Articles for the Month of December 2016

Clyde’s cousin makes a capture!

Sharp-shinned Hawk -  Accipiter striatus

Clyde has a cousin! “Clyde” is a Cooper’s Hawk that often visits our back yard. This appears to be a juvenile Sharp-shinned Hawk.

We were enjoying a lazy New Year’s Eve afternoon, when I heard a tell-tale thump at the sun room window.  I’ve become a bit of a connoisseur of thumps.  We have them on occasion at our house, and they come in two varieties.  One is usually a louder “thump” when on rare occasions a bird flies head-long into a window (usually this one 2nd floor window).  For those thumps, I check out the area around the window, and try to assist any dazed bird I may find.  However, the thump we just heard this afternoon is the 2nd kind of thump.  It’s a softer thump, one that always happens at our sunroom window, by the bird feeders, and is usually accompanied by a puff of feathers.  The second thump is a sign that “Clyde”, our winter resident Cooper’s Hawk, has chased another bird into the window and made a capture.  That’s his preferred attack mode, as he screams around the corner of the house towards the bird feeders, and very often, corners one against the wall or window.

Upon hearing the thump, I went over to see if I could see Clyde.  It’s not often Clyde hangs around when he makes a capture.  He’ll grab his food, and often head to the back fence to consume his prey.  However, when I went over to the window and looked down, there was a hawk with a fresh capture.  Clyde!!  Up close!  But upon inspection, it was obvious this wasn’t Clyde!

It’s hard telling apart Sharp-shinned Hawks and Cooper’s Hawks.  They’re virtually identical in terms of plumage.  There’s a bit of a difference in the tail, and the Sharp-shinned is the smaller of the two species, but otherwise…it’s often a tough call.  This guy looked small compared to Clyde, and based on the pattern of streaks on his underside, my best guess is that this is a first-year’s Sharp-shinned Hawk.

The prey this time…an American Goldfinch.  Bummer. I much prefer when they deplete my abundant House Sparrow population, but we have had 3 or 4 dozen Goldfinches around most days as well.  I’ve also seen Clyde catch Black-capped Chickadees, and once, a Downy Woodpecker.  

I wonder if Clyde knows he has competition!  It will be interesting watching over the next several weeks, seeing if both of them stick around, and if there’s ever any conflict between them as they use the same feeding grounds.

Telling the difference between hawks (Buteos)

Ferruginous Hawk - Buteo regalis

When this guy flew by and I took photos, what first came to mind was dark-phase of a Rough-legged Hawk. It’s actually a dark-phase Ferruginous Hawk. The vast majority of Ferruginous Hawks that you run across are light phase, so this guy is a perfect example of how confusing it can be sometimes to identify Buteo hawk species.

As I look through visitor stats for my main website, one of the sections that is visited the most is a “Difficult ID’s” section.  That actually surprised me a bit, given that it’s a fairly small part of the website, and not a section that I’ve revised for quite some time.  The section is devoted to helping birders differentiate between certain species that tend to be difficult to identify, with photos, identification tips, key plumage characteristics, and other information.  I only had 10 different classes of birds that it helped to differentiate…thus my surprise to see how many visitors those pages get.  For the first time in probably 7 or 8 years, I updated several of those pages, providing more detailed identification keys, new photos, and range maps to help people see where and when certain species are likely to be present. I also started to think about other species that birders may have trouble identifying.

As I was going through my photos from my day-long trip to central South Dakota to look for winter raptors, one bird had me stumped.  It was a dark-plumaged bird that I originally was sure was a dark-morph Rough-legged Hawk.  After processing the photos, however, it became clear that it was actually a dark-morph Ferruginous Hawk, a color morph I just haven’t run across very often.  Given the variability between the different “Buteo” Hawk species, and given the variability WITHIN a single species in terms of plumage differences between different color morphs, and between adult and juvenile birds, what better addition to the “Difficult ID’s” pages than a very detailed description of how to tell apart Buteo hawks?  I’ve just uploaded the following new page:

How to differentiate between “Buteo” Hawk species

On these pages, I’ve restricted myself to the more common Buteo species that are found in South Dakota and the U.S. as a whole. The more rare or geographically restricted species, such as Gray Hawk, Zone-tailed Hawk, or Short-tailed Hawk, were excluded, so the page could concentrate on the more common species in the U.S.  Species included are Red-tailed Hawk, Ferruginous Hawk, Swainson’s Hawk, Rough-legged Hawk, Red-shouldered Hawk, and Broad-winged Hawk.

