Tuesday, June 20, 2017

A strange discussion: Part two

[Part one is here]

Have you ever said, "I wish I had a clone I could send to work while I stayed home with the family?" That's exactly what happened to the character played by Michael Keaton in the 1996 movie comedy Multiplicity. Well, not "exactly" what happened, as Mr. Keaton's character ended up making many copies of himself, and not "exact" copies, leading to the hilarious situations depicted.

If a robot could be trained to do my job, it would easily replace me 5 times over, even if it worked at my slow pace. It would work 24 hours a day, rather than 8 of a full-time job (I am actually only employed for less than 6 hours a day). In addition, I have weekends off, have a few holiday and vacation and sick days and mandated break periods. Oh, and lunch. An automaton would hit the ground running on Monday morning, wouldn't daydream and make weekend plans on Friday, gossip around the water cooler, take bathroom breaks, surf the web and answer personal emails, make doctor and car repair appointments, sulk about an argument with the boss or spouse, worry about the health of the children, or any of the hundreds of distractions that people go through at work every day. Did I say 5 times? If a robot could do my job, it could replace 10 of me!

Do you see that if my job is automated, a single robot doesn't replace just me, but many of me? Or put another way, a single robot could produce 10 times the output (goods, services, and profit) that I do. The total gross national product of today could be supplied by highly-efficient and profitable robots with only 10% of the equivalent human workforce of today.

In my previous article I recounted that my wife and I discussed changes to society by self-driving cars and who that might put out of work. Some have posited that if robots take over just 20% of all jobs the increase in goods produced would create a "post-scarcity economy." That is, there would no longer be a supply-and-demand economy created by a scarcity of some material (food, housing) for which we would work and pay money. The supply of life's necessities would be available to all at a cost so low that most people would not have to work. An "infinite" supply, like air and sunshine. But in order to keep businesses profitable and producing, the government would provide the non-working majority a basic living income so that they could still be productive consumers. This is called Universal Basic Income.

Of course, some people could work, if they had the temperament to hold down a job, and the aptitude to deserve government paid training for the few positions necessary.

Does this sound crazy enough for you? It could never happen, right? Well, it is already happening with experiments in universal basic income now underway in Finland, Kenya, and Oakland, California. There are plans in Canada to start an experiment there. A referendum to implement this nationwide in Switzerland was just rejected by voters, this time.

A cultural change to society

Obviously, anything like universal basic income would significantly alter our culture. Many people define themselves by their job. And many people put many more than 40 hours per week into it. What would you do if you didn't need to work for money?

I, for one, have no desire to be a "gentleman of leisure" such as existed in the Victorian era England. Pride and Prejudice, anyone? No thank you. I would still work, but do something I enjoyed more. Volunteer work, arts and crafts, travel. There are several jobs now I'd like to do, but don't pay enough to live, and are mostly performed by volunteer retired persons: campground host, volunteers at nature centers, natural history interpreters, tour guides. I could be a tinkerer and inventor. I'd learn more, teach more. This inspirational quote takes on more meaning: "What would you attempt to do if you knew you could not fail?"

My Grandfather did, indeed live through a great period of change during the 20th century. Is it possible there's even a bigger technological and cultural change ahead?

Who says?

Information in this post is primarily from these sources:

"Elon Musk: Automation will force universal basic income," 5/29/2017 by Daniel Starkey, Geek.com.
This article introduces the "post-scarcity economy" whereby "in the not-too-distant future, money won't matter and all of our economies will totally collapse." Self-driving cars will take away 20% of all labor jobs from the transportation industry alone.

"More robots, fewer jobs," 5/8/2017 Mira Rojanasakul and Peter Coy, Bloomberg.com. Analyzes the impact of robots and automation on jobs, based on "Robots and Jobs: Evidence from US Labor Markets," March 2017 a white paper by Daron Acemoglu of MIT and Pascual Restropo of Boston University, National Bureau of Economic Research. Research confirms that robots and automation do replace workers, and increase production. Additionally, wages fall for workers who remain employed. Industries that don't automate lose jobs anyway due to higher costs, and customers go to lower-priced--and often automated--competitors.

"When Robots Take All the Work, What'll Be Left for Us to Do?" 8/8/2014 by Marcus Wohlsen, Wired.com. Although this article is a bit older than the current glut of Artificial Intelligence and self-driving car infatuation, it argues that humans may still be employed where empathy, creativity, judgement, and critical thinking are needed. Health care, education, and care of children and the elderly are likely to remain in human hands. More about post-scarcity here, where robots efficiently and profitably produce far more than can be consumed. Jobs are optional and money has no meaning, as in the Star Trek universe. A change to society and what it means to be human.

Monday, June 19, 2017

A strange discussion: Part one


My grandfather used to say that he lived through the greatest technological changes in human history. He had a point. As a child he observed coal delivery by horse and wagon to each home. By the time he was an older man the atom had been split with horrifying results, man had walked on the moon, and personal computers were infiltrating homes.

Technological changes have been two-headed. One can almost see the race between communication and transportation during my grandfather's life: trains versus telephones, automobile versus radio, aircraft versus television, rockets versus computers. Each technology changed the world. One by physically moving us faster and allowing us to be there more quickly, the other by allowing us to talk and see each other instantaneously. Walking versus talking.

