Did you know – Species?
Did you know that there are approximately 9,700 known species of birds worldwide? The person who saw more of these than anyone else was, fittingly enough, named Phoebe. The late Phoebe Snetsinger of Missouri sighted 8,040 kinds of birds in her lifetime or an incredible 82.8% of all the known species on the planet. There are still new species being discovered every other year or so, and it’s a sad fact of life that every year there are also species becoming extinct. Most of the new discoveries are in equatorial rainforests and most of the extinctions have happened in island environments.
As man spread across the globe, species that had lived insulated from predation for thousands of years, just couldn’t withstand the pressure from cats, dogs, rats, sheep and man himself. The birds that come to mind for most people are the Dodo from Mauritius and (especially for you crossword puzzle aficionados) the Moa from New Zealand, but these are just two species in a vast number that have disappeared over the years. For example, just about every small atoll and island in the western Pacific had its own species of flightless rail and most did not survive Word War II. There is, however, an exception worth noting.
The Island of Okinawa was, in the spring of 1945, the site of the largest and bloodiest assault in the Pacific theatre of the war. The battle saw 180,000 American troops pitted against 140,000 entrenched Japanese soldiers in an area roughly three times the size of the City of Surrey. The campaign opened with land-based B-29 bombers and the aircraft from forty carriers pounding the island for a week. This was followed by a week of naval bombardment by eighteen battleships. Several hundred thousand tons of ordnance was flung at the island during the two-week “softening up” period. Then the troops were landed and the ground battle began. Three months of grinding, desperate fighting with machine guns, tanks, flame throwers and high explosives. When it was over 200,000 people (combatants and civilians) had lost their lives. Not only did the flightless Okinawa Rail survive this horrific maelstrom, but the species was not even discovered until 1980! Surviving the war was one thing, but no less remarkable was the fact that the bird could escape detection for so long on an island that has a modern day population density of 500 people per square kilometer! The story of this miraculous little bird could well be entitled “How to Keep a Loooow Profile!”
Canada has had three indigenous bird species become extinct. These are the Great Auk, the Labrador Duck and the Passenger Pigeon. The Eskimo Curlew may be extinct, but it is still officially classified as “endangered”. The bird’s arctic nesting grounds are vast and remote, and there have been just enough relatively recent reports that there is a faint hope that the species survives. Joining the Eskimo Curlew on the Canadian endangered species list, are fifteen other birds.
With regard to Canada, here are the number of species that have occurred in the following regions to the end of 2002:
|Lower Mainland of BC||406|
The highest number of species recorded in British Columbia in a single day is 196 by a team of four birders in the spring of 1995. They were engaged in that frantic activity peculiar to birding circles, known as the “Big day”. This is an all out, just for fun, midnight to midnight, coffee and doughnut fuelled, one-day bird blitz. Spring is the most popular time for this activity and some bird clubs across North America hold annual friendly competitions. Yes, believe it or not, there is a “World Series of Birding” (as a birder, though, I’ve never quite reconciled myself to the fact that participants in Major League Baseball’s World Series actually get paid more than participants in the birding version. Is there no end to the injustices of this world?). The Okanagan Big Day Challenge, held every year in May, is the premier competition in British Columbia. In Ontario it’s the Taverner Cup.
Other than “Big Day”, there are a few other birding terms you may hear from time to time.
This means a species that a birder has seen for the very first time.
An out-of-town trip specifically to see birds.
Alternate and basic plumage
Many bird species display bold colours and patterns during the spring (gotta impress the chicks during the mating season!), but moult into very drab plumage after the breeding season is over. For years the standard lexicon was to refer to these two phases of a bird’s livery as “breeding” plumage and “winter” plumage. Many ornithologists felt, however, that “winter” wasn’t an entirely appropriate description. This is because although a bird may have the drab plumage during the North American winter months, if the species migrates to Central or South America (like many of them do), it is actually summer where the bird is hanging out.
If you ask a birder in Patagonia about a species like the Red Knot, which he or she will normally only be able to observe during the austral spring or summer, they will describe what in North America would be considered “winter” plumage ‘ dull grey and white. As well, many individuals of a species can lose the bright plumage very quickly after nesting is completed. I have seen many southward bound shorebirds in late July and August (hey ‘ if you’re heading for Patagonia it’s best to get an early start) that were already sporting their winter duds.
As a result, many birders have adopted the expression “basic”, instead of “winter”, and “alternate”, instead of “breeding”. These terms are not season-specific, and, considering that most species will spend two-thirds of the year in drab plumage and only one-third in the bright plumage, it makes a lot of sense to refer to the drab as “basic”.
Some bird species come in different, naturally occurring colour schemes. The Gyrfalcon, for example, can be white, black, or grey. A particular colour scheme was often referred to as “phase”, such as a grey phase Gyrfalcon. Once again, though, many birders felt that this wasn’t a proper description. If you look at the dictionary definition of “phase”, you will see that it refers to a temporary state in a larger process of change. Change is thus implicit in the expression “phase”. Well, a grey phase Gyrfalcon is always going to be a grey phase Gyrfalcon. It isn’t going to change into a white phase. Consequently, many birders have instead adopted the expression “morph”, such as grey morph Gyrfalcon. This comes from the Greek noun “morphe”, meaning “form”.
