BIRDING BY HINDSIGHT: A Second Look at MBW (Part II)



Discussions of flip-arounds, Canadian honkers, yellow car jokes.... With these among the topics included the last time around (http://mbwbirds.com/mbw-i.html), has Hindsight finally run out of ideas after 17 years? Could be, although these expressions and others have become quintessential aspects of the Minnesota Birding Weekends program (i.e., MBW), which has provided numerous bird identification challenges over the years.


The previous column discussed some ID issues faced during last year's MBW season, and – brace yourselves – here are some more from the 2010-11 season. Again, for your edification and with your permission, these entries will be introduced with MBW idioms. Okey dokey?



Proper Scope Etiquette: Duluth MBW, January 2011

Since it's contrary to the concept of "Minnesota Nice", some MBW birders have difficulty getting the hang of the proper etiquette when given the opportunity to look through someone's spotting scope. The correct strategy is to barge right in there and don't defer to other waiting birders. If you get bogged down into a polite "after you" exchange, birds have a way of flying off before either of the hesitating birders finally looks through the scope.


And keep in mind that spotting scopes are not just for distant waterfowl or perched raptors. They can be essential when dealing with birds closer at hand when their identities rely on inspection of minute and subtle field marks. So it was on this MBW (and on the November 2010 MBW) with the gulls standing on the nearby breakwater at Canal Park in Duluth. The particular individual we puzzled over was a possible Iceland Gull which eventually overwintered there.


Or was it a pale Thayer's Gull? Or a Thayer's x Iceland hybrid? Or if indeed an Iceland, would it be of the glaucoides or kumlieni subspecies (which some consider separate species)? Intense scrutiny over several weeks focused on things like irides color, orbital rings, gonydeal angles, subapical spots, primary mirrors, P10 vs. P9 patterns, tertials, primary extensions, subterminal tail bands....


So what was it? (My answer is the same as the response to this riddle: What would be the worst quality of a birding tour guide – ignorance or apathy? Answer: I don't know and I don't care.) Sorry, but when it comes to larger gulls, (especially immatures, with ambiguous or anomalous features, I have to admit my attention span is seriously limited. This is especially true with the issue of paler Thayer's Gulls vs. darker Icelands, since many are of the opinion that the two are simply nothing more than the same species and often cannot be separated. (Or in my case, all this is Proven Scientific Fact – see below.)


So, why fret over an ID problem if it just gives you a headache and even tends to ruin your enjoyment of birding, especially if the problem cannot be resolved? Consider the Frontiers of Field Identification on-line discussion group about bird ID issues (http://www.surfbirds.com/maillist/?id=62). Almost invariably when it comes to a mystery gull, the ID is tediously discussed at length but hardly ever resolved. Indeed, even the experts typically don't know what these gulls are, even if they do care.  


So, now that you know Proper Scope Etiquette, how about Proper Gull Etiquette? My advice, at least when dealing with the ID of atypical immatures: it's perfectly OK to ignore them, to avoid potential headaches, and maintain your sanity. To simply say you don't know and you don't care.



No Refunds: Lyon-Lincoln County MBW, October 2010


This MBW mantra has been an oft-repeated tradition with us for over 20 years, although it has now become something we typically say in jest, either just after we've found something really good or, conversely, when the birding is not going well.


And things certainly seemed refund-worthy at times on this MBW's Friday option, when birds were really hard to come by as it reached 90 degrees, some 30 degrees above normal. It did cool off the next day, although the recently warm, dry, and uneventful weather was not conducive to migration activity: migrant woods birds were almost non-existent, and – if ever there was a reason for refunds – even the sewage ponds we checked were virtually empty.       


But among other things, our MBW was highlighted by a total of 17 sparrow species, with two of these presenting some reminders about ID issues. One was the Spotted Towhee we found which had to be carefully studied to be sure it wasn't a hybrid: such individuals do occur in Minnesota and always have to be considered. Eventually we could see enough white spotting and streaking on both the back and wings to rule out hybridization, but keep in mind that some Spotted Towhee races are less spotted than others and more closely resemble Easterns.  


