Milestone 700, ch 23, Idaho Crossbills and Supplement Species


Idaho Crossbills and Supplement Species

24 April 2010

Linda and I could have gotten up before sunrise and shot up Waunita Hot Springs Road again, but it was not a lekking we desire. Gunnison Sage-Grouse are safe from our tired eyes, but no doubt, there were eager birders watching the dance this morning. We sleep in; glad to be alive and cozy from the frozen cold and icy snow outside. Building roofs show sign of a dusting, remnants of last night’s snowfall and the roads are clear. By the time I step outside, any snow and ice on the birdmobile had liquefied. Nonetheless, a prediction of more snow tomorrow, especially to our north, is not what we want to know. I quickly call Robert Skorkowsky, who is a forest service biologist for Routt National Forest. He was in the process of managing surveys near Steamboat Springs for Boreal Owls, a species I need to witness. Reluctantly, I tell Robert that we will have to forgo reaping any harvest from his surveys as Linda and I decided to head west tomorrow. At the moment, he does not have any Boreal Owls staked out. That eases my pain of giving in to potentially hazardous driving and not going after the birds.

Up until today, I have been trying to will away acrophobia since I thought we would be owling over Rabbit Ears Pass. I had crossed the pass as a kid and remembered some of the sharp relief, the scary heights plummeting suddenly below the curvaceous highway. Monarch Pass, about the eighth highest pass on a paved road according the official Colorado map, is a couple thousand feet higher, but Rabbit Ears Pass, Linda warns, could turn my knuckles white and override the best of underarm antiperspirant. Alack and alas, the information from my owl contact and the pending inclement weather gets me off the acrophobia hook, but owless in my relief. Possibly, it would be ok, but the thought of paying at least two motel nights for a maybe, not to mention sliding down to oblivion from the steep heights of a pass named after parts of a rabbit doesn‘t make for good ornithoeconomics. I tell myself Boreal Owls do breed in the central Cascades in Oregon or, if not there, just perchance I will find myself surrounded by Boreal Owls within the borders of Alaska some year.

As a consolation, I solo drive 28 miles north of Gunnison on state highway 135 to the village of Crested Butte. Around 150 years ago Crested Butte was a mining town and since then has a remarkable fluctuation in population, beginning close to 300 souls, some years loosing people and with huge gains in the 1980s and in the last 10 years. As I enter town I see some of the signs of the new population in the form of lavish houses and apartment buildings.

Crested Butte is a town of roughly 1600 skiers and those who service skiers in an ever-burgeoning sport of sliding down vertical clear-cuts. I did it once, on the bare shoulders of Shasta and lesser peaks. That was during youth, when I did not think about death and broken bones, before middle age when I begin to ponder when I die and, long before today, when I sometimes ponder how I will die. Today, I think about ski slopes and what wildlife will die as new runways, the vertical clear-cuts, scour more of a mountainside. It is not a matter of when wildlife will die. It is sooner than we should allow.

Morbidity had partially set in from listening to the news. On 20 April, we first heard of the explosion and fire on an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico. Called the Deep Water Horizon, the drilling rig off the coast of Louisiana reached a depth of 35,000 feet, including over 4,000 feet from the water surface to the sea floor. The rig eventually sank, but the bad news came today with reports of thousands of gallons of crude pouring into the ocean from ruptured pipes that were supposed to not leak. What will this mean when the oil reaches the marshlands and beaches? Vertical clear-cuts become minor.

Before reaching Crested Butte, I planned to turn on Evelyn Lane exactly 7.8 miles north of Gunnison, then make another turn or two and I just might find rosy-finches. The lane hides somewhere off the highway, probably between ranches occupying the gently sloping valley on the way to ski city. Depressed by my lack of navigational skills, the sprawl surrounding the original but expiring probable quaintness of Crested Butte, vertical clear-cuts and the thought of crude oil washing up on the shore needs a quick fix. I find a forest service road just south of town. In seconds, I see a several dark birds foraging at the edge of the dirt road. The thick cloud cover and surrounding conifers at first make it difficult to see them and to realize there are more than a few birds. Parking, I get the binoculars on busy brown and pink finches, some on the dirty snow that blocks the road beyond. They swirl into the snowy air, a cyclone of Brown-capped Rosy-Finches, and descend as suddenly a few yards away. A minute later, they are up, then down, back at the road edge and 15 feet from my half-open car window. Rosy-Finches are good at cheering up a birder.

