Milestone 700, Ch 37, The Little Year, Pt. 1

2014, The Little Year, Part 1, Railery and Half an Owl

The word “slump” comes to mind in thinking about the new year. This is not going to be a big year and not even an average year. 2014 is going to be a little year, but with potential and planning for more.

The declining quality and quantity of my birding experience of late is depressing. Is this my perception caused by memory of the not so dull past and what seems an uneventful future? Undeniably, local birding with my Linda is hard to swallow after the glorious daze from the spell set being in Alaska and northwestern Canada.

On the positive side, I might pick up a species or two from taxonomic splits recognized by the AOU this coming July 2014. In the meantime, tomorrow or months away, a waif might be within economical striking distance. A Little Bunting from Asia was one such potential species and it was hanging out not far from where I saw my Brown Shrike in 2010. Hundreds of birders lingered over the Little Bunting, including Neil Hayward. He saw the bunting on 14 December and that it was the 744th species he had seen in 2013. That Little Bunting was just shy of the total number of species that put Neil over the record big year set by Sandy Komito in 1998. Of course, both counted Texas occurring Aplomado Falcon, but that is another issue. As for the Little Bunting, it lingered for days in December, but the bunting’s time visiting northwestern California was not a good time for going bunting, I mean birding. Rare birds should not show up before Christmas and when winter is greasing the roads. Oh, I could have eked out the time, but maybe I just was not hungry enough. Now, there is more than a little regret missing the Little Bunting.

Waif wise, most of the really interesting birds are showing up beyond a day’s driving range. Graylag and Yellow-legged Gull are in the northeast and a Yellow-nosed Albatross was found on a pelagic off North Carolina. Just yesterday, 22 February, a Short-tailed Albatross appeared on a Oregon pelagic. Thoughts of going on that trip were so far on my back burner that I forgot about signing up. I really need to pay closer attention and be more aggressive about vagrants.

Perhaps I should try harder. Time is a wasting. My aging is in pace with declining habitat and that likely means some of the rarer species that might visit ABA land are declining in number, with fewer and fewer individuals of those species to get off course and fly here instead to their normal stomping grounds. The chances of an individual from several thousand Plumb-vented Windbirds mistakenly crossing an ocean is greater than if there are only a small number of windbirds. Corn Crake comes to mind. Loss of habitat not only is bad for birds, it is bad for waif hunters, it is bad for all birders. It is bad for the planet.

Will it be possible to find that 700th ABA species before reaching age 70? In a couple of months I will become a septuagenarian. I am presently a sexagenarian, with 13 lifer species to find before next spring in 2015 when I surpass the self-imposed deadline. Giving up “sex” for “sept” does not bring a smile. Regardless of my age, no major birding trips are planned for 2014 since more than a couple of domestic repairs are in order for our abode. A trip to Florida could put the total count over 700 , but a trip further up the coast in 2015, to see an aging friend in Maine, see my daughter in Connecticut and Dick, Carla and all at the museum are more important. No one is getting younger. Timing for a trip to Virginia and the Northeast might make it possible to pick up a few species, but those birds would not put the total to 700. It is a little uncomfortable to think that after early April 2015 my tree rings will number 71! Maybe I will shoot for 710 ABA species by 71. Of course, if the roof leaks this winter, all bets are off.

In the meantime, hope springs eternal. I glance out the kitchen window as a thrush pops into sight. It looks around from a banister about three feet above the driveway and then flies to the ground and disappears behind some bushes surrounded by all the leaves my neighbor neglected to rake. That is a good thing since leaf litter provides food. The size of the bird seems a tinge small for a Hermit Thrush. From my vantage window, Dark-eyed Juncos coming in for seed scattered on the car port sometimes revealed differences in individual lengths. I had even seen a Song Sparrow that looked almost two inches longer than a House Sparrow standing next to it. Too bad there was not a photo of those two. Anyway, I had no side by side comparison allowing more than just a feeling that the thrush was a runt.

The sighting happened so fast that I really did not get a good look at the bird’s breast. At least two subspecies of Hermit Thrush winter in the home region and one has very faint spots. Which subspecies is it? For weeks, I spied the thrush and it spied me, but each time I failed to see the breast clearly. Wearing binocs at the kitchen window did not seem an option, but one day in mid-February a thrush was found sitting in a small cherry tree, the branches beleaguered by heavy raccoons breaking limbs when the cherries were ripening. I am reasonably certain it is the same bird seen from the kitchen window. The bird sat quietly, at the top of the leafless tree, vulnerable to our resident Cooper’s Hawk and within eye-level from the bedroom window I was peaking.

How is this related to hope springs eternal? The answer may lie in the realm of imagination or wishful thinking, but it might fall within honing birding skills while attempting to piece together various clues. In the case of the mystery bird, it just did not fit a Hermit Thrush. There is the nagging suspicion that the bird is a little puny for the average Hermit Thrush, but is its breast spotted or otherwise marked. It never furnishes an entire frontal viewing. If the coy bird is not a Hermit Thrush, what could it be? The answer was not in the field guide, or at least it was not in the main section of species accounts, but the answer might be somewhere in the back of the guide among the accidentals. Could I be birding or am I fishing? There are some puzzling birds among the 90 plus accidentally occurring species included in the field guide, birds that could be confused with the more regularly occurring ABA species. Lesser White-fronted Goose looks pretty much like a slightly scaled down Greater White-fronted Goose. Gray Heron appears to be a few faded genes away from Great Blue Heron. However, I am not on some island off Alaska and my cherry tree bird is much too diminutive to be confused with a goose or a heron. There, on bottom of page 544, is a bird that looks something like a Hermit Thrush, but is not. It is a Rufous-tailed Robin and is described that it “Superficially resembles a small nominate guttatus Hermit Thrush…” No birder wants the brand “superficial.” Birding is not an exact science, but we all need to be careful out there.

