As my first SmewTube post probably implied, birds are almost everywhere in pop culture: movies, tv, books, and yes, video games, the last of which has not been written about until recently with Nick Lund's post for Audubon about Red Dead Redemption II, so nobody has to ask me if I'm going to review that (the game is only for PS4 and Xbox One, neither of which I have. Video games are a highly underrated medium for depictions of birds in pop culture, so if Nick talks about birds in film** in his "Birds at large" series, Donna Schulman reviews birding books on 10,000 birds, I might as well explore how birds feature in video games. Normally I would wait for something to come out before I nitpick it, but I would like to experiment and give information on everything we know about and what I would like to see in a game I am really excited for: Planet Zoo!
If you were an animal loving child of the 2000s like me, chances are good that the Zoo Tycoon series was one of your mainstays. I was obsessed with the game ever since I learned of its existence in 2004 and bought every expansion of Zoo Tycoon 2 and downloaded every user mod I could fit into my computer without crashing it. It was not just Zoo Tycoon, I also experimented with Marine Park Empire and Wildlife Park 2, but felt they did not have the magic of Zoo Tycoon. The first two Zoo Tycoon games were made by Blue Fang. Almost a decade later, the franchise was given to Frontier, the same company behind Planet Coaster and Jurassic World Evolution, who released it for Xbox and Xbox One in 2013. I was initially hopeful for the new game and even bought it to give the game a chance; on one hand, I liked some aspects of the game such as the addition of minigames that add a great interactive element to the game, a golf cart you can drive around in that magically teleports to your location when summoned, and nice graphics, among other things I will give the game credit for in this essay. Unfortunately, the more I played it, the more bland it felt. While the graphics were admittedly nice, the game went against the purpose of a Zoo Tycoon game: to design your own exhibits and let creativity be your only limit. In this game, you can only place pre-built exhibits that you can place certain animals in, and even food and water are limited to set spots. Many of the animals were wasted on subspecies, and others you couldn't adopt unless you had Xbox One. I shyed away from the Xbox version and stuck to the old tried and true. While following the development progress for Prehistoric Kingdom, an indie game with the intention of giving players the ability to create a zoo for extinct animals with both the same creative license as Zoo Tycoon 2 and accurate animals (the main seller for me), I was thinking about how we needed a game like this for all animals with great graphics and realistic animals. Around April of this year, I discovered a zoo-building game with amazing looking animals and room for creative license I wanted was planned for release in November, I realized the search was over, I found what I was praying for. This game, which is also by Frontier, is called Planet Zoo, and this will be the focus of today's post. Originally, this was going to be a taxonomic list of what animals I wanted to see in the game listed by family similar to my post on which dinosaurs had feathers, but as I was thinking of animals I wanted, I realized there were too many I wanted and that there was no way they'd all be in the base game.
Let's start off with the list of animals that are confirmed to be in the game. Frontier said the base game would have 50+ animals not counting terrarium species. These are as follows:
From the decorations menu, players have inferred that the following species will also be in the base game:
Don't get me started on the 78 plant taxa I have been able to confirm! I'm a vertebrate boy, you should know that.
Staff facilities in this game are probably some of the most sophisticated in any zoo-builder game I have seen. They include keeper huts, where food for the animals is prepared; power facilities which provide, well, power to all buildings and objects that require it within a certain distance; A quarantine facility to separate infectious animals from healthy animals, to prevent the spread of an illness or to hold animals new to the zoo; a research center used by vets to research animals and improve the zoo’s understanding of them; a staff break and training room; a trade center where animals enter and exit the zoo; a vet surgery where animals go for medical treatment; a water treatment plant that cleans all water bodies within a certain distance of the plant (I can imagine this having more importance if an aquarium DLC is ever introduced); and a workshop where mechanics perform their research that unlocks new items for the zoo to use. Facilities provide your staff with the tools that they need to work, train and rest; ensuring that they are happy means that your animals are more likely to be well looked after, which in turn makes your guests happy too. Placement of facilities in Planet Zoo is really important for two main reasons; firstly, facilities should be close to things that they will need more access to. The second thing to consider is that these facilities are simultaneously kept away from your guests because facilities will have a negative impact on any nearby guests. We have implemented functionality in Planet Zoo that will allow you to really easily see the boundaries of this radius and how much this is affecting the guests. Yes, there's many challenges that facilities pose to players in terms of management. Another is that different sized facility buildings enable different amounts of staff to work at any one time, so it becomes really important that you know this and plan your space well in order to optimise the time it takes for staff to get to a facility, perform their tasks and head out again. If power goes down, your staff will lose access to their facilities; your keepers won’t be able to feed your animals and your vets won’t be able to treat any injured or sick animals either! The longer these are inaccessible, the longer your animals will be unhappy, which will have negative consequences on them, your guests, and your overall zoo rating. You’ll need to make sure you have the right staff to fix these issues to keep things running smoothly. When a breakdown occurs, the level of chaos that follows depends on the facility. If a water treatment plant breaks down, there are no immediate effects, but over time the water bodies it was treating will get dirty, acting as a source of infection for animals and detracting from animal welfare; whereas if a power source breaks down and there’s a nearby electric fence, it will become unpowered and animals could escape! Something new in Planet Zoo is that you will be able to unlock new, eco-friendly ways to power your zoo, which will have a positive impact on your overall zoo rating as well as impacting the guests in a different way. With mechanic research at the workshop, renewable energy sources are made available and can be used to replace transformers that provide power from non-renewable sources. Facility management is present in all game modes, but in Sandbox Mode it’s less of a consideration. Can you imagine seeing a guest and/or animal focused space in the Steam Workshop, then visiting a zoo and seeing it there – right there in front of your very eyes?! All of our facilities are set-up so that they will fit with all of our wallsets, so you will be able to decorate these however you wish; but we also wanted to make sure that those who would prefer to focus more on the management aspect will be able to do so whilst still being able to create a zoo that looks great.
Of course, the real reason I'm so excited for Planet Zoo is the creative license in the game, as seen from the announcement trailer:
Now, the big selling point, besides the realism, is the greater creative license than the older Zoo Tycoon games and Jurassic World Evolution. Here are some key aspects I observed from Rudi Rennkamel's stream at Gamescon, which is three hours long, so instead of embedding a link, I will link it here like I did with my Birds of North America review:
Guests in this game are, if I'm going to be honest, far better behaved than real life zoo guests based both on stories I've heard from actual zookeepers and my own experience as an intern at the Long Island Aquarium. Well, for the most part. According to the Planet Zoo AMA on Reddit, they will mostly stay on paths, but in addition to observing and photographing animals, will occasionally throw leftover food into their enclosures, which obviously can make them sick. In an unexpected dose of realism, we will have to deal with protestors in the game! Protestors will appear in your zoo carrying picket signs mostly when certain aspects of your animal's welfare are neglected such as inadequate food, water, medical care, or space. The only way to make them go away is to give them what they want, but I wouldn't be surprised if some appear irregardless, replicating the one dimensional views of animal rights activists.
Planet Zoo has three game modes: Sandbox, Career, and Franchise
Sandbox Mode: Exactly what it sounds like.
Career Mode: In this mode, players will travel the world with new characters, quests, and decisions that can impact the success of your zoos. Each scenario has challenges determined by continent, biome, weather, temperature, and animal availability; there will be goals which contain gameplay objectives that vary in difficulty depending on how far you've progressed through the story. Each scenario will open up with an introduction to your new surroundings by a character, such as Bernard Goodwin and Nancy Jones in the first scenario.
Franchise Mode: A first in zoo building games, Franchise Mode is an online mode that, as a franchise, allows you to open connected zoos across the globe. You start from scratch and can build your franchise the way you want to, but you have to grow your zoo wisely as you start with a small amount of money as you strive to balance your zoo's economic needs with your animals welfare needs. Franchise mode introduces a new type of currency called "Conservation Credits" which you can earn them in one zoo but spend them in another. The differences between the currencies is that cash is brought into the zoo by guests and is used to pay entrance fees, make donations, and purchase items; as well as paying staff wages, looking after running costs, and building of the zoos infrastructure. Conservation Credits are earned by undertaking certain objectives; these are the primary form of currency in animal adoptions and trading, although cash can also be used in the animl market. Franchise mode also introduces Community Challenges, where you will need to work together with other players to achieve a global goal, much like the "Barbary Lion Dilemma" challenge from Zoo Tycoon Xbox. As an online experience, Franchise mode allows players to trade animals between franchises, as well as adopting animals from other player's franchises. simulating how in real life, zoos manage stud books and move animals between zoos to maintain genetic diversity in captive populations, a practice often depicted in shows like The Zoo.
According to the developer journal on Franchise Mode: "When you list your animal you’ll be able to set its price in Conservation Credits, so if you want a fast sale you can set it below the market average. The price you set for your animal will depend on a few factors: the species of animal, its age, and more importantly its genetics. If you have an animal with great genetics, then you can charge top dollar for an animal!" Now that I've covered what is already known, let's dive into the stuff I would like to see in the game
Let's get this one out of the way: I NEED FIRST PERSON MODE. Since most other games have had it, I don't doubt it will be in game. Still, I would like to be able to explore my zoo from a guest's perspective
Aberrant coloration in animals is caused by genetic mutations that result in pigment issues such as the production of either too much (melanism) or not enough melanin (leucism, piebaldism, etc), causing them to be a partially or completely white; or pigmentation issues that cause them to be a different color. Alternatively, the animal could be unable to produce melanin at all, resulting in albinism. Albino animals lack any coloration, making them pure white or pale, and the red eye color is caused by blood vessels behind the eyes.
Contrary to popular belief, white tigers are not the result of albinism, but a recessive trait as these cats still possess stripes (which are even present when tigers are shaved) and most importantly, blue eyes, as opposed to no pigmentation at all and red eyes. In order to naturally get a white tiger, both parents must carry the gene for white coloration, which occurs in about one in 10,000 births, most of which live shorter lives due to weaker eyesight and their coloration makes it harder to stay hidden from prey. In the previous Zoo Tycoon and is planned for Prehistoric Kingdom, players could get rare variants from breeding, so I wouldn't be surprised at all if they were in Planet Zoo. While these animals are incredibly popular, there is a catch: you really shouldn't try to breed them. Because of this popularity, breeders and exhibitors will pair closely related white tigers with each other under the illusion that the animals are endangered, but are only in it for the money. Most white tigers have other genetic deformities, including crossed eyes, kidney problems, cleft palates, mental impairments, and scoliosis of the spine. Most white tigers are euthanized for these problems, in addition to the already high neonate mortality compared to that in orange tigers. While I spent way too much time on tigers, this also applies to other miscolored animals commonly bred as attractions. In addition to the possibility of acquiring shinies through breeding, I would like the game to penalize players for breeding them intentionally with lower zoo ratings, reduced funding and protestors.
One of the major drawbacks to Zoo Tycoon Xbox aside from the lack of creative license is that the initial release wasted its animal count on subspecies. Would I like to have maybe two subspecies of giraffe as opposed to all of them? Maybe. Do I need every subspecies? No, I do not. If "50+ species" means only 50 non-terrarium species for the base game, I wouldn't want Himalayan Brown Bear to take up a valuable spot for a rarer species, and Planet Zoo has done well in avoiding their past mistake. According to the developers of Prehistoric Kingdom, multiple species from a genus will be in the game as alternative skins. If you have enough genetic material for Pachyrhinosaurus, you can have all three species for your park. In Planet Zoo, this could translate as Brown Bear appear in the animal selection menu with an additional option to select between Grizzly and Himalayan.
Rainforest/aviary DLC: As I watched Rudi create the walk-through jungle exhibit, I instantly thought that it needed more arboreal animals to complete it. One way we could do that is with a pack that allows us to build rainforest aviaries, a common feature at zoos and aquariums. This could include various birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, and arthropods found mostly in the understory and canopy levels of tropical rainforests, but also a few forest floor species and even freshwater animals to foreshadow an aquarium expansion.
This pack could also offer perching sites for birds and bats, new climbing frames for primates, tons of tropical plants, and Mesoamerican-themed architecture.
Petting Zoo DLC: I wasn't a fan of the petting zoos as a kid, but several people have discussed this idea because it would be a good way to use walk-through exhibits, and the ability to interact with animals gives guests a stronger connection to environmental issues. The original Zoo Tycoon had a petting zoo building, but that doesn't really count. The most noteworthy part about Wildlife Park 2 is the ability to build petting zoo enclosures. At first, I thought this DLC was going to be the most boring because it would be just farm animals, but I found ways to make it more interesting:
African Adventure expansion: Much like the original pack for Zoo Tycoon 2, this would showcase the diversity of Africa as a whole, not just the savannas. Focal regions and their wildlife could include the Maghreb, Cape Verde, Sudd, Karoo, Congo, Horn of Africa, Kalahari, Madagascar, Sechyelles, and of course, more ubiquotous continent-wide animals. Every pack must have a new feature for the game in addition to the animals, and here, I would like to introduce riverboats as a new tour, often depicted in older media depictions, but surprisingly not in zoo building games (except the Zoo Empire series). I know an Africa pack sounds like a weird place to introduce boats as a tour option, but in the Okovango Delta, the preferred method of travel is by riverboats, which also allow you to get closer to animals, and we will get train and jeep tours in the base game. Lastly, this pack would introduce ancient Egyptian-themed buildings.