The Internet. Smartphones. These latest technologies are communications-based. What is the corresponding transportation technology? Assuming that teleportation is a ways off yet, the next step is obvious, the merging of communication and transportation technologies. Machines that walk and talk. Self-driving cars and robots that replace our jobs are just the start of a technological change that will fundamentally change how we view ourselves--as individuals and as a culture. Cultural changes have always been more difficult for society than technological changes.

A strange discussion

A couple of weeks ago Marlene and I had a 20-minute discussion on societal impacts of emerging technology. That discussion led to this two-part post. The fact we had such an engaging discussion on this topic is noteworthy in itself. Now I'd discuss this topic for hours on end had I an associate interested in such (which partially explains why I don't get invited to parties much), but it isn't a topic that Marlene would normally choose. That we were discussing technology change as a family says something about the interesting times in which we live. In a way, it reminded me of discussions I remember as a child, when my parents would get together with aunts and uncles and the discussion would naturally turn to the impending moon landings. What would they find? What does it mean?

In fact, Marlene and I discussed only one question: "If cars become mostly self-driving, how does that affect society?"

Our discussion was by no means thorough, but we hit on many concerns and possible outcomes popular in the media. These included vehicle sharing rather than ownership, fewer parking lots, homes without garages or driveways, fewer automobile accident deaths (1 million deaths per year worldwide now, 50% involving alcohol, according to some factoid I acquired without remembering the attribution), insurance rates skyrocketing for those sticking with human-driven vehicles, perhaps renting a human-driven car for vacation wilderness destinations ("dirt road travel"). Finally the discussion turned to loss of jobs in the transportation industry, first long haul truckers and taxi drivers.

A continuation

Our conversation on this topic soon ended. But that didn't mean my brain wasn't still occupied with it. It had turned to job loss by automation. In fact, I see automation easily taking over cashiers and even fast-food establishments. Can you imagine? What would it be like to enter such an establishment without the undertone of hostility created by hormonal youths trying to function in their first job, all under the direction of a harried assistant manager trying to upsell to everyone. You want fries with that? (Sorry, cultural reference from 1992 that no one but me remembers.)

I was thinking that automation would slowly take over jobs, one after another--perhaps entry level first. But then an article appeared that made it seem possible that there was a tipping point, much earlier than I imagined, when work as we know it might change.

My grandfather may indeed have lived through an unprecedented series of technological changes. But there may be something on the horizon that will more profoundly impact society.

Continue to Part Two...

Monday, June 5, 2017

Nesting Western Grebes

When I first moved to San Diego I was surprised to find Western Grebe chicks in December. Evidently winter nesting is not too unheard of here. However, a recent visit to Lake Hodges this spring revealed much nesting activity at what I consider a more appropriate time of year.

Lake Hodges, April 26, 2017.

Western Grebe with chicks
Western Grebe with chicks.
Western Grebe with chicks
In 45 years of birding I had actually never seen the well-known phenomenon of grebe chicks riding upon their parent's backs!
Western Grebes on nests
Western Grebes on nests.
Clark's Grebe
Clark's Grebe.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017


On April 19th I finally hiked on the trails of Daley Ranch in Escondido. I say "finally," because, I had been visiting Dixon Lake off and on for a couple of years. They both share the same parking lot! The lake seemed more green and inviting than the rather steep trail that headed into Daley Ranch through the dry chaparral.

But after this winter's rains I had heard that the ponds had refilled.

Indeed, the first half mile was upward into dry brush, but then dropped through oak woodlands into a fertile valley and the preserved ranch house.

Walking around the ponds that had probably been dry for the past 5 years, I heard the calls of coots and Gadwall ducks. And then I noticed little inch-long (if that) toadlets scrambling away from my footsteps.

California Toad

California Toad

California Toad

These are just-out-of-the-pond California Toads. They will grow much larger, up to 5 inches in length, snout to bum.

Some birds of Daley Ranch...

Red-shouldered Hawk
Red-shouldered Hawk stare-down.
Acorn Woodpecker
Acorn Woodpecker looking for that one perfect hole...
Acorn Woodpecker
Nope! This acorn must belong in a different granary!
Lazuli Bunting
Lazuli Bunting

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Desert Bighorn Sheep at Agua Caliente County Park

Agua Caliente County Park is very isolated in The Anza-Borrego Desert. There's no direct way to it. You have to go over the mountains and then either north or south on the "Great Southern Overland Stage Route of 1849." That road name itself should evoke the Old West and the wildness of the area.

From San Diego you have to travel east 90 miles on I-15 to Ocotillo and then north for 30 miles (most miles, least time--2 hours). Or, you can travel 63 miles to the mountain tourist town of Julian and then down 12 miles to Scissors Crossing and south another 22 miles (20 miles shorter, 7 minutes longer (unless Julian is at its usually crowded and clogged weekend self--when it can take 20 minutes to get through the 1/2 mile long Main Street, which is also State Route 78 and 79)).

From Escondido, in the North County, it is 80-90 miles, and about 1 hour and 45 minutes. The shorter route goes through Julian, the less-trafficked route through Warner Springs.

Agua Caliente features a campground, hot springs and pools, and hiking trails. The birding is great in spring. That's when birds migrating out of Mexico at night find themselves at dawn over the great American Southwest deserts. Then the trees and water in this campground become a welcoming oasis in the dry surrounding lands.