Rosy-finches in the snow


The intermittent snow, while touring the resort town and ogling Brown-capped Rosy-Finches, becomes steady. It is not sticking, but it might so I head south. The density of the flakes dwindles the closer I get to Gunnison and Linda. I tell her about the rosy-finches and we plan tomorrow.

25 April 2010

With plenty of sleep, we brace ourselves for a long haul, hoping to get as far west as possible. We drive down the Gunnison River. Seeing the many curves, we are in amazement that we negotiated our way home in the nearly blinding snowstorm night-before-last. There is an oversupply of embankments to swallow us. At the junction with highway state 92, we slow, but do not turn. That would have been the start of our route north to reach Toponas, Yampa and Steamboat Springs, nearby places of Linda’s early childhood. I am glad her parents moved her to Oregon where we met during our ninth year. After Steamboat Springs, we would have gone west on U.S. 40 to Craig for Sharp-tailed Grouse and Dusky Grouse, but missing forecasted snow is our new itinerary. We continue on U.S. 50, passing the turn-off to Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. If only we had time, we could try the park again for a Dusky Grouse.

Grand Junction is where the Gunnison River flows into the Colorado River and where U.S. 50 joins Interstate 70, our route for the next 170 miles or so across Utah. Before crossing the Green River, we look south. Near the town of Monticello is the only population of Gunnison Sage-Grouse in Utah. To the north and up nearly 1000 feet up and past the white and gold Book Cliffs is the East Tavaputs Plateau that rises even higher in Uintah and Ouray Indian Reservation where Greater Sage-Grouse and the fast becoming nemesis species, Dusky Grouse reside. There is no time for detours, for either annoying grouse or Arches and Canyonlands National Parks. Someday. We speed on, ever westward.

Our drive is not boring as we are delighted at the panorama proffered up by canyons and cliffs, and isolated reefs, formations standing in horizons looking like overturned ships. There are colors galore, reflecting the geologic basement, with layers revealing earth’s prehistoric timetable. We leave Green Valley and follow the interstate as it snakes slowly around bends revealing scenes worthy of a national park and climb out of the valley. Past 75 mile-long San Rafael Reef, we stare down Black Dragon Canyon where the highway cut through an anticline with exposed rocks of the Permian, when, 250 million years ago, 95% of all marine and many other species on earth became extinct. We were not looking into the earliest time (the Grand Canyon comes to mind) but we were looking back more than I can remember. Across the awesome canyon are layers of Jurassic, thankfully no live dinosaurs, Triassic and more examples of before there was a was. What a great location for a geologist to add to their life list of periods, epochs and eras. We soak in rusty hues ranging from rufous of Rufous Hummingbird towards pink, a rosy finch tint, over layers of buff the color of wing patches seen on a flying Townsend’s Solitaire, ages of paleness reminiscent of a sharp-tailed sparrows crown stripe, speckles of browns and grays to the color of an ever so slightly soiled belly of a Killdeer. Stopping is compulsory for pictures and proverbial hope of bumping into a Pinyon Jay that keeps eluding Linda. Forty-minutes westward, we stop again and a sign tells we are at the bottom of an ancient sea and that the knobs and monoliths we glimpse are tagged on our map as Ghost Rock, Locomotive Point and Joe and his Dog.

Scenes while driving west on I 70

Green irrigated fields around the town of Salina wake our minds from the high sudden cliffs and dry painted rocks behind us ever seated in memory. Highway U.S. 50 veers northwest from I 70, offering a good shortcut to I 15 that takes us north to Provo where we turn on yet another highway to Heber City. By then, it is time to call it quits but not before we spot a couple of Sandhill Cranes barely outside of town.

26 April 2010

The morning is full of snow capped peaks and ridges, the Uinta Mountains to our right, trace west to east toward Colorado, the Wasatch Mountains huddle upward to our left. The Wasatch are the backdrop to cities along Utah and Great Salt lakes. Our route, now on I 84 goes counter-clockwise around designated wilderness areas between the cities and us. Near Ogden, we head north, bypassing Salt Lake City where William Behle, professor, expert taxonomist and curator of birds at the University of Utah once answered my questions and requests for specimens. Of the many specimens borrowed, Dr. Behle sent wonderful series of Song Sparrows, many of which helped me arrive at the subspecies limits presented in Birds of Oregon. My study included the Great Basin and Northwest Pacific populations, but the data collected, those blisters from dial caliper, the frequent writer’s cramp from filling data sheets and pages of notes did not breathe into a published paper. The Song Sparrow study, along with a couple of undescribed subspecies, a kingfisher from the southwestern Pacific and a trogon from Panama, not to mention many other species that might have produced viable projects have not seen completion let alone publication. There comes a time to apply the brakes, when time is for other matters. In my case, departure from the museum is happy, but I do hope that someone will pick up my pieces and make since of it all.