Sky tram DLC: In some of the Endangered Species maps, you are presented with a challenge; you can build and terraform almost anywhere you want, except for the parts enclosed in by dark green chainlink fencing to demarcate a conservation area running right through the map, often a mountain range, a deep chasm, a river of ecological importance, or all of the above. You can't change the landscape in these restricted areas, but you can build around and over them using elevated paths and sky trams to get your guests across. The sky trams in this pack would function as they did in the original: to provide your guests with bird's-eye views of your animals and efficiently get them around tough terrain. To add to their convergence with cable cars used in mountainous areas, I suggest including animals and plants that are also found at high altitudes and Chinese/Tibetan-inspired architecture.
Marine park expansion: Yeah, this is an obvious one. The Marine Mania expansions were a game changer in how I played the Zoo Tycoon games because this meant I could now feature marine and land animals side by side. I already suggested including freshwater animals in a rainforest DLC, but for this, I would like to see Frontier go all out with new marine animals. This pack will include new challenges, such as managing water chemistry in addition to keeping your tanks clean, growing jellies from polyp to adult and preventing them from taking damage, designing tanks so sharks don't get hemorrhages from the corners, and of course the constant stimulation that cetaceans require(demand) in captivity; and experiment with what animals can thrive under human care and which ones are best left in the wild. In Zoo Tycoon 2: Marine Mania, large fish and cetaceans were the hardest to obtain in campaign and challenge mode, something I would like to see translated into a Planet Zoo marine expansion. In addition to the usual methods of trading between zoos, donation from private facilities, or government seizure, some new ways of aquiring marine animals could include rehoming non-releasable animals from rehab centers taking in survivors of strandings to hopefully rehabilitate them for release back into the wild, joining the many success stories of rescue to rehab to release by aquariums, or from carefully managed collection trips for fish and invertebrates. Hopefully you don't need to embark on the latter, as many bony fish are easy to breed in captivity and can be an easy way to accumulate Conservation Credits. As for shows, I would be ok with training sessions where guests can watch them perform completely natural behaviors (as cute as otter basketball sounds, it's not really necessary).
Now for the moment you've all been waiting for: the animals I hope to see in Planet Zoo. Originally I was going to limit my wish list to 18 species, because I get so excited by this subject and I may not do a prediction post for a while, I'm going all out on this one!
Why am I shooting so high here? For the same reason I have insanely large target lists when I go birding in a new place: in case I’m off on one thing, I still have others to fall back on.
Remember why Zoo Tycoon 2 kept its popularity even as its graphics failed to stand the test of time? The community kept it alive through modding. While we won't be able to mod new animals in Planet Zoo, Frontier has stated that input from the Steam Community Workshop will be in the game. What I would like to see is if Frontier could reach out to the community for votes on what downloads they would like to see put into the game.
Because this was a long read and I can understand if you only did it for the pictures, here's a nice little recap:
Last time, I introduced you to four birding shows on YouTube: Cornell's Inside Birding, Nikon's Birding Adventures, Rolling Stone's Birding With Charles, and Topic's Birds of North America. For those who haven't had a chance to read it yet (I posted it a couple days ago), I briefly mentioned but skipped Inside Birding, couldn't fully suck myself into James Currie's adventures, and realized I should've watched the shows Rolling Stones tried to one-up. If you've read that post far enough, you can probably guess what's up next. To avoid spoiling too much, I'm not going to embed every video and comment line for line like I did last time, but instead summarize and comment with a few standout moments from each episode and embed the links in buttons so you can watch them on your own. To quote Stu Preissler: "You're big boys now. You'll be fine without me."
While I watched this episode for continuity, I don't think I need to review this one because it's just on how to use binoculars. There is a funny moment when Jason "spots" a Blackburnian Warbler, but it's actually his brother Jeffrey holding the picture of one from Merlin on a phone. I got a good laugh out of that.
This episode focuses on Jason and Jeffrey's friendly competition and how the latter got hooked on birding around the same time as Jason did. Fun fact: in my first official year of birding (I've been aware of and looking for them since 2010, but not to the extent I do now), I helped Jeffrey get his lifer Great Crested Flycatcher on my first trip in Central Park. (1:20 - 2:08) This is the kind of compelling reason to look for birds I like, it's not just waking up one morning and thinking "Birds are cool and I love them." Birds are often viewed as symbols of freedom for their ability to fly between areas, although it is hard to move around when there's not much to sustain you. And the whole part about competition sharpening your senses, that's true as well.
This episode takes us into the bird collection at the American Museum of Natural History, which I really want to see one day (I've seen most of the animal exhibits)... The fact about field guides being based on museum specimens was something I didn't know before.
This episode has the most birders that Jason talks to, and is the first that I am aware of to have a misidentified species. Well, two: A flock of Wood Ducks labeled Canada Geese and a Merlin labeled American Kestrel. It's interesting to hear all the different stories from birders and how they bird, especially if it differs from yours. At (5:48) I found it funny how one of the stands had a figure of the yellow cardinal that everyone has heard of whether they wanted to or not, and that a few days after the festival took place, another bird that I've vented enough about took the media spotlight away. I never talk about that cardinal, but if I had to pick between it and Hot Crispy, yellow is the lesser of two evils.
This episode focuses on researchers counting visible migration, or "vismig," of raptors and songbirds and fitting birds with GPS trackers. There is a funny moment at the beginning of the episode where a nuthatch lands on the boom they were using to film with.
This episode features Dr. Drew Lanham, a professor of wildlife ecology at Clemson University who writes and speaks about his love of nature, as well as being a prominent birder of color. Oh, and he's a poet as revealed later in the episode. Definitely watch this episode for great discussions about birding styles.
This episode starts out at John James Audubon's grave site, then focuses on those bird murals strategically placed throughout New York you may have seen from time to time if you've been in Manhattan (in fact, I've seen a few of them).
This episode definitely has a Birding With Charles feel to it, although unlike Rolling Stone's show, the celebrity guest was more interested in birding, and even poses a good question right at the beginning. I think it should've been obvious from my tone when I reviewed the other shows, but whenever you have a non-scientist celebrity host/guest on a nature show, they either rise to the occasion or act incredibly stupid. Fortunately, Cenac managed to do a good job in this episode because they're just looking for birds, how hard can that be? (Don't answer that). Good thing they weren't birding with Valee when Wyatt spotted the teenagers trading drugs at (5:49).
This episode focuses on the Feminist Bird Club, an organization dedicated to promoting diversity in birding, and acts as a safe space for birders of various sexual orientations and races, which many birding organizations have made advancements to make these people feel welcomed. As Jeffrey says near the end of the episode: "It's the perfect 2018 bird club."
This episode takes us to Maine in December (you can predict where this is going), where the Ward Brothers join Nick Lund (The Birdist) and Rosemary Mosco (of Bird and Moon Comics fame) for a Christmas Bird Count. (1:00) That's what I referenced last time in my rebuttal of Rolling Stone's description of Birding With Charles, but here, Nick goes into a little more detail. (2:40) I really like this particular comic as well for the inspirational message, but didn't realize people would take the part where the owl catches a moose seriously. (3:35) Red Dead Redemption 2 in a nutshell. (4:41) Seriously, going to the beach in winter is a criminally underrated activity. (5:20) Ah, Google Street View Birding, right up there with Redpolling as one of the crowning achievements of the social media birding community, as well as an unconventional way to scout birding hotspots for future trips.
I'm going to skip this episode because while I like watching birders debate hot topics, I don't think I can describe it too well. And also, "the Donald Trump of birds" is a much better for this duck than "Hot Crispy".
Like many birders, including myself of course, Jason chose to end season 1 with the big bird of 2018, one that quickly and rightfully eclipsed the "feathered zeitgeist of the moment" (I still don't know what that means) upon its rediscovery. The episode does builds up to the hawk in an interesting way: first he has no luck, then towards the end Jason begins to doubt his success. Just when they are about to give up, they get an alert it has been refound and when we see the hawk, Jason's reaction is exactly what I was feeling when I saw the bird, and the finale brought back good memories for me. To recap, here's a quick summary of everything that makes this a good show:
In recent years, birding has become increasingly more connected to the internet and social media, from sites to ask for help identifying birds, to the massive rabbit hole that is eBird data, there's even many state associated listservs, Facebook groups, Discord servers, a site you can ask for the input of hundreds of birders on a subject other than ID, even a game that allows you to bird without ever leaving your house! And this is just naming a few, not counting the countless books, handful of movies, and even games about birding (yes, actual games and not a prank cover like the one that is floating around the internet). Surprisingly, documentaries about birding are actually rare, with the most notable examples being Birders: The Central Park Effect and The Birders; both of which I need to see. I will get to those after I've seen them, so for now, I'm talking about birding shows with a presenter with a naturalist background as the main human presence; just like in the many nature shows I grew up with like The Jeff Corwin Experience, Zaboomafoo!, and The Crocodile Hunter, to name a few. To see what birding series there actually are online, I'm looking to YouTube to see what they have to contribute to the wealth of internet birding knowledge. This is SmewTube!
There are lots of videos of birds on YouTube, but as I said earlier, actual shows presented by a host like Nigel Marven or David Attenborough are rare, but I have managed to locate at least three for the sake of this post: Nikon's Birding Adventures, Rolling Stone's Birding With Charles, and Topic's Birds of North America, the latter of which I have heard many, many good things about. Before we start, I should mention Cornell's Inside Birding mini-series, which can be viewed in the media library of the Bird Academy website.
Hosted by Jessie Barry and Chris Wood, Inside Birding consists of four videos outlining key steps used to identify birds that were crucial : size and shape, color pattern, behavior, and habitat; plus a warbler video that is not officially part of this series, but it's part of the playlist and acts as a good recap. Also, keep this quote in mind for later in the post: "I know what you're thinking - American Robin, they're too easy, they're too common. But here's the thing: it makes sense to practice your birding skills with a bird you can locate, and most importantly, really spend time watching it." Guess how Merlin worked (or tried to work) before photo ID and explore birds were added. If you guessed using the same steps Jessie and Chris outline in this series, then good job, you clearly know what you're doing.
Nikon's Birding Adventures is hosted by South African native James Currie, and yes, I have to specify that it's presented by Nikon because I typically do not approve of obvious product placement in documentaries; it worked for Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom because it wasn't as blatant, but here the favoritism for Nikon is a little annoying, especially in the comments (whenever you ask for recommendations about optics, it can be either a godsend or a nightmare). For this and future commentaries, I will post the video below and type out my thoughts. If there is a certain thing I will talk about, I will start the sentence with the time code I want you to pause at in parentheses. Let's begin
Already in the first episode, the amount of hand gestures he uses is a bit off-putting for me, plus some of the footage in the intro and the tracking shot through a mangrove tunnel at (1:36) is a little shaky and jumpy. Were the cameramen really afraid of getting their equipment wet? After telling us about what Nayarit has to offer and a rather bold claim that it has some of the best birding in North and Central America, Currie goes on to tell us that a birder can see up to 30 endemics within a half hour's drive of San Blas and introduces us to several local birders. The first species Currie looks for is, drumroll please, a Wood Stork colony only accessible by boat. Dude, just go to Wakodahatchee Wetlands, they practically own the place. (4:23) Again, Wakodahatchee. The curse of non-eBirders (#notmyhost). (4:53) Thanks for reminding me, it's not like that's your channel icon. I'm not going to comment too much because it enters a pattern: crappy tracking shots followed by beautiful digiscope segments of birds and annoying commercial breaks. (10:00) Can you zoom out just a little there? (11:22) Playback? You're ruining the moment with the Elegant Quails, Stackhouse. (18:20 - 20:04) I'm just saying, eBird could use some of these beautiful snippets of Mexican endemics, plus it could bring publicity to your series. And that was Birding Adventures, and it was okay, but it's just that. I like how informative the series is, and the footage of the birds with Currie's digiscope setup is the standard a nature show should have. However, the jumpy camera action and constant Nikon ads make it a little hard to enjoy it. If you can tolerate that, his constant hand gestures, and extremely uncanny closeups, I recommend this series; and if you already follow this show, enjoy. P.S. I want that digiscoping setup.
While the idea behind Birding With Charles that anyone can get into birding is good, the execution was not. It's so cringeworthy, I even have to go through their description sentence by sentence. Just look at this excerpt from an article about the first episode:
Yeah, birding always needs more attention, but to say it lacks popular attention would be incorrect. With books, movies, websites, a board game, and a video game that is in development, I would say birding is received well in the public eye. "While climbing through the wilderness in search of the rarest winged beasts our world has to offer is a thrilling pursuit," (until the weather turns nasty) "widespread assumption held that change would never come to the rigorous world of recreational fowl watching." I don't know, the birding world has come a long way since the 19th century Christmas side hunts.
Hold up there guys. Hold. The f**k. Up: "elusive Mandarin Duck?" ELUSIVE? I have a lot of things to say about that Mandarin Duck, but "elusive" (it took me five seconds to find it), "feathered zeitgeist of the moment" (don't even know what a zeitgeist is), "New York's Most Eligible Bachelor" (duck sex is not glamorous), and "Hot" (as in "Hot Garbage" LMAO. Hey, does anyone think of Chinese food when they hear "Hot Mandarin Duck?") are far from anything I would use to describe the Mandarin Duck, which fall along the lines of this: "it was honestly not worth all the trouble... To me this didn’t feel like rarity chasing, this didn’t even feel like birding. It was birdwatching. I had succumbed to the hot duck craze and I felt ashamed that I had subjected myself to a level of birding lower than stringing." - from Chapter 25: Zono of optimal birding. Anyway, let's see what kind of first impression he gives.
