Journal archives for June 2019

June 01, 2019

When I Report Subspecies

This is a topic that I've been wanting to share for awhile and I hope you can bare with my bickering and complaining. But here's the topic that keeps stabbing my mind, identification of my sightings to the subspecies level.

There are about 10,738 species of birds in the world and about 20,000 subspecies. Though a lot of these subspecies are different in terms of size, there's still a good portion of them being different morphically. I want to show a few examples.

Most people across the US and Canada knows what a Dark-eyed Junco is. However, there are many subspecies that look a good deal different from each other. Most people in eastern US know the Slate-colored Junco (Junco hymealis hymealis) which are gray overall. However, birdwatchers in western US see the Oregon Junco (J. h. oreganus Group) which have black heads and orange sides. Even people in southwestern US and Mexico see different Dark-eyed Juncos, namely the Red-backed Junco (J. h. dorsalis) have a pale gray body, a black mask and a rich brown-red back.

Point I'm trying to get across is, these subspecies are easy to identify and record in iNat (well, with the exception of the Oregon Junco Group) and I think we should. And that's what I always do when I submit an avian species to iNat, I identify down to the subspecies level. Every time I identify to subspecies if the species has one.

The problems I've been observing though is the fact that most birders or 'experts' on iNat, do not even bother to dive into the rich diverse world of birds. I've stopped counting the occasions when I've had naturalists correct my identification to the species level. When this first started happening to me on this site, I guess you can say I was holding grudges on those naturalists that did that. One of my thoughts were, "I identified to the subspecies level and you really took the time to click the 'Add Id' button and typed the species name I just suggested, just a higher rank." To me I still don't find the logic to that. Such as, if I say I saw an Interior Western Screech-Owl and you know for a fact its Western Screech-Owl, just hit 'agree' for the love of science. Is it really that hard?

And I know, that probably sounds rude and all but I am trying to get you to know how I feel when I try to get more valuable information. And here's the excuse, comeback or whatever you may call it you would say to me. How do you know you're right? And so you know, I do agree with that statement. I can be wrong at times. An example being the Red-tailed Hawk. The differences morphically between subspecies is a lot more subtle than the Dark-eyed Junco. For Red-tailed Hawks, namely Eastern (Buteo jamaicensis borealis), Western (B. j. calurus) and Northern (B. j. albeticola) have their unique "traits" between each other but they have overlaps in features, meaning that you have the observe all the traits of the individual to identify it to the subspecies level. And you can find any of these subspecies virtually anywhere in Canada/US, especially in the fall migration/winter.

Lucky for us however, the Red-tailed Hawk is just one of the few species where subspecies range overlap and a lot of them can be simply identified to the subspecies level through range, and for migratory birds, their summer range. Federally licensed birders have banded birds for years across the continent and their research has shown that subspecies that differ usually by can size can be identified to the subspecies level by range. It's actually what I did when I banded for a summer job.

But we also need to keep in mind of what's in the future of avian taxonomy. Nearly everyone who birds or have posted birds use the Biological Species Concept (BSC), which identifies subspecies by reproductive isolation. However, some believe the Phylogenetic Species Concept (PSC) to be more correct, as it identifies a species through range, characteristics and plumage differences. Let's show an example of the two concepts at work. A person using BSC will simply call a Song Sparrow and leave it at that. However, PSC believes that even subspecies are species and should be identifiable, so an observer using PSC would call it either Rusty Song (Melospiza melodia morphna) or Eastern Song (M. m. melodia) based on range, plumage and vocal differences.

And as we learn more and more about birds and their taxonomy, it appears that the Phylogenetic Species Concept is becoming more and more logical. If it would suddenly become our way of thinking of bird species, we'll suddenly see an increase of 8,000 species of birds. PSC also affects mammals too and I think if they applied it to them, I'm should the White-tailed and Mule Deer would be split.

Point I'm trying to get across is, if we suddenly see an increase of bird species, are we prepared to identify those birds to the new species level. I think it's better to be educated. So if you see an observation of mine with an id to the subspecies level, I want you to think about it before typing in 'Great Horned Owl' or whatever. If you feel that uncomfortable about agreeing with me, tell me. Send me a message and I will try my best to explain the differences in subspecies for that bird. I am willing to help educate. There's a lot of work to do on iNat, let's get going!

Posted on June 01, 2019 22:14 by birdwhisperer birdwhisperer | 10 comments | Leave a comment

June 07, 2019

In the Headlights

I believe its going to be hard to beat the amazing experience I had the evening of June 5, 2019. The goal of the trip was easy, go up the Grande Ronde River for 16 miles to Troy, a tiny community hidden in a deep and isolated canyon in northeastern Oregon. We would've never expected to find what we did that evening.