Linda and I discussed what we would do if the mystery bird was actually a Rufous-tailed Robin, a species not known in ABA land south of the Pribilof Islands. No doubt about it, if the bird is a Rufous-tailed Robin, we have a problem. How would we share that information with other birders? Less rare waifs have historically brought hundreds if not thousands of birders hoping to lay eyes on a species that may never again be accessible in their life times. Linda and I live in a place where people like quite and undisturbed living. Parking is very limited, but maybe birders could park in a church lot about two blocks away. However, with all the birders walking in and out of the main drive, someone is going to think there is a funeral. After all, the compound is a 55+ community, with emphasis on the plus. Would management tolerate us having so many visitors? We could tell them we are hosting a book club meeting and that the book has numerous volumes. We thought of several things we could tell the management and populace of our community, some of which would likely put us in bad light, perhaps from gossip that we were selling something illegal or some well-known suds product or we could tell them the truth although we were not sure they could handle the truth. The neighborhood would be forever changed. After all, with all the human traffic, residents walking their dogs would be nearly impossible, not to mention it being difficult for commonly observed emergency vehicles, contractors and carpet cleaners to negotiate the hopeful birders. Also, so many people with binoculars might worry some who thought their privacy was invaded. How many birders would fit at the kitchen window or no, the bedroom is out-of-bounds.

The web offered some great photographs, including video, of Rufus-tailed Robin. That much improved my concept of the species, but did not help decide the identification of the mystery bird. While our bird sat in the cherry tree, it moved its head from side to side, probably aware of me on the other side of the glass. I snapped a dozen photographs, which, from the camera monitor made me lean towards Hermit Thrush, not Rufous-tailed Robin. Nonetheless, the side of the breast was barely visible. The fairly definite submoustachial strip and lack of any white near the eye other than a nice eye ring presented the face of a Hermit Thrush.

Downloading the pictures on to the laptop revealed a few faint spots, not scales on the side of the breast. How could I have earlier missed a frontal view and not noticed the breast or did I see spots, let alone the submoustachial strip and throat, but my mind could not remember those characters. Could I have a physical blind spot or was I unaware of an emotional blind spot? Birders probably know that eye-witnesses to crimes have proven unreliable. On the other hand, training can overcome reliability. Regardless, I have pictures. I needed to verify scales in order to rule out something other than a Hermit Thrush. Those decorations on the breast in the photo make me feel rather foolish. The markings are spots. My photographs also allowed a long close study and permits two conclusion: the puzzling little brown bird was nothing more than a slightly small, youngish and barely spotted Hermit Thrush. Owing to some plumage characters, it must have hatched last year and, owing to my inability to count during previous sightings, it had only one leg.

A horrible photo of the pesky Hermit Thrush


The Hermit’s spots gave me a leg to stand on for a less than superficial identification. Over the years, I have witnessed many Hermit Thrushes representing several subspecies and ages, but not the particular mystery bird. This individual embarrassed me, it entertained and it taught me. Had the bird been a rarefied avis, I would have been happy to add a new species to the ABA list. I would have tried to share this bird with the birder community, but I will never know any consequences from my neighbors. Strangely, the next day, the day after the photographs, all of the Hermit Thrushes in the immediate neighborhood vanished. Apparently every individual of the species ended their winter residence in my proximate region. Did the lone attention grabbing Hermit Thrush move, perhaps to confuse some other birder or did its one leg cause a misstep and it became a meal for a Cooper’s Hawk. Maybe it joined the handful of other Hermit Thrushes of the neighborhood and will echo its song in the spring woods.

This is not my first time of stumbling through an identification of some species that resembles another and it will not be my last. It is my fervent hope that it will not be my last. Besides the entertainment of identifying difficult or perceived to be difficult birds, the process provides several lessons. First, if you are frequently working at the kitchen sink and looking out the window, do not forget to moisturize. Second, the age-old practice of “process of elimination,” is, well, an age-old practice and it usually works. We exercise that all the time, whether it is to identify a bird, drive faster or slower or whether or not to moisturize. We try to select the best decision, which we define as the most accurate definition fitting whatever we do, and we especially want to identify the birds we see correctly.

A birder thinking about a confusing species should ask themselves if they want to share their thoughts with others. Maybe it is okay to vocalize an identification conundrum, but is it okay to write the situation down or worse put in out there for anyone to read? The situation may depend on how certain one believes their identification is correct or if they want help from others. Appreciative praise, criticism or head shaking is just around the corner. The situation could be embarrassing and even painful, especially when your friends have a good laugh or people you don’t know think you should turn in your binoculars for a different activity. Maybe, maybe not. Mistakes occur all the time, and admitting to a realized mistake must be construed as a good thing since it is an opportunity to learn.