(0:21) Nothing exemplifies "trying to become the most preeminent birdwatcher" like chasing birds around even though you have binoculars to observe with! Now imagine the backlash (more on that later) Rolling Stone would've gotten if that was a Piping Plover. Even Kenny Bostick knew better, and he pulled some devious tricks. (0:41) Ah, two newbies, how reassuring. (1:10) I guess this quote from Birders: The Central Park Effect is obsolete:
If you ignore the common birds, then what is even the point?"
No seriously, as thrilling as it is to see a mega rarity, the common birds I also see are just as enjoyable. (1:30) Most birders I know could care less. (1:50) Guess I could've removed it from my checklist sooner than I thought. Back in November, when the duck's popularity had gone through the roof, I was getting eBird alerts for it on the hour and it was driving me crazy when I was anticipating something better. What I did was I added it so I would stop getting alerts for it to focus more on what I could count. (1:55) Possibly dead? Oh no, we can't let the hot duck die! (2:18) Yes, 240 species have been recorded in Central Park in spring, but they're all "distractions" compared to a bird we're not even sure is still alive. (2:41) Did he just seriously call that male cardinal a female? He even said the female is duller than the male in the very next scene! HOW DO YOU NOT NOTICE THAT THE BIRD YOU CALLED A FEMALE IS RED? Fun fact: the intensity of the red on a male Northern Cardinal is an indicator of the quality of their diet and physical health. Females select for brighter males because they would be able to provide more food for their offspring. (2:57) Stop calling everything basic! When have you ever heard a birder say "basic?" (3:45) I bet Valee was more interested in finding a time to light that blunt than he was in finding Hot Crispy. I'm going to skip to the end because small talk is boring. (7:37) Or they could forget about this duck and go home. (8:07) That's all you idiots saw? Sure, if seeing a total of six species makes you the best birdwatchers in Central Park, then yeah, the Northern Cardinal you were looking at was a goddamn female. (8:20) I want to feel sad for these two, but I can't because that's how uncaring I am. Good riddance to New York's Most Eligible Bachelor! Birding With Charles is a good example of how not to portray birders in the media. The host clearly doesn't know what he's doing, the plot is about a dead meme, and it should go without saying that harassing wildlife in a nature show is unacceptable. Additionally, the fact that the hosts are of color has led to speculation that Birding With Charles is a ripoff of Birds of North America, which wrapped up just as the former premiered. In an interview and on The New York Times article about the two series, Anna Holmes from topic said it was mocking the very idea of what they are trying to do. According to Rolling Stone, it’s all a coincidence, and the show is instead based on Fishing With John. "If this series is meant as a joke," Jason said, "Rolling Stone should've made it much clearer." The only legitimate reason I can think this exists is because people will only watch nature shows if they have celebrity hosts; if that gets you to watch nature shows, just watch Shark Week because you have a smaller margin for error. Speaking of dead memes, forget Area 51 and the Ark Encounter, we need to storm Rolling Stone to make them cancel Birding With Charles. Or we could go birding instead.
I have high hopes for Birds of North America. Not only in terms of informativeness, but also how passionate Jason is. Just watch the first four seconds before the intro segment.
I should note a couple things about the intro. The first is the artwork itself, which is by Jane Kim, who also drew the literally gigantic Wall of Birds mural at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. The other is just a little more about how Jason Ward got started: An animal lover since childhood, Jason's family could not afford cable TV, so he fueled his interest at the library. Jason officially started birding after moving to Atlanta; becoming a major presence in the birding community both locally and on the internet (especially Twitter and What's This Bird?). (0:27) Jamaica Bay and Prospect Park come close, but the birding community for Central Park is one of the strongest, sometimes hinging on dysfunctional. I don't think I need to comment too much, but one thing I should comment on is that I like how not only is the bird we're focusing on labeled, but there is a circular spotlight on the bird with the circle in natural lighting and the rest is tinted like a pair of sunglasses (which I recommend not wearing if you plan to use binoculars or a scope). Also, the environmental footage is much better than in Birding Adventures, it feels like you're actually following Jason around Central Park (Birding With Charles also had better film quality, but I was too busy complaining to mention this). (1:32) I find the grosbeak call more pleasing to listen to than shoes on a high school gym floor. (2:07) Those tattoos look nice, I've never heard anyone describe it as a unicorn effect, but I like the comparison. (3:40) Don't worry Jason, I missed that one too, the difference an hour could've made. We then follow Jason around the park, providing with more spotlights on Blackpoll Warbler, Northern Cardinal (which he correctly identified as a male), Common Nighthawk, Swainson's Thrush, and Warbling Vireo. The first episode ends with Jason saying "it's almost like meditation... and sometimes I need to remind myself stop, slow down, just let it all come around you." and I couldn't agree more. And that was Birds of North America, and it looks genuinely promising. Here's a recap of the strengths of this show, and some notes that other people should follow
The first morning of me not doing a big year (let's see how long that lasts), I casually birded the grounds of the hotel. The first bird I heard was a domestic chicken, so the first countable one I saw was a White-rumped Shama. I got all the same birds from previous rounds of the hotel, plus a flyover ʻAukuʻu (Black-crowned Night-Heron). Next, my mom and I birded by car on the Kauai Lagoons Golf Course, resighting all the birds from last year.
To save myself the trouble of having to track a Snow Goose down in New York (I am exaggerating a bit here, as they winter in large flocks at Jamaica Bay, but I have seen them elsewhere in the state, such as in Montauk where I got Snow and Pink-footed for the year at the same time), I decided the best use of the first day of the year was to go back to the golf course in Princeville where I had found one the day before. While en route to Princeville, I spotted a large bird on the side of the road crouched in the grass near a picturesque field. "Pheasant!" I shouted. As if on cue, two male Ring-necked Pheasant emerged.
When we got to the goldf course, the Nene were still there, but not the Snow Goose. We went back to Kilauea refuge and got all the birds from the day before again. The best bird of the day was one of the last, when I spotted a Pueo, the Hawaiian subspecies of Short-eared Owl, flying over the grassy fields along Cane Haul Road
Over the past week, I had seen almost every bird species present on the island except Northern Shoveler (Koloa moha), Black-footed Albatross (Ka’upu), Puaiohi, and ‘Akikiki. The shoveler would only be a state lifer like the pheasants. The best way to get the albatross, according to Mandy, was to go on a boat trip with Holo-Holo Charters to Lehua Crater, just off the island of Ni'ihau, the "forbidden island," just like Isla Sorna but without any Mesozoic reptiles. Ni'ihau, which is still part of Kauai County and looks , is the westernmost and third smallest of the main Hawaiian Islands, as well as the driest. When James Cook first landed on this island, he reported it was void of trees; but Aubrey Robinson planted thousands of trees during his ownership of the island. No honeycreepers live there, but intermittent playas on the island support 'Alae ke'oke'o, Ae'o, and Koloa maoli, plus critical habitat for the lobelioid Brighamia insignis, as well as healthy populations of monk seals. The island itself has a population between 35 and 50 people, and is mostly off limits to all but the Robinson family, U.S. Naval officials, and invited guests, hence the "forbidden" part. During the late 1980s, the island was opened to carefully regulated tourism and trophy hunting, as the island is stocked with herds of pigs, sheep, eland, oryxes, and Aoudad. Wow, this really is Isla Sorna, except the only dinosaurs here are birds (like the entire world after the K-Pg extinction). Back at the harbor we went on the first whale watch, my dad and I were up early again for the Lehua/Na Pali coast trip, only to find out that because of the rough seas, we wouldn't be going to Lehua. Disappointed, but not deterred, I decided to stay on the trip anyway in hopes that we could get lucky. I chose to lay low for the majority of the trip, keeping checklists as we went along. We had stopped to watch a pod of Spinner Dolphins (Nai‘a) alongside playing alongside the boat, one of my most wanted species of mammal from Hawaii along with the monk seals and Hoary Bat, the latter of which I missed (yes, I'm so desperate to list new organisms, I've turned to the biggest rabbithole of all). A Humpback Whale pec-slap the surface, and while we were watching the mammals, I spotted a large dark shape flying across the ocean. "Yup, that's it." I said as I deduced by coloration that it was definitely a Black-footed Albatross.
As we boated along the coast, I kept an eye out as noddies and boobies flew overhead and around the rocks. A False Killer Whale and Bottlenose Dolphins were seen alongside the boat. When we got to the snorkel site, we were treated to another marine mammal: two Hawaiian Monk Seals hunting on the reef! We dove with them for an hour before heading back to port.
I had around five hours in California until my flight back to New York. So what was I going to do? Go birding, of course. Southern California was one of the states I had considered birding in on my big year, but unfortunately, my limited time allotted for school breaks and travel restrictions over the summer forced me to prioritize Arizona for November. This layover would be my chance to make up for a missed opportunity, although I had only three hours to bird, so time was of the essence. The first spot I went to was Ballona Freshwater marsh, which is just 10 minutes from the airport. There were ducks and sparrows everywhere, including Golden-crowned Sparrow and California Towhee. Along the marsh, I had also added two more lifers: California Scrub-Jay and Allen’s Hummingbird.
Our last stop was Playa Del Rey, where I had hoped for Pacific Loon and Black Oystercatcher. In a large flock of California and Western Gulls, I found several Heermann’s and a 1st winter Glaucous-winged Gull, two additional species I did not have a chance to see in 2018.
As we were leaving to pick my mom up and head for the airport, I spotted a Lesser Scaup in a pond across from the parking lot and got to see a Peregrine Falcon chasing a flock of pigeons. By the time I left California, I had managed to see 98 species for the year, and heard a Great Horned Owl for #99 when I finally got home. What would 100 be?
The next morning, I filled the feeders and sank into my room to write trip reports and edit photos. I was ready to take a well deserved break from looking for new birds, at least until my next adventure...
On January 20th, the adventurous Great Black Hawk was found on the ground at Deering Oaks park and taken to Avian Haven, where it was placed into an intensive care unit. The next morning, he was alert and in good condition, although the main concern was that he had frostbite on both feet. Frostbite usually occurs when ice crystals form inside the cells of an infected area. When body cells freeze, they expand, burst, and then die, and cannot be brought back to life. The goal of frostbite treatment is to limit further tissue death, though the success or failure of those efforts may not be apparent for several weeks or even months. Deathless would most likely lose some of his toes, but how much he would lose was uncertain. If part or all of his damaged toe is lost, he could still be able to hunt and perch if returned to the wild. Many of us hoped he would be releasable, but reality is often disappointing. A week after he was taken in, the frostbite had spread to both of his legs. Underneath the bandages, both feet were discolored and began to decompose. The idea of amputating the hawk’s legs and replacing them with prosthetics, along with placement in captivity, but this was not realistic. Not only was the damage too extensive, but animals that adapt best to prosthetics are comfortable around people. Unlike with Winter, a Bottlenose Dolphin that is one of the most cited examples by advocates for prosthetics in animals with lost appendages, North American raptors are known to be high strung. The bird had been lying down during the day and was not eating as well as previously. At the end of January, professionals from Maine’s department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife and staff at Avian Haven agreed to euthanize the Great Black Hawk, who would never adapt to captivity with only one foot. News of his death was met with overwhelming sadness by the birding community, who had all come to love this great hero among rare birds. More so than other birders, I felt an especially strong connection to him. Like my desire to go to new places to see new birds, the wanderlust of this hawk is a good example of the dynamic nature of birds. Even the most sedentary species cannot be expected to stay within the colored area of a range map assigned to them by a field guide or species account on Birdlife, individuals break free and wander; some succeed, others fail. Life finds a way. Just as my adventures had ended when I returned to school, so had those of the first Great Black Hawk in North America when it was taken into Avian Haven.
To this day, the streak is still going
Lifers indicated in bold
When the American Birding Association added Hawaii in 2016, the decision was met with mixed reactions. Many birders, including myself, praised the ABA for giving attention to the thriving birding community in the islands and saw it as an opportunity to raise awareness for their unique species, as well as the fact that it's a state. The main reason I supported the inclusion of Hawaii is that my overwhelming interest in birding first took off there. However, others berated the decision for trivial reasons like "the native species will all be extinct in a few years" or "there's too many exotic species, you're basically served lifers on a golden plate," or "it's not geographically or ecologically North American," and the most common one: "it makes ABA listing a factor of money and not skill." I'm honestly convinced the reason they like to hate on ABA countable Hawaii is because they think it's cool to resist a decision by a major organization. Throughout this chapter, I will address these arguments as well as telling the story like I usually do. The "lifers on a golden plate" argument fell apart as soon as I stepped out of the airport. It was late at night, and even then, there were still birds around: two immature chickens near the car rental center. Even though this was a species to be expected from the area, I did not jump at the chance to add them to my yearlist. As I learned from Redpolling, the majority of the chickens in Hawaii are just that, feral chickens. When Polynesians first arrived in Hawaii around 1,000 years ago, they brought with them all the plants and animals they needed, including taro, sweet potato, coconuts, dogs, pigs, and of course chickens. Anatomical and genetic evidence suggests that these chickens, known as Moa in the indigenous language (not to be confused with the giant relatives of tinamous I've written about in the past) were more closely related to the wild Red Junglefowl found in southern and southeast Asia. European and American settlers brought their own domestic chickens with them, as well as predators such as mongooses that caused the extinction of all the Polynesian chickens everywhere except the two westernmost islands, although the backyard chickens on Kauai escaped after hurricanes ravaged the island in the '90s, blowing the birds into the forest where they encountered the Polynesian stock and hybridized with them. Since I knew these chickens couldn't be counted, I did not pay too much attention to them.
