hooded Oriole and American Goldfinch. Rob missed Golden-crowned Kinglet and American Goldfinch. Brian missed Long-eared Owl and Sooty Grouse. All together, those six leave us with a little over 96% of species seen by the whole group.

  1. Canada Goose
  2. Gadwall
  3. American Wigeon
  4. Mallard
  5. Blue-winged Teal
  6. Cinnamon Teal
  7. Northern Shoveler
  8. Northern Pintail
  9. Green-winged Teal
  10. Canvasback
  11. Redhead
  12. Ring-necked Duck
  13. Lesser Scaup
  14. Common Merganser
  15. Ruddy Duck
  16. California Quail
  17. Greater Sage-Grouse
  18. Sooty Grouse
  19. Wild Turkey
  20. Pied-billed Grebe
  21. Eared Grebe
  22. Western Grebe
  23. Clark’s Grebe
  24. Double-crested Cormorant
  25. American White Pelican
  26. American Bittern
  27. Great Blue Heron
  28. Great Egret
  29. Snowy Egret
  30. Black-crowned Night-Heron
  31. White-faced Ibis
  32. Turkey Vulture
  33. Osprey
  34. Golden Eagle
  35. Northern Harrier
  36. Cooper’s Hawk
  37. Bald Eagle
  38. Red-shouldered Hawk
  39. Swainson’s Hawk
  40. Red-tailed Hawk
  41. Virginia Rail
  42. Sora
  43. American Coot
  44. Black-necked Stilt
  45. American Avocet
  46. Snowy Plover
  47. Semipalmated Plover
  48. Killdeer
  49. Spotted Sandpiper
  50. Willet
  51. Long-billed Curlew
  52. Western Sandpiper
  53. Wilson’s Snipe
  54. Wilson’s Phalarope
  55. Red-necked Phalarope
  56. Bonaparte’s Gull
  57. Franklin’s Gull
  58. Mew Gull
  59. Ring-billed Gull
  60. California Gull
  61. Black Tern
  62. Forster’s Tern
  63. Rock Pigeon
  64. Band-tailed Pigeon
  65. Eurasian Collared-Dove
  66. Mourning Dove
  67. Greater Roadrunner
  68. Barn Owl
  69. Great Horned Owl
  70. Northern Pygmy Owl
  71. Burrowing Owl
  72. Long-eared Owl
  73. Common Poorwill
  74. Vaux’s Swift
  75. White-throated Swift
  76. Black-chinned Hummingbird
  77. Anna’s Hummingbird
  78. Calliope Hummingbird
  79. Red-breasted Sapsucker
  80. Downy Woodpecker
  81. Hairy Woodpecker
  82. White-headed Woodpecker
  83. Northern Flicker
  84. Pileated Woodpecker
  85. American Kestrel
  86. Peregrine Falcon
  87. Western Wood-Pewee
  88. Gray Flycatcher
  89. Dusky Flycatcher
  90. Black Phoebe
  91. Say’s Phoebe
  92. Ash-throated Flycatcher
  93. Western Kingbird
  94. Loggerhead Shrike
  95. Cassin’s Vireo
  96. Warbling Vireo
  97. Steller’s Jay
  98. Western Scrub-Jay
  99. Black-billed Magpie
  100. Clark’s Nutcracker
  101. American Crow
  102. Common Raven
  103. Horned Lark
  104. Northern Rough-winged Swallow
  105. Tree Swallow
  106. Violet-green Swallow
  107. Bank Swallow
  108. Barn Swallow
  109. Cliff Swallow
  110. Mountain Chickadee
  111. Juniper Titmouse
  112. Bushtit
  113. Red-breasted Nuthatch
  114. White-breasted Nuthatch
  115. Pygmy Nuthatch
  116. Brown Creeper
  117. Rock Wren
  118. House Wren
  119. Pacific Wren
  120. Marsh Wren
  121. Bewick’s Wren
  122. Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
  123. Golden-crowned Kinglet
  124. Ruby-crowned Kinglet
  125. Western Bluebird
  126. Mountain Bluebird
  127. Townsend’s Solitaire
  128. Hermit Thrush
  129. American Robin
  130. Sage Thrasher
  131. Northern Mockingbird
  132. European Starling
  133. Cedar Waxwing
  134. MacGillivray’s Warbler
  135. Common Yellowthroat
  136. Yellow Warbler
  137. Yellow-rumped Warbler
  138. Townsend’s Warbler
  139. Wilson’s Warbler
  140. Chipping Sparrow
  141. Brewer’s Sparrow
  142. Black-throated Sparrow
  143. Lark Sparrow
  144. Fox Sparrow
  145. Dark-eyed Junco
  146. White-crowned Sparrow
  147. Sagebrush Sparrow
  148. Vesper Sparrow
  149. Savannah Sparrow
  150. Song Sparrow
  151. Lincoln’s Sparrow
  152. Green-tailed Towhee
  153. Spotted Towhee
  154. Western Tanager
  155. Black-headed Grosbeak
  156. Blue Grosbeak
  157. Lazuli Bunting
  158. Red-winged Blackbird
  159. Tricolored Blackbird
  160. Western Meadowlark
  161. Yellow-headed Blackbird
  162. Brewer’s Blackbird
  163. Great-tailed Grackle
  164. Brown-headed Cowbird
  165. Hooded Oriole
  166. Bullock’s Oriole
  167. House Finch
  168. Cassin’s Finch
  169. Lesser Goldfinch
  170. American Goldfinch
  171. House Sparrow
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Should common names of species be capitalized?

I prefer that the official common names of birds (and other species, for that matter) be capitalized, much in the same way that we capitalize the proper names of so many other things. However, some (like wikipedia and various editors), disagree.  But why? Are there good arguments for and against capitalization? And who should decide?

This post is intended to serve as a reference point — a place for me to keep track of my attempt to answer those questions when I revisit the matter — as the subject comes up from time to time among birders and I’m always happy to chime in with my two cents. Hopefully others find it useful, and contribute information in the comments (ahem!).

Why do we capitalize any words? What’s the point? According to most sources, we capitalize words to make them a little bit more special than they would be otherwise, and/or to clarify a distinct entity. For example, here’s one take on capitalization rules, along with a few examples.

The main function of capitals is to focus attention on particular elements within any group of people, places, or things. We can speak of a lake in the middle of the country, or we can be more specific and say Lake Michigan, which distinguishes it from every other lake on earth.

