Thursday, November 30, 2017

Rarity: Groove-billed Ani

On November 19th a visiting birder found a first-county record Groove-billed Ani in an infrequently-birded park in Encinitas. Word got out quickly and many birders saw the bird that first day.

I had the opportunity to chase it before work on the next day. I arrived just before 7:00 am, birded around the exact location and then birded farther away, up to a couple blocks into the nearby neighborhood. At 8:00 am I received word that the bird had just showed up sunning itself in the exact place everyone had been looking for it during the previous hour. I was able to watch the bird for another half hour before needing to return home to get ready for work.

Groove-billed Ani in Encinitas, San Diego County, California November 2017
Groove-billed Ani. Encinitas, California. November 20, 2017. Greg Gillson.
The first thing to get out of the way is the pronunciation of the word "ani." According to an article in Birding magazine (Birding 1990) it is pronounced AH-nee and not ANN-ee or AY-nee. Okay. Good.

Close up of the bill of a Groove-billed Ani

There are three ani species found primarily in tropical America. Two, Smooth-billed Ani and Groove-billed Ani, reach the United States. The photo above shows the grooves in the unusual deeply keeled bill.

Groove-billed Ani warming in the early morning sun

Anis, like roadrunners, are in the cuckoo family. The loose plumage and floppy tail is typical. These birds fly weakly and wobbly, and often run and feed on the ground. Indeed, some photographers got great pictures of it eating a very large grasshopper on the ground. During the time I observed this bird, however, it was content to sit still, fluff up, and soak up the warm sun while looking around at all the birders about 25-30 feet away.

Groove-billed Ani

Groove-billed Anis (Wikipedia page here) are found from southern Texas and southern Sonora southward to Ecuador and Peru. During winter the birds in Texas and northern Mexico retreat southward. While rare, they are known to wander widely in fall, from Florida to California, occasionally very far north of the normal range (Minnesota, northern Ontario, New Jersey).

Groove-billed Ani

Of course, this close to Tijuana (where all kinds of birds are sold as "pets"), one must always ask about the origin of this bird.

Fortunately, while a first record for San Diego County, it fits nicely in the pattern of occurrence of other California and Southwest records from early September through December, with a peak in October.

There are 12 accepted previous California sightings reviewed by the California Bird Records Committee. Eight (nine?) of the sightings are for fall (13 September-16 November). In addition, at least twice California birds have stayed through the winter. The most recent three previous California records seem to be 2015, 1998, and 1995. So this is only the second record in 20 years.

And the bird is still being seen, so maybe it will spend the winter!

Friday, November 3, 2017

Baird's Sandpiper at Imperial Beach

Baird's Sandpiper drawing by Greg Gillson.
Scratching an itch. Graphite drawing by Greg Gillson.
On August 27th I was able to locate a previously discovered Baird's Sandpiper on the beach at Imperial Beach, California. It was readily approachable or, rather, it fearlessly approached near me as I sat motionless and as it foraged among the beach-cast kelp on the upper beach. I was able to obtain many photos at close range.

Baird's Sandpiper drawing by Greg Gillson.
Stepping into a depression. Graphite drawing by Greg Gillson.
One thing many birders noted about this bird was how unusually wide the body of this bird sometimes appeared. The breast feathers flared out widely covering the lower part of the folded wings. I have noted ducks give a very wide-bodied appearance like this, but never other birds. It's something I'll have to pay more attention to. If you think I surely must have misdrawn the proportions, please look at the reference photo below.

Baird's Sandpiper. Stepping into a depression.

I was especially pleased to photograph and draw interesting postures that aren't depicted in bird books that usually show the rather uninteresting "field guide" pose.

Baird's Sandpiper. Field Guide pose.
"Field Guide" pose.
The identification of Baird's Sandpiper is rather subtle. At first glance it seems to match the field marks of the smaller North American "peep"--Western, Semipalmated, and Least Sandpipers. The bill is about the same length as the head as the Semipalmated and Least Sandpipers. The legs are black as the Western and Semipalmated Sandpipers.  Baird's Sandpipers are a bit larger than the other three, however, if they are seen together.

Baird's Sandpiper. Scratching.

One noteworthy identification mark is that the wing tips extend quite far past the end of the tail. This gives a very long attenuated look to the rear of the body. In general, birds that migrate long distances have long wings; birds that don't migrate have short wings.
Baird's Sandpiper colored pencil painting by Greg Gillson.
Looking behind. Colored pencil by Greg Gillson.
In the fall of the year, juveniles, such as the one depicted, have rows of white tipped back and scapular feathers. These create a "scaly" appearance to the upper parts. Adults are not nearly as bold.

Baird's Sandpiper. Over the shoulder.

Baird's Sandpiper breed at the northern edge of land in the Arctic, from northeastern Siberia, Alaska, Canada, to northwestern Greenland. When they migrate south they may be found on ocean beaches. But it is not unusual to encounter them on mountain glaciers. In winter they can be found in the Andes of South America in Ecuador and Chile, but also in lower areas in Bolivia, Argentina, Costa Rica, Panama, and Venezuela. Spring migration is through Central American and Mexico and north generally east of the Rocky Mountains in North America. They are a bit more widespread in fall migration, reaching all the way to the Pacific Coast in low numbers, as this bird.

Baird's Sandpiper. Portrait.
Portrait: Baird's Sandpiper.