The Government Shutdown and Western Arizona

The current shutdown of the federal government is having a significant impact on birders as we try to figure out which of our favorite birding locations are off-limits, and which are still accessible. On a recent trip to southeastern Arizona, I relied on very helpful listserv postings to find out which areas I could still visit. Visitors to the Colorado River and environs will find many of the popular birding areas closed off. Below I will summarize the closure status of some of the hotspots, and some alternatives to visit.

North of Needles

All land within the Lake Mead NRA is closed. This includes Lake Mead, Lake Mohave, and Willow Beach.

I’m not certain of the status of some of the birding spots in that area. It may still be possible to park and scan above Hoover Dam, and some locations above and/or below Davis Dam. If anyone has information on those locations, please share.

Update from Jason Wilder: “The Hoover Dam visitor facilities are open, and will remain so according to their website, meaning the Lake Mead can be visited in the vicinity of the dam. Last week (during the closure) I was able to drive over the dam and park in the lots on the AZ side, where good views up from the dam can be had.”

Bullhead City birding is an alternative to visiting Lake Mohave. The Colorado River winding through the city can provide good birding and has many access points.

The Mohave Valley is all either private or Reservation land. As fall progresses and winter approaches, the agricultural fields in the area can provide excellent birding (Glossy Ibis, Trumpeter Swan, and three species of longspur have been seen).

Further east in Kingman, Hualapai Mountain Park is county-operated so open as usual.

Needles to Lake Havasu City

Havasu National Wildlife Refuge is completely closed. This includes walking onto the refuge. Note that this refuge is actually quite large. Birding spots such as Pintail Slough and North Dike, Five-Mile Landing, Beal Lake and Bermuda Pasture within the Topock Marsh area are off-limits.

Also closed within this refuge are some of the best birding spots in Lake Havasu City. Cape Havasu and Mesquite Bay (both north and south) are closed.

Fortunately, there are alternatives for birding Lake Havasu City. Lake Havasu State Park is a good start. If you tell the gate attendant that you want to just hike the trails, it will cost $3 per person (and the trails are where the birding is). They will point you toward the parking for the trail. This will then lead you through some lakeside riparian and brushy areas, as well as to hills from which you can scan for the continuing Brown Booby and other water birds.

The Island (Pittsburgh Point) and Rotary Park are other good options. Nothing within these two areas is closed. Do note, however, that these areas will be a zoo this weekend (October 11-13) with various boating events.

Lake Havasu City to Parker

The Bill Williams River NWR is closed. Unfortunately there is no alternative for Planet Ranch Road. For scanning the Bill Williams Delta, note that the headquarters is closed, but there are various roadside pulloffs that provide decent views, as well as Havasu Springs. Two Blue-footed Boobies are currently frequenting the area.

Parker Dam is open and operating as usual, so birders can still scan above and below the dam. The one closure here is Take-Off Point above the dam. The old government housing below the dam is off-limits anyway, so as usual can still be birded from the road.

Private areas within the Parker Strip are open as usual (at least places that are open to the public or birders), but BLM recreation areas are closed. This includes Quail Hollow and Bullfrog.

Headgate Dam/Moovalya Lake can be accessed and scanned as usual.

Parker to Cibola

‘Ahakhav Tribal Preserve and other CRIT lands (e.g. the Parker Valley) are open.

Restoration areas away from NWRs, including Palo Verde Restoration Area and Cibola Valley Conservation Area, are partially state-operated and should be open with the usual restrictions (see posted signage).

Cibola NWR is closed.

North of Yuma

Imperial NWR is closed, but Fishers Landing is a privately owned area of Martinez Lake, so at least some of the lake should be open to scanning.

Picacho SRA and Mittry Lake are state-operated, so should be open.

I don’t have information on some of the other hotspots in the area, especially around Imperial Dam. Senator Wash Reservoir is largely or entirely federally operated, so is probably closed. Please share if you have more information about these areas.

The shutdown is making birding a bit more difficult, but there are still alternatives and great places to go in the LCRV!

