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/

The First Chase of Big Year 2013

A few days ago a local birder on his way home from work, noticed 2 odd shapes next to a little patch of water along the north shore of the Mohawk River in Crescent, Saratoga County.  The birds were just within the lights of a local Tavern and in this dim light, he could make out that they were 2 Sandhill Cranes!

Sandhill Crane is a bit of a enigma in Region 8, it occurs in the area annually, but its totally random as to where they might show up.  In e-bird (where I am the local reviewer), there had been 2 Sandhill Cranes present in western Saratoga County on and off for much of the latter part of 2012.  Perhaps the same birds?

The next morning a few birders still found the Cranes at first light and they hung around for about an hour after sunrise before taking off west over I-87 and Twin Bridges.  Another birder stopped back at the area around 5pm that night and again found the Cranes in the spot they had been reported next to the tavern.

The next day more birders showed up, but the Cranes took off right after sunrise (and just as I was leaving the house!), but once again the came back late in the afternoon to the same spot.

This morning, I made another attempt after getting the kids on the bus.  At 7:30 am I got an e-mail saying the birds were still present, so both Danika and I were hopeful.  We finally got to the spot around 8:30 am and found quite a few birders there (The Thursday Morning Group) and sure enough, there were the 2 Cranes in the little patch of water next to the tavern.  We enjoyed the Cranes for about 30 minutes, even getting a cruddy, but at least recognizable picture.

Sandhill Cranes, Saratoga County NY - January 2013 - By Danika Raup

Sandhill Cranes, Saratoga County NY – January 2013 – By Danika Raup

After seeing the Cranes, we hopped on the Northway and headed up to Queensbury, Warren County where Pine Grosbeak has spent much of the winter.  The original areas I had seen them with Corey Finger back in December were all eaten and it took us sometime of wandering through various housing developments looking for Crab apples   Finally, we had a flock of about a dozen birds fly over us in one development (year bird # 2 for the day), not the best looks (especially for Danika who has not seen them in a couple of years), but clearly countable and identifiable.

Pine Grosbeak - Queensbury, Warren County NY - December 2012 by Will Raup

Pine Grosbeak – Queensbury, Warren County NY – December 2012 by Will Raup

After getting the Grosbeaks, we headed over to Ft. Edward, Washington County, but it was very quiet.  There were a few good looking Rough-Legged Hawks and many, many Red-tailed Hawks, a small flock of about 25 Snow Buntings and a lone American Kestrel (year bird # 3 of the day).

Our last stop was at Wrights Loop in Saratoga County, where I hoped to pick up an Eastern Screech Owl that tends to roost in a Wood Duck box there, but no luck, though although we did find a Northern Flicker, the 4th new year bird of the day.

So the first chase of 2013 was a success, 4 new year birds bringing me up to a nice 58 through the 1st 10 days of January!  And getting Sandhill Crane was nice, it was on my “possible” list, so always nice to be able to cross one of those off!

Butterfly Kisses

Using our Kaufman butterfly field guide that we won from our friends at http://10000birds.com/ we were able to tell that all of the small blue butterflies we found dancing up and down the paths at Vosburgh’s Marsh were, Spring Azures.  Kaufman calls them widespread and common.  They occur in spring and summer in the north east and are often thought to be one of the first signs of spring here.  So while Will went off in search of spring warblers I got distracted by the little things along the way. 

-Vosburgh’s Marsh, and 4 mile point-

Is a track of land half way between Hudson and Cosxackie NY along the Hudson river.  It is owned by a local organization called Scenic Hudson that preserves historical and environmentally relevant land along the Hudson river Vally.   http://www.scenichudson.org/parks/fourmilepoint  

In a accessible point of view the trails are wide, dirt or grass paths that may not be suited to people with disabilities.  But there are parking lots at both ends of the road, and the mile drive goes through many different habits so there is plenty to see whether you’re in the car or out.  There is not much traffic on the road and as long as you use the marked lots you wont have to face the dogs ;)

This description was taken from http://library.fws.gov/pubs5/web_link/text/upp_hud.htmt ,  and while it maybe out of date being that the most recent year i could find in the article was 1996, it has relevance in its documenting what this area was and is to this day.