Capitalization Reference List

  • Brand names
  • Companies
  • Days of the week and months of the year
  • Governmental matters
    Congress (but congressional), the U.S. Constitution (but constitutional), the Electoral College, Department of Agriculture. Note: Many authorities do not capitalize federal or state unless it is part of the official title: State Water Resources Control Board, but state water board; Federal Communications Commission, but federal regulations.
  • Historical episodes and eras
    the Inquisition, the American Revolutionary War, the Great Depression
  • Holidays
  • Institutions
    Oxford College, the Juilliard School of Music
  • Manmade structures
    the Empire State Building, the Eiffel Tower, the Titanic
  • Manmade territories
    Berlin, Montana, Cook County
  • Natural and manmade landmarks
    Mount Everest, the Hoover Dam
  • Nicknames and epithets
    Andrew “Old Hickory” Jackson; Babe Ruth, the Sultan of Swat
  • Organizations
    American Center for Law and Justice, Norwegian Ministry of the Environment
  • Planets
    Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, but policies vary on capitalizingearth, and it is usually not capitalized unless it is being discussed specifically as a planet:We learned that Earth travels through space at 66,700 miles per hour.
  • Races, nationalities, and tribes
    Eskimo, Navajo, East Indian, Caucasian, African American (Note: white and black in reference to race are lowercase)
  • Religions and names of deities
    Note: Capitalize the Bible (but biblical). Do not capitalize heaven, hell, the devil, satanic.
  • Special occasions
    the Olympic Games, the Cannes Film Festival
  • Streets and roads

Lowercase Reference List

Here is a list of categories not capitalized unless an item contains a proper noun or proper adjective (or, sometimes, a trademark). In such cases, only the proper noun or adjective is capitalized.

  • Animals
    antelope, black bear, Bengal tiger, yellow-bellied sapsucker, German shepherd
  • Elements
    Always lowercase, even when the name is derived from a proper noun: einsteinium, nobelium, californium
  • Foods
    Lowercase except for brand names, proper nouns and adjectives, or custom-named recipes: Tabasco sauce, Russian dressing, pepper crusted bluefin tuna, Mandy’s Bluefin Surprise
  • Heavenly bodies besides planets
    Never capitalize the moon or the sun.
  • Medical conditions
    Epstein-Barr syndrome, tuberculosis, Parkinson’s disease
  • Minerals
  • Plants, vegetables, and fruits
    poinsettia, Douglas fir, Jerusalem artichoke, organic celery, Golden Delicious apples
  • Seasons and seasonal data
    spring, summertime, the winter solstice, the autumnal equinox, daylight saving time

If you’re hung up on what makes a proper noun… proper, the definition almost helps: According to Merriam-Webster, a proper noun is

a noun that designates a particular being or thing, does not take a limiting modifier, and is usually capitalized in English

Call me crazy, but if we ignore the bit in the definition about capitalization for a moment, it seems fair to categorize official common names as proper nouns!

This is very likely a key point where the traditionalists of grammar bump heads with folks like me: Common names like “blue bill” and “speckle belly” are very different kinds of common names than the sort of common names many advocate should be capitalized. That is, the official English names of species (like those recognized by The American Ornithologists’ Union) such as “Ruddy Duck” and “Greater White-fronted Goose”.

Why even bother capitalizing official common names? Does it really matter? As you can see from above, capitalizing official common names might just be proper grammar if we decide that official common names are proper nouns of any importance. But beyond that, those of us who prefer Ruddy Duck to ruddy duck like the clarity those capital letters bring to words. We capitalize common names because it improves the clarity of written communication! If you write that you saw a yellow warbler, I don’t know if you mean that you saw a warbler that was yellow (of which there are many!) or if you saw a member of the species Setophaga petechia (formerly Dendroica petechia). If you say you saw a Green Finch in your yard, and I had never heard of that species before, those capital letters just gave me a big clue that you aren’t talking about some other green finch.  So yes, it does matter, because clear communication is important.

Now, I’ve heard arguments like “Well, yeah, but it’s usually clear from context so we don’t need the distinction — they both sound the same, after all!”.  Fair enough. But by that logic, we should happily do away with three different spellings of “there”, “their” and “they’re” and various other homonyms. Right? Or maybe precision and clarity matter a bit more than that? Yes? Good, I think it does too.

Birders like to capitalize common names. Do other biologists do this too? Some would say no, but they would be wrong. Plenty of biologists advocate for capitalizing official English names, and many professional organizations are moving in that direction. The real problem is that many taxa don’t have official common/English names. It seems that where official common names do exist, they are capitalized. Here are a few examples, but also see the reference list at the end of this post (I’ll try and add to that list over time):

  1. Birds have official english names that are capitlaized.
    1. The American Ornithologists’ Union capitalizes English names.
    2. The International Ornithological Congress does too.
  2. Fish (at least in North America) too.
    1. American Fisheries Society capitalizes English names.
    2. American Society of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists does too (See their author instructions, which state “Recognized common names of organisms specify unique singulars, are regarded as proper nouns, and must be capitalized.”)
  3. Reptiles and Amphibians? Yup. Capitalized common names.
    1. See 2.2 above and this checklist (PDF)
  4. Mammals
    1. American Society of Mammologists uses caps in their checklist.
    2. The Smithsonian uses caps too.

However, some taxa still don’t have official English names (*), or those official names aren’t capitalized (**):

  1. Plants in North America (see below and the USDA Plants database)*
  2. Insects in North America*
    1. Although species of dragonflies and damselflies (Odonata) do have official English names, which are usually capitalized. Here’s the closest I could find to an official checklist (PDF).
    2. Butterflies too! Here is the NABA checklist.
  3. etc…

Some have proposed less-than-simple rules for how to partially capitalize common names. For example, in 1991 Karstens et al offered the following guidelines for capitalizing common plant names, which largely took hold among botanists as far as I can tell.

VIII. General Guidelines for Capitalization

The following guidelines have been prepared to assist in the use of capitalization of proper nouns and adjectives for common names.

1. Capitalize surnames of individuals used in group names and modifiers…
2. Capitalize names honoring nationalities and human races…
3. Capitalize the names of gods, goddesses, and other religious figures, including names referring to the deity or holy works…
4. Capitalize names suggesting titles, canonizations, and ranks of honor…
NOTE: Capitalization should not be used when specific reference to an individual is not provided…
5. Capitalize international and national place names and national subdivisions such as continents, countries, states, counties, parishes, provinces, and territories…
6. Capitalize local place names, including the names of cities, parks, and other recreational areas…
7. Capitalize geographic directions only when they designate specific areas or regions…
OTE: Mere directional adjectives should not be capitalized
8. Capitalize modifiers that comprise part of a proper name and are written in the singular…

But why not just nail down some official common names, and go with something everyone can remember, like…

Offical English names for each recognized species, where they exist, are to be treated as a proper nouns and capitalized accordingly.

