Utah Birds, Utah Birding, and Utah Birders. Promoting the sharing of information, and the conservation of habitat for birds in Utah and elsewhere. We are a group of people who want to share what we know, and create a positive birding experience in Utah.
If you're unable to view the embedded video, please go here: Flickr Video
As many of you know, I moved to Cincinnati, Ohio at the beginning of the year. I haven't done a whole lot of birding so far but I did get out to a state park today. I was able to get a video of one bird singing with a different species singing in the background. I thought if would be fun to share this video with you all so you could brush up on a couple of Eastern birds. I'll post the answer to what these two birds are in the comments in a few days, but go ahead and take a guess if you'd like.
The birding here seems promising now that the weather is warming up. I hope to be able to share some more details about my experiences here in the coming months. I just recently discovered that the Great Smoky Mountains are about as far away from me as St. George is to Salt Lake. I can't wait to go explore what looks to be an amazing place.
So I've grappled with this for some time. When do subspecies matter in eBird? You're going to hear a lot of people say that being as specific as possible is always going to be better than generalizing. There are numerous users whose lists are filled with subspecies--even when the subspecies is the only form present of a species at the given location. Team eBirds official stance is this:
At eBird we believe it is important to allow birders to collect as much information as specifically as possible.
Pretty vague, but they also say this a few lines later in their help document about subspecies:
For this reason, we try to allow this possibility for those that feel comfortable making these identifications. If you are not comfortable, or do not understand what the subspecies group refers to, please enter your sightings at the species level.
This is going to be the average eBird user; and in 99% of subspecies cases, the species level is going to be enough information to cover the local taxa. But Team eBird does end with this:
A final benefit for entering subspecies groups is that if they are ever split, we will automatically update your lists as appropriate... We encourage you to try to learn more about the eBird subspecies groups in your area and identify them when possible.
So their stance does actually appear to be use them if you feel comfortable, it will benefit you and us. But I think they are overselling it a bit. There are a few species here in Utah I have a bad habit of "subspecielizing" (yeah I just made that up) birds when I create a checklist. Namely these are "Audubon's" Yellow-rumped Warbler, and "Red-shafted" Northern Flicker. These are 2 cases where I got in the habit of doing it a long time ago, but I am going to stop. The reason is simple--in both these cases the subspecies I am naming is the default species found here. This is common knowledge and from a database perspective if this species ever does spilt they will be able to generalize in the east and the west which form was being reported. There are several states where this will be problematic, but in those states the solution should be to note either subspecies. In Utah it really only would matter to note the "Myrtle" subpsecies of Yellow-rumped Warbler as it is going to have far fewer reports and since its not the nominate subspecies it is worth noting. Same for Yellow-shafted Flicker--reports on a yearly basis can be counted on our hands. This can be taken into account if a split occurs.
"Myrtle" Yellow-rumped Warbler is not the expected species in Utah
I also have stopped noting "Western" Red-tailed Hawk. I do always make note of "Harlan's", and if any others ever showed up here, I would note them as well.
Composite shot of a "Harlan's" Red-tailed Hawk in Lehi, Utah
There are also a number of subspecies that I would never take the time to report. "Northern" Mallard, "Blue form" Great Blue Heron--I mean come on these are redundant. These are again the default subspecies here, and the average birder isn't looking to identify forms of Great Blue Heron. Obviously, if a "White form" GBHE shows up I think most birders would take the time to note it... but in general this seems ridiculous. Mallards even more so--99.99% of Mallards in Utah are "Northern". Taking the time to note this in a checklist isn't adding value at the subspecies level. The .01% of times you see a "Mexican" taxa it is well worth noting.
The not rare or notable "Northern" Mallard--it's just a Mallard, come on.
Green-winged Teal is another one I don't note--obviously "American" is going to be the typical one here--if I ever saw a "Eurasian" I would take note immediately--that happens quite rarely here in Utah. Western Scrub-Jay is another one folks--if by some miracle a "Coastal" or "Sumichrast's" showed up here definitely worth noting. But the "Woodhouse's" form is the only species known to occur here--so we probably don't need to note it. Let's not even talk about the subspecies within these subspecies. The list goes on, Steller's Jay, Marsh Wren, and Spotted Towhee.
