This week, I thought I would make a special post featuring something that needs to be known and needs your help. It isn't about bird, but it can't take off unless it gets help soon (who the heck wrote that pun?). I want to talk about a cause some of my friends are dedicated to called Champions of the Flyway and talk about what it is, why this is a totally awesome idea, and why you should totally support it. I've brought this race before, but I haven't had an in depth discussion about it and why I'm so excited for this year's race
For those who don't know what I'm talking about, Champions of the Flyway is an extraordinary bird race for conservation led by the Israel Ornithological Center and Birdlife International. The CotF race takes place annually in the unparalleled migration hotspot of Eilat, Israel. This is a bird race with a difference, where teams compete on the ground but collectively raise money and create awareness to a major global problem, the illegal killing of birds along the flyways. Jonathan Meyrav got the idea for this race a few years ago while at the World Series of Birding in New Jersey, where teams. This year, COTF is joining forces with BirdLife Croatia (Biom) and Bird Protection and Study Society of Serbia (BirdLife Serbia) to protect critically important passages in the eastern and western Mediterranean Flyways as well as the Adriatic Flyway. More than 50,000 Common Quails have been illegally shot in the area, together with numerous waterbirds and the occasional raptors and other soaring birds. One of the most widespread issues, common for both countries, is the illegal use of tape lures during quail hunting. The problem is often ignored by law enforcement officers because it is practiced during night and on weekends.
Usually, Leica Sport Optics sends one American team to Eilat to compete in the race: The Cape May Bird Observatory American Dippers with Americans sometimes joining the international teams, but there has never been a team of American young birders (I say "American" because Birding Eco-tours sponsors the World Youth Birders, as well as several Israeli teams consisting of young birders are competing in the race this year). Enter The ABA-Leica Subadult Wheatears, the all American team sponsored by well, the American Birding Association and Leica Sport Optics. The Subadult Wheatears hope that by participating in the race, they will not only be good representatives to the North American youth birder community, but will also demonstrate to others that young birders are a force to be reckoned with! In addition to the cause of young birders, The Wheatears are racing to promote bird conservation and end the bird slaughter in the Mediterranean Basin. This year's lineup consists of Marquette Mutchler, Johanna Beam, and Aidan Place; three young birders who I am fairly acquainted with in the online birding community. To add to their credibility, Aidan manages a blog called The Birding Place (link in sister sites), and Marky and Jo have been recognized as the ABA's Young Birder of the Year contest in 2015 and 2017 respectively (I plan to do a spotlight on past YBY recipients such as Avery Scott and Cayenne Sweeney eventually).
I conducted an interview with the team members, of which Johanna was kind enough to answer my questions. Here's what she had to say:
The Young Birder Odyssey: What influenced your decision to go to Israel for Champions of the Flyway?
Johanna Beam: It wasn't much of a decision, actually! I had to go through the financial aspect of it and see if it was feasible, but even then I had already made the decision to go.
The Young Birder Odyssey: Why did you pick this year as the year to go to CotF?
Johanna Beam: I didn't really pick this year, it just sort of came together. I always thought CotF was going to be a pipe dream. Then when my spring break lined up with the race, we had a few people together, and we got our sponsorships, it all just came together.
The Young Birder Odyssey: What has been the most challenging part of preparing for the race?
Johanna Beam: Definitely studying for all the new birds. They're all completely new to me, as I've never been out the the ABA area. And finding time to study! Being a college student who's frantically studying birds from a country half way around the world isn't easy!
The Young Birder Odyssey: What do you hope to gain by participating in CotF as well as what you hope to achieve for young birders as a demographic?
Johanna Beam: I really hope to network with a lot of the European birders and make some new friends! I'm really looking forward to gaining some solid international experience that I will be able to apply later in life as well. As for young birders, there's a fair about to be said. It's extremely important that we get out there and get our voices heard. We are the future and it's ultimately up to us to bring these conservation and climate change issues to light and figure out how to solve them. It's hard enough for young birders in the US to be recognized for their talent and knowledge, and to add networking to the scene makes it very difficult for them (us) to make their (our) way. I think that by showing up to CotF and being the first US young birders to do so shows that the United States is invested in conservation elsewhere in the world, which is incredibly important. Birds have wings after all, and most can fly. Who knows where they're going to end up! And so often millennials are condemned for not caring about the world and being lazy, so by traveling half way across the world to raise money for conservation really shows how invested we are in this.
The Young Birder Odyssey: The goal is to see as many species possible in 24 hours, but is there a specific species you want to see more than any other?
