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.