Ptarmigan Yes, Grassquit No
Linda needed to be in Salem to visit her son and I tagged along. A run to the local national wildlife refuges was uneventful unless you are crazy about Canada Geese. Although birdless in Salem, in a few days we buckled up for a journey to Mt. Rainier National Park, with high hopes, no pun intended, of meeting a White-tailed Ptarmigan.
14 September 2009
Leaving our Super 8 Motel, we drive north, inter-stating around Portland and Vancouver, Washington, pass Mt. St. Helens that erupted recently, geologically speaking, to my favorite mountain, now beautifully benign Mt. Rainier. What a contrast to sand, cactus and other prickly things of Arizona. Why Mt. Rainier? After my last life bird, the countable or not so countable Brown-backed Solitaire, I need a new lifer, something northern, something unquestionably countable, a White-tailed Ptarmigan. Other than the Rocky Mountains, Mt. Rainier is the closest habitat to my home for the little grouse. This is my second attempt for the species. In 2006, I chickened-out in Montana, not wishing to drive the narrow road traversing Glacier National Park. Lowly acrophobia can spoil things. Only days before Montana, I almost had the ptarmigan near Sunrise, on the northeast side of Mt. Rainier, but luckily, time ran out. It was luck because my acrophobia was on high alert and I was running out of nerve. There was this monstrous necessity to see a ptarmigan, or so I believed, to crawl up the trail, to maintain my center of gravity as close to my boots as possible. I dare not look down. This time, today, now on the south side of the 14,410 giant mountain, I cross my fingers that the terrain is friendlier than the trails out of Sunrise.
First, before raising my adrenalin, I tend to a two-lane highway toward Mt. Rainier. We end up in a little hamlet called Ashford for a stay at an inn of sorts, consisting of bunkhouses spliced together by nails, plumbing and wiring. Formerly used by loggers, Lou Whittaker, who climbed Mt. Everest 250 times (his twin, Jim was the first American to summit Mt. Everest), created one of many places to overnight under a roof before climbing into Mt. Rainier National Park. When I made reservations, I did not know that the mattress was worse than sleeping on pinecones. Perhaps all the inn’s beds are not created equal, but even a ghost of a logger would have winced on ours. Clearly, there is an equal opportunity for anyone, regardless of gender and background, to wake up worse for wear. At higher prices than motels we have lodged, the establishment was not even up to a gratis cup of coffee. Only the water is free, but even some of that was seeping through the bathroom wall, either from the room above or the one adjacent to us. Their towels soak up the mess. Our three-night stay is disappointing. It all looked so good over the web and the price seemed reasonable for something so close to a national park. Not being Spartans is not going to make our nights less creaky to our joints. Perhaps if we had only climbed Mt. Everest once or twice we would have been more appreciative.
Our arrival is too late for hiking up Mt. Rainier for ptarmigan. A stroll around the old bunkhouse reveals a major store for purchasing mountaineering equipment. A staging area for guided climbers took up the area behind the store. Behind that, under towering maples, stands a humble monument honoring guides who have made their final ascent. The 11 names represent guides that worked for Rainier Mountaineering Incorporated, a company co-owned by one of the Whittakers, who also owns the mountaineering store. Being among all things mountaineering is a little titillating since my younger days, when acrophobia was someone else’s problem, before the museum, many of my days were full of climbing and dreaming of climbing. Birds were in there somewhere, but the lure of a summit also tugged at me. There was no reason to get too excited about the store’s lighter weight ice axes and crampons. Age and way too much acrophobia are better ingredients for a birder than for a climber. Except for the anticipated White-tailed Ptarmigan, most of the remaining ABA species I need inhabit territories requiring less palm sweating. Probably many mountaineers climbing Mt. Rainier, have seen White-tailed Ptarmigan, but at a cost of $1,000 and up, and that excludes hundreds of dollars for equipment. Even counting that this will be my second attempt for the ptarmigan, the bird’s cost per pound is considerably low. Yet, wouldn’t it be grand to see a ptarmigan on the way to the summit? Perhaps so, in another life.