See, no big rule changes, just elevating official common names to the status of the almighty proper noun.


Whare are the arguments for NOT capitalizing official common names? I may have forgotten other arguments against capitalizing official common names, but here’s the running list:

  1. Because dictionaries and traditional grammar rules say not to.
  2. Because it’s confusing when inconsistently applied/enforced.
  3. Because it isn’t fair, since some taxa lack common names.
  4. Because common names are common nouns, not proper nouns.

If I’m missing any arguments against capitalization, please let me know!


So, why don’t we capitalize common names, or the species name for that matter? There are some reasons why we shouldn’t, but here I want to think more about the real reasons why some shun capitalization of common names. I think there are a couple of different factors that play into these anti-capitalization rules, but that it’s largely a matter of our collective, historical feelings towards what are and are not important names for organisms.  Be warned: what you’re about to read should be taken as a hunch — a gut feeling if you will — not something I’ve tried to ground in actual facts 😉

First, capitalization implies elevated status. That part we can take as fact. Here’s the hunch part: and a few generations ago when we were still figuring out how to classify organisms, scientists agreed that we should all hang our hats on binomial nomenclature. Common names were too parochial and indistinct to use in proper scientific writing, and I get the impression that there was probably very little respect paid to them. Too imprecise, too prone to change, too detached from the wonderful taxonomic relationships they were discovering. These layman’s terms were the silly nicknames of the uneducated, and no special status was to be given to them –no way! That, I think, probably set into motion an attitude that the names used by non-scientists in their native language are second class names; unimportant names that had no place in scientific writing. That lead to the custom of not capitalizing them, because doing so would elevate their perceived importance and perhaps devalue the importance of binomial names. Now, remember, this is just a hunch I have, one that I haven’t researched at all, so whether or not there’s any historical evidence to back up this idea is entirely up for debate. If you’re interested and you find anything supporting or refuting this notion, please share!

Second, capitalization implies elevated status, and until recently most of  western culture thought little of animals. They were beneath us; lowly creatures that led a sad, unenlightened, filthy existence.  Man-made structures? Special. Names of associations and corporations? Special. Planets? Special. Hoover Dam? Special. Religious texts? Special. The largest extant species of mammal? blue whale. Not special enough. It wouldn’t at all surprise me if much of our capitalization rules reflect a historical value system that is a bit outdated when it comes to the modern value of species in the English speaking world.

Third, tolerance for either form among scientists (with a few intolerant camps on either side) is perceived as a lack of consensus. I don’t see many grammar rules where multiple options are put on equal footing. There is always a best or most proper way of doing things, and “either way is fine” is rare. Until scientists get more unified in favor of one side or the other, I suspect those who guard the gates of grammar will push hard to maintain the status quo.


Related References

  1. Nelson, Starnes and Warren. 2002. A Capital case for common names of species of fishes–a white crappie or a White Crappie. Fisheries. July 2002. [PDF]
  2. American Fisheries Society publication rules. [PDF]
  3. Common and Scientific Names of Fishes from the United States, Canada, and Mexico. 7th.
  4. IOC World Bird List — Capitalization.
  5. Potter. 1984. On Capitalization of Vernacular Names of Species. Auk. [PDF; Pro-caps response to Atkins 1983; A great read!]
  6. Atkins. 1983. The capitalization of birds’ names. Auk. [PDF; Anti-caps. See Potter 1984 for a response.]
  7. KARTESZ, J. T., & THIERET, J. W. 1991. COMMON NAMES FOR VASCULAR PLANTS: GUIDELINES FOR USE AND APPLICATION. SIDA, Contributions to Botany, 14(3), 421–434. Retrieved from
  8. USDA Plants Database.
  9. Entomological Society of America’s Common Names of Insects Database.
  10. The 370+ comments on this post from the ABA Facebook Page on July 4, 2014 includes some great discussion of the issue regarding birds as well as other organisms. If you have the patience to sift through all the comments 😉
  11. See also the comment thread on this earlier post to the ABA Facebook page on April 22, 2014.



  1. Added a few references shortly after publishing.





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Birding tip: (Always) use video to document rarities!

Next time you try and document rare bird, or want to document a puzzling “mystery bird” you just can’t ID so you can see what others have to say, digital video should be your new favorite way to get those coveted documentation shots. Yes, digital video, not still photos! Puzzled? Good, then read on 🙂

Why shoot video instead of taking still photos? The basic idea is this: snapping still photos can be hit-or-miss, however in a few minutes of low quality, jerky, in-and-out of focus video you’re very likely to get one or two excellent frames showing key details on the bird that are orders of magnitude better than you could manage snapping stills. Here are a few recent examples from Ohio and Nevada (click the link in the captions to see the original video).

Le Conte's Sparrow

Le Conte’s Sparrow. Battelle Darby Creek Metro Park, Columbus, OH. 19 Oct 2014. Smartphone video through my binoculars. Click here to watch the original video.

Red-necked Grebe

Red-necked Grebe, Pyramid Lake, Washoe Co., NV. 17 May, 2015. Smartphone video through my spotting scope. Click here to watch the original video.

Golden-crowned X White-crowned Sparrow
Golden-crowned X White-crowned Sparrow

Hybrid Golden-crowned X White-crowned Sparrow. Reno, NV. 1 May, 2015. Smarthphone video through my binoculars. Click here to watch the original video.

Why do we need photo/video documentation in the first place? Let’s face it: Birders are people, and people make mistakes, including bird ID mistakes. Even the experts get one wrong from time to time.

Decades ago, the single best way to document birds was to shoot them and add those specimens to a museum collection. This is still arguably the strongest form of gathering such evidence, and it certainly still has it’s place, but when it comes to documenting rarities, it’s off the table.  However, over the past century the bird watching public has found other ways to gather solid evidence of the occurrence of rare birds. Before digital cameras became so widespread, meticulously written notes and sketches served as trusted documentation. The art and science of making good field notes and sketches has, and will continue to be, invaluable skills for birders, but this form of evidence is still 100% filtered through the mind of the observer. Careful field notes are an essential part of birding, but in terms of their strength as a form of scientific evidence, the subjective nature of field notes makes them inherently weaker than objective evidence like a museum specimen or good audio or video recordings.

