Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Post #151: Introduced birds and vagrants: To count or not?

Some silly and mostly ridiculous thought from the bike the other day.....

I see the introduced European Starling on just about every Bay Area birding outing. The species is so widespread and abundant I think of it as a native species. I count it on my ABA list and my Bay Area bike list - the only two lists I care about. I eBird starling without hesitation.

In contrast, I see the introduced Red-masked Parakeet on some of my San Francisco birding outings. I know the species is introduced and treat it differently than native species. It is not on any of my lists, and I don't even bother to eBird it since I don't want it 'contaminating' my species totals (and yes, I realize I'm selectively skewing the data by doing that. But who cares, its Red-Masked Parakeet).

The introduced European Starling

Both the starling and the parakeet are introduced, so why do I consciously draw a distinction between them for listing purposes? It is because the starling is so comparatively widespread? Is it because the ABA deems the starling a countable species? It is because there is some unspoken agreement among birders letting us treat the starling one way and the parakeet another?

I don't know the answers to these questions, but I do know some ultra-pure listers ignore all introduced species, presumably to avoid drawing the sorts of arbitrary designations I've highlighted above. Those strictest listers will often quote their various lists with the caveat 'NIB' - non-introduced birds - attached. Though I don't adhere to this convention, I understand it and think it makes general sense.

The introduced Rock Dove

Or does it? All of the introduced species I've mentioned in this article are infinitely more a part of the North American avifauna than, say, the continuing Red-flanked Bluetail in Los Angeles. From an ecological or demographic standpoint, the Bluetail is irrelevant; it's nothing more than a statistical anomaly. If we're so concerned about birds that are naturally North American, then the Bluetail should be the last bird on our collective mind, right?

I obviously ask this question rhetorically; if I could have biked to the Bluetail, I would have been the first one in line to see it. I suspect most folks feel vagrants arrive via their own - albeit disoriented - volition while introduced species have been translocated and aided by humans. That also makes sense, but how should we consider climate change moving forward? If we agree it's mostly human caused (and if we don't, then please never talk to me again), then any vagrancy or population shift influenced by climate change would be unnatural, right? It would be as impossible to prove that any rarity didn't wander because of climate change as it would to prove that a foreign vagrant didn't ride a boat or ship to our shores (and I realize trying to prove a negative is futile anyway).

On a boat....
(Thanks to Paul Reinstein for the Bluetail photo!)

I present these musings mostly to elicit opinions/comments from those of you who haven't fallen asleep by this point. I'm as certain as anyone the Bluetail is a natural vagrant, but I think our treatment of 'natural' might need to shift moving forward. The same for introduced birds that outstrip native species. Birds like Whooping Crane and California Condor present other sorts of intrigue; humans rescued those species from human-created population crashes. Should that mean anything for countability? Listing is fun but the whole process can feel like a black box. I particularly feel for folks on records committees; trying to sort out what should count and what shouldn't seems like trying to run the 100-yard dash in a 90-yard gym. Photography sometimes seems so much simpler. Here's a native bird to close, later.....

Dunlin - Calidris alpina
San Mateo County, California
Canon 600mm f/4 IS II on EOS 1DX Mark II
1/5000 at f/4, ISO 400, handheld

Monday, January 14, 2019

Post #150 - The 5-Mile Radius and another biking Big Year!

I've recently been thinking more about the 5-Mile Radius (5MR), an initiative encouraging birders to explore habitats within 5 miles of their homes. 5MR birding seeks to minimize driving and to disperse birders into highly individualized and usually under-explored spaces. Twenty individual birders driving long distances to the same hotspot produce significant carbon emissions, and they generate mostly redundant eBird data since they're mostly looking at the same birds. Birding closer to home will lead to less driving and it will help diversify the data set by increasing coverage outside of those most popular hotspots. I don't expect everyone to give up driving or avoid productive hotspots, but it might be fun to try 5MR birding one weekend a month.

A 'rare' Rock Wren from my 5MR (Foster City)
Canon 400mm f/4 IS DO II + 1.4x III on EOS 5D Mark IV
1/2000 at f/5.6, ISO 800
Had the camera on the bike this day!

I've largely ignored the 5MR because I usually like to bike longer distances than the 5MR suggests. Coyote Point Park, for example, is a great birding spot just a mile from my apartment, but I rarely bird it because riding there and back won't burn significant donuts or ice cream. However, I've decided to make more dedicated forays within my 5MR when I don't have the time for longer rides. It will be fun to try to explore new areas and see how many species I can find close to home. 

Below are two views of my 5MR, wide (left) and zoomed (right). My home is indicated by the blue dot on the right hand view. Because my 'Actual 5MR' is 50% open water, I've taken some liberty and shifted it slightly southwest to include more birdable land. The shift captures a bonus sliver of higher elevation habitat on the bayside of the coastal mountains (i.e. Skylawn Cemetery off Highway 92), but I don't think I've altered it so egregiously to distort the meaning or spirit of the 5MR game. From here forward, 5MR will refer to the Shifted permutation. 

Cross-referencing my eBird data and my memory, I realize I've seen 201 species in my 5MR, 199 of which have been observed using my bike (I've never driven to bird in my 5MR, extra 2 were observed when I drove to photograph). I'm exceptionally lucky my 5MR contains a lot of different habitats - open water, shorelines, marshes, neighborhoods, chaparral, oak woodlands, and even a bit of coniferous forest - and I imagine I've far from exhausted the birds I can find within its bounds. Hell, 253 species have been eBirded from Coyote Point, so I should be able to find a bunch of additional species in my 5MR given enough time. 