For these 6 species I have several pieces of information to assist birders in identification challenges.  That of course include photos that offer a variety of angles, color morphs, bird ages, etc., as well as identification keys and species range maps.  The Buteo Hawk page is undoubtedly the most comprehensive of the “difficult ID’s” pages that I’ve put together to date…I hope that people find it helpful!

Given how much attention those pages are getting, I will likely add new categories of “difficult ID’s” in the coming weeks. If you have any suggestions, let me know!  In the meantime, here are the other species groups that are offered on the difficult ID’s page:

Birding central South Dakota

Bald Eagle - Haliaeetus leucocephalus

A Bald Eagle in flight, taken just north of Kennebec, South Dakota. I saw over a dozen of these guys today on the grasslands, and area far from any large water body. I’ve found multiple huge eagle nests in the area in recent years, as they’ve obviously learned that with all the pheasants, grouse, and prairie chickens in the area, it’s a GREAT place to raise (and feed!) a family!

Today was “the” day.  Once or twice a winter, I’ll get up ridiculously early, drive three hours to the central part of the state to ensure I get there right at dawn, and spend the day birding.  What could possess anyone to head to central South Dakota before dawn in the middle of winter?

Winter raptors!  As I’ve said many times, central South Dakota can be truly spectacular for raptors during the winter time.  That surprises a lot of people.  Winters can be pretty damned harsh up here…the blizzard that shut down the western half of the state for the last 2 days is a great example!  In eastern South Dakota in winter, near Brandon where I live, if I drive rural areas I’m not likely to see much for bird life.  The best I can usually hope for is to run across some flocks of Snow Buntings or Lapland Longspurs, but for the most part, all the crop land in the eastern part of the state is pretty dead in the winter.

It’s dramatically different in the central part of the state.  The reason?  Better habitat with cropland interspersed with a lot of open grassland, and more importantly, plentiful prey!  Ring-necked Pheasants, Sharp-tailed Grouse, and Greater Prairie Chickens are beyond abundant in many parts of central South Dakota, and attract raptors that can take such big prey, including many eagles (Bald and Golden), Ferruginous Hawks, Gyrfalcons, and more.  The wide-open grasslands of the region also hold many large flocks of Lapland Longspurs, Horned Larks, and Snow Buntings in the winter, smaller prey that are favorites for Merlins and Prairie Falcons.  It doesn’t seem to matter the weather, most of the time when I head out there, there are a lot of fat and happy raptors!  That was evident again today, as it was quite obvious (from the full crops on several birds) that the birds were feeding quite well!

There are two general areas I like to bird in the central part of the state: 1) The Presho/Kennebec corridor near I-90, and 2) the Fort Pierre National Grasslands to the north.  As with most of my central South Dakota trips, I timed my drive today to arrive at Presho right around dawn. My day of birding usually begins with the area just south of Presho, an area that’s been truly magical for me for winter raptors in recent years.  The big attraction for raptors are the game birds in the area.  There are a number of hunting operations in the area, many of which release pheasants for hunters.  There have been times in the winter where I’ll 100-200 Ring-necked Pheasants milling about in a field, and there are plenty of Sharp-tailed Grouse in the area as well.  Today got off to a rocky start as it was uncharacteristically slow in the Presho area. Right upon arriving, I came across a Merlin feeding on a small bird (most likely a Horned Lark), and I did find a couple of Bald Eagles south of Presho, but the Rough-legged Hawks that usually are EVERYWHERE in winter were curiously absent.  I spent more time cruising random gravel roads in Presho and Kennebec area this morning and picked up a stray raptor here or there, but it was a depressingly slow start for the day.

Rough-legged Hawk - Buteo lagopus

A Rough-legged Hawk just after taking flight from a telephone pole. These guys are always the undisputed “kings” of the prairie in winter, at least in terms of sheer numbers. Today’s count of 32 Rough-legged Hawks was actually a bit of a disappointment. I’ve had some winter days where the count has been more than twice that.