Further up the interstate is a sign pointing to Bear River Migratory Refuge that protects 74,000 acres of freshwater marshes, uplands and alkali flats. Seeing the sign reminds me of Alexander Wetmore, almost always the first human I saw at the beginning of my museum day. Dr. Wetmore, years earlier, before he became Secretary of Smithsonian, was sent to Bear River in the early 1900s, then as a research biologist with my old alma mater, the National Biological Survey. Outbreaks of what was called Western Duck Sickness were rampant in the refuge and nearby localities, which Wetmore discovered was avian botulism caused by toxic bacteria. The disease at Bear River was precipitated by irrigators drawing down the flow of Bear River to the detriment of the marsh that resulted in large-scale duck mortality. It is not a pretty picture and happens too frequently at Bear River and other waterfowl habitats in North America. Dr. Wetmore, who, in my day, was researching specimens for volume 4 of his Birds of the Republic of Panama, stopped greeting me when his health began failing about a year before he died in 1978. When Linda and I birded in Panama in 2005, I felt a connection with Wetmore’s knowledge and kindness. Today, a visit at Bear River would have surely been a similar connection, an homage of sorts, but today we hurry on to Idaho.

Time rushes along as our speeding missile arrives a few miles east of Twin Falls where we exit the interstate for points south. Our mission, should we not self-destruct, is to drive south of the farm town of Hansen and up into the South Hills. Dena Santini, Wildlife Biologist of the Sawtooth National Forest had earlier provided directions. Stay on Rock Creek Road; go past Magic Mountain Ski resort and start searching at Diamondfield Jack, a campground. A gentle 3,000-foot climb to the 7,000-foot lodgepole pine is as far as the snow will allow. That’s all right. We are in crossbill country and the snow will not keep us from making our appointed rounds.

Crossbill territory


We are looking for one of nine different types of crossbills. Crossbills are unlike most species of birds. For one, they are nomadic not to mention enigmatic. Ludlow Griscom, who helped bridge the gap between the Nineteenth Century collectors of birds to the Twentieth Century watcher of birds, wrote a monograph on Red Crossbills published in 1937. About 30 years later, Allan Phillips found fault with Griscom’s conclusions. Actually, Allan found fault with many ornithologists, professionally and personally. I am one of the lucky ones he liked. Allan borrowed from numerous museums, thousands of specimens of Red Crossbills, which he had sent to Smithsonian. As one of the Division of Birds agents and often a compatriot of Allan, I ended up being the responsible party for all the specimens lent to him from museums all over the country. The specimens would be waiting at Smithsonian for his visiting perusal, usually for weeks, sometimes months. This almost annual scenario was business as usual when Allan left his home in Mexico and came to Smithsonian where he worried over crossbills for years, trying desperately to understand the meaning of crossbill life. Based on morphology, especially bill size and shape, he characterized the birds to different subspecies, but he had more than an inkling that something more than subspeciation was going on up in the conifers. During Crossbills, the Phillipsian Period, Bob Dickerman, probably Allan’s closest colleague, looked at specimens from the Northeast, comparing different sets of specimens collected different years to one another. Bob proved that crossbills subspecies collected at a particular location one decade were not the same subspecies from the same location years later.

Fast forward to the early 90’s when Jeff Groth demonstrates vocal differences between some of the populations of Red Crossbill. Also in the early 90s, Craig Benkman concluded that vocal types correlate with morphology, especially bill size and shape, and with tree species. Suddenly, the infancy of crossbillology evolves. I wonder what Allan would think. He would now know that certain crossbills prefer particular species of trees because their bills can extract seeds from their cones better than from a different species of tree. In addition, apparently, different cones (or trees) make the crossbills vocalize differently. No, not really, but, in a cone nutshell, it clearly looks as if Allan’s concerns about subspecies should be stepped up a taxonomic notch. If the different kinds of crossbills not only look different, their vocalizations sound different, their preference of trees is different, how could the crossbills categories be subspecies? Geographically, some of these crossbills occupy the same localities. Subspecies are not allowed to overlap, but species can. Some avian taxonomists believe the beloved Red Crossbill represents nine species. Deciding the fate of crossbills may take decades or perhaps not since each year we seem to be getting closer to unraveling the crossbill conundrum. Rapid growth of technology, with more investigators fueling the fire may make short work of a historically long problem.