Incidently, I've found a couple really good 5MR birds - Horned Lark, Lapland Longspur, and Yellow-headed Blackbird - while walking my dog along the bay. In each instance, I ran home, grabbed my bike and camera, rode back, and relocated the county rarity for photos. The best bird I have in my 5MR is the Old World Dusky Warbler. I didn't find that great bird; I poached it from Logan Kahle and Bob Tolino.

Horned Lark, Lapland Longspur, Yellow-headed Blackbird
I'm curious to hear if any of you play around with the 5MR, so please feel free to leave me a comment with your experiences and exploits I'd be very curious to know how high species totals in the 5MR can be pushed. I'm sure many - and particularly those with ocean - will crush my number!

Lastly, I want to mention the Green Big Year my friend Gregg Severson is currently undertaking in Minnesota. He'll travel exclusively by bicycle - a particularly impressive feat considering Minneapolis temperatures will top out at 34 degrees this week - and he'll be blogging about his adventures as he progresses. He's home-based, so he'll use will the same hub-and-spoke (i.e. out-and-back) model I use for my Bay Area bike-birding. I'll be keeping tabs on him, and I'm sure he be stoked if you did as well! Best of luck, Gregg!

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

Post #149 - 2018 Photo Review

Happy New Year, and welcome to the fifth year of The Speckled Hatchback! Here is a quick post to get 2019 started off right. Since I've already put together a gallery of my 23 favorite photos from 2018 on my photo website, I'll use this entry to highlight my five favorites frames from this past year. I present them in no particular order. Here we go!

Let's start with this Marbled Godwit I captured at my local shorebird spot on San Francisco Bay. I visit this location a couple afternoons each week from October to April (it's 5 minutes from my apartment), and I've learned how wintering shorebirds behave on every tide. That knowledge has translated into lots of interesting shots, and I'm really proud of the understanding I've cultivated. Shooting at feeder arrays or from permanent blinds is super fun but often less than challenging, and the photographers I respect most are those who can go into the habitat and generate beautiful images under completely natural conditions. This frame was collected just as the sun set, and I was lucky the bird was high enough off the water to give me the smooth and deep blue background. I was even luckier the soft out-of-focus breakers framed the bird so nicely!

Marbled Godwit - Limosa fedoa
Canon 600mm f/4 IS II on EOS 5D Mark IV
1/4000 at f/4, ISO 400

Next up is this Brandt's Cormorant from San Diego. I am a huge fan of super-detailed headshots, and this was my favorite portrait from 2018 (check out this gallery for all my headshots). It takes a really close look at this species to reveal the stunning blue eye and gular puch, so I was stoked when this bird stretched and squawked right in front of me. Cormorants are often overlooked in favor of flashier species, so I was really happy I could display this beautiful individual so well.

Brandt's Cormorant - Phalacrocorax penicillatus
Canon 500mm f/4 IS v1 + 1.4x III on EOS 5D Mark IV
1/800 at f/8, ISO 800

Moving along, I present this Tricolored Heron from South Padre Island in Texas. Most of my shots are front lit and composed in predictable ways, so it felt really good to break out of my usual mold with this wider-angle silhouette. I was laying chest-down in about a foot of water, and I put my lens right on the surface of the Laguna Madre to get a thin plan of focus and maximize foreground and background blur. Getting soaked was totally worth it!

Tricolored Heron - Egretta tricolor
Canon 400mm f/4 IS DO II + 1.4x III on EOS 5D Mark IV
1/3200 at f/5.6, ISO 800

Birds of prey are a weak point in my portfolio, so I could hardly contain myself as I inched my vehicle forward to photograph this roadside Merlin in Southern California. She tolerated very close approach, and I took nearly 300 frames of her in the 5 minutes it took her to eat breakfast. Nature can be beautiful and brutal in the same moment, and I was incredibly thankful I was able to capture those conflicting sentiments in this frame. Taken on December 28, this frame barely made the December 31 deadline!

Merlin - Falco columbaris
Canon 600mm f/4 IS II + 1.4x III on EOS 1DX Mark II
1/2500 at f/7.1, ISO 640

Lastly, I'll leave you with this pair of Spectacled Parrotlets from Colombia. With the perfectly clean background, this shot looks suspiciously like a set-up - a shot where wild birds are lured onto the perfect perch with food - but this was 100% natural. I spotted these birds from an elevated porch on the visitor's center at Rio Sonso outside Cali, and I leaned way out over the edge to get the perfect angle on them. The bamboo pole against which I braced myself nearly gave way, but I survived to get the shot and tell the tale. The left bird is the male, and it was really cute to watch him tenderly preen his female mate. Their interaction was photographic gold!

Spectacled Parrotlets - Forpus conspicillatus
Canon 500mm f/4 IS v1 + 1.4x III on EOS 5D Mark IV
1/320 at f/5.6, ISO 1600

So that's it! The curtain closes on my photo review and the year that was 2018. Thanks for hanging in through the fourth year of The Speckled Hatchback. I'm not sure what 2019 will hold, but I expect my upcoming trip to New Zealand will be a highlight regardless. Once again, I'll remind you to check out the full gallery of my 23 favorite photos from this year on my website. I'd love to hear which of those shots you particularly like!

Happy New Years! Good birding and shooting in 2019!

Big Ugly at Sumapaz NP, high above Bogotá, Colombia