Given the lack of action near Presho and Kennebec, I started to drift northward towards the Fort Pierre National Grasslands.  It soon became abundantly clear that the blizzard from this weekend took a increasingly greater toll the further you moved north from I-90.  Gravel roads are usually somewhat immune to freezing rain, but the amount of freezing rain and slush from this storm was truly amazing, and even gravel roads were smooth, slick mirrors in some spots.  It was even worse for birds in the area, though.  The grasslands were coated with a thick sheet of ice and slush, and many of the game birds in the area appeared to be struggling.  On the Fort Pierre National Grasslands themselves, I came across several huge flocks of Sharp-tailed Grouse and Greater Prairie Chickens, milling about in open grassy areas, searching for clear spots in the ice so they could forage. Despite all the potential prey, however, there were very few raptors on the grasslands themselves. The day wasn’t getting any better.

Something has happened on the Fort Pierre National Grasslands over the last 5 years.  5 years ago, winter raptor birding on the Grasslands was typically spectacular.  Scanning the fence posts and telephone poles, it was often unusual if you could drive a mile WITHOUT encountering a raptor.  Over the last 5 years though, the grasslands have been curiously devoid of raptors.  That again was the case today.  As slow as the birding was around Presho in the morning, it was MUCH slower on the Grasslands further north.  There are definitely fewer pheasants and grouse on the grasslands than in the area around Presho, but  the last 5 years have made me wonder if something has also happened to the small rodent population in the area.  It just seems odd that such consistently great birding for many years could nosedive and stay low for so long.

I admit that by noon, I was a little down.  An entire day devoted to birding the area, and it was pretty slow to that point.  I decided to head back down towards Presho and Kennebec again, and it soon became clear that there were PLENTY of raptors in the area, and that they were much more active than they had been in the morning.  Driving the gravel roads just north of Presho and Kennebec, the usually plentiful Rough-legged Hawks, a species that was almost absent during my morning search, were back in force (where had they been this morning?!?). Red-tailed Hawks were present in larger numbers than normal, and I ran into the occasional Prairie Falcon or Ferruginous Hawk as well.  One thing that surprises people is how common eagles are in the area in winter, both Bald Eagles and Golden Eagles.  There are multiple active Bald Eagle nests in the Presho and Kennebec area, in the middle of the grasslands and far from any large water body, while Golden Eagles that are absent in the area in winter often show up in good numbers for the winter.

Greater Prairie Chicken - Tympanuchus cupido

A Greater Prairie Chicken, searching for food in a prairie covered by a crust of ice and snow. Despite how common these are in parts of Central South Dakota, they’re actually a species I’ve never had any luck photographing! Not the greatest photo here, but at least I finally have something.

I didn’t run across any of the “special” winter raptors today. To me, the list of “special” winter raptors includes Gyrfalcon, Snowy Owl, and Short-eared Owl.  I’d estimate that I spot one of those species in about half of the trips I take to the area, but not today.  It was still a beautiful day for birding, and the final raptor count for the day ended up being pretty good.  Honestly, the tally here is a little lower than what I’ve normally experienced in the area in recent years, but that just emphasizes how truly spectacular winter birding has been lately!  The raptor count for the day:

  • Rough-legged Hawks — 32
  • Bald Eagle — 13
  • Red-tailed Hawks – 12
  • Golden Eagles – 5
  • Ferruginous Hawks – 4
  • Merlin – 4
  • Prairie Falcon – 3


While raptors are definitely the attraction for birding the area in winter, there have been some other trends in recent years that are certainly interesting.  I started birding 16 years ago, and during those first few winters when I would bird this area, it was always surprising to run across a stray Western Meadowlark here or there.  In recent years, it seems like more and more Meadowlarks stay in the area all winter long, and today, I came across literally hundreds and hundreds.  I also came across two large flocks of American Robins, a species that does sometimes overwinter in the area in small numbers, but there were probably at least 100 Robins in each flock I saw today.  Southeast of Presho, there also have been large numbers of Red-winged Blackbirds that have been overwintering in recent years.

Three different species of birds, each of which is found in ever-increasing numbers in winter over the last several years…hmmm…I wonder what the cause could be?  It’s almost as if there’s some kind of “warming” effect that’s enabling them to overwinter.  Perhaps someday scientists will discover what’s behind such a change in climate.  🙂

Money vs. the Endangered Species Act

Golden-cheeked Warbler - Setophaga chrysoparia

A Golden-cheeked Warbler (Photo courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife). A little bird less than 5″ long, with a big reputation in its native Texas, thanks to its endangered status. Short-term economic growth, or the very existence of a unique bird species…which side do you think many Texans (and others) fall?