The new gold standard for bird documentation is solid, objective evidence in the form of a photo, video, or audio recording. Even low-quality recordings are typically a MUCH more accurate form of evidence, and can easily document far more detail than even the best observers record in their notes and sketches. Fortunately, taking photos and videos no longer requires huge lenses and expensive cameras and lenses! In fact, odds are good that your cell phone camera can manage some pretty decent “close up” photos just by being held up against the eye piece of your binoculars! Take a look at my recent photos here on Flickr, and you’ll see that the majority of them were taken with my Samsung phone and not my more expensive Cannon dSLR rig!

So here’s a little advice for using your smartphone, along with your birding optics (e.g. binoculars or a scope) to get good quality documentation shots.

  1. Practice digiscoping. Just point your binoculars or scope at birds in your yard, and get comfortable holding your phone’s camera up to the eyepiece and snapping photos and shooting video.
  2. Consider purchasing or making an adapter. Shakey hands? You can purchase adapters from companies like Phone Skope, which can really help stabilize the videos and cut down on blur in photos (not that you’d be taking any photos, ahem!).
  3. Use voice control. If your phone has voice-control capability (e.g., my Galaxy S4 can be setup to take photos whenever I say words like “smile” or “cheese”) or image stabilization options, play with those too and see what works best for you. An adapter and a voice-controlled camera will be the most solid option.
  4. Practice editing videos on your phone, and using your phone’s screen capture capability.  All of the images above were taken by watching the recorded videos on my phone, pausing on the best frames, zooming in to crop out unwanted background space, then saving a screen capture.
  5. Bring your birding optics next time you’re purchasing a new phone. Well, that or spend some time with your friends phones before you go so you know which models are most compatible with your scope and/or binoculars. Might as well get the most functionality out of your new purchase, right? 😉
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Global Big Day 2015: Nevada Big Day Trip Report (158 Species!)

CORRECTION:  Originally counted at 157, Zachary Ormsby noticed a species missing from our final list below, and a quick check confirmed that we did actually have 158 species + Empidonax sp.! I’ve updated the checklist at the bottom of this post, and the numbers in the text below to reflect the corrected total.

I have 3 year old, so it isn’t very often that I get to spend a full day out birding. So, when Brian Steger suggested running a Big Day to coincide with eBird’s inaugural Global Big Day and International Migratory Bird Day, my wife gave me the day off of daddy duty and the game was on! Both Brian and I are new to the Reno area, and this was more than enough of an excuse for us to get out and explore new locales, refine our understanding of what birds are where this time of year, and to have a great day out birding.

After far too little scouting, some helpful suggestions from Rob Lowry and other Reno/Tahoe area birders, some final tweaks Friday afternoon produced a nicely scheduled route. Brian and I agreed to meet around 10pm after my son went to sleep to get a jump on owling, and despite the rain, we headed out around quarter past 10pm. Rob Lowry, who had work commitments, couldn’t afford to lose sleep Friday night. So we decided that good birding companions trump ABA Big Day listing rules, and we planned to pick up Rob in Carson City late morning, and he would join us for the rest of the day after that.

Our first stop was one final scouting stop in south Reno. We’d received a tip about a pair of Barn Owls from the Birding Nevada facebook page, and we wanted to pin down that location so we could get them after midnight. Unfortunately, a light rain kept the Barn Owls holed up where it was warm and dry, and we neither heard nor saw them. After that, the skies started to clear, and we had other owls to find.

We began our Big Day at 12:00am in the Geiger Summit area, hoping for Common Poorwill and some owls. By the time we started, conditions had improved considerably. The moon had appeared from behind the clouds, the stars were shining bright, the rain had subsided, and the wind was dead calm. But there were no birds, only some wild horses.

Wild Horses

Wild Horses near Geiger Summit southeast of Reno, NV

With nothing on the board, we headed back to the Barn Owl spot. As we approached, we quickly spotted one sitting on a roof exactly where we had told we might find one! A state bird for both Brian and I, and a great bird to start our Big Day!

We quickly moved on and headed to Damonte Marsh where we added Sora and Virginia Rail along with some more common marsh birds. The rails were nice, but the highlight was a nearby coyote pack sounding off in the otherwise calm darkness. The clock was ticking, so we continued on.

After unsuccessfully trying for Great-tailed Grackles, we headed up to the Tahoe basin for a second shot a owls and poorwill. A stop at Spooner Lake produced our first Great Horned Owl. Regardless of being the easiest owl to find in the region, the experience of listening to one hooting while watching the moon rise through the trees and fog was an extraordinary moment.

From Spooner Lake, we headed to Chimney Beach. Upon stepping out of my vehicle, we were greeted by a pair of serenading FLAMMULATED OWLS! A life bird for Brian, a state bird for both of us, and a bird we thought it was too early in the season to get! After just a minute or so, a Common Poorwill sounded off, shortly after that a Northern Saw-whet Owl (species #12 for the day) joined the chorus! Things were starting to look up.

After a few unsuccessful stops for Northern Pygmy Owl, the dark sky began to lighten up, and we headed out into Tahoe Meadows. As darkness started to give way to daylight, we quickly bagged Wilson’s Snipe and Fox Sparrow. Then Mountain Quail, Lincoln’s Sparrow, Williamson’s Sapsucker, Clark’s Nutcracker, and a few more common species. The Quail were a treat, but the real surprise highlight was a vociferous Northern Goshawk! A difficult bird and another state bird for both of us!

From Tahoe Meadows, we headed back to Chimney Beach. We hoped to pick up Pacific Wren, Sooty Grouse, and a lot of other hard to find birds, but, due to our inexperience birding the area, we started on the wrong trail and climbed up away from the creek. Despite the error, I got lucky and got a visual on a calling Pileated Woodpecker across the drainage, but we dipped on Sooty Grouse and head back down. We missed the wren as well, but added Wilson’s Warbler, MacGillivray’s Warbler, and a few other good birds.

Peregrine Falcon

Peregrine Falcon at Cave Rock, Lake Tahoe.

After Chimney Beach, we returned to Spooner Lake. It was still early, and the insectivores seemed to be just getting active. Brian observed a noticeable decrease in the number of birds from a week earlier, but we still added several target species – Ring-necked Duck, Orange-crowned Warbler, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Western Tanager, all three nuthatch species, and several Cassin’s Vireos (a lifer for me; and I was lucky to have multiple birds provide some excellent views!).

