Milestone 700, ch 28, A Gray Tale

A Gray Tale

Life is full of black and white and plenty of gray. Sometimes there are many shades of gray. The misleading hues provide only hints of a yes or no answer and leave quandaries to subjective interpretation. Bird identifications are not always straightforward, characters once deemed reliable may now not be so black and white and sometimes we simply do not see all the salient characters. Minds register certain characters and not others, or we fail to recall everything we have seen. Oh, for a photographic mind or a great telling digital image that could take us out of the gray. Wishing that we could remember every detail or have a descent photo cannot overcome what we should have seen or done to prevent being plunged into the gray zone. Without positive evidence, whatever we saw must go unidentified. A black check next to the white margin of a checklist remains for perhaps another day, one that is less gray, is more black and white, with greater measures of a solid identification.

Regardless of rarity, all identifications should be accurate, not a shade of gray, well except maybe quiet Empidonax flycatchers during migration, female ducks, subadult gulls… If the identification of a rare bird is not a black and white decision, one that cannot be doubted either from the reputation and experience of an observer and, these days, a good photograph, we are left with a gray area. What then? How countable is a gray observation? We are all guilty of making so-called positive identifications of birds in our own regular haunts, calling barely seen birds by name without wincing. It is something to avoid. However, if the suspected bird is a rare species, how many characters in a suite of field marks move a birder from one shade of gray to another? How many shades of gray might add up to a black and white identification? How many characters satisfy a definitive identification?

Photographs help clinch doubt, take the observation out of the gray, but not always. Not every picture is worth a thousand words and some photographs can be misleading or insufficient for a positive identification since, for example, they may not show the whole bird, colors may not be true to life. A specimen may be the most definitive approach to acquire an undisputed identification. However, even Robert Ridgway considered Empidonax flycatchers difficult, and so do most prudent birders over a hundred years later. During my day job in the Division of Birds, at Smithsonian, misidentified birds, not just flycatchers, were found, albeit rarely, in the collection, and I stumbled on to more than one such mistakes in other museum collections. No one is perfect, but we students of birds hate to miscall a bird, especially when other birders are present and especially if a bird identified as a rare species and it turned out to be otherwise. Many birders simply keep quiet unless they are positive of their identification.

My philosophy has been to say, “That looks like” species x. I may be wrong, but getting others to take a closer look is important if you are in the gray, do not see all the salient characters, and do not want the bird to get away. My sighting last year of what I was close to being sure was a Long-toed Stint is an example of a bird I did not want to get away. Feeling the need that my gray identification demanded confirmation by others, I made a couple of contacts. The half-dozen birders later appearing at the scene of the crime might have solved the problem, but the probable stint did not allow relocating. Although the situation left me feeling a little embarrassed, the world did not end. As much as I would have liked to put a notch on my binocs, I did not count the stint since I was too much in the gray zone. The mystery, according to my observation, was most likely a Long-toed Stint, but it could have been something else. A definitive answer, a black and white identification was not possible. Little did I realize at the time that one year later, at the same locality, I would again be in the gray zone of identification of another species of shorebird. It all started in August 2012.

Early that month, Linda and I hatch plans to escape the hot interior valley for cooler climes and get in some coastal shorebirding. These birds are definitely a challenge. They often stand in plain sight, allowing long looks as if daring birders to endure the pain of sorting them to species. However, there is pleasure in the challenge and fun only if one forgoes the attempt to identify each and every bird. Some individuals will and perhaps should get away. Shorebirding has long been standing as a chore that Linda said she would rather not endure. Actually, the last time she showed interest in shorebirds was many years ago when an unsuspecting Ruff got off course and stayed a while on a beachfront of a local reservoir not many miles from our home. On the other hand, was it more recent? Perhaps it was when more than normal numbers of Spotted Sandpipers filled sight and sound at a tiny mountain lake, competing for space and attention from whinnying Soras and a couple of pairs of territorial Yellow Warblers. Maybe it was the trip to Malheur last spring. Whatever the change of heart, I am grateful to have my birding buddy share the misery, and even the pleasure of the chore of shorebirding.