As Marlene and I were about to depart from our lunch stop here, she spotted some movement on the hillside above the park entrance--our first views of Desert Bighorn Sheep (Ovis canadensis nelsonii)! Actually, the Bighorn Sheep here are quite distinctive and were formerly considered a separate subspecies called the Peninsular Bighorn Sheep (O.c. cremnobates).

Desert Bighorn Sheep at Agua Caliente County Park

Desert Bighorn Sheep at Agua Caliente County Park

Desert Bighorn Sheep at Agua Caliente County Park

Unlike other Bighorn Sheep, this variety is perfectly adapted to the desert. Apparently, their body temperature can safely fluctuate several degrees. This allows them to handle the cold nights and hot days of the desert during winter and summer. They are very adept at obtaining rainwater on rocks, and getting moisture from the plants they eat, so much so that they may not visit permanent water sources for weeks at a time.

Desert Bighorn Sheep at Agua Caliente County Park

Desert Bighorn Sheep at Agua Caliente County Park

Desert Bighorn Sheep at Agua Caliente County Park

Colored pencil drawing Bighorn Sheep by Greg Gillson

Monday, April 24, 2017

The bizarre song of the Yellow-breasted Chat

It was clear and sunny, but surprisingly chilly here at sunrise. Though it would make its way into the mid '70's in a couple of hours, it was unexpectedly 30 degrees cooler than that right now in this river valley. Birds were singing and calling and flying about actively this early April morning near Escondido. While my attention flitted from bird to bird, a distant birdsong was trying to interject itself into my consciousness.


No, not rolling enough for Cactus Wren. It's not a Mockingbird, either. No, no, it's completely wrong for Roadrunner. I know that call, but I just can't place it.

A few minutes later the "chuck-chuck-chuck" call joined a whistled "whoit, whoit" and then a crow-like "caw, caw, caw" and some cackling. Oh! Yellow-breasted Chat. Of course!

Yellow-breasted Chat
Yellow-breasted Chat in full-throated song. Escondido, California. April 5, 2017. Greg Gillson.
Except when singing so brazenly, the chat is reclusive, shy, wary. But in spring and summer--even at night--it makes a joyful noise in the densest riparian thickets.

This chat was a week earlier than the typical first arrival of the species locally. When he has more male competition, and the attention of females when they arrive in a week or so, then watch out. The varied song now will take on a fevered pitch. The flight display song the male gives to the female is both amazing and bizarre. The male sings its varied song, but rises slowly in circles in the air. His wingbeats are mechanically exaggerated, his head lifted in song, his long tail pumping wildly, and his feet dangling down, trailing below as if forgotten. When he reaches a pinnacle--hovering, down he glides--ever so slowly--as his singing and his flight slowly come to an end.

Yellow-breasted Chat

Yellow-breasted Chat

Yellow-breasted Chat

Yellow-breasted Chat in colored pencil. Greg Gillson.
Yellow-breasted Chat in colored pencil. Greg Gillson.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Eucalyptus in San Diego

Eucalyptus, also called gum trees--the tallest flowering plants in the world, are one of the more obvious and widespread imported and feral trees throughout central and southern California. However, they vary so much it is hard to describe exactly what it is that makes a tree identifiable as a Eucalyptus to the casual observer.

There are over 700 species of Eucalyptus. They are native to the Australian region. Over 250 species have been cultivated in California. [Read "How the Eucalyptus Came to California" by Teisha Rowland in the Santa Barbara Independent newspaper of January 15, 2011.]

In this post I describe marked differences in the bark, leaves, and flowers of several varieties seen in the San Diego area, which I haven't even identified to species level! I've done some research on Eucalyptus, which provides additional details beyond my observations.

The tree shape, more than anything identifies the Eucalyptus at a distance. The tree shape is tall and generally thin; it doesn't have large spreading branches. All have leaves in sparse round clusters at the tops of the tree, most have some thin clumps of leaves on smaller branches hugging the trunk. The leaves and clusters hang down, slightly drooping. All forms are rather unsymmetrical, being lopsided and crooked, and there are usually long bare trunk and branch sections amid tree. The general appearance of most Eucalyptus is tall and "trunky," open, with round bubble-shaped crowns.

Leaves are generally blue-green and sickle-shaped--long, thin, curved. Some tend more toward green, blue, or gray. These are evergreen, with a constant supply of new leaves, though more leaves are shed in dry times. Leaves contain oil that have disinfectant qualities--toxic in large quantities. The oil can also be used as a solvent and insect repellant. You may find the oil in cough drops and the leaves used in floral displays. The koala is one native Australian mammal that can eat the leaves. Leaf-bearing stems are white, gray, light brown in most species, reddish in some.

Little fluffy flowers vary from reddish to pink to yellow to white. They grow in a capsule without flower petals, The capsules and seeds tend to be messy. Flowers are full of nectar and attract insects and birds (especially hummingbirds in the Americas, which are not found in Australia).

The very thin sheet-like bark on most varieties sheds annually to some degree, revealing a smooth white, pale gray, or golden-brown trunk. But not all. One common form has hard dark brown bark with deep furrowed ridges and doesn't shed ("ironbark"). Others have bark in strips ("stringybark") or scales, and don't seem to shed much.