Driving south along the lake before heading down 207 into Carson Valley, we picked up Peregrine Falcon at Cave Rock, and added a few other odds and ends, but we left the mountains short on insectivores and a few other mountain species we weren’t likely to see for the rest of the day.

Goodbye Mountains, Hello Valley Birds!
Our next stop was the Centerville Ln and Centerville Marsh in Carson Valley. The Tricolored Blackbirds were exactly where Brian had seen them a week earlier, and yet another state bird for me. A short distance down the road we added Sandhill Crane, and the small pond where the blackbirds bred in prior years produced Red-necked and Wilson’s Phalaropes, Swainson’s Hawk, and other more common species.

After adding the nesting Bald Eagles from Genoa Lane, we headed to Rob and Rickie Lowry’s house in Carson City with high hopes of adding Evening Grosbeak and some other difficult to find species visiting the Lowry’s feeders. We quickly added the grosbeaks and then got our only Cedar Waxwings of the day as the three of us were loading the car to head to Carson River Park.

At Carson River Park, we added Western Screech-Owl, Lazuli Bunting, Wood Duck, Black Phoebe, American Goldfinch, and several other target birds. We then headed back to the Lowry’s place for a second chance at feeder birds and were not disappointed when we picked up a Hooded Oriole, another state bird for Brian and me!

From the Lowry’s house we headed straight to Deadman’s Creek. We nailed our three targets – Long-eared Owl, Cooper’s Hawk, and Rock Wren – added a soaring flock of American White Pelicans, and moved on.

Our next stop was Davis Creek Park. The targeted Calliope Hummingbird was perched exactly where we expected him, and we picked up an unexpected Chipping Sparrow. An empid was chipping, but we were uncomfortable calling it and couldn’t get eyes on it, so we disappointingly left a species on the board (that was our ONLY empid of the day!).

From Davis Creek we raced north to the Damonte wetlands pond behind the fire station. The pond had very little water and the mudflats were getting pretty dry. We added just one species – American Green-winged Teal – and left Damonte a little worried about our shorebird and waterfowl prospects for the day.

If Damonte was surprisingly bad and dispiriting, the South Meadows pond was surprisingly good and uplifting. The 5-minute stop produced no less than  9 new day birds – American Crow, California Gull, Great Egret, Snowy Egret, Black-crowned Night Heron, Forster’s Tern, Lesser Scaup, Bufflehead, and a lone Great-tailed Grackle. Score! We left South Meadows with a pep in our step and a second wind!

Since we were a few minutes ahead of schedule, and still needed Ring-billed Gull and Clark’s Grebe, we made a quick detour to Virginia Lake and quickly added the gull and the long-present grebe. A quick stop at Idlewild Park was necessary to add Downy Woodpecker. And then we scoped the Red-shouldered Hawk on it’s nest across the river from Ivan Sack Park.

The next stop was Crystal Peak Park, where we added several more targets – Vaux’s Swift, Black-chinned Hummingbird, and Red-breasted Sapsucker. A quick stop on the Bridge Street bridge in Verdi produced an Acorn Woodpecker, but we left Verdi without American Dipper, Hairy Woodpecker, and Violet-green Swallow, three species we’d end up missing altogether.

Acorn Woodpecker

Acorn Woodpecker along the Truckee River near Verdi.

Lemmon Valley then Back to Reno
Our next key area to visit was Lemmon Valley. The sewage ponds were a complete bust. Whereas a lack of water was a problem at Damonte, too much water at the water treatment plant left no shorebird habitat. A Northern Mockingbird, a flock of flyby Least Sandpipers and distant Canvasback were all we added from a place for which we had high hopes. From there, things turned around as Sage Thrasher, Juniper Titmouse, Black-throated Sparrow, Loggerhead Shrike, and Brewer’s Sparrow all were found exactly where we had hoped for (and expected) them to be.

With our time running short, we decided to skip Rancho San Rafael and head directly to the Sparks Marina for Mew Gull. This bird had been super reliable the past week, and Brian had stopped on Friday evening and had seen the gull within a minute or two. Our goal to was to find it quickly and then move on to Mason Valley Wildlife Management Area to end the day. Alas, our quick stop for Mew did not go as planned. Not only did we not find the gull quickly, we didn’t find it at all. Pine Sisking and Hairy Woodpecker were a pity to miss for the day, but the gull was easily our most disappointing miss of the day.

Mason Valley WMA
As we drove away from Sparks Marina, we did a quick count to see how many species we had and what we could still possibly add. Before we started, Brian had pegged us for 155 or so species, and I thought 150ish was likely. After Sparks Marina were were at 149 species. 149! With the drive to Mason Valley and then Mason Valley itself all that was left for us to bird, those projections were looking pretty accurate. Optimists that we are, Rob and I predicted we’d end up over Brian’s projection of 155 … Brian played it safe and took the under.

We hoped to luck into a Prairie Falcon on the drive, but added only Horned Lark, #150. As we entered Mason Valley, we saw a large flock of Mourning Doves. Within the flock was a lone sparrow, which turned out to be species #151 – Lark Sparrow! My 16th state bird for the day, #198 for my state list, and #197 for my state year list! As we drove along, eyes slowly closing, Brian started making some guttural grunting sounds at the same time Rob simultaneously called out, “Wild Turkey!” for species #152 of the day.  A drive around the wetlands loop at Mason Valley WMA added American Bittern #153, Common Yellowthroat #154, and Black Tern #155.

Mason Valley WMA

Mason Valley WMA, looking south from the Wetlands Loop.

As we arrived at Miller’s Marsh to finish up the day, the sun fell behind the mountains, and things looked bleak. We had miscounted at this point, and thought we were at #154, so when, right on cue, two Caspian Terns flew by (for species #156) Rob and I thought we were still one shy of our prediction. Surely the last birds we would get, or so we thought. Since I was driving, I told Brian and Rob that I would take them hostage and drag them to University Farms to add Savannah Sparrow in the dark to guarantee species #156, if needed. Fortunately for them, as I scanned the marsh my jaw dropped open and I couldn’t believe what was there preening in the water in front of us.  I blurted out “No way. No way!” before the words “Blue-winged Teal!” finally fell from my lips.  Everyone got great looks at the breeding plumage male.  After some high fives between Rob and I, we sat enjoyed extended views, snapped a few photos and savored the moment. And then, as Rob was taking photos of the teal, bird number #158 sang out — Savannah Sparrow.  We were on cloud nine.

Blue-winged Teal

Blue-winged Teal with Cinnamon Teal, at Miller’s Marsh, Mason Valley WMA.