For my main website, I’ve been working for, well, years in getting individual species pages created for all ~980 species that have been found in North America.  I only have like 70 left to make, and just added a new one for the Golden-cheeked Warbler.  They’re kind of a “holy grail” type bird for some birders, given the fact that they’re considered an endangered species, and are only found in a very tiny breeding range in the oak-juniper woodlands of central Texas.  While making the species page, I came across an all-too-typical story from the New York Times.

The Golden-cheeked Warbler is the only species that nests only in Texas.  They have a very unique, specific requirement for breeding…they simply must have the long, stringy bark from an Ashe Juniper tree for building their nests.  Not just any juniper tree will do, it has to be a relatively old Ashe Juniper for the bark to be usable by Golden-cheeked Warblers.  The mixed oak-juniper woodlands where Ashe Juniper is found covers a relatively small area in Texas. The species only has been found to nest in 33 counties in Texas, covering an area that is likely less than 350 square kilometers.  Some of it is pretty rugged country, but like pretty much every other location on the planet, it’s an area that’s impacted by a human presence.

During the twentieth century, substantial areas of habitat were cleared in the Golden-cheeked Warbler’s breeding range.  Simple residential and urban development was one cause of habitat loss, with residences, businesses, roads, and energy development all carving up parts of their range.  Agricultural land use also caused substantial habitat loss, with forests and woodlands being converted to open grazing lands.  The direct loss of Ashe Juniper directly affects the species’ ability to nest, but it’s more than the loss of their favorite nesting material tree. Habitat fragmentation and the creation of more “edge” habitat opens up woodlands and forest to a much higher presence of Brown-headed Cowbirds. As with many songbird species, cowbirds lay eggs in the nests of Golden-cheeked Warblers, with the warblers thus ending up raising cowbirds rather than raising their own young.

With such a small range and with declining numbers, the Golden-cheeked Warbler was an obvious candidate for the listing under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).  They’ve been listed as endangered for more than 25 years (they were first listed in 1990), thanks to scientific studies that count the prevalence of the birds, and weigh the relative threats to well-being of the species in the future.  There’s no doubt the endangered status has benefited Golden-cheeked Warblers.  In the U.S. part of its range, several areas are protected and managed for Golden-cheeked Warbler habitat and breeding.  Brown-headed Cowbird trapping programs are in place to reduce the impact on Golden-cheeked Warblers.  Restrictions on land use and land-use conversion are in place to protect the remaining areas of highly suitable breeding habitat.  Threats to the species extend outside of the U.S. as well, with loss of habitat also a problem on the breeding grounds in Central America, yet protective programs are in place there as well.

The protections may have slowed the rate of habitat loss in the United States, but despite that, the species has continued a slow decline.  The bustling urban centers of Austin and San Antonio lie adjacent to their primary breeding habitat, as does Fort Hood, one of the largest military installations in the world.  Despite the obvious scientific evidence backing the need for protection of this unique species, the New York Times story gives a great summary of the political and economic pressures that are pushing back against conservation efforts for the bird.  Real estate and energy developers are powerful lobbyists that are pushing against the endangered status for the birds. As the New York Times story notes, representatives from those groups, people who have a vested economic interest in land use in the region, state that “bad science” was used in designating the species as endangered.  As a result, a petition is currently being pushed by these groups to delist the species.

Mind you, none of these representatives of the petition are actually scientists! Oh no, it’s very much like the battle over climate change, where people who know absolutely nothing about the scientific issue itself will speak of “bad science” in a vague, general sense.  There are no specifics, no hard-core evidence backing the claim that the species is doing well enough to be delisted.  Their claims all have a basis in economics, as removing the species from the ESA makes it much easier to exploit the landscape for real estate and energy development.  Another powerful agent that would prefer the species be delisted is the U.S. military.  Fort Hood lies in the heart of the breeding range of the Golden-cheeked Warbler, and has a very large area of prime breeding habitat within the installation.  The New York Times piece outlines some of the restrictions placed on military training activities on the base due to the ESA listing. A key line from the New York Times piece that pretty much sums up ALL of these kinds of cases where economic powers but heads with endangered species:

Mr. Perry (director of mission support) said Fort Hood nevertheless supported delisting because the installation pays hundreds of thousands of dollars to comply with the act, including funding a biological assessment every five years.

Note there’s absolutely nothing in his statement about the bird itself.  There’s absolutely nothing in his statement about conservation concerns.  No, the one and only focus is the fact that the installation ends up paying “hundreds of thousands of dollars” to comply with listing of the species.