It is indeed a "Woodhouse's" Western Scrub-Jay--but it's the only subspecies in Utah.
But then there are birds I "subspecielize" (I really like this term) that I see the real value in. These are one where multiple subspecies occur in the same area at certain times of year and worth noting. Dark-eyed Juncos anyone? This is the obvious case where noting a subspecies has a value. It is not uncommon to have 4 subspecies at once during migration, when the local and migrant populations are both found--or even during the winter months. This is one of the rare cases where a common species really does need it. I also note subspecies within "Merlin" as we seem to get a good mix of "Taiga" and "Prairie"--obviously "Pacific/Black" is well worth noting.
It is worth noting your "Pink-sided" Dark-eyed Junco... or any subspecies for that matter
On the flip side we leave A LOT of these subspecies that are generally the expected subspecies off the checklists. This is the way I like it and the way I am going to do my listing going forward to keep things clean, succinct, and obvious. As a birder I challenge you to know subspecies and recognize them--that is something well worth doing. But for checklists in eBird I don't much see the point of noting the obvious ones. If splits ever do occur on most of these, the team at eBird will probably write an algorithm (if they haven't already) to correctly filter the split subspecies into their categorically correct species bucket in a given region, time of year etc.
But to each their own right? Thsi post is not to tell you NOT to use subspecies. It is one persons opinion on the need for it i ncertai cases. Do what you feel comfortable doing and what you want to do to track your sightings. I'm just one dude doing things one way! What are your thoughts on subspecies in eBird.
It seems like just yesterday we were wrapping up the 2014 Gullstravaganza. The crazy thing is that was 13 months ago. 2014 was one of our best gulling events--the best up till that point in variety of gulls and number of participants. This year we decided to put all our eggs in one basket and finally just move the event to Farmington Bay WMA for its entirety instead of moving form location to location, This likely had some advantages and disadvantages, but it made for a more relaxed event and much easier planning.
As has become the norm, we had a good number of sign ups with 33 people signing up for the event, despite a competing field trip led by Jerry Liguori and Hawkwatch International... Queue a little Seinfeld humor... "Hello Jerry!!!"
Okay, so that was ridiculous... :) In the past we have tried to plan this even when nothing else is going on, but this year we knew there were conflicts ahead of time--luckily the one we expected to cut in to ours--Snow Goose Festival--was actually a week later than expected (good for us and likely very bad for them as the geese have already started moving on...eek.).
So anyways, to the event. After a slow start with gullers arriving we quickly realized Jerry was trying to poach our trip attendees by having his trip block the road to look at some boring BALD EAGLES. He even went so far as to "accidentally take" one of our gullers in his car until the chap realized he'd been duped into the wrong group. We straightened things out and eventually 23 birders were rallied to head out for the gulls! 4 more joined us shortly after for a total of 27 attendees this year. Down from what we expected but the weather report likely caused some last minute dropouts--and those who Jerry promised photo-ops with ;) None-the-less we were here to gull and gull we did.
Heading into the marsh we stopped briefly to look at an adult LESSER BLACK-BACKED GULL that was hanging out at the air boat launch on Dike Road at the carp pile. Due the the unseasonably warm weather we've had the eagles have mostly moved out, leaving the piles of fish for the gulls to take advantage of without any competition.
Adult Lesser Black-backed Gull taking flight
We scanned the water to the east as well where around 1250 TUNDRA SWANS were on the water, and hundreds of ducks including a few CANVASBACK were present. Most of the winter divers were all together gone with just a few BUFFLEHEAD and COMMON GOLDENENEYE in the mix. To the end of the road we wandered setting up shop to scan a flock sitting on the mud a couple hundred yards out. The prize in this group was a gorgeously white GLAUCOUS GULL that stood right out amongst the other gulls.