Many birders and field guides still use the old lexicon, but it is helpful to know what the newer terms mean. Where you may often encounter these expressions, is on the Vancouver Rare Bird Alert phone line. When referring to specific sightings, it may talk about basic or alternate plumage, or grey morph this or tan morph that. At least, now you will know what the heck they’re talking about.
All birds undergo a process where old feathers fall out and new ones grow in their place. This constant rejuvenation of plumage is called “moulting”. Not only does moulting keep a bird’s feathers fresh, which is vital for both flight and insulation, but it also accounts for the change in appearance of many species. A dull brown, first year gull will, through three successive annual moults, gradually don the pearly gray and clean white of an adult. A ptarmigan (an arctic grouse) will be brown in the summer and then moult into pure white by the time the snow is flying, thereby retaining perfect camouflage. Many species switch, through moulting, between bright plumage in the breeding season (when it is imperative to attract a mate) and dull plumage in the non-breeding season (when it is more important not to get eaten by predators). One family of birds that has an unusual cycle of bright and drab plumage is the ducks.
In the northern hemisphere, the drakes of most duck species switch from bright breeding plumage to a drab brown or grayish brown by early July. This dull plumage, however, doesn’t last through the winter like it normally would for many other types of birds. By early to mid fall (around about October) the males start coming back into their breeding appearance which they then retain right through the winter months and the next breeding season. The colours do become more intense at breeding time but the essential patterns are often there by October. The period of drab plumage for the male ducks is greatly abbreviated compared to most other species that switch between breeding and non-breeding plumages, and, for this reason, it is referred to as “eclipse” plumage rather than “winter” or “basic”. Eclipse plumage is a term exclusive to the ducks and the high season for it is July, August and September.
This adjective, from the latin word for the sea (pelagicus), is a synonym for “oceanic”. A pelagic species is a bird that you would normally expect to find only on the open ocean. There is a large number of species that, aside from the necessities of breeding, spend the better part of their lives on the ocean and can rarely be seen from land. This includes birds such as albatrosses, petrels, shearwaters, puffins, jaegers, skuas and many others. Being able to view these kinds of birds is a treat for most land bound birders, so many bird clubs in coastal regions organize annual pelagic birding trips. This type of trip typically involves a large group of birders chipping in something like $100 each to charter one or two medium-sized fishing boats for one day.
In British Columbia the most common month for pelagic trips is September or October and they normally depart from Ucluelet or Tofino on the west coast of Vancouver Island. Until recently there hasn’t been any particular regularity of trips in the province but a Tofino based birding tour company called “Just Birding” is now including pelagic trips as part of it’s schedule of guided tours. For information you can contact George Bradd at “Just Birding” Box 135, Tofino, B.C. V0R 2Z0 Canada. Phone no: 1-250-725-8018 e-mail: [email protected] or visit the company’s website at www.justbirding.com. In Washington State there is an organization called “Westport Seabirds” that conducts regular trips from the town of Westport in Gray’s Harbor County. You can contact them at:
There is another British Columbia based bird tour company called “Avocet Tours” that includes some pelagic trips in it’s schedule but focuses on land based tours in British Columbia, Washington State and the U.S. southwest. For information you can contact Chris Charlesworth at “Avocet Tours” 725 Richards Road, Kelowna, B.C. V1X 2X5 Canada. Phone no: 1-250-718-0335 e-mail: [email protected] or visit the company’s website at www.avocettours.com
Before voice recognition software and dictaphones, stenographers could record conversations with a set of standard, universally recognized chicken scratches, called shorthand (one of Sir Isaac Pitman’s gifts to the world). There are ornithological versions of shorthand.
Some bird study organizations have developed abbreviations or codes to designate species. The purpose is twofold. First, to make the composition of field notes easier and faster and secondly, such a system standardizes the reporting format for collection of scientific data such as Christmas Bird Counts and bird banding information. There are a few versions out there. The Ornithology Department at the Royal British Columbia Museum has developed a set, but the codes that are probably the most widely used in North America, are those developed by the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center’s Bird Banding Laboratory (BBL). Here are sample codes for some of the commoner British Columbia birds:
The BBL codes are, by far, the most comprehensive set, covering every species that has been known to occur in North America. For this reason they are generally accepted as the standard for birders. Although the codes are primarily used by researchers involved in the scientific study of birds, it is useful for the recreational birder to be familiar with the system. Recreational birders frequently assist in the collection of data (bird counts and surveys are a good example) and, in such cases, may be required to submit the data using standard abbreviations. As well, with the advent of e-mail groups for birding, some of the postings of bird sightings are in code. Although there is a certain appeal to being mysterious and communicating in code, that’s really not the reason some birders post sightings in this fashion. It’s simply that, if you are listing a large number of different species, it is faster to do it in code than to type out the full species name. If you decide to join one of the e-mail groups, being familiar with these abbreviations will make it easier for you to understand these types of messages.