IMG_1532 (2)
We welcome the escape from the hot Rogue River Vallley to the cool Oregon coast

 

Despite plans, in mid-August 2012, the birdmobile’s radiator sprung a leak. The upper seams was letting out so much fluid I was not sure it was safe to drive, but the birdmobile’s doctor said it was fine to drive to the coast. That was when we saw the almost Gray-tailed Tattler and a few weeks later, I got the radiator replaced, the first thing to go haywire in 142,000 miles. Part of the repair included, unbeknown to me, cleaning the engine compartment to look like new. That’s good since detecting any radiator leaks will now be easy. However, muddy water long ago splashed up and onto the underside of the hood. Those dried splashes had turned to a pale dirty tan, were badges of adventures along the Rio Grande. Visible only when raising the hood, those hash marks had been there since the spring of 2010. Now, those stains are gone, the marks of back muddy roads while looking for Rio Grande birds are down a Pacific Northwest drain. Admiring the new radiator, I wonder when I will again experience the mud of the Rio Grande. Wait. I am getting way ahead of myself.

At the time of the radiator leak, the day we left for the coast, weather forecasters warned that the Rogue Valley temperatures would be in triple digits. Our start was late, giving us a taste of what the temperature we will not miss for the next several days. Despite the leak, the birdmobile air conditioning protected our journey over recognizable territory to a familiar destination, Bandon.

*****

15 August 2012

Checking in at every nook and cranny around Bandon, yields only a few of the usual suspects. A forlorn Heermann’s Gull stays close to a flock of Western Gulls in various plumages standing in the flat next to the foot of the south jetty. A nearby pond, the same one hosting my first and only Emperor Goose three years ago is the foraging grounds for a slightly out of place Snowy Egret. As for shorebirds, the large flocks are yet to arrive. Maybe in a week or two, but our timing is not coinciding.

When the tide covers most everything in the Bandon region, I drive about 15 miles south of town to the aptly named New River. Never mind that the river dates back only to 1890, which is a completely different story. BLM administers the region that is far enough away from U.S. 101 that I see only a couple of vehicles and only two people. The ocean and dry beaches parallel the 10-mile river. Hiking from a gravel road, I stay on the east side of the river, forgoing any chances to see the endangered Piping Plovers, not wanting to disturb their business of breeding. Unvegetated shorelines along the river invite ogling. A Long-billed Dowitcher, apparently lost from its flock, and a few Red-necked Phalarope keep me looking, but to no avail. It is time to call it a day.

16 August 2012

Today, we drive north. Our first stop is Oregon State University’s Hatfield Marine Science Center. The newish visitor center nestles among the facilities many buildings on the south side of the Yaquina River and Newport. The place is bustling with people, with more kids for the planet to support, screaming in delight while poking at live sea anemones innocently residing in one the indoor tidal pools. Other potentially possible saviors of the modern world ogle exhibits less likely to cause harm to invertebrates or they anguishly are crying for an ice cream that might be in some shop across the high river bridge. Don’t get me wrong. Some of my best friends were kids. Of course, that was when I was one. Fortunately, most of them are grown up or at least are not involved with teasing starfish or whining for sweet treats.

I ask about Agate Beach where a huge multi-ton floating dock had washed ashore some weeks ago. The dock was a victim of the horrible 11 March 2011 Japanese tsunami that sent water up to 133 feet onshore, mowing down everything it its path and sucking much of it back to sea. Some of the debris washed from Japan is now making its way to North America. The floating dock, replete with hitchhiking invertebrates made national news. The powers-to-be decided to cut the dock into pieces, exhibit one chunk and grind up the concrete of the remaining sections. Removal of the dock took place before the date we arrive at Agate Beach, but other debris is apparently washing in at the shallow depths in the form, according to a visitor, glass balls used to float nets. I have been searching for such balls ever since moving to Oregon decades ago. Maybe, someday I will get the balls of my dreams.

Back at the motel in Bandon, we plan for a leisurely tomorrow before heading back to the oven temperatures of interior Oregon. Following a less than great shorebirding experience, I now am not expecting to add any species to my avian list. Timing is, most often, everything, and shorebirding during mid-August, at least this year, was not turning up any surprises.