Depending on how much time is available to a birder, it might not be the wisest choice to go through an identification exercise that takes an inordinate amount of time for too many birds. Just how many are too many is up to an observer. For gull watchers and shore-birders, the treadmill is long and the setting dialed somewhere between slow stroll and loiter. For me, not especially being a lariphile or spending lots of mud flat time, I prefer to keep moving for the next bird. However, it does seem that I must deal with a state of affairs akin to the Hermit Thrush at least every other year causing an expenditure of an inordinate amount of time. Naturally, more field time ought to produce some expertise and thereby cause identification to resolve more quickly and conundrums such as the thrush and Long-toed Stint and the Gray Tattler and the … to happen less frequently. However, the double-edged blade of trying to determine what is sometimes the impossible might be enjoyable. Everyone should take the time. Finally, I’m keeping a camera handy. A few descent photographs may settle any nagging feeling about species, one way or the other. We all know that, but until I have a bionic eye that will take photographs, I will miss a few good birds, maybe even an Old World thrush, wups, I mean Old World flycatcher that, well, at least superficially looks like a New World thrush.

Lucky for me many years ago in Florida, I took a closer look at what first hit me to be a Mourning Dove. It was a Zenaida Dove. Scrutinizing common birds while thinking they might be rare species is not an illegitimate agenda, but it probably should not over influence careful observation. Sure, a Hermit Thrush might superficially resemble a Rufous-tailed Robin. Other rare species visiting ABA land that closely resemble more common species pairs include Nazca Booby and Masked Booby and Eurasian Oystercatcher and American Oystercatcher. There are many more identification problems to whet the appetite including identifications of martins, the rare non-purple varieties, certain sets of rarely occurring Old World flycatchers, New World flycatchers in the genus of Elaenia, not to mention coaxing a correct identification from a flock of local dowitchers.

While berating myself that I had not checked the puny and faintly spotted Hermit Thrush more thoroughly and sooner instead of finally obtaining diagnostic photographs on the day it departed, I ran across a reference on a web bird forum about systematics of cave swiftlets. This caused a sharp turn in my brain, but with a connection to identifying birds. Nonetheless, why cave swiftlet? The group of largely morphologically featureless swifts that range from 3 ½ to barely 6 inch are essentially not known in ABA land. They are denizens of islands of the South Pacific, southern Asia and northeastern Australia representing maybe thirty or more cave nesting species in the genus Aerodramus, which uses echo location and Collocalia, which apparently bump into each other. Anyway, reminded me of a paper of mine published in 1993 in an Italian journal called Avocetta. Why I submitted the manuscript to an Italian journal is lost in over twenty years of accumulated cobwebs. On the same day swiftlets got on my mind, Linda mentioned that we should visit Hawaii someday. Of course, what a great idea. Some birders have suggested Hawaii become part of ABA territory, but I digress as that is another story.

While contemplating grass skirts and multi-syllable names of birds, I reread my paper dubbed “Species limits of the cave swiftlets (Collocalia) in Micronesia” and that I concluded that the taxa bartschi, native of Guam and introduced to Hawaii, deserves specific rank. Now, to connect the dots. The species is superficially similar to many other swiftlets.

Many hours were spent examining specimens of the tiny flying cigars, avian animals that produce bird nest soup made from swiftlet saliva. Enterprising humans construct buildings that function as caves in order to “harvest” nests for a 5 billion dollar business, which is nothing to spite at. There is little to no nutritional value in the soup, but some believe it will cure what ails you, including libido, but so will snake oil or rhinoceros horn. The soup to nuts industry, possibly harmful to humans and the birds, is a fascinating story, but serves little to aid birder skills.

Because of the extreme similarity in morphology of the swiftlets, I also investigated nests structure, shape, and the method of attachment of nests to cave walls, which provided a set of characters some earlier investigators found useful, especially as revealed in papers listed as authored by Lord Medway. Later I came across papers on swiftlets by the Earl of Cranbrook. It seems that Gathorne-Hardy is the 5th Earl of Cranbrook and is also titled Lord Medway. By museum standards, some of us would have knighted him simply as Mr. Swiftlet. Anyway, despite this confusion of authorship (a paper or two on swiftlets is authored by Medway and Cranbrook, the father and the son), charateristics of nests along with plumage and measurements were a modicum of help in deciphering one of the toughest group of birds. It turns out that the properties of nests (e.g., amount and hardness of nest cement, the type of saliva, and how nests are attached to cave interiors) often overlap among species or terms characterizing nests overlap. Finn Salomonsen, the very same person lending me all those Rock Ptarmigan, had lorded over swiftlets and produced a magnificent monograph published ten years earlier than my Italian note. He rightfully concluded that characteristics of nests are useful, but they should be used with caution. As for plumage, swiftlets are basically the epitome of the little brown bird. Subtle differences, such as shades of brown and gray, slight pale washes on the throat or elsewhere and whether the plumage has a sheen or not are either problematic for some species groups and helpful in others. And, lest I forget, hours were spent bending over a microscope to check for feathers on their little tarsi and to ascertain if all their toes pointed in the same direction. Yes Apodidae have feet. We should feel extremely fortunate that cave swiftlets have not made their way to ABA land. Identifying swiftlets at some localities where more than one species occurs could lead to a nervous breakdown.

