Sunday, October 28, 2012

Can you ID Selasphorus hummingbirds by call note?

Fall of 2012 has shown a huge invasion of Selasphorus hummingbirds into the northeastern United States. Writing this from Maine, we have had two but Pennsylvania is off the charts: 30+ reports and they keep coming.

Confirmed Rufous Hummingbirds of Fall 2012 - from eBird
The majority of these birds are identified as Rufous Hummingbirds. Banding is necessary for some, but most can be identified with a decent photo of a spread tail. Here is an immature male Rufous Hummingbird I photographed on Monhegan Island, ME on October 5th:

This bird can safely be called a Rufous (rather than Allen's) because of the obvious notch in the tip of R2 (the second tail feather or rectrice from the middle) and also the apparently wide R5 (the outermost tail feather). Perhaps one of the best visual representations I've seen of this is Scott Weidensaul's photo comparing these feathers:

Now what about this bird:

It has been visiting a feeder in Biddeford, ME since October 16th. A larger selection of photos can be seen at:
The amount of rufous on the flanks and base of the tail feathers definitely indicates a Selaphorus hummingbird. BUT R1 looks all green, with just a slight black edging near the tip. R2 shows just a little rufous peaking out from under the upper tail coverts but there does appear to be a minor notch. R3-5 have plenty of rufous at the base but at least we can see the width of R5 rules out Allen's.
One very interesting note was that female hummers can show colored feathers on the gorget. (fun fact for this east coast birder) This bird does show two reddish-orange feathers off-center on the gorget but has been identified as a female. While there are good features here for Rufous Hummingbird, most are also in the realm of Broad-tailed Hummingbird, which has never occurred in Maine before.

How else can this bird be identified?

The easy answer would be to band the bird, except the nearest bander we can find with the proper permits lives about 3.5 hours away and is not immediately available.

Throughout my day watching this bird I was able to make several audio recordings on my phone by either holding it up to the perched bird (which was hard to approach) or once leaving my phone near the feeder for 40 minutes (it only came to feed once during that time). And here are the results:

From the yard (listen to it here):
From the feeder:
For comparison:
Here is a (poor) recording of a known Rufous Hummingbird from xeno-canto:
a known female Broad-tailed Hummingbird:
plus a known male Broad-tailed Hummingbird:
It doesn't take long to realize the our bird has a very similar pattern to the Rufous Hummingbird: both showing that two-layered backward J shape, very different from the down-slured shape of the Broad-tailed.

But is this significant? I have two recordings of our bird and could only compare to what is available on xeno-canto; there are no female Rufous recordings there.

I have to say this bird is looking closer to a Rufous than Broad-tailed. Until I hear an expert opinion on audio or we get the bird in the hand, I think it can only be called a Selasphorus sp.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Birds at Large: Military Unit Insignia

While killing some time last week in the Bangor, Maine airport I noticed a wall covered in stickers representing different military units.  There's a large military presence at the Bangor airport: it's often the first or last stop in the US for troops going to or coming from overseas.  I was fascinated with the different unit's insignias.  Here's a wide shot of the wall:

There was a wide variety of insignia styles and images.  They were by turns serious, boastful, funny, irreverent, bawdy, crude, odd and impressive.  Some had funny pop-culture references:

Monday, October 8, 2012

Book Review: An Eternity of Eagles by Stephen J. Bobio

It's a necessity of field guides that they only cover the biological aspects of birds.  Birders want to know which birds are which, and what it means when that one has an eyestripe and that one doesn't, and what it means when that one has a call like this and that one has a call like that.  Reduced to these flat comparisons, though, birders can easily forget the real power and living connections humans can have - used to have? - with birds.

An Eternity of Eagles is not a field guide but a "human history" of eagles.  The book begins with physiology - what we humans have learned about eagles through scientific study - but quickly moves to how humans and eagles have interacted in other fields: art, hunting, folklore.  That feeling we get seeing an eagle float overhead is primal - rooted in mankind's earliest days of wild living.  Bobio's book digs at that feeling, and traces our awe and respect of eagles from early cave drawings through to Native American totem poles, Greek mythology and to the modern symbol of America.

I think birders will benefit from reading this book and remembering that our shared history goes far beyond JJ Audubon or RT Peterson.  After all, despite all our scientific advances, those field guide pages will some day just be just be another set of confusing artifacts sifted through by future archaeologists trying to figure out what our civilization was all about.  [Also, there's a crazy photo of a guy aiming a shotgun at a Golden Eagle from out the door of an airplane.  We're terrible].

An Eternity of Eagles by Stephen J. Bodio is published by Lyons Press and is available here on Amazon

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Birds at Large Update

It's time for a quick Birds at Large update to show a couple ways birds are being used - and misused - in regular culture.  Yes?  OK.

Maine State Lottery card

The Black-capped Chickadee is Maine's state bird.  The state bird!  And this is how they reproduce it?  Gray flanks?  Black back?  Maine - my beloved home state - should be ashamed of itself.  How are folks going to respect a vaunted institution like gambling if they can't get the details right?

Song Sparrow Interrupts Red Sox - Yankees game

This dazed and confused sparrow made headlines this week by showing up on the Yankee Stadium infield and not leaving. Good way to save $2,600, I suppose. Hope the guy's OK. In other baseball news, the Baltimore Orioles - the team I've long trumped as the best bird-related team in pro sports - is in the playoffs for the first time in over a decade. Good luck, Os!

Anti-Audubon Sign on the Outer Banks

There is a big fight on the Outer Banks these days about limiting the use of off-road vehicles on the beaches where they might interfere with nesting birds. This sign I saw on my way back from a Hatteras pelagic is in reference to the conflict.  Classy stuff!

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