17 August 2012

Linda searches for agates among the small quarter sized rocks on the south side of the south jetty at Bandon while I perch from the rocks of the jetty. The wind is not so bitingly cold as it was two days ago and I bask in the noise of the sloshing waves as high tide makes its mark. Six Marbled Godwits fly over. They were coming from the east, down the Coquille River. Where had they been foraging? Almost every rock up the river is under water.

Finally, after long yet pleasing minutes pass without anything beyond Pigeon Guillemots, an adult Common Murre feeding a bird new to the year and Brandt’s Cormorants passing up and down the mouth of the river, I join Linda. Barn Swallows continue to zip by our ears as they course for insects. As is tradition with everyone visiting a beach, we narrowly miss getting our feet wet by incoming waves.

Linda walks from the foot of the jetty maybe 75 yards east to the birdmobile parked very near the place I think I saw a Long-toed Stint last year. Trailing behind, I scan the few exposed blackish brown rocks in the river. High tide covers all but the more elevated rocks. Something moves on the backside of a dark rock. My assumption is this is a Wandering Tattler, but the white in front of the eyes cries unusual. I cannot see the entire supercilium as the bird is facing mostly toward me. The tattler quickly ambles out of view and behind the rocks. A few more yards and I reach the vehicle where we dine from the ample supply of food ranging from crackers, peanut butter, three kinds of fruit and more. Forgetting about the tattler, I search the water for a Marble Murrelet I saw two days ago thanks to a couple volunteering at Bandon Marsh refuge. This would be a good bird for Linda. Either the murrelet is submerged or it is elsewhere. I check the river rocks just off the starboard of the birdmobile. The tattler, which is in breeding plumage, is standing on a rock. The white in front of its eye definitely appears large, at least large for what I am used to seeing on Wandering Tattlers. While we sit munching, the tattler flies to a strip of rocks right in front of us, but still best viewed with a scope. I look again and am flabbergasted. The tattler is not grayish, but is brownish. Further, the barring on the upper breast is sparse and brownish, not the darker and denser barring expected on a Wandering Tattler. The lower breast appears unmarked. Our Geographic does not mention brown tattlers, but this bird, if a Wandering Tattler, is a strange appearing bird for its species. It is too far away for a photo, at least with my equipment. While we scrutinize the tattler, a man in a pickup, whom I had asked if he was a birder as I earlier had made my way to the car, seemed to be looking also at the tattler. He had not answered that he was a birder, but he did say, as if bored and bothered by my presence, that things were slow this time of year and that shorebirding is better during low tide. Linda had noticed the great amount of white near the eye before I mention it and gently grabs the scope from my clasp. The closer look does not answer the question. What is this bird pretending to be? Meanwhile, the man drives away. Our only corroborative witness, assuming he was a birder. Linda and I confirm to ourselves that the bird seems abnormally brown for a Wandering Tattler and marvel at the sparseness of the barring and white near the eye. The white belly does not match a Wandering Tattler. I should have at least attempted a few photographs. Perhaps one, when magnified to its digital limits could have been helpful, but it is too late. A red Coast Guard helicopter suddenly appears overhead. The copter is so low it flushes the tattler. I cannot hear any call note over the roar and we lose sight of the mystery bird as it flies from view.

Maybe I should chase down the man in the pickup. I think he may have parked at the foot of the jetty. What did he think of the strange tattler or did he actually even notice it? Should I be more assertive? Should I rush to a Wi-Fi outlet to communicate the sighting? At least Linda saw the tattler, but she nor I are experienced Gray-tailed Tattler tellers. I should have attempted to take photos and after the bird flushed, I should have search for it out on the jetty, a place where I have seen Wandering Tattlers during past visits to Bandon. We leave the area, prepare for the trip home, and let the tantalizing bird slip through our fingers.

*****

That might be the end of the story of the untold tattler, but the ending so far is too unsatisfying. I had to have more information. What were we missing, that is, besides a photograph and recording of the bird’s call?