The bottom-line is that birders should prepare for the differences between the usual suspects and rarities; birders should suspect unusual birds that might stray into view and that may be extremely difficult to identify. That means time thumbing through field guides beyond the usual geographic hunting grounds. We at least need to recognize an out-of-place individual. Birders should have a camera at the ready, a means to contact other birders to help verify the bird in question, be able to take detailed notes and acceptance that you could be wrong or the bird in question is a cave swiftlet or was it just an abnormal Hermit Thrush.

Birders, well this birder anyway, also needs to weigh the pros and cons concerning future birding, to consider the cost in time and money for birding a few more of the hot-spots waiting with great birds. The runt thrush was an entertaining diversion as plans evolve for increasing the margins of time and money, I will gladly, mostly gladly, let certain opportunities pass, with the knowledge of better chances to see more habitats and the birds hiding in them in the not so distant future.

As will happen, a mega-rarity in California was an opportunity not taken. It was a mid-spring Marsh Sandpiper in Salano County, just north of San Francisco that sent many birders scurrying to the field. The thought of a Marsh Sandpiper posing for birders within a six to seven hour drive is frustrating and tantalizing, but the bigger picture is likewise an exciting prospect for future birding. We have bigger fish to fry. And, always the optimist, I take solace that some suspect the Marsh Sandpiper may have overwintered somewhere in the New World, which causes me to muse that the wayward sandpiper is flying north. Maybe the bird will rest up for a few days in the Arcata region, a location easier to visit and justify the expenditure of gasoline and time. Perhaps the lost bird will veer eastward and show up at the local sanitation ponds. Sure, pigs cannot fly, but a Wood Sandpiper can.


Late April to early May 2014

Besides a Rustic Bunting showing up in a park in Portland for fewer hours than would be required to travel there, prospects for finding a new ABA bird within reasonable geographic range of home equate to nil.

The real excitement is a member of the AOU Checklist Committee announced on that a proposal for splitting the Clapper Rail into four species passed unanimously. The former Clapper Rail now, or will be in July when the vote is official, represents a species occurring in the central highlands of Mexico (Rallus tenuirostris), a species found in South America (R. longirostris) and, in ABA territory, a third rail, a western species (R. obsoletus) and an eastern species (R. crepitans). In addition to announcing the split rails, the announcement came with good intentions when the nameless committee person asked forum readers for ideas on English names. Dick sent me an email that same day as the announcement that included some of his thoughts on English names and asked my opinion. I quickly reply that I like the name California Rail for the western birds, did not care for Aztec Rail for the highland species, and that I agreed with most of his other suggested English names. We narrowly gauged the amount of time that would soon be devoted to bestowing English names for the new species, especially the third rail from mostly California, and the shocking participation of the ensuing great debate on what to name the newly split rails.

With apologies to the principal players and to the less opinionated participants, the following circuitous story on random acts of attempting to bestow English names to four rails should be an unnecessary chronicle. However, that the story behind the names blossomed into a debate possibly out-competing naming one’s own child cannot be ignored owing to its level of railing and invitation to tongue in cheek raillery.

In all fairness, asking for opinions about English names was a way to avoid anyone thinking the AOU was forcing people to accept one name over another. No one likes to be railroaded. Feathers began flying as the responses about what might be the most suitable English name for the newly split rails began hitting the forums web site. It appears that the number of replies about English names was far greater than the number of replies concerning the taxonomic reasons for splitting the rails in the first place. More inquiring minds wanted to know what to call the rails and were poised to disagree or at least muster considerable pontifications on the non-scientific aspect of naming the split rails.

Clearly, debating what English name might best suit a kind of bird seemed to draw people out of the wood works. In about two days, 33 posters chimed in on what the names should be. Being on a fence about the names of the rails is not the practice as seen from disparate opinions. Of course, some of the posters posted more than once. Almost 1300 bystanders looked over the 33 posts and some of those passive onlookers include me checking and re checking what seems a phenomena among ornithologists and birders, that being, which I hope is not true, English names actually are definitely more important than scientific names. Are there as many people stimulated to post concerns on important scientific issues on large families such as Tyrannidae and Cardinalidae? Where is a moderator when you need one? Perhaps this is more entertaining than actual science. Perhaps stimulated was not the correct word, but the English name issue becomes disruptive and a predator of time for several reasons.

The multitude of reasons for favoring one English name over another sometimes springs from emotion. “I like Split Rail because the name reminds me of my grandfather building a fence” or “Bell Rail tells me the birds once had clapper in their name.” Other reasons include names that convey morphology, vocalization, habitat, geography, even geology. Imparting morphological reasons for naming birds might be useful, but that train has left the station. There are already many well-established and cherished English names that do not suggest the morphology of a given species. Besides, would everyone be happy with Club-crested Quail, White-eyebrowed Chickadee or Chocolate Towhee? Perhaps consideration to naming the towhee should include vocalization or habitat. Maybe we should use the name Tinking Towhee or perhaps the name could also include habitat giving us the name Chocolate Shrub Tinking Towhee?

Whether a name is too long, too short or already in use is of concern. Some people do not like long names. Well, what it is too late? Northern Beardless Tyrannulet is the bird out of the bag. Could one of the new rails go into the annals of an even longer name than the little flycatcher? Many interested birdforum responders and others do not think it is a good idea to use the former name of newly subdivided taxa. Thus, calling the eastern rails Clapper Rail brings to mind a not distant winter of discontent as seen by a pair of wrens in ABA land. On the other hand, could any or all of those split rails have short names? How short is too short? Roughleg was once the short name for Rough-legged Hawk. Certainly, we often speak in a kind of shorthand, saying, “There goes a Cooper’s” or even “Coop,” “we need an MD, did you see the TV,” and “what kind of Saper is that?” Who wants to have the written name so unintelligible? There might be a time to spell with our thumbs while texting or speaking informally and surely there is a time for proper nomenclature.