As we watched and tallied more LESSER BLACK-BACKED GULLS, a couple THAYER'S GULLS, and numerous HERRING GULLS things were looking good. Along with just a couple CALIFORNIA GULLS and plenty of RING-BILLED GULLS we had 6 species of gulls in 30 minutes. That's how to start a Gullstravaganza! As we were about to pack up and head to another spot to set up for a bit, a very pale gull flew i and landed. I caught it running across the flats before it sat down and immediately ran for my scope. This had to be an ICELAND GULL!
"Kumlien's" Iceland Gull
After a few minutes trying to get a good look at the wing tips I was 99% certain it was a Kumlien's Gull. The bird had sat down and quickly tucked its head but it was sitting next to several Herring Gulls with a Thayer's nearby for comparison. I assumed this had been the same bird Kenny Frisch and I found a month ago and it gave everyone long looks as it sat there until we moved on. Everyone's scopes were trained on the bird--gull species #7 for the day in less than an hour. The bird was a lifer for a handful of attendees--as was the Glaucous Gull.
About this time a squall was making its way across the lake and had ht Farmington. The wind picked up out of the north and headed towards us, bring wind, rain, and finally snow. We convened the vehicles in the parking lot on the west side of the 4-way where I told the group it was up to them whether they stayed or left. I didn't know what the weather was going to do, but it didn't look pretty. What I did know is we were here to look at gulls and not going to leave quite yet. About 10-15 birders stayed or birded around Farmington for the next hour. We set up about 60' from the carp pile where HERRING GULLS were starting to filter in.
Herring Gull in Flight
The light was fantastic as the sun kept mostly out even though it was bitterly cold. The snow passed quickly and the birds didn't seem to mind our presence as they fed. More birds joined the fray and eventually a couple 1st winter THAYER'S GULLS made an appearance allowing for some great up close study.
One of the biggest surprises for the day was actually the lack of gull abundance. In fact on the day I counted just 23 CALIFORNIA GULLS. That is an astonishingly low count for the event, and even for Farmington Bay this time of year. The few that were present did provide some great opportunities to study next to the massive Herring's.
The other surprise was that by my count the Herring Gulls actually outnumbered all other gulls combined--that includes RING-BILLED GULL which typically follows California in numbers. Herring Gulls outnumbered the others 280 to 259. Those numbers are also a low count for the event in terms of total gulls. Now there were several hundred (maybe even 1,000) over the dump a couple miles east that you could see swirling with binoculars. But I didn't count them for the list since they were unidentifiable, and outside Farmington's boundary.
As the day wore on the group dwindled to about 10 die hard gull watchers, braving the cold, snapping photos, and talking gulls, cameras, and other things bird and birding related. This was a Utah Birders event to a tee!
We did have a bit of excitement i the afternoon watching the carp pile as a very pale gull came flying in from the east. Initially I thought it was the Iceland Gull and was stoked I would be getting killer flight shots. And killer shots I did get--only the bird wasn't the Iceland Gull!
So what is it?
After it landed it was apparent the primaries were too dark and the bird seemed odd. I thought about Thayer's Gull, but it was very pale, and was a hefty looking bird with a bulkier than normal bill. Hybrids came to mind with the obvious choice for a bird this pale with a bi-colored bill being a Glaucous x Herring Gull hybrid--also known as a Nelson's Gull.
Certainly has a Herring-ish face...
I stuck to that as the name until I got home when I started to wonder if I was looking at this thing all wrong. One of the major issues with late season gulling is that birds get bleached losing some of their color making them appear "whiter" than usual. The bird was on the small size for the hybrid in question, but not too small. Looking at it I could see some Herring features which is why I clung to the idea of a hybrid. I have had several others look at it and the opinions are varied. From very bleached out Thayer's Gull, to Something with some "Herring in it", to Glaucous-winged x Herring. Glaucous x Herring has been ruled out but the jury is out on what this bird is. I could certainly be swayed to Thayer's Gull, albeit the lightest I've ever seen--but I feel reservatons based off seeing it next to Thayer's and Herring in the field. Regardless, it was a very cool bird.
A gorgeous gull regardless the species!