Money. And political power.  The story also notes some of the other big names in Texas politics who have supported the de-listing, including the Bush family. That’s what proponents of keeping the Golden-cheeked Warbler listed are up against.

What does the science say? The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service completed a five-year review of the species, with a report released two years ago that state the species still needed to be listed as endangered due to ongoing threats to its habitat, and threat of extinction.  Given that ESA is theoretically driven by scientific assessments such as this, you’d think that would be the end of the argument.  You’d think those petitioning for delisting would have little chance of success.

You’d be wrong. ESA has always been a political football, most often when economic interests butt heads with local land-use or other restrictions, but also sometimes simply for the ideological battle of “conservation” vs. “economics”.  The Golden-cheeked Warbler’s protected status is just one example of many across the United States where similar battles are being fought.  In a world where “science” has somehow become a negative term for many in the U.S. in recent years, it’s just one more case where short-term greed and selfishness are pushing up (and often winning) against conservationists and environmentalists.

New Drawing – Labrador Duck

Labrador Duck - Camptorhynchus labradorius

Colored pencil drawing of a Labrador Duck (Camptorhynchus labradorius). Click for a larger view.

What a wonderful Christmas Eve!  Very relaxing with not much for any of us to do.  Well, other than our furnace conking out yet again, and having to wait for Mr. Furnace Fixing Dude.  Other than that though, it has been a fantastic day.  I haven’t drawn anything for a few months, so thought I’d draw while my wife and son cooked and listened to Christmas music.  I started drawing, and after awhile when my son was going to go downstairs to watch video games, I half-jokingly said “Want to draw a duck too?” Much to my surprise, he said yes!  I love it!  For his project, we simply typed “Draw Duck” in Google, and there were a number of beginner type projects that showed how to draw a duck. It was so wonderful, drawing with him by my side!.

For my project for the day, I chose something I’ve wanted to try for a while…a Labrador Duck.  Since I started drawing a few years ago, most of the birds I’ve drawn have been species that I don’t have photos for.  It’s a nice way to fill the empty slots on the species pages on my main website!  Labrador Duck is a species I have a web page for, but there’s a pretty obvious reason I don’t have an accompanying photo of my own…they went extinct in the 1800s.  One reason I haven’t taken on a Labrador Duck is that it’s hard just finding decent reference images.  There are a few photos online of some stuffed specimens from the 1800s, but given when they went extinct, there are no photos of a “real” Labrador Duck.  This is thus based on the stuffed specimens and some of the species descriptions I’ve seen.

It SHOULD be pretty accurate!  Plumage-wise, it matches the taxidermy specimens quite well.  The feet are tough (I hate drawing feet anyway), but one stuffed specimen had feet that were pretty close to this color, a dark muddy-deep-red with blackish webbing between the toes.

Fun drawing the Labrador Duck, even more fun doing it with my son at my side! Here’s wishing you all have an equally wonderful Christmas!

Website changes / additions

California Scrub-Jay - Aphelocoma californica

An easy ID for many birders…a Western Scrub-Jay! WRONG! There is no longer a species called a Western Scrub-Jay. Instead, there are 2 individual species called “California Scrub-Jay” and “Woodhouse’s Scrub Jay”. This is a California Scrub-Jay, taken at Point Reyes National Seashore in California.

Remember 2 or 3 days ago how I said I couldn’t keep up with all the changes to the “official” American Ornithological Union (AOU) and American Birding Association (ABA) changes on their North American checklists?  That my North American Birds – Information and Photos page had nearly all the recognized species, but there were many changes in scientific names, species names, and taxonomic order that hadn’t been updated for a while?  I spent the last two evenings taking care of it all, and am glad to say that my that my  main species page is now completely up-to-date.  The taxonomic order now matches the AOU, all species and scientific names are correct, and I necessarily added a few pages for “new” species.

In terms of “new” species since I last updated the page, the newest was a AOU split of what was formerly the Western Scrub-Jay into two distinct species. I now have a California Scrub-Jay (Aphelocoma californica) species page and a corresponding species range map page, as well as a new Woodhouse’s Scrub-Jay (Aphelocoma woodhouseii) species page and a corresponding species range map page.  I was fortunate enough to have my own personal photos of both species, with several photos of California Scrub-Jay from around the San Francisco area, and a few photos of Woodhouse’s Scrub-Jay from around Tucson, Arizona.  One other “new” species split that I was behind on was the split of what was formerly the Sage Sparrow.  I now have a new Sagebrush Sparrow (Artemisiospiza nevadensis) species page and range map page, as well as a new Bell’s Sparrow (Artemisiospiza belli) species page and range map page.  Unfortunately I don’t have my own photos of either, although I at least have seen the Sagebrush Sparrow side of the split.

