Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Rufous-crowned Sparrow

Rufous-crowned Sparrow
Rufous-crowned Sparrow. April 6, 2014. Escondido, California. Greg Gillson.
I'm not very familiar with this bird of the coastal sage scrub--a type of lower elevation "soft" chaparral. I actually have only 9 records of this species written down, 7 of them from when I lived in Ventura County from 1979-1984, only two recently. The two recent sightings were along dirt roads around lakes on steep rocky hillsides. I'm not sure the lakes are typical habitat for this sparrow. Rather the lakes were the reason I was birding in that locale and the drier habitat was along its edge.

It's an interestingly colored sparrow, gray above and below. It has a rufous crown, and brown back stripes, and wing and tail feathers.

I believe the bush is called Toyon, and it has clusters of small red berries in the fall.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Hooded Oriole

Hooded Oriole
Hooded Oriole. Dixon Lake, Escondido, California. April 6, 2013. Greg Gillson.
With its black tail and back, and yellow-orange rump and hind-neck, the male Hooded Oriole flying away looks more like a male Western Tanager than Bullock's Oriole. Remember the tail of male Bullock's Oriole is orange with a thin black tip and central tail feathers.

Hooded Oriole doesn't have the prolonged deeper chatter of Bullock's Oriole, but it does have some chattering that is squeakier and shorter in duration--enough to recognize it as an oriole for those more familiar with Bullock's.

I was wondering when I was going to see Hooded Orioles, as I hadn't seen any since moving here in late September. They first showed up in very late March, the same week as Bullock's also showed up. In fact, both are found in San Diego County, April through September, though Hooded is generally more abundant--at least in towns and western lowlands of the county. Bullock's Oriole is less common, but more widespread in stream sides and more rural habitats.

Hooded Oriole

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Hybrid Audubon's x Myrtle Yellow-rumped Warbler

Hybrid Audubon's x Myrtle Yellow-rumped Warbler. March 30, 2014. San Elijo Lagoon, California. Greg Gillson.
Click for larger view.
Hybrid versus intergrade--what's the difference? Well, a hybrid is a cross breeding between birds of two different species, while an intergrade is breeding between two well-marked subspecies of the same species. So, technically, this post should be discussing intergrades between Myrtle and Audubon's Warblers. But why be pedantic? These were considered two different species until 1973 and may be again some day. Where the ranges meet in NE British Columbia they breed together producing offspring with mixed characters.

You may know that the western Audubon's form of Yellow-rumped Warbler has a yellow throat and the eastern Myrtle form has a white throat. But, of course, that is not the only field mark.

Myrtle Warblers have thin white eyebrows while Audubon's do not. Myrtle has two white wingbars while Audubon's has a big white wing patch. The under tail on Audubon's has black feathers all the way across the tip while on Myrtle the white reaches the end of the tail. The Myrtle has a hard "check" call note while Audubon's is a higher "tchip."

Intergrade Yellow-rumped Warblers are more often noticed in photos than in the field. In the photographed bird above, there is a bit of white around the edges of the yellow throat. And there is a short white eyebrow behind the eye (it was slightly longer and more obvious on the other side of the head). The wingbars form a messy patch. The under tail feathers are white to the tip in the center. Really, in most aspects, this bird is midway in field marks between Audubon's and Myrtle, except for the more Audubon's-like throat.

Here are two photos of more typical representatives of each form for comparison.

Audubon's Warbler
Audubon's Warbler. Forest Grove, Oregon. March 23, 2012. Greg Gillson.
See? Throat, eyebrows, wingbars, undertail.

Myrtle Warbler
Myrtle Warbler. Forest Grove, Oregon. April 29, 2011. Greg Gillson.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Banded Red Knot

Two Red Knots in front of a Black Skimmer
Two Red Knots in front of a Black Skimmer, with some Black-bellied Plovers looking on.
Crown Point Park, Mission Bay, San Diego, California. December 22, 2013. Greg Gillson.
Update: Please read Shirley's comments (below) for more info on this particular bird!

Last December I went to Crown Point Park to view Black Skimmers. [See the site guide I created.] There were several other shorebirds there, including several Red Knots. Of course, this being winter, they weren't red. But, besides just the novelty of seeing these birds that I don't get to see very often, there was something else interesting. On the left leg of the left bird you can just pick out a pale green plastic marking flag. If you click on the photo it will enlarge and you may pick out three characters: "6JX."