If these different types of crossbills represent different species, how is it possible to identify them in the field? The morphological differences between some types are not large and some vocal differences are barely detectable, sometimes only by comparing sonograms. Throw in ecological and genetic differences, and it is a crossbill nightmare for birder and ornithologist. In the meantime, I am paying more attention to the crossbills I do find and am content that I have come across, no pun intended, at least three different types of crossbills, one in Montana and a couple in Oregon. Perhaps a better English name for this group of birds is Gordian Crossbill.

Last year, a population of crossbills found in the South Hills and nearby Albion Mountains to the east was formally described as a new species that forage on lodgepole pine, and look different and sound different from other crossbills in the region. Benkman and four other authors published data showing the Idaho sedentary population is morphologically, behaviorally, and drum roll please, genetically different from nomadic crossbills in the same region. Further, the sedentary crossbills, the one the authors dub South Hills Crossbill, pair assortatively, meaning they do not get crossways with crossbills outside their own morphological and behavioral station. Females of a given type of crossbill prefer the company of male crossbills singing the same tune.

When the formal description of the new crossbill was published, I wrote Dick Banks, offering my opinion that the paper describing South Hills Crossbill seemed to make good since and what I thought might be a good English name for the new species. I expressed desire that a recent controversial book that recommends English names for birds of the world would likely come up with an unacceptable name. At the time, that publication had created debate about naming species and rules using hyphens, which was not a well-received idea by many others and me. In my email to Dick, I wrote, “I just skimmed the paper on the new species of crossbill. In addition, I see you commented on the MS [of the paper]. Wow. I do hope that [the aforementioned publication] hasn’t updated his name file to something like Sawtooth Crossbill (based on the National Forest name), Potatoe Crossbill (in honor of Idaho’s crop and Dan Quyale or was it Dann Quaile) or, in the spirit of [the aforementioned publication’s worry about hyphens] Rough-legged Hawk (which was called Roughleg), [by] just call[ing] the new crossbill Spud.” That the South Hills Crossbill has the scientific moniker Loxia sinesciuris is no less without humor. The binomial sinesciuris means without squirrels since there are no tree squirrels in the habitat of South Hills Crossbills. In my email to Dick, I also expressed trepidations that the aforementioned book on English names might call the new crossbill Squirreless Crossbill.

Before we left Oregon weeks ago, the AOU committee voted on whether or not to recognize the new species of crossbill. Two-thirds of the members of the committee are required to pass a proposal, but the votes were evenly split, with some qualified no votes. One person did not think voice is a species-specific character. Another did not want to be drawn into an “ungodly taxonomic quagmire.“ Let’s hope not. Still another nay vote said no “basically on a technicality” concerning weak documentation with specimens. As a museum person having named new taxa, I have to agree. A couple of voters want to deal with the entire Red Crossbill complex. I agree with the Europeans, who are sorting out their own crossbill species piecemeal.

Even though Linda and I are looking for presently a non-species according the the AOU, we know our unique target will go nicely on the escrow list. Our prey is known from the Diamondfield Jack region and I feel confident as we pull into a snow-free paved parking lot surrounded by lodgepole pine spiking upward through the snow. Expecting a polyglot of crossbills, a study of our target crossbill vocalizations pays off. Almost instantly, we hear but don’t see crossbills chattering from the pines. We do not see them, and are relieved we only hear one type of crossbill, the new albeit unrecognized species. Vying to see at least one, we hike across the snow to the edge of the lodgepole grove for a different angle. It is tough going. Sometimes the snow holds our weight, but it often unexpectedly won’t and we sink to our knees. Mountain Chickadees let us know they were upset with our clumsiness. Three different Hairy Woodpeckers draw us from our tree top vigil, posing shortly as possible Williamson’s Sapsucker, a species on Linda’s wish list. We slog from tree to forest edge and back, sinking and tripping back to our vehicle. Linda sits it out as I circle the large parking lot for anything that moves. Again, I hear what I’m sure are South Hills Crossbills and finally get a fleeting glimpse of a bird that matches what I remember is the target bird. Others are hiding in the pine boughs and make that sound, the sound of the call of the wild South Hills Crossbill. Meanwhile, Linda, sitting quietly in the comfort of the birdmobile is on the alert and has great eye contact with a stripped juvenal. South Hills Crossbill, yes.

Seeing these crossbills reminds me of a conversation I had last year in Arizona. While sitting on a boulder in Miller Canyon, Paul Sykes commented that if the A.O.U check-list committee recognizes the new crossbill, he would have to make a separate trip. He won’t, at least until the committee changes their minds. In the meantime, I have another species for my escrow list.