I check the home computer and find that Gray-tailed Tattlers in adult plumage are indeed brownish. I had suspected them to be gray, as illustrated in the Geographic guide. Identifying tattlers is not always black and white or not straightforward, it is a gray area. I keep digging through the internet, hoping there is something to help settle the matter. More internet photos show brownish Gray-tailed Tattlers, taken at different angles and apparently different times of day. The photos do not seem to be of gray birds looking brown as a product of lighting. I locate a profile of an adult Gray-tail that is identical (color and pattern) to the tattler Linda and I saw. Holy crap. This is getting old: visiting the Bandon region and finding something I suspect is rare, but never confirmed is troubling. Now what?

I dash a note to Oregon’s top birder Alan Contreras, with a detailed description. He writes a brief note back saying he had seen Gray-tailed Tattlers at Gambell on St. Lawrence Island, Alaska, and that he would make a few calls to local birders to be on the lookout for our bird. One more thought. In 1993, Jeff Gilligan and three other editors, Alan being one of them, include the only Oregon record of a sighting of a Gray-tailed Tattler at, where else, the mouth of the Coquille River. When? The date is 18 August 1990. The bird Linda and I saw stood near or at the very site on 17 August 2013. The 1993 record was never submitted to the Oregon Bird Records Committee.

The latest AOU Check-list lists west coast vagrants of Gray-tailed Tattlers for Washington, California and Oregon. Gray-tailed Tattler is listed in the hypothetical list of Birds of Oregon, referring to Gilligan’s report, but with the locality of Coos Bay. There was a rejected report and photos of a supposed Gray-tailed Tattler in 1976 on the northern Oregon coast. As verified via email with Kimball Garrett, the only accepted record of a Gray-tail in California dates back to July 1981 of a bird near Lancaster, an interior locality in the southern part of the state. That bird represents the first North American record south of Alaska. Basis for the identification include call note and a photograph that documented fine gray barring on the breast and sides, with white belly and undertail coverts. I am convinced, but five other reports of Gray-tailed Tattlers in California, with photos and testimonials of numerous birders, failed to convince the California Bird Records Committee to accept additional Gray-tailed Tattlers for the state. Apparently, the unaccepted reports went to the gray zone.

Should the lack of records be reason to doubt our sighting? Should the lack of corroboration be reason not count the bird as a Gray-tailed Tattler? Is this situation the same as my sighting of what I am almost, just short of 100% sure was a Long-toed Stint? With the information at hand, I am willing to concede that the stint may have been something else. However, with the information available about tattlers, the internet photo matching our tattler, I find it difficult not believe our bird was a vagrant Gray-tailed Tattler. Would I believe me if I were say Alan, Jeff Gilligan, Russ Namitz who regularly birds the Bandon region and who have witnessed this species in more suitable localities? Believing anyone who has had experience with both tattlers is a definite plus for accepting such an unusual sighting. Too bad Alan was not there. Should I immediately have made contact with local birders for corroboration? Perhaps, but having been earlier stintless, I decided to keep quiet. Knowing now that Gray-tailed Tattlers are so brownish, not to mention the other characters, I would have made a few calls. However, I did not and I did not.

One realization was that, regardless of lack of suitable photographic equipment, any photo might be better than no photo, even if its quality was worth far less than one-thousand words. I could have least taken a few frames at least if not better than those of the alleged Ivory-billed Woodpecker some years back. Next time, I will make the attempt. Now, crying over lost digits is not going to settle anything.

Revelations from groping around the internet conclude that some characters thought reliable for separating Gray-tailed from Wandering Tattlers do not all hold up. There is some gray area in, at least according to some authors; vocalization may not be entirely reliable. It turns out the nasal groove, which, of course, we could not see, is not 100% reliable, and maybe not even the size of the eye line is absolutely character worthy. Everyone seems to agree that the barring is lacking in the lower abdomen in Gray-tails. But, what about that brown hue?