Up close, the fluffy flowers in capsules and shedding bark of most varieties are the identifying marks.

The ground under many varieties is littered in dead leaves, bark strips, and smaller broken branches. The trees produce chemicals inhibiting other plants from growing under them, so the ground under these trees tends to be bare of understory plants. The oil in the trees is highly flammable, thus untended groves of these trees in dry southern California can be a fire hazard.

Blue Gum?

The Blue Gum (Eucalyptus globulus) is supposed to be the most widespread in California. It was imported as a failed experiment in growing trees for lumber and pulpwood in the late 1800's. I believe the following 4 photos are probably this species.

A covering of thin brown bark sheds to reveal white and tan patchy trunk.
Patchy trunk where the bark remains partially attached to the lower part of the tree.

Red Ironbark

If I have identified this common street-lining species correctly it is Red Ironbark (Eucalyptus sideroxylon). Flowers are dark pinkish, stems reddish, leaves greener rather than blue, giving the overall tree a richer green color rather than the typical blue-gray of many other forms. The next 4 photos show this tree.

The hard, furrowed bark gives rise to the name "Ironbark" shared by several species.

Silver Dollar Tree

Local tree trimmers gather fresh cuttings each spring for floral displays. I haven't determined the exact species, but it may be Eucalyptus cinerea. Juvenile leaves of many Eucalypts are round. By trimming trees each year, the rounder juvenile leaves are produced.

One of the "stringybark" forms.
Rounder juvenile leaves are blue-green.
Perhaps also the Silver Dollar Gum, but with mature sickle-shaped leaves.
Unknown species

A massive, messy, untrimmed tree. Shedding strips of bark are lodged in the crotch of the tree. This species reveals a smooth golden-brown trunk under the strips of gray-brown bark...

Truffula Tree

I don't know what these Eucalyptus are, or if they are only one species. They are wispy, tall, with smooth white-trunks. Some are so tall and slender and bent, with little puffs of leaves way at the tops, that they remind me of the Truffula trees designed by Dr. Seuss in his children's book The Lorax. [Legend has it that the original Truffula tree is a Monterey Cypress at Scripps Park in La Jolla, California, where Theodor Seuss Geisel (Dr. Seuss) lived from after World War II to his death in 1991.]

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Roadrunner "field guide" nature journal project

One of the chapters in John Muir Laws' book on nature journaling is "Projects that focus awareness." One of the suggested projects to "focus your observations, enhance your memory, and catalyze your awareness," is to create a "field guide." This is simply a collection of examples of variation within your subject.

I'm still not sketching in the field. But I am taking lots more photos. And I have stopped automatically deleting all but the best shots, as I used to. Instead, I keep the "dud" photos as study specimens for future drawing projects at home.

Thus it is that I completed a page focused on some Greater Roadrunners that I photographed in March at Borrego Springs. One was a series of three photos of a Roadrunner. It was a bit surprised when it first saw me, ran away quickly, but paused one last time to look at me before it disappeared into the brush. The photos were all poor--with harsh background light and the bird itself underexposed. I "saved" one photo [in this previous post] by adjusting the brightness--bumping up the underexposed bird, while darkening the sun-lit sand. But all three photos together created a behavioral timeline. And, interestingly, of all the many illustrations of Roadrunners in all the field guides on my bookshelf, none showed the exact poses I recorded.

Later the same day, a pair of Roadrunners came to inspect our vehicle while Marlene and I were stopped photographing ducks out the window. I suspect the Roadrunners were begging handouts, here at the edge of the campground. I had my closest ever looks at Roadrunners--right down to the fuzzy "hair" sprouting from the head and the long eyelashes surrounding a wonderful eye with golden ring between the iris and the pupil.

Nature Journal page.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Google Calendar Goals: Wonderful but flawed

About a year ago Google Calendar added "Goals" in addition to Appointments and Reminders.

Appointments are firm time commitments, like my daily work schedule. Reminders are a "to-do" list that automatically goes to the top of the next day's schedule if not marked as completed.

Goals are a bit in-between.

The example Google uses is to set a goal of exercising twice a week. It doesn't matter so much when, as long as you complete your goal some time during the week. If you don't do your goal this week, they aren't carried forward. Rather the goals repeat each week (or other time period you select). Goals appear automatically in your calendar in empty time slots in your calendar.

Goals are "soft" appointments. Thus, if you decide to watch TV instead of your goal of study at 7:00 pm Tuesday, or go out to eat instead of completing your goal of buying the week's groceries at 5:30 pm Sunday, Goals reschedules your goals for you on your Google Calendar at another specific open time in your Calendar. A goal can be set for once a month or 3 times per week, or repeat in any manner you wish. Wonderful! It's supposed to learn your schedule. Eventually, it will schedule your goals when you most frequently do them. Except it doesn't. At least, not often enough to keep me from frequently resetting the dates and times. It reschedules too late in the week and at the wrong hours of the day.

I spend too much time manually adjusting the time settings for a feature that is supposed to auto-reset.

Google Calendar Goals developers evidently don't think you have a life between 10 PM and 8 AM. Why else would they make you manually set goals for those times and not automatically reschedule during those times? They've obviously never heard of graveyard or swing shift. This is my number one complaint about Goals. Let me list them...