We pass through some Pinyon Jay habitat on the way back to the interstate, but nothing jay like is using the trees. The wind intensifies once we’re out of the South Hills. Being back on the interstate seems a culture shock after the quiet snowy slopes, pines and crossbills.

Our motel, six miles north of Twin Falls has a computer. The Idaho birding site reporting the latest finds has an extraordinary record. A Hooded Crane was found today near Carey Lake, roughly one hour and twenty minutes away. I am a little blurry eyed by now from sun bouncing off snow, crossbills and hints of crossbills bouncing off pines and dirt bouncing in my eyes near the motel. However, this sighting, this unexpected record, is difficult to believe. Hooded Cranes, the last one I saw was in a zoo somewhere, are not on the ABA list, but they are kept by aviculturist. Should I believe that the outlandish species, literally, since it is an Asian bird, is an authentic, naturally occurring visitor, or should I follow my doubts and skip it? Looking for the crane and returning to our westward route would require at the very least three hours. We have close to 5 and half hours to our next destination. Three more hours will create a long day, but not everybody sees a Hooded Crane in Idaho. Attempting to take everything into consideration, how much the trip had worn us down, travel time, anxiety level to get home, maintaining mental sanity and mainly, whether the crane is an escapee or not, are all weighed. I make an executive decision. We will stay the course and drive to Burns, Oregon.

26 April 2010

Our drive from Twin Falls to Burns seems brief once we clear traffic; the acres of Snake River irrigated potatoes, hay and other crops, residences upon residences and the boring interstate. West of Nampa, we are reminded of more food with the yellow and black sign warning us of coming to the junction of Chicken Dinner Road. How did a road get such a crazy name? That’s a quirky story for another time. We strike out across the Owyhee Mountains on U.S. 95, the route from Malheur National Wildlife Refuge that I took in the opposite direction in 1962. That year, in June, was the beginning of a nine-month birding journey. It is especially fun today, Linda at my side, viewing part of that early trip, a trip we often think about as possibly being our trip. Of course, we would … well; it would have to be another story, one version of what really happened, and another version, a fictional one, of the trip together. Together, today, we motor back into Oregon and west along Jordan Creek, Owyhee River and Rattlesnake Creek. Only a few ranches dot an otherwise dry high desert. We turn northwest at Burns Junction, named for Robert Burns, a little town under 3900 feet elevation. Because of its small population, around 650, the poet might have thought of his lines:

Your poor narrow foot-path of a street

Where two wheel-barrows tremble when they meet.”

We are a long way from nowhere as our modern wheelbarrow heads into the Harney Basin.

The 187,000-acre Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, another one of Theodore Roosevelt’s creations, includes Harney and Malheur Lakes, the two largest in Harney Basin. Shamefully, I have not been here in 48 years despite knowing the refuge is a major birding site in the Pacific Northwest. Today, I want Linda to see this wonderful place and to relive my short time in the refuge nearly a half-century ago.

Franklin’s Gulls loaf in a flooded field east of Burns where the human population, when last checked is close to 2500 Burnsonians, but with a population dwindling in past years by a rate of 13%. Still, the streets are more than footpaths, with plenty of room for motorized trucks, wheelbarrows of the present, to pass with ease. We find a motel and quickly, head out-of-town, turn south on Frenchglen Highway and stop at the first flooded field and marsh a few minutes from town. Heavy rain fell days earlier and water and waterbirds are everywhere. Redheads, Canvasbacks, and Cinnamon Teal, all decked in reddish hues floated among shore feeding Avocets, Long-billed Curlew, dowitchers, stilts and sandpipers. I had told Linda the region is a great birding place and she is not disappointed.

After our feast, the wind increases before we reach The Narrows, a thin stretch of land between Harney and Malheur Lakes. Thick brown dust is blowing across the road. Visibility wanes, we slow to a safer speed and finally drive south of the essentially opaque air. We arrive at refuge headquarters about 5:30. Staff is gone for the day. The headquarters compound is where I stayed only an all too brief visit in 1962 when I slept in the old CCC built mess hall. The oasis of headquarters is a migrant trap and many eastern species are documented by the likes of Gene Kridler (present during my visit in 1962) and David Marshall (senior editor of Birds of Oregon), both of whom sent specimens to the museum for Dick Banks or me to confirm. A later biologist, Carroll Littliefield, compiled the records of the refuge since Captain Charles Bendire’s Nineteenth Century work. I’m afraid my 1990’s published review of Littlefield’s tome did not set well with him even though I think he made a major contribution.

