Recessions, Repairs, Rulings and Retraction
Robert Ridgway gave us Bulletin 50 of the U.S. National Museum (Smithsonian) and hundreds of other essential publications, many of which authors cite in manuscripts. Many of my papers reference Ridgway’s monumental output. Ridgway was and is a museum-hold name and for those of us that took our work home, Ridgway was a house-hold name. Numerous years of his highly productive career at Smithsonian coincided with the Long Depression, a 23-year worldwide economic crises beginning in 1873. Times were tough for museum employees then and subsequent economic improvement have been relatively competitive to a turtle. Even so, in pursuant of the fruits of Ridgway’s labor and the ultimate gains in knowledge of ornithologist and birders, Linda and I salted away enough money for travel almost annually within the confines of at least the ABA area and within a reasonable and frugle budget. That may not be reasonable for some, and sure, an out-of-state trip would be nice. Reasonable, for us, also translates to avoiding eating out much, which means packing a little food such as canned chicken for protein, crackers for peanut butter to graze and other nutritious items we think of and that don’t spoil or melt inside a super-heated vehicle. Reasonable, for us, also means clean sheets and a healthy bathroom but not necessarily a star rated motel. Stays at some mom and pop motels that are not on AAA’s radar, have been sensibly priced and provided a good bite-free sleep. Reasonable, for Linda and I, means the most economic airfare and car rentals. Budgeted travel also entails driving the bird mobile when possible. Avoiding red ink means having fun and not wasting money.
For those paying attention, in the last five years we have been to Banff and back, Texas more than once, southeastern Arizona, Colorado and short hops within the Pacific Northwest and northern California. Of course, that is not nearly enough traveling. During the last five years, we have made plans, perhaps fantasies, for other forays, including the east coast, Florida, despite pythons slithering helter-skelter over the entire state and a trip to our dream state, Alaska.
We had nothing on the 2011 agenda. In late January, Linda, much to my delight and surprise introduced the idea of a summer trip to Alaska. What summer? This summer, 2011 was the answer. It was not as if we had not thought of Alaska, but so many non-boreal impediments to go there always, well, impeded a trip so far north. What precipitated going north this year was I just returned from a car repair shop to have the bird mobile’s transmission checked. The owner, whose expertise is, I hope, reliable, and I went for a test spin. With 125,000 miles on the vehicle‘s odometer, the mechanic nonetheless pronounced operating the vehicle was like driving a new car and “if I wanted to drive to New York or Alaska,” I have no need to worry. What a relief. Being in the high sixties on my own odometer, I recalled vehicles with 50,000 miles were ready to explode at the least sign of stress. That was what our fathers told our mothers when car-buying fever hit. Of course, that was decades ago when the 50 grand mark for auto-destruct was either true or a good marketing ploy to get people to buy new vehicles.
Vehicles do seem to be drivable for well over 100,000 miles these days. Should we take advantage of the birdmobile’s good report? Should we feel decadent, selfish, stupid, or something negative that we would dip into our savings when so many people are unemployed, their homes in foreclosure, homeless, hungry and hopeless? After all, the country is in a recession. At least that is what many call it while others dub the economic crises a depression. Of course, staying home would not put our money in circulation, put our coins into struggling businesses such as motels, restaurants, not to mention the poor (not really) companies selling gasoline.
For months, Linda’s own transmission had been creating more bad days than good ones, but now, on the mend, my bride was hopeful for going north. My sporadic complaints about my cranky shoulder and my own back pale in comparison to Linda’s MRI and x-ray evidence of a back gone awry and need of repair. We knew that a few more medical hurdles were on the horizon before any definite plans to retreat to fauna boreali. While evaluating the situation, we began tentatively planning to drive to Alaska, recession or not. In the event we did head north, I let nose and ear hairs go wild. The longer and thicker, the fewer exploring bugs would enter any vulnerable orifice. In preparation for the big boreal birding bash, I bought something I should have had long ago, a laptop. Actually, a clerk told me it is a netbook, which is just fine. Any more bells and whistles would be unseemly. Now, likelihood of missing birds and emails is behind me, that is, once I break my hands so that my fingers will work on the flat keyboard.