Johanna Beam: Oh man, I (obviously) want to see wheatears, but I'm really excited to see Little Green Bee-eaters. And owls. Too hard to pick one species!
Thank you for taking the time out of your schedule to answer my questions!
You can donate to their campaign at www.justgiving.com/fundraising/aba-leica-subadult-wheatears (they are currently at 50% of their fundraising goal). Oh yeah, if you mention the American Birding Podcast in the comments when you donate, Nate will publicly thank you in an upcoming episode! Also, the Wheatears have a spotlight in the most recent podcast episode: blog.aba.org/2018/02/american-birding-podcast-big-year-reflections-with-yve-morrell.html
The morning I got back from Syracuse, my dad went looking for the male Barrow's Goldeneye at Crab Meadow Beach, which after a few minutes of scanning, we eventually got after scanning for a brief period of time.
I spent the rest of the day planning my future adventures as well as catching up on schoolwork before heading to Montauk
I met August and Clay Davidson-Onsgard at Deep Hollow Ranch early to look for the Pink-footed and Snow Geese before everyone else. After we had gotten the bird as well as pics to support it, it turned out we didn't need to go erly, as the rest of the club was also going to search for the bird, which we all got.
Shortly after we birded at the north seawatch of Montauk State Park, where we saw large numbers of Common Eiders, all 3 scoters (of which our leader referred to "Black" as "Common" to my annoyance), Long-tailed Ducks, loons, Horned Grebe, gulls, and cormorants. While birding along the shore, the head piece for my scope came loose and fell into the rocks. I scrambled away unscathed to keep up with the rest of the group to find a Great Cormorant, which Ryan and I made a reference to the "And you loved her?" meme and commented "Sad reacts only." Fortunately I got the headpiece back and it still works. The next stop we birded was Camp Hero Bluffs, where we got many of the same species as before in addition to a large alcid we were unable to identify. It's also worth noting that Aidan Perkins had a flyby Razorbill which we missed.
After those two spots, we moved on to Ditch Plains Beach in search of Purple Sandpiper, which we did not get. Instead, we had a much better bird: Aidan had found a Little Gull amongst the Bonaparte's Gulls. Despite our best efforts, we could not get everyone on the bird, it may be in the photo attached below
As we were leaving Ditch Plains, Susan asked if we wanted to go to two more spots; which I wanted to do despite having to leave. I went with them only to say goodbye, then ran back to the car not without tripping in the sand. While I was sad to leave, I was relieved to hear I didn't miss anything of importance.
To be continued...
The Great Backyard Bird Count starts this weekend, which encourages people to go birding wherever they can and report their sightings to eBird. As Eric Carpenter has said in the Texas birding Facebook Group (TEXBIRDS), "Folks that participate in this event include some less experienced birders and their sightings go into eBird. Thus, we often get a rise in unusual reports/alerts in eBird on GBBC weekend every year and I expect this year to be no different. You may want to take this into account when you get alerts or see unusual birds reported the next few days. I wouldn't get overly excited about a lot of sightings until you see they are confirmed by an eBird reviewer."
This Green-tailed Towhee supposedly seen in upstate New York a week before the GBBC was reported by a credible observer, right? Or was this taken in Arizona and did the observer accidentally or even intentionally report it from NY? That's what I'll be going over. Edit: this is a CONFIRMED report of said species Photo credit: Donna Carter/Macaulay Library
This is a telltale sign of a bad report: usually a birder will have reported a rare species, but between the time the birder submitted the checklist and eBird sends an alert, the birder may have realized his mistake or the reviewer will have removed it. As Tim Healy has said on a broken link in NY birders: "I think in general a dead link for a fresh report of a crazy rarity can be assumed to be a corrected error. Usually the ID is just amended in the checklist, though." Other times the checklist will be deleted.
Another sign that the rare bird in question is not where the observer said it is is when the species has no details. When reporting a rare bird, eBird will ask you to add comments and/or photos and check 'complete' (see the second photo in this section for an example). Many birders just check complete without adding any details. Any time I see a report of a potentially rare species without any additional details, I know it's most likely a misidentification or a new birder.
When asked to provide details on a rarity, many new birders give vague descriptions that only describe either the bird, its habitat, or behavior. Many of these descriptions are extremely vague and not helpful in determining the validity of a rarity
Whenever possible, I will try to do a background check on the person reporting a potentially rare bird to make sure their report is credible. For example, a supposed Common Sandpiper was reported from Accomack County, Virginia a few days before Camp Avocet started (that’s worth a whole post to itself). No photos were attached, and the description oddly matched that of a Spotted Sandpiper. I looked at the person's eBird profile and found out she only had a Virginia life list of 59 species and only 11 complete checklists and one photo.