Posted in Birding Locations, Cibola NWR, Havasu NWR, Imperial County, La Paz County, Lake Havasu, LCRV, Mohave County, Nevada, News, Riverside County, San Bernardino County, Yuma County | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Sage Sparrow

By now I am sure that most everyone has heard about the split of Sage Sparrow into (at present) two species: Bell’s Sparrow (Artemisiospiza belli) and Sagebrush Sparrow (A. nevadensis), two names I think are appropriate or at least I can’t think of anything else better. Bell’s has multiple subspecies within it and for the purposes of this blog post, all mention of Bell’s Sparrow refers to A. b. canescens. It is interesting to note that this split is not without its detractors and it is well worth reading the proposal, as well as the literature cited. Especially worth reading is Patten and Unitt 2002 (claims that canescens is not a valid taxa and should be lumped with nevadensis) and Cicero and Johnson 2006 (which is a rebuttal to the prior paper’s claims). Really it is a good idea to read over all proposals you have an interest in, as well as any of the publications you can get your hands on (important parts of which can be left out of the proposals). Read it and decide for yourself if you agree with the committee decision! I know I don’t always agree with the decisions, but after reading the material present and committee comments, I can at least usually understand the rationale behind it. Anyway I’m getting way off the topic of Sage Sparrows.

The main reason for this post is that the LCRV is one of the few places were both species can occur. This can present a great opportunity to study each species, as well as for listing with the LCRV being one of the best places for Bell’s Sparrow in Arizona, as well as Sagebrush in California. Within the LCRV, though, both taxa are reported to occur, but it is not known the exact status of each species. We have not seen many “Sage” Sparrows in the LCRV, but Rosenberg et al 1991 reports that they have a preference for inkweed/iodine weed (Suaeda torreyana) which is found in alkaline soils and is a localized habitat we do not visit very often. I know this winter though I will be spending more time in it!

I haven’t explored the Blythe area south enough in winter to give good sites there but check for good locations there. The Parker Strip is likely your best bet for Sage Sparrows in California, as along the river there are still nice patches of Suaeda. Good spots to check include the brush areas around Quail Hollow Day Use Area and the Crossroads Campground. I’ve had birds matching Bell’s Sparrow at both spots (but see below on problems of identification). On the Arizona Side your best bets are probably Pintail Slough on the Havasu NWR where I’ve also had birds matching Bell’s. I’ve had them once in the Parker Valley and it is likely still worth checking, but that area has lost a lot of habitat to agriculture which is typically unsuitable for Sage Sparrow. Kohen Ranch in the Bill Williams River NWR is another site I have had the species and is worth the hike in winter to check out. Interestingly these areas all have a lot of Atriplex (saltbush) which Bell’s Sparrow breeds in, perhaps there is some ecological partitioning on the wintering grounds?

Bell’s Sparrow is more local in Arizona than in California and the reverse is true of Sagebrush Sparrow. Bell’s Sparrow does not breed in Arizona, but Sagebrush Sparrow does breed in the Great Basin portion of California. Both species winter in the Salton Sink, but like the the LCRV the status of each has yet to be worked out. The status of Sagbrush Sparrow as a migrant (and possibly in winter) in the Mojave Desert is largely unknown. Within the Arizona portion of the Mohave Desert at places such as the Sacramento Valley it appears to be largely Sagebrush Sparrow (again see comments on ID below). Bell’s Sparrow has been found east to Phoenix in Arizona, but how regular is it east of the LCRV?

Given how new this split is and given the wide range of opinions as to how identifiable in the field the two taxa are, the following paragraph on identification should be considered tentative and in need of further evaluation. The papers used to split the two have cited morphological differences in the form of size, but little on plumage. One thing that is known is that both species molt before they reach the wintering grounds, so once present in the LCRV they should be at their freshest. Below I will review some of the field marks I have seen mentioned. Currently measurements are considered to be the most reliable way to identify the two species, I think however that the two are identifiable in the field though identification may be difficult especially when the two are worn in summer. The head/malar contrast of birds in the LCRV do seem to differ from those just east of there and some unscientific looking at photos online I am able to identify the majority of birds correctly. At this point I should note that of the field marks discussed below, Patten and Unitt 2002 only used measurements (which they did find largely differed), mantle shade, and presence of back streaking. Things like malar/head contrast were not evaluated. I should also mention that though hybridization appears to be rare (hence why they were split) my understanding is that it does occur.

Bell's Sparrow at Quail Hollow in Parker Strip Ca on 20 Jan 2013. Note the thin back streaking that is hard to see and the thick dark malar stripe. Same individual as the next photo. Copyright (c) 2013 David Vander Pluym

Bell’s Sparrow at Quail Hollow in Parker Strip Ca on 19 Jan 2013. Note the thin back streaking that is hard to see and the thick dark malar stripe. Same individual as the next photo. Copyright (c) 2013 David Vander Pluym

Contrast between the head and the malar stripe, along with the strength of the malar seems to be one of the most reliable fields marks. On Bell’s Sparrow the malar is darker than the head while on Sagebrush it is about the same shade. Bell’s Sparrow also has a thicker malar strip than Sagebrush.