The next morning, I patrolled the garden and pool area of the hotel we were staying at in search of those exotics that are everywhere. From my room, I heard a Zebra Dove and a White-rumped Shama, an Asian species of flycatcher introduced in the 1930s. In the area of the pool I saw more Zebra Doves as well as a Spotted Dove or ʻEhakō, one of only six introduced species in the state to have an indigenous name; the others are the junglefowl as I've mentioned, Rock Pigeon (Manu nūnū), Indian Peafowl (Pikake), Common Myna (Pihaʻekelo), and House Finch (Manu ʻai mīkana). Other birds in the area I saw were Japanese White-eyes (Warbling White-eye as of August 2019), the most abundant bird in the state and also the most harmful to endemic birds as a vector of mosquito-transmitted diseases; a Japanese Bush Warbler in the garden area along with two captive Nēnē, so I did not count the latter; a Red-crested Cardinal, which is as closely related to a Northern Cardinal as a Summer Tanager is to, for example, a Paradise Tanager (if you flip the Paroaria cardinal and the Piranga tanager, you get the accurate family relationship), as well as a Pacific Golden-Plover or Kōlea just as it started to rain. My plan for today was to start at Ke'e Beach to look for Black and Brown Noddies (Noio and Noio kōhā respectively), go to Hanalei National Wildlife Refuge for the endemic waterbirds of the islands, then to Kīlauea NWR for seabirds, to Wailua Falls for Greater Necklaced Laughingthrush, and lastly to Kauai Lagoons Golf Course for any exotics I didn't pick up at the other spots. At a scenic overlook, we stopped to photograph more of the feral chickens, but an actually countable bird I saw was a flock of Chestnut Munia, an estrildid finch.
Driving along the coast of the island, I spotted Java Sparrows, which are not related to either American or Eurasian sparrows, but estrildid finches like the Chestnut Munia (they're in the same genus). As we were nearing Ke'e Beach, the road was closed past Wai' oli Stream because of the heavy rains, hampering my plan to get the noddies, although I managed to get a Scaly-breasted Munia as we were turning around. Fortunately, the road through Hanalei National Wildlife refuge was not closed, and we were able to drive down it and get good looks at African Silverbill, Nēnē (Hawaiian Goose, but I shouldn't have to say what it is in English), Hawaiian Stilt (Aeʻo, a subspecies of Black-necked Stilt), Hawaiian Gallinule (ʻAlae ʻula, subspecies of Common Gallinule), Hawaiian Coot (ʻAlae keʻokeʻo), and Hawaiian Duck (Koloa maoli). Along the road, I also heard a Chinese Hwamei singing. Six species in just a half hour, and 17 so far today. I'm starting to think this is like being served new birds on a golden plate. Also, you may be wondering which argument I will address next, now I will tackle the "it's birds are not North American" excuse. Case in point: most of the endemic birds I saw today are phylogenetically closer to New World species than those from Africa or Asia like the other birds I saw. The Nēnē is a member of Branta, a predominantly North American genus of geese, their closest relative is the Canada Goose. Hawaiian Stilt and Gallinule are each subspecies of Black-necked Stilt and Common Gallinule, both are widespread in the Americas. The Black-crowned Night-Herons ('Auku'u) and Short-eared Owls (Pueo) are also widely distributed around the world except for Australia and Antarctica. This also applies to species on other islands and ones I haven't seen yet*; Hawaiian Crows (ʻAlalā) are closely related to Fish and Mexican Crows on the mainland, Hawaiian Hawk ('Io) is phylogenetically closest to Broad-winged and Short-tailed Hawks, all the thrushes in the archipelago are solitaires, and Hawaiian Petrel (U'au) and Newell's Shearwater ('A'o) used to be considered subspecies of Galapagos Petrel and Townsend's Shearwater, both of which breed in the eastern Pacific. The Hawaiian Duck, while it looks like a Mottled Duck, is actually more closely related to the Pacific Black Duck, a widespread species in Oceania, which makes sense for a population to wander north and establish a population that over time, with no similar breeding species becomes similar to Mottled Duck lacking sexual dimorphism to avoid hybridization. Historically, the Nēnē and Koloa Maoli were widespread throughout Hawaii, but hunting and habitat loss have negatively impacted both species, both numbering in the thousands. While the goose has been recovering, the duck has suffered a lot more thanks to a close relative: Mallards. As many people familiar with bird biology know, Mallards are some of the most horny birds, challenging Smith's Longspurs for their sex drive. Male Mallards will try to mate with any duck, and Mallard lookalikes (Hawaiian, Mexican, Mottled, etc...) are no exception. Most of the Hawaiian Ducks in the state are Koloa Maoli-Mallard hybrids, with the most genetically pure populations.
When we got to Kīlauea refuge, I suddenly remembered that we couldn't get to the lighthouse because of the government shutdown. Great... Anyway, we were still able to bird from the parking lot, where we got several Great Frigatebirds (ʻIwa), lots of Red-footed Boobies (Ā), and a Wedge-tailed Shearwater (ʻUaʻu kani). While scanning, I shouted "ALBATROSS!" as a Laysan Albatross (Mōlī) flew by. This was not really a rare species for Kauai, but nevertheless, it was one of the species that first got me interested in birding nearly four years ago. In fact, the albatrosses breed on Kauai in off limits areas of Kīlauea refuge and even in suburban Princeville. A White-tailed Tropicbird (Koaʻe kea) circled the cliffs near the coast, and a Brown Booby ('A) flew by in the distance.
Lastly, we tried for Greater Necklaced Laughingthrush at Wailua Falls, but due to the heavy rain, we did not get too far... Now I understand why Kauai is the wettest place in the world. Thankfully, we did not need to get out of the car at Kauai Lagoons Golf Course, so we just birded by car and look for flocks of munias. Among a mixed flock of Scaly-breasted and Chestnut Munia, I found a Common Waxbill and a Red Avadavat.
All the endemic songbirds in Hawaii have been heavily impacted by avian malaria to some extent, but on Kauai, the decline has been one of the most drastic. Until about ten years ago, the Alakai Plateau used to be a stronghold, then birders started reporting a population crash. Where honeycreepers, elepaios, and thrushes were once everywhere, the forests were beginning to feel empty. Due to climate change, mosquitoes, which were once restricted to the lowlands, found their way into this sanctuary where very few birds were resistant to malaria. I knew finding these birds was going to be the polar opposite of a walk in the park. To increase my odds of finding them, I reached out to Mandy Talpas of Hawaii Birding Babe, a professional guide based in Oahu who specializes in client-customized tours on all the main islands. When I told her that I was a young birder, and doing a big year for the first time, she was eager to help. Our initial plan was to bird the Mohihi-Waiele trail in search of the three most endangered species: 'Akikiki, 'Akeke'e, and Puaiohi, then bird the Alakai Swamp and Pihea trails for Kauai Elepaio, Kauai Amakihi, Apapane, and Anianiau. Unfortunately, because of a thunderstorm predicted to roll in, Mandy suggested we stick to the latter and bird along the roads of Kokee State Park, to which we agreed. Early that morning, Mandy picked my dad and I up in a 4-wheel Jeep that, believe it or not, we had actually considered renting ourselves. Though a little sleepy, we were all enthusiastic to start our day and try for the endemic birds. As we were leaving the hotel area, a large flock of Rose-ringed Parakeets flew over. I wanted to look for this species at a known roost the day before, but we ran out of time, so their flyover saved me an additional trip. As we began our ascent up Waimea Canyon, Mandy spotted an Erckel's Francolin, a gamebird from the Ethiopian Highlands, on the side of the road.
Remember I mentioned that there are two distinct populations of chicken in Hawaii? Now we were about to see the countable one. The last stronghold of the Polynesian Moa is in Koke'e State Park, where many endemic species can also be found. Wild junglefowl can be distinguished from domestic chickens and hybrids by the color of their legs, which are gray instead of yellow. As we arrived in the central meadow of the park, we saw six Polynesian Red Junglefowl standing around. These were the purest of the fowl, a relic from before Europeans took over. They looked, sounded, and acted like regular chickens, but the Moa were more wary of humans, not as dependent on humans as their domestic counterparts. This was an exotic I had no problem counting because there was no danger of it ruining my reputation (I don't even have to remind anyone what it was).
When we passed the meadow towards the plateau trails, we came to a fork in the road: one leading to the Alakai Swamp Trail, the other to the Mohihi-Waiele Trail. Mandy said she thought it might be safe enough to try for the latter, and I agreed. Were we pushing our luck this time? We hadn't even begun our hike when the first honeycreeper of the trip, and for me, ever, an ‘Apapane, flew past us. After taking a picture of what we looked like before the birding started, we made our descent deeper into the forest...
On the descent, as we all struggled to keep our balance, we heard a Kauaʻi ʻAmakihi and my father was the first to lose balance. We then had to cross a cold, fast-flowing stream, and on the other side I found a Kaua’i Elepaio in a tree. Shortly after, it started raining, but that wasn't enough to deter us, we still had a long ways to go before we got to the native forest where the endangered species were most often seen. All of us put our physical limits to the test. About half a mile in, the weather started to turn nastier. A thunderstorm rolled in, and as a group, we decided it would be best to cut our losses on the three rarest endemics and turn back. (I knew bringing bananas with us was going to be a bad idea) While driving back to a lookout to wait out the thunderstorm, I helped Mandy record footage of us driving through the storm.
The essence of honeycreeper-ness"
An hour passed, and Mandy gave us a choice: we could either try for I'iwi and other endemics on the Pihea Trail, or we could bird along the road in Koke'e State Park. Naturally, I chose the latter. With the three most endangered birds out of mind, I turned my attention to an equally coveted honeycreeper: ‘I‘iwi, the 2018 ABA bird of the year. Of the birds endemic to Hawaii, the ‘I‘iwi (or Scarlet Honeycreeper if you like to be boring) is the one I wanted to see most. Brilliantly crimson colored with a long pink decurved bill, Doug Pratt calls it "the essence of honeycreeper-ness." The only way to truly appreciate it is to see it. On Maui and Hawaii, they are easy to see at many high elevation spots, but on Kauai, the area around the junction of the Pihea and Alakai Swamp trails is one's best bet. To prevent hikers from damaging the native vegetation, a boardwalk runs right through the forest. Not too deep into the boardwalk, and not even in the native forest, we saw a yellowish honeycreeper fly over the trail and briefly forage at the top of an ohua. I thought it was another amakihi, but Mandy said that it was an ʻAkekeʻe! After we had to turn back on the Mohihi-Waiele Trail, I was doubting if we would see one, and I was definitely shocked to see one. Good thing we got rid of the bananas when we did. Moving further into the forest, we came across more ‘Apapanes, several cooperative Elepaios, and two ʻAnianiau, the smallest of the honeycreepers.
Well into the native forest, I had begun to see the effects of avian malaria and climate change on the forest firsthand. From listening to ABA podcast episodes with Doug Pratt and Mike Parr, I was prepared to have a hard time looking for these birds, but I wasn't expecting the forest to be this silent. We heard very few birds singing apart from introduced species, cavities in logs and trees where Puaiohi and Kamao once nested were empty, even the 'Akeke'e we happened upon was because of sheer luck. I was beginning to wonder if, like the Northern White Rhinoceros*** and the Vaquita, a critically endangered porpoise only found in the Sea of Cortez, time was running out for the 'Akikiki. It was a sobering reminder on the massive impact. I had read about how humanity has caused the demise of once abundant species like the Passenger Pigeon and Quagga, and even entire ecosystems like the mammoth steppe and coral reefs, but now that I was in such an ecosystem that has suffered greatly to human meddling, I felt a deeper connection to the global biodiversity crisis. Moving further into the forest, we came across more ‘Apapanes, several cooperative Elepaios, and two ʻAnianiau, the smallest of the honeycreepers.
A mile and a half in, near the junction with the Alakai Swamp Trail, we heard a creaking call coming from an 'O'hia Lehua tree. Mandy said that it was an ‘I’iwi. Hearing this bird wasn't enough, even for me, so we all decided to stay in the area and hope it would show itself. "There!" I said as I saw some finch flying around the Ohias, likely the ‘I’iwi but it could have also been an ‘Apapane. We heard the ‘I’iwi calling several times, then eventually heard fragments of its crazy bubbling and whistled song, which this recording does a better job of capturing than I can describe. After successfully locating an 'I'iwi, we turned back to go to one more location in the higher elevations.
Lastly, we birded along the roads in Kokee state park, where an Anianiau posed nicely for us.
