Archive for the ‘Shorebirds’ Category

Information is important. With information each of us as individuals, and our society as a whole, can learn about the world. With information, we can all make decisions that make sense. With information, we can all discuss ideas.

Without information none of that is possible. Without information, we are, at best, at the mercy of our current, limited knowledge, and our base instincts. Without information we are, at worst, at the mercy of the limited knowledge and instincts of someone else.

This is why the gag order, and insistence that all reports and data be pre-screened before release to the public, issued by the President to the EPA are so concerning to me, and I think should be so concerning everyone else. This is exactly the kind of action that limits access to, and spread of, information. It will only hamper all of our abilities to operate as rational, critically thinking individuals. It is the kind of action that is put in place to control what we, as citizens, know and when we know it. This is censorship and it has no place in science or a free society.



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A couple of weeks ago, I went out to the Yolo Bypass Wildlife Area to see if I could spot the Marsh Sandpiper that had been hanging around for about a week before. Marsh Sandpipers breed in central Asia and migrate south to India and Africa, so finding one in central California is a rarity, indeed.

It was a lovely morning in the marshes of the bypass. I arrived at Parking Lot C around 5:45, well before it got light. I could hear Barn Owls over the open fields and American Bitterns in the tules and cattails. As dawn slowly began to spread her rose-red fingers across the sky, I began to be able to make out shapes in the marshland around me. At first, they were indistinct sandpiper and duck shapes, but as the light grew, they slowly morphed into Greater Yellowlegs and Gadwalls. These were soon joined by American Avocets and Cinnamon Teal, Black-necked Stilts and Mallards, Killdeer and American Coots. These birds were joined by a half dozen Long-billed Dowitchers, a Semipalmated Plover, and a lovely mixed flock of Least Sandpipers and Dunlin, the later sporting their breeding plumage replete with black belly patches. As I stood and watched the shallow water less than 20 feet in front of me fill with birds, I noticed a sandpiper that looked distinctly different from the rest. It was closest in shape and size to the Greater Yellowlegs but it was somewhat smaller, much lighter in color, and had a delicately refined and slender black bill.

Marsh Sandpiper by Douglas HerrIt was the Marsh Sandpiper!

A large, white pickup truck pulled into the parking lot. A figure stepped out and as he walked towards me, donning binoculars, the man asked, “Is it here?” There was no need to specify what “it” was. I happily told him yes, and that it was actually right in front of us. He told me that he had just driven all the way from San Bernardino in southern California to see the bird and was then going to be driving back down to be back home that evening!

I stayed for another 20 min or so, watching the Marsh Sandpiper forage and come and go along with the other birds. Having that many species of sandpiper right in front of me would have been a wonderfully special morning even without the Marsh Sandpiper. It is amazing to see biodiversity so obviously demonstrated. That many species coexisting translates into that many niches and that many food supplies, and the ripple effects continue.

On my way driving out of the bypass I passed a stream of vehicles on their way in. Many drivers gave me questioning thumbs up which I enthusiastically returned. Many others were focused on getting to their destination, and the bird they hoped they would find there. Hunkering low over their steering wheels, their eyes fixed on the road, I knew they were in for a treat.

It was fun watching all those birders coming in to see the Marsh, but I knew that I had gotten something special. I had been lucky enough to encounter the bird myself instead of having it handed to me by someone else. I had also been lucky enough to see the bird all alone for a while, not standing amongst a group.

This was one of those birding experiences that stay with me for a long time. I was walking on air all that day, and for several days after. It was one of those experiences in birding that explain why people will drive 400 miles each way to see a bird, and even now, recalling that morning in the marsh with the Marsh makes me smile.

Marsh Sandpipier by Gary Nunn

Marsh Sandpiper (Photo by Gary Nunn).

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I went out and did a bit of birding this morning around the wetlands along the shipping channels near where I live. It was a very pleasant morning. Still cool which is wonderful seeing as we are getting temperatures that are more and more in the 90s and 100s around here. I didn’t find anything unusual, but did have some really enjoyable sightings. In particular, I was treated to a flock of 17 Long-billed Dowitchers and 2 Spotted Sandpipers, all on their way north to their breeding grounds in the arctic. It was really cool to compare the individuals of each of these species. Most of the Long-billed Dowitchers were in their breeding plumage, which was looking bright, fresh and spectacular. A couple, however, still had a fair bit of the muted greys of their non-breeding plumage. The Spotted Sandpipers also showed a range of plumages, with one in full breeding plumage and one in full non-breeding plumage. Are these birds at different molt stages because of individual variation? Is it because some had an easier non-breeding season with lots of food and not much harsh weather, while others had a harder non-breeding season with less food and harsher weather like cold, wind, and rain? Might these differences in molt timing correlate with different arrival times on the breeding grounds and/or levels of success there? These kinds of carryover effects, as they are known, have always been of interest to me, but they tend to be quite challenging to study.