Le Conte's was the other sparrow that caused some uncertainty on our part. Though I had long known that some Le Conte's can appear more orange than buff on the face, I apparently had forgotten how orange and Nelson's Sparrow-like some of them could be. There was one field especially where we'd flush orange-faced sparrows that I was sure would be Nelson's. But as we tracked them down to get better looks, they proved to be Le Conte's once the two more reliable field marks became visible: white median crown stripes (not gray as on Nelson's) and streaked napes (not solid gray).



Proven Scientific Fact: Duluth MBW, September 2010


As I like to remind anyone on a MBW who'll listen, I never express mere personal opinions, because everything I say is Proven Scientific Fact! (My fist pounding on the table for emphasis often accompanies this claim, and then even I start to believe it.) Even when I'm way off about something, which is frequent, I've at least found this can be an effective way to avoid giving refunds.


I do have to admit that any claim to infallibility can be especially shaken when it comes to swan identification, as it was on this MBW. Here was this lone swan at the Castle Danger sewage ponds in September, which I tentatively claimed would be a Trumpeter, by virtue of it being a single individual and because of the early date. After all, migrant Tundras are typically in flocks and should not start appearing until later in October. A second look, though, revealed the diagnostic yellow lores of a premature and lonely Tundra Swan.


Interestingly, a year later on the 2011 edition of this late September MBW, a group of five swans flew over us at Park Point in Duluth and continued out of sight. Again, I found myself assuming they were Trumpeters because of the modest number and early date, although, shaken by that Tundra the year before, I listed them as unidentified. As has been addressed before in previous Hindsight columns, swans can be deceptively difficult to identify at times, and I continue to maintain this means we have an imperfect concept of what the status of Trumpeter and Tundra swans actually is in Minnesota.



Lily-livered Lollygagging Listers: Northwestern Minnesota MBW, September 2010


I have to admit that most serious listers do not tend to be lily-livered, nor do they lollygag very much on MBWs. Those dedicated to adding birds to their lists (e.g., county lists) usually don't shy away from adversity (such as braving the perils of gull and swan ID), nor do they like to waste time (with non-essentials like eating and sleeping). Still, I like to call them this, perhaps because all that alliteration appeals to my roots as an English major.         


One challenge on this MBW arose when some turkeys happened by in Marshall County. No, their ID wasn't the problem. Rather, the dilemma was deciding whether or not these really were Wild Turkeys up here in northwestern Minnesota, something one could fairly count on a county list. Or were they merely recent, non-established releases from some game farm or barnyard? (You guessed it: they were boldly and swiftly listed.) However, just as swan distribution is clouded by ID difficulties, the true status of Wild Turkeys in northern Minnesota remains uncertain as long as not-so-wild turkeys are out there as well.


But even better than these turkeys was the immature night-heron we saw way up in Warroad. It had been found earlier in the week by others and naturally assumed to be a Black-crowned, but our careful study showed it was actually a quite unexpected Yellow-crowned. Separating these immatures is not easy, but the best field marks involve the Yellow-crowned's all-dark bill color (bicolored on Black-crowned) and the smaller, rounder spots on its upperparts (larger, tear-drop- shaped spots on Black-crowned). There are also subtle differences mentioned in the field guides (the Yellow-crowned's thicker bill, rounder head shape, darker overall plumage, and longer legs), but I'd consider these hard to judge without direct comparison.


Later on this MBW another ID challenge arose while we were split into two groups, and some found a flycatcher they called an Olive-sided. After they moved on and the others arrived at the exact same site a few minutes later, an Eastern Wood-Pewee was identified. So, did the Olive-sided take off and a wood-pewee move in? Perhaps, but it's more likely there was just one bird which one of the groups misidentified. Be aware that it's easier to confuse these two flycatchers than most birders think, especially since some wood-pewees can look relatively dark below and somewhat "vested", much like an Olive-sided.  


Of course, a far more difficult and well-known problem involves telling Western Wood-Pewees from Easterns. Silent, out-of-range wood-pewees are not considered safe to identify by appearance alone, and there was this one wood-pewee we found that suggested it might be a Western. But we had to leave it as unidentified since it refused to utter even a single call note during the entire time we studied it. Even if it had, though, anything short of the full territorial song (a burry, nasal, hoarse, falling-in-pitch "beeerr") wouldn't be enough to call it a Western.