The brilliant orange sunset was almost the perfect ending to this amazing day of birding, but mother nature was not letting us go without some fanfare. As we headed back to the car, an American Bittern became visible a few dozen yards out into the marsh and it began pumping away as we looked on before heading back home to catch up on some much needed sleep.

Great birds, great company, it all made for an unforgettable day of birding!  I added 18 state birds and one life bird, and Brian added 1 lifer (Flammulated Owl; heard only), somewhere around 21-23 state birds and 14 county birds.

PS:  All 158 species, plus the unidentified empid, made it into eBird for the May 9th Global Big Day event. This was the second highest Big Day total for Nevada that I’m aware of (the current Big Day record for Nevada is 162, set 10 May 1997 by Larry Neel, Graham Chisholm, Keith Geluso, and Bob Flores), however we had to break ABA Big Day Rules to pull this off on May 9th and to make sure Rob could join us for at least some of the day. I suppose that means we’ll just have to do it again sometime! 🙂

SPECIES LIST (Order is only approximate; via eBird)

1 Canada Goose – Branta canadensis
2 Virginia Rail – Rallus limicola
3 Sora – Porzana carolina
4 American Coot – Fulica americana
5 Killdeer – Charadrius vociferus
6 Barn Owl – Tyto alba
7 Marsh Wren – Cistothorus palustris
8 Mallard – Anas platyrhynchos
9 Great Horned Owl – Bubo virginianus
10 Flammulated Owl – Psiloscops flammeolus
11 Northern Saw-whet Owl – Aegolius acadicus
12 Common Poorwill – Phalaenoptilus nuttallii
13 Mountain Quail – Oreortyx pictus
14 Northern Goshawk – Accipiter gentilis
15 Wilson’s Snipe – Gallinago delicata
16 Williamson’s Sapsucker – Sphyrapicus thyroideus
17 Northern Flicker – Colaptes auratus
18 Steller’s Jay – Cyanocitta stelleri
19 Clark’s Nutcracker – Nucifraga columbiana
20 Mountain Chickadee – Poecile gambeli
21 White-breasted Nuthatch – Sitta carolinensis
22 Brown Creeper – Certhia americana
23 American Robin – Turdus migratorius
24 Yellow-rumped Warbler – Setophaga coronata
25 Fox Sparrow – Passerella iliaca
26 Lincoln’s Sparrow – Melospiza lincolnii
27 White-crowned Sparrow – Zonotrichia leucophrys
28 Dark-eyed Junco – Junco hyemalis
29 Cassin’s Finch – Haemorhous cassinii
30 Common Merganser – Mergus merganser
31 Bushtit – Psaltriparus minimus
32 Spotted Towhee – Pipilo maculatus
33 Brown-headed Cowbird – Molothrus ater
34 Western Grebe – Aechmophorus occidentalis
35 Osprey – Pandion haliaetus
36 Band-tailed Pigeon – Patagioenas fasciata
37 White-headed Woodpecker – Picoides albolarvatus
38 Pileated Woodpecker – Dryocopus pileatus
39 Red-breasted Nuthatch – Sitta canadensis
40 Golden-crowned Kinglet – Regulus satrapa
41 MacGillivray’s Warbler – Geothlypis tolmiei
42 Wilson’s Warbler – Cardellina pusilla
43 Ring-necked Duck – Aythya collaris
44 Pied-billed Grebe – Podilymbus podiceps
45 Eared Grebe – Podiceps nigricollis
46 Cassin’s Vireo – Vireo cassinii
47 Common Raven – Corvus corax
48 Pygmy Nuthatch – Sitta pygmaea
49 House Wren – Troglodytes aedon
50 Ruby-crowned Kinglet – Regulus calendula
51 Orange-crowned Warbler – Oreothlypis celata
52 Green-tailed Towhee – Pipilo chlorurus
53 Song Sparrow – Melospiza melodia
54 Western Tanager – Piranga ludoviciana
55 Brewer’s Blackbird – Euphagus cyanocephalus
56 Peregrine Falcon – Falco peregrinus
57 Turkey Vulture – Cathartes aura
58 Golden Eagle – Aquila chrysaetos
59 Black-billed Magpie – Pica hudsonia
60 Eurasian Collared-Dove – Streptopelia decaocto
61 Mourning Dove – Zenaida macroura
62 California Quail – Callipepla californica
63 Red-winged Blackbird – Agelaius phoeniceus
64 Tricolored Blackbird – Agelaius tricolor
65 Western Meadowlark – Sturnella neglecta
66 Yellow-headed Blackbird – Xanthocephalus xanthocephalus
67 Great Blue Heron – Ardea herodias
68 Sandhill Crane – Grus canadensis
69 American Wigeon – Anas americana
70 Cinnamon Teal – Anas cyanoptera
71 Redhead – Aythya americana
72 Swainson’s Hawk – Buteo swainsoni
73 American Avocet – Recurvirostra americana
74 Spotted Sandpiper – Actitis macularius
75 Wilson’s Phalarope – Phalaropus tricolor
76 Red-necked Phalarope – Phalaropus lobatus
77 American Kestrel – Falco sparverius
78 Bank Swallow – Riparia riparia
79 House Sparrow – Passer domesticus
80 Northern Shoveler – Anas clypeata
81 Bald Eagle – Haliaeetus leucocephalus
82 Cedar Waxwing – Bombycilla cedrorum
83 Black-headed Grosbeak – Pheucticus melanocephalus
84 Hooded Oriole – Icterus cucullatus
85 House Finch – Haemorhous mexicanus
86 Evening Grosbeak – Coccothraustes vespertinus
87 Northern Pintail – Anas acuta
88 White-faced Ibis – Plegadis chihi
89 Black-necked Stilt – Himantopus mexicanus
90 Wood Duck – Aix sponsa
91 Gadwall – Anas strepera
92 Red-tailed Hawk – Buteo jamaicensis
93 Western Screech-Owl – Megascops kennicottii
94 Belted Kingfisher – Megaceryle alcyon
95 Black Phoebe – Sayornis nigricans
96 Western Kingbird – Tyrannus verticalis
97 Warbling Vireo – Vireo gilvus
98 Northern Rough-winged Swallow – Stelgidopteryx serripennis
99 Cliff Swallow – Petrochelidon pyrrhonota
100 Bewick’s Wren – Thryomanes bewickii
101 European Starling – Sturnus vulgaris
102 Yellow Warbler – Setophaga petechia
103 Lazuli Bunting – Passerina amoena
104 Bullock’s Oriole – Icterus bullockii
105 Lesser Goldfinch – Spinus psaltria
106 American Goldfinch – Spinus tristis
107 American White Pelican – Pelecanus erythrorhynchos
108 Cooper’s Hawk – Accipiter cooperii
109 Rock Wren – Salpinctes obsoletus
110 Long-eared Owl – Asio otus
111 Calliope Hummingbird – Selasphorus calliope
112 Western Wood-Pewee – Contopus sordidulus
113 Western Bluebird – Sialia mexicana
114 Chipping Sparrow – Spizella passerina
115 Green-winged Teal – Anas crecca
116 Willet – Tringa semipalmata
117 Lesser Scaup – Aythya affinis
118 Bufflehead – Bucephala albeola
119 Ruddy Duck – Oxyura jamaicensis
120 Double-crested Cormorant – Phalacrocorax auritus
121 Great Egret – Ardea alba
122 Snowy Egret – Egretta thula
123 Black-crowned Night-Heron – Nycticorax nycticorax
124 California Gull – Larus californicus
125 Forster’s Tern – Sterna forsteri
126 American Crow – Corvus brachyrhynchos
127 Great-tailed Grackle – Quiscalus mexicanus
128 Clark’s Grebe – Aechmophorus clarkii
129 Ring-billed Gull – Larus delawarensis
130 Rock Pigeon – Columba livia
131 Downy Woodpecker – Picoides pubescens
132 Red-shouldered Hawk – Buteo lineatus
133 Vaux’s Swift – Chaetura vauxi
134 Black-chinned Hummingbird – Archilochus alexandri
135 Red-breasted Sapsucker – Sphyrapicus ruber
136 Western Scrub-Jay – Aphelocoma californica
137 Tree Swallow – Tachycineta bicolor
138 Acorn Woodpecker – Melanerpes formicivorus
139 Canvasback – Aythya valisineria
140 Least Sandpiper – Calidris minutilla
141 Northern Mockingbird – Mimus polyglottos
142 Say’s Phoebe – Sayornis saya
143 Sage Thrasher – Oreoscoptes montanus
144 Juniper Titmouse – Baeolophus ridgwayi
145 Black-throated Sparrow – Amphispiza bilineata
146 Loggerhead Shrike – Lanius ludovicianus
147 Brewer’s Sparrow – Spizella breweri
148 Horned Lark – Eremophila alpestris
149 Lark Sparrow – Chondestes grammacus
150 Wild Turkey – Meleagris gallopavo
151 American Bittern – Botaurus lentiginosus
152 Northern Harrier – Circus cyaneus
153 Black Tern – Chlidonias niger
154 Barn Swallow – Hirundo rustica
155 Common Yellowthroat – Geothlypis trichas
156 Blue-winged Teal – Anas discors
157 Caspian Tern – Hydroprogne caspia
158 Savannah Sparrow – Passerculus sandwichensis
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Yellow Rail? Tiny quail?! A new Yellow Rail confusion species