1) You can set goals specifically for "morning," afternoon," or "evening." But Goals won't auto-set (or reschedule) between 10 PM and 8 AM. If you want to have a goal scheduled between, say, 6 and 8 in the morning, you must say "any time" and not turn off afternoon and evening settings, or it will not set your goal at all! Then you must go in and manually change the times and hope it will remember if you actually do the goal at that time.

2) What happens when I finish a goal before it was scheduled? Or what happens if I do a goal twice in a week and I only have it scheduled for once a week? I'd like to keep track of what I actually do in some situations. In the first situation I can manually move the scheduled goal to the earlier time and then mark it as done. But there isn't a way to mark a goal down more times than it was scheduled.

3a) I want to study for two weekly classes held on different days. I want to set a goal to study as many days before each class as possible. If I delay studying for the first class, I also want to put off the second. I don't want to study for the second class before I've studied for the first class. Which brings me to...

3b) If I put off a goal, I want the option for it to reschedule later in the same day, or the next available slot the next day, not reschedule it late in the week after the classes are over.

4. Just because I reschedule a Goal later once, doesn't mean that I want to use this new time as the preferred time for the goal in later weeks. I'd rather accomplish all my goals early in the week, if I can. That way, even if I delay a goal for later, I know I will get my goals accomplished for the week. If the weekly goal is set for the last day or two of the week, it might not get done at all that week.

Complain. Complain. Complain. And yet here I am still using Goals after 9 weeks. This is because, despite the quirks, I am accomplishing far more each week than I was without this nifty feature in the Google Calendar app. Before I heard about Goals, I didn't use the Calendar app at all.

And I'm still hoping that Goals will finally learn my true schedule, or that an update will allow me a bit more control. I'm sure my complaints are due to my over-scheduling. I've got maybe 20 goals a week I'm trying to have the app balance. Study periods, nature hike, art projects, shopping, household chores.

Writing this blog post was NOT one of my goals. So, while writing this I put off for later two other goals. I may end up canceling them completely for this week, knowing that these are repeating goals each week. But that will be a choice, whereas in the past I didn't accomplish all I hoped due to poor planning, distractions, or sloth.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Field Guides: What is a "field-friendly" bird sequence?

The American Ornithologists' Union (AOU) Checklist Committee is the official body from which the North American bird checklist is derived. This checklist is the basis for both the names of birds and the order they occur in your field guide, wildlife refuge bird lists, and your eBird checklist. It is the basis for the checklist you may use in the annual Great Backyard Bird Count and Christmas Bird Counts. It is updated annually, usually July.

The annual checklist supplement reports the official "splits" and "lumps," deciding (based on published scientific literature) what species exist and what do not. It is the official name-maker/arbiter for both the common and scientific names of birds. It also adds any well-documented first records for North and Middle America. Many birders are excited to find out what "new" birds they may be able to count on their lists each year. This past year Western Scrub-Jay was split into two species: California Scrub-Jay and Woodhouse's Scrub-Jay, along with many other changes.

Proposals under consideration for 2017 include splitting Willet, Nashville Warbler, Northern Harrier, Yellow-rumped Warbler, Brown Creeper, Northern Shrike, Red Crossbill, Bell's Vireo. Proposals have also been put forth to lump Common and Hoary Redpoll, to lump Thayer's and Iceland Gull, and to lump Dark-eyed and Yellow-eyed Junco. And, yes, major changes are proposed to the sequence of families of songbirds.

In the recent past, many field guide publishers were usually in a rush to be the first to print revisions using the new names and added species. When the sequence changes however, field guide authors and publishers are a bit more hesitant.

My Sibley guide from 2000 has the loons and grebes first, followed by petrels and pelicans, as does my 1969 Peterson field guide, and so does my 1940 Birds of Oregon by Gabrielson and Jewett. That time-honored sequence was shaken up due to DNA work in recent years.

Thus, my 2014 Sibley has ducks and chickens first, then loons, grebes, petrels, and pelicans. There were some other changes as well, like falcons and parrots following the woodpeckers.

Last summer (2016) the AOU Checklist Committee again approved radically changing the sequence of birds in its official checklist. Now the order is: ducks, chickens, grebes, pigeons, cuckoos, nightjars, swifts, hummingbirds, rails. And the loons, petrels, pelicans, herons are moved after gulls. Hawks are back with owls just before woodpeckers. House Sparrow is again moved back after Starling, but finches follow that just before the warblers, and blackbirds are last. The final bird in the current North American checklist is Scott's Oriole! More changes are in store. And yet, where are the new field guides in that sequence?

Surprisingly, eBird, the tremendously popular worldwide real-time birding checklist program by Cornell University, delayed making these sequence changes to their online lists last year. They didn't say why, only that they'd make changes in 2017 (I assume August, after the next AOU list update)--perhaps they simply needed more time for programming to make the changes, or they anticipated major 2017 changes.

With so many disruptive changes to the checklist order we've been hearing more and more rumblings of field guides ordered in a "field-friendly" bird sequence, not strictly dependent upon the order in the checklist.

Sample of how birds might be arranged in a "field-friendly" approach.
What is a field-friendly bird sequence? I discussed this several years ago on another blog (here and here).