While we are thinking boreal birds, a disastrous 9.0 earthquake and tsunami hit Japan during early March. Sever damage to a nuclear power plant caused nuclear pollution that continued for months. The tsunami caused minor damage to coastal northern California and Oregon, but not enough to displace the Brown Shrike near Arcata, California. The shrike departed its untouched California home 18 May 2011, about six months since its remarkable discovery.
While remaining stationary in southwestern Oregon, a profusion of species came to the ABA area for a day or longer, but they were out of my strike zone. Since the Brown Shrike, an Eared Questzal was in Madera Canyon, Arizona in early January. A month later a Rufous-backed Robin and much later a Crescent-chested Warbler visited Arizona, but that was not where most of the action was. Texas had White-throated Thrush, Blue Bunting, Fork-tailed Flycatcher, Yellow-faced Grassquit, Black-vented Oriole, Little Gull and Golden-crowned Warbler, pretty much, chronologically, in the order listed. If I could have been in Texas in mid-March, I could potentially have picked up seven ABA lifers and in early April, I might have picked up four or five ABA lifers in just as many or fewer days. One of them would have been Masked Duck, a species I have already missed on a couple of visits to the Lone Star state. Each time I check the Texas RBA, lists of species to salivate over keep growing.
Truly, I am a glutton for punishment by exposing myself to the candy in the window. When I was a kid, my parents called the Sears and Wards catalogues wish-books. Regardless of how much you stared at something on a particular page, there was little to no guarantee the object would be yours. It is kind of like a wish sandwich. That is two slices of bread you wish had something between them. Masochistically reviewing ABA’s “Peeps” on the web showed that Arizona and Texas were not the only place to be for rarities. Florida had four or five needed birds, and Redwing, Northern Lapwing, Common Chaffinch, Common Snipe and Ivory Gull graced Nova Scotia and Newfoundland with their old world feathers. A Fieldfare on Gaspe Peninsula would have been a great addition. Most of the rarities occurred during winter months and some species at the same time as those in Texas. Given the choice, I would have taken the chance with chiggers and drug thugs since there were fewer species to the north, more snow and much lower temperatures than in Texas. I have to wonder what someone with more time, money and brains would have done. It is fun to imagine, but I am a few months ahead of myself.
Around the ides of March, my right calf began to smart. At first, I could walk off the pain. Maybe I pulled something or other from sprinting up four flights of stairs a few days earlier. It was not. It was a revisit of the clotting problem of 2008, but this time in the form of thrombosis. The family doctor put me back on coumadin, aka rat poison, which will prevent my blood from clotting so easily. I used to think it grand that a nick or scratch bled for a short time before clotting. That is not so great after all. Now, every time I get a little twinge in my legs I wonder if strike three is coming. Will I be beyond repair? Will the bitter pills of coumadin perhaps allow the possibility of ABA 700? Between blood too thick to flow and back and shoulder pain that frequently made even local traffic barely tolerable, we decided to shelve going to Alaska until good health became accessible.
Travel and the birds it offers never left our dreams as we continued to plan next year, with the opportunity to experience new things, read a little geology from road cuts, smell new flowers, talk to new people, take many photographs and see new birds. Would those things justify our footprint? The continual rising cost of travel is not just the out-of-pocket expense, but the cost to the planet. Burning petroleum products, be they gasoline for the birdmobile, diesel for a boat or jet fuel for, well, a jet, all adds carbon into the atmosphere. Birders need to work hard to help the planet in as many ways possible, such as recycling, using everything wisely, to be conservationists. Maybe there are ways to offset the bad aspects of traveling. Do the double-paned windows help? They cost us thousands of dollars, but in the long run, promise to save fuel and thereby reduce our utility bill. All that may occur if we live a few decades beyond our normal life span. The high cost of conservation is not affordable by everyone. Electric cars have sticker prices well above the conventional gasoline powered vehicle. Our windows cost us half of a good trip somewhere, somewhere a new ABA species remains forlorn, away from prying eyes that may or may not be warmer in coming winters. However, we bit the bullet and perhaps, or perhaps not feel we have done something for the planet. May we now feel less guilty when burning up the road for a new species when so many people are struggling under the recession? Linda and I worked hard and struggled economically more than once in our combined 130 years of life. For months, I recall living on oatmeal and, if lucky, cottage cheese, having two jobs, and another time living in an Arlington apartment building that reeked of urine and so dangerous the fire department dreaded responding there. It is our turn to have fun. Besides, we will offset any imbalance by being ambassadors. We will show others how wonderful birds are, teach, but not preach, that birds and their habitats are highly important elements of our ecosystem.