Other sightings of the morning included 3 Striped Skunks (one of which almost sprayed me and my dog!), Sacramento Cottontail, Red-winged Blackbird, Cooper’s Hawk, Green Heron, Gadwall, Cliff Swallow, Tree Swallow, several very pretty Song Sparrows, Ring-necked Pheasant, a Ring-necked Pheasant nest out in the midst of a wheat field that had been predated (by one of skunks, perhaps?), Belted Kingfisher, Great Egret, Great Blue Heron, House Finch, Killdeer, American Crow, Western Scrub Jay, Black Phoebe, Mallard, Canada Goose, European Starling, Morning Dove, American Avocet, American Coot, Bushtit, and a Pied-billed Grebe.

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It has been 14 years since the first printing of the first edition of David Allen Sibley’s Sibley Guide to Birds. It was a wonderful book and stood out, at least in my mind, as the best guide to come out since Roger Tory Peterson’s guides to eastern and western birds. Now Sibley has produced his second edition, my copy just arrived in the mail yesterday. And this new edition has a lot of changes from he old one.

The first thing that struck me were the colors. This new edition has generally bolder, darker, richer colors than the first edition. This change may serve to highlight plumage characteristics and draw attention to color contrasts, and so may make the guide more user friendly. However, there is always a danger when attempting to improve on reality and the result will be distorting reality. Overall, I really like the richer colors, but I do think that on some of the birds, such as the California Towhee, it may have gone a bit too far.

A second major change is that the families of birds now appear in a very different order. Traditionally, bird guides have been formatted so that they present the groups of birds in an order that follows the evolutionary history of birds. In most guides this has meant that the first groups are the Loons then the Grebes then the Albatross and Petrels. However, with ever more detailed and accurate DNA sequencing abilities, the evolutionary history of birds has been going through several rounds of shake-ups, and Sibley’s second edition reflects the more current understanding of how birds have evolved. Now, the first groups shown are the Ducks and Geese followed by the Gallinacious birds and then the Loons, and the altered order of bird families continues throughout the rest of the book. I really like that the order of bird families has been changed. It means that we all have a better understanding of evolution. I am sure that some people will be annoyed at the new ordering, and may feel a bit disoriented when having to re-learn where to find a particular group of birds, but our knowledge is always changing, and the resources we use should reflect those changes.

A third big change is the addition of 111 rare species. These are species that are generally found on other continents, and that have been recorded a very small number of times in North America. At first, I thought that this would simply clutter up the guide with a bunch of birds that basically no one sees, and that they would distract from the birds that people are generally looking for when they open their bird books. But, on further reflection, I have actually really like having all these new birds. It gives us all a better understanding of, and exposure to, what birds are out there. I think that if we as birders, all have a more global understanding of our favorite taxa, that can lead to nothing but good.

One very minor bone to pick is something that was pointed out to me by the late, great Rich Stallcup. He noticed that the Wrentit had a somewhat worried expression and that this was not really representative of the fierce Wrentit spirit. In the new edition, the Wrentit still looks worried.

So, overall, I really like the new Sibley Guide to Birds a great deal and am looking forward to my next opportunity to use it. If I find a White-crested Elaenia I will now be able to identify it!

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My first memory of Rich Stallcup is actually not a bird memory at all, but rather a frog memory.  I was probably about ten years old when my mother, brother and I joined him on a bird walk.  But the very first thing he stopped to show the group were several Bullfrogs.  He got his scope on them and let us watch them breath.  He told us about how they were an invasive species and voracious predators that were eating the tadpoles and larva of other animals and so driving down their populations.  My second memory of Rich is a bird memory.  We went on a bird walk to Limantour Beach that Rich was leading that focused on gull identification.  I remember standing looking at a large flock of gulls and listening to him point out the subtle differences between different species, and the even more subtle differences between different aged birds of the same species.  I remember being amazed at the level of detail that he could notice and even more amazed by the concept that there was so much more detail out there to be noticed then I had ever realized before.

These memories, and so many more, point out what I feel were some of Rich’s greatest qualities.  He was a naturalist in the truest sense of the word.  He was the best birder I have ever known with an encyclopedic knowledge of birds, but he also knew tremendous amounts about mammals, reptiles, butterflies, and dragonflies.  He even kept a wildflower life list.  In an age of ever increasing specialization on smaller and smaller scales of knowledge, Rich went the other way and proved that a person does not have to choose between being a jack of all trades or a master of just one, but instead could master quite a few.  It is a lesson that I have tried to learn and an ideal that I continue to strive for.  And his attention to detail was incredible.  While standing watching a group of Bushtits work their way through a willow stand, he finally decided that he was not missing any other birds in the flock when he started recognizing individual Bushtits in the flock!

Of course, Rich’s professional accolades are many.  One of the prominent discoverers of the amazing natural history of Point Reyes and the fact that the outer point acts as a tremendous vagrant trap attracting unusual birds from across the continent when they are disoriented by a predator attack or a storm.  The outer point now also attracts birders from around the world.  Rich was also one of the founders of the Point Reyes Bird Observatory, an organization that is now one of the foremost international conservation NGOs.  He has written books, papers, and articles; and also led countless bird walks and pelagic birding trips, all with the aim of introducing people to nature.