It was getting late, so we began our descent back to sea level. Working our way back down the road leading from Waimea Canyon, we scanned the road for more Japanese Bush Warblers, Black Francolin, waxbills, and Pueo. Once back at lower elevations, we scoured several spots near the coast where Saffron Finches, a tanager like the Red-crested Cardinal, had been seen, including a recent report by a friend of Mandy. We circled several grassy areas where Saffron Finches had been seen, then decided to call it a day. Still think the ABA was serving lifers on a golden plate by allowing birders to count most of the introduced species? When Mandy dropped us off back at the hotel, she half-seriously offered to take me with her to the Big Island to get more birds, but I had to decline. Back in the room, I was able to see the full extent I got covered in mud. Even though we missed 'Akikiki and Puaiohi, I am still hopeful for the future of these species as we learn more about them. Studies conducted with nest boxes and even the most conservative forms of rat control have been proven to be effective in conserving Puaiohi populations, and a captive breeding program for 'Akikiki by the San Diego Zoo is building up a viable population will help restore.
Like with Southeast Arizona, missing certain species is good incentive to try again. Now I just have to figure out a way to get in...
With the north and center of Kauai cleaned up for the most part, I turned my attention to the south side of the island to clean up a few species before going on a whale watch in search of pelagic species. My four targets on land were the two Asian francolins on the island (Erckel's Francolin is from the African clade): Black and Gray, Wandering Tattler or ʻŪlili, and of course, Saffron Finch. We started by driving down a dirt road, stopping occasionally to listen and watch, then turned back. On the way out of the road, I heard the call of a Gray Francolin. On the way to the next spot in search of the tattlers, I heard the display call of a Black Francolin, a sharp “keek, keek, kek-ke-kek,” and spotted a Saffron Finch feeding on the side of the road. I thought birding at Salt Pond Park was going to be easy: just find a spot to park and scan the pond. Well, we had some trouble finding a place to look before discovering an easily accessible pullout. Wandering Tattlers, like many shorebirds, breed in the Arctic and winter to the south. This bird's wintering range spans mostly islands in the Pacific, where caution is advised to separate it from the Gray-tailed Tattler, but also on the west coast of North America down to Peru and also the eastern coast of Australia. The intense glare made it difficult to see plumage details on the stilts, plovers, Ruddy Turnstones, and Sanderlings on the pond, but by shape I was able to pick out three Wandering Tattlers in the pond.
If any location in the ABA area was tailor-made for excellent seabirding, it would be Hawaii. These islands rise straight up from the abyssal plain, so seabirds do not have to travel far from land in search of food. In fact, Mauna Kea is so tall, that if Mt Everest and the Big Island were placed next to each other, the island would actually be taller! We boarded a whale watch in the hopes of seeing some of these birds; with a focus on noddies, tubenoses, Red-tailed Tropicbird (Koaʻe ʻula), and possibly Onychoprion terns or Masked Booby; but also cetaceans, turtles, sharks, and Hawaiian Monk Seal. The trip that had gone this morning from this boat had success on the west side of the island, so naturally, I thought we would be going there. Actually, we went east from port, which I was confused about. Leaving the port, I picked out a low-flying Black Noddy and a Red-tailed Tropicbird flying near the coast. Near a pristine beach, we saw several Green Turtles (Honu) and, most exciting to me, Hawaiian Monk Seals (‘Ilio holo i ka uaua) all hauled out on the beach! These seals, which are endangered and endemic to Hawaii, are more common in the Northwest Hawaiian Islands and are rare, but increasingly common, around the main islands; especially Kailua Kona in Hawaii, Lahaina in Maui, Waialua in Oahu, and Poipu Beach in Kauai. While most sea turtles only come ashore once a year to lay eggs, Green Turtles are known to haul out on shore other times of the year. Once we headed offshore, we saw a Brown Noddy and only a few Humpback Whales. Back in the harbor, we saw another Green Turtle and a Brown Booby circling for fish.
I wanted to end the year on a high note, so for the last day, I decided to look for more albatrosses and give Greater Necklaced Laughingthrush a last ditch effort. When we got to Princeville, I spotted a bird that was actually much rarer. Along with a Nēnē, there was a Snow Goose grazing on the golf course. On the golf course, we saw one albatross, plus an additional one at Kīlauea NWR
The Snow Goose was a nice bonus, but there's still one bird I still needed and had enough time to look for: Greater Necklaced Laughingthrush. The last of the introduced species I needed on Kauai, this was one of the hardest. A shy species, they are difficult to see well, but most often heard before they are seen. The best place to look for them is near Sleeping Giant on the Kuamo'o Nounou Trail. My socks were still muddy from the Mohihi-Waiele Trail, but my boots were still wearable. After gearing up and putting on bug spray, we set out. I heard many calls and songs, but most of them were Hwameis and mynas. Around 350 ft in elevation, I heard what I thought was a laughingthrush, but I wasn't too convinced. A mile into the trail, it started raining again. I thought I heard the same call as before, so I decided to go back and check it out. Back at the spot I had heard the first potential laughingthrush, I heard another. I listened to a laughingthrush recording on Merlin to make sure I wasn't going crazy. I heard the whistling call again, and this time, I was certain it was a Greater Necklaced Laughingthrush, putting me at a final total for the year of 544 species! Satisfied at last, we left the forest and returned to the resort.
2018, in as few words as possible, was a big year. I had traveled all over the continent, seen hundreds of amazing birds and wildlife, explored places I had dreamed about exploring, and made lasting connections with countless birders. Of the 543 species I saw, about 150 of them I had never seen before in the ABA Area. Over the course of the year, I had grown a lot, both as a person and as a birder. I used to think of birding as a game of numbers, but as I birded more, I realized it's not just about the list, it's about the quest to find them, the people you meet that share your interest, constantly improving yourself to become better, and, of course, the birds you see along the way. I want to thank all the people who've followed along on my adventure, both in person and online.
To be concluded...
*I excluded Millerbird (Ulūlu) and the Hawaiian Crakes from this point because even though they are members of widespread genera in the Old world and Oceania (Acrocephalus and Zapornia respectively), neither group is too accessible for birders, as the Millerbird lives on the off-limits island of Nihoa and all crakes in Hawaii are extinct. Laysan Duck also has a genetic close relationship with the Pacific Black Duck.
**The good Jurassic Park, which is the 1993 one (as if there's any other good choices... not)
***I have to specify Northern when talking about White Rhinos, which as a whole are not in danger of extinction. Southern Whites have larger populations.
In the first part of my island biogeography post, I talked about how animals got to islands, giants, dwarves, copycats, and adaptive radiation (I suggest clicking this link if you need a refresher). Now in part 2, I will talk about one of the downsides that animals living on islands face: vulnerability to a variety of threats. Just a warning: I will be talking about touchy subjects including climate change and feral cats in this post, which I have learned from experience is a subject people do not like to talk about and often ends in a fight. Please keep it civil in the comments, otherwise I may have to delete some comments on the subject.
There are examples of how fragile island ecosystems are present in the fossil record long before humans evolved. One such is of one of the many islands bathed in the azure waters of the Tethys Seaway during the Jurassic Period that would one day become the bedrock of Europe. As I mentioned last time, animals living on islands that are normally larger on the mainland are smaller due to constraints of space and resources, and this was no different for the Lagenberg quarry in Germany. Dinosaur fossils found there are mostly of dwarf taxa found elsewhere in Portugal, Africa, and North America such as an island species of the megalosauroid Torvosaurus, diplodocoids, stegosaurs, several indeterminate theropods, and a miniature brachiosaur known as Europasaurus, which was found in a large assemblage which suggests that a herd of these tiny sauropods drowned en masse and were scavenged by crocodilians and fish as evident by tooth marks on the fossils. About 35,000 years after the sediments of the drowning incident were deposited, a series of large tracks suggesting the formation of a landbridge which led to a faunal overturn of the site. The resident Torvosaurus has been estimated to be 13 feet in length, whereas the arriving theropods were estimated to be between 23 and 26 feet long if reconstructed as a relative of Allosaurus, which had been found in North America, Portugal, and possibly East Africa. It's possible that the creators of the tracks hunted the mini dinosaurs, who stood no chance against the larger invaders, to extinction. Sound familiar?
What first made the wildlife of the Galápagos islands recognized around the world was not for Charles Darwin's observations on natural selection, but as a food source. Pirates would use the islands as a hideout from Spanish naval forces while stalking the oceans to plunder cargo ships laden with riches from the Spanish colonies in the Americas sailing to Europe. The islands didn't have much mineral use to the pirates, but instead they served as a limited but substantial source of fresh water for the pirates and more importantly as a source of food. If you guessed that pirates hunted the tortoises for food, you would be correct. Giant Tortoises were a preferred source of food for sailors, pirates, and whalers because they were docile and large enough to feed several crew members. Ship crew members would often capture as many tortoises as they need and bring them aboard to kill later; seabirds and sea lions were often slaughtered on the beaches. Intensive harvesting would take a heavy toll on tortoise numbers, whose late age of reproductive maturity and low likelihood of hatchlings surviving could not keep up with the pressure of hunting.
The animals of the Galapagos weren't the only ones to fall victim to the appetites of sailors, as one of the most famous extinct animals in written history (second only to mammoths if cave paintings count as writing) was also a soft target for hungry seafarers, I'm of course talking about the Dodo. Pop culture has painted a picture of this island inhabitant as so slow and dumb, it was destined for extinction, but the reality about this giant is much different. Comparisons of brain size to body size leads scientists to conclude that Dodos were actually fairly smart, and depended more on smell than sight to find the abundant fruit on the island, supplemented with small land vertebrates and shellfish. Dodos weren't dumb, they had lost all adaptations to avoid predators because there were none on their island home of Mauritius until humans arrived and exploited them as a source of fresh meat like with the tortoises of the Galapagos
When pirates, whalers, and sailors arrive on islands such as Mauritius or the Galápagos, they often introduce livestock such as sheep, goats, and pigs to provide an additional source of food for when they pass through the areas in addition to the native mammals, seabirds, tortoises and/or Dodo. However, introducing such herbivores to an island can have disastrous effects as they trample and browse on native plants down to the roots if not properly contained, preventing the plants from regrowing.
One of the most widespread introduced species on islands is one that was not intentionally released by humans. Rats and ants have found their way to many island groups as stowaways on ships and plants, and with no predators on the islands, they rapidly spread upon making landfall. In large swarms, Little Fire Ants (Wasmannia auropunctata) drive native insects out of forest habitat and attack ground nesting birds and reptiles which have no enemies. Rats are particularly dangerous for native birds because they prey on nests, eating the eggs and chicks as well as the adults and competing with them for food. To protect their sugarcane crops, plantation owners introduced Small Indian Mongooses (Herpestes javanicus) from India to Molokai, Maui, and Oahu and have since spread to every Island except Lanai and Kauai, hoping they would prey on the rats. This did not go as planned because the rats are mostly nocturnal while the mongooses are diurnal and instead targeted the eggs and hatchlings of native ground-nesting animals instead such as chickens, francolins, and Hawaiian Geese. Goose numbers were around 25,000 when Europeans first arrived in Hawaii in 1778, but by the 1950s, they had been reduced to 30
As if two introduced mammalian predators wasn't enough for Hawaii's endemic birds to deal with, they also have to battle mosquitos that transmit deadly diseases such as Avian Malaria. It results when a blood-borne parasite, Plasmodium relictum, is transmitted from infected birds to healthy birds by mosquitoes under suitably (warm) temperatures. Once infected, many birds die. Thus, the introduction of mosquitoes made it possible for native birds to become infected, given that a reservoir of disease was present, such as invasive birds like the Japanese White-eye and Red-billed Leiothrix. It's estimated that P. relictum has caused the extinction of a third of the 55 species of Hawaiian Honeycreepers present when Europeans arrived. The survivors retreated to higher elevation forests where cooler temperatures inhibited the growth of the parasite, but many fell victim to the disease...
If the idea of an entire island disappearing underwater sounds ridiculous, guess what: it actually happened! East Island is a low-lying islet surrounded by shallow reefs in the French Frigate Shoals, part of the Northwest Hawaiian Islands, and one of the most important nesting sites for Green Sea Turtles in Hawaii, most of which were born on the island. East Island recently made news when storm surge by Hurricane Walaka washed away most of the island, leaving a 150 foot sliver behind. While the reduction in size of East Island has not directly been linked to anthropogenic climate change, it it contributes to the strength and frequency of hurricanes like the one that overtook the island. Part of the theory that hurricanes will become more frequent and stronger is because warmer water provides more energy to feed them, which has been reinforced by computer simulations that produce more intense storms with rising ocean temperatures. To quote an article from the New York Times: “This is probably a forebear of things to come.”
Tropical storms often have massive impacts on tropical islands, and none were nearly as damaging as Hurricane Iniki in 1992 (around the same time Jurassic Park was filmed and may have inspired "Hurricane Clarissa" from The Lost World novel, Steven Spielberg even included footage of the storm making landfall in the associated scene when Dennis Nedry shuts down the parks security system and the Tyrannosaurus escapes). Iniki made landfall on the south-central portion of Kauaʻi, bringing its dangerous inner core to the entire island. Storm surges reached 6 feet high in most parts of the island, sometimes reaching 18 feet with waves as high as 35 feet causing a debris line more than 800 feet inland. Thousands of homes on Kauai were either damaged, destroyed, or lost completely. Agriculture was also heavily impacted by Iniki. Though much of the unharvested sugar cane crop was severely damaged, tender tropical plants like bananas and papayas were destroyed and fruit and nut trees were uprooted or damaged. On the island, one person died when struck by debris, while another lost her life when a portion of her house fell on her. Offshore, two Japanese nationals died when their boat capsized. The Kauai Nukupu'u was abundant until the 1800s when clearing of forests for agriculture destroyed much of its habitat and forcing them to take refuge in the Alakai plateau along with many of the other endemics. The damage caused to the island by Iniki may have led to the nukupu'u's extinction, as they were not seen after 1996.