Another aspect of traveling to new locations is the simple difficulty in the actual travel. Border and airport securities continue to tighten. Most people tell me they hate to travel by air, and I do not blame them. When there is no other way, one has to swallow their pride, expect to have a stranger squeeze your privates for other unknown areas for contraband and be hindered by anything in your carry-on that looks unfamiliar to questionably trained baggage searchers and sniffers. Not only is the freedom to travel a great drain on our pocket books and the planet, the process of traveling is laced with more and more restrictions.
In the meantime, spring in Oregon is unseasonably wet and cool, which seems to delay some migrants. More precipitation has fallen in the home state than any time since 110 years ago. However, no potential ABA lifers are falling out of the local sky. A Common Crane appeared at Crescent City, California, one of the North American locations losing their docks to the March tsunami. However, tending to agree with most everyone that the crane was an escapee, I decided to save the gasoline.
This year, we will save our money, give less stress to the planet and avoid any personal probing at an airport by not making any extensive trips. My right shoulder, an impediment because of its pain and flexibility requires attention. After all, I could not have anything that would prevent me lifting my binocs at the next chance for a life bird. The attending physical therapist admitted seeing a California Condor in the early 80’s before the breeding program. It was countable! My shoulder felt better just knowing someone who had seen a truly wild California Condor.
June bled into July without fanfare. Since May, ruinous man-caused wildfires that burned a disheartening multitude of square miles in Arizona finally were nearing their end. By July, the fires were contained. To some, a contained fire equates to a safe situation. It does not. Having worked three summers, two at Crater Lake National Park, Oregon, and one at Lava Beds National Monument in northern California, I learned some fire suppression lingo. Containment means there are fire lines completely around the fire. Of course, a fire might jump a fire line, which happened in Arizona several times as brave fire suppression crews worked to protect habitat and buildings in the path of the fires.
Much of national forests in Arizona remained closed to the public for the safety of visitors and fear of new fires. Fireworks are another reason for closures. Arizona and several states outlawed fireworks this July 4th. Nonetheless, officials were concerned that some people might indiscriminately shoot off fireworks and cause more fires. The forest service signs directed no fireworks to those stupid enough to think patriotism extends to setting fires be they neighborhood roofs, grassy fields or forests. Everyone was glad the fires had stopped snuffing out life in southeastern Arizona, but the undeniable damage was more a cause for a wake than a celebration.
The fire-wrecked habitat will not fully recover in any current population’s lifetime. I am thankful I previously explored some of the destroyed habitats and greatly relieved Tom Beatty’s property survived the fire. Likewise, it was great news to learn that Paradise and Portal were saved from the ravages of destruction. However, I am deeply saddened by the loss of what could not be saved, the thousands of acres that once supported wildlife that makes the region so special. There is hope as exemplified in a post fire report of finding Mexican Chickadees near Onion Gap. There is despair that Tom Beatty discovered a live ring-tailed cat suffering from abdominal wounds and its four feet burned away. The upper Miller Canyon, where I once photographed a pair of trusting Spotted Owls, where a Brown-backed Solitaire was discovered, and where I am fairly certain but not sure enough I saw an Aztec Thrush, is denuded, burned to a crisp.
In July, the monsoon season could extinguish any dreadful embers inside the fire lines, but the rains, with accompanying lightning, create a new problem, the threat of new fires and erosive flash floods. Flash flooding in Miller Canyon this year dwarfed anything I witnessed two years ago in Madera Canyon. Vegetation in watersheds of Miller Canyon and its tributaries was not there to check the torrential rains, to absorb the water and hold soil and rock in place. Walls of water, choked with debris of scorched vegetation, soil, rocks the size of small car, crashed down the canyon and obliterated bridges, buildings and the apple orchard cared for by the Beattys. Miller Creek carved a new channel and scoured its riparian growth somewhere downstream to die. Tom moved hummingbird feeders to one location, closed the property to everyone but birders and announced he hoped to be back in business by 2013. Flash flooding, so far, has not been so destructive in the Chiracahua Mountains. Perhaps, some years from now, I will revisit southeastern Arizona, but seeing the present devastation would now be too painful.
