The Hardest Weekend to be an E-bird Reviewer

This past weekend (February 14-17) was the Great Back Yard Bird Count (affectionately known as the GBBC).  This is the weekend that birders of all skill levels go out to the neighborhood parks and back yards (or front yards) and count all the birds they see.  These sightings are then entered into the vast database that is e-bird (whether you use the GBBC portal or not).  As the e-bird reviewer for the Hudson-Mohawk Region of New York State, this is the most challenging weekend of the entire year.

Don’t get me wrong, the GBBC is a great event.  In fact I wish more clubs and organizations took advantage of it as way to work with new birders and encourage more people to go birding and how to share their sightings and information. But most people are left to their own devices, making (at times) wild guesses from field guides or via the internet, which is where I come in.

Prior to the GBBC, I do try and take down any kind of rare or non-irruptive birds (in 2014, this means taking things like Common Redpoll and Pine Grosbeak off the checklists), the goal is the reduce the choices more casual birders have to enter.  The hope being that if the species they think was sighted isn’t on the checklist that they might go back and take another look, maybe using some of the birds on the checklist as a starting point.

It doesn’t seem to matter.  I partially blame the phone apps, which if they are not connected to the internet, don’t flag things properly, not giving the user any warning that their sighting may be questioned.  And a few people, clearly use the internet to ID birds, which results in birds native to Southeast Africa being reported in Albany, NY.

Most of the ID mistakes are honest and rather easy.  People always report Purple Finches, when most of what they are seeing are House Finches (there are a few Purple Finches). Many reports of Chipping and Field Sparrows are actually American Tree Sparrows.  Carolina Wrens are often reported as Winter Wrens (a Wren in Winter, must be a Winter Wren). Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers are confused. American Goldfinches and Pine Warblers (!) are also confused.

This means I spend much of the weekend not actually birding, but sending out e-mails, offering suggestions on what the correct ID is. 98% of those I respond to, are friendly and quite willing to chat with you about birds.  Most are sort of embarrassed to have made the ID mistake (trust me, it’s not something to be embarrassed about!) and most happily make the changes to their checklists (reviewers can’t change any checklists).  It is actually a pleasant experience for me and hopefully the user.

But those 2% can be quite nasty.  They leave a bad taste in my mouth, they make me not want to be a reviewer anymore.  Being mean in responding to my inquiry doesn’t make your sighting more believable.  I make it a point not to respond to these e-mails.  I move on.  But some of these e-mails are just vile.  Thankfully, they are the exception and not the rule.

I love the idea behind the GBBC.  I also wish Cornell offered more resources to users (especially with common ID challenges) and encouraged more local organizations to assist in helping casual birders get this information out.  But each year this event occurs, more of the kinks get worked out, more the user experience improves and more the reviewer experience improves as well!

For more information on the Great Backyard Bird Count and E-bird, check out the following links:

http://gbbc.birdcount.org/

http://ebird.org/

A Connecticut Warbler in My Court…

So far the last few nights, I’ve spent my evenings in the backyard looking for Common Nighthawks.  Usually in late August I’ll see dozens of these graceful Nightjars flying over my house as they make their way south for the winter.  This year I appear not to be on the flight path as I have seen none.  Zip.  Zilch.  Nada.  Thankfully some other birders have set up shop the last few nights near the Albany Pine Bush and have reported at least healthy numbers each night.  So they are out there, just not over my house.

Right at dusk last night, I was scanning the western sky for Nighthawks, when a fairly large Warbler practically dropped out of the sky into the weedy and brush margins of my yard.   Thinking I had my first Common Yellowthroat of the fall, I was very surprised to see  a much larger warbler, with evidence of a hood, along with a strong white eye ring.  The bird was also a skulker, keeping very low in the vegitation or directly on the ground (and out of sight).  Given its size and coloration, I reported it as a Mourning Warbler, even though that eye ring would be very unsuaul (but not unheard of).  It was too big for most other warblers, and the bold eye ring ruled out the rest.  However it was dark and I just went with what I saw.  During the night my ID bugged me.  By morning I had turned the bird into a pale Canada Warbler.  But it still didn’t sit well.

The next day, I took my dog out into the yard for some morning exercise.  As she walked along the edge of the yard, she flushed something from underneath the hosta plants.  Whatever it was skittered further into the weeds and briefly popped up when I walked over and spished.  Again I could clearly see this bold white eye-ring even without optics.  I dashed inside, grabbed my camera and binoculars and rushed back out.  The bird was still in a tangle of wild grape and with some coaxing, I got it sorta come out and snapped a few pictures.  Sadly in my rush, I used auto focus… and of course the camera choose to make the grape leaves nice and crisp, while leaving my bird fuzzy (argh!)

But I got at least 2 shots:

A “Mystery” Warbler. August 23, 2012 – Albany, NY – Will Raup.

“Mystery” Warbler – August 23, 2012 – Albany, NY – Will Raup

Clearly my ID of a Mourning Warbler was off.  Even Canada Warbler was being a stretch.  Only 2 birds really fit this description, one the rather common Nashville Warbler and the decidedly uncommon Connecticut Warbler.  Now I have seen many Nashville Warblers, especially in my backyard… and this warbler was too big.  Also the bill and tail were very long for a Nashville Warbler.  But a Connecticut Warbler is almost unheard of in this part of New York, even more so in August.  So I needed a fresh set of eyes.  I set Danika up with the photos and field guides and she kept coming back to Connecticut Warbler as well.  As this would be a life, and one heck of a yard bird… it gnawed on me.  So I posted the pictures on facebook, in particular the American Birding Association page.  I then had to mow the lawn.