Taxonomic order changed quite a bit from my old version, which took a while to fix.  I went through all ~980 species to check scientific names, and was surprised how many had changed since I last updated my species pages.  The Warblers in particular had many, many changes in scientific names (no more Dendroica! Many more Setophaga!).

All up-to-date now though!  Come next July, when the AOU releases their 2017 updates, I’ll try to keep up on my web pages!

Well we are “South” Dakota…

Confederate Flag

A new flag at a house on my way home! My guess is it’s been a month since I’ve been by, so this is something that’s popped up since the election. THIS is the kind of behavior that I guess is now normalized, thanks to our election of an openly bigoted pig of a man as President.

I work at a facility that’s outside of Sioux Falls in the middle of nowhere, which gives me the somewhat unique opportunity to drive gravel roads to and from work if I so wish.  I have several different roads I can take, but today took a gravel road I haven’t taken for probably a month.  I found a new feature on the road!  Joe White Trash Redneck decided to add a second flag to his flag pole…a Confederate Flag.

We ARE “South” Dakota I guess, and unlike those liberal heathens up in North Dakota, there are clearly many of South Dakotans that still harbor old-time convictions.  Who am I kidding…there are white trash rednecks like this all over the country, and lily-white South Dakota is no exception.  The difference is that unlike the South, here we wrap our bigotry and racism in good ol’ fashioned Midwestern “niceness”.

I’ve lived in Nebraska or South Dakota nearly all my life, save for a couple of years spent in Washington D.C. just after college.  I know what people are like, and I’ve always known the “nice Midwesterner” label was a farce.  People are people, and I certainly didn’t notice any difference in “niceness” in D.C. vs. here.  People certainly drive like assholes EVERYWHERE, whether you’re on the jam-packed freeways around D.C. or on the roads around Sioux Falls!  Any pride South Dakotans or other Midwesterners may take in their civility melts away quickly when you peek just under the surface.  Conservative values that dominate here are remarkably similar to conservative values in the deep South, where people may wrap themselves in a cloak of piety and religious belief, but that cloak is simply a cover for some very deep-rooted bigotry and racism.

Is it good or bad that the Trump election normalizes this kind of behavior?  What does it say that a house I’ve passed countless times in the past 23 years never had a Confederate flag flying, yet within a month of Trump being elected, it proudly flies next to the American flag?

Insecure white (trash/redneck/losers) have certainly gotten payback after 8 years of a (gasp!) black president, and with the choice of Trump, people are seemingly becoming much less shy about showing their true colors.

Temperature at freezing point. At the North Pole. On the Winter Solstice.

It’s the winter solstice.  The day when the Northern Hemisphere receives the least light of the year.  And yet tomorrow, temperatures at the North Pole itself are forecast to hover around 32° Fahrenheit, the freezing mark.  That’s 50 degrees…FIFTY DEGREES…above normal for the date.

Not much to say on the matter, other than a direct challenge to climate-change denying losers…EXPLAIN THIS, without referencing overall climate change. (Crickets…)

Time to edit the website again…

Hoary Redpoll - Carduelis hornemanni

A Hoary Redpoll in my crabapple tree. For now, I can still count a Hoary Redpoll as its own species, as the AOU committee decided to hold off on a proposed action to merge Hoary and Common Redpolls into one species. Which means for one more year, I can proudly proclaim that I’ve had a rare Hoary Redpoll in my yard.

It’s damned hard trying to keep up with all the official changes on the American Birding Association’s (ABA) North American birds checklist! The ABA list is generally based on the checklist from the American Ornithological Union (AOU).  Every year, the AOU Checklist Committee considers formal proposals to change the checklist, with recommendations coming from scientists who have published research and other materials that may support a checklist change.  Every July The Auk (the journal for the AOU) publishes the changes for the year.  And every year, I either ignore those changes, or spend several months delaying any related changes to my website.

Ever since I started my website more than 15 years ago, I’ve been working on having individual species pages for each species seen in North America.  Especially when a new species is added, I try to keep up and edit my checklist and summary pages, but I admit I’m behind in doing so.  If it’s simply adding a new species (for example, if an exotic species is now established enough in the U.S. that the AOU considers it a new, permanent species in North America), it’s easy enough to add a page.  I’m fairly caught up with those changes. What’s a major pain in the butt is trying to keep up with the “order” changes.  Every year, they make changes in the official “order” that species are listed in the checklist. The AOU checklist is presented in a “phylogenetic order”, using DNA and other information to “rank” species according to their origin and where they are on a evolutionary tree.  Basically, more “ancient” species are listed first, while species more recent in origin are listed last. On my pages, for example, I still have finches “ranked” very near the bottom.  However, in recent years finches have received a “promotion”, and are now higher on the phylogenetic order list.  It’s a major change moving things around on my master species page, thus the order changes that have occurred in recent years are those changes least likely to be represented in my checklist and species pages.

Here we are in mid-December, a mere 5+ months since the latest updates, and I’m finally taking a peek at the changes.  Looks like I have more work ahead of me on my website, particularly if I want to update the checklist order.  Some highlights of the changes for the year:

  1. Scrub Jay species — I have a new species on my life list, thanks to a new species split!  The Western Scrub-Jay has been split into two distinct species, the California Scrub-Jay (Aphelocoma californica) and Woodhouse’s Scrub-Jay (Aphelocoma woodhouseii). The California species is found from Baja California northward into Washington state, and is darker with richer colors, while the interior species is found in the dry interior of the southwestern U.S. and is paler in appearance.  When a species is split like this, it’s sometimes hard to know which of the new species you’ve seen, but fortunately I have photos of the former Western Scrub Jay from both California and Arizona, meaning I’ve seen (and photographed) both new species!
  2. Leach’s Storm-Petrel split —  The Leach’s Storm Petrel has been split into 3 distinct species.  Given a pelagic species such as a storm petrel isn’t exactly native to South Dakota, it’s not one I’ve seen, but alas, it still means a needed change on my website.
  3. Changes in scientific names — I won’t pretend that I understand why scientific names of species are sometimes changed.  Most of the changes this year are for shearwater species, but I saw they also changed the Sandhill Crane from Grus canadensis to Antigone canadensis. 
  4. Substantial changes in the phylogenetic order — Of course.  Sigh.  A hard one to keep up with, and once again this year, these are changes I’ll likely ignore on my website. Especially once you’ve been birding for a while and have used the same field guide for years, it’s tough even in your own mind to mentally adjust to a different “order” of species.
  5. Redpoll species — My “best” yard bird without question was a Hoary Redpoll that showed up 3 or 4 winters ago. That winter was the only winter I’ve ever even had Common Redpolls in my yard, but one day my son looked out at several redpolls on our thistle feeder and asked “what’s the white one”?   It wasn’t exactly white, but there was a Hoary Redpoll that was very obviously different than the Common Redpolls around him.  For years it’s been speculated that the Hoary Redpoll really isn’t a different species, that it’s just a plumage variation.  The AOU committee decided for now to hold off on lumping the two into one species, so for now, my best yard bird still holds!!

Scientists find it’s all about you…

Nebraska Ice Storm

A semi full of grain partially folded in half from a wreck, near Ceresco, Nebraska on December 16th. A cold, wintry hell of a drive, through snow, wind, and freezing rain. For many people? It’s an experience that would likely reinforce their own personal disbelief in climate change. As this scientific study highlights, even in a globally connected, digital world where news and information flows freely, we truly are living in our own little personal bubbles. We seem incapable of accurately weighting the importance of an event, placing much more importance on personal experience than even established fact or collective experience of others.

We had a very interesting weekend. Our “Christmas” with family down in Nebraska was scheduled for this weekend, but Mother Nature wasn’t going to make it easy on us.  We were in a winter storm warning Friday, but managed to make it out-of-town and head south before the worst of the snow hit.  We had to deal with freezing rain in Nebraska, though, which was followed by bitterly cold temperatures.  It wasn’t quite as bad down while we were down in Lincoln, but back home in Brandon we hit -24 below Sunday morning, the coldest we’ve been for several years.  To further reinforce the “winter” theme of the weekend, when we arrived back home, we found our furnace had conked out at some point, and it was 48 degrees in the house!