I reported this bird and its leg-flag number to the Bird Banding Lab. If it had been the metal leg band number I would have gotten an immediate response. But since I only had the flag number the report had to be directed to the original researcher. The response time for this varies, but in this case it was 4 months.

The Red Knot I photographed in San Diego in December 2013 was originally banded as an unknown-aged adult bird in Nome, Alaska in July 2010. So it was at least 4 years old when I found it. Other details are below.

Much can be learned from band returns such as this. For instance, perhaps several Red Knots were banded that July breeding season. Did they also go to San Diego, or perhaps somewhere else? And did they ever return to Nome? How long do they live? Was this bird reported again before I saw it? I've added one data point that might lead the researcher to significant insights.

"Where do I report banded birds?" This USGS web site is for reporting Federal metal band numbers or birds with plastic colored and/or numbered leg or wing bands. Do not report domestic pigeon leg bands, they are privately marked by pigeon owners.

Birds can be marked in several manners shown here. Why, look! The last bird in the examples here is a Red Knot--in breeding plumage.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Allen's Hummingbird

Allen's Hummingbird
Allen's Hummingbird. March 30, 2014. San Elijo Lagoon, California. Greg Gillson.
Allen's and Rufous Hummingbirds are very similar. For the green females, the distinction between the two species is the width of certain tail feathers. For males, the Rufous has a rusty back, while the Allen's back is green. There is some overlap, with a few Rufous having some green feathers on the upper back. In this case, again, there are differences in the widths of tail feathers. The males' courtship display flights are different, and presumably the females can tell them apart.

Allen's Hummingbirds breed along a narrow coastal strip from southern California to extreme southern Oregon. In fact, Allen's Hummingbirds barely make it 30 miles into southern Oregon. From this point northward to Alaska and inland Rufous Hummingbirds breed.

There are two subspecies of Allen's Hummingbirds. One is sedentary (non-migratory), found on the Channel Islands off Los Angeles, and only on the mainland in recent years. All the other Allen's Hummingbirds migrate to a very small area to winter in southern Mexico in the states of Mexico, Morelos, and Puebla.

I found Allen's Hummingbirds here in San Diego County in January, thus one of the resident form, now expanding their range farther from Los Angeles. Many other Allen's, presumably of the migrant race, arrived in March. And I did see one Rufous Hummingbird migrating through in March, too.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Birding Site Guide: San Elijo Lagoon

San Elijo Lagoon, California
San Elijo Lagoon, California. High tide: From N Rios Ave looking north
across the lagoon to the Nature Center on the other side.
San Elijo Lagoon is probably my favorite birding locale in San Diego County. It could be because it was one of the first places I ever birded in San Diego County. Local birder Terry Hunefeld showed me around in 2008. It has waterbirds of all descriptions and some trails through coastal sage scrub. Two specialty species can be found--Clapper Rail and California Gnatcatcher. It is good for finding a variety of birds in good numbers at close range for photography. Rare birds I've discovered here include Nelson's Sparrow and Prothonotary Warbler. There are several access points, but here I discuss two.

South side: N Rios Avenue, Solana Beach
Getting there: Solana Beach is 25 miles north of downtown San Diego on Interstate 5. Exit I-5 at Lomas Santa Fe Dr and follow it west almost 1 mile. Turn right (north) on N Rios Ave and take it 1 mile to the end. Parking: There is free street parking here. Hours: Dawn to dusk. Map navigation: 899 N Rios Ave, Solana Beach, CA 92075.

North side: San Elijo Lagoon Nature Center, Encinitas (Cardiff-by-the-Sea)
Getting there: Take I-5 North (as above) and exit 1 mile farther north on Manchester Avenue. Loop around and under I-5 to the west about a mile to the Nature Center. Parking: Free parking lot at the Nature Center. Hours: 9:00 am to 5:00 pm. For earlier arrival, if you drive up over the rounded curb, perhaps 3 cars can park on the shoulder of Manchester Ave near the entrance. Map navigation: San Elijo Lagoon Nature Center, 2710 Manchester Avenue, Encinitas, CA 92007

San Diego birding site guide

N Rios Ave

Update: The entire estuary is being modified back to a natural salt marsh. Work is in phases to protect the native wildlife that exists. When completed (estimated to be June 2020) it will be possible to hike around the entire wetland in a big loop. That may be about 4 miles, but will certainly be worth it! It means that until then, from Rios Avenue, only the trail from A to D is open. Trails to B and C are closed.