Mid-way through the afternoon we wrapped things up and called it a day! The 5th annual Gullstravaganza was in the books with 7 species of Gull! As always this is my favorite trip of the year, as many birders still overlook gulls, and they continually provide us with unique individuals that can make for a difficult time ID'ing. And as usual I was stoked with the excellent turn out. As with years in the past my mind is already turning with ideas for making next years event even better.
A big thanks to Kenny Frisch for co-leading the trip this year. And of course a big thanks to everyone who attended, from Salt Lake, Davis, Utah, Summit, and other surrounding counties. There were attendees from Millard County as well as Wyoming; and even one guest from Scotland (although he currently lives here).
I've been tied a lot closer to home the past 6 months with the addition of a son to our family. It's meant I don't manage to go birding for as long, or as far from home as usual. I've still managed to do a lot of birding, but really changed my pattern. One thing I have decided to work on is building out locations in and around Sandy, Utah creating a patchwork of personal birding location in eBird to micro list as I go about my day to day. It's actually really simple and ends up keeping me in tune with what birds are where around my current home town.
My personal locations in blue--hotspots in red.
It started rather simply a couple years ago. I had my house as a personal location, my neighborhood as another, and then I created a spot for a woodlot along my drive home from work. There are two hot spots along my routes to and from work--the Sandy City Cemetery and Dimple Dell Park. I also created a location a few years ago at La Caille for the trail down to Quail Hollow Park, that is now listed as Little Cottonwood Canyon -- Mouth (incl. La Caille). Larkin Sunset Gardens also has a hotspot but I rarely make it up the road to this location. East of I-15 and in Sandy City these are the only hot spots. There are a couple spots long the Jordan River, and of Course the Sandy Urban Fishery. But you get the idea, there just aren't a ton of birding spots on the map. So I changed that.
Sandy -- Porter Rockwell Trail at 10600 South
I started by creating two spots along the Rail Trail (Trax)--one at 9000 South and another at 10600 South. The locations were named accordingly Sandy -- Porter Rockwell Trail and Sandy -- Expo Station @ 9000 S 146 E. I decided to use the eBird naming schema for locations in a given area. Since these were all personal I used Sandy as the location with each sub location following dashes. Next I added Lake Hills Cemetery on State Street, and then another location along 10600 south at about 1050 East just past the Dimple Dell Rec Center. I also had a location that I rarely used listed at the Sandy Amphitheatre, which I adjusted to Sandy -- Quarry Bend and Amphitheatre. From here I branched out and while out and about in the past week I created 3 location along the I-15 corridor just east of the freeway. One near 9000 south at the old Classic Fun Center where a small ditch has a marsh habitat. I also created two locations around the Southe Town Mall. One north of the mall along Centennial Parkway where a tiny pond is surrounded by marsh. And another along the freeway the length of the west side of the mall where these is an expansive marsh.
Sandy -- South Towne Center Marsh
Deciding I needed to break Sandy down even more I decided to create locations at a number of local parks: Storm Mountain Park, Lone Peak Park, Bell Canyon Park, Pebble Brook GC, Falcon Park, Flat Iron Mesa Park, and Quail Hollow Park.
Sandy -- Flat Iron Mesa Park
I didn't create spots for every park, but ones I pass or spend some amount of time at on a monthly basis. My goal going forward is to submit at least 1 list per month at each location in Sandy, and eventually work on getting a list for every week of the year to create a full data set for these locations. It won't be comprehensive but will give me a good overlay of the entire city!
Generally the lists contain a lot of Rock Pigeons and European Starlings--a realistic look at what most urban birding looks like. But the lists get sprinkled with Mourning and Eurasian Collared-Doves, Americn Robins, Western Scrub-Jays, Black-billed Magpie, American Kestrel, House Finches and Sparrows, California Gulls, etc. Just for laughs I have submitted 61 Checklists for the Sandy Ciy Cemetery--comprising exactly 14 species! With this micro birding there are far more checklists than species generally.
On a daily basis I try to enter lists when I stop at lights or keep an eye out for birds while driving. I also usually stop at one or two locations on the way home for a just a couple minutes to listen to what's calling. It gives me the opportunity to fit in a little birding every day away from my home and office. It has also made me really aware of specific birds that have set up territories along the route. I have 2 spots where I know American Kestrel are on territory; 1 Red-tailed Hawk that frequents a certain woodlot; and of course the specific locations where you almost always find American Crow in the city.
