Author Archives: Bruce Aird

Bishops and Munias and Whydahs! Oh My!

Adult Scaly-breasted Munia drinking

Adult Scaly-breasted Munia drinking

Few subjects provoke the ire in a roomful of birders more rapidly than whether or not to count introduced species. The ins and outs of what is “countable”, what is “established”, and what is still an exotic alien has reddened faces and clenched fists among birders for decades. After that comes the discussion of which state bird records committee is loosest or tightest in their approach to exotics. By then, former friends begin to disperse faster than the young of the year.

But in the end, that is not really what matters here. When it comes to counting exotics, I find myself more and more adopting an eBird stance. That is: count them all, do it as accurately as possible, and submit your data. In the end, the importance of this goes far beyond a mere life list. What matters most is the impact that these growing populations of exotics have upon our native species and the environment in general. Make no mistake about it, that impact is huge.

Male Pin-tailed Whydah, Orange County, CA

Male Pin-tailed Whydah, Orange County, California

The only way we will ever get any kind of handle upon it is to count each and every exotic species as accurately as possible and submit the data on eBird. Note that I treat eBird as an assumption here. Please do the following if you do not currently use eBird. Stop reading, open an account (http://ebird.org/) and download the app to your phone. Learn how to use it. Seriously. Then come back and finish reading. Continue reading

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Exotic Parrots in North America

Rosy-faced Lovebird in a Phoenix, Arizona city park

Rosy-faced Lovebird in a Phoenix, Arizona city park

Any discussion of introduced bird species in North America would be incomplete without considering exotic parrots. In fact, parrots and their allies constitute the single largest class of exotic birds on the continent. According to Forshaw’s Parrots of the World, there are/were 356 parrot species extant in the world as of 2010. Over 20 psittacids (parrots and their relatives) occur frequently enough in North America that the major field guides illustrate them. Yet only eight species grace the official North American checklist. Of these, arguably only six became established anywhere. Those six are: Monk Parakeet, Nanday Parakeet, Green Parakeet, White-winged Parakeet, Red-crowned Amazon and Rosy-faced Lovebird. See the table of species and their status below.

The irony of it abounds. Historically, North America only ever boasted two native psittacid species: Carolina Parakeet and Thick-billed Parrot. The Carolina Parakeet is famously extinct. Thick-billed Parrot was extirpated from its tiny historical range in the United States decades ago. Moreover, they are endangered in their restricted Mexican range. All efforts to re-introduce Thick-billed Parrots in the southwest met with failure. So any parrot seen in North America is by definition, an exotic. Perhaps many species not on the official checklist are well on the way to becoming established. Continue reading

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Eureka – A Snowy Plover Story

A Western Snowy Plover on its nest

An adult Snowy Plover incubating on a nest scrape

The amazing story of Eureka, the Western Snowy Plover, began with an unexpected event on Memorial Day weekend of 2017. I do quarterly surveys for Western Snowy Plover (Charadrius nivosus nivosus), an endangered species along the west coast of North America. We survey a 2.2-mile stretch of Huntington State Beach in Orange County, CA. With my teammates, Doug and Chuck, we’ve surveyed this beach every January, March, May and September for four years. Huntington State Beach is a crucial roosting and feeding area for Western Snowy Plover, and we see some on every January, March or September survey.

Surveying takes three of us because the beach is quite deep at about 500 feet from the parking lot to the water’s edge. Our team walks in parallel, zig-zagging down the beach to cover everything. Snowy Plovers, with their pale, wet-sand plumage, can be hard to spot. They make it harder by crouching down in little divots on the beach, hiding until danger is right on top of them. May is the boring survey because it’s the only time we don’t see the plovers on our beach. By May, the plovers have migrated to their breeding areas elsewhere. Continue reading

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Anza-Borrego Super-Bloom

The wildflowers north of Borrego Springs

The wildflowers north of Borrego Springs

Just when you think you understand things a little, along comes an event that puts you in your place! The rainfall here on the west coast of the United States in 2017 has been a bit odd. Very welcome, to be sure, but a bit odd. We greatly exceeded expected rainfall this winter and spring. From Washington down to northern California, experts declared an official end to a drought that lasted about a decade. This refilled reservoirs and lakes in that region  to capacity.

In southern California, the rain didn’t erase that long drought as completely, but it still had staggering effects locally. One factor that makes the rain so odd is that it occurred completely outside the Pacific oscillation cycle. The El Nino and La Nina events govern these oscillations. These rains at Anza-Borrego State Park produced a huge wildflower super-bloom. That greatly benefited White-lined Sphinx moths and their predators. Continue reading

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A Laysan Albatross in Orange County

The Sea and Sage Audubon chapter winter pelagic trip ran recently on a February day following strong winds and storms from the southwest. A fairly large swell kept people on their toes for most of the day (going airborne while on a boat is bad!!). It was by turns rainy, windy, drizzly and sunny. For those who braved the weather, however, the returns from this trip were spectacular! Every pelagic trip begins with a sense of hope: maybe you’ll see something rare, like an albatross. But realistically, you never really expect one to show up. As it turned out, they weren’t long in coming, and in this case it was an unprecedented one.

Laysan Albatross

Laysan Albatross in Orange County

A Laysan Albatross soars past the boat at close quarters.