I added this video of a Kaua'i O'o singing at the end mainly to show how great the impact of humans is on island endemics. One of the few recordings of a Kauai O'o is of the last male alive at the time singing for a mate that will unfortunately never come. "Now his voice is gone"
To end on a good note, I should mention that all hope is lost for island biodiversity, as there are many I've done lots of research on conservation groups whose work focuses on islands, and here are some of my favorites:
Lifers indicated in bold
While I was looking through my photos from Arizona, drawing on my computer, and debating if I should go for the Great Black Hawk in Maine, I noticed a photo of a hummingbird taken at the Paton Center right before the battery died that didn't fit with Broad-billed. "I think this is a Violet-crown..." I muttered to myself. It didn't have the violet in the cap, but the white throat was enough for me to identify this as a Violet-crowned Hummingbird, although southeast Arizona is short on similar Amazilias that I could confuse it with; one which is Green-fronted Hummingbird, which has a deep green crown, the two rarely overlap in range. Make that one more until I hit 500!
By this time, I had seen a nice variety of local and continent-level rarities for the year. However, the one bird that I’ve dipped on more this year (and my life, as a matter of fact) than any other is Black-headed Gull. Over the course of 6 months (January-April and October-now), I had chased any reported Black-headed Gull I could get word of and checked every flock of Bonaparte’s Gulls I came across on the off chance I would find one myself, to no avail (although one Bonie flock in Montauk yielded a Little Gull), only beat out by Sandhill Crane and Eastern Screech-Owl for the number of times I struck out this year. The first nemesis bird I ever had, and the only one comparable to the number of times I failed to find it, was the Peregrine Falcon. For years, I kept looking upwards until I finally saw one at Hawk Mountain in 2015. Next was Golden Eagle, which I thought I had until a reviewer for Wyoming told me the photos I uploaded were actually that of a Bald Eagle. Then Merlin, Long-eared Owl, Henslow’s Sparrow, Black-headed Gull, and Connecticut Warbler found their way onto the nemesis list; I had scored on the falcon, the eagle, the owl, and the sparrow in that order, but having given up on looking for the warbler after a month, the gull stood as my ultimate nemesis. Kenny Bostick and his search for a Snowy Owl in The Big Year had nothing on me and the Black-headed Gull (which ironically, I often see Snowy Owl on my first try for them). In a text chain with Ryan Zucker about my stats, he told me that I should “look for the BHGU at Jones Beach for #500,” which I agreed to, having set up a 500th species teaser icon with a generic flycatcher silhouette with a large question mark in the center, and several species that had the potential to be #500 hidden from view, one of which was the gull, the other was a Barnacle Goose. When I got to the coast guard station, there were several gulls there, but none had the red legs or dusky underwing I was looking for.
Like the Pink-footed Goose I've mentioned earlier, Barnacle Geese are a common "wrong way" migrant in North America. The majority of them winter in Europe, but breeding populations in Greenland sometimes get confused and fly south with Canada Geese. On migration and their wintering ground, Barnacles act no different from other geese; in their Arctic breeding grounds, however, they take nesting to the extreme and choose to lay their eggs on high cliffs where Arctic Foxes can't reach them. This means newly hatched young have to jump from heights that rival the nest-falling antics of Wood and Mandarin Ducks. I had planned to look for a Barnacle Goose that chose to winter in eastern Long Island for a few weeks, and I needed to break up the monotony of looking for the Black-headed Gull. I scanned flocks of Canada Geese at two separate locations before calling it a day, but by the time I realized I had been checking the wrong spots, it was too late for me to turn back...
The morning after, I went back to the coast guard station, but once again, there was no gull with little red feet to be seen. I was wondering if I would ever get Black-headed Gull…
Well, now we know how it's surviving.” - Nate Swick
You knew this was coming, with a notable lack of any easy birds in NY left, how could I resist chasing the rarest bird in North America at the time? Of course, I am talking about the Great Black Hawk in Maine. For birders, this rarity’s tale needs little explanation, but for everyone else: In late April, a Buteogallus was photographed at Sheepshead lot on South Padre Island, later identified as a Great Black Hawk by the lack of a thick subterminal band, white uppertail coverts, and its size; larger than a Common Black and smaller than a Solitary Eagle. The bird was last seen flying to the northeast, destination unknown… Later, in August, another Black Hawk was supposedly photographed in Biddeford, Maine, of all unlikely places. At first, birders considered the sighting to be a hoax, but subsequent identification of the plants in the photo as Japanese Knotweed and Red Maple confirmed it was in the Biddeford area, which, coincidentally, also is where the ABA area’s first Variegated Flycatcher was found. Many birders had toyed with the idea that it was the same Great Black Hawk seen in South Padre Island earlier in the year, and was confirmed through comparison of Alex Lamoreaux’s photos from Texas and Francis Morello’s photos from Maine (see footnotes). The hawk stayed for two days before flying out to sea, heading for a still unknown destination, then turned up in Portland towards the end of October before disappearing again. Surely it would be headed south now, which is what we thought, until it was posted to What’s This Bird? again, in a video of it eating a squirrel and flying off with it. Unlike the last three times it was seen, black feathers were noted, and there was snow on the ground. However, an urban park in Maine is not an ideal place for a tropical bird of prey, which was additionally identified as the Central American subspecies. "This bird is doomed," I thought as temperatures in Maine steadily dropped...
I anticipated the worst when I saw that snowstorms were in the forecast for Portland, but as finals were drawing to a close for me, I read an article on Audubon saying that this bird was STILL ALIVE after two snow storms! I decided that was enough incentive for me to go up to Maine to see this survivor. After a night of sweet talk, my mom finally agreed to go after finals. I had initially planned to go to Maine over the summer to get all the Atlantic alcids, Arctic Tern, Spruce Grouse, and to clean up breeding birds that I missed in migration; but that didn't work out, but if it had, this would've been my second trip to Maine this year. I don't let most rarities go until I have no other choice, except maybe the Barnacle Goose, so as a fail-safe on the off chance the hawk was gone when I got there, I planned backup stops to ensure I would get to 500: one on the way up in Rhode Island for a Black-headed Gull (I was getting tired of missing the Jones Beach bird), and two on the way back to seawatch for murres in Massachusetts and for Tufted Duck in Connecticut respectively. Straight off the ferry, we headed right to the spot where the gull has been seen. As we were arriving at the spot, I shouted "THERE!" in excitement when I saw the white stripe on the primaries characteristic of Chroicocephalus gulls, but I wanted a closer look to make sure it wasn't a Bonaparte's anyway. Upon closer inspection when the bird had landed, this one definitely had the lighter mantle and most importantly, deep red legs and bill. "This is it," I said, "This is a Black-headed Gull!" What an excellent bird for #500 this was. Satisfied with having conquered a major nemesis, we headed north for an even bigger prize.
The next morning, my mom and I went straight to Deering Oaks Park after breakfast to look for the Great Black Hawk. I checked every tree it could be roosting in, then when another birder came up to me, I learned it was seen on Grant Street, not in the park itself. I followed him to a line of other birders with their optics trained on this hardy little Great Black Hawk as he feasted on a recently killed squirrel. I capitalized on the opportunity and did something I rarely do: captured video of the bird in action. After months of following the story of this legendary vagrant, I was genuinely thrilled to finally see this bird for myself and experience it with other like-minded birders, which was a far better experience than with the self-proclaimed "Hot duck." As we walked back to the park, a Bohemian Waxwing flew over, 501 and 502 respectively, but depending on the taxonomy you follow, the Great Black Hawk could be 500 for the year instead of 501. I follow eBird's taxonomy/the Clements Checklist, which splits the Mexican Ducks I saw in Texas from Mallard, while the American Ornithological Society treats them as conspecific (I changed taxonomies after this year's lack of favorable splits). Using Clements/eBird, 500 would be Black-headed Gull, while it would be Great Black Hawk under the AOS Check-list. If you follow the International Ornithological Union's taxonomy, which splits a bunch of stuff that AOS and Clements don't such as Audubon's Warbler, Mangrove Warbler, and Scopoli's Shearwater, 500 would be Lesser Nighthawk; not as exciting of a 500 as an ABA first or your former nemesis. Irregardless of what taxonomy you use, one thing is constant: just as I had begun the year with a code 5, I was about to end it with a code 5.
On the way home, we drove through a storm that was equally intense as the one on the way up to get to a seawatch spot in Rockport, which has had some excellent alcid movement earlier in the week. Most of the birds I saw here were scoters and more Common Eiders, along with a few surprises, such as a male Harlequin Duck and a flyby Thick-billed Murre. As it was too dark to try for the Tufted Duck when we arrived in Connecticut, the murre would be my last new bird in the continental ABA Area without a literal Christmas miracle.
On Christmas Morning, I went out to Montauk in search of a Common Murre reported there, but had no success. That night, my needs alerts were silent. There were no more easy birds for me to get on Long Island. The resident pair of Great Horned Owls was calling to each other, another sign that spring was on the way. For me, it was a sign that it's time to move on and finish the big year with a bang…
To be continued…
Link to What’s This Bird? posts: https://www.facebook.com/groups/whatsthisbird/permalink/1941890982526285/
Francis’s map of the hawk’s sightings: https://drive.google.com/open?id=1pH6FQm-bacY-L0K8Mzk4ktEKPEVskA1J&usp=sharing
As many of you know, I will be traveling to the Hawaiian Islands to complete my Young Birder Odyssey big year. I thought this trip would also be a good way to revive my evolutionary biology series that I've skimmed the surface with in my posts on redpolls and feathers, now I'm going to discuss how islands affect the evolution of the animals living there, and I will primarily be using various examples from the Hawaiian Islands to help provide examples of what I discuss, including giant waterfowl, long-legged owls, and of course the native honeycreepers that rival Darwin's finches as an example of adaptive radiation from a common ancestor (sorry if you were expecting me to write a post on them). Because Hawaii unfortunately lacks the dwarf elephants, monitor lizards, tortoises, ratites, lemurs, azdharchids, tiny iguanodonts, and some of the other animals featured in Trey the Explainer's Biology on Islands video, which I have watched numerous times in preparation for this post, so I will borrow examples from Madagascar, New Zealand, Indonesia, the Galapagos, Mediterranean, West Indies, California's Channel Islands, and others to supplement the Hawaiian examples when helpful.
One sixth of all land area on earth is geographically separated from everything else. Unlike continents, islands are small and secluded. This isolation means only a few selective organisms can exist on them, if they can get there in the first place. There are three main ways animals get to islands: by flying or swimming there, by crossing natural land bridges that are now underwater, or as castaways of storms. Many birds were able to fly from the mainland to islands, often blown off course or intentionally, and establish themselves there. Seals are long-distance travelers that in many cases can also swim to islands if they need to. Another interesting case is of the Komodo Dragon (Varanus komodoensis), which is theorized to have originated in Australia and moved north to escape the receding forest habitat as deserts took over following a landbridge to New Guinea and Indonesia. However, the islands inhabited by dragons today were never connected to Australasia by the landbridge, so scientists theorize the dragons colonized them by swimming (they are surprisingly good swimmers). Inclement weather can blow flying animals off course on migration, leaving them stranded on islands as well. This is how the ancestors of the native bird species and subspecies got there, as well as those of the native arthropods and Hawaiian subspecies Hoary Bat. In short, most of the native wildlife in Hawaii got there by accident.
A land-bridge is an area of a continent that is exposed when sea levels are lower, allowing animals to travel between the future islands and the mainland. This is how life has been able to cross between the Americas and Eurasia during the many intermittent periods in history from the Cretaceous to the Pleistocene when the Bering Land bridge connecting Alaska and Russia was open due to lower sea levels. Another interesting land bridge relevant to island biogeography is one that existed in northwestern Europe called Doggerland. During the last ice age, sea levels were lower, and the British Isles were connected to the rest of Europe by a grassy plain called Doggerland that will one day rest at the bottom of the North Sea. These plains supported a variety of European megafauna including mammoths, bison, horses, lions, Megaloceros, rhinos, reindeer, and nomadic humans. Over time, as the climate warmed, these humans and animals were forced to migrate to higher elevations in Britain and the Netherlands as sea levels rose due to melting ice sheets and a tsunami off the coast of what is now Norway.
The rafting theory states that animals sometimes trapped mats of vegetation that blow out to sea during storms, and when they reach the nearest island, they are able to colonize the new land. This is how all of Madagascar's native land mammals got there as well as the ancestors of the iguanas and tortoises in the Galapagos.
Foster's rule, also known as the island rule or the island effect, is a biological rule stating that members of a species get smaller or bigger depending on the resources available in the environment. The rule was first stated by J. Bristol Foster in 1964, in which he compared 116 island species to their mainland varieties. He proposed that certain island creatures evolved into larger versions of themselves while others became smaller. He proposed the simple explanation that smaller creatures get larger when predation pressure is relaxed because of the absence of some of the predators of the mainland, and larger creatures become smaller when food resources are limited because of land area constraints.