Head coloration may be useful, but I think how dark the head is can be difficult to judge and it is better to use the contrast between the head and the malar. I’ve also seen mention of the darkness of the auriculars, but this seems to be variable.

Back streaking and mantle shade: Both the amount and the boldness of streaking on the back may be useful, but there appears to be overlap, possibly only extremes may be identified using this field mark, or it may be useful in conjunction with other field marks. It may also be more useful when they are fresh as photos online of birds on the wintering grounds seem to have a more noticeable difference than photos from the breeding grounds. Some fresh birds do seem to differ in mantle shade, but again it seems to be wear related and a lot of overlap.

Primary projection maybe be useful as well, as the wing length measurements differ between the two. However this can be difficult to use in the field and needs further examination.

Underpart streaking and coloration has been cited as a field mark, but this seems to be variable and I haven’t noticed any real difference looking at photos.

Prominence of a supercilium has been cited, but this seems to be variable as well, a complete lack of any pale area in the supercilium may be only found in Bell’s, but this could be nearly impossible to tell without a bird in the hand.

Amount of white in the tail has been cited as a field mark for Sagebrush vs nominate Bell’s. Though it is variable the amount of white (Sagebrush) vs buffy (Bell’s) in the outermost rectrices may be of some use. Another field mark that if useful would likely be difficult to use in the field.

Bell's Sparrow at Quail Hollow in Parker Strip Ca on 20 Jan 2013. Another look at the same individual where you can better see the thick dark malar, strongly contrasting with the rest of the head. Note also again the thin back streaking that is hard to see. Copyright (c) 2013 David Vander Pluym

Presumed Bell’s Sparrow at Quail Hollow in Parker Strip Ca on 19 Jan 2013. Another look at the same individual where you can better see the thick dark malar extending up to the bill, strongly contrasting with the rest of the head. Note also again the thin back streaking that is hard to see. Copyright (c) 2013 David Vander Pluym

Caution is warranted as we learn about identification of the two species, and for the time being it may be best to leave most birds on the winter grounds as “Sage” Sparrow or use the modifier presumed/probably. That being said with practice I think most individuals are identifiable in the field. Check out this photo of a Bell’s Sparrow and this one of a Sagebursh Sparrow posted online. Notice the head color in both individuals and despite the photo of the Sagebrush Sparrow looking like it has a darker head, the contrast between the head and the malar is minimal. The Bell’s Sparrow shows a strong contrast between the malar and the head. Notice also the amount of streaking on the back of each individual; this characteristic, though, needs further evaluation and should be used possibly only as a supporting characteristic. Robert Royse’s webpage has a nice selection of both species (along with nominate Bell’s Sparrow), though more location data would be useful to assure yourself that they couldn’t have been a different taxa than that listed. I also recommend checking out this post on the identification by song.  Finally Birding is Fun has a nice review of the split.

It may take a while to fully figure out the field marks of these two species, but I think we will come to a better understanding of identification. Remember how impossible other splits were thought to be (like Cackling Goose)?  I don’t think this is going to be a “Western” Flycatcher type split, but one that with time we will come to better understand. Course I could always be wrong only time will tell!


Literature Cited:
Rosenberg, K.V., et al. 1991. Birds of the lower Colorado River Valley. The University of Arizona Press, Tuscon, Az.

Posted in Birding Locations, Havasu NWR, High desert, Identification, Imperial County, La Paz County, LCRV, Mohave County, San Bernardino County, Species Profiles, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | 5 Comments

Elements of a Bird Description

Documenting a notable bird sighting is a part of everyday life for most birders, especially with the growing popularity of eBird. With the increase in documentation out there, though, in many ways there has been a decline in the quality of documentation. I’ve been an eBird editor for a few years now. In that and other capacities, I see a lot of variety in bird documentation. Sometimes it is difficult to know exactly what to write in the comments box, or what to give when you’re asked about a bird sighting. I’d like to discuss some of the elements I commonly see in bird descriptions in eBird, and which of these are more or less valuable as documentation. My focus here is eBird, but much of this also applies to writing bird descriptions for other purposes, such as North American Birds or submitting a report to a bird records committee.