It is exciting to see the area after so many years. I hurriedly maneuver between the various buildings. Some are familiar but some not. The wind continues to howl, singing through bushes and trees and around buildings. If there are any birds around, they are hiding from the wind. We head back to Burns, almost 20 miles north of headquarters. Again, we confront the dust propelling across the road. Visibility is now worse than before; the wind becoming severe and the blackened clouds advertise added harshness.

Tired and hungry, we grab some takeout home-style hamburgers in Burns and hunker down in our motel. Before the glass became half-empty, we thought of tomorrow for a more reasonable tour of the refuge, but the weather outside and the weather channel inside did nothing but discourage such an idea.

27 and 28 April 2010

We wake with dark thick clouds streaming rain and the promise of snow over the Cascade pass we need to cross before reaching home. Our first thought is to head southwest to Lakeview for the night. Falling snow and more wind along the steep shore of Lake Abert, where we see more Avocets, Willets and peeps, convinces us that an overnight in Lakeview is a mistake. We know Lakeview is one of the coldest towns in southeastern Oregon and we don’t want to be trapped there. We drive west, out of town, and confront falling snow that covers state highway 140. Driving is a little dicey for about 50 miles, but our 4-wheel birdmobile keeps us safe and moving forward. Upon reaching Klamath Falls, about an hour and a half east of home, we learn the Cascade pass may be a problem. We could chain up, but opt for a motel and a safer, less wintry return home. The next morning we cross the Cascades, without any slippery events, and soon are home. It is 28 April, with the completion of the 22-day journey.

The drive minutes before home.



Since returning home, several updates are in order. Moreover, there are footnotes for the last 22 travel days. For example, three Swallow-tailed Kites were seen on the day (15 April) I left Santa Ana refuge. The same day 1 Hook-billed Kite and 2,333 Mississippi Kites were tallied.

Levi Feltman, biologist at Washita National Wildlife Refuge in western Oklahoma emailed that Mississippi Kites did not appear at headquarters until 8 May. I wonder what all those Mississippi Kites we saw in Texas and southern Oklahoma in mid-April were doing in the meantime. Feltman also wrote that Lesser Prairie-Chicken was known in the region before the refuge was established, but not since. He added that five birds were reported in 2007 by a visiting wildlife biologist, but subsequent searches have failed to verify Lesser Prairie-Chickens in its former domain.

It is hard not to worry about any surviving Lesser Prairie-Chickens throughout their dwindling range since the species has an uphill struggle to survive Mother Nature and man nature. Habitat destruction and alteration by use of fences the birds fly into and the steady march of wind farms are not helping. The tall wind turbines, although a good alternative to coal, are mortally dangerous to birds that fly more than prairie-chickens, such as migrants, and are threatening to prairie grouse. After all, prairie birds evolved to do best on the open prairie instead living with huge metallic trees, gyrating propeller limbs that cast shadow and sound in an otherwise peace.

Beside the irksome miss on Dusky Grouse, despite the multiple chances to see one, I don’t feel too bad about one of the other misses, Boreal Owl. Robert Skorkowsky, in Colorado, emailed that of the time of our visit, even many days later, he did not know of any reasonably accessible, snow shoeless Boreal Owls. Hope springs eternal of an easier Boreal Owl sighting.

Around the time of traveling to Texas and back, some real rarities made themselves known to a few lucky birders who happen to be at the right place at the right time. Appearances in Texas include a Fork-tailed Flycatcher at Santa Ana on 24 April, and earlier, a Rufous-back Robin appeared at Marathon. If only the flycatcher would have been at the refuge when I was there. As for the Rufous-backed Robin, would I have detoured to see it if the timing was right. I doubt I would have interrupted the flow of travel since we were on the cusp of arriving in Austin. Of course, we were there about 10 days before the thrush. Timing and time, such important elements.

Compared to other road trips, the weather was definitely on the inclement side of nice. It was, nonetheless, tolerable. Snow may have prevented finding Boreal Owls, but we were essentially lucky. We missed tornadoes by one day in Texas, and avoided strong winds that blew down 52 power poles and destroyed out-buildings in southeastern Colorado also by one day. The unseasonably cold spring dropped snow on us and in our path, but not so much that we were not able to stay on the road. Complaining is not optional. It was a very good trip.

Being home did not signal the end of our trek to Texas and back from Colorado. There was more news about crossbills, cat and new species crossing my path in the journey to 700 ABA species.