Nonetheless, whatever English names applied to the rails will eventually become part of common vernacular. It is just a name. A table could be known by some other name and we would get used to it. That is correct, we should get over it and get used to it. A name that anyone ends up scribbles in their note pad matters only if there is a desire to communicate with one another.  As long as whatever English name equates with Rallus obsoletus or any of the other species, then that moniker is the one to be embraced.

However, the great debate goes on and the people weighing in cannot seem to stop. The number of responders passes 50 and those reading all that is posted exceed 2,000. Questions and answers proselytizing one nomenclatural direction or the other keep the internet humming. For example, the western rail (the newly recognized R. obsoletus) occurs mostly in California, but it also occurs in Arizona. How about Arizona Rail? Why do Californians get all the bird, with their California Condor, California Towhee, California Gull, California Quail, California Thrasher…(?). Then again, why not Southern Pacific Rail, but perhaps that would be jumping the rail on reality, or would it?

The name of certain taxa of rails is also important sense my escrow list includes the Clapper Rails from a trip to the Salton Sea that, at the time, I was reasonably certain evidence would show those hot birds on a July day in 2009 differ from their eastern brethren. So, what about those rails skulking at the Salton Sea? What will be their name? Will it be any more descriptive, morphologically or geographically than is my given moniker? Other than California Rail, perhaps the English name of the western species could be Western Clapper-Rail, a shorter name than the aforementioned pesky flycatcher and one that tells everyone that it makes clapping noise and that lives in the West, not to mention it is a rail. Hyphenated or not, the word clapper with the word rail tells most everyone that we are talking about a skinny bird that makes clapping sounds. However, the use of clapper, again, hyphenated or not, suggests genetic relationships, but the chore of attempting to use English names in some juxtaposition to convey genetic relationships of a the world’s 10,000 species of birds, or even the 900 or so ABA birds, is an impossible task. Besides, birders and other not so professional avian fanciers are more concerned about birds with English names that make phenotypic since or at least the name associates something about its obvious make up rather than its genotypic make up. Those adhering to the concept of English names imparting genetic relationship may be encumbered by their diplomas, and I hasten to qualify that such practitioners are not limited to any one committee, group or individual. There exists an equal opportunity for believers and disbelievers in bonding names with hyphens to suggest genetic relationships, but such allows for frequently unproductive debate about English names. Everyone probably recalls that scientific names, and we are talking generic and specific here, are the monikers to help show relationships. English names like wrentit and bushtit, which are not chickadees or tits, or borrowed names such as redstart and robin that New World people appropriated from across the pond do not show genetic relationships any more than a misplaced hyphen and that should be okay. Only scientific names have a taxonomic currency.

While spending years in the Division of Birds, at Smithsonian, names in English were not commonly heard, whether in serious or in casual conversations. Names on specimen cases, individual specimen labels, written information and specimen requests, and replies to those requests, catalogues, literature and manuscripts submitted to editors all adhered to the use of scientific names, which we wrote precisely and attempted to pronounce the best we could. Once retired from the museum, the habit was hard to break and I am sometimes surprised that I can still spell erythrophthalmus. Nonetheless, English names are definitely important but perhaps not as important as some allow.

Sometimes those English names rely on history. If a newly recognized species has an English name already once in use, such as Light-footed, a name used for a rail with the binomial levipes, then it might seem reasonable to use that English name for the now sanctioned species. That is what some birdforum responders are lobbying. However, what if that name made less sense than do some of the English names already pitched for species? It is true, as ascertained in my pocket dictionary of Latin words, which was not really in my pocket, that the word levipes means light-footed. However, what is light? Light could mean not weighing much, pale, nimble or, as one Birdforum poster wrote, the word levipes has the same root as levitation. Well, perhaps or maybe we should keep feet on the ground and pick one name out of the hat or just follow a reasonable consensus. Doing either will cause someone to call foul, but there is need for some fowl name. It appears that there is no place for a golden spike. Picking from the hat is too unmeasured and everyone will admit that tacking an English name on to a bird must include at least some measure of skill. In practice, the term levipes appears as a scientific name for several taxa ranging from at least insects to mammals and birds and I am waiting for a judge on one of these dancing television programs to apply it to a human. One of the mammals with the species name levipes is known by the English name Nimble-footed Deer Mouse, but does the word levipes mean nimble as in light on one’s feet. Even though Light-footed Rail has been in use, is the rail light-footed? Could using Light-footed be misleading, confusing, distasteful, biased, sexist, abusive by highlighting feet or is it really important?

Outram Bangs, in the original 1899 description of levipes, compared his new rail with what were then Rallus beldingi and R. obsoletus. Concerning feet, he wrote only that levipes had smaller feet than the other two rails. By following the description by Bangs, which seems logical since he wrote the book so to speak, the rail is light on foot size as that pie was light on sugar or that person is light on brains. That’s it! The Light-footed Rail is in need of bigger feet. Of course, that would seem to suggest the rail might also be more nimble with those smaller feet. There is less to trip over. And, maybe the feet are paler than those of other rails, but Bangs did not say so and foot color of rails could be some research project for someone who might be that bored. Whether pale in color, nimble in practice, wanting in size, Light-footed Rail cannot be such a bad English name and should not cause birders to use time tripping over each other in getting their opinion out on naming the western rail.