I had the good fortune to be able to bird with Rich for many years.  When he and Ellen Blustein started the PRBO Youth Bird-a-thon Team in 1999, the four founding youth members were myself, my brother,and two of my best friends.  I have continued to participate in that event ever since.  Even after I got old enough that I could not count as a youth anymore, Rich seemed happy to have me stay on as a mentor to the incoming generations of youths.  When he learned that I was expecting my first child he told me that, as long as the kid was more than two days old, I should bring him or her on the Point Reyes Christmas Bird Count!  I was very happy that he was able to meet my wife a couple of times, and saddened that my child will never get the chance.

Rich Stallcup died on the 15th of December, 2012 of Leukemia.  His loved ones were at this side.  He was a naturalist who inspired me and many others with his knowledge, passion and generosity, and he will be greatly missed.

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The day before yesterday, I was walking along the edge of Lake Washington, which is very close to our new home in West Sacramento, CA.  It was a great morning of birding with several of the early fall migrating Wilson’s Warblers, an adult Red-shouldered Hawk, a Lesser Scaup feeding on the lake and about 300 Long-billed Dowitchers resting on one muddy portion of shore.

As I walked around a bend in the cattails and tules, I saw a female American Kestrel swooping and diving back and forth at the top of an oak tree.  She was also screaming like crazy.  Nearby, perched on a bare branch of a sapling was a male American Kestrel.  He was calling like crazy as well!  As I stood there, I also heard several Western Scrub Jays also making a loud ruckus in the tree.  I was certainly curious to see what was causing all this fuss.  I walked closer, and as I did so, a Red-tailed Hawk flew past.  As it neared the tree it dipped low and dropped its legs down to strafe the tree top!  As I got even closer, two Anna’s Hummingbirds joined in to start darting in and out of the tree top at whatever was there.  What could cause this much commotion and attract this much ferocious attention from so many very different species?  I got my answer a few moments later when a Great Horned Owl launched itself out of the tree top and flew towards a different group of tree some distance away.  After the owl left, most of the birds seemed to calm down, expect for the American Kestrels which both followed the owl to its new perch site and continued to berate it there.

Not only was the commotion quite impressive, it was interesting how all these different species, with their very diverse natural histories, would all feel threatened by one owl!

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I went birding at the Yolo Bypass Wildlife Refuge, yesterday morning.  It was lovely to watch the refuge wake up in the morning to a beautiful sunrise over the Sierra.  Got lost of close and excellent looks a bunch of Ciconiiforms: Green Heron, Great Blue Heron, Great Egret, Snowy Egret, White-faced Ibis, Black-crowned Night-Heron, American Bittern.  Also watched a Barn Owl hunting over the marsh just went I arrived.  It was soon replaced by Northern Harriers and White-tailed Kites quartering above the cattails and tules and rice paddies.  It has often been observed that no two species can occupy the same ecological niche in the same place at the same time.  The Harrier, Kite and Owl all are hunting for the same basic prey, but they are active at different times.  This is an example of temporal partitioning.  The water level at the refuge is still being kept pretty low, but in areas that did have standing water I found Mallards, Gadwalls, Black-necked Stilts, Marsh Wrens, Pied-billed Grebe, and Double-crested Cormorant.  Lots of Black Phoebes and Savannah Sparrows, and a few Red-tailed Hawks, were also present.  An early migrant that was exciting to find was a group of about a dozen Northern Pintail!  Northern Pintail are one of the earliest migrating species of waterfowl, so this is just the start of the massive migration of ducks and geese that will be arriving in central California in the next few months.  Two species that I found that I do not get to see often were a couple of small groups of Horned Larks foraging on the roads and three Yellow-headed Blackbirds (two males, one female) mixed in a group of Red-winged Blackbirds.  Both beautiful species.  All in all, it was a really wonderful, relaxing and refreshing morning.

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At the edge of a parking lot, here in Davis, CA, my wife and I found a family of Killdeer.  The two adults were wandering around a patch of dry, exposed dirt and watched over their four young as they also wandered the dirt patch foraging for food.  Killdeers clutches are usually comprised of four eggs, so this looks like it was a very successful nest where all four eggs hatched and the young all seem to be doing quite well.  The young were tiny balls of fluff on legs that seemed too tall for them (it will be a little while before they grow into them).  Their coloration was an almost exact replica of the adults: brown back, white belly, and the classic black ring across the neck.  The young birds only had a single ring and will get their second when they molt into their first basic plumage.  At one point, one of the young gave a call that sounded exactly like that of an adult bird.  It was impressive to hear this bird, that could not have been more than a few days old, already able to produce fully developed vocalizations.

The young, being highly precocial and so able to walk as soon as their feathers dry, were wandering over a good sized area.  One in particular was exploring and foraging much farther away from its parents then its siblings.  I wonder if this more adventuresome behavior will be a consistent aspect of this bird’s personality, and also if this personality continue into adulthood?  Personality, or behavioral syndromes as they are often called, have been found in many species, but little work has been done on when these behavioral syndromes form or how they may change as an individual ages.

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