30 April 2010

Plowing through three weeks’ worth of mostly junk mail is rewarded by a look at the recent copy of Western Birds. The journals’ second paper contains a much anticipated treatise on what the author, Kenneth Erwin, concludes is a new type of crossbill. The new bird, type 10, is a Sitka Spruce specialist, is morphologically small, second only to type 3 and its vocalizations are different from other types of crossbills. There is no data on genetics. Type 10 birds, whatever they are, have been found along the coast south of Coos Bay, Oregon, to coastal California north of Arcata. In 2007 when I stalked a Brown Booby near Arcata, I heard someone say “Irwin and his crossbills,” but did not realize history was being made. It will be interesting to see how the crossbill complex grows and what it might grow into. Should we be afraid of new information? Time will tell.

1 July 2010

The newspaper boy on the street might yell, “Read all about it” if referring to the July Auk featuring the 51st supplement to the AOU Check-list. There is plenty to read. As a taxonomist, it is somewhat of a page turner. A paragraph just before the acknowledgments states: “Proposals considered but not accepted by the committee included: …division of Aphelocoma californica (California Scrub-Jay) into three species, division of Toxostoma curvirostre (Curve-billed Thrasher) into two species…and recognition of a new species of Red Crossbill, Loxia sinesciurus (South Hills Crossbill).” The outcome of the crossbill is old news.

The proposal on scrub-jays would surely pass muster. It didn’t. Jon Dunn and Carla Cicero, both members of the committee, wrote the proposal on scrub-jays, which was posted on the AOU website a few months ago. It presented a good read. My familiarity with some of the populations, especially the western and interior birds, the ones the proposal recommended to be split into the Woodhouse’s Scrub Jay, the interior species, and California Scrub-Jay, the more western species, goes back many years. I read and reread Pitelka’s 1951 monograph on scrub-jays, examined and reexamined specimens, some borrowed, all blue, and with and without council from Allan Phillips. In all my time with scrub-jays, I never tumbled into the idea I was looking at more than one species. As a taxonomist, I grew up during the days of mergers. People were putting together similar species right and left, sometimes with little reasoning and less science. Even though by the 1980’s, some people suggested scrub-jays represented more than one species, I just was not buying it. Those suggesting splits had reasons, but they lacked proof. Only during the last few years of my career did the tool of genetics become the important method it now commands. Now, proof is more possible or at least the genetic proof is more definitive. The committee vote on Jon and Carla’s proposal on scrub-jays was seven to five in favor of recognizing Woodhouse’s Scrub-Jay. It is back to the drawing board for scrub-jay aficionados. As Jon emailed, someone needs to work the region of alleged overlap between the proposed species. For directions, it’s Pine Nut Mountain, just off U.S. 395. What a great location: south of Reno and east of Lake Tahoe. Where’s a graduate student when you need one? The other rejected proposal, the one recommending splitting Curve-billed Thrashers, I had modeled after the excellent and thorough example set by Jon and Carla’s scrub-jay proposal. Today, information on how the committee voted is not available. It may be an instance of some members not wanting to split a species complex in a piecemeal fashion since the division of thrashers appears to require recognition of a third species. To complicate matters, the third species, from Mexico has yet to be formally named.

In the main part of the A.O.U. supplement are additions of two new species to the ABA area. Both are based on splitting populations of species. In taxonomic order, as all things birds ought to be, the first is the recognition, finally, of western Whip-poor-wills. Differences between the two groups have long been recognized, as I point out in the proposal I submitted to the A.O.U. Genetic studies nailed the phenotypic and behavioral differences, which the committee could not ignore. As is usually the custom, the name of the oldest named subspecies in the western group of birds is the name bearer of the newly recognized species. Caprimulgus vociferus arizonae becomes Caprimulgus arizonae. Eastern birds retain the specific name vociferus. The western species, now known as Mexican Whip-poor-will, ranges from southern California and southwestern Texas to Honduras.

The second new supplement pronouncement is another one of those species, like the former Whip-poor-will, with a sizable gap between the western and eastern parts of the breeding range. Yes, there are major differences between eastern and western Winter Wrens. I wonder if Storrs Olson, who began his career at the Division of Birds about the same time I humbly looked down the rows of specimen cases, recalls a conversation we had on these wrens. I remember him hypothesizing that the North American Winter Wrens might represent more than one species and that the European birds are also specifically distinct. The supplement I now glean might have but does not mentioned probable distinction from the Old World wrens as did the original proposal. The supplement likewise does not address to my satisfaction the avoidance of the term winter wren in the western species. Pacific Winter Wren would work for me so much easier than Pacific Wren chosen by the committee. Winter Wren, the eastern species might have been branded Eastern Winter Wren, but that depends on how far east you go. Go east far enough and you are birding on the Pacific Rim. Should consideration be given to such as Pacific Northwest Winter Wren and East of the Mississippi Except Canada Winter Wren? Take that Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet.

