Thursday 26 November 2009

Happy Thanksgiving

If Benjamin Frankling had had things his way, you'd now be eating Bald Eagles instead of Turkeys.

And refrain from saying you're eating Turkey on Thanksgiving, the Turks might take offence!

Wednesday 25 November 2009

I am where you least expect it...

... over at Birder Hyde with a new post on some mysterious Gavia.

Monday 23 November 2009

Is it GISS, or what?!

There's an interesting post (with tons of golden comments) over at the Drinking Bird, to which this post is some sort of follow-up, or rather the results of a few follies ("thoughts" - remember?) of mine that were sparked by the post and its comments.

Am I a GISS birder or am I not?

First, I think it is necessary to define GISS. It means General Impression of Size and Shape, and if someone identifies a bird by GISS, they only go for the bird's appearance, not really its field marks.

Now, of course I can see that one would be able to identify birds of obvious size and shape by these traits alone, say a Limpkin or a Great Horned Owl or an American Robin where other Turdus - thrushes don't occur, but I have a nagging feeling that most observations we do "from the hip" and thus attribute to GISS-identification actually are not GISS after all but something completely different.

An example should do nicely to get my point across:

We spot movement on the ground below a barren winter bush, raise our binoculars and immediately identify the bird as a White-throated Sparrow.
Asked a few moments later by what field marks we identify it, we just respond with a shrug of our shoulders, stating that it was just obvious the moment we looked at it.

Was that identification by GISS?

I think not.

I think this was just an extremely fast conversation between our eyes and our brain along the following lines:

Eyes: there's movement of a small brown bird on the ground.
Brain: check the back, is it patterned?

Eyes: yes, it is patterned in stripes and spots.
Brain: Sparrow! Check the head pattern.

Eyes: black and white stripes.
Brain: White-crowned or White-throated. Check throat.

Eyes: throat is white.
Brain: It's a White-throated. Mouth: YAWN

Mouth: YAWN

Of course, the last bit that involves the mouth would be completely different if our little scene would take place inside a visiting birder from overseas. Face it, North America: the White-throated Sparrow is amongst your finest birds, however common it may be.

This conversation can take as little as a fraction of a second, somewhat depending on our activities the night before, and we may therefore be unaware of it.

My conclusion is that most identifications that are done real quick and are often attributed to GISS are indeed very fast conclusions drawn from checking the precise field marks that are necessary by actively scanning the bird's features. And this means they are made solely because of our knowledge and experience, which is why beginning birders usually suck at this until they've done a few years worth of birding.

Knowing immediately into what broad group a bird belongs and then knowing which parts of the bird to check for which field marks has got nothing to do with GISS identification, it is just plain old bird ID gone ultrasound.

Another difference between a more experienced birder and a novice that is somewhat related to GISS-ascribed identification is the ability to focus our concentration on an object we see, the ability to take a mental snap-shot.

Okay, example:
Show two test persons of varying birding experience a bird for just a second, a bird neither one has ever seen.
The more experienced will probably manage a reasonable description.
The novice will just be overwhelmed by the bird's many features and later have no idea whatsoever when asked to sketch it.

This ability is also vital when identifying birds very quickly: The expert's assessment of "Catharus, weak reddish spots on breast" (this will again not take longer than a fraction of a second or so) is more likely to lead to Veery than the novice's "oh my gosh! a brown bird, wait (minors may potentially read this), where did it go?" even if we give the latter birder an extra second.
Now, if that novice birder would stand besides the expert, having just seen the same bird hopping by so quickly, hearing him say "Veery" immediately, and then ask him how and why s/he knew so quickly, the expert's answer would probably be "You know, just the whole thing, it was obvious" and we would call that GISS ID. As in the first example, the point is that an identification made real fast (in the first example it took us only a split-second, in the second example the bird gave us only a split-second) is often attributed to GISS- Identification.

And as in the first example, I think it isn't.

So, here's my assessment: the fact that expert birders are able to identify birds amazingly quickly whereas beginners struggle is due to these two abilities:

a) they know immediately which areas of the bird to check for which field marks
b) they can make a mental snap-shot of a bird

Neither of these has anything to do with the assessment of the bird's general impression of size and shape, it is based on having learned the area's species potential by heart and having practised your eyes/brain coordination.

Having said that, I will now get back to the initial question of this post: am I a GISS birder or not?

Well, for the most part I am not.
I am someone who has spent prolonged periods of time in various places of the globe and within these regions, I simply have learned the species over time, know what they look like, know what to expect and what features to focus on. Within these regions, I will identify the very vast majority of the birds I see within less than a second. However, this to me in not bird ID by GISS or intuition, it is just bird ID routine.

GISS does play a certain role though:

There are a few groups of birds where the general impression of size and shape is important, and that is birds seen mostly over long distances.
I can usually identify flying raptors by their flight style and very general proportions.
I can usually identify jaegers and jaegermeisters at very long range by their impression of size and flight style - which I find easier than identifying them at short range - but this is usually where the identification bit of the GISS technique ends.

The most important aspect of GISS however is this:
In my approach to bird identification, GISS is used mostly not to tell me what a bird is but to tell me what it is not!
A mismatch between the general impression of size and shape and the features I see is what gets my adrenaline flowing as it means I am seeing something I should not be seeing, so it's got to be something special.
Whenever this happens, I start making notes or hopefully taking pictures to allow for a thorough analysis of the observation. Usually, a bird whose GISS is okay but whose plumage does not correspond will be an aberrant familiar bird, like a leucistic or worn or whatever shabby individual. Sometimes however, it can end up being quite a special bird (although this one was caged).

To conclude, I would say that I am mostly a birder with a significant amount of routine on his familiar stompin' grounds who uses GISS mostly to seek the unusual amongst the usual, and not to really identify a bird.

This should make the rarity committees rather happy.

Thursday 19 November 2009

The Splitting of Birds

Taxonomy is an intricate, complex and often weird business that usually fills birders, or at least the keen listers amongst them, with no insignificant amount of joy nowadays, as taxonomy has more and more evolved into the Fine Art of Splitting Birds.

In other words, what was regarded as a single species with distinct subspecies or subpopulations in the past is now often re-evaluated as comprising two factual species.

If you've never seen any of the forms involved, you'll neutrally acknowledge the split.
If you've seen one of the two forms, it won't change anything which means no benefit but also no harm done.
If you've seen both forms, let the corks pop, you have an "arm-chair tick"!

However, we mustn't forget that all armchair-ticks come at a price, and that this price may seriously jeopardize our joy of watching birds. As a constant reminder, let us look at the recent taxonomic history of the Herring Gull, Larus argentatus:

Once upon a time, not so very long ago, all silvery-backed large white-headed and -tailed Gulls of the northern hemisphere were called Herring Gulls. The bird below, photographed on the Baltic Sea shores of Germany recently, is a fine example of this magnificent species.

Herring Gull during the Golden Age of the species

However, European researchers soon realized that the Mediterranean and central Asian populations were indeed not of the same species and the Herring Gull was split. We'll neglect the taxonomic fate of the Mediterranean and central Asian forms for now and focus on the remainder, the Herring Gull that was now confined to the shores of Northern Europe and large parts of North America. This bird, depicted below, was surely still majestic but had somehow lost a significant part of its former glamour.

The gull of former world dominion after losing the Mediterranean and central Asia

As if losing the lush dumps of the south hadn't already been a severe blow to the poor Herring Gull, more bad news came in form of a genetic comparison of the remaining populations in North America and the Old Europe: turns out both forms of what was presumed the same species aren't even each other's closest relative, so another splitting event was due and the Herring Gull lost a significant part of its kingdom again, confining it to the cold and often miserable northern part of Europe. The sorry remains of what was once a shining regent of an Empire can be seen below.

Crippled by taxonomy, a European Herring Gull would love to look at a brighter future ahead but fails due to losing its head

Now, firm supporters of progressive taxonomy might point out that the remaining European Herring Gulls can be separated into two forms, the south-western subspecies argenteus and the Baltic and Scandinavian form argentatus and that both forms differ significantly in many, many ways (that might one day be analysed here or on Birder Hyde, we'll see).

I would like to urge these birders to be cautious and considerate.

If we keep on splitting the Herring Gull, we might one day realize that there is nothing left for us to watch and enjoy!

Clearly Gone, for another "X" on a birder's list

Wednesday 11 November 2009

A Quick Question


I've seen them.
You've seen them.
Everyone's seen them.

Yet recently, I started to wonder:

I have seen them in flight over sea, coast and river, over marshes, fields and mountains, from arctic tundra to desert coast.
I have seen them perched on tree, stone and sand bar, seen them sitting on ship, pole and birder's head.
I saw them dive into waves, deep seas and shallow estuaries, man made waters and white-raging rivers.

But I have never seen them swim.
Anywhere, really.

Neither on sea, lake or river, and certainly never on a birder's head.

Have you?
In life or on a photograph?

Tuesday 10 November 2009

Finally: the Pill for the Birds?

Well, I am back home and thus - as I have mentioned before - back on my blog as home is wherever you can access your blog.

And boy, do I have stories to tell.

Of course, whether I will ever tell them here is a matter of time and thus improbability, but at least the stories are in my head and might one day make it through the keyboard onto your computer screen - we'll see.

Now just a thought I recently had (I call thought what you'd call folly, just in case you forgot) which is entirely unrelated to anything that happened in the past few weeks but might be as worthy of your attention as the rest of the blog is or not.

Is the Pileated Woodpecker pronounced Pile-e-ated or Pill-e-ated?

I have always been a firm supporter of the Pile-way, yet recently during one of those stages in between being awake and asleep, when the mind wanders to contemplate wondrous wonders, the following line of arguments suddenly appeared and I was actually able to hold on to it and remember my reasoning on the subject the next morning.

The problem with the Pile is the "e". If the Pile-part of Pileated was pronounced "pile", the "e" would not be free to be separately pronounced as a follow-up syllable and the bird would be called a Pile-ated Woodpecker.

Yet as much as birders tend to disagree over the pronunciation of the bird's name, all the fighting and fuzzing is about the first syllable. There is mutual agreement that there is a drawn-out "e" at the bird name's centre. Or, put more plainly:

[Pile/Pill]-e-ated Woodpecker

You see that central "e"? Completely undisputed.

However, if we reserve the "e" to form the second syllable, we are left with a "Pil", which would then be pronounced as in "Pilgrim" or more pleasingly "Pils".

So, following this line of argument, it seems I'll have to pitch my tent in the Pill-e-ated camp for the time being, which will take some time to adapt to. Time, of course, is certainly not of the essence to me right now as a Pileated Woodpecker is as far away from my home spot here in Germany as can be. Nevertheless, I take this moment of revelation and its linguistic challenge as an invitation by the Big Power Of Birding Fate to re-visit the bird's realm in North America.
The "when" and "how" is something that has as yet not been resolved, but the pure need itself has been recognized as a matter of inevitable fact.