If you’re not sold on eBird, read about why I use it. If you feel that writing a bird description is more trouble than it’s worth, I would recommend this article by Dave Irons. Another great article on the why, how, and what of bird documentation is here. Finally, I urge all eBird users to get to know the review process by reading this article regularly!

The list below is structured from least helpful to most helpful in bird documentation, from my own subjective view. I want to stress that no information is useless or should be left out–more information is always better! My point here is to encourage eBird users (and others) to include more of the really helpful information. Disclaimer: all the examples below are made up by me; I’m not actually quoting anyone here.

Incidental Narrative
Example: “I was just taking a break from setting up my cousin Bob’s wedding and decided to go for a walk. I was walking down by the creek, going really slowly because it was muddy, and contemplating life, etc. etc. when I spotted this bird!”
Incidental narratives are great. They help put the sighting in context and will help you remember it years down the road. Sometimes they can contain valuable information, like time of day, precise location, weather, or other observers. Often, though, they aren’t much help to the reviewer.

Where the bird was perched, When it flew
Example: “The bird was perched on a dead oak stick 30 feet from the second waterfall about two feet above the ground. After it saw me come around the corner, it stayed for about 10 seconds before flying off.”
I mention this category because these are the most common elements of bird descriptions in eBird, and users often end here. It’s helpful to know exactly where the bird was in case people want to chase it, and behavior can be useful in evaluating a record. But for a record that is flagged, this is not enough.

Some birds are very particular about their habitat, and it may be difficult to infer from the sighting location what the exact habitat was like. Noting elevation, habitat type, dominant species, nearby water bodies, etc. can be very helpful.

Distance to the bird, Lighting, Optics, Length of observation
These and similar details can be important, especially for very notable sightings, and are often requested by bird records committees.

If you know you are seeing a continuing bird, it is important to note it as such. Even if you aren’t sure, take note of your suspicions. “Possibly the bird that was seen here a month ago.” On the flip side, if it was not a continuing bird but could be confused with one, note that too. “Not the one that was seen here a month ago. That one was an adult and this is a juvenile.” Sometimes, all that is needed for a continuing bird is that one word: “Continuing.” One practice I really appreciate is to say “Continuing. Photos available if requested.” Of course, it never hurts to document even a known rarity with more information. This information becomes especially valuable if your sighting ends up being the last.

Familiarity with this species and confusion species
Whether it is a species you know well or one you had never heard of before, it is good to make note of it. Remember, though, that “Have seen this species many times in my backyard on Nantucket Island” is probably not enough to have the record validated on its own.

Recognition of the rarity of the sighting
If you browse sightings in eBird, you may have noticed notations like “*Early,” “**Very rare,” “***First county record!” or “****MEGA!!!”. eBird encourages these notations as an indication that the observer knew why the sighting was being flagged. It’s good to note whether you knew it was rare, or not! Here are just a few examples of things you could say to let the reviewer know that you have given the sighting some thought:
“My first of the spring.”
“Very unexpected in this habitat!”
“I see this regularly back home on Nantucket Island, but now I’m looking in the guides and see that this species is rare in this area. Still, I’m confident of what I saw.”
“I just snapped the photo, not thinking much about it at the time, so I did not take any further notes.”
“I was scanning a flock of Long-billed Dowitchers hoping for a Short-billed, which would be a state bird, and when I spotted this bird I suspected I had one.”
Also completely valid to say: “Species is not unexpected in this area at this time of year” If you know for certain that is true.

Age and Sex
When it can be determined, noting the age and sex of the bird(s) is essential and should be the first part of your bird description.

At this point, if you have included all the above information, you may be on your way to a great bird description. However, if you stop here, you are stopping short of documenting the bird! Take this hypothetical example: “I came upon the Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet in the Bill Williams River NWR around 11 a.m. Sunday morning. It foraged low in a cottonwood 3 feet from my face for 30 minutes! I was shocked to see one this far north, but I am very familiar with the species from my travels in Mexico and am certain of the sighting.” If I were to see this in eBird, I would certainly be intrigued, but such a rarity would require some sort of documentation to back up the sighting in order to be considered “confirmed”.

The three items below may not be required for a really low-end or continuing rarity, but without them, you have not documented your sighting and you may just receive one of those pesky emails asking for more details.