I had previously thought that it was OK to use call notes alone to ID something as a Western – i.e., burry, nasal, and hoarse like the song, but rising-in-pitch instead: "brree". This is what was heard in Norman County on a 2009 MBW, and the references agreed only Westerns could sound this way. Not so, unfortunately, as I learned last year with two Eastern Wood-Pewees giving Western-like notes, one each in Ohio and Ontario. My field notes indicate both birds uttered burry, nasal, soft "pee-yee" call notes that rose in pitch, much like what I had heard in Norman County.


Alas, this Lily-livered Lollygagging Norman County Lister still has only one of the wood-pewees on that list.  



Aliens: Stevens-Traverse County MBW, August 2010


I can't imagine doing any MBW without carpooling, normally limited to four vehicles with four persons each to keep the line of cars manageable. Or without every vehicle equipped with a FRS or GMRS radio, so everyone knows what's being seen and where the next stop is. (I understand that some field trips manage to operate without either strategy, but I don't know how they do it.) Radios also come in handy when announcing the presence of what we fondly and traditionally call Aliens (i.e., vehicles approaching us from the rear), so we know when to either speed up or pull over to let them by.


Of course, the word aliens also refers to other things, including strange visitors from other planets (e.g., county listers?), or exotic plants and animals introduced from one area to another. One of the latter encountered on this MBW was a pair of Eurasian Collared-Doves in the town of Herman, a species now routinely seen and taken for granted in towns in much of southern and western Minnesota. But when first discovered in the state in 1998 and for the next few years, close attention was involved with any sighting to be sure the dove wasn't an exotic Ringed (or African) Turtle-Dove.


After collared-doves became Regular in status in the next few years, no one bothered with the turtle-dove ID issue any more, but perhaps there are times when we should. For example, while one of that pair in Herman looked like a typical Eurasian Collared-Dove, the other was much paler and looked much like a Ringed/African Turtle-Dove. While turtle-doves may just be "non-countable" exotics, be aware they can still be out there and could interbreed with collared-doves, but there are still ways to tell the two apart: e.g., see the Hindsight article on doves (http://www.mbwbirds.com/doves.html). Along with those doves in Herman, it's worth mentioning that this MBW featured another challenging ID issue at Thielke Lake, another bird we did not identify with any certainty. As has been seen several times before in Minnesota, here was one of those puzzling intermediate Western-Clark's Grebes. In this case, its bill was somewhat orange-yellow, but not as strikingly so as on a typical Clark's, and the feathering around its eyes was only partly white. Again, birders need to be prepared to occasionally encounter grebes such as these and to do the right thing about their ID: i.e., don't identify them.  

  


White Starlings: Houston-Winona County MBW, April 2010


Well, their plumage is white, they're pests introduced from Europe, and they negatively impact native waterfowl species. So why not refer to Mute Swans as White Starlings? (I've also heard a rumor that Trumpeters are sometimes called the same thing, though you can't believe everything you hear.) But at least Mute Swans don't share the ID difficulties involved with the other two swans. The problem birders have with them is provenance. When a Mute Swan turns up in Minnesota, how do you determine if it's a genuine, countable stray from an established population or just someone's pet?


The season involved and the swan's behavior might provide some clues, but more telling is the habitat. A more natural wetland, especially if there are other migrant waterfowl around, might suggest a wild bird; an urban or suburban park-like setting, especially when other exotic waterfowl are there, tends to indicate a recently escaped or released bird.


But on this MBW we encountered a couple of Mute Swans at a site not so easily categorized. While a casino's sewage ponds would normally be one of those suspicious "park-like" locations, Treasure Island Casino is in an obviously rural setting along the wooded backwaters of the Mississippi River, and there were lots of migrant waterfowl accompanying these swans. Indeed, we almost had them listed, when one of the MBWers simply called the casino (he even had them on speed dial on his cell phone!) and learned the casino had recently released them. Only then did we have to admit these were nothing more than White Starlings.



*          *          *


So, you're now ready to fit right in on any MBW you attend, both in what you say and in what we struggle to identify. After all, you've learned a lot – that proper etiquette can include rudeness (when scopes are concerned), when to expect refunds, the best way to separate fact (the Proven Scientific variety) from fiction, how to distinguish lily-livered lollygagging county listers from aliens, and what the difference is between a White Starling and a Canadian Honker.