The boat left Dana Point harbor and headed straight out into the California Channel. Four miles out, a call of “Albatross!” went up from the back of the boat. The usual stampede ensued! The bird in question, a spectacular adult Laysan Albatross, Phoebastria immutabilis, provided a first record for Orange County. This particular individual was a handsome adult bird. The distinctive dark wings and all-white body, nape and crown are distinctive. And the grayish shadow to the auricular and large pinkish bill with a pale bluish tip seal the deal. The bird made several passes by the boat, found nothing that interested it, and sailed off, leaving us all wishing for more. Alas, it was not to be as we never saw this bird again during the entire trip. But it sure woke everyone up! Continue reading

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Coastal Saltmarsh Sparrows

Introduction

Nelson's Sparrows at Seal Beach National Wildlife Refuge

Nelson’s Sparrow, driven into view by high tides.

The brackish and salt marshes of California are an important and globally-threatened ecosystem. At this point, a century of “civilization” has filled, polluted or destroyed over 95% of California’s coastal salt marshes. These estuaries and marshes are incredibly important. Biologically speaking, they are some of the most productive acres of habitat anywhere. They host tremendous species diversity, and act as vital nursery grounds for many ocean species. They serve as feeding and breeding resources for a variety of species. Endangered species like the California Least Tern, Western Snowy Plover and Light-footed Ridgway’s Rail all use coastal saltmarshes. They also provide wintering or year-round habitat for a number of interesting bird species. The focus of this article is three such species: Belding’s (Savannah) Sparrow, Large-billed Savannah Sparrow and Nelson’s Sparrows. Continue reading

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Recognizing The Seven Chickadee Species of North America

Black-capped Chickadee, Kenai Peninsula, Alaska

This Black-capped Chickadee was a regular visitor to the yard of the guest house where we were staying.

Seven chickadee species regularly occur in North America: Carolina, Black-capped, Boreal, Mountain, Chestnut-backed, Mexican and Gray-headed Chickadee. Chickadees form a closely-related group, all belonging to the same genus (Poecile). Chickadees are members of the family Paridae, which also includes the titmice. European birders call chickadees “tits”, and tits include some of the largest and most colorful members of the family.

Chickadees are small birds with big personalities. Chickadees get their name from their songs, which sound as though they are saying “chick-a-dee-dee-dee”, or variations on that theme. They are small birds (the largest are just 5.5 inches long) with proportionately large, round heads, variable amounts of white in prominent cheek patches, and always a black throat. All of our chickadees have short, sharp bills well-adapted for hammering open seeds or grabbing bugs out of crevices. Chickadees are gregarious, flocking birds except when nesting and fledging young each year. Then the flocks break apart and birds set up breeding territories. Chickadees frequently visit bird feeders across the continent, making them some of North America’s best known and most beloved birds. Continue reading

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The Black Skimmer

Sub-adult Black Skimmer close-up

A sub-adult Black Skimmer close-up over a pond at San Joaquin Wildlife Sanctuary in Irvine, California

The Black Skimmer (Rynchops niger) is a  wonderful weird bird that breeds across the southern half of North America. Black Skimmers live and forage almost exclusively at coastal locations or within about 20 miles of the shore. They are primarily year-round residents here, though some winter as far south as the Yucatan. A large population of Black Skimmers resides year-round in a range roughly corresponding to the entire Amazon drainage basin.

Black Skimmers are easily recognizable by their bizarre asymmetric bill, longer below than above. Black Skimmers have clean white underparts, throat, neck collar (non-breeding only) and around the bill. Their feet and the inner bills are bright orange; the tips of both mandibles are black. Juvenile Black Skimmers are more brownish-gray on the upper surface, and have relatively dull orange feet and inner bill parts. At birth, juvenile skimmers mandibles are of equal length. But by the time they fledge four weeks later, the lower mandible is a centimeter longer than the upper one. Continue reading

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Pacific Ocean Puffins

A Horned Puffin getting airborne, Kachemak Bay, Alaska

A Horned Puffin getting airborne, Kachemak Bay, Alaska

All three species of puffin, Atlantic, Horned and Tufted, are native to the northern hemisphere. Currently, all puffins belong to the genus Fratercula, which is Latin for “little brother”. Rhinoceros Auklet (Cerorhinca monocerata) was once included in the same genus as the puffins. Puffins are alcids – truly pelagic seabirds that feed by diving from the ocean surface and capturing small fish and zooplankton.

Atlantic Puffins (Fratercula arctica) breed on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean in large colonies.  Tufted (Fratercula cirrhata) and Horned Puffins (Fratercula corniculata) are unique to the northern Pacific Ocean on both sides of the Bering Strait. This article focuses on the Horned and Tufted Puffins, it discusses Atlantic Puffins as well.  Continue reading

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Deep Creek Dragonflies

Gray Sanddragon lifting off

Gray Sanddragon lifting off

When summer hits the doldrums set in after the migrants have flown north. Many of us then chase butterflies and odonata (dragonflies and damselflies, or “odes”). Odes are particularly fun because they make such great photography subjects with their wild colors, spiky appendages and weird shapes. Even the names are awesome! The only bird names that can even compete are mostly hummingbirds…

Recent reports of some first county record dragonflies in San Bernardino County took us up to Deep Creek. The United States Forest Service administers to this unit of the San Bernardino National Forest. Tom Benson discovered Bison Snaketails and Western River Cruisers on this relatively pristine creek in the San Bernardino Mountains. Tulare County previously had the southern-most records of Bison Snaketail. This find significantly extends the known range of that species. Likewise, the southern-most known range of Western River Cruiser was up in Kern and Inyo counties. These two species belong to the clubtail family. Clubtails have oddly bulging tail segments and brilliant colors, making them some of the weirdest-looking dragonflies in California. Continue reading

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