Archive for July, 2016

The American Ornithologists Union (AOU) is, among other things, the arbiter of avian taxonomy in Middle and North America. They are the organization that rules on whether a species should be split in two, or if two species should be lumped together. They are the organization that rules that Loons are no longer the most basal group of North American birds, but that they group that contains ducks, geese and swans holds that honor. The AOU releases all these decisions in the form of annual Supplements to the official AOU Checklist (which is a complete list of all bird species and subspecies listed in taxonomic order).

A lot of science has to be done before the AOU makes any of these ruling, and these ruling are subject to change as more science is done, but at any given time, the current AOU Checklist represents the best available knowledge on how many species of birds there are and on how they are  all related to one another.

Well, the AOU just released their most recent Checklist Supplement and it has, among the many updates and changes, an interesting change for California. Since that is where I live, I am particularly interested in this one. It concerns a common member of the corvid family that anyone who has spent any time outside has seen. The Western Scrub-Jay (Aphelocoma californica).

This species has actually already had an interesting history in the taxonomy world. Before 1995, there was one species recognized as a Scrub Jay (Aphelocoma coerulescen). This species was found across the western USA and also in Florida. In 1995, the AOU split the Scrub Jay into three distinct species. They were the Florida Scrub-Jay, which retained the original scientific name (Aphelocoma coerulescens), recognizing the Florida population as genetically distinct; the Island Scrub-Jay (Aphelocoma insularis) recognizing the population found on the Channel Islands off the coast of southern California as genetically distinct; and the Western Scrub-Jay (Aphelocoma californica) which included all the remaining populations in the western continental USA.

California Scrub-Jay - Frank Lang

California Scrub-Jay (Photo credit: Frank Lang)

Now, in the most recent AOU Checklist Supplement, the Western Scrub-Jay has been split again. We now have the California Scrub-Jay (Aphelocoma californica) recognizing that the population along the Pacific Coast is actually genetically distinct from the Woodhouse’s Scrub-Jay (Aphelocoma woodhouseii) found in the inter-mountain west.

Woodhouse's Scrub-Jay - Robert Mortensen

Woodhouse’s Srcub-Jay (Photo credit: Robert Mortensen)

In addition to the genetic distinctions, these two new Jay species also have behavioral and morphological differences. The California Scrub-Jay is darker in color, generally lives in Oak woodlands, and eats a range of seeds including a lot of acorns and so has a heavier bill. In contrast, Woodhouse’s Scrub-Jay is lighter in color, generally lives in the Great Basin pinon-juniper scrublands, and correspondingly eat a great deal of pinon pine nuts and juniper berries and so have a slimmer bill.

So, update your life lists, start getting used to using the new four-letter codes of CSJA (now standing for California Scrub-Jay) and WSJA (Now standing for Woodhouse’s Scub-Jay, and not Western Scrub-Jay that it used to identify), and enjoy picking apart the finer levels of identification between these two newly recognized species!

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The new Conservancy Currents is out! This is the biannual newsletter from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta Conservancy. This issue (which can be found here) is a significant one particularly because it explains a little about the projects that have now been approved for funding through the Delta Conservancy’s Proposition 1 grant program. The newsletter also talks about several of the other programs and projects that the Delta Conservancy is leading.

The newsletter is edited and assembled by our Associate Governmental Program Analyst, Brandon Chapin, and contains contributions from many staff members. In case you are curious, I wrote the Delta Waterway Cleanup piece on the front page. Enjoy!

Delta Conservancy Logo 3



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The Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta Conservancy (where I know work) was allotted $50,000,000 from the voter approved Proposition 1 for projects that will enhance habitat, improve water quality, and/or increase sustainable agriculture in the Delta. These funds are to be given out over the course of five years, starting with the first solicitation in fall of 2015. The Delta Conservancy created a competitive grant program where applicants can send in proposals and Delta Conservancy staff, with the input from other experts, determine which proposals have the best chance of success and will enact the most valuable projects. This first round of projects could be planing projects of up to $100,000 or implementation projects of up to $2,000,000. A major component of my work has been to help administer this grant process and evaluate the proposals that have applied for the Delta Conservancy’s Prop 1 money in this first year. We, the staff, shepherded projects through the process and made recommendations to our governing board, who voted to approve or reject the various projects that were submitted. Going forward, I will continue to be highly involved in the next 4 years of funding cycles.

Swainson's Hawk - Jabari Bellamy

Adult Swainson’s Hawk hunting over a California grassland (Photo compliments of Jabari Bellamy)

One of the projects that applied for the Delta Conservancy money was submitted by the Environmental Defense Fund to convert approximately 300 acres of private agricultural working land currently used for growing various row crops into pastureland bordered by hedgerows of native vegetation. This crop conversion will encourage Swainson’s Hawk prey species and so make this land high quality foraging habitat for Swainson’s Hawks. This project scored in our competitive process and was approved by our board (pending a some final administrative paperwork). To read more about the project, and find out more about the work that the Environmental Defense Fund is doing, check out this link to their write up of the project.

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