The Mexican Whip-poor-will is now my ABA lifer number 650 and the western wren, Pacific Wren, is ABA 651. I recall my first Mexican Whip-poor-will. It was in Madera Canyon on the night of 4 May 2005 when Linda and I were on the back porch of the little blue house of Madera Kubo. I remember being puzzled since this bird sounded nothing like what the supplement dubs Eastern Whip-poor-will. Although I had Eastern Whip-poor-will exposure before the Mexican species, my birding life exposed me to Pacific Wrens long before laying eyes or ears on Winter Wrens. Perhaps I should count the Winter Wren as the new species, not the Pacific Wren. The simplest approach is to go by priority. The binomial, the specific name that is newest is the new ABA species, or should I pick Winter Wren, which is the one actually newest to me. More than likely my first Pacific Wren was in the late 1950’s and my first Winter Wren was not until 1962 or later. I’m not sure when. Sure, I have notes I can check, but I’d rather be looking for my next new ABA species.

As for that Hooded Crane in Idaho that I passed up during the crossbill hunt, an article in the Idaho Mountain Express and Guide, “The Valley’s Newspaper,” summarized the story of the crane that was seen by several birders and photographed foraging with a flock of Sandhill Cranes. The article stated that of about 10,000 living Hooded Cranes, 80% winter in Japan. Idaho birder Cliff Weisse believes the Carey crane is one of three Hooded Cranes that escaped private land around 2001. Because of the longevity of Hooded Cranes, the alleged escapee may have been around with migrating Sandhill Cranes. However, the April Hooded Crane lacks any leg bands, something that most captive birds should be wearing. The piece ends that the provenance of the Asian crane may never be known. By passing on the crane, it is impossible to wonder I committed a big birding blunder, a giant gaffe. Can I live with myself? Is this as bad as passing on a couple of hours of driving to see the Temminck’s Stint in Washington a few years ago? Did I foul up?

The story of North American Hooded Cranes was not over; the species was showing itself elsewhere, including Nebraska a year after the Idaho sighting and a bird visiting Tennessee in 2012. Ned Brinkley, an ABA blogger, posted thoughts and questions about the provenance of Hooded Cranes in ABA land. In around 5,000 words, he and others considered whether any of the Hooded Cranes were escapees or could they be waifs, birds accidentally immigrating to North America on their own. Could it be that what we have here is a failure to navigate? Might cooler hands make a definitive call in the great Hooded Crane debate spilling over into 2012?

Although as late as January of the new year, the jury is still out. Several intrepid investigators seem reasonably sure no Hooded Cranes have escaped from either zoos or private compounds. Normally, the wings of captive birds are pinioned so that flight is not possible. However, the Hooded Crane in Idaho could fly. The bird reported from Nebraska, according to some observers, may have been the one from Idaho. One more year later, and a Hooded Crane is found in Tennessee, also observed on the wing. Normal practice by zoos and other is to guarantee their Hooded Cranes cannot fly. As with the Idaho and Nebraska birds, the Tennessee Hooded Crane is reported to have all its primaries, as would not be the case of a pinioned individual. Another method causing flightless is a tendonectomy, which would not result in missing primaries, but getting airborne would be impossible.

Whether one, two or three or more Hooded Cranes are involved in the sighting spanning three states and, as many years cannot be determined. The growing notoriety of the accidental crane, with apparently over 2,000 birders observing the Tennessee bird, is leaving behind controversy and doubt. Do the sightings represent a Hooded Crane smuggled illegally when the crane crooks lacked time for a good pinioning or tendonectomy? Did the cranes escape their cranenappers, and stretch their nearly 6-foot wingspan to freedom? Is the crane from one of the very few collectors who thought they grounded their birds, but somehow they regained the ability of fly? Prehensility seems unlikely. Should birders count the Hooded Crane? What will the three state rare bird committees decide and if the crane is accepted by one or all three committees, what will ABA decide?

If sightings of Hooded Cranes continue, it may be difficult for anyone to deny that wild birds are making the wrong turn by traveling to North America. Hooded Cranes could be part of the ABA avifauna, albeit pretty darn rare. Regardless, I cannot but regret chasing the Idaho individual. I had opportunity, but the motive seemed weak at best, but I reasoned someone had just left the barn door open. Now, Hooded Crane could look really good on my escrow list.

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