A description of the bird
This is the heart of bird documentation: a description of what you saw. For a high count in eBird, it may not be necessary to describe your identification of the species involved (but it can’t hurt). In those cases, a description of how you arrived at your count or estimate is more helpful. Otherwise, a bird description means just that: a description of the bird. What did it look like? If you realize it is a rarity at the time of the sighting, take some time to make mental, if not physical, notes. Even if you get a photo, video, or sound recording, descriptions are still immensely helpful, and learning to write a bird description goes hand-in-hand with becoming a keen observer. Say you got great photos from all angles. Now, stop and watch the bird for a while. What is its behavior? Does it vocalize? Try to describe the vocalizations, as they are sometimes extremely important in identification. For much more on what makes a good bird description, I highly recommend this very helpful article by Dave Irons.

How similar species were eliminated
Yes, I’m counting this category as more valuable than the description of the bird. In some cases, it may not be needed. What could you confuse with an adult male Painted Bunting? But, if you are claiming a Glossy Ibis, it isn’t enough to note “Tall dark bird, glossy reddish and brown, long legs and long downcurved bill, pale lines on the face.” That could describe White-faced Ibis just as well, and some folks with an older field guide may not know that White-faced Ibis exists! For most rare birds, some analysis of how similar species were eliminated will go a long way.

Physical documentation: Photo, audio, video
It is now possible to embed photos, audio, and video directly into an eBird checklist. This is the best way to share your documentation, since it will be easily visible to all users. See eBird’s helpful how-to for details. A simple link will also work, or, if you choose not to share your documentation online, leave a note for the reviewer: “Photo/audio/video available upon request” and wait for them to contact you. These are the most common forms of what is called physical documentation and are the only way to prove what you saw without a specimen. Still, sometimes the bird may not be identifiable from the material, so remember to take notes and include a written description of the bird, as well.

Keep in mind also that reviewers see records from all kinds of observers, from records committee members and other eBird reviewers, to brand-new birders using Google to identify birds. The skill of the birder may be taken into consideration if it is known, but it is always best to assume that the reviewer has no idea who you are or what your experience is, especially if you are traveling to a new area. Take the time to describe even an easy ID (American White Pelican: Counted a flock of gigantic white birds swimming and sitting on a sand bar. Short yellow legs, very long yellow bill.) to make it clear that the ID is correct, for the reviewer and for anyone revisiting the record down the road.

In summary, when documenting a notable bird sighting for eBird or any other purpose, all information is useful information. Before you hit “submit”, stop and ask yourself, did I describe the bird? If someone is looking at this record 50 years from now, will they be satisfied with this documentation? Bird documentation is essential to citizen science and the ornithological record. When you take the time to practice it, you will not only make your sightings more useful, you will make yourself a more keen observer. I hope this information will be helpful for eBird users and others. If you have questions or comments, please leave them below!

Posted in eBird, Techniques | Tagged , , , | 14 Comments

Inland Seabirds

On August 5 Lauren and I made a mad dash down to Mittry Lake after Bobby Wilcox found Arizona’s potential second state record of a Sooty Shearwater and the first one found alive (though see below about a third individual)! With strong winds out of the Gulf of California we had hopes the bird might stick. On the drive down I even had thoughts of the bird arcing over the lake! Unfortunately it did not stick around and was not relocated. While trying to relocate it, though, I discovered a Brown Booby, which was a nice consolation prize! Though the booby did not stick around long, several of us (Lauren, Henry and Suzanne Detwiler) were present and able to see it. The booby seemed to have just arrived when I found it, decided the water it was on wasn’t deep enough and moved on. Two rare seabirds arriving in the same area on the same day is amazing, but with no storms about what conditions might have brought them?

I discovered this Brown Booby in the area just south of Imperial Dam on 5 Aug 2013. This represents the 10th state reccord and only the second since 1991. Copyright (c) 2013 David Vander Pluym

I discovered this Brown Booby in the area just south of Imperial Dam on 5 Aug 2013. This will represent the 10th state reccord if accepted and only the second since 1991. Copyright (c) 2013 David Vander Pluym

This Brown Booby was in the area just south of Imperial Dam on 5 Aug 2013. Note the pale belly strongly contrasting with the darker chest and the paler underwing coverts. The photo is underexposed and the belly appeared slightly paler than these photos indicate. Note also the two generations of primaries indcating a second-year bird. Copyright (c) 2013 David Vander Pluym