Below is an example of how not to describe a rarity
#5: photo posted to Facebook or Instagram, but the
photographer refuses to disclose where it was seen
You also get birders who don't use eBird and instead post to Facebook such as the above Swallow-tailed Kite. The person who took the photo saw it earlier this week, denied that it was a kite, and was unwilling to say where he saw it except that it was on "Long Island." This photo and a Summer Tanager were supposedly taken in "sensitive habitat" that the photographer did not wish to share for fear of a stampede. Others think maybe he was trespassing on private property or in a restricted area. I tried asking the guy several times, and he messaged me privately saying I should "find my own rarities." I left the group shortly after that and am no worse off.
The perpetrator attempted this in the main New York birding group with an American White Pelican on Long Island, and this time was questioned more persistently. It was later revealed he has a history of this behavior in other groups and was subsequently removed and blocked.
One of the most outright cases of stringing is when a birder reports a rarity from location and uses a really good photo that they almost can not have taken as "evidence." Often birders will search for photos of the species in question such as with a Kirtland's Warbler reported in Florida. When people found out the photo was stolen from the Audubon website, the "finder's" defense was rather weak. She first claimed they were her photos and said her photography really good. When that didn’t work, she posted a bible verse meme out of context. She was caught and banned from the Florida Birds group. On the same day, a Xantus’s Hummingbird was supposedly reported from California when it turned out to be a photo of similar hummingbird species called a Mountain-Gem (I forgot which one) that was actually taken in Panama. Both posts in the ABA Rare Bird Alert group got taken down (Nate Swick even commented with "Sad reacts only" before deleting the warbler post).
A similar incident took place just a month ago with a photographer in Massachusetts supposedly reporting a Great Gray Owl in the state. A Google image search confirmed the stringer used a photo of one seen in upstate NY last year (which I’m salty about not being able to see) and placed his watermark on the photo. Grrr...
However, this is nothing compared to tragic downfall of former young birder Ali Iyoob. A few years ago, Iyoob supposedly found and photographed North Carolina's first Violet-green Swallow (rare anywhere east of the Rocky Mountains) near an apartment complex pond in UNC - Chapel Hill, which no other birders saw; followed by several other rarities only he saw and photographed. Do any of his sightings have teeth to them? Well to start, the swallow photo was taken in Colorado, and the bird's tertial feather pattern was off for the time of year Iyoob supposedly saw it. This trend continued with other rarities Iyoob *cough cough* created, *cough cough* I mean found and used photos of a species until his reputation was not only soiled in North Carolina, but across the ABA Area. As Steve Tucker has said: "You can be a dipsh*t, you can be unskilled, you can be a bad person, and birders will still tolerate you as one of them. But for god's sake, don't lie."
A lot of birders just write “continuing” for a rarity that has been for a while. I’m guilty of this myself
This often raises questions because although the person is trying to protect their identity, it doesn’t make determining if the report is valid or not…
So by this point I've hopefully convinced you that stringing is bad and you should take all reports of unusual sightings with a grain of salt, but does that mean we should look down our bills on these birders who don't exactly know what their doing? The simple answer is no. All too often* I see this on birding groups, listservs, and comment sections: the greenhorn birder getting torn to shreds. The person you cold be talking to (or questioning) online might have just started birding and not to different from you when you first picked up a pair of binoculars. Tearing down people who aren't as experienced as you are in a field of interest is not an effective way of educating them, and that's the goal, right? We want the widest demographic possible to feel more comfortable learning about and enjoying birds, which is not going to happen if we ridicule those who are uneducated. This doesn't mean we can't make fun of greenhorn birding culture, it just means we need to be more thoughtful when dealing with rookie birder mistakes. It is possible to create effective satire without being a jerk. Facebook pages like Birding Family Circus and Birding Humor, or a couple of blog posts by Steve Tucker and Nick Lund are perfect examples of this: targeting the concepts rather than the people who hold them (except when they claim that Northern Goshawks are expanding into urban areas or try to get in the way of research on American Dippers is it ok to put these people put on the chopping block). As for any unusual reports from this weekend, don't freak out and remember that these new birders are still learning, Wait before a sighting is confirmed by an eBird reviewer before you freak out.
*I myself admit to sometimes being too hard on beginners
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Short answer: Yes! Long answer: Well, it's very complicated so let me explain it in this post...
