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.

Verdin
Verdin

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

"Super bloom"--Wildflowers of Anza-Borrego Desert

This post is for you, Steve. So sorry you and Alane couldn't join us last Sunday. Get well soon, buddy!

Wildflowers of Anza-Borrego Desert
Get well soon!
Violet-pink sand verbenas with a few white dune evening primroses, brown-eyed primroses, and popcorn
flowers are hidden in this natural bouquet. Borrego Springs, California. March 12, 2017. Greg Gillson.
"Super bloom." That's what they're calling it on the news. "Super traffic jam" as 5000 thousand cars tried to enter the tiny village of Borrego Springs each day this past weekend with only two roads into town from San Diego. The highways converge at a giant traffic circle/city park in the center of town--called Christmas Circle.

Why the "super bloom"? Rainfall amounts in the populated western half of the county are about double the annual average. Trouble is, there have been 5 years of way-below-average rainfall creating the local drought, mirrored by drought for the entire state of California. Emergency drought water restrictions appear to be ready to be lifted. San Diego has stored water enough for 3 years, now, if the reports are to be believed. The persistent rainstorms we put up with this winter, and the flooding and sandbags and vigils I put in at our mobile home park, brought water to the desert east of the mountains, too. The desert received more rainfall than in 12, 20, or 30 years, depending upon who you ask. We seemed to hit the peak of flowers this past weekend. Next weekend will be good still, and then quickly fade.

Borrego Springs is in the middle of the northern section of the Anza-Borrego Desert. It's only 45 miles away, but up and over the mountains--away from the moderating influence of the ocean--it takes an hour-and-a-half to drive there. And an extra 2 hours to get home this past weekend, as we averaged 10 mph for 20 miles between Borrego Springs and the Warner Springs intersection--usually empty road except for a few RV's. Guess what? The line of last-minute flower seekers and art show participants was just as long still trying to get into town at 2:30 pm when we were leaving after a full day! Marlene and I couldn't believe it, Steve, but people parked on the side of the highway and walked to town starting more than 3 miles outside of town--and it was well into the upper 90's! I'm so glad we arrived at dawn and missed driving into the sunrise on those curvy roads descending into the desert!

Traffic at Borrego Springs during super bloom weekend
Miles outside of town as we were leaving was still clogged with people trying to get in....
Here's why bird watchers like the wildflowers, Steve. Yes, they do look pretty. But I think I'm not that different from most other birders when it comes to flowers. Trees and biomes are important for determining what birds live where. So I know the identification of most of the trees and major plant communities in North America. Flowers? Not so much. Flowers in the Anza-Borrego Desert are good for one thing birdwise--food for caterpillars of the sphinx moth. The caterpillars feed on the flowers and get big and fat--big as your thumb big and fat. Migrant Swainson's Hawks--primarily insectivores--on their way from their winter home in Argentina to their breeding grounds in the great American West, eat these juicy morsels on the morning of their one overnight migration stop here. The first birds arrive about the first of March and some are still moving through until mid April. This week is all about the bloom; the next few weeks will be about the caterpillars. Thus, the hundred or so hawks that were in town overnight had few or no caterpillars to keep them on the ground in the morning. I saw three flocks of about 55 total birds lift off about 10 am, catching a thermal, and circle high into the sky. Official counters tallied 209 birds that lifted off and continued on their northward migration.

I was hoping to show you and Alane around the Desert, Steve. The mountains, the flowers, the hawks, the other birds, the cacti, and the metal sculptures. Sorry you were ill. We visit 3-4 times in winter and spring--it's one of our favorite getaways. This time Marlene and I concentrated on the wildflowers and also birds at the Roadrunner Club. Since you couldn't make it, I present you with this trip report. Join us another time, won't you?



Sunrise overlooking Borrego Springs
Scenic S-22, Montezuma Valley Road, overlooking the Anza-Borrego Desert at sunrise. This road descends steeply with continuous sharp curves for a dozen mile from Ranchita to Borrego Springs. I like it because RV's and large trucks usually don't take this road. On the horizon you can sea the Salton Sea, 35 miles to the east of Borrego Springs.
We started Daylight Savings time this day, so sunrise was an hour later, and we had an extra hour to sleep in before we had to get up, even though we lost an hour of sleep during the night. Now there's a confusing thought! The goal was to enter town at or before sunrise at 7:00 am, as the road we were on looked straight into the sunrise. Perfect timing. By the way, it was 42F at Ranchita before we descended the grade into Borrego Springs. It was 72F near the foot of the mountains. But only a mile or two through town it was back to 57F. But within an hour after sunrise it was pushing 80F, peaking about 95F in the early afternoon. Arriving early beats the heat!

A call to the Wildflower Hotline told us where most of the bloom was taking place. And the most recent email from the Borrego Valley Hawkwatch indicated a hundred hawks had arrived the previous evening and that based on weather forecast we could expect to see them nearby in the air between 9 and 10 in the morning. At 7:30 am we drove around the roads circling the area where the hawks went to roost the night before. We didn't see any hawks perched in trees or feeding in the fields. It was early yet for the hawks, so we headed over to Old Springs Road open space preserve--sand dunes where Le Conte's Thrashers are resident. This is the only location in San Diego County you can find these birds. Plus I had seen flowers in these dunes in the past. It did not disappoint.

Wildflowers at Old Springs Road, Borrego Springs, California. March 12, 2017. Greg Gillson.
Wildflowers at Old Springs Road, Borrego Springs, California. March 12, 2017. Greg Gillson.
Thank goodness the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park has a foldout brochure called "Spring Wildflowers of Anza-Borrego Desert State Park" to help me identify most of the flowers I photographed!

Dune evening primrose
Dune evening primrose
Desert sunflower
Desert sunflower
Brown-eyed primrose
Brown-eyed primrose
Desert lily
Desert lily
Popcorn flower
Popcorn flower
Desert wildflowers
Desert wildflowers
Desert dandelion
Desert dandelion
Desert sunflower
Desert sunflower
Unidentified flower, Anza-Borrego Desert State Park.
Unidentified flower, Anza-Borrego Desert State Park.
Sand verbena
Sand verbena
Desert lily
Desert lily
Leaves of desert lily drawing circles in the sand.
Leaves of desert lily drawing circles in the sand.
Little gold poppy
Little gold poppy
Brown-eyed primrose
Brown-eyed primrose
Sand verbena
Sand verbena
We then drove out past Henderson Road, which was this weekend's advertised flower site. The sweet smell of desert sunflowers was quite strong. The first wave of flower gawkers lined the roads and spread out across the yellowed sands.

Desert sunflowers on Henderson Road
Desert sunflowers on Henderson Road
Flowers on Henderson Road

Flowers on Henderson Road

After this we went over to the waste treatment ponds, which attracts birds to the water and desert shrubs there. It is actually not as disgusting as it sounds. Unfortunately a group was target practicing nearby and the ricocheting bullets buzzing overhead was enough to make me decide to go elsewhere.

At this point I drove over to one of the hawkwatch sites. A dozen birders were there looking in all directions for any hawks flying. One person gave me a suggestion of where I might see hawks roosting. So I went there to walk a road. No luck trying to get a close photo. Later, a mile away or more, I saw three groups of 55 hawks circling into the sky ready to catch a thermal to take them on their next leg of their very long migration. Official counters tallied over 200 hawks leaving the Valley on this morning. But no caterpillars meant no birds out feeding in the flower fields.

A small kettle of 10 Swainson's Hawks circling up into a thermal.
The rest of the day's bird photos I'll save for a separate post.

At this point we headed to breakfast at Kendall's Café. We made it in at 11:00 am as the last breakfast customers before they switched to the lunch menu.

There are hundreds of metal sculptures out in the desert. We decided not to visit this day. But we found several (copycats?) in the "mall." Here's a sample.

Stallions

We decided to visit the fields off Borrego Springs Road. We noticed how green it was when we passed earlier. This area is plots of land for sale to be developed. During most of the year it is dry, and the few cacti and other plants there look like dead bleached sticks. Ocotillos only put out leaves immediately after rains. And as soon as the ground dries out the leaves fall off. The red flowers bloom in spring, with or without (usually) the leaves. We found some additional species of flowers we hadn't photographed earlier.

Flowers carpet the sands among the cholla, ocotillo, and creosote bushes.
Flowers carpet the sands among the Gander's cholla, ocotillo, and creosote bushes.
The ocotillo's dark green leaves only last a week or two.
The ocotillo's dark green leaves only last a week or two.
Soon, all the tips of the ocotillo will bloom
Soon, all the tips of the ocotillo will bloom
Some of the leaves of the ocotillo turn red
Some of the leaves of the ocotillo turn red
Desert chicory
Desert chicory
Purple mat
Purple mat
That's the end of our wildflower adventure. From here we decided to drive through the Roadrunner Country Club to look for birds, since our earlier birdwatching was disrupted. So that will be my next post...