The AOU checklist is not field-friendly. It's not supposed to be. It represents supposed relationships, subject to constant re-analysis and interpretation. As an example, in the blog posts above I used the fact that Great Blue Herons and Sandhill Cranes--while visibly similar, and often confused by beginners--are not closely related, and are found far apart in the field guides. The same goes for Pied-billed Grebes and American Coots--birds that appear superficially similar but are found far apart in the checklist. In fact the Coot and the Crane are closely related and found near each other in the field guide, even though they look nothing alike. Having field guides strictly follow the checklist makes it very difficult and confusing for beginning bird watchers.

A field-friendly sequence would put the long-legged and long-necked herons and cranes near each other and near sandpipers and ibis. It would put the swimming coots and grebes near the ducks and loons and alcids. The first grouping might be called "Wading Waterbirds" (not totally correct for every species, but close enough to get the idea). The second group could be called "Swimming Waterbirds." A third group could be called "Flying Waterbirds" and include gulls, petrels, boobies, and skuas. Get the idea? Those three "Waterbird" groupings include almost a third of the birds in the world. "Raptors" would include hawks, eagles, owls, and falcons.

Even the songbirds could be divided up into only a half-dozen major groupings. Altogether, all species in North America could be placed simply and logically into one of only 13 groups--easy enough for beginners and accurate enough for advanced students! This certainly has been discussed before (see this article in Birding magazine by Howell, et al. in 2009). A couple of bird field guides have even attempted it, successfully or not (1997 All the Birds of North America by Griggs, 2000 Birds of North America by Kaufman, 2011 The Crossley ID Guide).

Field guides using the field-friendly sequence would not be re-ordered every time there was a change to the sequence in the checklist. Names could be updated, and a new species inserted, but a book wouldn't have to be re-ordered and laid out from scratch (not that books are long for this world). But however we may view future birding field guides, checklist order is not birder friendly.

Back in 2012 I proposed a field-friendly sequence as thus:
Swimming Waterbirds
Flying Waterbirds
Wading Waterbirds
Chicken-like Birds
Miscellaneous Landbirds
Aerial Landbirds
Flycatcher-like Birds
Thrush-like Songbirds
Chickadee and Wren-like Songbirds
Warbler-like Songbirds
Sparrow and Finch-like Songbirds
Blackbird-like Songbirds

How does it work in practice? Try it for yourself. I combined about 1500 of my pBase bird photos with my annotated checklist to create a Field-Friendly Guide to San Diego Birds. Let me know what you think.

Friday, March 31, 2017

Two world conquerors

I photographed two bird species in Borrego Springs recently that I originally included in the trip report. The things I wrote about them, however, didn't go with the theme of the trip report. So I cut it out and present it separately here.

Some idiot uninformed person decided that every bird that William Shakespeare ever mentioned in his poems and plays should be naturalized to North America. Thus, for a time in the late 1800's one might hear Skylarks and Nightingales and other English birds in various cities in North America.

Soapbox time: When you take a plant or animal from its natural habitat and let it loose in an alien environment, one of two things can happen. It will either die a horrible death, or it will grow in population exponentially and completely overrun its new home and outcompete similar native life. History is replete with examples. From rabbits, goats, and rats destroying Pacific island paradises, to the dandelions in your yard. Himalayan blackberries in the Pacific Northwest. Brazilian pepper trees in southern California. The same goes for letting your no-longer-wanted pet turtle go at the local pond and killing the native turtles, or (sorry to offend) letting your housecat out of doors where they kill 1.4 to 3.7 billion birds each year.

Thus it is that most birders loathe the European Starling. This bird was brought to the United States in the 1890's and a release in New York City led to every one of the starlings in North America today--60,000,000 birds. They're messy, they're noisy, they group into winter flocks of 100,000 or more, they're aggressive toward native songbirds. They have been implicated in the population crash of bluebirds and other birds that nest in old woodpecker holes--usurping them for themselves. But, admittedly, when they attain their breeding finery, and aren't flocking in their usual dirty brown plumage, they can be attractive.

European Starling
Some birders call them "Sky Rats"
European Starling
European Starling putting his best foot (plumage) forward. Borrego Springs, California. March 12, 2017. Greg Gillson.
While the European Starling conquered North America in about 70 years (1890-1960), the Eurasian Collared-Dove did so in only 26 years (1983-2009). This large pigeon accomplished this with strikes that would make Alexander The Great proud. Starting in Florida--of birds perhaps escaped from captivity in the Bahamas--individuals bred, then flew hundreds of miles (primarily to the northwest), and did so again. Their offspring did likewise until they reached Alaska in 2009. Some birds remained behind and are still filling in the "holes" left behind. Unlike the Starling, these doves seem to get along with native doves and other birds. But their sheer volume means they are consuming huge amounts of food formerly eaten by other birds, especially the native Mourning Doves. What the eventual outcome will be, we'll have to wait and see.

Eurasian Collared-Dove
Some birders call them "Sky Rat Lattes"
Eurasian Collared-Dove
They look so innocent.  But when their population grows exponentially, bad things happen.
Eurasian Collared-Doves. Borrego Springs, California. March 12, 2017. Greg Gillson

Saturday, March 25, 2017

eBird Community Photo Ratings

Recently eBird announced community photo and audio ratings for media submitted directly on eBird checklists through the Macauley Library. Only some people have been rating their own photos as to quality. Now every eBird member can rate the photos of others. "Is this photo a 3 ("average") or 4 ("good")? Now you can have more than just your own subjective opinion. The more people rate your photos the more "accurate" the rating becomes as to its aesthetic value and suitability for identification.