This Brown Booby was in the area just south of Imperial Dam on 5 Aug 2013. Note the pale belly strongly contrasting with the darker chest and the paler underwing coverts. The photo is underexposed and the belly appeared slightly paler than these photos indicate. Note also the two generations of primaries indcating a second-year bird. Copyright (c) 2013 David Vander Pluym

When one thinks about seabirds in the interior desert southwest one tends to immediately think of tropical storms blowing seabirds up out of the gulf. That has happened with most recently Tropical Storm Nora dumping hundreds of storm petrels on Lake Havasu; see Storm Birding for more info on storm related birds. However these are rare events and most records of seabirds, whether they are tubenoses or boobies, are not related to storms! They do however all follow a pattern. The vast majority come from the “warm season” late April into November with most tubenose records coming from July (late April-September), while boobies and frigatebirds tend to be August-September (mid June-November). Even Storm-Petrels have been found at the Salton Sea not in association with storms! Interestingly most of the Laysan Albatross records are earlier than the average, from May, a time when they are moving north in the eastern Pacific.

Sooty Shearwater on Monterey Bay, Monterey Co, Cali, on 1 Aug 2009. See on a Shearwater Journey's pelagic, I was a leader on. With only one prior record for Arizona (from 1971) Bobby Wilcox report of one at Mittry Lake Yuma, Az got us moving south in a hurry! Missing the shearwater we had to settle instead with a Brown Booby! Copyright (c) 2013 David Vander Pluym

Sooty Shearwater on Monterey Bay, Monterey Co, Cali, on 1 Aug 2009. Seen on a Shearwater Journey’s pelagic. With only one prior record for Arizona (from 1971) Bobby Wilcox’s report of one at Mittry Lake Yuma, AZ got us moving south in a hurry! Missing the shearwater we had to settle instead with a Brown Booby! Copyright (c) 2013 David Vander Pluym

So we have a pattern of when, but why do they occur during these times? During the warmer months the temperature difference between the colder Pacific Ocean and the warmer Gulf of California decreases and seabirds that don’t breed in the gulf may move north into it. Once there they may move north up the gulf. Aided by the northward moving monsoonal winds an adventurous bird may ride these winds up the river or into the Salton Sink. In fact when the shearwater and booby were found there were ~10mph winds straight out of the gulf and most records of tubenoses come during such conditions. Both boobies and frigatebirds tend to fly higher and can be more readily blown north by these winds, likely the reason there are far more records of these species than of tubenoses.

I discovered this Brown Booby in the area just south of Imperial Dam on 5 Aug 2013. Note the dark brown evenly colored upperparts. Copyright (c) 2013 David Vander Pluym

I discovered this Brown Booby in the area just south of Imperial Dam on 5 Aug 2013. Note the dark brown evenly colored upperparts. Copyright (c) 2013 David Vander Pluym

In total 9 species of tubenose have previously been recorded between the Salton Sink (8 species) and the LCRV (6 species). The LCRV had one prior record of Sooty Shearwater, a bird flying along the river at the Palo Verde Dam north of Blythe 19 May 2001, and though not submitted as being in Arizona, must have passed through! The other prior AZ Sooty Shearwater was just outside of the LCRV in Wellton, Yuma County, 6 Jun 1971. Brown Boobies (and Blue-footed) have occurred more regularly inland, though numbers have decreased since the 80’s with this only being Arizona’s second since 1991! I believe the Salton Sink has also only had 2 Brown Boobies since 1990. Magnificent Frigatebirds were formerly more regular as well and now they are rare enough, that while that is still the most likely species to occur, other species need to be considered and ruled out!

Cook's Petrel off Santa Cruz Co, Cali on 1 Aug 2009. See on a Shearwater Journey's pelagic, I was a leader on. With 3+ records for the Salton Sink this is my pick for the next tubenose in the LCRV. Copyright (c) 2013 David Vander Pluym

Cook’s Petrel off Santa Cruz Co, Cali on 1 Aug 2009. Seen on a Shearwater Journey’s pelagic. With 3+ records for the Salton Sink this is my pick for the next new tubenose in the LCRV. Copyright (c) 2013 David Vander Pluym

Though the focus of this has been on tubenoses, boobies, and frigatebirds, I want to mention a couple other species that could occur in the LCRV because of the summer monsoons. Yellow-footed Gull moves up into the Salton Sink in the hundreds during the monsoons, but despite this there is no record that I am aware of for the LCRV! Laughing Gull and Gull-billed Tern are two other species that could be found at this time of year, and in fact the past several years have had several reports of Laughing Gull. September is the period generally thought of for jaegers, but most records of Pomarine from the Salton Sink are from the summer months. Summer is also a time when numbers of South Polar Skuas have been found in the northern part of the gulf and could ride the winds up the valley or over to the Salton Sea!