In the meantime, I check the internet, hoping for sightings of problematic tattlers on the west coast. From following sightings of different rare finds, occasionally a bird disappears from a locality. Later, the same species wearing the same plumage is found at a different locality. Are the two identical birds seen at two localities two different birds or the same individual rarity found at two localities? It is possible, sometimes likely, and an intriguing idea. Recently a birder reporting a Common Greenshank in southern coastal British Columbia wrote a friend in Oregon to be on the lookout for this accidental shorebird. The request to watch for the bird may have been in jest, but probably not completely. Multiple reports of Yellow-green Vireo in coastal southern California did not overlap in time and proposing that there was just one smoking vireo on the knoll is definitely reasonable. Of course, the number of birder eyes will greatly increase the odds finding the same needle in different haystacks.

As for the tattler, the birder eyeball and potential habitat ratio is not favorable for finding such a bird whether it moved north or the south along the relatively remote shores of Oregon and northern California. Perhaps the tattler stayed put, hidden among the dark shores of tidal Bandon. There are no reports even though the day we saw the teasing tattler was the beginning of the Oregon Shorebird Festival. The more eyes the better. The festival scours the shores from Coos Bay to Bandon. Timing could not be more perfect. The greater number of eyes might turn up the mystery tattler. In fact, a photomontage of many of the species festival goers turned up included a tattler taken at the south jetty of Bandon. Obviously enlarged to the point of graininess approaching a sand storm, the photo is of a tattler in winter, not adult, plumage. Color is hard to discern, but, judging from the rocks, it is in the gray range. No white is noticeable around, above or in front of the eye. This is not the same tattler frustrating Linda and me.

One internet item grabbed my attention. Tim Rodenkirk, prince of tides in the Coos Bay region, a short drive north from Bandon, reported something shorebird worthy on 23 August: “While I was working the area 4 Lesser Yellowlegs and one Greater flew in. Lesser numbers way down from the peak a week ago. Anyhow, as I was headed back to the car a lone yellowlegs circled over me with a weird call. I say yellowlegs because it looked like a yellowlegs and had yellowish legs sticking out past the wing tips, a long bill, right size, etc. However, the call just was not right (definitely not a Greater). As I looked at it very briefly before it disappeared I became confused because it had a white rump patch above like a dowitcher? Unfortunately, I never saw the bird again. Colin Dillingham showed up about 45 minutes later and we never refound the mystery bird. Damn. But, that happens a few times every year! Sure is a fun time of year.” Two people did chime in with some ideas. One mentioned Wood Sandpiper and another, Jeff Gilligan, suggested greenshank fit the bill and signed off that it was too bad it got away “whatever it was.” Yet another mystery bird was not why Tim’s post got my attention. It was what he stated about fun and that not being able to identify some possibly tantalizing species that shows up every year. I emailed Tim a thank you. He replied. “If you don’t have several good ones that get away each year you’re just kidding yourself (at least in my experience!).” I agree. Some sightings of birds that might have been, but slipped off the hook, flew over the horizon leaving only an incomplete viewing, teasing us and challenging us to try harder are, as they say, water off a ducks back or is it shorebird dorsum. It is part of the fun and makes us better birders.

As for the tattler, Tim remarked that even a sound recordings of birds reported as Gray-tailed Tattler have been rejected by rare bird committees. Of course, this begs questions about the authority of committees. Is there an obligation to follow their rulings? It seems reasonable that some Gray-tailed Tattlers have been voted out of existence, but that is another matter. My concern is what Linda and I actually saw.

The Bandon region has been good to me, with my first Lesser Sand-Plover and Bar-tailed Godwit. Numerous birders had seen the plover, but the godwit was a solo observation and never relocated. It was most certainly a Bar-tail and I counted it. One of these days one or more of the 20 ABA shorebirds missing from my life list will stand in front of my optics and some of them will probably be at my most frequent watering hole, Bandon. By watering, I mean eyes crying for a wayward Curlew Sandpiper, various shanks, stints, snipes, curlews and others taunting with codes 3, such as Gray-tailed Tattler, and code 4, including Little Stint that has shown up for two consecutive years just over the border in northern California. There at least a couple of 5’s that are unchecked on my ABA list. Most of these missing species will not make it to Bandon, but some will. When any do, I will be ready to color the observation, but fervent hope with black and white and without so much gray.