Some birdforum responders suggested, in addition to Light-footed Rail, California Rail, California Clapper-Rail, Western Rail, Yuma Rail and Ridgway’s Rail. If California Rail is too provincial, we are left with Yuma and Ridgway’s rails, but Yuma is likewise provincial and not one of the western birds was named for Ridgway. That still leaves Light-footed Rail to kick around. Of course, any railologist worth their salt knows that Light-footed was once in use for only one of the subspecies making up the new rail of the west. Yes, in the olden days, people bandied about English names for both species and subspecies. Some of those old English names for subspecies still manage to get into conversations and are in use, especially by wildlife managers. However, thanks to the nomenclaturist stars for dropping the practice of English names for subspecies.

Discourse on English names was problematic enough, but it became worse when the same AOU committee member later added his own suggestion about English names. I hasten to state that his suggestions are not necessarily representative of the entire committee that his name is in association. Probably many, including birdforum responders, are in the state of cringing and not welcoming the suggestion with bells ringing. The suggestion is to have the word Clapper as the last part of the English name. The rail from Mexico would/should be known as Aztec Clapper, not Aztec Clapper Rail, hyphen notwithstanding, but simply as Aztec Clapper. Clap on or clap off, the suggestions do not stop there. The possibly called Light-footed Rail could, would or should be known as a Ridgway’s Clapper. I wonder if Ridgway could, would or should be happy pairing his name with clapper. He would likely say nuts to the idea. However, there is more to the bag of names. The rally is to call Rallus obsoletus San Andreas Clapper “because the distribution kind of follows the San Andreas Fault.” Well, the range of obsoletus does kind of follow the fault at least sort of. Probably the San Andreas Clappers would begin to clap at the first tremor.

Just a little digging informs that San Andreas might not be the best name for any bird, even a rail. San Andreas is archaic Spanish for St. Andrew, who long ago was allegedly crucified while attached to two pieces of wood forming a X. Later, the X became a popular hex sign used to ward off witches and other evil spirits. The association might put a hex on R. obsoletus. Although San Andreas is very strongly associated with the word fault, the name San Andreas is also a name for a version of the game Grand Theft Auto that is very popular with the young. Future members of AOU and those who will be studying R. obsoletus, may wonder why a rail would share its name with a video game full of murder and mayhem.

Whether Light-footed, Ridgway’s, San Andreas or some other name, the so-called clappers really should have something in the name to indicate these birds are rails. At least that is what several birdorum responders suggest. Sure, there are birds with names that spell out a word from the sound the bird produces. Willet Sandpiper or whatever it was once labeled, is now just Willet and that common little plover is now Killdeer. Willet, Killdeer, whip-poor-will and phoebe are a few accustomed examples, but suddenly changing a kind of rail merely to a clapper short changes people new to the game of birds. Is it fair to cause more confusion to people new to birds by drumming up a name that does not at least impart the basic idea that certain members in the genus Rallus are actually rails? Problems already abound with what kinds of birds are buntings and tanagers, let alone Old World names that include flycatchers and thrush in their names. There is even a rail-babbler. The conundrums, especially to the novice, are numerous. Why make the situation worse? Despite the peregrinations concerning English names of rails and faced with the new rail known by the scientific name Rallus obsoletus, I must, in order to communicate using my mother tongue, join others in using an English name. It is early May, and the jury is out, but I am guessing the western rails will be Light-footed Rails, but time will tell. As for San Andreas Rail, the word is that name was rejected, but what name the western split rails will have will have to wait until July. Perhaps the western rail ties a shorter name such as Light Rail or Light Clapper. As opinions about English names run high and low, most birders and ornithologists are innocent bystanders left on the siding with hopes for names that will make some sense of it all. Responses in reveal the efforts by an AOU committee member to open a dialogue on naming the rails, but it opens a can of worms. Would it be better if decisions were made without the rankering and the railing? During the great fencing, all those erstwhile Clapper Rails are putting their primaries together giving a big hand, I mean wing, of applause for all us railites sharing interest in skinny brownish birds.

As with most people, my birding over the years has exposed me to all the species of rails north of the border and the family has always had a special place in memory of those enigmatic birds and of certain people. All this railing about English names of newly split rails brings to mind Storrs Olson. I first met Storrs in 1971 when he was on a predoc at the museum. Our birth dates are only a couple of days apart, something we remind each other to this day. The time of our meeting was close to the when I began working at the museum and on that occasion the mother to my daughter, who was looking over my new digs, also met Storrs and thought he was part of the maintenance crew since he was wearing a blue chambray shirt. As anyone knows, at least at Smithsonian’s Division of Birds, clothes did not always make the man or person.