We were driving from Lewiston to Enterprise on WA-129 and OR-3. However, we heard from locals that Bighorn Sheep were spotted on the Grande Ronde River heading to Troy. We knew we were driving through in the evening, the best time to spot the elusive climber since they go to the water sources to drink before sunset. But I'll tell you right now, we did not see any sheep. Maybe next time.

Anyway, other things we saw up there was were Steller's Jays, Bald Eagles (including a nest!), Common Nighthawks, a single Common Poorwill and Spotted Sandpipers. That was just the animals I couldn't get shots of. One of the coolest things on the trip was, we rounded the corner and saw a mother Mule Deer with two recently birthed fawns by her side. While momma and one fawn charged up the hill, the second fawn just dropped to the ground and pretended to camouflage.

It was around eight o'clock by the time we got to Troy. What we didn't know at the time was that every other road out of Troy was impassible for our little car in daylight. So you can guess what we did. We turned back and didn't expected to see much. We were wrong.

While I was looking out over the river, finding any nocturnal creatures coming out, my dad swerved and slammed on the brakes exclaiming, "I think that was a snake!" We turned around and shone the headlights over exactly what my dad saw, the infamous Northern Pacific Rattlesnake. The only other time I had seen a rattlesnake was when I was on a Boy Scout High Adventure near Vantage, Washington along the Columbia River. However it was dead as some of my 'friends' harassed and killed it because "It was going to bite someone." Till that day, I had never seen a live rattlesnake. That moment of seeing that beautiful diamond pattern and the rattle on the tail was very special to me.

After taking pics, we anxiously prodded the snake off the road in case another car came up. We started driving slower after that and we had our eyes glued to the road. Soon, we saw another rattlesnake. Two in one day! The next snake was my favorite reptile of all-time, the Great Basin Gopher Snake. Not long after the gopher snake, we found another rattlesnake. Then another... and another... and another. After the sixth rattlesnake, a car passed us and we started addressing our concerns.

The next snake was dead hatchling Gopher Snake, right on the same corner we found the Mule Deer fawn. It wasn't much later when we saw another gopher snake run over. The next one was alive and we were realized to get it off the road. Then we found another rattlesnake. But the last rattlesnake was also ran over, presumable by the car that passed us earlier. The poor snake's head was smashed and I hope that however killed it has its fangs in his flat tire.

The last two snakes of the night were two young Gopher Snakes which we got off the road easily. It became quite some time before we had seen a snake and we were certain the reptile hunting was done for the night. Then a toad crossed the road. It was first Western Toad I have seen since moving from Montana over four years ago. After getting the little hopper off the road, we found another toad crossing the road. The last thing we saw that night was a skunk up on OR-3 five miles up the canyon.

As I said before, that evening was hard to beat. I saw my first live rattlesnake and it was amazing. The thing was, I am now starting to grow a very fond fascination of rattlesnakes. It was just an awesome time and I'm glad we followed a rumor about Bighorn Sheep.

Posted on June 07, 2019 15:14 by birdwhisperer birdwhisperer | 16 observations | 1 comment | Leave a comment

June 14, 2019

Time to Make Empid Complexes?

Over the course of two weeks, I've observed several species of empids in the Spokane/Coeur d'Alene region, including Willow Flycatcher, Pacific-slope Flycatcher, a rare Alder Flycatcher (sadly unable to photograph/record it) and a potential Cordilleran Flycatcher. Anyone notice what the connection between the species I listed above? For those birders out there older than dirt, you would know that the Willow and Alder Flycatcher, and the Pacific-slope and Cordilleran Flycatcher were once the same species.

Probably the more well known complex is the Pacific-slope/Cordilleran (originally known as the Western Flycatcher) was split in 1989. Ever since then, they have been giving birders and even scientists headaches distinguishing them between each other. I will not go into the details of the taxon and why they were separated. The other complex was the Willow/Alder Flycatcher or the Traill's Flycatcher was split in 1973 for similar reasons.

The question I'm posing though is, should iNat curators start making empid complexes. And I think that it should extend beyond the two complexes I just mentioned. In cases dealing with empids, you can only separate certain species by call, habitat and range.

Here at the complexes I think should be added to iNat:

Western Flycatcher (Pacific-slope/Cordilleran Flycatcher)

Traill's Flycatcher (Willow/Alder Flycatcher)

Hammond's/Dusky Flycatcher

Gray/Dusky Flycatcher

Now, you may ask, why is making the complexes important? That is because some of these empids CANNOT be identified to the species level by just a photo or such. Plus, we still don't know the range status of the Western Flycatcher in the Blue Mountains or northern Idaho. Not too mention, DNA analysis have been preformed in Idaho and there is hybridization between the species. By providing these complexes on iNat, we can id the empids to an even more correct id than just Empidonax genus.

Posted on June 14, 2019 02:56 by birdwhisperer birdwhisperer | 1 comment | Leave a comment