In the case of the Bandon tattler, not to be confused with the possible name of the town newspaper, the conundrum here, the shade of gray is a shade of brown. That the tattler we saw was brownish surely means something. My suspicions, bolstered by photos on the web of brownish Gray-tailed Tattlers, continue to nag my birding sensibilities. To count or not to count, let me count the ways to decide the species by any other name than Gray-tailed Tattler.

While almost ready to throw in the towel, I sent an email on the tattler tale to Dennis Paulson, shorebird expert extraordinaire. In addition to being a connoisseur of those birds, he is author to a 1986 paper in Western Birds that discusses the fine points of separating juvenile plumaged Wandering from Gray-tailed Tattlers.

My time during Dennis’s visits could have been better spent looking over his shoulder during his trips to my old alma mater, Smithsonian’s Natural History Museum. Besides pointing Dennis to the long row of museum specimen cases, my time with shorebirds during the stint at the museum was limited to a couple of forays into subspecies of Dunlin. Then, there was a brief time determining whether to recognize two subspecies of Spotted Sandpipers since one was one described as having more ventral spots than the other one. That required me to count the number of spots on the breasts of many breeding specimens. Somebody had to do it. Turns out, the author of the subspecies was not spot on; there were no differences in the number of spots no matter how you geographically sliced the species. Oh, there was the time I drug out the skulls of all the Tringinae (e.g., the yellowlegs, willets, shanks, even the Spotted Sandpiper and the tattlers). The study never got off the ground—too many gray areas. The time did instill appreciation for anyone boneing up on shorebirds or any species for that matter.

There are many stories to tell, but the tale of the Gray-tailed Tattler cannot rest until at least a reply from Dennis. He wrote. “I don’t usually think of Wandering Tattlers with any sort of brownish hue, but I have indeed noticed that on Gray-tailed Tattlers. What a shame you weren’t able to get photos of your bird, as it indeed sounds like a candidate for Gray-tailed. At the same time, I suppose it’s possible that a Wandering could be worn and faded to the point of looking brownish. I just haven’t seen that.” I knew it, but why Geographic and other guides fail to mention that Gray-tailed Tattlers are brownish seems a major shortcoming.

Dennis’s respected counsel continued. “As you say, you have no hard ‘proof’ and didn’t even hear it call, which could have been very important. My

My guess is that no record committee would accept such a record without good hard evidence. Too bad it got away!” Maybe, maybe not. The observation must be irrefutable; it must be black and white, with no gray concerning any aspect in accepting a record of a Gray-tailed Tattler.

If the mystery tattler had shown itself in say Nome, St. Lawrence or St. Paul islands, there would be no hesitation in calling it a Gray-tailed Tattler. Does location change an identification? No, not actually, but relatively speaking, Gray-tails are super rare on the west coast. Proof is in the pudding, and the pudding, a good photo showing all of the salient characters and a sound recording could make the argument that we saw a Gray-tailed Tattler. Or, would it? For now, and with much reluctance, my ABA list is not going to have a check for Gray-tailed Tattler.

Weeks later, no one other than the lucky birders on islands in the Bering Sea had reported seeing a Gray-tailed Tattler. The shadow of my observation becomes weak, not a contrasting black shadow, but one leaning into the zone of gray.

At the end of September, a report of another bird sometimes seen in remotest Alaska graces the coast. However, the coast was at Watsonville, south of San Francisco. The bird’s identity, by most accounts, came up as Common Cuckoo. Like the tattler, this species is one I am likely not to see. Would, Common Cuckoo visit interior Oregon where I reside? Of course, why would such a bird visit Watsonville? Elementary, it is too far away for me to drive down and join hundreds of birders checking off a bird that occurs only rarely at sites in the Bering Sea. Getting to Watsonville and back requires about 15 hours driving, that translates into close to 40 gallons of gas and at least one motel night. Or, as the bank would state, $157 for gas and around $75 for a motel will be required. All birders must eat, so the price of the Common Cuckoo is getting near the $250 mark. That might sound like a bargain, but someday I hope to be on one of those offshore islands in the Bering Sea where I might see the cuckoo and would see many more new species. Is this good birder economics? Maybe it is maybe it is not, but the decision of driving a 850 mile round trip to see a bird that might be gone before I arrive does not seem prudent. After all, the cuckoo had already been at the California locality for four days. Rarities usually do not hang around forever. Regardless, Linda’s son is visiting for the week and it is only a short time before flying south for a 48-hour pelagic trip out of San Diego.