SIGNIFICANT HABITATS AND HABITAT COMPLEXES
OF THE NEW YORK BIGHT WATERSHED

Upper Hudson River Estuary
COMPLEX #33

Vosburgh Swamp-Middle Ground Flats is a freshwater wetland
complex extending for 6.4 kilometers (4 miles) along the western shore of the
Hudson, upstream from the village of Athens at river kilometer 192 (river mile
119). This 486-hectare (1,200-acre) complex includes mudflats, shallows,
freshwater tidal marsh, freshwater marsh, palustrine hardwood swamp, dredged
material bank islands habitat, and freshwater creek, i.e., a 0.8-kilometer
(0.5-mile) section of Murderers Creek to the first barrier, the Sleepy Hollow
Lake Dam. This area’s habitat values for fish and waterfowl are similar to those
of a number of sites already described. What is unusual is that Middle Ground
Flats contains one of the only known bank swallow (Riparia riparia)
breeding colonies in the area. Several rare plants occur here, including
exemplary occurrences of heart-leaf plantain and southern estuarine
beggar-ticks, as well as kidneyleaf mud-plantain and smooth bur-marigold.

UFC Comes to New York

Lost among all the usless things our impotent Governor and Legislators did this past year, they made it legal for mixed martial arts fights in New York State.  Little did we know, we would get a first hand look at this brutal sport at Jamaica Bay of all places.  Below are the higlights from the Yellowlegs Division.

The fighters enter the Octagon of death! (Octagon not included)

You talking to me?

Chant it with me, Fight! Fight! Fight! Fight!

Hi-ya!

Going for the Kill...

...Evaded!

In a judges ruling... we have a winner!

A Jamaica Bay Dragon(fly)

Birds weren’t the only interesting things on our most recent visit to Jamaica Bay with Corey of 10,000 Birds.  Danika took these shots of a gorgeous Dragonfly I’ve yet to ID (mostly I’ve been busy and haven’t dug out the field guide yet).  If you can give some hints, I would appreciate it!

Dragonfly at Jamaica Bay East Pond

 

Have we become lazy birders?

Lets face it, birders today go into the field armed to the death.  High powered binoculars and spotting scopes, field guides, blackberries with checklists, e-mail and recordings all set of every North American species.  Digital Camera, camcorder, sketch pad (for the old-timers), hat, sunglasses (I never understood wearing sunglasses while birding, since all birds have the same color then- ha!), bottled water, inspect repellant, toilet paper (forget it once, you’ll never forget again), map, flashlight (for nocturnal birding), identification to present to the authorities when you are arrested and  your name sewn into your underwear so they can ID the body after you get mauled by a bear.

But with all that equipment, are we better birders today then we were say 30 or 40 years ago, when most birders took a comfy pair of shoes and binoculars into the field?  Certainly the use of digital photography has meant that many rare or unusual birds have been recorded and positively ID.  You rarely hear the term “probable” anymore because of this.  But while ID’ing a rare bird at home is certainly a thrill, have our skills diminished that much that we can’t ID it in the field?  I dunno.

Its almost that we have become handicapped by all of our equipment, we have become almost dependent on field marks because we have optics that allows us to count feathers at 500 yards.  But we’ve lost some of those skills such as judging size, shape, watching behavior and understanding habitat and time of year.  I find a lot of new and casual birders lacking these skills, trying to find the perfect match in a book, rather than looking at the birds!  Danika was very much in this group until recently.  Lately we have been studying gulls at the Coxackie Boat Launch in Greene County.  Anyone who studies gulls knows there can be great variation in plumage, especially in young birds.  I’ve gotten her into the practice of looking for the “odd” gull, the focus more on size and shape than color.  Her efforts were rewarded when she was able to pick out her life, Lesser Black-Backed Gull by noticing certain details on the bird, before the obvious field marks.

That’s not to say there isn’t a place for equipment, I certainly use a scope and the best pair of binoculars I can afford.  But there are times, when I simply leave them in the car and I challenge myself to find and identify as many birds as possible without the aid of equipment.  I find I learn a lot more about, even common species, little details which I never noticed before in my rush to find, ID and check off a species.  Once you start to look at every bird you find in this way, the rare and unusual birds will show themselves and after all who doesn’t like finding a good bird?