The more famous residents of definitely the giants. In the absence of predators or competition for resources, animals living on islands have grown enormous, such as the moas and Haast's Eagles of New Zealand or the Galapagos Tortoises. Despite the presence of kiwis in New Zealand, the closest relatives of the giant moas are a clade of South American paleognaths called tinamous, which are still capable of flight. Despite their size, moas had one predator before the arrival of humans: Haast's Eagle, which had a 3 meter wingspan. Like the moas, they became extinct shortly after humans arrived. The Galapagos Tortoises are the most famous of the living giant tortoises, but another species of giant tortoise, the Aldabra Tortoise, lives on an island northwest of Madagascar with which it shares it's name. Earlier, I mentioned that Komodo Dragons evolved in Australia and moved northward, there was an even bigger monitor lizard related to the dragons to inhabit Australia known as Megalania or Varanus priscus, which became extinct due to climate change along with its preferred prey of giant kangaroos and wombats. Even Hawaii had its own giant flightless birds (a common theme on islands in the Indo-Pacific). In addition to living and extinct species of Hawaiian Goose or Nene, the Southeast islands were home to four species of flightless geese known as Moa-nalos and the Giant Hawaiian Goose (Branta rhuax).
Islands can also decrease the size of the animals living there due to limited resources and space. One of the most nocticable examples are the Channel Island Fox and Pygmy Mammoth, smaller relatives of the Gray Fox and Columbian Mammoth that live on the mainland in California. I've included other examples, such as Giant Anteater-sized ground sloths and pygmy chameleons
Convergent evolution is when two unrelated animals evolve similar appearances in response to similar environments. One example of convergence that I find most fascinating is one of two Island species imitating each other. In the absence of rodents on New Zealand, a group of ratites shrunk to fill the role of nocturnal opportunists. Kiwis traded flight for a longer bill and an enhanced sense of smell to hunt for insects and worms on the floor of the temperate rainforest, at the cost of good eyesight. What I find most interesting, possibly even more interesting, is that Hawaii has its own version of a kiwi! The Kaua'i Mole Duck (Talpanas lippa) was a flightless species of Duck related to modern-day stifftail ducks (Ruddy, Andean, Lake, Maccoa, Blue-billed, and White-headed, genus Oxyura) that like the kiwis and Kakapo, also gave up flight to hunt for smaller animals on the forest floor at night. Talpanas is unfortunately extinct, but if they were still around, finding one would have been on my list of birding priorities once I got there. Some other cases of convergent evolution in Hawaii include stilt-owls (genus Grallistrix) which evolved long legs similar to resemble those of phorusrhacids, Secretarybirds, and giant flightless Cuban owls of the genus Ornimegalonyx (unlike these owls, Grallistrix kept the ability to fly); and the Hawaiian Honeyeaters, which resemble the honeyeaters of Australasia so closely, they were considered to be part of the same family before elevated to full family status (Mohoidae)
New Zealand isn't just home to flightless birds and monstrous raptors, the islands also act as a time capsule from the age of the dinosaurs. Dense forests of tree ferns and podocarps similar to those in the Lord of the Rings series are found on both islands, and are where many episodes of Walking With Dinosaurs were also filmed. These ancient forests are home to two ancient creatures from the Mesozoic: the Giant Weta and the Tuatara, both coincidentally appearing in Spirits of the Ice Forest (episode 5). The Tuatara looks like a lizard, but is from an unrelated order called Rhyncocephala. Competition from lizards elsewhere has driven Tuataras into extinction, and now survives only on a few small islands off New Zealand’s coast.
Adaptive radiation is the diversification of a clade from one common ancestor to fill a variety of niches and exploit the abundance of food sources in their new environment. This is the reason I chose to use Hawaii as my example location in this blog post. Most people typically think of the tanagers of the Galápagos when adaptive radiation comes to mind, but I’ve chosen the Hawaiian honeycreepers not just out of personal bias, but also because their bill shapes reflect a greater divergence than that in the Galapagos and they’re more colorful (reds, greens, and yellows are more appealing than different shades of gray and brown, sorry Darwin). About 4 million years ago, the ancestors of the drepanidid finches, most likely a flock of rosefinches from the Asian mainland based on genetic analysis, was blown or flew naturally to Hawaii. Some of these finches had genes that gave them large grosbeak-like bills, others had those for long, thin bills, and others had genes for short, straight bills. Over time, finches would mate with birds that had bills which would best enable them to feed themselves and provide food for their young until they could only mate with birds of similar bill shape. This is called speciation. In Hawaii, most of the native finches can be divided into five categories: Generalists like the ‘alauahios and ‘Anianiau; nectarivores like the I’iwi, mamos, ‘apapanes, ‘Ākohekohe, and ‘Ula‘aihāwane; frugivores like the Rhodacanthis grosbeaks, koa-finches, palilas, ‘Ō‘ū, Telespiza finches, and Lanai Hookbill; gleaning insectivores like common ‘amakihis, ‘ākepas, ‘Akeke‘e, and Greater ‘Amakihi, and bark-picking insectivores like the ‘Akialoas, nukupu’us, ‘Ākiapōlā‘au, Kiwikiu, ‘Alawī, ‘Akikiki, and Po‘ouli. Some, such as the ‘akialoas, ‘amakihis, and ‘Ula‘aihāwane blur the lines between niches, exploiting multiple roles based on avalibility of food, and the Laysan and Nihoa finches have even been known to eat the eggs of seabirds when seeds and insects are scarce
Living on an island can not only alter the physical appearance of a species, but also their behavior. Island species
However, being less responsive to predators can also work against a species, and that is what I will talk about in part 2...
Lifers indicated in bold
This was a trip I should have over the summer. Nearly every resource I consulted about birding in Arizona suggested I go to the sky islands of Southeast Arizona in July or August for my best chance of seeing 500 in a year. These “islands,” which are isolated mountains surrounded by radically different lowland environments, are among the most biologically diverse regions in North America, supporting plant and animal life that is widespread in Mexico and Central America, but is otherwise endangered or not supposed to be in the United States, such as trogons, coatimundis, Jaguars, and some of the highest diversity of reptiles (including birds) in the country. Why would I even think of going to Arizona during the hottest time of the year? The Monsoons. Monsoon rains in July and August create a "second summer" for the sky islands, offering a diverse cast of hummingbirds, flycatchers, mimids, galliformes, owls, nightjars, sparrows, and the alluring Elegant Trogon, much needed relief from the summer heat. The monsoon season can also be a good time to look for some of the rarities for which SE Arizona is famous – including Plain-capped Starthroat, Sinaloa Wren, Rufous-capped Warbler, Flame-colored Tanager, Tufted Flycatcher, and others. I was promised this trip if I could keep my grades up over the spring, but unfortunately, when I learned around finals that there was little hope of turning my grades around, my prospects of going to Arizona were looking bleak, if at all. While other birders were enjoying the bounty of the monsoons, I was in summer school desperately waiting for fall migration to begin so I could have a chance to revive my eBird checklist streak. If I had been able to make it to Arizona over the summer, my next alternative was to go to either Southern California or Albuquerque in November, as I discussed on The Bird Herd with Drew Beamer and Jodhan Fine. When I was offered a chance to go to Arizona in November, I literally jumped at the chance. However, as I would soon discover, there was a catch. We would be staying at a time share in Scottsdale instead of Sierra Vista or Tuscon as I had initially imagined. I would make it to Arizona, but it would not be the ideal southwest trip I had imagined. How would I make this work? To compensate for the less convenient birding location, I had come up with an itinerary that would give me the best of Arizona’s three ecological realms: one day birding around Maricopa County to get all the common species of the Sonoran desert, one day in southeast Arizona with Max Leibowitz for some of the species I had hoped to see over the summer in the sky islands and the dry grasslands of the Chihuahuan desert, and one to head to Flagstaff and back for southern Rocky Mountain birds. This plan felt a little rushed, but with only three days to bird, I had to be as efficient as possible. When there’s a will, there’s a way. Hopefully…
When we got to Phoenix, there was a setback: we didn’t have a place to stay at the time share, and we’re forced to stay at a more expensive vacation club owned by Four Seasons.
My first full day of birding in Arizona was off to a slow start, too slow for someone with intense time constraints. I started by walking around the resort grounds, but it was unsettlingly quiet, not even a Cactus Wren or a Great-tailed Grackle was calling. Was this a sign I was setting myself up for failure? My plan for the day was to work in a circle: start at a Berkshire Hathaway store at the request of my mom, and from there bird at Gilbert Water Ranch, Veteran’s Oasis Park, a neighborhood pond in Gilbert where Clark’s Grebes were often seen, the “thrasher spot” on Baseline road and Salome Highway, White Tank Mountain, and Lake Pleasant, then listen for Western Screech Owls on the resort grounds. As we got on the road, it didn’t take long before I saw my first new bird of the trip: a Say’s Phoebe, followed by a Gila Woodpecker and an Abert’s Towhee. I was off to a slow start, but it was better than no start. While my mom was focused on taking a selfie in front of the Berkshire Hathaway in Scottsdale, I set my sights on the local bird life in the parking lot. I found an Anna’s Hummingbird, a Brewer’s Sparrow, heard a Gilded Flicker, and my most wanted bird from Phoenix: a flyover Rosy-faced Lovebird. Like the numerous parrots of Florida, Texas, California, and northeastern states, suburban Phoenix is home to feral population of these popular cagebirds that either escaped or were intentionally released, originally native to southwest Africa. For these parrots, Arizona is close enough in climate to their native Kalahari Desert for them to thrive, making use of abandoned Gila Woodpecker holes in the absence of weaver colonies. The lovebirds nested successfully, and the feral population is sustainable enough to be counted by ABA birders. Having scored the lovebird, we moved on to the next spot, where along the way, I added Gambel's Quail to the day list...
At first glance, the name "Water Ranch" might be confusing to a person not from Arizona, as I was when I was researching what spots I should go to in Maricopa County on the first day. Instead of raising keeping animals, the "ranch" is part of the Town of Gilbert's effort to balance water resource development with wildlife habitat, eventually leading to the creation of the Riparian Preserve, organized based on plant communities, ranging from marshlands to desert riparian and upland vegetation. As would be expected from a diversity of habitats, the ranch has an impressive list of over 300 bird species as well as many other animals. We started at the pond in the northwest corner of the park, which didn't have any birds of interest, except for a few Mexican Ducks. Moving on, we checked the flowers to see what hummingbirds were attending them, mostly Anna's and a female Costa's Hummingbird. Elsewhere in the preserve, I saw a group of four American Avocets on a pond, a Plumbeous Vireo in the brush, tons of Abert's Towhees and Verdins, a Rufous-crowned Sparrow, a Spotted Towhee, and a Black-throated Gray Warbler. Another birder stopped us to ask about a dark raptor that could've been a Zone-tailed Hawk, but was eventually confirmed as a dark Red-tail.
The next spot we went to is Veteran's Oasis Park, where a late-staying Bell's Vireo had been reported. The first bird we looked for in the park was not the vireo, but Burrowing Owls at a nest site. We didn't see any owls there, so they must have moved on to a winter roost. While I searched for the Bell's, a Prairie Falcon soaring over the trail, a Lawrence's Goldfinch in a flock of Lesser Goldfinches, and a Gray Flycatcher calling from the shrubbery. As for vireos, I didn't get the Bell's, but I did get Hutton's Vireo, an expected species in Arizona which I almost thought was a kinglet when I saw it.
Moving on again, we stopped at a pond in Gilbert which had Clark's Grebe and California Gull, then moved onto the southwest, passing flocks of Yellow-headed Blackbirds and Lark Buntings, as well as a Burrowing Owl perched on a bush. When we finally got to a section of Baseline Road and Salome Highway called "the Thrasher spot" on eBird and Google Maps. I'm serious, there a location in Google Maps literally called "Thrasher Spot Parking Area," which is how I found the spot in the first place. This spot in the middle of the desert is one of the easiest places to find most of the thrashers in the ABA Area. With the exceptions of Long-billed and Brown Thrashers, which I saw in Texas and New York respectively, most thrashers prefer desert and chaparral (semidesert) habitat. This spot in the desert supports most the desert species: Bendire's, LeConte's, and Crissal. As we pulled up to the parking area, I spotted a Bendire's Thrasher sulking in the bushes, then a Sage Thrasher, which prefers sagebrush and plains habitats in the summer and winters in deserts. I got out of the car and walked along the sandy areas in search of the other species, which I got brief looks first of Crissal Thrasher, then of LeConte's Thrasher hiding in dense brush, just out of focus range for my camera. Heading back to the car, I flushed a Sagebrush Sparrow in a flock of White-crowns and Verdins. As we left, a Ferruginous Hawk flew over.
The final stop of the day was White Tank Mountain Regional Park, in search of a continuing Gray Vireo. A lot of the birds I looked for today were all in various shades of gray, brown, or tan, which aren't the most exciting to look at, but the fact many of them were lifers makes up for the lack of color. Driving up the road to the trail the vireo was seen on, I pointed out a Rock Wren on the ground and White-throated Swifts flying overhead. Walking up the trail, I found a Canyon Wren and a Green-tailed Towhee. Shortly after, I heard a harsh "charr" call coming from the brush, then saw a grayish bird flying across the trail. As quickly as I wanted to say it was the vireo, I didn't because Loggerhead Shrikes are also in the Sonoran Desert, and. I refound it perched on a small bush, where I saw it flick its tail a couple of times, then I was satisfied with calling it a Gray Vireo before heading back.