Where to bird: From the street parking at the end of N Rios Ave ("A" on the map above) there are two ways to go. You probably want to bird both ways, but which one first depends upon you. This is a popular place for joggers and dog walkers. Perhaps you want to bird near the water first, before foot traffic moves water birds out away from the edges.

The trail down the hill to the west has a spur out into the marsh ("B" (dead center on top photo)). This is a favorite location for Belding's Savannah Sparrows and Marsh Wrens. This is where I discovered a Nelson's Sparrow during an extreme high tide on January 1, 2014.

The trail continues below the residential area (Allen's Hummingbirds on the hillside) where there are cattails and duck ponds. Listen for Sora and Clapper Rails here. After the pump station the trail parallels a ditch below the commuter rail tracks and out past some pond scrapes ("C"). These scrapes are excellent for shorebirds when they have water. The edge of the marsh here is also good for larger shorebirds and herons, depending upon tidal stage. You can walk farther, if birds are present. Otherwise these ponds ("C") are a good place to turn back. Be sure to check the winter sparrow flocks here.

Back at the parking area ("A") again you may wish to shed your early morning jacket and rehydrate for the next portion. There is great birding at the parking area on the bluff overlooking the lagoon. The residential area will have Hooded Orioles spring through fall. There are many trees below the parking area that usually has good bird activity.

San Elijo Lagoon
N Rios Ave trailhead looking east toward I-5.
Following the trail east it first heads through some deciduous riparian "woods" below the residential area. Then the trail leads out into the coastal sage-scrub habitat. About a half mile from the parking lot is a little side canyon leading up to some eucalyptus trees ("D"). The lower portion of the canyon is your best bet for California Gnatcatcher (Blue-gray Gnatcatchers are in the sage loop nearer the water). The scattered trees here will host Nuttall's Woodpeckers and Cassin's Kingbirds. I don't often go much farther than this, but there is a more extensive eucalyptus grove nearer I-5 that might be good for Neo-tropical migrants in spring or fall.

San Elijo Lagoon
South side of Lagoon looking toward the ocean. The N Rios Rd
trailhead is left of the houses 1/2 mile distant.
San Elijo Lagoon Nature Center

Where to bird: From the Nature Center parking lot ("E" on map above) walk the loop trails. I'd walk the entire perimeter, then cut through the middle and back to the nature center walking on the marsh side again--about 1 mile total.

The trail through the willow tangles and woods should be really good for migrant birds, but I have yet to really hit a fallout here. American Goldfinches and Downy Woodpeckers reach the southern edge of their range here. Sometimes you get a closer view of some waterbirds. Frankly, if you bird N Rios Ave, you can probably safely skip this portion. Probably. But I think the habitat here has the potential for some really good finds--better than what I've found so far. Although I did find Prothonotary Warbler at the entrance one morning in late October.

San Elijo Lagoon Nature Center
The Nature Center trail leads through a small grove of endangered Torrey Pines.
San Elijo Lagoon Nature Center
Marlene and Cosette ("Cosi") come along for a walk on the Nature Center trail.
eBird Hotspot bar charts:
San Elijo Lagoon--Nature Center Loop  175 species
San Elijo Lagoon--Rios Ave entrance  189 species
San Elijo Lagoon--west (combined above areas and beach)  222 species

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

San Diego Year Bird #196: Hooded Merganser

Hooded Merganser
Hooded Merganser. March 30, 2014. San Elijo Lagoon. Greg Gillson.
San Diego is a bit south of the regular wintering range for this snazzy-looking duck of quiet wooded ponds and estuary backwaters. Two drakes and a hen spent several weeks at San Elijo this spring where they were seen by many. The crest can be flattened back until the white is a thin line or raised forward to above the eye until it covers the entire top of the head.

The thin bill has serrated edges, perfect for hanging in to slippery fish it catches by diving.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Belding's Savannah Sparrow

Belding's Savannah Sparrow
Belding's Savannah Sparrow. March 30, 2014. San Elijo Lagoon, California. Greg Gillson
Belding's Savannah Sparrows are resident in coastal southern California salt marshes. One thing you may notice is the bird is very dark, rather than dusty-brown as are Savannah Sparrows in many other areas of North America (there are about 17 poorly-differentiated subspecies of this grassland species, dividable into about 4 groups). In fact, those breast streaks are almost blackish.