While I mowed the lawn (figuring if the bird was still around this would get rid of it), I went over all the field marks in my head.  Everything was pointing to Connecticut Warbler, but since I had zero experience with this species, I was being cautious.  Later in the afternoon, I started to get some feedback.  Some still called it a Nashville, a few a Canada and soon there was a number of people supporting Connecticut Warbler.  When Ken Kaufman posted his thoughts that it was a Connecticut, things really started falling into place.  So I was feeling pretty good, as I headed out for another Nighthawk vigil this evening.  Again, no Nighthawks… but right at dark, against all odds, the bird reappeared.  This time I was able to (quickly!) see the long bill and tail and large size, clearly ruling out Nashville.  The white eye-ring looked like a flashlight in the dark, dense Golden Rod.  The bird only made a couple of brief hops up to about 3 feet off the ground, but spent much of its time right on the ground, decidedly not Nashville behavior.  Mystery Solved a new life and yard bird!

Common Loon (Gavias immer)

Common Loon - New Baltimore, Greene Co., NY - Photo by Will Raup

Typically Common Loons are long gone from the Hudson-Mohawk area by the time Christmas Counts roll around.  This year however, with the mild conditions, water remained open on many of the lakes and reservoirs, keeping the Loons happy much later than normal.  In early January we had several cold days, with temperatures at  night in the City of Albany at or below 0 F, many of the outlying areas between -5 and -20 F, meant a rapid freeze up of water.  I stopped by Cornell Park in New Baltimore (Greene Co. NY) and was surprised to see a Common Loon on the Hudson River.  Loons typically don’t like moving water (like rivers), but given the rapid freeze up of the Lakes, this bird was no doubt forced to the River.  Making the situation even more interesting was the fact that huge ice sheets were moving down river.  There was a real danager of this Loon getting trapped by Ice, but it also pushed the bird very close to shore where I was standing, allowing me some of the most personal views and photographs of this species I normally only see at a distance through a scope.

I returned later in the day, to find that entire area choked with Ice, no open water at all.  But I didn’t see the Loon either, so hopefully he made it further south towards the coast.

Common Loon with Fish. New Baltimore, Greene Co., NY - Photo by Will Raup

Hermit Thrush (Catharus guttatus)

The Hermit Thrush is one of the hardiest Thrushes in its family, prefering to winter in the U.S. as far North as New England, eeking out a survival among the native and ornamental berries.  They are typcially found in larger flocks of other birds such as American Robin or White-throated Sparrows.  Recently at Vosburgh’s Marsh in Greene County, NY, I “spished” at a group of sparrows in the underbrush and the first bird to pop out was a Hermit Thrush.  Given how mild and snowless the winter has been thus far, I was not surprised to see one at this location (a spot nortorius for half-hardies).  I was more surprised however to see it sit still long enough for me to photograph him/her.  With the rest of the world a dead brown and gray color, the rufous on the tail looked like it was blazing when I saw the bird in real life.  Sometimes, no matter how good a photo is, nothing beats seeing a bird with your own eyes.

Hermit Thrush, Vosburgh's Marsh, Greene Co, New York - Photo by Will Raup

Something Fishy is Going On…

Its been a mild and snowless winter to say the least, thus far.  As a result of mother nature and the anti-American Crow roost efforts by the City of Albany, I don’t have the thousands upon thousands of American Crows in my back yard.  Sure hundreds, if not thousands still fly over the house at dusk, likely to a roost site along the Hudson River near Troy.  But the lack of these big bullies, have given their smaller cousin a chance to shine.

Each day about 8-12 Fish Crows take up residence in my backyard.  They visit my poor excuse of a feeder, torment my dog and keep me informed of any local Red-tailed Hawks.  The American Crows arrive shortly after dawn and set up camp a couple of yards down in my neighbors fen.  There they bathe, drink and frolic as only Crows can do.  Then there is this invisible line, a buffer zone, before my yard and my nasaled Fish friends.  But it is an uneasy peace.

At times the bigger, bolder American Crows will cross the border, sending the Fish Crows into noisily into full retreat, there they wait until whatever had forced the American Crows into the yard to go away and slowly the Fish Crows return.

Fish Crow was a relative new bird to Albany when I moved into the City, over 10 years ago.  Fish Crows have nested in my neighborhood (ironically away from water) nearly every year I have lived here, but only in the last few have they become part of the winter bird scene.  However, my yard is not the epicenter.  For that you must head over to Westgate Plaza in West Albany, where in the parking lots of the supermarkets you may find 20 or more Fish Crows, equally fighting for garbage among the Starlings, House Sparrows, Ring-billed Gulls and American Crows.

Watching the behaviors of any corvids is fascinating, but I find myself simply amazed by the actions of Fish Crows, as they have learned to co-exist with their cousins and as their population has grown, they have slowly, but steadily carved a niche for themselves amongst the city birds.

Perhaps I should write to the American Birding Association and suggest the Fish Crow as the bird of the Year?

As the Fish Crows would say…

“Ah-huh!”