With the Laguna/Imperial Dam area being the closest to the gulf (just under 100 miles straight or just over 100 river miles), this is your best bet for these species (especially non storm related tubenoses). Lots of lakes in this area could hold goodies, though, you could spend several hot days without seeing much of anything! Visiting on days when the wind is blowing out of the south will increase your chances of finding an inland seabird, but wind can make it hard to bird. Another difficulty is that there are lots of small lakes that are inaccessible and even the bigger ones in that area can be hard to view. For more info on birding this area check out

I discovered this Brown Booby in the area just south of Imperial Dam on 5 Aug 2013. Copyright (c) 2013 David Vander Pluym

I discovered this Brown Booby in the area just south of Imperial Dam on 5 Aug 2013. Copyright (c) 2013 David Vander Pluym

Though most people bird the LCRV in the cooler months, and the summer can be a bit boring for the birds, the possibilities of a mega keep me going out there even in 122F heat!

For more information check out  Patten, M. A., et al. 2003. Birds of the Salton Sea: Status, Biogeography, and Ecology and Rosenberg, et al. 1991. Birds of the Lower Colorado River Valley. Also if you can find it (which I have not yet) Patten and Minnich 1997 Souhwest Naturalist.


Posted in Imperial County, LCRV, Migration, Vagrants, Yuma County | Tagged , , , , , | 5 Comments

Least Tern, Lake Havasu City

David and I had a nice surprise today in the form of a text message from John West, saying that he had just found a Least Tern at Rotary Park! This being a state bird for both of us, we rushed down to the sweltering beach (113 F) and were happy to see the little elf still there.

Least Tern is one of several species that presumably wander to Arizona from populations along the upper Gulf of California, but are much more regular in central and southeastern Arizona than here in the LCRV. I believe there are fewer than 10 records.

I haven’t spent much time with Least Terns, especially in recent years, so it was fun to watch and study this bird. It was still quite young, with a bit of brown remaining on the scapulars and pale tips to some of the wing coverts. When it spread its wings, the white triangle on the inner wing formed from bright white outer secondaries and greater coverts and inner primaries contrasted with the rest of the wing, forming a shadow of a dark “M” pattern. Most striking, of course, was the diminutive size. A rare Snowy Plover was on the beach with it; the two were about the same size, but I would guess the Snowy Plover was heavier. The Least Tern was dwarfed by Forster’s Terns and Killdeer, and it may as well have been a speck of sand next to a Caspian Tern.

The light wasn’t great, but I took a video of the bird loafing on the beach. (I recommend changing the quality to high def.) Check out the size comparison with a diminutive Snowy Plover!


John got some great photos before we arrived, but David got some too.

Least Tern

Least Tern by David Vander Pluym

Posted in Lake Havasu, LCRV, Mohave County, Vagrants | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Sound Recordings from the Spring

After making good use of my recording equipment this spring, the summer has been much slower for sound recording. I blame the heat, both because it keeps me inside much more often and because I don’t like to take the mic out in extreme heat. I’ve been plenty busy with other projects, though, so I haven’t had much of a chance to process and post my recordings from the spring. I took the opportunity today to do so.

Great-tailed Grackle

If this grackle could get out of the heat, he’d do it too.

I processed 22 recordings today (plus some really junky ones that I didn’t save), of which I posted 14 on Xeno-Canto. Below are a few of my favorites.

I’ve always been kind of enchanted by the songs of Anna’s Hummingbirds, and lately I’ve been trying to record them. In particular I’m curious about geographic variation in the song. The dive display of the males is especially cool: he dives down in a J, terminating the dive just above the object of his attention (female, rival, human head…). As he ends the dive he gives a loud squeak. There are actually three parts to the squeak; the first two parts of the sound are made by the wings, but the loud last part is made by the tail. Immediately after ending the dive, he will pull back up again, hovering well above The Object as he sings, but only the first part of a typical song. Then he rises straight up until he’s a speck in the sky, and repeats the dive display. I was fortunate to be able to record a displaying male back in March: listen to it here.