An interesting and memorable weekend due to the weather, something which scientists say is likely to have a strong impact on my feelings about climate change! In a recent study, scientists found that an individual is much more likely to “believe” in climate change if they live in a location that’s experienced a lot of record high temperatures, and are more likely to discount climate change if the weather is cold and they’ve experienced low temperatures.  It’s not exactly earth-shattering research, not when supposedly well-educated and informed politicians themselves are often guilty of looking out the window and declaring climate change to be a hoax whenever a wintry event occurs.  To me it highlights a bigger picture story however…the importance of “me” and the biologic difficulties with altruistic behavior.

I saw a meme on Facebook today that focused on empathy and Republicans.  It provided several examples of noted Republicans who were strongly against issues such as LGBT rights, stem cell research, and gun control measures…until a son or daughter of theirs came out as LGBT, until one of their loved ones became desperately sick, until one of their family was a victim of gun violence.  I’m incredibly cynical about any Facebook post.  It doesn’t matter whether some meme or story leans towards liberal or conservative views, many (most?) of them are pure fiction.  I don’t know how true some of the claims were in the meme I saw today (for example, one part of it stating Nancy Reagan was against stem cell research, until her husband was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s), but the general point of the meme certainly hit home today (a crappy day where a misogynistic, narcissistic, childish, PIG of a man was supported by the Electoral College).  People are VERY good at ignoring an issue unless it affects them personally.

It’s not just Facebook posts that I’m cynical about…I admit I’m as cynical as any person you’re ever likely to meet.  Ironically, in a blog post where I’m focusing on the role of “self” and a person’s own experiences in dictating your personal beliefs, it’s my own personal experiences that are a major reason I’m such a cynic. I’ve been on this planet for just north of 50 years now, 50 years of personally witnessing the selfishness, greed, and lack of empathy among my fellow human beings. At the small scale…the interpersonal relationships and interactions that occur among people on a daily basis…human beings generally DO seem somewhat empathetic, even kind and caring.  Most of the time when dealing with another human being one-on-one, there’s at least a thin veneer or respect that’s usually present, with “manners” and social customs dictating little gestures such as saying “hi”, holding a door open, helping someone up when they’ve fallen, etc.

That all goes to hell at larger scales, when we’re not dealing directly with another human being, but instead are acting in some “aggregate” mode.  Politics is a great example.  Let’s say Joe Redneck is in line at a grocery store, and the clerk is someone he thinks may be LGBT.  In the vast majority of cases, even Joe Redneck is generally going to be civil.  Face-to-face-, one-on-one, we’re simply much more likely to be civil, to be empathetic and kind.  What happens though when Joe Redneck votes on LGBT-related issues?  What happens in a group setting, when Joe Redneck is surrounded by others in the Redneck clan?  That civility is much more likely to disappear.

Empathy and caring for others is even much more likely to be forgotten when there’s some personal impact on an individual, no matter how minor that impact may actually be. Expanding health care coverage for other Americans?  WHOA…how’s that going to affect MY taxes or MY health care costs?!?  Climate change?!?! WHOA…why should I worry about someone 50 years from now, when a climate policy has even the slightest potential of harming economic growth NOW?!?!  Increasing funding for schools?  WHOA…if I have to pay more in property taxes then I won’t be able to get that new cell phone!!  The relative impact is often grossly exaggerated in cases such as this, with people unwilling to make the tiniest of sacrifice even if the payoff for others promises to be substantial.

Am I reading too much into this study on people’s attitudes towards climate change?  I don’t think so.  As I’ve stated out here many times…we’re animals.  We’re driven by the same biologic needs as any other animal on the planet. What’s first and foremost on our minds is nearly always going to be our own personal well-being and happiness.  Americans in particular seem to be extremely efficient in rationalizing the world around them to fit a personal worldview that is first and foremost focused on personal prosperity and happiness.  We all live in our own personal bubbles, rationalizing the world around us in such a way that minimizes guilt, minimizes any feeling of responsibility for others, and maximizes our own personal happiness and well-being.

Yes, all of this, from a story about people’s attitudes towards climate change!  Even on a cold, wintry hell of a weekend, as a scientist and as an empathetic human being who DOES worry about his child, who DOES worry about the future…it’s very easy to see past the frost on the window and know we still face a world where climate change is a daunting issue.  It’s very easy to see, if one can just look past your own personal life and bubble, and try to empathize with the bigger world around you.  As this study hints at…that’s a step most people just are unwilling to take.

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