This week, over fifty birders from across Ohio were treated to unprecedented looks at 2-3 YELLOW RAILS (well… except some or all were not rails!) hosted by a local farmer who’s son had found the birds in a patch of sorghum while setting up cattle fencing. These birds were vocalizing regularly, being flushed and seen at eye level from a few yards away, and were seen by many in fading light. Night after night, they persisted and put on a show for delighted onlookers including some of the best birders in the state.

But these were not Yellow Rails! At least not all of them, if we’re lucky. And it took four days and more than fifty visiting birders before everyone realized it!

So here’s how that happened.

The reported Yellow Rails were first found late in the day on Monday (1 September 2014) but not until Thursday night did someone notice that at least one of these birds was actually a male Button Quail (aka Chinese Painted Quail aka King Quail aka Coturnix chinensis) — an Asian species that is kept in captivity throughout the U.S.  At best, there was a legit rail among them, but so far not hard evidence supports that scenario. Dave Smith of Tiffin, OH was able to get the following photo of the well seen male bird:

Button Quail (King Quail; C. chinensis), Knox county, OH. Photo by Dave Smith.

Button Quail (King Quail; Coturnix chinensis) photographed on 4 September 2014 in Knox county, OH. Photo by Dave Smith of Tiffin, OH. Likely an escapee from a nearby farm where this species is kept in captivity.

What’s that? You don’t think that bird in the photo above looks like a Yellow Rail?

Well wait until you see the females! The first photo below is a hen King Quail (Button Quail), and the second is a Yellow Rail:

King Quail (C. chinensis) hen. [Source]

King Quail (C. chinensis) hen. [Source]

Yellow Rail, photographed by Joe Grzybowski at Red Slough WMA, se. OK on 26 November 2010.

Yellow Rail, photographed by Joe Grzybowski at Red Slough WMA, se. OK on 26 November 2010.

Now, who wouldn’t have a hard time distinguishing between these two birds if one of them were flush out of tall grass at dusk!? Yikes!!!

Though not established in the U.S. (as far as I know) King Quail (aka Button Quail aka Coturnix chinensis) should definitely be considered when viewing or evaluating sight-only reports of out of place (or out of season) Yellow Rails — especially if wing details aren’t seen, aren’t reported, or if the white patches seem very atypical (this species comes in pied forms with white primaries and secondaries). Right now, most birders in the range of Yellow Rail may have never even heard of King or Button Quail, making the confusion all the more likely should they encounter a hen Coturnix chinensis in Yellow Rail habitat. So what should we look for to rule out escaped Button Quail?

Separating Yellow Rails from C. chinensis hens

In the case of the Ohio birds, there were some early warning signs that these weren’t rails. First, these birds belted out an unexpected 3-4 note descending series of squeaky vocalizations that seemed a bit inconsistent with the (non-clicking) vocalizations of Yellow Rail.  There was also way too much flying around instead of running when pressed by people or cows walking through the grass, plus no early reports of white secondary patches when seen in flight. Plus, at least to my inexperienced eye, these quail struck me as significantly smaller than I had expected for Yellow Rail based on seeing online photos of in-hand Yellow Rails being banded.

Many reported seeing birds that fit the Yellow Rail description as far as overall body color and pattern, size and shape, but less than a handful report seeing pale secondaries. This is still a key field mark to look for when identifying Yellow Rail, however, there are variable pied morphs of button quail which have white primaries and secondaries. So the details of how much white was where on the wing is quite relevant and it’s worth noting any secondary identifying features like the bill details and upperpart pattern.