Rails also remind me of Dillon Ripley and his 1977 opus on rails of the world that contains Storrs’s major contribution to that work with a chapter on fossil rails. Mr. Ripley (he preferred Mr. over Dr.) lumped King and Clapper rails. He also ignored an important paper by Dick Banks and Roy Tomlinson that might have helped his taxonomic conclusions. Incidentally, in 1968, Dick hired Storrs for his first job at Smithsonian and, in 1971, hired me for my job there. I cannot likewise forget when the Division of Birds was empty during late hours and filled with stories and laughter while I sat across from Storrs and his mentor and friend Pierce Brodkorb, a personable and erasable character of considerable wit and obvious expertise. Rails probably were on the informal agenda, but I cannot recall. Approximately a couple of decades later, Alan Phillips passed and Storrs and I had invitations to contribute papers for a Festschrift honoring our departed friend and colleague. Mine was not on rails, but Storrs wrote, under the undeniably wonderful and honest title “Toward a less imperfect understanding of the systematics and biogeography of the Clapper and King Rail complex.” Since then, the species limits of Clapper and King rails have undergone yet more changes from the benefit of additional data on sexual isolation, behavior, including vocalizations, and genetics.  Where will this end?

Nonetheless, the great attention taking up valuable computer digits on the birdforum website continues, but this did not prevent notice of Golden-crowned Sparrows gradually disappearing from the yard in Oregon. Fewer and fewer individuals harvested the seeds I sowed for their diets as trade to hear them sing and remind me of the boreal adventure last year. Now, each day their numbers dwindle to eight regulars for a few days, then six birds remain. Were these sparrows paired? Did bird seven and eight migrate? Around the first of May, local temperatures soared unseasonably to 92. Not a single Golden-crowned Sparrow has been in the yard sense and they are missed.

13 May 2014

Now that the English names of the rails is up to the AOU Committee, it is time to think about more important issues. With that in mind, Linda and I drive north. We are on an exploratory mission concerning some big changes in lifestyle. Our destination is the little Oregon town of Estacada on the shore of the 85 mile long Clackamas River, a reasonably large tributary to the Willamette River near Portland, Oregon. Our motel sat above the river lined with a nice walk a couple hundred vertical feet above the deep water. A narrow riparian growth was quiet except for a territorial Song Sparrow.

Mt. Hood, Oregon


With our business complete, which will become obvious sometime soon, I head up to Timberline on the southern slope of 11,240 foot Mt. Hood. I had never been in this neck of Oregon woods. Years ago, I determined the type locality for the Sooty Grouse by analyzing accounts of the 1855 Pacific Railroad Survey party that collected the first specimen of this species. At last, I can actually see the lay of the land and hints of what must have been a great ordeal for those early explorers, crossing streams, negotiating fallen trees, volcanic rocks, thick understory and wondering if they would make it to the somewhat settled Willamette Valley.

Two national forest campgrounds along U.S. 26 were restful, but essentially birdless. Pacific Wrens sang vociferously at both camps. A pair of Dark-eyed Juncos foraged at one site and a lone Hammond’s Flycatcher sang between winged insects responding to the summer-like temperatures hovering almost 20 degrees above normal. Calypso orchids, bleeding hearts and several other plants are flowering, but trillium blossoms have come and gone. A Dipper was expected to frequent the hurrying clear water of Zig Zag River that flows crisply from one of the mountain glaciers with the same name.

The route became steeper, and, turning north on the road to Timberline, the pavement narrows and the birdmobile shifts into lower gear. I pull over to let people pass and begin wondering about so much traffic. Reaching Timberline, just shy of 6,000 feet elevation on the southern slope of Mt. Hood, the large number of parked vehicles is shocking. Hundred of cars, trucks, a couple of RVs, buses and several vans from surrounding television stations crowd the lots. Many people appear to be snow board practitioners. Fewer skiers are in view, and all seem to taking advantage of spring. A few Ravens look on in silence.

Why the television crews? I could ask, but this would not be the first time birding somewhere when someone was lost in the wilderness. However, the situation was worse than being lost. Tuning in to a radio station when almost back to Estacada, I hear is a partial report that someone fell about 1,000 feet somewhere. That might explain the presence of so many television crews, the group of forest service staff talking in front of the 55,000 square-foot Timberline Lodge, and the two guys going through sign in sheets of those climbing the mountain. My comments to them about climbing were met in silence. Now, I begin to understand.

Mt. Hood was on my to do list decades ago when I was more spry and when fewer people climb it. Today, 8 to 10,000 people annually attempt the climb of the mountain. I am not sure how many summit, that’s mountaineer talk for making it to the summit. An average of two to three per year die trying. What happened this morning is that out of a party of three, one of them did summit, an experienced climber, a 57 year-old priest from New Jersey. However, that climber stood on a cornice, a structure formed from blowing snow that frequently extend out over thin air. It was 47 degrees at the summit and the climber suddenly left his triumphant perch, plummeting roughly 1,000 feet. Helicopter and airplane overflights revealed no movement. The climber is presumed dead, with the possibility of retrieving the body when freezing temperatures return to Mt. Hood in a few days.

Not far below Timberline, I stop to photograph Mt. Jefferson, a few feet short of 10,500 and Oregon’s second highest mountain, that looms craggily some 80 miles to the south. A group of Gray Jays check me out and one poses for the camera. The netherworld sound of the whirring song of a Varied Thrush punctuates the lush confiner  smothered slope. Life on Mt. Hood continues.