A list of the Bird Banding Laboratory codes for all North American bird species can be found at:
A list of the Royal British Columbia Museum codes can be found at:
Some birds, particularly small songbirds, are attracted to certain sounds. One particularly effective sound that birders can make is called “pishing” (or sometimes “spishing”). Unless you see a pisher (a birder in the act of pishing) in action, it’s a little bit hard to describe, but here goes. The sound is similar to the sound you would make when you are shushing someone at the movie theatre (i.e., “shhhh!”). Now in front of this you put a “p”. So the sound is actually “pshhhh”. To be effective though, the sound must be delivered in a continuous series of short bursts … “pshhhh, pshhhh, pshhhh, pshhhh, pshhhh …”. The lips should be very loose and relaxed as this sound is performed and sufficient air must be forced through the teeth so it is reasonably loud. It has to be soft and loud at the same time … that is … not harsh-sounding, and of sufficient volume so that birds can hear it. The other thing that is required is a modicum of patience. Birds are not necessarily going to react immediately …. sometimes there is a bit of a delayed reaction … so the sound should be performed relatively continuously for a minute or two. Now before you kill yourself laughing, try it on your next birdwalk. More often than not you will be amazed at the results (if it’s done properly that is). You will see all kinds of little birds suddenly pop out of the bushes (the “pishees”) to find out what’s making that sound. And, of course, when they pop up to have a look at you, you can look at them. That’s the whole idea of the sound … to get birds that you would otherwise never be able to see to reveal themselves. It doesn’t work absolutely every time. Sometimes you will be ignored, other times some bird will sneak up for a quick look at you through the bushes, and then be gone, but you will also get, on occasion, the “in your face” reaction like the Black and White Warbler that dove straight at my head when I started to make the sound.
Another time I recall standing in a small weedy field sandwiched between two industrial parks in south Surrey. The only cover in the whole field was a small apple tree with a tangle of blackberries around the base. There were no birds apparent anywhere. After two minutes of pishing, nine different species had emerged from that small patch of blackberries.
It tends to work best during the winter months and the effectiveness is sharply reduced during the height of the breeding season (May & June) when most birds are far too busy with “amore” to pay attention. But, on balance, it works wonderfully well. The times I have seen stuff that I never would have seen, had I not been pishing, are just too numerous to mention. So give it a try. If you do though, be prepared for joggers and dog walkers to give you quizzical looks and wide berths on the trail. Perhaps no other practice has done more to reinforce the stereotype of birders as being eccentric than pishing. Here is someone standing in the middle of the woods … just standing around … not engaged in any particular activity … staring intently into the bushes and making a strange sound to no one in particular. This is weird … let’s get out of here Rover.
There are other sounds that may attract birds. Some birders have found a soft squeaky noise, such as the noise that is produced from kissing the back of your hand, is effective. You can also buy, at several Lower Mainland nature stores, the “Audubon Bird Call”. This is a tiny red or green coloured wooden cylinder with a flanged metal insert. Rotating the insert so that it rubs against the rosin-coated inside of the birchwood cylinder, produces a variety of squeaks and chips that is extremely effective in attracting small birds. With a bit of practice you can actually get this call to imitate specific species. I can do a Fox Sparrow or Orange-crowned Warbler alarm call that’s hard to distinguish from the real thing.
Leaf through a field guide and you will see that there are about sixty families of birds found in North America. Birding cognoscenti know, however, that the field guides don’t always tell the whole story. There is a fairly large family of birds not mentioned in any field guide or checklist….the “little brown jobs” or “LBJs”. This is the “as yet unofficial but no doubt soon to be recognized by the AOU” classification for the legions of hard to identify, small, plain looking birds that every birder has encountered flitting and skulking around in the bushes where it can’t be seen well enough to be identified (or worse…it can be seen but you still have absolutely no idea what it is). Never seen one? Keep birding. You will.
This is the name given to the hot new trend in nature photography. It involves using a regular digital camera held up to a conventional spotting telescope to produce top quality images of wild birds.
Prior to the advent of affordable digital cameras, taking quality bird photos usually involved very expensive telephoto lenses. A spotting scope could function as a lens but it required a special adapter, a long ‘set up’ time and a knowledge of photography to get the image ‘right’. By comparison, digiscoping is much simpler, easier and cheaper. No special adapters are required, set up is lightning quick, and, because you see your pic right away, you don’t have to have a detailed knowledge of photography. If you don’t like the image, just take another. It’s not hard to see why digiscoping is rapidly gaining popularity among the birding set.
There are already quite a few websites dedicated to digiscoping. One of the better of these can be found at Digiscoping thebirdguide.com/digiscoping/digiscoping.htm (no ‘www’).