15 September 2009
Yesterday, I hiked up a trail behind the neat store, above our creaky bed and past the fallen guides. The slope was green with large-leaf maples vying twenty feet skyward for sun. An occasional Douglas fir offer testimonial to a coniferous forest sawed into lumber. Early and sometimes current forest practices, albeit illegal today, did not include replanting. The maples thrived on the scalped landscape, but today I see some distant areas replanted and even better, as we enter Mt. Rainier National Park, old growth forests, an endangered habitat protected from cutting to extinction.
I show the entrance ranger my senior pass and she hands us a brochure on the park. We are now on the road to Paradise and the trail to see ptarmigan. I had not been on this road since 1965, when three rangers and I jumped into a car on our weekend and drove from Crater Lake National Park to Mt. Rainier. My first visit to Paradise, not metaphorically speaking, was with my parents in 1960, the only time the family took a real road trip that did not involve visiting relatives. I had just read “A Year in Paradise” by Floyd Schmoe, who so vividly described Paradise Valley in 1920 that I felt I must have been there before 1960. As usual, the family did not stay long, even though going up one of the trails leading from the stone steps in the foreground of the giant white mountain pulled my psyche past the flowering meadow to the glaciers beyond those steps. Birding was thick in my blood then, but hiking up those stone steps and on up the trail to see a ptarmigan was a dream I quickly dismissed. There was just so much time before the vacation ended. Maybe mom and dad could leave me on the steps, but they didn’t so I took a picture and we slowly descended into the forest. Later, at home, I took out that picture of the steps, with the alpine flowers, and a large green promontory setting in front of Mt. Rainier looming quietly above. Eventually, I decided to create a small oil painting, basing it on the photograph and memory of the stupendous view. The green promontory sits to the right and between the steps and the mountain. Today, a half-century later, I’m finally going to see beyond that verdant rise.
Today, the road up to Paradise feels somehow familiar. It is an easy drive, remarkably so because it is so well designed. It is hard to believe that the 18-mile road, based partially on preexisting roads and trails, began in the early 1900’s at a cost of only $240,000. It was ready for horsepower, the kind on four hooves. By 1911, 325,000 more dollars was spent widening and paving the road, a small cost that must be in the millions today. The first car to chug up to Paradise didn’t happen until 1915. Since then, the route has changed little.
The climb is gradual and in minutes, we pass through Longmire. The area is named for James Longmire, one of the first to envision Mt. Rainier as important to tourist. Longmire, before the formation of Mt. Rainier National Park, offered weary tourist a place to sleep and eat, with cabins and a splash in a spa of mineral springs. More as a business investment, he helped develop local roads. He even improved roads from Tacoma and Seattle to the mountain, and while making more and more money from the tourist, Longmire brought more and more public attention to the white mountain rising 8,000 feet above the surrounding ridges. The region was in danger of becoming an amusement park, something akin to what developers did to Niagara Falls, once national park material, now spoiled beyond natural recognition. Fortunately, establishment of the region at the end of the Nineteenth Century as the fifth national park replaced Longmire’s schemes of development.
