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Friday, April 16, 2010

Birds: On Name Changes and Species Splits

One difficult aspect of keeping bird records of any sort is that the species periodically change. My recent additions to my year list have reflected this confusion! Part of the complication comes from birds changing names, such as the long-tailed duck (139), which used to be referred to as the oldsquaw until 2000. This is fairly manageable when record-keeping, and you eventually get used to the new nomenclature. But what about when species merge or split? Then you can have birds added or subtracted to your life list just based on the decision of the International Ornithological Congress - what some refer to as "armchair ticks".

I won't go into too much detail here about what biologists refer to as the "species problem", but the gist of it is that when taking into consideration things such as geographic distribution, interbreeding, hybridization, etc. it can be very difficult to define what exactly a species is. That fact of the matter is, of course, that evolution is a constantly occurring process, so the term "species" tries to put into definite categories populations that are always in flux, either merging or splitting over the grander scale of time. When it comes to marine mammals, for example, we are likely seeing the beginnings of speciation when it comes to transient and resident orcas - right now they are both very morphologically similar, but if their distinct behaviors keep them from genetically intermixing over time they will diverge more and more from one another.

So how does this fit into my year bird list? Well, the powers that be just decided to resplit the yellow-rumped warbler (which is number 61 on my year list) into four separate species! They originally merged the myrtle warbler and Audubon's warbler into the yellow-rumped warbler in 1973, but have decided to split them again based on several new studies that demonstrate the two different morphs do not interbreed. To deal with this, I have decided to make #61 on the year list the myrtle warbler, the morph I posted a picture of here when I saw it in January. While birding yesterday while off-island for the day in Seattle, I saw the Audubon's version of the former yellow-rumped warbler, so I will make that the next tick on my list (140). Follow all that? :)

Okay, back to the bird sightings! I finally got to check out Union Bay Natural Area near Seattle, a place I have long read about as a great place to bird. It is known affectionately as Montlake Fill, or simply "The Fill", since it was the city dump for Seattle from 1926 to 1965 before it was cleaned up and restored in 1971. It is now a premier urban birding site right in the middle of the city. While I failed to spot any of the recent goodies like a mountain bluebird, I did get a few nice photo ops, like of this female red-winged blackbird perched on a cattail:

All the expected waterfowl species were present, but this was probably the closest and best look I've ever had of a male cinnamon teal:

A jogger who noticed we were birding was also kind enough to point out this impressive bushtit nest:

Then today while out on the water, we saw an impressive flock of about 1000 Bonaparte's gulls (141), a bird that has always been its own species and has always been called the Bonaparte's gull! While we often see flocks of these gulls in winter plumage in the autumn, they are less frequently spotted on their way north in the spring, but these guys were all decked out in their sharp breeding plumage including a black hood. A good find!


Lancashire and Lakeland Outback Adventure Wildlife Safaris said...

That bushtits nest is something else! Looks like a larger version of our Long Tailed Tits nest - is it made from lichens and spiders webs too?
Our nature reserve is also 'built' on a reclaimed landfill site and flippin good it is too. from the depths of what man can do there is hope (and proof) that with a bit of hard work wildlife can recover.


Dave (still 142)

Not seen the orcas - - - yet!!!

Nelson said...

Monika- i have just observed a female goshawk just outside city limits- Anacortes-this hawk in flight had a white patch on the rump. Also, i have observed the goshawk on Orcas Island at Mt. Constitution and while whale watching near the Paul Allen property- a Female Gos, on Lopez. The second sighting on Orcas Island was at the golf course-a male Gos. This sighting was an hour after the first sighting - it was probable the same bird as first sighting-a male Gos. Since I have been informed by the Director of State Parks that Cooper's and S.S. hawks are a common species throughout the San Juan Islands- and my 17 years of tracking and chasing Northern goshawks show that where you find Cooper's and Sharpies you will nearly always find the Goshawk. It is no surprise to me that on my last 3 trips to the Islands to find goshawks- I was spot-on on 2 of those trips. Nelson Briefer www.