20 May 2014

Russ Namitz, who looked earnestly to relocate the almost and pretty sure Long-toed Stint I attentively identified at Bandon, Oregon, three years ago, has been reporting Flammulated Owls on the local bird site. Owls were reported in the Siskiyou Mountains in the southern part of the county, not far from my home since I live in the low foothills of that range. Flammulated owls were also found to the north and from the adjoing county to the west. What was going on? I had thought the only local chance for the species was the Huckleberry Mountain region of the Cascades to my northeast. I finally found one there after years of repeat visits, but now, Flammulated Owls are all around. It seems that they have always been. Russ, who has conducted many owl surveys, said most people hired for Spotted Owl surveys were not birders and birders like to tell everyone what they find. The Spotted Owl people did not share their findings, which included information abou Flammulated Owls. Whether the recent reports of this migrant owl are of birds setting up breeding territory or are on their way north is unknown.

The closest locality to my own was of Flammulated Owls on the slopes of Anderson Butte just last week and it was high time for my second experience with the species. My only other sighting of Flammulated Owl, ABA 628 in 2009, was of a silent bird . I wanted it to give a hoot, to have more than just half a bird. Afterall, owls should be heard. At 5 pm, I began the drive to the designated location of Flammulated Owls. Travelling up Anderson Creek is uneventful although the road’s condition is worse than ever experienced. An elderly man piloting a small tractor reassure that I am on the correct road and says the road was beat up by logging trucks and then by poor drainage, leaving small creek beds along the way. Bumping along, I hear a MacGillivray’s Warbler down in the creek and later, about half way to the summit, listen to the strains of Nashville and Yellow-rumped warblers.

On top, at the gap, the road forks in three directions. I take the road to the right and head west for half a mile and stop. This is familiar territory. In 1958, I rode and walked my Christmas 3-speed English racer from home, 13 miles away to three-quarters of a miles from Anderson Butte. I could have used a mountain bike, but that apparently was not invented until ten years later. Late that afternoon, I almost stepped on a group of sunning rattlesnakes and needed daylight for my bouncy return home. The fire lookout, my target that day was destroyed a few years later. Later visits to the site did not turn Jackson County avifauna upside down, although I did discover Wrentits singing somewhere down the slope.

The sun today is shinning past a few wispy clouds as I walk up an old logging scrape and soon discover a Great Gray Owl. This is my only third encounter with the species. We watch each other for a few minutes. Light is finally waning as a Chipping Sparrow belts its last song before darkness. My hoody and loyal green jacket, the one matching Linda’s and the one that contains a warm knit hat and gloves, are welcoming in the soft breeze and appearance of a half-dozen stars. I play the tape recording of a Flammulated Owl. Silence. Back at the birdmobile while admiring a thick sandwich in the dim light, I again see the Great Gray Owl. It is foraging. Again, I play electronic strains of a Flammulated Owl. The Great Gray then takes a perch only 25 feet from the car. It is barely visible. I play a recording of a Great Gray Owl. For the first time, the owl calls, apparently in response to the recording. Its call is almost inaudible, despite the bird being so close. The Great Gray then disappears into the darkness.

Refocusing on Flammulated Owls, I play the recording of one tooting again and again. Twenty minutes bring more stars and very faint toots that surely are from a distant Flammulated Owl. Walking up the logging scrape again brings me closer to where the sound may be emanating, but silence and worry that a Sasquatch might pounce on me is good reason to retreat.

Returning to the fork in the road, I park and play the tape and within five minutes I hear loud and almost hoarse tooting. The vocal half of a Flammulated Owl is added to my earlier sighting. Another owl joins the entertainment. One bird is in a tree that hangs over the road, and, although hidden from my flashlight, it continues to call as I pull away for home. It is 10:30 pm, dark and chilly, yet warm.

A daylight look where the Flammulated Owls are heard.


Descending narrow Anderson Creek Road to the horribly sparkling valley is silent except the occasional rock crunching under the birdmobile. Stops at what could be suitable habitat for Western Screech-Owl reveal only a few frogs singing. Besides avoiding the really big bumps and concentrating on staying on the road, I recall a brief recent history of the nomenclature of Flammulated Owl. For a long time, these owls sat in lists with screech-owls in the genus Otus. Not long ago, the AOU placed screech-owls in Magascops, a genus that screech-owls were in the 1850s, but this time, the change rests on more information. Flammulated Owl remained as Otus flammeolus. Two years ago, following considerable evidence from genetics, morphology and vocalizations, the AOU, in the 54th supplement to the check-list, placed flammeolus in the genus Psiloscops. This is a monotypic genus, meaning the generic name is in use for only one species. Clearly, Flammulated Owls are unique among owls. As for the English name for this little owl with the big voice, it has been known by the English name Flammulated Owl for decades. Sure, perhaps someone might refer to the species as Flam or is it Flamms, but the brash notion of listing them as other than Flammulated Owl is hopefully a long way away.

30 June 2014

June is nearly over. only a few hours are left before the second half of 2014 begins and no new birds have been sighted. Time is continually devoted to downsizing as part of the major plan Linda and I not only believe is feasible, but will provide more freedom economically and spiritually. Of course, part of the spiritual freedom equates to more birding opportunities in terms of time and locations. What is this all about? The plan, after downsizing, officially started today by giving notice to the community management of our intent to sell our home. Once that happens, which we hope will be soon, we go to step three, and, if successful, chances of finding that 100th species to finally hit the 700 ABA mark could happen before I reach 71 birthday candles. And, that is just the beginning.

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