How do you look at the photos and start rating them?

Log in to eBird, if you aren't already when it opens, and select "Explore Data" from the menu, and then "Search Photos and Sounds" from the list. This brings you to the Media Search page and the 2.66 million photos and audio recordings currently added to eBird checklists. Click on the photo and rate it. Then keep going!

Oh, first you should understand the rating criteria. 1 is "terrible"--if you squint just right you may be able to make out the correct identification. 3 means you can see and identify the bird but it is small in the frame, turned at a funny angle, partially blocked by vegetation, slightly off-focus, or otherwise just an average picture. 5 is magazine cover worthy. I chose a photo at random just uploaded below--a wonderfully close and sharp photo of an American Three-toed Woodpecker from Canada. It had one rating already, perhaps by the photographer, of 5. I'm picky; for a 5 I want all of the bird in the frame, or a portrait of just head and shoulders, with nothing distracting in the background. So I rated it a 4. The next person that rates it may call it a 4 or 5. I don't think anyone would call it a 3--it's certainly better than average. With more people rating it, it will probably come out at about 4.8, but that's not a value one person can put in. By the way, the official eBird rating guidelines are here.

Perhaps, though, you only want to rate photos in your local county or only a nearby Hotspot. You can filter by Location at various levels from Country all the way down to Hotspot. You can filter by any Date or range of dates. You can choose to show, or not, recently reported rare birds before they have been vetted as to accurate identity ("Unconfirmed"). You can even choose to rate just the photos by your favorite eBird Contributor.

What is eBird? Every birder who ever keeps track of the birds they see, home or away, should be an eBirder. eBird is a real-time online worldwide citizen-science community checklist program, and so much more! Want more explanation of what it is all about? Click here.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Trip report: Birds of Borrego Springs: March 12, 2017

Borrego Springs in the Anza-Borrego Desert is one of Marlene's and my favorite winter and spring getaways in San Diego County. We had planned to take some non-birding friends and get a motel and spend the whole weekend. However, it was a "super bloom" of wildflowers following this winter's exceptional rains. Motels were filled "every day in March." Bummer. We checked again a few days before our trip. They had a cancellation. Yay! $250. Double the usual rate? Yeah, right. I mean, it's only a 90-minute drive from our own comfortable bed. We could spend that money on many other pleasant things. So, a day trip it was.

My previous post was about the amazing wildflowers. Now I retell the same story of the same day, but this time with birds as the protagonist.

We arrived just before dawn. I decided to check out Old Springs Road Open Space Preserve--a place where I had seen wildflowers in the past. It also happens to be one of the only places in the county with Le Conte's Thrashers--a robin-sized secretive ground bird of barren sand dunes and widely scattered bushes.

A carpeting of wildflowers at Old Springs Road OSP, Borrego Springs, California
A carpeting of wildflowers on the dune sands at Old Springs Road OSP, Borrego Springs, California.
After photographing lots of flowers, I finally heard some faint thrasher song and thought it sounded like Le Conte's. It was hard to pinpoint the direction the birdsong was coming from as the landscape here makes a natural amphitheater and the highway traffic a half mile away sounds like jet aircraft taking off. Eventually the singing picked up, then was coming from multiple directions. But not from the sparsely vegetated dunes to the east where the Le Conte's Thrasher should be. No, the songs came from the dense sage flats to the west of the road. And that means...yup, straighter bill and breast spots--Sage Thrashers. Sage Thrashers are regular rare winter desert visitors and early spring migrants. Always a nice find, but not as local and hard-to-find as the resident Le Conte's Thrasher.

Sage Thrasher
Sage Thrasher
Sage Thrasher is always a nice consolation prize when you don't find the Le Conte's Thrasher.
After some time here with only a few skittish Brewer's Sparrows and a fly-over Common Raven we moved on.

One of our goals for this trip was to see part of the annual Swainson's Hawk migration as they gather to feed on the sphinx moth caterpillars which were, in turn, feeding on the wildflowers. These primarily grasshopper-eating hawks migrate thousands of miles from the wintering grounds on the Pampas of Argentina to the native prairie grasslands of the western North America where they breed. I'm beginning to understand the movement through this area a bit better now, I think. For 6-7 weeks from late February to mid April, a few to a hundred or more hawks arrive in the Borrego Springs date farms each evening to roost. They feed on caterpillars in the fields of wildflowers at dawn, then gather in a huge swirling mob ("kettle") in the thermals before leaving the valley to continue their migration. [I wrote about this migration 2 years ago, here.] Well, the flowers had only been out a week. I guess that wasn't enough time for the caterpillars to hatch out and start eating. So, no caterpillars meant no hawks feeding on the ground in the morning. In a week or two it should be better.

Marlene and I stopped by one of the hawkwatch sites (mounds) on the side of the road where volunteers and interested birders gathered to yack about birds and watch for the Swainson's Hawks to lift off. I hoped to find birds roosting or feeding on the ground to photograph at closer range. I was told of a nearby road to walk down and try.