The eyebrow shows some yellow in the supraloral area. The bill is fairly long for the species. One other mark to note is that these birds apparently have short head feathers and don't give a partially raised crested look that other Savannah Sparrows occasionally do.

The song is not different from other races. It is high-pitched starting with three short notes, and a drawn out buzzy insect-like trill with a sudden low drop at the end: tsit, tsit, tsit, tseeeeee-dzay. At a distance (or as my hearing deteriorates), only the last transition to the lower buzzier note is audible, "eee-dzay."

Belding's Savannah Sparrow
Belding's Savannah Sparrow.
For comparison, below is a photo from western Oregon. It is the Brook's Savannah Sparrow, very similar to the Nevada Savannah Sparrow that breeds in the Great Basin east of the Oregon Cascades. When these and other northern breeding forms winter together in southern California salt marshes, the differences between them and Belding's are obvious.

Note especially the pale gray-brown overall color, thin paler breast streaking. And look at that! partially raised crown feathers.

Brook's Savannah Sparrow
Brook's Savannah Sparrow. June 9, 2011. Sherwood, Oregon. Greg Gillson.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Lunar eclipse: April 14, 2014

Moon--lunar eclipse
Moon, eclipse just starting. April 14, 2014. Greg Gillson .
I stayed up late last night to watch the eclipse.

Moon--lunar eclipse
The Earth's shadow creeps across the moon.
These photos were hand-held, held against the porch railing, with my Canon XTi and 100-400mm IS lens--my bird photography setup.

Moon--lunar eclipse
Moon nearly completely in the Earth's shadow.
So, I was thinking, why isn't there a lunar eclipse every time there was a full moon during spring and fall equinox--when the days and nights are equal and the earth's poles are perpendicular to its orbit around the sun. Obviously, there aren't eclipses always and only then. One reason, it turns out, is that the moon is 5% outside the equatorial path. Another is that the moon's gravity slows the rotation of the earth in a complex way. So it's not straightforward to predict eclipses, especially to determine how much of the earth's shadow falls on the moon.
Moon fully in shadow of the Earth.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

American Avocet

American Avocet
American Avocet. San Elijo Lagoon, California. March 30, 2014. Greg Gillson.
I find avocets irresistible photo subjects. They are tall and stately, with unique recurved bills, and rusty heads in breeding plumage. As I started birding in NW Oregon where avocets are very rare, I think they also represent to me exotic birding locales like Malheur refuge, Death Valley, Salton Sea. Now I get to see them regularly, but I never tire of viewing (and photographing) them.

American Avocet

Saturday, April 12, 2014

My current top 5 target birds for San Diego County

In a little over 6 months I have seen less than half the regular annual bird species in San Diego County. The remaining species are not necessarily rare, since I haven't yet birded the county from late spring to early fall. So I have a lot of migrants and summer breeders yet to see. Plus, I've only spent part of one day each in the mountain forests and Anza-Borrego desert.

There are 5 species currently on my list of most-desired county birds. So, while I am researching where to find these birds, I thought I'd write it down here.

Lawrence's Goldfinch - I saw quite a few Lawrence's Goldfinches when I lived in Ventura, California from 1980-1984. I have 15 sightings recorded during that period, in Ventura and Kern counties, the last on April 21, 1984, so 30 years ago. Most were in the dry inland mountains when I was searching for California Condors.

This species can be found in the county year-round, but most records are for March, and then May to August. The big numbers in March, including flocks of 250 birds, all seem to be from restricted access sites near Jamul. Most of the sightings May-August are in the mountains: Palomar, Cuyamaca, Laguna.

Blue Grosbeak - I have seen one Blue Grosbeak. A brown female at Croatan National Forest in North Carolina on August 25, 2005. I traveled there with Tim Shelmerdine and David Smith to attend pelagic trips from Manteo. They could be found in Ventura County when I lived there 30 years ago, but I never saw them.

These birds arrive in late April and can be found through August. Looking at eBird results, Blue Grosbeaks haven't arrived yet. They seem to be found in the same places as Bell's Vireo, but slightly more widespread. The thick willow bottoms at Mule Hill at nearby Lake Hodges may work out for both.

Least Bell's Vireo - My only previous sighting of this endangered riparian species was a single singing bird 33 years ago, May 11, 1981, in Ventura, California.

Records are from late March to mid-September. Many of the sightings are in restricted lands at Camp Pendleton Marine Corps Base. I'll also have to check Whalen Lake Bird Sanctuary to see what the access is there. The web site for it indicates I need to call ahead to get in.

Black-chinned Sparrow - This is a chaparral species I have not seen before. It is one I could have seen 30 years ago when I lived in Ventura County, but I never found one in my birding travels then.

Here is another species that arrives in April and remains through August, though reports drop quickly after the June territorial singing period. As with Lawrence's Goldfinches, the Cuyamaca and Laguna mountains seem the best place, and also Kitchen Creek.

Gray Vireo - Here is a very local desert/chaparral species I have never seen, nor even visited the proper habitats to find.

This species is found from April into July, but the July records are rather spotty. It looks like Kitchen Creek is the place to go. Some have been found nearer me on Lost Springs Road out of Warner Hot Springs.

So, then, it looks like I can find Bell's Vireos and Blue Grosbeaks in some of the river bottoms fairly near my home. The Gray Vireos, Lawrence's Goldfinches, and Black-chinned Sparrows can all be found in chaparral at Kitchen Creek, an 80 mile drive on freeways. It looks like I need to plan a field trip to Kitchen Creek--soon !

- - - - -

Update, April 17, 2016. Well, it's almost exactly 2 years later. How did I do with my target birds? Quite good!

Lawrence's Goldfinch - My first for the county on March 15, 2015 in Poway. I now have 7 records on 5 different days, including a flock of 70.

Blue Grosbeak - The first for the county was April 20, 2014 at Mission Trails Park, only 10 days after I wrote the post above. I now have 11 sightings on 7 different days.

Least Bell's Vireo - Again, the first was on April 20, 2014 at Mission Trails Park. I now have 11 sightings on 8 different days.

Black-chinned Sparrow - Writing this post evidently inspired me. I went out to a remote area near Warner Springs the very next day, April 13, 2014, and found this Lief Bird! I now have 15 sightings from 5 different days.

Gray Vireo - Yes, I did have to go to Kitchen Creek to find this Life Bird. Two birds were present June 14, 2015 for my only sightings ever.

Thursday, April 10, 2014


Wrentit. March 9, 2014. San Marcos, California. Greg Gillson.
The Wrentit is found in chaparral and evergreen shrubs from the mouth of the Columbia River in Oregon south to the middle of Baja California (Norte). It's an odd little bird with no close relatives, thus the reason it gets shuffled around into different families. It is neither a wren nor a tit (chickadee). It is currently placed in the Babbler family, but recent DNA research may indicate that it has closer relatives in the Old World Warbler family. In either case, the Wrentit is the only New World member of either of these families of otherwise Old World birds.

More often heard than seen, this species skulks in dense bushes near the ground.

The next photo shows something interesting in regards to molt and aging. See the barely visible numerous evenly-spaced bars across the tail? Those are growth bars. Since all the tail feathers show the growth bars all the tail feathers grew in at once. This could happen if the bird lost its tail, somehow--an attack by cat or bird. However, it is more likely that these tail feathers grew in all at once during the prejuvenile molt. In other words these are the first set of feathers to grow in from the downy chick stage.

The bars themselves are caused by differences in feather growth between day and night. It looks like it took about 2 weeks to grow in the tail, judging from the number of growth bars. March 9 is the photo date. It seems early, but the best explanation is that this is a recently fledged young bird. If so, then the bird must have hatched before the 25th of February.

Wrentit with tail growth bars
Wrentit with growth bars on tail. March 9, 2014. San Marcos, California. Greg Gillson.
The Wrentits here in southern California are much paler gray-brown than the rich ruddy brown ones I am used to seeing on the Oregon Coast. Take a look at an Oregon bird below.

Wrentit. July 30, 2011. Lincoln County, Oregon. Greg Gillson.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Ruddy Duck in breeding plumage

Ruddy Duck
Ruddy Duck, breeding plumage drake. March 9, 2014. San Marcos, California. Greg Gillson.
A few weeks ago I photographed a Ruddy Duck in non-breeding plumage at Lindo Lake, reproduced below. I recently found this drake above all decked out in breeding finery.

Ruddy Duck
Ruddy Duck, non-breeding plumage drake. February 9, 2014. Lindo Lake, California. Greg Gillson.
If you look carefully at the breeding bird you can see yellow plastic garbage wrapped around the back of the head and through the mouth. Plastic is one of the major threats to health to birds. Besides plastic wrap and rings, small pellets, bottle caps, and other plastics spilled in, or washed to, the ocean are mistaken for food and fed to nestling albatrosses and other seabirds. As they don't pass through the digestive system, they accumulate in the stomach, and birds starve even though they have a full belly--of plastic. If you haven't seen the photos of the dead albatross chicks, you owe it to yourself to click and view the problem of plastics in the ocean 2,000 miles from any mainland!

Ruddy Duck with plastic garbage

Sunday, April 6, 2014

San Diego Year Bird #188: Black Scoter

Black Scoter
Black Scoter. March 2, 2014. Greg Gillson.
Well, this is the last photo from birds seen on Marlene's and my March 2nd trip to the southern portion of San Diego Bay and the Tijuana River Valley.

This Black Scoter is one of a few seen at Grand Caribe Shoreline Park at Coronado for several weeks, that I finally got around to putting on my itinerary. Black Scoter used to be a subspecies of Common Scoter, but they were split into separate species several years ago. The Common Scoter is now the species found in the Palearctic and Black Scoter in the Nearctic.

Despite being called Common Scoter in the past, this sea duck is actually the least abundant scoter found on the West Coast. Surf Scoter and White-winged Scoter are usually found more frequently south of Alaska.

Actually, "common" today means something a bit different than it did in the past. Rather than meaning widespread, in the past "common" meant plain or ordinary.

This is my County Life Bird #229.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Yellow House Finch

yellow House Finch
Yellow House Finch. Imperial Beach, California. March 2, 2014. Greg Gillson.
Most male House Finches are red. Thus, when I saw this yellow bird fly into the bushes at Tijuana Slough NWR nature center, I thought is was going to be something exciting and rare.

Alas, "only" a House Finch, a common feeder bird throughout much of North America--especially the West. I've seen rather orange House Finches before, but this is the yellowest.

House Finch
Typically-colored House Finch. Bend, Oregon. June 13, 2008. Greg Gillson.
My first field guide was Peterson's Western (1969). It included Hawaiian birds--perhaps the only field guide to North America to do so? He illustrated the introduced House Finches there as orange, saying they ran the gamut from red to yellow.

Orange House Finch
Orange variant House Finch. Forest Grove, Oregon, May 16, 2004. Greg Gillson.
Alas, as in most birds, the female is not adorned with bright breeding colors.

House Finch
Typically colored male and female House Finch. Beaverton, Oregon. June 8, 2010. Greg Gillson.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Long-billed Curlew

Long-biled Curlew

  The Curlew
 The curlew's beak is incredible
The worms it eats are inedible
But that is not the most amazing thing
That to the table a curlew does bring
How it flies? Incomprehensible!
Greg Gillson 2014

Long-billed Curlew
Long-billed Curlew. Coronado, California. March 2, 2014. Greg Gillson.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Sibley 2nd Edition Review: Unreadable

Sibley Guide to Birds Second Edition review
Sibley's Second Edition is here! If you can read it.
Imagine a sci-fi movie where an asteroid as big as North America is hurtling toward earth. Our protagonists do everything to deflect the coming cataclysm but, really, there is no stopping it. As the asteroid enters the atmosphere, miracle of miracles, it pops like a soap bubble! Our protagonists party it up because the end of the world has just been avoided.

In a figurative way, this must have happened with the birding field guide printing department at National Geographic earlier this month with the much-anticipated release of the Second Edition of the Sibley Guide to Birds by David Allen Sibley. Why? Isn't this new release printed by Alfred A Knopf just wonderful and indespensible and revolutionary and chocked full of tons of useful information no birder can live without? Won't this new edition just obliterate all competition like the original did when it arrived to forever change birding field guides in 2000?

Maybe. But I can't tell. You see, this book is unreadable. When I say it is "unreadable," I literally mean that the font is too small and too pale for me to make out words on the page. I can only read the bird's name. All the other text is in super-miniature gray font. I'm not only disappointed; I'm angry--I really anticipated reading this book! And I'm not the only one--reviews on Amazon have a high percentage clamoring for a refund of their $40. What irony! A 3 pound book with 600 pages that no one can read because the text is too tiny! Let me repeat that: When I say it is "unreadable," I literally mean that the font is too small and too pale for me to make out words on the page. I can only read the bird's name. All the other text is in super-miniature gray font.
Most books use a font size of 10 or 11. Sibley's original used an 8 point Times font, about the smallest font one would use in a book, but still readable. Even some 6 point fonts pointing out plumage characters on the illustrations were dark and thick and not too difficult to read.

Sibley's new guide uses 8 and 6 point sans serif font in gray, rather than black. Not only that, the ink width of the font is thinner than normal Arial or other sans serif fonts. I printed out a sample font for comparison.

So, since no one over the age of 30 can read the new text without a magnifying glass, how is the artwork? I noticed most of the illustrations are larger than in the first edition. Sibley has moved the text and artwork right to the edge of the page, gaining some valuable page real estate for larger illustrations. Even so, not all illustrations are larger. Shearwater illustrations are actually smaller than the original edition.

If the first edition Sibley was too red and washed out, this second edition is too dark and saturated. What should be orange (Red-shouldered Hawk) is a muddy brown. The lime-colored Orange-crowned Warblers are ghastly. The dried-blood colored Scarlet Tanager needs to come out from the dark cave it must be in. The storm-petrels are nearly silhouettes. Sure, sometimes in real life we see shadowed birds against harsh light or under the forest canopy, but that's not really how we want it depicted in our favorite field guides. But you know what? I can get used to it. Well, except for the lime jello warblers.

At least everyone agrees that the maps are accurate and improved with the replacement of the green dots with a colored wash as in the Eastern and Western local versions of the original edition.

What are others saying?

Anything Larus just looked at gulls. The conclusion? "for identification purposes, and from a gull enthusiast's perspective, I don't feel the plates in the 2nd edition make gull identification any easier. In fact, in some ways, the average birder may feel the 2nd edition makes gulls appear even more intimidating."

The Drinking Bird seems to like this Second Edition just fine. "In short, the things that Sibley has always done well are emphasized here. There is no field guide illustrator in North America better able to capture the subtleties of bird identification, the shape and feel of a bird, than David Sibley."

A DC Birding Blog had mostly positive things to say, especially about some of the new sidebars, like the sidebar "Owling" that explains how to find (and not disturb) owls. "Features that I liked best about the original Sibley Guide are maintained in the second edition."

The review in Nature Travel Network complained about some typos and misspellings that got by the editors. It also shows the lime-colored warblers and unintentional storm-petrel silhouettes. "I think you should wait for a second printing. Although the second edition improves on the first edition in some ways, production problems undermine its utility in important areas."

Birdchick likes the new book, but is waiting for the digital app. She notes the small text size and dark illustrations and has this recommendation: "I think this is a guide best purchased in person so you can see if this printing bothers you."

10,000 Birds didn't do a full review, but had a fairly glowing review: "Overall, the second edition is superior to the first edition. The layout is better, the images are bigger, more birds are included, space is used more wisely, there is lots more information, and the book is only four ounces heavier and about the same size. The only real negative is the overly dark printing."

Laura's Birding Blog has this to say: "The deal breaker for me about the new Sibley—the thing that would prevent me from buying it as my primary field guide—has nothing to do with the bird portrayals at all, but with the font size, color, and typeface. For some reason, the book’s designers went with a sans serif font for the main text blocks, even though studies show paragraphs are much easier to read in serif fonts. Even worse, the font is gray rather than black, and too narrow or small for me to read without a magnifying glass." [Hmm... where have I heard that before? -gg]

OK, now to the nitty-gritty. Seabirds. This group of birds is the least well-done in field guides. How has Sibley done in this new edition compared to the first? And how does he compare to the National Geographic 6th Edition--the first (and up to now only) general field guide to North American birds that portrays seabirds correctly?

First, what species of seabirds have been added to the Second Edition? Yellow-nosed, Black-browed, and Shy albatrosses were added.

Hawaiian and Bermuda petrels are new, as are Great-winged, White-chinned, and Bulwer's petrels. There is a new sidebar "Molt in Seabirds" that explains this important aspect of bird identification. Barolo, Streaked, and Wedge-tailed shearwaters are also new. As for Storm-Petrels, European, Swinhoe's, Wedge-rumped, and Black-bellied are new.

There are no new alcids, but the name is changed for the split of Guadalupe Murrelet ("Southern" Xantus's in the original edition). Sadly, the sidebar on "Identification of Murres" in the original no longer appears in the Second Edition.

By my count that's a very welcomed 15 added seabird species! Of course, the National Geographic 6th Edition (2011) already has these 15, plus 9 additional.

More's not better unless the descriptions are accurate. Let's take a look at changes between the two editions.

Short-tailed Albatross has expanded coverage and, although accurate, nowhere does it say that virtually all West Coast records are of all-dark immatures. That's a pretty significant omission, in my opinion.

The new Shy Albatross account is rather brief, with two small ventral illustrations that don't adequately show/explain the differences of the provocative statement: "North American records are of three different subspecies, sometimes considered three species." At least there should be some definite explanation of the White-capped versus dark-headed Salvin's forms. And the dorsal view should be shown to compare with Laysan.

The Second Edition is unchanged for Northern Fulmar illustrations. Missing is the fading of feathers, dark slate to brown, pale gray to yellowish, that gives molting fulmars a kaleidoscope of color patterns that birders see on West Coast fall pelagic trips.

The Flesh-footed Shearwater has been touched up and appears more accurately browner in the Second Edition. Sibley didn't fix the well-publicized flat head in the dorsal view, however.

The Second Edition improves the underwing illustrations of Sooty and Short-tailed shearwaters. The new notation on Sooty Shearwater "palest on primary coverts" shows that the field guide authors finally have these right! Can I take credit?

Despite the overly-dark views, the addition of Chapman's and Townsend's forms of Leach's Storm-Petrel in the Second Edition finally allows me to positively identify a Leach's I photographed in November 2008 with white rump wrapping around to sides of undertail coverts as Townsend's! East Coast pelagic birders will appreciate new plates showing the differences between the Grant's and Madeiran forms of Band-rumped Storm-Petrel.

Here's another thing I'll take credit for in the Second Edition--tails of fleeing alcids! Sibley includes thumbnails of all the alcids flying away now! His was the first field guide to show all birds in flight--even perching birds. But until now, there were no field guides showing murrelets and auklets as they are usually seen on a pelagic trip--flying directly away from the boat!

How does the seabird section now compare with the National Geographic 6th Edition? Even with the addition of 15 species to Sibley's Second Edition, NatGeo still has 9 more seabird species depicted. When comparing artwork between NatGeo and Sibley it is important to realize that Sibley is a disciple of Roger Tory Peterson in that he uses a patternistic approach. The NatGeo uses several artists, but most seabirds are painted by Jonathan Alderfer and are more detailed, down to the feathers. I, personally, like the more detailed artwork of Alderfer but, as many have noted, Sibley has a great eye for getting the shape right. Where the NatGeo and Sibley show the same species, Sibley often has 5-8 illustrations of each species and NatGeo typically 2-4.

Specifically? National Geographic 6th Edition is better for illustrations of Shy Albatross and Storm-Petrels in general. Sibley's Second Edition is better for Short-tailed Albatross, Black-capped Petrel, Herald Petrel, Great Shearwater, Buller's Shearwater, Short-tailed and Sooty Shearwaters. NatGeo has more detailed illustrations, but Sibley has more illustrations period--especially of seabirds sitting on the water and the new alcids flying away depictions. NatGeo still depicts 9 species of seabirds not shown in Sibley.

National Geographic 6th Edition versus Sibley's original for seabirds? NatGeo, hands down, not any question. Versus Sibley's Second Edition for seabirds? Hmm... probably Sibley's.

OK, here's my final analysis. The saturated illustrations are a bit dark for some species, but very striking for others. The typeface is too small and pale--it is unreadable. If you use a magnifying glass, the text is there, so if you really work at it you can read individual accounts. The layout is improved; new artwork is added; some older artwork is reworked. The amount of text has probably doubled, including new material on population, habits, and habitats. I'd like to see a reprint with heavier text, perhaps in larger font, and I'd like to see just a bit lighter coloration on the artwork (more yellow?)--though I can get used to it--in all but a few cases.

Realistically, though, until a new printing is released (if ever) this Sibley is going to sit on my shelf mostly unread. It's a shame, really. It's a great book (what I can read of it) but the printing choices and issues ultimately make it unreadable--unusable--and a wasted purchase for me.