July is also the month when taxonomic rulings by the AOU Check-list Committee become official. Three proposals on the table included recognizing Mexican Duck, currently regarded by AOU as a southern subspecies of Mallard, recognizing Mountain Chickadee to consist of two species and splitting Yellow-rumped Warbler into two, three or four separate species. Dick Banks, with a small assist from me, proposed recognizing Mexican Duck. Incidentally, the proposal I wrote in 2009, and which Dick Banks coauthored that recommended splitting Yellow-rumped Warbler was rightfully substituted by a similar proposal submitted by principal investigators of the species complex. Seven committee members said no to five who thought the duck would fly. Three of the nays remarked that they originally voted yes, but changed upon hearing four members’ reasons for voting no. Was the bird out of the water from peer pressure? An almost Mexican duck does not count. The proposal to split Mountain Chickadee into two species went down with only two affirmatives. Seven committee members voted to retain the Yellow-rumped Warblers as it is currently recognized. A couple of members voted for a 4-way split and three voted for a two-way split. I really thought the yellow-rumps were behind us, with at least a two-way split recognizing Audubon’s and Myrtle Warblers. One of the reasons some said no to Audubon’s is the northern yellow-throated variety is apparently a hybrid between the white throated Myrtles and the yellow-throated taxa south of the border. That is a huge hybrid zone, occupying a breeding range from Alaska to southern Arizona and from the Pacific Coast to the Rockies. Even so, it seems a hybrid has to have parents and that the white throated birds would be one of them. However, what do I know; the white-throated parents remain yellow-rumped. Trained in the martial arts of taxonomy, I know it may take a while, but all three proposals, especially the proposal on the warbler, will likely be revisited.
If the proposals had passed, I would have three more ABA birds. Armchair species are great. They are the result of previous birding efforts. The potential species were already paid for during a time when gas was cheaper and travel simpler. I had thought that once again, the AOU would recognize Myrtle and Audubon’s Warblers and Mexican Duck, but the committee rulings were official reasons for retracting the three new species I had lightly penciled on my ABA list.
Not only were the chances to pick up an armchair species or two lost, but also so was the name moorhen. That is fine loss since each time I saw one of these birds I choked on its name. Gallinule sounds much better. Another term lost is the generic name that, until this year’s AOU ruling, was the generic name Dendroica for the bulk of North American warblers. Dendroica is now a synonym of Setophaga. When back at the museum, I loved to pronounce the scientific name of the Yellow Warbler as I imagined an Italian might. I came up with Dendro-eek-ah pettah-chee-ah. My apologies go to anyone speaking Italian or not appreciating museum humor.
Papers presented at the annual meeting in Jacksonville, Florida, do offer some captivating possibilities about speciation. Among them is one on their phylogenetic results on the pesky Mallard complex. Results are preliminary, but Mexican Duck may not be a dead duck. Viva diazi! Carla Cicero and Berkeley colleagues talked about their discovery of four lineages of Gray Jay, with birds form the Pacific Coastal Range and western Cascades as the most different genetically. Those jays come in contact with another lineage in north-central Washington, exactly where Allan Phillips, in 1986 “Known Birds,” wondered if the small intermediate population there was stable. Of course, there is more to learn, but at least the formerly known Oregon Jay might be a distinct species.
Besides the loss of potential species ruled against by AOU, it also appears other losses are pending a ruling by ABA. Data suggest that Florida populations of White-winged Parakeet, Budgerigar and Red-whiskered Bulbul are no longer sustainable. The Florida records committee has yet to vote, but if the three species are removed from the Florida list, ABA will follow suit. The three species will be retracted from the ABA list to become relegated to uncountable species. I have never seen, but did hope to see the two parrots. Red-whiskered Bulbul got on my list in the early 1960’s. Losing a species will hurt.