A sign at Longmire warns that, if blinking, there would be no parking at Paradise. It is not blinking. Onward and upward, we pass Cougar Rock where I camped with Crater Lake rangers in the 60’s. We climb ever higher to cross the Nisqually Bridge. The Nisqually River, milky with fine glacial debris tumbles below, scouring a meandering course in the middle of a wide bare gray rock streambed lined by dark conifers. I strain to glimpse Nisqually Glacier but it is melted beyond view. The glacier, originating from the summit of Mt. Rainier, is long and narrow. During pre-road trip research, I checked how much Nisqually Glacier might have shrunk over the years. I was shocked to find many sources claiming the Nisqually has not shrunk at all, and, in fact, is expanding. One such nay-saying source stated that evidence to the otherwise does not amount to anything more than a hummingbird fart in a hurricane. My guess is that another hummingbird might think the wee flatulence is actually significant, even breathe taking, especially if the little flatulenter is nearby. What really has happened, and is happening, au contraire naysayers, is that climate change is real, Nisqually Glacier is not immune to it and that sufficient numbers of hummingbirds could, in fact, produce enough hot air to melt ice. Debris covers the foot of the glacier where the Nisqually River begins. Melting at the foot counteracts any advancing of the glacier; there is no movement, the glacier is dormant. Higher up, the white glistening snow and ice, sometimes broken by crevasses in the glacier, can be thousands of feet deep, but, in a nutshell, Nisqually Glacier, since the first historical measurements or about 150 years ago, has receded well over 3500 feet and counting. Nisqually is not alone. In 1955, glaciers covered an estimated 45 square miles of Mt. Rainier, but last estimates put glacial coverage at 35 square miles.
In nearly more switchbacks than miles, we arrive at Paradise, replete with lodge and a brand spanking new visitor center. It is late morning, the parking lot is nearly full, and people are gasping at the view, taking pictures and sprinting between the restroom and visitor center. Glacier draped Mt. Rainier looms to the north, with the craggy Tatoosh Range completing the southern horizon. More than a few are hiking on the trails originating from Paradise. Being after the Labor Day crush, I am a little startled at the number of tourist. Last year’s count of visitors to the park came to about 700,000 more than came to the park in 1959, but more people probably take advantage of the trials now than they did, yikes, 50 years ago.
Linda, not ready for the long hike ahead, walks up the beginning of Skyline Trail before reluctantly turning back to observe nearby fauna and flora. I trudge on, up the steep blacktopped trail north to Panorama Point. At last, 50 years later, I can hike above those steps and will be beyond the green promontory I painted too long ago. Starting at 5400 feet, I have at least 1400 vertical feet to climb on a trail only about two miles in length. I am no math wizard, but that translates into one word, steep, and it’s the equivalent of about 170 flights of stairs, from one building floor to the next, without landings and no banisters to grasp. Arizona’s Miller Canyon was difficult, but this is going to be harder. However, the higher I climb, the cooler the unseasonably warm day becomes, the grander the vista and the closer I may be gaining on a White-tailed Ptarmigan. Every direction is stunningly beyond awesome. Somewhere on the trail, I see a climber, a mountaineer, decked with an orange hard hat, a sizable pack and weathered face. My age old yearning to climb, to ascend a great mountain such as Rainier, nudges my adrenals to try just a little bit harder, to take another step, don’t stop for air, just breath deeper. Reality sets and I again pace my ascent with an easier rhythm that is just below the threshold of lung and leg pain. I also wonder if the alpinist I saw, with his grim look, was a climber who scrubbed, someone who, like climbers I had climbed with, couldn’t make the ascent. Camp Muir, the jumping off place where climbers spend the night before going to the summit, is a smidge under 5,000 feet below the top. Air is thin enough around 10,000 feet to bother some. The mountaineer looked disappointed. I would be too, and then I shake my brain back to the matters at hand: finding a ptarmigan.
On the way up Skyline Trail, I ask three different people that are descending the trail if they had seen ptarmigan. One, a ranger, said he had not been high enough, but two other hikers said they saw ptarmigan, with one hiker claiming to see five or six barely above Panorama Point. That inspires me and I breathe deeper to power 60 something legs up the slope. Part of Nisqually Glacier is now below, to my left. A waterfall roars from a cliff on the other side of the glacier that, from here, looks white and rumpled with treacherous crevasses. The steeper parts of the trail are rock steps, mostly evenly placed, but the vertical distances between the steps are at least double those at the Mall entrance of the museum, and some steps require a stretch and a groan to get up from one to the other. I am glad I am not short. Without the rock steps, the 126 inches of precipitation Paradise receives annually would create a deeply rutted trail, with harsh ravines cutting through the surrounding meadows. The steps also prevent the scars created by hikers, not to mention saving visitors from slipping and sliding down the fragile slopes.