The record of the California cuckoo came to my attention on 1 October because of timing of the Alaska Marine Highway, which opened reservations for 2013 in early October. Not wanting to take any chances, I called the Juneau office on 1 October, but firming up our timetable would have to wait. Perhaps, Wednesday would be the day to save space on the ferry. With extra time on my hands, so to speak, I checked the internet for California sightings. The Common Cuckoo showed up on 28 September and represents the first occurrence of the species in the contiguous U.S. since the only other record is of a bird in Massachusetts for a couple of days in early May 1981. Staring at the computer and being happy for those seeing the rarity left me with traces of envy.

However, the identification of the cuckoo is not straightforward. The bird was first described as an adult hepatic morph, a plumage found only in females of Common and Oriental Cuckoos, a species even more unlikely to show itself south of Alaska. Later, the California bird was pronounced to be an immature, owing partly to the yellowish bird lips. Photographs appear on the web. One is a good view of the rump. According to the Geographic and other sources, the rump is plain for Common and barred for the hepatic morph Oriental Cuckoo. At least that is what is characterized for adult hepatic morphs. How do the rumps of the two species compare if the birds are birds of the year? The rump of California bird has scallops; it is not plain.

Interest in this has no bearing on my ABA list except as a voyeur comparing rumps. The cuckoo is so close to being in my usual chase zone that it is impossible not to empathize with the birders who may have a twinge of doubt about what they witnessed. I could be one of the many birders viewing the California waif and scratching my head about its identity. Like most everyone, discovery of the truth is the final goal, but the tale of the cuckoo is beginning to resemble the tattler conundrum. Both cuckoo and tattler have similar species morphologically. Vocalizations differ, but, as with my tattler, the California cuckoo never gave anyone the time of day. Not one “cuck-oo for anxious birder ears. However, vocalization may not be important here. It may be a deciding factor. One observer wrote on the web that the mystery cuckoo did not respond to an imitation of the Common Cuckoo. This is not a case of black and white, one that provides a crisp decision, but as with many species, approaches the gray zone. For example, lack of response to the imitation could have been a coincidence or perhaps the young bird was not as responsive as might an adult. Some birders who observed the cuckoo are wondering beyond the consensus that the bird is not a Common Cuckoo. Could it be of Oriental persuasion? The bird disappeared on 3 October, so only the photographic record will provide any second-guessing. As one cuckoo witness stated, the California Bird Records Committee will make the final identification. Perhaps, but there will be many happy birders who will not wait for a committee to tell them what they saw. Or should it be what they believe they saw. This sort of thing can drive someone, well, cuckoo.

Comparing numerous photographs of the California cuckoo with my Geographic does not make a definite identification possible. Well, at least in my mind. Very likely, many of the cuckoo watchers would have had similar conclusions about my tattler. Of course, there are all those photographs birders took of the cuckoo that should be enough to convince most any doubting Thomas. Without photographs of the tattler, memory is the only source and should be enough to convince my doubting mind. However, the existence of a Gray-tailed Tattler at Bandon is not verifiable. Will the battery of photographs of the cuckoo be sufficient for a definitive identity? It would seem so, but the last word is not yet decided. Surprisingly, a bird found in mid-October 2012 is seen and photographed by many and is heard to utter the call of a Gray-tailed Tattler, a most rare bird for Massachusetts. Will that Gray-tailed Tattler, if it actually is a Gray-tailed Tattler, be accepted by the keeper’s of the Massachusetts list? Acceptance by West Coast bird committees of reports of Gray-tailed Tattlers, some photographed and some with accompanying information on call notes remain more allusive than hens teeth. Why do so many reports of the Asian tattler present so much doubt? When does a shade of gray become dark enough to be black? That is itself is a gray area.

 

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