As we entered the resort, my mom insisted that we stop to take pictures of the full moon. I had planned to go owling on site anyway, so to hear a Western Screech-Owl right off the bat made my job much easier.
When I planned the southeast Arizona day, I knew I would need help from a birder who is more familiar with the area, which is why I asked Max Leibowitz for help. My dad and I picked him up in Tuscon first before setting out for Las Cienegas National Conservation Area, a grasslands are where I should hopefully get Baird's Sparrow, Sprague's Pipit, and Chestnut-collared and McCown's Longspurs. The first spot we drove around had Lark Buntings, Vesper Sparrows, Lilian's Meadowlarks, Common Ravens, and a Say's Phoebe. The next spot we birded in the grasslands was Curly Horse Ranch Road. First we spotted two bluebirds perched next to each other, one Mountain Bluebird and one Western Bluebird. In the field where Baird's Sparrows had been reported, we trudged around and flushed several sparrows that were good candidates for Baird's, although we didn't call them Bairds without any good looks, which I'm wondering could've been Vesper Sparrows instead, as well as a Savannah Sparrow.
The next spot we tried was the Paton Center for Hummingbirds or Paton's Yard, one of the few reliable spots north of Mexico for Violet-crowned Hummingbird. The original owners, Wally and Marion Paton, began allowing birders to visit their home and view the birds that came to their feeders in Patagonia shortly after moving there. After Wally died in 2001 and Marion in 2009, the birding community was left with an inspiring legacy upon which to build. In 2014, Tuscon Audubon Society acquired the Paton's house and restored it as the Paton center. Shortly after arriving, we saw an Arizona Gray Squirrel and the first of several Broad-billed Hummingbirds. In order to find a Violet-crown, we all split up to cover more ground. We also saw more sparrows (including Chipping), a Bewick's Wren, a Cassin's Vireo, and a Bridled Titmouse, but no Violet-crown. Unfortunately, my camera battery died after this stop, just enough time to get some photos of a mystery hummingbird.
Trying to maximize daylight, we went to four more stops before calling it a day. The first was Patagonia Lake State Park, which many people might recognize from the beginning of The Big Year as where Sandy Komito began his quest with a Nutting's Flycatcher, in search of a Black-capped Gnatcatcher and a Green Kingfisher (I got that in Texas, but Max needed it at the time we went there). There, we saw several Mexican Ducks and Redheads, at least 40 American Coots, singles of Eared and Western Grebes, two Hammond's Flycatchers, and a Pink-sided Junco. Unfortunately, neither of our target species were there. Next, we tried Rancho Santa Cruz, a newly opened spot along the De Anza Trail. Earlier that week, a Rose-throated Becard was reported from this spot. We didn't see the becard, but had more Bridled Titmouse, a Vermilion Flycatcher, a flock of Chihuahuan Ravens, and a raptor that we initially considered Zone-tailed, but left as unidentified without photos. Afterwards, before stopping at a Border Patrol checkpoint, we stopped at another site on the De Anza Trail called Tumacacori for Rufous-winged Sparrow, two of showed up after a few minutes of waiting. Most of our targets were hit or miss, so to succeed on this one after a string of misfortune was reassuring. Lastly, we made it to Madera Canyon, which I hoped was the most promising spot. Just after we arrived, I got several new ones right off the bat at the feeders near Santa Rita Lodge: Rivoli's and Blue-throated Hummingbirds (the latter flew right at my face and hovered just a few feet away), Acorn Woodpeckers, Mexican Jays, an Arizona Woodpecker, several Yellow-eyed Juncos, and a Hepatic Tanager. We ran into Ken Blankenship there, who was guiding a client around. From the lodge, we moved down the canyon to look for Elegant Trogon, Painted Redstart, and Ocotero. Unfortunately, we could not locate them as it was getting dark, but we did hear the Mexican subspecies of Brown Creeper in the canyon, which is a prime candidate for a split from the northern forms. The final new bird of the day was a flock of Phainopeplas on the power lines leading down from the canyon, a species I somehow missed the day before.
After we dropped Max off, I told him that I would definitely come back to southeast Arizona in the summer, when the specialty birds of Arizona are more abundant and easier to find, to fill in the holes from the day list and my ABA life list. My mom texted me asking if there is a bird called a "night hawk," which I asked if one had been seen in Phoenix. She explained that the concierge said that on the lawn they shine lights to attract insects that the nighthawks eat, presumably Lesser. I said it was too late to try for them, but suggested doing so the next evening.
The next day, all three of us traveled north of Scottsdale to look for southern Rocky Mountain species. At the first bathroom stop of the day, I spotted a Band-tailed Pigeon, a Steller's Jay, and a Juniper Titmouse at another stop to grab snacks. We then went to a spot that had Lewis's Woodpeckers and Woodhouse's Scrub-Jays.
The next spot we went to is a trail in Little Elden Springs. There, we saw a flock of Bushtits at the trailhead. Hiking along the trail, I pointed out a whole host of new birds, such as a Mountain Chickadee, Clark's Nutcrackers, Pinyon Jays, a juvenile Williamson's Sapsucker, and most surprising of all, an American Three-toed Woodpecker. Near the car, we came across a mixed flock of Dark-eyed Junco subspecies, of which I was able to identify to Oregon, Cassiar, Pink-sided, and Gray-headed/Red-backed (most likely the latter). Again, these are just subspecies, but sometime in the future, they may be recognized as species again.
We then headed south towards Cave Springs, a spot in Oak Creek Canyon I was hoping to see American Dippers at. On the descent into the canyon, I added Northern Goshawk (finally) and Townsend's Solitaire to the year count. At the bottom of the canyon, I heard Cassin's Finches and a Red-naped Sapsucker. My plan to find a dipper was simple, follow the course of a stream running through the stream, and look for a slate gray bird feeding in the river. Following the course of the stream, I flushed a gray bird from the river. I tried to relocate the bird visually, but to no avail. Fortunately, I heard it singing, which helped me confirm it as an American Dipper.
The final stop we went to was Page Springs Fish Hatchery, where a Common Black-Hawk was wintering, sadly to no avail...
As we were arriving back at the resort, I spotted a bird fly erratically across the headlights. Based on flight pattern and the timing of the observation, I concluded that it was a Lesser Nighthawk. Later, I walked around the resort grounds in the hopes of finding another, but all I could hear was the bouncy-ball songs of Western Screech-Owls and the unmistakable deep hoot of a Great Horned Owl. Great Horns start pairing up and establishing nest territories early in the breeding season to get a head start on incubation, which lasts up to a month, so the owlets fledge when prey is most abundant in mid spring. Hearing this familiar sound was a reassuring sign that spring is on the way, but for me, it also meant that time is running out. Would I get to 500 in Arizona like I had predicted I would?
That night, I was barely able to sleep: I only had 12 hours left in Arizona, was this enough time to meet my goal for the year? Would I even get to 500 at all? The morning before we left for New York, my dad and I tried for a Varied Thrush reported from a campsite in Tonto National Forest, but to no avail, only a Canyon Towhee stirred. On the way back, I noticed a flycatcher on the side of the road, which turned out to be an Ash-throated Flycatcher, putting me at 498 for the year! That afternoon, I left Arizona having seen 158 species, 73 of which were new for the year for my second highest total new birds outside of New York. While Arizona did not get me to 500 for the year as I initially hoped, I had a greater incentive to return in the future and try again for the southeastern specialties I had missed, but more importantly, it put me tantalizingly close to my primary goal for the year: two more to go!
To be continued...
As October transitioned into November, I felt myself run into a familiar problem, one I usually experience in the middle of the summer: there were practically no new birds for me to get. This isn’t to say I haven’t been successful this fall, rather I’ve been too successful. My needs alerts for New York consisted of a combination of stuff I had already seen that was mostly being reported from upstate, birds I actually needed that were also too far upstate, and an escaped Mandarin Duck in Central Park that was making headlines of news outlets everywhere. The only thing that was chaseable was a Cattle Egret at Timber Point Golf Course, which wasn’t even a yearbird. After I had gotten my computer fixed, I convinced my dad to drive me to the course anyway, but after searching for fifteen minutes, I gave up. I wanted to go home. After the crazy October I had, I was birded out, and I wanted the Mandarin Duck alerts to stop
I get why many birders would cancel all their plans to get to the spot where a species rare for their home area, often making local news headlines starting with the obligatory "Birders Flock" (whyyyyyyyyyyy); having done several myself, even crossing state borders and changing my entire plans for the day to revolve around a single rare bird. However, I don't know why some birders would deliberately go out of their way to see a bird that is already known to have escaped from captivity, although I did that with a Tropical Mockingbird in Florida (in my defense, I had planned to see it before it was deemed an escapee, but got there too late to change my plans). Case in point: a Mandarin Duck that was first filmed in Central Park on October 25th, starting a media frenzy in which Gothamist, The Cut, Seeker, Animal Planet, National Geographic, the New York Times, and even BBC covered it.
I did everything I could to resist. I kept telling myself that no matter how much attention this duck got, I was not going to see it under any circumstances. I had seen 5 species not on the ABA Checklist this year in Florida and Texas, but never have I intentionally looked for a species not on the checklist without reason to believe it was wild until now. Well, my original plan was to get this Mandarin Duck out of my needs alerts (unsubscribing and/or switching to daily is too risky, plus Twitter, Facebook, and Discord can only get me so far), but as I was taking the train into Manhattan, I got an alert for a much more urgent sighting: a tweet from Manhattan Bird Alert that read "HARRIS'S SPARROW at NE end of Central Park North Meadow, found by @jhonny_2003" (well, actually his wife found it and he reported it). Fortunately, I was in the train station when it clicked that what was initially identified as a Lapland Longspur was really an even bigger rarity for Manhattan than the longspur. After a short subway ride to the north side of the park, my mom and I ran as fast as possible to get this sparrow, which had moved to the southwest side of the north meadow. Finding the spot was easy, just look for the huddle of birders, but the sparrow I needed was not there yet, only a few White-throated Sparrows. As if on cue, the Harris’s Sparrow perched on a fence and posed for photos then dropped down to forage before disappearing out of sight. “Man,” I thought, “the birders who went on the pelagic are not going to be happy about this.”
After the sparrow, I wanted to look for Barred Owls also reported in the park, but I eventually caved and went to see the Mandarin Duck. It took my mom and I to find a way past the NYC marathon to get back in the park. When we finally got to the Mandarin Duck, it was honestly not worth all the trouble. I’m used to chasing rarities and not having to work hard to find them, but this was different. Part of what disappointed me was the number of people taking pictures of it with phones and selfie sticks, but what disappointed me the most is people were feeding it bread products. To me this didn’t feel like rarity chasing, this didn’t even feel like birding. It was birdwatching. (Don’t give me the “there’s no difference between the two” bullsh*t in the comments, one is a hobby and the other is a commitment). I had succumbed to the hot duck craze and I felt ashamed that I had subjected myself to a level of birding lower than stringing. In order to clean myself of my corrupt appearance, I swore I would hold myself to new standards: be polite, be efficient, have a plan to get as many birds as possible. As I was on the train back to Long Island, the birders who were on the pelagic were also getting back, and as I predicted, they were not happy about missing the Harris’s Sparrow
Save for the Mandarin Duck and a Painted Bunting in Prospect Park in 2015, when I had peaked in an exaggerated “holier than thou” attitude towards rarity chasing taken to the extreme, I don’t like to be left out of a rare bird sighting, especially with one I need. A good case is when there were two Scissor-tailed Flycatchers back-to-back and a Purple Gallinule in Prospect Park on the same day, when my parents were acting holier than thou, and I was melting inside. Scissor-tailed Flycatchers breed in the southern Great Plains and winter in Florida and Central America, with some remaining year round in south Texas, where I saw one this year. I tried to act like it was no big deal, but the appearance of a Scissor-tail and a Gray Kingbird in the same area was enough to break me, I needed a way to cleanse my record after cHaSiNg the Mandarin Duck, even if I had already seen both birds for the year. After lunch, my dad and I drove around Lido beach in search of the flycatcher when I noticed we were being followed. It was Avery Scott and his family! Together we did a loop in search of the rarity until we tried for the kingbird, then headed home as we could not easily find it either.
Since my search for the rare flycatchers had been a bust, I thought now would be a good time to get some work done. I thought so, until I got an alert for Northern Shrike at Fort Tilden. Last winter, I tried for this bird several times upstate, but never had any positive results. I would be headed there later this week with the NYSYBC, but the temptation to chase was too hard to resist. After a concentrated search, I saw the shilouette of what I believed to be the Northern Shrike teed up on a bare tree, which I later confirmed when it called
On the actual trip, I wasn't expecting anything new, but some of the highlights were large numbers of seaducks, Pine Siskins, various gulls, and two late staying migrants; Lincoln's Sparrow and Spotted Sandpiper.
My quest for a goshawk continued, this time back at Jones Beach. All I was able to find were more Pine Siskins, a Merlin, and the Marbled Godwits on the spot that I was convinced would never leave…
As I was preparing for Arizona, I thought it was safe to set my needs alert for New York to daily. Then, I got an alert for a Black-headed Gull in Old Field. By the time my mom and I got there, it was getting too dark, and I was running out of luck.
To be continued...
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