Marmots are abundant, munching on low alpine vegetation, taking advantage of the sun before the long winter. In October snow will come, obliterating the trail and covering the fall colors of the timberline meadows. Signs along the way constantly remind hikers to stay on the route, to keep off the fragile meadows, and I catch one person off the trail. I cannot help myself as my training from summers long ago in Crater Lake National Park kick in. First, I compliment him on his enthusiasm to photograph the vegetation, but I look him straight in the eye, remind him there is a $50 fine if found off the trail and that I will be happy to turn him in the authorities. He apologizes and states he will not do it again.
Past the halfway point, near the junction of Deadhorse Creek Trail and below Glacier Vista, beyond an acrophobic moment when I hug the upper side of the trail cut along a rocky cliff, I notice two birders photographing an American Pipit. The bird appears unafraid of hikers crunching up and down the trail a mere two feet away. The birders are Dave and Sherry Hayden. Charlie Wright, considered by Mt. Rainier National Park staff as the go-to-guy for birds, had emailed me several sightings of others who posted their observations of ptarmigan on the web and I recall the Hayden’s report when Sherry said they had seen a female ptarmigan with three chicks a little over a month ago. From meager knowledge of clutch size for White-tailed Ptarmigan, which is around six eggs, taking into play predation and disease, for example, three chicks seems a reasonable outcome. By mid-September, today, any surviving chicks are beyond the down stage and appear similar to adults. So, where are they?
The Haydens tell me they frequently find ptarmigan near Panorama Point. It is close to noon. They sit on a rock for lunch; I sit on another rock, catch my breath, drink water, chew a quarter sized piece of beef jerky, drink more water to replace what has wet my tee shirt, throw on my small backpack and head up the trail. Dave says we’ll probably catch up with you at Panorama Point. Probably. I notice the Haydens are slim and agile, strolling up the mountain as if it is a Kansas plain. Sure enough, at Panorama Point I calm down my lungs, snap a few pictures toward the south where Mt. Adam and St. Helens in Washington flank Mt. Hood in Oregon minutes before the Haydens stroll to the point. They begin glassing a snowfield immediately east of the point. A trail ends in a snowfield on the other side. Above and below that trail is foot-high vegetation where the Haydens have seen ptarmigan. Our collective six eyes work over the region, but we find nothing.
A sign warns people not to attempt crossing the snowfield; you could slip and slide to the rocks below or fall through a hollow melted deep in the hardened snow, or hike the trail around the field. The choice seems clear. Hike the Upper Skyline Trail, which loops up and then down to the intersection of the trail to the snowfield. This requires climbing maybe 200 feet higher and trekking a horizontal distance of a half-mile. The trail is much rockier now. I easily understand why the park rates these trails as “strenuous.” However, the loose rock and steepness, going up and coming down are easier than I dread. The Haydens march ahead and I catch up with them on the way to the snowfield. The trail is relatively wider and far more level than the upper trail, providing an easy walk toward the snowfield. The Haydens stop and soon I get a wave, then see them pointing but they are pointing immediately in front of themselves. Nothing that close could be a bird, or could it? I hurry to the site. Slightly fifteen feet away is a ptarmigan, a glorious male White-tailed Ptarmigan. It is standing on a gray rock looking at us but not flinching at our voices and cameras. Short stubby foliage grows among the gray rubble, and just a few feet to our left a female emerges from hiding in plain sight. At first, I cannot find the second bird, but it moves as it munches at the vegetation. The female is not as white as the male. I look back at the male, take pictures and then back toward the female, but she melts into the rocks. Only intent starring finally reveals her bundle of feathers so perfectly camouflaged. Actually, neither bird is hiding. Dave tells me that the considerable human activity up on the slope probably has little impact on ptarmigan behavior. They are fearless of the humans traipsing their haunt. I’m grateful that the two birds and the two birders are so cooperative.
Hours have passed and I want to get back down, to tell Linda that there are White-tailed Ptarmigan in them there hills. Better than gold, number 644 is a great addition to my ABA life list. Now, all that is left is getting back to the parking lot at Paradise. I continue down Skyline Trail to Golden Gate Trail, which shaves off over a mile of hiking, but at a price. Numerous steep switchbacks jar my knees all the way to my hips, reminding me of painful descents in the past. Maybe I am now actually in better shape, but the trail down does make me wince more than once. Golden Gate Trail is on the east side of Mazama Ridge and drops into upper Paradise Valley. My local Crater Lake is in the remains of Mount Mazama. The view of the scene brings memories of Floyd Schmoe’s 1920 chronicle of the valley stretching below, the vivid greens with dots of fall blushing alpine meadows enclosing verdant, clear and symmetrically sculpted subalpine firs. This is beauty unsurpassed. I bet ptarmigan would frequent the Paradise Valley in winter. Supposedly seeing White-tailed Ptarmigan in their all white plumage on the snow is the Holy Grail in birding. Not for me, coming down into the valley, with memory of two partially white ptarmigan is better. My knees hurt. Every muscle strains as I leave the trail and rush to a restroom at the edge of the parking lot and then out into the sea of vehicles. My exhaustion nearly cause me to walk right past Linda sitting in our blue birdmobile. I open the door, smile, Linda sees I am safe as I sit next to her and we share the excitement of White-tailed Ptarmigan. Who needs all white birds on snow?
Meanwhile, in less rarified air, the home turf in Oregon, I began, interspersed with local birding, to peruse various web sites for any species that might fill-in the plethora of missing ABA species. The local birding is mostly uneventful except for a shorebird I’m 95% sure is a Semipalmated Sandpiper. Luckily, Jim Livaudias and Gary Shaffer, on the cusp of breaking the county year total of 243, were also wandering the mudflat of the same waning reservoir. Jim used his giant telephoto to snap pictures. I later wrote Dennis Paulson, who I got to know during his visits to the museum when he was working on the fine art of shorebird identification. I had not spoken to him since a book signing in Corvallis, Oregon, but I knew he is the one to take a look at the probably Semipalmated Sandpiper. I emailed Dennis that the bird appeared to feed more frantically than most peeps. He wrote back that eastern birders had mentioned that foraging behavior among Semipalmated Sandpipers. However, the more I examined three of the several photos Jim took, the less convinced I was that the bird was a Semipalmated Sandpiper. Time went by, but each time I looked at the peep, the less I saw a Semipalmated and the more I leaned to a Western Sandpiper. Months after the sighting of the shorebird, I sent the photos to Dennis. He quickly wrote back that the bird I identified as a Semipalmated Sandpiper was a juvenile Western Sandpiper. Any future peep identifications I make will have to be made with great care and, maybe a good photo to double check identifications.
My misidentification reminded me of the Yellow Grosbeak and Blue-footed Booby I saw in July. Neither species were ever seen by other birders. Both species are pretty darn rare. Anyone seeing them has to be lucky. I have definitely had some good luck, birding and otherwise, but I would have felt better had I been able to have good photographs of the grosbeak and booby or that someone else had been around to verify what I saw. Unlike the peep, I am more than 95% sure of my identifications in Arizona. I am 100%, but I wonder how many doubt what I saw. There are no sweaty dreams that wake me, screaming that I made a mistake or I must have been suffering from the heat. I’m moving on. Will I only see rare birds or difficult sandpipers in the presence of expert witnesses? Not likely. I do not know when or where my next life bird will be show itself. Will it be an easy identification? Will I photograph it? Will I or someone else document the bird sighting? What and when is part of the fun. The whole thing, life, is unpredictable.
Trolling for birds using the web is more fruitful than hoping for a life bird in my home turf. The first potentially new ABA species listed on the web is a rare bird found in Washington, about 6.5 hours to the north. The bird, a Black-tailed Gull is an ABA category 4, a species that hardly ever gets within my striking distance. Unfortunately, the time to strike is not ripe and I hope that, as someone in Washington predicted, the gull may over-winter. My palms began to itch. I knew Linda and I would likely be going north to Salem in November or December, and that maybe I could detour on up into Washington for a day. November, with its Meleagris Day, passes and so does the Black-tailed Gull.
More gulls of the rare type visit Oregon. Lesser Black-backed Gulls, two I as I recall, hang around one of the too many dams on the Columbia River. Birders scurry to see them. Again, it is a long drive to see the gullish waifs, but I console myself in the memory of seeing one fine adult while walking across the Washington, D.C. mall during my museum days. Another gull, one that I have not observed, was a quick interstate 2 ¾ hours away in Eugene, but it did not wait for second chances. It was a Little Gull spotted by several local and reliable observers over Eugene’s Fern Ridge Reservoir, home to my first sighting of Sharp-tailed and Wood Sandpipers. Unlike the sandpipers, the gull, a one-day-wonder, was gone.
As the gulls came and went, Arctic air, the kind than can freeze water pipes, swept south. The cold weather, the economic down turn, the recession, the depression, or is it the depressing recession, continues to pound away. All the while, bombs are exploding and bullets shattering places too far and too dangerous for birds and beasts. Money and time for birding is not as forthcoming as one might prefer, but my sights are not to see 10,000 plus species, but to at least make it to 700 ABA birds and, maybe a few elsewhere if I’m lucky and live long enough. Even though my 644 ABA species, at my 65 years of age, may be perceived as unenviable by many, it is my list and I am, to the best of my birder station, doing the best I can. What I see is a glass over half-full and that is not so bad.
Besides looking for birds missing from my ABA list, there is another way to add species. One is to wait for splits. For that to happen, someone has to write a proposal to the American Ornithologists’ Union Committee on Classification and Nomenclature, aka, the Check-list Committee. The Committee votes on submitted proposals and the outcome can mean an additional species on the A.O.U. Check-list. When I was last in Arizona and boy could I now use some of those July degrees this Oregon winter, Jon Dunn told me that he and Carla Cicero had written a proposal to elevate to the woodhouseii group in the currently known Western Scrub-Jay to species. That would mean, if given a thumbs-up by the Committee, the ABA area would have California Scrub-Jays (Aphelocoma californica residing west of the interior bound Woodhouse’s Scrub-Jay (Aphelocoma woodhouseii). After reading Jon and Carla’s proposal, I would say there is a good chance of it passing, but the committee is well known for its conservancy. Both Jon and Carla are on the Committee, and I hope they continue submitting proposals. I still believe Bell’s Sparrow deserved to be ranked as a species, and maybe Carla will go back and reexamine the story. In the meantime, a non-Committee member submitted a proposal to recognize a western and an eastern Winter Wren, another proposal that seems worthy of passage.
That is correct; non-Committee members may submit proposals for consideration by the A.O.U. Check-list Committee. Having sent Dick Banks a long list of likely splits last year, the likely follow-up is for me to get down to formalities and write a proposal or two, maybe more. I checked the web for protocol. According to the Committee, a proposal contains 1. a title; 2. a description of the problem, including background and classification history; 3. new information, with citations; 4. recommendations; and 5. literature cited. I decided to start with what many know as Lilian’s Meadowlark (Sturnella lilanae). For around four decades, some researchers had believed the subspecies of Eastern Meadowlark from the Southwest is or may be a distinct species. However, the last A.O.U. Check-list did not reflect this, but did recognize lilanae as a group name for subspecies. That pretty well covers 2., the description of the problem and its history.
Number 3, the new information stopped me in my tracks. Even though many birders were excited that Lilian’s Meadowlark will be s sure-thing, a close look at the literature, new and old, does not allow the jump. There are just too many holes to fill. During the past few months, I had helped Bob Dickerman make Northwestern contacts for obtaining salvaged Great Horned Owls. Bob is working on their taxonomy and I knew he had earlier worked on Eastern Meadowlark taxonomy with Allan Phillips. In my email to him, I discussed my doubts about the new species of meadowlark. He wrote back, that he had earlier come to the similar conclusion and provided more details than I could possibly glean from the literature. He had compared specimens, something I would do given the opportunity. Our collective judgment, Sturnella lilanae, based on current knowledge, would, indeed by a specious species.
Abruptly halting a proposal elevating lilanae to species meant moving on to my next target, the Yellow-rumped Warbler complex. Linda had earlier protested when I told her the complex might be split into at least two species. Now, we will have to look more closely at our winter warblers, which are so common in the home turf that it is almost a nemesis as it draws one’s attention from other seemingly more interesting species. “Is that bird in the tree a…oh, it is just a yellow-rump” is a phrase that is almost irritating. The new published data convinces me that we will soon be calling those white-throated yellow-rumps, Myrtle Warbler and the yellow-throated ones Audubon’s Warbler, not to mention the taxa south of the border deserve to be separate species. Audubon’s Warbler and Myrtle Warbler are the names I learned. Those were the names according to the fifth edition of the check-list, the one published in 1957, and the last check-list to treat subspecies. Since then, the first good papers published on the so-called Dendroica coronata complex were by John Hubbard. He recommended Audubon and Myrtle Warblers be treated as semispecies, meaning coronata (Myrtle) and auduboni (Audbon’s) are somewhere between being full-fledged species. That situation does not call for treating Myrtle and Audubon’s as conspecifics nor does it say they be treated as separate species. So, what are they? John’s studies, often thought to be the reason the A.O.U. Check-list committee recognized Myrtle and Audbuon’s as conspecifics, did not follow John’s recommendation that the two are in limbo.
John Hubbard’s prematurely snow-white hair and beard graced the museum in my early years. Actually, those were some of his early years too. During that time of yore, I had the opportunity to talk to John about the warblers, but I didn’t or at least I don’t recall such a conversation. I was still finding my way then, learning where things were in the collection so that I could eventually find the battery of cases containing all the Dendroica, catching up on a couple of minor distributional publications and worrying about a paper on my Jackson County birds. Incidentally, the county paper, in the North American Fauna series, properly followed the A.O.U. Committee’s decision to lump Myrtle and Audubon’s Warblers. I did hear from Roxie Laybourne that John did not fully agree with the Committee’s prognosis. Flashing forward multiple warbler generations, new information, based heavily on genetics, shows that both John and the A.O.U. committee are wrong. Our Yellow-rumped Warbler might once again become Audubon’s and Myrtle Warbler if the committee votes in favor of the proposal to change.
I wonder what John would think today of a proposal to once again separate these warblers. As for Linda, she carefully read my four-page single-spaced draft, saying the proposal for the split should pass AOU muster. I sent Dick a copy. He had some suggestion and I asked him to be an author to the warbler proposal. He agreed and once again, Banks and Browning are alive and kicking.
Given time, more proposals may drift back to the Committee. So far, with the proposals on jays and Winter Wrens, I have a good chance of picking up two new ABA birds. Dick emailed that the warbler proposal will not be voted on until after July 2010. Writing proposals takes considerable time and effort, and between now and July next year, I hope a few life birds fly in front of my binoculars. Who knows, maybe a Xantus’s Hummingbird will make it to my feeder this spring.
13 February 2010
In December 1962, I was a guest at Howard Langridge’s home in Lantana, Florida. I had been birding every day since 2 June that year and planned on six more months of the same. Florida fascinated me and everything was new. Late in the afternoon, I was returning to Howard’s place when I spied a small drab bird at the side of a road. It was dead and had been for a while. It smelled, but not so bad people might run away. I picked it up and carefully brought it back to my host. We identified it and sent it to Smithsonian where it was positively identified as a Black-faced Grassquit. The bird is now the first specimen I donated to the Division of Birds. The level of decomposition prevented preparing the bird as a museum study skin. The grasquit went into the spirit collection, sometimes called the wet collection or the pickle room.
A few months ago, in 2009, I wrote the ABA wondering if I could not count the grassquit on my ABA list. After all, one of the most definite ways to establish an occurrence of a species is to have a specimen. It is better than a photograph. What could be more definite? Ornithologist had been using specimens, which have multiple uses, to document distribution for years. I even pointed out that there are species on the ABA list that are there because someone found a dead bird. I never got a reply, at least not by the email I expected. My reply came on page 3 of ABA’s newsletter called Winging It. The answer was by Tony White who wrote:
“Dead Birds on the ABA Checklist. Ralph Browning asked why the ABA Checklist accepts species for the ABA Checklist including dead specimens, e.g., [comma is mine] Intermediate Egret and Gray Nightjar, whereas ABA birders cannot count dead birds on their personal lists. The ABA Checklist Committee and bird listing involves different objectives and they operate under a different set of rules. The committee’s job (science) is to provide a complete, up-to-date list of all species verifiably recorded in the ABA Area (with additional requirements for introduced species). Salvaged bird specimens are occasionally the only available record documenting individual species having occurred in the ABA Area. The ABA Checklist would be incomplete without their inclusion. ABA listers engage in recreational birding and their only requirement is to identify correctly, and sometimes document, a wild bird for listing purposes. The ABA’s rules for bird listers were initiated so all submitted lists can be compared using a level playing field.”
It might have been nice to mention that the grassquit I picked up in Florida was about the third U.S. record, and since it did become a specimen, it would seem that science (the work of the committee) was at least approached. Gosh, the specimen is in the hallowed grounds of Smithsonian. The specimen is a verifiable entity that clearly documents its occurrence in Florida. If I had not picked it up, the unfortunate grassquit would have become bug food, a rodent meal or a prize for a domestic cat. It might have ended up as fertilizer or carried away for no other person to notice. However, it was noticed. That I found the bird does not seem to do anything to a “level playing field.” How many birds have been seen by a single person, and then fly away to never be seen again. Did that person seeing the rarity prevent a level playing field? Perhaps the birder terrified the waif in some way, causing it to flee for its life and thus, no other birder could count it on their list.
The Winging It piece continues under a heading “Interpretations of the ABA Rules.” If you are reading this, you are already familiar with the ABA Listing Rules; each rule is brief and clearly stated. The listing rules describe the basic principles that ABA members should follow if they are going to compare their lists with other members’ lists. In certain situations, clarification of a rule was necessary. Therefore, the five rules with interpretations are printed each year in the ABA List Report and can be found on the ABA website at: http://www.aba.org/bigday/rules.pdf.” Ok. I get it. It is not as if I have never read the rules, but sometimes rules are not correct. However, rule 3 clearly states that when a birder finds a bird it must be unrestrained, wild and alive. I just happen to think the rule requires modifications. Part D of Rule 3, in addition to its present form, ought to have the following statement: Birds found dead may be counted only by the person discovering the dead bird.
By counting the dead bird, information is not lost. Back in Florida, I could have decided that the grassquit is not worthy of my notice and concluded a dead bird is no bird at all. However, this would have resulted in lost information. Besides, as I stated in the beginning of this quest, the grassquit is probably the only ABA species I can prove came into my purview. However as the rules stand, without my modification, dead birds do not count. That is right, I see dead birds, but no one else can. I should have ignored the rules for my dead grassquit. Holy crap, now my ABA list is down by one, putting the total to 643.