An owling trip to the California side of Lake Havasu in early April turned up only two species, Great Horned and Western Screech-Owls. Still, we got some good eBird data out of it and I managed to get a decent recording of a singing Western Screech-Owl.

The next afternoon, David and I found ourselves in central Phoenix with some time to spare. So we stopped by Encanto Park, our favorite hotspot for Rosy-faced Lovebirds, which I had wanted to record. This was one of the more challenging times I’ve had while recording birds. Recording in a popular urban park, near a busy street, on a Saturday afternoon is not easy! Still, my lovebird recordings came out better than I expected. Listen to them here and here.

The next day, we visited the Hassayampa River Preserve for its bird-banding program. I also took the time to record a few birds. My favorite of these was an agitated Northern Cardinal. It’s difficult to hear in the recording, but between typical call notes he was giving faint song-like notes.

Northern Cardinal

Don’t mess with the cardinal.

I’m feeling accomplished right now, but I still have plenty left from the spring, plus a few really good ones from the summer!

Posted in LCRV, Sound Recordings | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Photo Study: Two Second-Cycle California Gulls

Phainopepla Fables has been on the back-burner lately as field work has kept us busy, and we’ve spent the past month or so catching up. We hope to update the blog more regularly now as we should have a little more free time. Bonus: fall migration is on, and the monsoon has started!

Yesterday, with a storm rolling in from SSE, I decided to head out ahead of the storm and see what was on the beach at Rotary Park. A whole lot of Not Much, as it turned out, but soon I spotted this bully coming in with a fish, and decided to spend some time photographing it.

California GullThis is a second-cycle California Gull, one that was hatched last year (2012 model). Note that it is molting inner primaries: the fresh, not-yet-grown inner primaries contrast strongly with the full-size but very worn juvenile outer primaries. This bird is undergoing its second prebasic molt.

California GullThis individual is still heavily marked with muddy or dusky brown, and could be mistaken for a juvenile with a passing glance. Juveniles are just starting to appear in this area this fall, and are still strikingly fresh, cleanly barred, with a more or less all-dark bill. This bird is much more patchy-looking, with a nice bicolored bill. The bill base and legs are sickly gray in color, and many of the wing coverts have been replaced with clean gray feathers. Remember also the extremely worn juvenile outer primaries, feathers that would be crisp and fresh on the young juveniles.

This bird was working very hard to swallow this fish, and failed in quite a few attempts as I snapped photos. Eventually it got the fish down and appeared in the gull flock with a grotesquely bulging throat, but all I photographed was the struggle…

California Gull

California Gull

California Gull

California Gull

California Gull

California Gull

California Gull

California Gull

California Gull

California Gull

California Gull

California Gull

California Gull

California Gull

California Gull

My attention was quickly diverted from the fish swallow-regurgitate cycle when this beast flew in.

California Gull

This is another second-cycle California Gull. It is at about the same stage of flight-feather molt as the first bird, creating the same odd wing shape. This bird, however, is much more worn and bleached than the first bird. Its overall whitish body plumage gives it more of an adult-like aspect.

California Gull

Note that the bird’s overall structure and the color of the bare parts are more or less the same as the first bird. The plumage, though, is strikingly different, even though these birds are at the same stage in life.

Check out this close-up of that striking wing pattern. Some scapulars and coverts have been replaced, but many of the coverts have worn away to almost nothing. The secondaries have bleached white at the base.

California Gull

California Gull

Here are some more flight shots. The pattern of wear and molt combine to make a striking wing pattern not normally associated with the large white-headed gulls!

California Gull

California Gull

California Gull

This guy really stands out among the adult Ring-billed Gulls.

California Gull

California Gull

California Gulls are four-year gulls, meaning they take four plumage cycles to attain adult plumage. First-cycle California Gulls are a common enough sight in western Arizona: barred or mottled brown overall, with a bicolored bill by winter, becoming more muddied by late winter. These second-cycle gulls are a less common sight, and third-cycle birds rarer still. By the time they complete the second prebasic molt, they will have mostly gray mantles, more adult-like flight feathers, and a little more white in the tail.

California Gull

Note: I referenced Howell and Dunn’s excellent book Gulls of the Americas (2007) for this post and highly recommend it for further reading on the subject. I also referenced the gull and molt expertise of David Vander Pluym.


Posted in Identification, Lake Havasu, LCRV, Mohave County, Molt, Species Profiles | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments