Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Interview with Dr. Keith Arnold, founder of the Texas Bird Records Committee

Records Committees are those bodies of expert birders who examine unusual bird sightings from within their state to determine their validity and accuracy.  As a regular birder, I have a tendency to romanticize such proceedings.  What power!  Are the Committee members sitting around a big round table like the Knights of Camelot?  Do they spend late nights in the backrooms of nightclubs, smoking cigars and politicking about Canada Geese subspecies?  

It's an extremely interesting subject, and I am very thankful that Dr. Keith Arnold has agreed to help me clear up my imagination.  Aside from being one of America's most respected ornithologists, Dr. Arnold is an author, a Professor Emeritus at Texas A&M and a founder of the Texas Bird Records Committee.

I'm grateful (and honored) that Dr. Arnold was able to take the time to help me clear up some of my misconceptions about Record Committees, and give me a glimpse of what actually goes on behind those closed doors:

Birdist: What was the impetus for the creation of the Texas Bird Records Committee?

Keith Arnold: Birders have a problem with rare birds and acceptance by the scientific community. Our committee started [in 1972] when George Newman, then president of the Texas Ornithological Society [and also my graduate student] asked me to form a committee to examine such records and to develop a state checklist for all birds. I did so initially by recruiting a well-known birder from each of the 8 T.O.S. regions.

What exactly were the problems? A lack of uniformity in terms of what birds were countable? A lack of knowledge of what existed, or what was common or uncommon, in Texas?

KA: Where to start?
1. The reputation of the birder for "finding" rarities...usually not "re-found" by others...
2. Species easily confused...
3. Need for documentation, even written details, but photos, recordings, etc., preferred...
4. Where are records available...
5. How does one evaluate a record that appears simply as a name in a printed account such as in American Birds or its predecessor or successor...

Given a bit of time, I'm sure that I can add to this list, but it should give you an idea as to what the birding and scientific communities face.

So you sat down with your 8 T.O.S. birders and began examining records. Because these pre-TBRC birders didn't realize that they needed a certain amount of proof for a sighting (because the TBRC didn't exist yet) did you find yourself disallowing a large number of sightings?

I imagine there must have been some controversy, or at least heated discussions, among the members of the committee and with local birders, do you remember any specific incidents?

KA: After the formation of the committee, we only considered records that were submitted to us by birders. After Greg Lasley joined the committee in the 1980s, he began to dig into the birding literature for rarities. He and Chuck Sexton complied a list of "review species", based on less than 4 records a year over a ten-year period. The committee adopted that list as its staring point, although it has been modified -- birds added or deleted and, in some cases added again; at least one committee member didn't think that we should remove ANY species because of a loss of information.

And yes, we had some "differences of opinion" with some birders, some to the extent that they refused to submit details on any rarity they encountered. Along those lines, we have a number of birders who will not submit details on a species that occurs almost every year, but does not meet the criteria for removal, simply because they know that they can find the bird in Texas almost any year. The parrots and parakeets have been a problem in that we now have sustaining populations, but the origin is in doubt; one of our former members [I think he is now back on the committee] took it upon himself to survey for breeding birds of the Red-crowned Parrot and Green Parakeet and we added these species to the Texas list, based on his findings.

While I'm sure I could dredge up some controversial records, I don't think it would do the birding public any good to do so. As stated above, we have enough difficulty in gathering details on rarities, even though dozens of birders saw [and many photographed] that particular bird. I will give you one example in which I was directly involved. I refused to accept [vote for] records of Lesser Black-backed Gull for a number of years because the only species considered in those reporting was the Greater Black-backed Gull: I wanted the committee [and birders] to consider other "black-backed" gulls. Since that time, mostly in the 1970s, the birding community has become more adept at IDing gulls and we have since added Western, Slaty-backed and Kelp and possibly Yellow-legged -- all dark-backed gulls. I continue to struggle with Iceland and Thayer's Gulls.

How are Committee members chosen and how long do they stay on?

KA: Current committee members suggest names for open positions; if more are nominated that the number of positions - usually two, then those receiving the most votes at the annual meeting will be elected. We have two members rotating "off" each year, with each serving a 3-year term, and eligible for a second term if so desired. The committee chair and the academician [the position I hold] are elected each year, usually without opposition, and have no limit to the number of terms that person can serve.

How is a sighting presented to the committee? Is it like a courtroom, where a birder or a committee member presents the information and pleads his case, or does someone in charge present each case and opens it to discussion?

KA: The TBRC has a form on the T.O.S. web site that anyone reporting a Review Species can use; we occasionally get information in a less structured way, however. We ask that all relevant photographic materials be submitted: today, that usually means digital images sent as e-mail attachments. The record [usually one of at least six] is then sent out to the committee members via an e-mail, with access to them on a web-site. 

A record that receives no more than a single nay is accepted on the 1st round; those that receive 2 or more nay votes, but at least 5 yea votes are sent as a 2nd round, with copies of votes and comments of all committee members; this may be repeated in a 3rd round with the same criteria. If the record still has at least 2 nays and 5 yeas, it goes to a fourth round for discussion and a final vote at the annual meeting; we try to hold an actual "in person" meeting and, because of the size of the state, not all members may be present. A few years ago, we modified the bylaws to permit electronic or tele-conference meetings. That came into play this year as the annual meeting was scheduled for the day Hurricane Ike hit Texas!

We don't say that we "reject" a record, but that it is a "non-accepted" record; any record can be recall for the committee if additional evidence comes forth and such a recall is usually initiated by a TBRC member.

What effect did the advent of records committees have on birding?

KA: Has this affected birding in Texas? Without doubt. We have some birders who, having submitted a "non-accepted" record, simply will not submit another record. That is unfortunate, not just for that person, but also for Texas birding. On the other hand, many Texas birders have begun to write better field notes [or begin to keep field notes], carry a camera with them and some, even a recorder, since in some cases, vocalizations are better evidence than photos. I also think that having the TBRC and a Review Species list has sharpened the skills of a number of Texas birders, as they come to understand the difficulties in identifying certain species complexes. ø

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Quick Question: Birds and Apple Trees with Nancy Coverstone

My mom has some apple trees on her property. Each autumn the apples fall to the ground and my mom (or me, if I can be wrangled into it) rakes them up so we can mow under the trees.

I was thinking, though, wouldn't these apples be better for birds if they are laying on the ground all delicious and eat-able? I've seen Robins eating my mom's fallen apples, but would other birds eat them as well? Would leaving them on the ground mean that I won't asked to mow?!

I did a little research and turned up this informational page produced by the University of Maine Cooperative Extension. I wanted to know more, so I emailed Nancy Coverstone, the Extension Educator at the UMaine Cooperative Extension, with my problem. She gave a great response, including some thoughts on how birds will benefit not just from eating the apples themselves but from eating the things that eat (or grow on) the apples. Many thanks for Nancy for her thoughtful response. Here's the interaction:

Birdist: My mom has three apple trees on her property. Traditionally, my family has raked up the fallen apples in autumn and put them in a pile in an out-of-the-way part of the property. I want to start thinking about other strategies in order to maximize benefit to birds. However, I also have to take into consideration more domestic considerations, like mowing. As far as I can tell, here are my options: a) continue to rake and pile fallen apples, b) let apples fall and leave them there all winter, don't mow under the trees, and c) something in between. What do you think of these options? Which will be best for birds?

Nancy Coverstone: I’m assuming the fruits are not persistent (staying on the tree, and above the snow line, into the winter.) Persistent fruit, whether apples or other kinds, are particularly beneficial for resident bird species, because the fruits are not buried under the snow and are available during winter, and are made palatable by the freezing and thawing that takes place.

The trees you have, both while the apples are still on the tree and when they’ve fallen to the ground, are eaten by many birds, mammals and insects.

Once the apples have fallen, I don’t think it matters that they remain under the trees. It makes sense to mow under the trees, so that other vegetation does not compete with the apples trees and also that the apples as they rot attract wasps in the fall and some butterflies too. It’s great to have a fall food source for wasps and other insects, but conflict does arise if you are mowing.

So – raking up the windfalls is fine to do. I would, however, put them in an out of the way place, in the sun and spread out, rather than in a pile. I would also locate this “apple spread” near some shrubs where birds can perch, before they might move to the ground to eat or peck at the apples. Being in the sun is beneficial for butterflies, bees and the other insects that might feed on the rotting fruit, because they need the warmth of the sun on them to be active.

Whenever I think of what might benefit birds, I also consider what benefits other forms of life, because usually what’s good for one is good for others. An example is that during the winter, chickadees may eat the larvae of wasps who fed on the rotting apples. See what I mean?

Also, the cover and nesting opportunities provided for some bird species is not affected by your management of the fallen apples.

Just some thoughts.

Since you found the fact sheet on apple trees and wildlife, I assume you’ve found the other Habitats fact sheets on UMaine Extension’s publication site. Check out some of the books now on offer through this site – under Yard and Garden and Natural Resources especially. ø

I and the Bird Number Eighty-Six now up at The Drinking Bird

Saturday, October 11, 2008

European Golden-Plover in Scarborough, Maine

Look, it's hard to post thoughtful interviews and explorations of the birding world when so many goddamn awesome birds keep showing up in Maine to distract me.

Today I had planned on sleeping in, cleaning my place and meeting friends for lunch. However, a morning email check forced me to reconsider my plans: a European Golden-Plover had been found at Scarborough Marsh. Did you hear that? A European Golden-Plover. Never been seen in the lower 48 states. Room-cleaning can wait.

I got to the marsh at 1030, and iphoned up an email which told me that the bird had flown in the direction of Seavey's Landing (right below where it says "Scarborough River" on the map below) at 10. So there I went. Nothing. I waited there for the tide to lower with about 6 other birders from Maine and Mass. A few birds here and there, including a fake-out Black-bellied Plover and a FOY Pine Siskin, but no Europeans.

View Larger Map

At 1:30, two other birders and I were getting antsy and decided to walk out into the marsh from Eastern Road (see the road that shoots off onto the river, about the "9" in the map above? That road keeps going straight all the way across the marsh and is the famous Eastern Road). And so we did. For about an hour and half we trekked across the grasses, spooking up occasional shorebirds (including Snipe, Pectoral Sandpipers, a White-rumped Sandpiper and my Maine-first American Bittern), but finding no Plover. As the three of us (myself, a Mass. birder named Jeff and another Mass. birder who's name I didn't get) turned back, tired and hungry, we met my friend Robbie walking across the pannes.

"I just flushed the bird" he said, "it's around here somewhere." Unbelievable. Robbie is an excellent birder, and within minutes he had refound the bird and we were all getting full-scope views. I got some pictures, but, as is my thing, they aren't very good.

Much, much better pictures from a Mass. birder named Richard Heil can be found here.

The bird is a transitional adult, and is a real beauty. Huge thanks to Rob for pointing us in the direction of the bird.

One final note: Apparently some people watching from Seavey's Landing did not like the fact that Jeff, the other MA gentleman and myself were walking though the marsh. Local birders know that walking through the marsh is perfectly fine once nesting season has ended. There were plenty of hunters in the marsh today. I consider myself sensitive to bird-chasing issues, and had there been any rules against doing anything that I did, I would certainly have followed them. It's also interesting that once the bird was refound, all of those birders who were heckling us from the shore were the first ones bounding into the pannes with their scopes.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Barnacle and Greater White-fronted Geese in North Yarmouth, ME

Let the good times roll!

First it was a Northern Wheatear in Gray. Then it was a White-winged Dove just down the street in Portland (which, to my knowledge, did not return after I watched it fly off). Now there are geese in North Yarmouth.

The place is Thornhurst Farm in North Yarmouth, a lovely working farm with rolling hills and fields. The place is always a great southerly migration spot for Canada Geese...and whatever other birds get caught up in the flocks.

A few days ago I went up to find the reported Greater White-fronted Goose, and today I returned and found the reported Barnacle Goose. Good times all around. Here are some terrible pictures:

Greater White-fronted, front and center, head down looking left.

Barnacle Goose, facing right, just over the cow's left ear.

Barnacle Goose, looking at camera, over the big cow's butt.

The question with Barnacle Geese is whether they are wild vagrants or escaped domestics. I don't really have anything to say about it. The usual mark of a domestic bird is a big, deep belly - fat accumulated from a comparatively sedentary life. To me, this bird did not appear any fatter or deeper than any of the other geese. Of course, much more study of this bird is required to make the best decision.

Secondly, I was unable to find any of the handful of Cackling Geese present at the location. Cackling Geese are a lot more difficult to pick out of a flock than a Barnacle or Greater White-fronted, and time has not permitted me to linger at the farm, so it looks like I'll just have to take another trip to the farm.

Friday, October 3, 2008

White-winged Dove in Portland, Maine

4:38 PM: Received e-mail report of a White-winged Dove on Washington Avenue in Portland.

5:16 PM: Leave my house.
5:30 PM: Pull into the First Baptist Church at Washington and Canco.  A few birders are in the lot, but the bird is nowhere to be seen.
5:31 PM: A grungy-looking-but-unmistakable White-winged Dove hops into some bare branches right in front of us.  
5:34 PM: After a few minutes of photographs, the bird tears out of the tree and flies south, toward some pines at the Tamerlane housing complex.  I was unable to tell whether or not it landed there or kept flying.
6:00 PM: Back at home enjoying a delicious sandwich.


And while we're on the topic, there is a great little marsh on the other side of the parking lot from where this bird was discovered. I've birded there a few times (it's right behind the Portland office of the Maine DEP, where I worked this summer), but never long enough to see if it might live up to its potential. Maybe next spring.

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