So if you can't get away from home as much as you'd like, or you prefer birding locally, without a car, on foot, bike, or scooter I suggest creating your own patchwork of local birding locations and working on micro listing your area. Not only will you provide valuable data for citizen science, but you'll really get to know the birds around you.
If you'd like me to share any of my personal locations with you just let me know--I don't suspect a lot of folks go birding at many of these places, but if more than one were interested I would certainly love to add more data from more birders!
Sorry to get scientific with the post title--but this post will delve a little or a lot bit in to the realm of science--depending on how you want to look at things. I am not a scientist or a biologist, but on a daily basis I analyze data, and use that data to make predictions, hypotheses, and come up with solutions to problems. Today I'm not solving a problem, but more or less looking at a problem and proposing some ideas. These ideas came to fruition after a phone call with Rick Fridell about a number of reports in eBird of Pacific-slope Flycatcher. Back in 2006 Rick and I found 2 empids at Red Hills Golf Course in January. Both birds represented the first winter records of empids in southwestern Utah--and the only in eBird for Utah during the winter months. Historical information about empids in Utah is quite lacking so there may be some from pre-2000, but the data just isn't there to look at.
One of the birds was rather straight forward and was a DUSKY FLYCATCHER. The other bird was a bit more troubling as it was a "WESTERN" FLYCATCHER, so either a Cordilleran or a Pacific-slope Flycatcher. At the time the general though was--it's winter, it's a Western-type Flycatcher, it's not calling, so it's best left to just "Western" Flycatcher species. However, conventional wisdom at the time suggested that ONLY Pacific-slope Flycatchers over-wintered in the interior southwest, with a handful of reports annually in southern California and Arizona along the Colorado River.
Dusky Flycatcher in St. George from January 2006
But I'll digress, at the time I left it as just a spuh and moved on. Later that same week, Rick found another "Western" Flycatcher in Washington County, making it 3 empids in one week in winter. Fast forward to this week and the phone call I had with Rick. I am for the time being helping review sightings in Washington County on eBird--Rick will be taking over in the near future, but I was doing some cleanup and noticed he had submitted a handful of reports for PSFL. In all 11 reportfrom the spring and fall. This was unexpected for me; even more so was that one checklist from May 27, 2012 had 5 PSFL included on the report. Unprecedented in Utah.
If you don't know Rick, quite frankly he's probably the best birder in Utah hands down. He's been responsible for numerous state first records, and finds great birds on an almost weekly basis down in Washington County. So when Rick added these birds to his lists, he immediately had my attention. Basically what Rick shared with me, was that birders in Arizona and Nevada birding at lowland habitats during migration were not finding Cordilleran Flycatchers, ONLY Pacific-slopes. During the spring calling birds were identified by their audibles, and based off banding projects it was basically assumed that all Western's at these sites were actually PSFL's. What?
This one really through me for a loop. Although I was sure this species migrated through Utah, I thought that it was impossible to say for sure which species we were actually seeing during migration. De-facto I called everything in Utah a Cordilleran--even birds not calling. Have we been doing this wrong for years? Is it only safe to identify on territory or calling Cordilleran Flycatchers? Were we actually seeing Pacific-slope as the majority of valley and lowland Western Flycatchers during migration? Was this a Pacific-slope Flycatcher?
Migrant "Western" Flycatcher at Fontenelle, Wyoming in May 2005
Due to inland location and overall elevation it was ID'd as a Cordilleran.
However, Fontenelle, is a "lowland" trap by Wyoming standards.
The assumption that the lowland birds are all Pacific-slope seems to go hand in hand with the idea that Cordilleran Flycatchers migrate through the mountains and highlands to their wintering sites, predominately in the mountains and pacific slopes of south central Mexico. Parallel ideas are that of birds like Cassin's Vireo, Townsend's, Nashville, and Hermit Warbler, and Rufous Hummingbird. All of these species are rare and some non-existant in spring in Utah. Some do show up occasionally, but these are predominantly only fall migrants in Utah None-the-less they are only found during migration--like the speculation of PSFL and its occurence here.