Borrego Valley Hawkwatch
Hawk watchers scan for Swainson's Hawks.
Well, the first hawks I spotted at 10:30 am weren't on the ground feeding. They were already gathering in flight getting ready to leave. I counted 55 birds in three kettles. The two hawkwatch sites tallied over 200 hawks migrating out of the Borrego Valley this morning.

kettle of Swainson's Hawks in Borrego Springs
Distant specks are Swainson's Hawks grabbing a thermal to help them soar away on their northward migration.
I spotted a few other birds while at this location.

A pair of California Quail
A pair of California Quail
Greater Roadrunner crossing the road
Greater Roadrunner crossing the road
roadrunner tracks
X marks the spot--roadrunner tracks! Weird toes of the cuckoo family,
Well, not much happening here. Breakfast? Or birding out at the waster treatment ponds? Okay, let's try the ponds. Maybe I can spy a Crissal Thrasher in the mesquite trees--another rare resident found in the county only in this tiny area.

Well, wouldn't you know it. On the busiest tourist day of the year, a few locals decided to go to a public area and set up target practice. Bad enough. But the buzzing throb of ricocheting bullets overhead were enough to make me give up after a few minutes. I did manage to hear a Sora rail calling from the tall wet grass in the pond. I managed one picture:

Zebra-tailed Lizard
Zebra-tailed Lizard
Well, I also got a phone shot of the habitat--greener than usual, but not many flowers at all compared to a couple of miles away.

desert near Borrego Springs
Green, but flowerless desert near Borrego Springs waste treatment ponds.
Chased away by gun fire, struck out three times with target birds, and hungry. Marlene and I made our way to a welcome breakfast at Kendall's Café. We didn't even have to wait long! [I heard later that many of the restaurants were running out of food. And there weren't enough public restrooms in town to accommodate the number of wildflower visitors!]

After breakfast, and closing fast on noon, it was quite warm. With all the traffic and visitors we went to a location we knew wouldn't be crowded. We drove through the private country club called the Roadrunner Club. For the most part, we drove through the area slowly, using the car as a mobile photography blind.

This mobile home park and golf course is green with mature trees and landscaping and has many well-stocked bird feeders. We stopped at the entrance gate and I finally got a photo of two Inca Doves. Again, like the thrashers, the Anza-Borrego Desert is the western outpost for this species. I've visited the Roadrunner Club multiple times over the past 3 years and this was only the second time I've spotted this rare recent resident species.

Okay, more details. The official name is Roadrunner Golf & Country Club. Half is the mobile home park, and half is stick built homes on a more newly developed parcel (fewer trees and many sandy empty lots). Then this private residential area merges into an RV Park--The Springs at Borrego RV Resort. The golf course winds through them all with several ponds. Some of the homes are vacation rentals.

Notice I keep saying "private"? It is possible that the bird watching public could be turned away. So far this hasn't happened. The gates have always been opened and the "for sale" and "for rent" signs intimate that the public is expected to have some access. So view access as a precious and revocable privilege if you ever decide to visit. Drive slowly and be friendly and courteous to residents and staff.

So, now that I have that out of the way...

Inca Dove
Inca Dove. My first photo ever of this species.
Inca Dove
Inca Dove. Note the scaled upper parts and long tail.
Common Ground-Dove
Sparrow-sized Common Ground Doves. Note the short tails.
Near a roadside pond I stopped to look carefully for any unusual ducks. While there a couple of Roadrunners came up and looked in my car window. Perhaps they were looking for handouts. Good thing they're only knee high. If they were 6 feet tall they'd give the velociraptors from Jurassic Park a run for their money! What great, zany birds!

Greater Roadrunner
Greater Roadrunner
Greater Roadrunner
Greater Roadrunner
Greater Roadrunner
Greater Roadrunner

A pair of Wood Ducks has been present here for almost two years now. They are very rare in the Borrego Valley generally, though regular only 15 miles to the west up in the mountain lakes.

Wood Ducks
Rare here, Wood Ducks swimming below a Mallard. A documentation photo.
(That's what you call it when it doesn't turn out very well, but you show it anyway.)
American Robins are regular on the golf course lawns in winter. At least two still remained. These late birds will probably fly west a short distance up into the mountain forests to breed. I could be wrong, but I assume birds breeding in the far north (like Alaska) have probably already migrated. A noticeable movement of robins passes through western Oregon in February, for instance.

American Robin
American Robin.
A well-stocked bird feeder with bird baths was our last stop. We spent almost 15 minutes here taking photos from our vehicle. The primary species was the desert resident White-winged Dove. It is a large and pleasant-looking pigeon. [There is actually no biological difference between birds named doves and birds named pigeons. Most "doves" are smaller, but as in the Eurasian Collared-Doves (above) you can see that it is not a firm rule.]

The song of the White-winged Dove is uncannily similar to that of the Barred Owl--an owl of SW swamps and northern forests. The song of both is a loud cooing "Who cooks for you?" It amuses me when I hear that Barred Owl-like call coming from the dry desert washes. It is a delightful surprise to the expectations of my brain to hear this incongruous sound.

White-winged Dove
White-winged Dove
White-winged Dove
White-winged Dove in Ocotillo
White-winged Dove
White-winged Dove

My final bird photo is that of the Verdin. It is a gray chickadee-like desert bird with a yellow head, and loud cheerful chirping call. In fact, it is probably the signature bird of the Anza-Borrego Desert. It is common in the desert, and strictly found only in the deserts of the American Southwest.