Before July is over, I am reminded that it is or maybe important to get the skillet while it is hot. The Common Crane, the one that may be an escapee, is possibly the same bird as photographed in southwestern British Columbia. This leads some to speculate the Common Crane seen in northwestern California is a wild bird. Now, I wonder, did I make a mistake by not taking a nearly three-hour drive to see the crane? Later, and from northwestern California, a Rufous-necked Stint was reported. I thought, how nice, but I have seen the species. One day after the sighting, birders realized the shorebird was a Little Stint proved by a photograph of an adult bird. However, on that day, I did not check the appropriate web site. When I did check the net the next day, I read several birders had made the pilgrimage to see the bird and I began thinking tomorrow I would make the trip. However, before I could pack, the Little Stint went packing.
August, the dog days of summer, bring hope of some other stray shorebird wandering close to home. The month also excites since plans to visit the Ruby Mountains in northeastern Nevada where I will hunt Himalayan Snowcock are underway. The breeding range of this introduced species is tiny. A quick inventory of ABA birds reveals several species that have small-restricted ranges, represented as diminutive dots on field guides’ range maps. Thankfully, I had seen some of them. My first species with a restricted range was Kirtland’s Warbler. That was in 1962 when Sewall Pettingill showed me an active nest. Several wrinkles and arthritic joints later, in 2005, I am on a steep trail in the Chisos Mountains of Big Bend National Park. That hike yielded more than one Colima Warbler. Of course, Colima Warblers have a larger range in Mexico, but its range is tiny in the ABA area. Like other birders, I will endure the taxonomic wait to include the Mangrove Warbler. Finding Gunnison Sage-Grouse, White-collared Seedeater, Ruddy Ground-Dove and many others barely breeding in ABA territory were welcome additions.
Missing from my ABA list are several species with restricted ranges. European Tree Sparrow in St. Louis and Sky Lark on Vancouver Island come to mind. Finding Brown Noddy on Dry Tortugas is another species that would be a nice event. There are a few missing species with irregular ranges just spilling into Arizona and Texas. There are also at least a couple of species in Alaska worth checking. It seems more likely a Bristle-thighed Curlew will blunder to my home state before I ever see the northern lights. Who knows if it will be before I see THE light?
Before everything turns off or a white light take me somewhere from ABA land, there are birds to find. In late July, not the best of times and not the worst of times, shorebird-wise, the coastal town of Bandon, Oregon, looms ahead.
24 July 2011
Linda and I had driven down the coast from Lincoln City yesterday. Stops along the route at Siletz and Boiler Bay and the south jetty of Yaquina Bay at Newport are uneventful. We hurry south; pass the entrance to smelly Sea Lion Caves where I saw my first Pigeon Guillemot as a teenager. The view is magnificent as we head back down to near sea level along the Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area and onward to Bandon. I am more than ready to put a new notch on the side of my scope.
About three hours before low tide, I leave the Bandon motel and head straight to the boardwalk of Bandon Marsh National Wildlife Refuge. Late July is too early for the thousands of shorebirds that descend on the tidal mudflats, but maybe something will walk the mud. Something did, Dan and Anne Heyerly, from Eugene, were donning rubber boots when I arrive and have now stepped from the boardwalk to stride carefully across the mud flat. They scare up a couple of yellowlegs on an otherwise shorebird lacking substrate. A couple dozen Western Gulls lounge on the mud, occasionally find something to eat and are otherwise complacent that anything important is going on. Dan has my cell number and tells me he will call if he finds anything on the order of rare. We are not specific about the species, but, even without rubber boots, I would come running for something on the wow scale between an Eskimo Curlew and a Curlew Sandpiper. Of course, owing to range, likely extinction and time, neither of those species would show themselves here today.
My cell never rings, Anne and Dan return sporting mud and a report of Western and Least Sandpipers. While I waited for them, a Song Sparrow hopped silently onto the boardwalk, foraged on something near my shoelaces and returned to feed offspring hiding in the thick deep adjacent greenery. In addition, during the wait, I wonder why so many people have abandoned the use of walkie-talkies. There are no numbers to exchange, not nearly the number of buttons to push and much more economical to operate. Additionally, other birders might hear a call, and thus contribute to the subject. You do not have to know everyone’s name or phone number. Why does it have to be more complicated than it is?
The tide is still going out and the tidal region east of south jetty of Bandon sometimes is worth checking, especially if most of your birding is inland, and mine is, especially this year when, after seven months I have not even left the confines of Oregon. This is a new record. Nonetheless, breathing seacoast air is great, no matter the state. Being Sunday, the jetty is crowded. I scan a flock of gulls standing on the tarmac just away from the route of vehicles arriving and departing. The foghorn sitting on the jetty noisily warns even though the thick clouds above have long since left the definition of fog. A walk on the massive jetty rocks toward the horn tests my balance. My older brain tells me to be careful, do not step there, and hold up, you have gone far enough. Well, maybe, but there might be a tattler just beyond. Reason and hunger rule. I turn around and head for my pantry, the birdmobile. It is time for lunch and planning the next step.
Anne and Dan had also arrived at the jetty and later are scanning the tidal area east of the jetty. Ghostly pylons that once, I am told, supported a railroad, stand starkly over exposed rocks and sand of the flat. Dark greenish brown kelp covers most of the rocks under a sky to dark to produce a shadow. What were the Heyerlys seeing? Perhaps there is nothing worth writing home about since they spend about 30 minutes there and the birders drive away. After my lunch, I scan the same tidal flats, and not expecting much, leave the tripod, confident I’ll hold the scope steady enough to identify what are surely the usual suspects. In fact, that is what I find, black-legged Western Sandpipers, some with dull plumages, a few bright rufous adult birds and the new kids, the juveniles. The slightly smaller and yellow legged Least Sandpipers also occupy the rock covered kelp and wet sand. Again, I search a mixture of plumages ranging from drab adults to bright rusty juveniles that scurry like hungry mice before the incoming tide. The sandpipers are foraging, sleeping, preening and some fly up suddenly, apparently in reaction to crows rummaging the area. Most flocks whirl back to where they were initially. Small, tight flocks arrive, perhaps birds coming from the north or some from nearby habitat that will soon be under the slow incoming tide.
After about 20 minutes of attempting to check the identification of each and every individual, my eyes land on a small group of Western Sandpipers. They are about 30 feet from me. Standing four feet from the nearest Western is a yellow-legged bird that falls short of the patterns of the other peeps. It appears closer in size to the Western Sandpipers. Having glassed over so many birds minutes earlier, I wonder what this strange bird is. It just does not fit what I have been seeing or, for that matter, what I have ever seen. Why is this bird hardly socializing with the other birds? Is this a Western Sandpiper wearing yellow legs or perhaps a hybrid? Something does not feel right. The bright rufous crown evokes Sharp-tailed Sandpiper, but that species is relatively large and has a bright buffy upper breast. Sharp-tail is definitely not a contender, but a juvenile Least Sandpiper is a possibility. The rufous edges of the scapulars appear edged white, and frankly, I cannot recall the significance, if any of that pattern. The unidentified peep also has a definite white supercilium that appears to narrow near the bill. That line on nearby juvenile Least Sandpipers is not so prominent and does not narrow near the bill. As for the bill of the stranger, it actually looks much like a short version of a Western Sandpiper rather than the slimmer billed Least Sandpiper. What is this bird?
Out of all the shorebirds within sight, the mystery bird’s jizz is strange. I rarely think in terms of jizz although it is a term birders frequently use when unable to be specific about an almost nebulous feeling upon an observation. Jizz is something we all use that helps make quick identifications of family, genus or species. Many birders make these rapid identifications based on years of experience. Personally, I prefer something like “the overall look” as opposed to jizz, which has more than the definition birders may prefer. Little about my bird, its plumage, stance, its overall look, its vibe, does not cry out Least Sandpiper. It cries out something I have never seen.
In minutes, I am back at the car, pouring over the field guide. Not many small North American shorebirds have yellow legs. The strange bird does not in the least fit Least Sandpiper. Flipping the page, I see stints. One of them has yellow legs, the Long-toed Stint. The juvenile is a ringer for the bird awaiting identification. Little and Red-necked Stints had been seen along the west coast just weeks ago, but the rarer Long-toed Stint is missing from the mix. Is the mystery bird in the tidal basin a Long-toed Stint or something else? My pulse and blood pressure must have cleared my usual healthy average as I double-time back to the spot, the last known address, of the unknown peep. Holding my breath, I ease to the bank and search the algae covered rocks.
This time, I have the tripod and the mystery peep is sitting in the same place I left it minutes ago. About the same number of Western and Least Sandpipers are there for comparison. I park the tripod and focus the scope to 20 power, sufficient magnification that fills the view with the unknown juvenile shorebird. The white edge of the mantle is obviously wider than any juvenile Least Sandpiper I have ever seen. With the greater magnification, the dark rufous forehead and shape of the supercilium confirms my field guide description that the bird is a Long-toed Stint. The bird hardly moves. Despite its closeness, I cannot discern the lower mandible is greenish. Valuable sunlight is wanting. Finally, I attempt to photograph the bird, but end up with blurry shots of unidentifiable kelp, rocks and small blobs that should be sandpipers. Even without some sort of proof, I feel the identification of the bird as a Long-toed Stint is a correct one. With only circumstantial evidence, I know I have to alert other birders for a confirmation.
Back at the birdmobile, I plan to call Dan and Anne, who drove south to look for Snowy Plovers. After I gave him my phone number this morning at Bandon Marsh, he called me so my phone would record his number instead of taking a second for me to write it down on paper. Anyway, I cannot find his number in my phone, maybe because the battery was going at the time but more likely because of my technological inabilities. I don’t know, as I barely understand the concept of electricity let alone the magic of cell phones. Whom could I contact? I drive back to the boardwalk at Bandon Marsh, thinking someone might be there who is willing to look at the stint. Only a couple of Sunday bicyclers are there. Then, I remember that my home county contact Gary Schaffer has a house in Bandon. I call, leave a message and return to the motel. Maybe I can raise someone on my new handy-dandy lap computer. While copying some email addresses from the Oregon bird site, my cell jingles. It is Gary, who provides a couple of phone numbers. Linda recognizes my excitement and helps me calm down a little. After all, a Long-toed Stint is not a calm matter. I call Tim Rodenkirk, who I have never met but emailed a few times. He listens as I rattle off plumage characteristics and location of the bird. He offers to pass the word and in minutes, his post jumps on my computer:
“Subject: Long-toed Stint- Coos? 7/24/11
From: Tim Rodenkirk <garbledmodwit AT yahoo.com>
Date: Sun, 24 Jul 2011 15:08:24 -0700 (PDT)
Ralph Browning called me a few minutes back and was quite excited. He saw a shorebird on the sand/mudflats along the south jetty road at Bandon that he is sure is a LONG-TOED STINT. Being a bit wary, I
questioned his ID a bit, and frankly was not totally convinced, but he was. This has got to be one of the biggest ID challenges there could be for us in coastal OR, so one would have to have very good looks at a whole variety of key ID features to differentiate this from our standard Least. All that said, I do not have time to run back to Bandon after just getting home from 3 days away, so I called the local nomad, Mr Russ Namitz, who I imagine will try to relocate this bird before the day ends. Just a heads up for any bored birders who would welcome an ID challenge.
Excited is correct. That separating Long-toed Stint and Least Sandpiper is one of the biggest challenges for West Coast birders is likewise correct. That Russ Namitz, who I have run into a couple of times, might be on the scene is encouraging. The cell rings again. It is Russ. He asks a few questions about my bird and states he will be at the site in about 30 minutes. Great news.
My arrival is seconds before appearance of Snowy Plover biologists Dave Lauten and Kathy Castelein, who saw an unconfirmed Long-toed Stint years earlier on the Oregon coast. With introductions complete, Russ then arrives. I show them the location I was last standing and the exact spot I was observing, which is now birdless. Naturally. Is this going to be a wish sandwich? The tide is continuing to rise as we scan the nooks and crannies of the rock strewn tidal basin for anything moving among the dark kelp. A few yards away from where my stint previously stood are peeps scurry in and out of sight, some fly up only to resettle and a few birds arrive from elsewhere. The four of us continually scan and rescan the relatively small area of rocks that are gradually disappearing under the incoming tide. Ann and Dan arrive. Dave knew their vehicle and had earlier placed a note about the stint on their windshield at the Snowy Plover site. I apologetically tell Dan and Anne they were the first ones I wanted to contact upon finding the stint, but I lost their cell number. Three more people, Harv, and Knute and Lois arrive, armed with scopes to stare down the most difficult of sandpipers.
So many eyes and so many ordinary shorebirds are disappointing. I feel a little silly, but the bird I saw was not a Least Sandpiper. The only species it could be is a Long-toed Stint. A few juvenile Least Sandpipers are scuttling below, but even the brightest individual is dull in comparison to the bird I saw. No one finds the stint. It could be a few measly yards away, perhaps on the inaccessible larger rocks near the old railroad pilings, maybe across the Coquille River or it was miles away. The incoming tide finally engulfs the kelp-covered rocks and sand, driving shorebirds to higher ground, the tall rocks and old pilings, where at least some birds will roost for the night.
High tide is the last curtain call. The peep show is over. Telescopes and tripod legs are retracted, people disperse, and best of luck is traded for another day. I feel sad that I had let down the high hopes of so many birders. Perhaps tomorrow, the bird, my stint, will show itself again and, just maybe someone will snap a good picture of it to prove its identity.
Linda and I revisited the Bandon tidal flat early the next afternoon, just in time for low tide. The part of the tidal basin occupied by so many shorebirds yesterday is devoid of peeps. No one else is scoping the area, although I later read that Russ had tried the site earlier. He then found three species of peeps as well as nine other species of shorebirds. Russ stated missing the two Wandering Tattlers seen yesterday by two Chinese birders. The two were there yesterday, about the time I saw the stint. I may have even seen the person from China, who looked like a birder and who would probably be familiar with Long-toed Stint. Perhaps, yelling “Long-toed Stint” would have sent him running.
Back home, I reviewed video of juvenile Long-toed Stint and Least Sandpiper. The more I saw, the move convinced I became that I had seen a Long-toed Stint. However, I did not see the alleged green lower mandible. That character was difficult to impossible to see on some of the videos. Likewise, I did not see long toes, but the shortest toed Long-toe is only 1 mm longer that the longest toed Least. I know I would not have seen such small differences. Monitoring the web, I looked for any more posts on Long-billed Stint, especially one that reported relocating the rare bird at Bandon. What I did find on the computer was considerable chatter about identifying Little and Red-necked Stints. Various people were chiming in, sharing their expertise about what does and does not make a sandpiper a stint. Apparently, forget about hard to see toe webbing. I had, since I didn’t even get a chance at what was between the Long-toed Stints toes. It was probably mud, which reminds me that my mother advised me decades ago not to walk bare-footed around chickens.
One big surprise reported on the web happened during our drive home. A rare Spotted Redshank was observed north of Crescent City, California, not far from where a Little Stint was earlier seen. The reporter stated he had heard the redshank two-days earlier. If I had only known, driving further down the coast might have been a profitable detour.
For several days, I monitored the web, searching for sightings of Long-toed Stint. There are very few confirmed records of the Long-toed Stint, with maybe three from coastal Oregon. A fourth would be great but such likelihood dwindles. If there is resighting of the redshank, I began thinking of dashing over for a look. THowever, the bird is not seen again. Reported as a male in alternate plumage, it is something very hard to ignore. Nonetheless, if not deceased, the bird is gone. The disappearance of the Bandon stint, a much smaller and by comparison, a drab little bird, essentially disappeared in plain sight. Maybe the two rarities will show up elsewhere. Many shorebird species occur in their linear habitat, the coast and those that frequent the interior become even harder needles to locate in a still larger haystack. Certainly, any rare species could occur almost anywhere, but I believe the stint and the redshank are somewhere on the coast, just not within sight of a birder.
As for the stint, what I saw was most surely a Long-toed Stint. However, I did not see all the salient characters that should separate it 100% from the common Least Sandpiper. Was the stint a juvenile Least, one at the extreme edge of individual variation in plumage pattern, coloration, length of toes and size and shape of its bill? Having compared thousands of bird specimens for variation in plumage and size, I know there are individuals of a given species that push the envelope of what is theoretically normal. There are good reasons for why I sometimes call these birds chorebirds. It is remotely possible that the bird I observed in Bandon was not a Long-toed Stint, that it was an out of the ordinary Least Sandpiper. The bottom line is that I cannot bring myself to believe I positively observed a Long-toed Stint. So close, yet so far away. Damn.
While the dog days of August melt away the summer, someone reports a Wood Sandpiper near Astoria. Not a new species, it is a reminder that great birds are out there and someone has to see them.