Hermit Warbler interestingly are rarely if almost never found away from high elevation sites with a coniferous component in the interior southwest during the fall. While all the others tend to show up at various elevations and habitats.
So I've droned on--but lets actually look at some maps I generated via eBird and customized to show information about Cordilleran and Pacific-slope Flycatchers.
This first map shows the year round range (via actual detections in eBird) of both COFL and PSFL. COFL is shown in blue; strictly in the mountain west through central Mexico. PSFL is show in red from Alaska to southern Mexico on of all things the Pacific coast and slopes. The purple blocks represent overlap where both species have been or are reported. Much of this is migration and winter grounds. Note the interior range of PSFL into Washington State and Canada almost directly north of Utah.
Do we assume these birds migrate "around" the Great Basin, following the Sierra Nevada slopes and the coast, north and south during migration, or is it more likely they shoot straight over one or both directions? Looking at this map is seems almost impossible that this species misses Utah, and that in all likelihood a large number pass through at least during the fall; but presumably also during the spring.
The map above shows year round Cordilleran Flycatcher reports from eBird specifically in southwest Utah. The light green spots represent breeding reports from what mostly appear to be high elevation sites as they should. The blue and orange dots represent migrant reports You'll notive that while there are numerous locations around the light green dots, there are alos some out in low laying areas; notably around Las Vegas and St. George. The dark green spots represent overlap where birds have been reported at a minimum of at least spring and/or fall migration and the breeding season. Again the majority of these dark dreesn show up at the high elevation sites. ONe thing to note is that there are no winter records from this region.
Well what about Pacific-slope Flycatcher reports? Below shows the map of reports year round from the same region as above. Take a look...
There are obvioulsy much fewer reports on this map; and that is expected. Afterall a large portion of the map is high elevation coniferous forest around Flagstaff, the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, and throughout southern Utah. This is the breeding habitat of COFL. Of note there are no breeding season reports from this area; there were several reports from the first week of June at lowland sites around Las Vegas which presumably are late northbound migrants.
The interesting thing about this map is the clear data points to the west, southwest, and south of Utah, basically everything around our fair state. Yet in Utah; nada. There is something wrong with this picture, and had Rick not brought this to my attention, I don't know how long I would have gone before actually looking at these maps. I think its a fair assumption that the lack of reports in Utah is not due to the fact that they don't occur here; but instead is due to the fact that physically they look the same as our Cordilleran Flycatchers. How many Pacific Slope Flycatchers have been right underneath our noses? I pulled up the list of Cordilleran Flycatcher sightings just from Lytle Ranch. Every record occurs in spring or fall migration and in all there are only 22 individual birds reported from 17 dates. That's actaully very slim numbers in comparison to let's say Dusky Flycatcher where there are over 50 indicvidaul reports.
The last figure I created below is of the winter reports of both species of "Western" Flycatcher. In pink you can see PSFL, and in blue is COFL. The purple dots along the Pacific slope in Mexico represent overlapping reports.
Aside from 4 or 5 wintter reports in America for COFL--all east of El Paso, Texas; all other reports in the lower 48 in winter are of PSFL. Notably in the desert southwest in rizona, California and along the Colorado River. So what does this mean?
I went into eBird and changed all my spring/fall lowland sightings in Washington county to Cordilleran/Pacific-slope Flycatcher. There are now 16 reports in queue to be reviewed for PSFL in Washingtong County during the spring or fall with an additiaonl 7 or 8 Pac-slope/Cordilleran already approved. I used that nomenclature for the time being as it is safest. However, where Rick has heard the vocalizations it can likely be said his birds were indeed PSFL.
But what is the true extnet of this species in Utah? Does it extend beyond the reaches of Washington County? Realistically how mnay Western Flycatchers submitted to eBird from lowland sites around the state were heard vocalizing? And what is the typical migration pattern for Cordilleran Flycatcher? I for one will be taking more time to listen and make sure I know this vocaliztion this spring whne I hit the field: