Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Colored pencil: Cottontail

Colored pencil: Desert Cottontail
Desert Cottontail.
Colored pencil based on photo from Lake Hodges, California on April 26, 2017. Greg Gillson.
It has been just over 6 months, now, since I started nature journaling. Well, in actuality, I've really only done journaling in the field one weekend. My field drawings and notes are really slow and crude--I need much more practice. However, I have done nature art based on my photos. Does that count? I've tried for photo-realistic colored pencil illustrations. It fits my personality--careful, detail-oriented. Colored pencil is a very slow medium.

And my visualization is slow--I am still learning how to see color and value (light and dark). In fact, I may have studied the photo of this cottontail for two days before putting pencil to paper. You can't do that in the field!

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Spring 2017 San Diego pelagic birding trips

I attended two San Diego pelagic trips this spring, one in May and one in early June.

The May trip had sunny skies, making for better (more colorful) photography. A number of Scripps's Murrelets were found, as expected in spring. We started out with an approachable pair early--not always easy, and they continued in small numbers throughout the day.

Sooty, Pink-footed and a few Black-vented Shearwaters were spotted. Other regular species included Western Gulls, Black Storm-Petrels, Elegant Terns, and Common Terns.

Just after noon, Jimmy McMorran photographed a distant Cook's Petrel. Somehow I didn't hear anything about it on the boat, and only learned of it after returning home. I guess I could have been in the galley having lunch. Unfortunately, sometimes that is the way it happens on a large and noisy boat. Of all the regular pelagic species on the West Coast, Cook's Petrel is one of the few I have yet to see. I've certainly seen more than a handful of much rarer species. Cook's is one of those true oceanic species that rarely approaches the coastline closely enough to be seen from one day pelagic birding trips from shore and back.

We ended the day with a pod of Common Dolphins just offshore from the San Diego Bay mouth. They had driven fish to the surface and we had 10 Brown Boobies fishing here among other birds, flying over the dolphins--very exciting!

Pink-footed Shearwater
Scripps's Murrelet
Pink-footed Shearwater
Black Storm-Petrel
Black Storm-Petrel
Common Tern
Black-vented Shearwater
Brown Booby
Brown Boobies and Western Gulls feeding over a pod of Common Dolphins
Common Dolphins
Common Dolphins and Brown Boobies.
Brown Booby.
California Sea Lion.
Sailboats in San Diego Bay.

The second trip was on June 11. A couple of Black Skimmers flew around the bay. I believe I was the only one to identify a late Wandering Tattler flying about the rocky beach at Ballast Point as we motored past. This trip had quite a few Least Terns nearshore.

Perhaps the highlight of the trip was a single Black-footed Albatross in the early morning--spring is the best time for these in San Diego waters. Otherwise, they are regular much farther offshore in the main California Current that flows outside the islands of the Southern California Bight.

The trip featured quite a few storm-petrels. Storm-petrels are small and flighty, and rather skittish and seem to be afraid of the boat. I took dozens of photos in the hopes that a few would turn out. I think the overcast skies helped lower the contrast when photographing these against the bright water. Identifying storm-petrels requires much experience to get a feel for the ID--backed up with photos whenever possible. Shape and flight behavior is key for identifying most seabirds--especially the all brownish ones! We had Black, Ashy, and Leach's, including several white-rumped Leach's or Townsend's (either is unusual in spring), but none photographed well enough to be definitely identified as Townsend's.

In late afternoon we came across some rather early Craver's Murrelets. This is a species that was more common in the 1980's, fairly rare at the turn of the 21st century, and regular again in recent years.

Elegant Tern
Black Storm-Petrel
Black Storm-Petrel
Elegant Terns
Sooty Shearwater in heavy wing molt.
Black-footed Albatross
Black-footed Albatross
Ashy Storm-Petrel
Ashy Storm-Petrel (left), Black Storm-Petrel (right).
Black Storm-Petrel
Black Storm-Petrel
Black Storm-Petrel
Black Storm-Petrel
Black Storm-Petrel
Leach's Storm-Petrel
Ashy Storm-Petrel (left), Black Storm-Petrel (right).
Ashy Storm-Petrel
Black Storm-Petrel
Pink-footed Shearwater
Craveri's Murrelet

Friday, July 21, 2017

Movie review: Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

Yesterday at this time I had never heard of Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets. But an article on the writer and director Luc Besson appeared on Wired (here) and the trailer looked exciting (here). So I convinced Marlene to go with me at the 5 o'clock showing right after work.

Briefly, this is Star Wars and Avatar story lines combined by the writer and director of The Fifth Element. Its 2 hours and 17 minutes of run-time is action-packed with more space ships and alien species than any other movie you've seen. Its a fun romp with action-packed chase scenes, explosions, battles, and "sci-fi action violence" that gives it the expected PG-13 rating.

But there's nothing new here. You'll findLuke and Obi-Wan at the cantina, Jabba the Hutt and Luke Skywalker facing off, underwater monsters trying to eat the ship with Padme and Anakin, Leia and Han in the garbage chute, Coruscant "car" chase with Anakin and Obi-wan, faceless soldiers encased in all-black shiny plastic, Obi-wan and Anakin facing off the droid attack in the hangar bay on Naboo, a changling.

How about blue-colored aliens at peace with their environment destroyed by the military but a flawed soldier comes to rescue their planet? Ya, I've seen it before.

There's no character development, no intelligent conversation. Just action. This is an exciting, colorful, "summer fun" sci-fi action movie that will appeal to Star Wars fans. But it lacks originality. review

Thursday, July 20, 2017

eBird: Illustrated checklists

A new functionality has been added to eBird, the illustrated checklist. A sample is shown here:

The above is a section of the eBird Hotspot checklist for the San Luis Rey River mouth in northern San Diego County, a place where I happen to have obtained many rather good photos.

From the website, select...
Explore Data
Explore Hotspots
Then choose...
San Luis Rey River--mouth, San Diego County, California, US
View Details

There you will find a menu for three items...
Overview/Recent Visits/Illustrated Checklist

Chose Illustrated Checklist.

Along with the weekly bar chart checklist is a photo chosen from among the best-rated for that location.

Additional photos from the location are in the rightmost column, indicated with a little camera icon and the number of total photos available. Please note that many photos are not rated yet. So if you see a poorer photo displayed, and there are many more photos to choose from, please click on the photo icon to bring up all the photos. Then click on the first photo and rate it, and continue on. Next time the illustrated checklist displays a photo, it will be one of the better ones.

One other thing that was new to me is that in the hotspot Overview page, down a line or two is another menu bar: Last Seen/First Seen/Bar Charts/Printable Checklist. It is this last menu item, Printable Checklist which was new to me. Great for a field trip where participants don't all have access to eBird Mobile.

The Illustrated Checklists appear for specific Hotspot sites, counties, states, and countries.

Even if you are not a regular contributor to eBird (and if not, why?) this application is unbeatable to help you prepare for a birding trip and find your target birds.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

San Diego Annotated Checklist: Updated

I have just completed updating my annotated bird checklist page to San Diego birds, first created a year ago. It incorporates the AOS checklist 58th supplement that came out earlier this month. It continues the major rearrangement of orders and families that began a couple years ago. For instance, hummingbirds and pigeons are near the front of the list following waterfowl and chickens. Last year's shake-up never even made it into a field guide before it changed again. I wonder if this will be a trend for the next few years?

I have also updated some rare bird sightings in the county for the past year.

An annotated checklist devotes a paragraph to each species--rather than just a list--telling where and when to find each bird, plus any other notes about status. It is especially useful for searching for specific species, whether you are a visitor or local birder.

Friday, July 7, 2017

Review: Birds of the Pacific Northwest

I got a call from a former workmate that I had mail left at my old address. When I stopped in I found it was a copy of Birds of the Pacific Northwest: a photographic guide by Tom Aversa, Richard Cannings, and Hal Opperman, 2016.

Mr Opperman had contacted me a couple of years ago about using my photographs in a bird book he was writing. I had long since lost the emails and forgot about the project.

When I opened the book, I noted one of my photos every few pages. The book uses over 70 of my photographs. In the past I have sold the use of some of my photos. But more often I've allowed them to be used--often in trade for one of the finished products--a new bird book! It gives me satisfaction that I can share my photos in this way--share the birds--rather than having the photos stored as magnetized particles on my computer's hard drive where no one can enjoy them.

The birds in the Pacific Northwest are an area of expertise for me, especially Oregon, as I birded there about 37 years in total (1972-1979, 1985-2013). And I've reviewed many bird books. So, even though I received this book as "compensation," and 70 of the 900 bird photos were mine, I think I can offer an honest and unbiased review in 5 words:

This is a great book!

I've moved a lot in my life and my former 25 feet of shelf space for bird books and magazines has been whittled away by necessity and digital replacement. I've only kept the best of the best. My bird books now occupy less than 6 feet of bookshelf. Seven of those books deal with the status of birds in Oregon.

I treasure a hard-bound 1940 edition of Gabrielson and Jewett's Birds of Oregon that I found in a bookstore in Hillsboro, Oregon in 2006. I had a paperback reprint of this book from 1970 that I probably picked up about 1975 and wore completely out. This book details the status and distribution of birds in Oregon from Lewis and Clark in 1805 to about 1935.

From then to end of the 20th century a worthy companion to that early work is Birds of Oregon: a general reference, 2003, edited by David B. Marshall, Matthew G. Hunter, and Alan L. Contreras. I was privileged to write about 20 species accounts in that book. It is over-sized (9x12) with 752 pages.

Both of these previous books are status and distribution. They have very few bird illustrations (and the few they have are black-and-white photos or line drawings). They are more about the when and where of the birds (population, behavior, breeding, habitat and diet) and not about the identification at all. Thus, there are many range maps. These books are mostly text. They are for serious locality-based birders.

If you want illustrations and identification descriptions of all the plumages for males, females, and immatures, then you can't go wrong with the National Geographic (2011, 6th Ed.) or Sibley (2014, 2nd Ed.) field guides. They show 900+ species for North America, but the range maps are not very precise when it comes to showing range at the state level, or smaller. These are a bit too "advanced" for beginners, and as they cover all of North America north of Mexico, they have about double the number of species covered as one would likely find in just Oregon.

For a beginner book, my wife likes the Lone Pine Press Birds of Oregon, 2003, by Roger Burrows and Jeff Gilligan. It shows only 328 of the most likely birds in Oregon (of about 515 possible). It has nice big paintings of a typical individual in adult male breeding plumage. It has detailed local maps for range, and plumage and behavioral descriptions for identification. It generally does not show females or immatures, or even males in winter plumage, so it is likely you'll see a common bird in an unfamiliar plumage, or a somewhat unusual bird not covered at all, and won't be able to identify it with this book alone.

Now we come to the new Birds of the Pacific Northwest: a photographic guide. It is a 464-page book, appropriate in dimensions (5.5 x 8.5 inches) for a large pocket-sized field guide (though not as large as the Sibley). It has 900 photos of males, females, immatures, and field-identifiable subspecies as appropriate. Each species account covers description, similar species, status & distribution, habitat associations, behavior & feeding, and vocalizations. Finally, it has 400 very accurate maps showing breeding, wintering, and migration range in Oregon, Washington, Idaho, southern British Columbia and Alberta, to the continental divide of Montana and extreme western Wyoming and sw Manitoba.

This guide has all the best parts of the above status & distribution references and the best popular North American field guides. It has only birds that occur in the local region, at least once annually. So very rare birds that occur less than once every year somewhere in the Pacific Northwest are not covered. 412 species are covered--a good compromise not to cover perhaps 175 additional species that may occur once per decade, or less.

It has status and distribution without being too in-depth. Identification, illustrations, and detailed maps help beginners limit their options. This could easily be the only field guide one would need in the Pacific Northwest, from beginner, intermediate, and up to the early stages of advanced birders (immature gulls, etc., aren't well explained).

Okay, this book is not perfect. The wonderfully accurate maps have a flaw.

If you read the explanation of the maps, you will note that the mapped range of "migration" includes regular migration of common species where the species neither breeds nor spends the winter. As an example, the abundant Red-necked Phalarope is mapped accurately as a migrant across the Pacific Northwest, but not in the Cascade mountains or coastal forests of western Oregon and Washington, as one would expect.

But the "migration" label also includes the migratory range of very rare migrants. An example is Tennessee Warbler. It is mapped as summering in the Rocky mountains in NW Montana and northward, I assume accurately. However, it is shown as a migrant in all habitats of Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and more. Yet, actually, Tennessee Warblers migrate primarily east of the Rocky Mountains and are rare anywhere in Washington and Oregon, with usually only a handful of records each year, if that, primarily from desert oases east of the Cascades. In 40 years I've only seen Tennessee Warbler once in the Pacific Northwest--and it was initially found by someone else.

I understand the difficulty in mapping migrants, abundant to less-than-annual. But when every breeding and wintering species is mapped so accurately, having rare migrants mapped so broadly and inaccurately in every habitat, makes no sense. It ruins one of the best features of this volume. I'm sure the authors agonized over this. I think they made the wrong decision. Personally, I wouldn't show the migratory range for very rare occurrences. Leave it empty as they did for the casual (less than annual) migration of Black-throated Sparrows west of the Cascades. The text does explain migratory status fairly accurately ("casual" and "rare" are explained on page 26 of the introduction), but the large bright yellow migration map covering entire groups of states without habitat breaks screams, "I could have seen this bird here." Leave the map empty where a species is less than annual and explain in the text that it might show up in certain locations, seasons, and habitats.

Only one other minor quibble. I would have tried to find a way to include a life list checklist, either at the end of the book or in each species account.

I believe this is the most useful regional field guide to the birds in the northwest corner of the contiguous United States.

Here is the publisher's page and ordering information:

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Blue Grosbeaks at Lake Hodges

Here are some spring photos of Blue Grosbeaks from Lake Hodges. They arrive in San Diego County in mid-April. By the first of September they are already hard to find as they migrate south for the winter.

 They like damp grassy river bottoms with scattered trees. Thus they are quite restricted in habitat. One usually has to make special effort to find them in southern California. These were near the footbridge along Interstate 15.

Blue Grosbeak
Blue Grosbeak. Lake Hodges, California. April 26, 2017. Greg Gillson.
Blue Grosbeak
female Blue Grosbeak
Female Blue Grosbeak