These quail were vocal, and their vocalizations were not all that different from some Yellow Rail vocalizations on and on the Sibley app (which many consulted and listened to in the field).  Since most observers were unfamiliar with (if not completely unaware of) these Yellow Rail vocalizations, the vaguely similar quail vocalizations didn’t worry anyone enough to cause people to question the ID.

Yellow Rail (

King Quail (


In short, there are a few things to keep in mind when your Yellow Rail might be a button quail. First, knowing whether it’s way out of range for the time of year is a good start. Second, pay attention to those behavioral clues:

  1. Quail are flighty, rails are not.
  2. Quail are vocal, rails (during migration) are not as vocal.
  3. Quail are more clumsy than rails when moving through tall grass, which you can hear and see.

Separating the two is actually fairly straight forward when a bird is seen or heard well:

  1. Vocalizations should be diagnostic. Know both and get recordings for documentation (a camera in video mode works great in most cases).
  2. As far as I know, pied morph button quail rarely (or never) show white secondaries along side normal primaries. So noting the details of the white secondary patch and which feather are white (or not) may be the best route to a solid ID.
  3. Button Quail are smaller than Yellow Rails. They rarely push 40g (with hens being at the larger end of the spectrum), while Yellow Rails typically weigh 42g-50g+.
  4. The Sora-like yellow bills on Yellow Rail are distinct from the (typically) darker and smaller bill on King Quail.

Here’s how that wing should look, in case you were curious about the feather details. For more photos, including flight shots, check out this photo set from Louisiana during the 2013 Yellow Rails and Rice Festival (YRARF is here on Facebook):

Yellow Rail spread wing

Photo taken on 26 October 2013 by Steve Arena (C) 2013 [Original].               

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Does it count? The case of the Common Loon

Listing. Eventually, it seems all birders who have been seduced by the listing game stumble across a would-be lifer (or would-be county-year bird, or yard bird, etc.) but they just aren’t sure whether or not “it counts.”

Common Loon (Released previous day by rehabbers)

This Common Loon was found in Nelsonville (Athens Co) Ohio and released in Columbus (Franklin Co) on 25 January 2014 where it remained through the end of the month.
Would you count this bird on your life list? Ohio year list? Franklin Co. January List?

So how do you know when a bird counts?  When you can add it to your list? I firmly believe in “Your list, your rules.” If you really want to keep a list that includes birds seen at the zoo, go for it. Ultimately, you decide.  However, a decade or so of birding has taught me that most of us aren’t so open to listing everything, nor are we so fiercely independent that we see listing as a purely personal endeavor.

We keep lists because it’s an enjoyable way to document our birding milestones, to set goals, to push ourselves to learn more about our local or global avifauna, to better enjoy a vacation or business trip, or to engage with other birders through a little friendly competition. In reality, most of us want to keep lists according to community rules. Rules like the those spelled out in the American Birding Association (ABA) Code of Ethics.

But how do we go about applying those criteria?  It turns out it isn’t that hard to find that gray area where it isn’t clear whether a given bird observation counts or not.  For example: Does an injured Great Horned Owl, hit by a car and seen on the side of the road, count under rule 3.c.iii? Do Trumpeter Swans in the Great Lakes count yet? Given that many states farm and release them for hunting, where in North America are Ring-necked Pheasants countable?

One solution is to fall back on “Your list, your rules” but in the spirit of following community rules, what I would prefer to follow instead is precedent. Which brings us to the case of the Common Loon, and my motivation for writing this post in the first place: I’d love to see the ABA’s newly revived Recording Standards and Ethics Committee take up that challenge of (1) summarizing what we know from existing precedent, (2) soliciting examples of those “gray area” observations, and (3) providing an analysis of those “gray area” birds that’s accessible to the rest of the birding community.

Here in Ohio, we kick off each new year by gunning for 100 species in the state during January. This past January, a Common Loon (S16515764) appeared in Columbus (Franklin Co) and for many of us was our only observation of that species for the county during January.  It was swimming freely in a stretch of open river, and was present from 25 January through the end of the month. Seems countable, right?  Well, there’s catch: with little open water in the region at the time, it turns out this bird was released there by rehabbers on the 25th after it was found in a driveway in Nelsonville (Athens Co) about 60 miles southeast of Columbus earlier in the month. It also may have taken a long flight upriver the day after it’s release.

So when, if ever, did this bird count for those of us keeping Franklin Co. lists for that January? Was it “alive, wild, and unrestrained” immediately after release, or did it take a few hours (or days?) before it became countable? Does the fact that it was brought to the county by people strike it from our county lists, but not our “January 100” list for the state?

In the end, I think we all ended up seeing it long enough after it’s release that we went ahead and counted it for our county lists.  For our local games, I think most of us also counted other “iffy” birds like Ring-necked Pheasants out at Battelle Darby Creek Metro Park (very likely released there), and Trumpeter Swans which here in Ohio are almost certainly descendants of introduced birds now breeding in the Great Lakes region (their countability is questionable which has left many to defer to the state records committee).

So what do you think? Are there any species in your area that the locals count but maybe shouldn’t? Any that should count that local birders refuse to elevate to the status of “countable”? Do you apply different criteria to your different lists?

UPDATE:  Check out these two comments threads here and here for some good approaches to interpreting the ABA Code of Ethics.

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Ohio’s first documented Southeastern Field Cricket (Gryllus rubens)!

During the recent Ohio Ornithological Society annual gathering, based out of the Shawnee State Park Lodge, I joined an evening trip in search of Chuck-wills-widows.  We left a bit late, and didn’t pick up any Chucks, however we did manage to document a first state record during our trip!

On our drive out out of the Lodge’s parking lot, we stopped to listen to an E. Whip-poor-will that had just been heard by another birder. While listening, leader Jim McCormac spun around and brought our attention to a stuttering cricket calling from the nearby mowed grassy area.  While excitedly pulling out his smartphone to bring up a recording for comparison, Jim made it clear that “This might be the best find of our trip!” And it was!

Thanks to Jim’s keen ear, and his wealth of natural history knowledge of the regional flora and fauna, he recognized this cricket as a likely Southeastern Field Cricket — an insect whose nearest known populations are in southern West Virginia.  I had brought my recording equipment along for the trip, to record any Chucks we might hear, and was able to grab this recording to document the find:

Jim shared the recording with Wil Hershberger and he concurred.  You can read more about it, and learn more about the significance of this find and the the Southeastern Field Cricket, by hopping over to this post on Jim McCormac’s blog.

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