Oh man, this is it, this is the blog post. I've been talking about and putting off writing a blog post on this subject that people have both been hoping for and others have been dreading my Darwin Day special on Nicholas Mason and Scott Taylor of the Cornell Lab’s Fuller Evolutionary Biology Program's paper on redpoll speciation in Molecular Ecology. This paper basically says that Common, Lesser, and Hoary Redpolls are all the same species based on their genetic evidence. I'm writing this post not because I'm a sadistic lumper that wants to steal lifers, but because I want to increase knowledge about a question that has plagued birders and ornithologists since the Civil war, but now we finally have an answer. For some reason with these three animals in particular, an annoying phenomena has occured and it's people being stubborn with how many species there are based on the scientific evidence, so to make it up to the dissenting party, I'm going to talk about some antitheses to the "one to rule them all" doctrine many have claimed over the question of how many species redpolls are in order to appease that part of my audience. I will be presenting my unbiased scientific opinion, without bringing any of my personal feelings into this discussion whatsoever.
Before I go into depth about redpolls, it's helpful to define the major species concepts that taxonomists use:
The division of redpolls into different species dates back to before the Civil War. In 1861, legendary ornithologist Elliot Coues (one of the founding fathers of the AOU) described eight separate redpoll species based on their visual appearances. Over time the AOU consolidated Coues’ list, but Hoary Redpoll, which has a snow-white breast, was still considered a separate species from Common Redpoll, which has a brown-streaked breast.
According to Kenn Kaufman several studies have documented the genetic similarities between Common and Hoary Redpolls since the 1980s. No study has examined more than 11 regions of the redpoll genome, making ornithologists wonder whether they were missing the true differentiating genetic markers. Until now...
Mason and Taylor looked beyond the plumage into strands of the birds’ DNA in the most extensive look ever at the redpoll genome. Whereas previous genetic analyses of redpolls looked at just 11 regions of the genome (at most), Mason and Taylor examined 235,000 regions, comparing DNA from 77 redpolls, including specimens from museums around the world. They found no DNA variation that distinguishes Hoary Redpolls from Common Redpolls. Furthermore, another redpoll species found in Europe—the Lesser Redpoll—also had extremely similar DNA sequences. This extreme similarity among all the redpolls stands in marked contrast to studies of other groups of birds—such as Black-capped and Carolina Chickadees—which show differences at many regions of the genome. One of the key differing factors among distinct species is assortative mating, or members of a group breeding with each other more than another group. According to Mason, “There are no clear-cut genetic differences, which is what we would expect to see if assortative mating had been occurring for a long time.” Instead, Mason says the world’s three redpoll species seem to be “functioning as members of a single gene pool that wraps around the top of the globe.”But how could it be that Hoary and Common Redpolls look so different given that their genetic makeup is basically the same? For that answer, Mason and Taylor delved into the birds’ RNA. (A quick flashback to high-school biology: If DNA is like the body’s blueprints, RNA is like the construction foreman communicating the instructions to build physical features, like hair or feathers.)
The physical differences among redpolls are associated with patterns in their RNA, not their DNA. In other words, the variation we see in plumage and size is probably not a matter of genetic variation, but of genetic expression. It’s kind of like how two humans might have the same gene for brown hair, but one person’s might be lighter than the other’s—that gene is being expressed differently. In the same way, Hoary and Common Redpolls have remarkably similar sets of genes, but those genes are expressed differently, causing the plumage and bill-shape differences we see. Mason has said “We didn’t find distinct characteristics to separate the redpoll types, but rather a continuum, or a progression, of physical traits, and many redpolls were somewhere in the middle.” Interesting indeed, considering that Redpolls with intermediate plumage are common in certain areas, like north-central Alaska, and are often impossible to ID.
Redpolls follow a gradient of streaking on the flanks from the most streaks on flammea to the least on hornemannii. Then you have intermediate birds like the one in the center which can be real nightmares to ID. This could be either a dark HORE, a light CORE, or a hybrid, which if we use the Biological Species Concept to define a species, would support lumping them. Photos, from left to right, by Sharon Watson, newfoundlander61, Guy Lichter, Stuart Oikawa, and Chris Wood via Flickr.
While the evidence supporting Redpolls as a single species is convincing, it was not mentioned in the 2016 AOS Check-list supplement and rejected in the 2017 supplement (the same tragic year that Thayer's Gull was lumped), to the relief of many listers whom were already annoyed that they lost one tick with Thayer's gone and Yellow-rumped Warbler and Willet not being split. Kenn Kaufman can’t imagine there being too much conflict over consolidating the redpolls. “In recent years there have been more ‘splits’ than ‘lumps,’ so if continuing taxonomic work occasionally takes one away, it’s not that big a deal.” Johanna Beam, a young birder studying at St. Olaf university in Minnesota, has actually spoken to Scott Taylor, one of the authors of the paper, and on the topic of the lump, she has said: "but sadly he (Scott Taylor) thinks they're not going to accept it until they get actual breeding data from the arctic, which is some nasty work because of funding, mosquitoes, lodging etc up there."
