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.

Owling
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.

Daybreak
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!).

Reno
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.

Verdi
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.

Vocalizations

These quail were vocal, and their vocalizations were not all that different from some Yellow Rail vocalizations on xeno-canto.org 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 (http://www.xeno-canto.org/140285):

King Quail (http://www.xeno-canto.org/194163):

Summary

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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Tips for submitting eBird checklists via BirdLog

One of the primary goals of eBird is to provide us (birders) with way to share and organize our observations. The reason? Well, that’s because it’s the best way to achieve another eBird’s primary goals: collecting and sharing that data with scientists so they can better understand birds and improve bird conservation.

BirdLog app using the map tool for submitting a checklist.

BirdLog app using the map tool for submitting a checklist.

So how can you make eBird work better for you?

If you have a smartphone, one answer is to start using the BirdLog app. Why? Because it makes “eBirding” a LOT more efficient! Many birders find submitting eBird checklists to be a bit cumbersome, or at the very least that it detracts from paying attention to birds in the field. Also, it takes time to transcribe field notes into a checklist at home after your trip.  BirdLog allows you to tally birds in the field on your smartphone and then quickly submit them as an eBird checklists (or at least drafts of checklists) from the field.

So how exactly can BirdLog make your eBirding more efficient? Well, beyond the fact that it allows you to merge the task of data entry with tallying birds the field, BirdLog does a few other things to save you time.

Here are my top time-saving tips for using BirdLog in the field:

  1. Birdlog data entry screen

    Birdlog gives you a list of potential species names that match what you’ve entered as you type. Use that fact to speed up data entry!

    Use short-hand: BirdLog does name matching as you type in a bird name, and gives you candidate names you can just tap. You can exploit this “fuzzy matching” capability by typing only the most unique words instead of full species names! For example, “Northern W” will get you to Northern Waterthrush, but “Water” will get you there faster.  Skip those “Northern” and “Common” words, and you’ll speed things up considerably!Alternatively, do you know any 4-letter banding codes? Well so does BirdLog!! Use them! If you don’t know the 4 letter codes for species names, fear not! They’re easier to learn thank you think (this cheat sheet explains the rules and exceptions for Ohio; Colorado is in the works!).

  2. Don’t pause to enter every bird while birding. Keep what you can in memory, and enter them when you’re likely not to miss any new birds, or are otherwise free to pause.Instead, only enter new species while birding, then enter numbers for each species when you’re finished. I frequently do this, then review the “Likely” species list back at my car, entering species totals and catching any species I observed but forgot to tally, before heading to my next stop. Note: While this won’t affect the accuracy of species only seen once or thrice during your outing, you’re likely to be left doing some guesstimation for more common birds that you saw by the tens or hundreds.  That’s alright! If it helps you submit a checklist that you otherwise wouldn’t have submitted, estimating those numbers means you’re still providing valuable data!
  3. Consider all checklists submitted via BirdLog to be drafts, and edit them later via the web interface (see www.ebird.org, log in, click My eBird –> Manage my Observations –> Edit). Why? First, BirdLog only allows comments — it doesn’t allow you to enter age/sex or breeding codes available through the web interface.  So it’s limited. Second, when I’m in the field, I’d rather be birding than cleaning up my writing, so I put that off for later. By considering my BirdLog checklists as drafts, I don’t waste time entering comments (except things I’m likely to forget or that might be valuable for reporting a rare bird) since I always plan on revisiting my submitted checklists at home where I can clean them up, add age/sex and breeding information, embed photos or audio recordings, etc.  Trust me: this approach DOES produce higher quality checklists with less time wasted in the field! 
  4. Share the workload with your (e)birding buddies. By trading off checklist duties, and sharing those checklists with one another later, you get a break! That means more time spent birding.

There are a few pitfalls to avoid (if possible) that might save you time or effort, but do so at the expense of producing less valuable eBird data:

  1. Always give numbers, be they exact counts or good estimates!  Even one “X” in a checklist full of exact counts for each species makes that checklist less valuable, and it’s easier than you think to provide good estimates (see #4 above!).
  2. Don’t submit one checklist for multiple locations, especially spanning different counties!  One of the valuable things about eBird data is that checklist data can be analyzed in conjunction with existing GIS/spatial data: land type, nearest body of water, county population, weather data, etc.  The more location-specific you can be, the better!  Keeping observations associated with the right county is paramount, as eBird data are in many ways organized by county-level boundaries.
  3. Likewise, avoid submitting one checklist for a long duration of time.  Birds are more or less active (and thus, more or less detectable) during different times of day. You might have noticed how dawn and mid-day detectability rates differ? Well your data won’t reflect that if you submit a checklist spanning 5am to noon! Instead, try and break it up into sub-three-hour checklists, or even less time if you’re birding around dusk and on into the night, for example.   Some of the least valuable checklists are those that violate both this and #2 above. 
  4. Finally, don’t over do it!  If you burn yourself out eBirding, and end up giving it up, all your future observations that might have been are lost to science. Pace yourself, have a good time, feel free to go birding and NOT worry about submitting a checklist if you need a break, and plan for the long haul. :-)

UPDATE #1: I should have mentioned above that the Help section of the eBird website was recently overhauled and much improved. Check it out!  In particular, see the page on BirdLog Best Practices.  Second, I’d like to emphasize that the BirdLog app for Andoid phones (what I use) is a bit different from the app on iPhones and iPads, and there’s also the BirdsEye app for iPhones/iPads that allows you to do even more with eBird.  Here’s a quick video overview of BirdsEye, and here’s another.

UPDATE #2: Pre-Order BirdsEye app for Android!!  I just noticed that not only are there are plans for an Android version of BirdsEye, but you can pre-order it RIGHT NOW!  So why has this popular birding app only been available for iPhones? Android apps take more work than iPhone versions due to the greater of diversity of phones and flavors of the Android operating system they must accommodate. So help out the good folks at Birds In The Hand by pre-ordering a copy of BirdsEye for Android to help fund it’s launch.

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Alexander Wilson and the 200th anniversary of American Ornithology

Alexander Wilson. Portrait by Thomas Sully.

Alexander Wilson.
Portrait by Thomas Sully. [Source]

Last week, Jed Burtt hosted a symposium at Ohio Wesleyan University in celebration of the 200th anniversary of the ninth and final volume of Alexander Wilson’s American Ornithology — arguably the first major scientific publication out of the United States, and a cornerstone of American ornithology. The symposium talks went well beyond the scientific story, and included talks on Wilson’s friends and contemporaries, Wilson the political activist, Wilson the poet, Wilson the artist, and of course Wilson the naturalist and scientist.

In addition to the wonderful talks about Wilson, Jed arranged for collector Tom Blanton to display all 76 of the color plates produced by Wilson and published in those nine volumes. This was perhaps the first time all 76 plates have been put on display together, ever!  So, with my cell phone battery threatening to die on me, I managed to photograph them all.  With a bit of cropping and automatic “enhancing” (color adjustment and deblurring) to correct for the less-than-optimal lighting conditions, here they are!

To view the images, individually or as a slide show, click the thumbnails below.

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