It's not over yet, Canadian finch expert Ron Pittaway notes that the AOU recently rejected a similar proposal, also based on genetic evidence, to lump the three North American species of rosy-finches, which breed in high mountain areas of western North America,.
To summarize, the consensus on if Common, Lesser, and Hoary Redpolls are all the same species is yes simply based on the Phylogenetic Species Concept I talked about earlier and DNA analysis conducted by Mason and Taylor. I have asked multiple respected people in the birding community for their thoughts and they mostly agree with me. You can choose whether you agree or disagree with me, but for now I offer this quote on the study by Scott Taylor himself: “I think this makes them a more interesting bird, it means they’re part of an exciting, complicated system that can make a single species look different across different parts of its range." Keep in mind that if you do disagree with me, this is opinion purely based on evidence.
I would like to thank Tessa Rhinehart and William Von Herff for giving me and supporting the idea to write about this complex subject, as well as Sam Bressler and Ethan Gyllenhaal for helping me find access to the original Mason and Taylor paper (which was unfortunately behind a paywall); this post couldn't exist without your help. I also would like to acknowledge the amount of work Nicholas Mason and Scott Taylor put into their study, as well as Gustave Axelson and Jesse Greenspan for writing concise summaries of the study on the Cornell Lab and Audubon websites respectively. I lastly want to thank Kenn Kaufman, Ron Pittaway, Lindsey Duval, John Puschock, Ryan Zucker, Ethan M, Johanna Beam, Nathan Martineau, Jerald Reb, Jared Gorrell, Ben Sanders, Alex Sundvall, Joseph Kurtz, Greg Neise, Dominic Garcia-Hall, TIm Swain, Ise Varghese Mac, Sharon Steitler, Aidan Place, Alberto Lobato, Brian C. Johnson, Alvaro Jaramillo, and many other birders for offering their diverse opinions on this subject.
Thanks for reading and have a happy Darwin Day!
All copyrighted images belong to their respected owners. Please notify me if I neglected to credit your work. All copyrighted images in this post are protected under FAIR USE for reasons of Commentary, Education, Criticism, Parody, and Social Satire.
Lifers indicated in bold
When I went back to ESF on Monday, I wasn't too confident that I would get a lot of new birds (aside from Common Redpoll and House Finch last week).
That's not the point of this chapter, however. At the moment I started writing this, I am sitting at 248 for my ABA Yearlist.
My original plan for this chapter was to write about a field trip to the Adirondacks, which unfortunately got cancelled because too many people signed up (try figuring THAT logic out). That meant I needed a good rarity for my #250 bird, but which one? I first tabled the long-staying ABA first Mistle Thrush in New Brunswick as well as a Golden-crowned Sparrow in the same province and the Kelp Gull in Nova Scotia (the only non-lifer of the three) because I knew from past experience that the odds of the ESF birding club being able to chase rarities are, to quote C-3P0, "3720 to 1." Same for the Gyrfalcon in New Jersey and the Barnacle Goose in Westchester. There was a Slaty-backed Gull in Oswego county, which was the ideal species to chase. With my mom coming up in a week, the only thing I could do in the meantime is wait...
Before my mom and I set out to try our luck with the Slaty-back, I warned her that it would be hit or miss. Just as I had predicted, there were no gulls in the Oswego Harbor. We then tried the spot where it had first been seen, along with a European Mew Gull (or Common Gull if you prefer). This location was better. First I had seen a Kumlien's type Iceland Gull for #249, then in the distance, I spotted a large white bird circling the dam. Was it a Snow Goose? A swan? Snowy Owl? No, it was obviously a gull, but which one? I first eliminated Ivory due to it having pink bill with a black tip, plus an Ivory Gull would have birders swarming the location. I eliminated light immature Iceland because of it's size. There was no mistaking: this a first cycle Glaucous Gull! Year bird #250 also happened to be a lifer as well! I also saw two male Common Goldeneyes, a female Red-breasted Merganser, and an immature Bald Eagle. Proud of reaching the halfway mark, we headed back to Syracuse for the day.
The next day, my mom and I birded the Mucklands around Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge. We didn't see too much, but Hairy Woodpecker (#251), a dark morph Rough-legged Hawk (#252), and a "Northern" Red-tailed Hawk (abieticola subspecies) were good finds...
To be continued...
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