Friday, December 20, 2013

Another Record High Count of Vermilion Flycatchers

I still haven't proofed the data, but I have all areas' numbers entered into a spreadsheet, and there's lots of data to peruse.

The big news is that we had an all-time species count of about 163, pending a couple rarities which were undoubtedly real but haven't had enough documentation for the long-term record.

Second, and even more exciting, is the continued explosion of Vermilion Flycatcher numbers. Last year we had a mind-boggling 190. This past Sunday, with even fewer people out there and no specific effort to count them...drum roll...267! That's TWO HUNDRED SIXTY-SEVEN Vermilion Flycatchers in just the Tucson Valley CBC. If they keep going like this, we'll be inhaling them on next year's CBC.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

World Capital of the Vermilion Flycatcher – How Many Will We Get This Year?

An immature male Vermilion Flycatcher, the future red plumage noticeable with individual feathers coming in on the head. Note that "vermilion" has only one "l" – its etymology through Latin for "worm" has no relation to the numerical word "million."

When the Tucson Audubon Society decided to name their publication the Vermilion Flycatcher, they probably didn't know that we'd become the world's hot spot for this species' wintering range. It's actually a relatively recent phenomenon that so many now gather here for the winter.

In the early decades of the Tucson Valley Christmas Bird Count, only a small handful were noted, and it was not until 1984 that more than 10 were tallied (the current CBC circle dates to 1971, but the original was started in 1931). Even as recently as 1994, the CBC logged only five. Last year we had a world record-breaking (and mind-boggling) 190.

I have no idea what has changed to make Vermilion Flycatcher so common now, and I have no idea what the future holds. And until today, I didn't know but what the population might have crashed, and that we'd be back to "normal" this year.

Today I did some scouting in my own neighborhood, which includes the University of Arizona's Roger Road Agricultural Center – also my area on the count this coming Sunday. I was mostly stopping by to get in touch with director about access on Sunday, but took a quick gander at the birds. In a perfunctory look around the farm I saw nine Vermilion Flycatchers, two more than last year's exhaustive survey of this 40-hectare plot, which then was a high number for this area that I've been birding for 16 years.

In biking through Winterhaven – a wooded suburban neighborhood famous for its Christmas display competition, I saw two, a rather atypical habitat for this bird, which likes wide open areas with a few trees and short, moist substrate to catch their insect food on.

This rather indicates we may be in for another big year. Stay tuned!

What Makes The Tucson Valley CBC special?

It's only just now occurred to me to consult Brent Ortego's 113th CBC US National High Species Count Summary to see how Tucson Valley CBC fared compared to other counts last year. In my previous post, I was going only by numbers I could find by blindly searching the current year's results in their online system. We did much better than I originally thought.
Last year's two Chestnut-sided Warblers tied with the San Diego CBC. We don't have any staked out this year. Will one be discovered tomorrow?

Mad Island Marsh, Texas usually leads the nation with the highest number of national highs, and one or more of the Hawaii counts are also pretty high. But consider that several of the species for which Mad Island Marsh claims the national high are singletons of rarities (such as Eastern Kingbird, Brown-crested Flycatcher, and Tennessee Warbler last year). And of course, we can hardly compare Hawaii's scoop of so many tropical water birds and endemics with the mainland.

That leaves the Atascosa Highlands CBC as the most important CBC in the mainland US for species with uniquely high numbers (15 last year), and then Tucson Valley comes after Mad Island Marsh – we had national highs for 13 species (only one of which was a vagrant, which were the two Chestnut-sided Warblers).

Somehow I missed noticing or mentioning that our highs of 820 Gila Woodpeckers, 797 Verdins, and 19 Plumbeous Vireos were not only national highs last year but also a new all-time highs. Along with the amazing Vermilion Flycatcher and Cooper's Hawk totals, that means we broke five all-time high records, almost unheard of in these years.

Cooper's Hawk – 105
Gila Woodpecker – 820
Vermilion Flycatcher – 190
Plumbeous Vireo – 19
Cassin's Vireo – 4
Verdin – 797
Black-tailed Gnatcatcher – 115
Chestnut-sided Warbler – 2
Summer Tanager – 5
Black-chinned Sparrow – 34
Yellow-headed Blackbird – 13,600
Lesser Goldfinch – 1739
Lawrence's Goldfinch – 246
We're probably not going to get the national high for Lawrence's Goldfinch this year, but there are a few around.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Using eBird Maps to Prepare For Your CBC

Check out this map of recent sightings of Brewer's Sparrow in Tucson. (Click on it for a larger view.)

Rather alarming, isn't it? This sometimes abundant winter bird has been very scarce these past couple of weeks, hinting that we might actually miss it this year. In fact, we did miss it in 1991, and four years ago we had but seven. Compare that to a maximum of 727, seen in 1999. But today I got word that some have been in the upper Rillito River wash, so fingers are crossed. I have an amazing team of over 100 field observers gathered, and I have high hopes.

But that's beside the point – what I wanted to show here is how useful eBird is for studying up on what's been seen in your area.

First, navigate to eBird's amazing mapping tool at

You then need to do three things: 1. Enter the species you want to search, 2. Change the date, and 3. Zoom in to the Tucson area. (In the example screen shot above, I used Photoshop Elements to add a circle that approximates our CBC circle; this won't appear on eBird.)

Entering the species is straightforward. As you begin typing in the search field in the upper left, options begin to appear; click ONCE on the species name you want, and then wait for the map data to appear.

Then to change the date option, I suggest limiting it to sightings from this month. Click once on the downward arrow to the right of "Year-Round, All Years." You're going to change these two options to "Dec-Dec, Current Year." In the last of the monthly options for Custom Date Range, click on the bullet next to the fields that let you change the months. Change the first one to Dec. Then click on the bullet next to "Current Year," then finally click on the green button at the bottom. Remember: these are links on a web page, not an icon on your computer's desktop – you click only ONCE, no double clicks yet.

Now come the double-clicks. Every time you double-click on the map it zooms in one notch. Alternatively, you can try to center Tucson by dragging it to the center of your screen and then use the plus-and-minus scroll bar in the upper left. Eventually you'll be zoomed in close enough so that the icons for individual locations appear, and you can get more information by clicking on them. There's also the "Show Points Sooner" option on the right, which brings up those icons when zoomed further out.

Have fun with eBird!

What's A Party-Hour and a Party-Mile?

On the Final Tally Sheet, each team has to report not only the totals of every species in their area, but a few other tidbits of information.

Two that confound many are the Party-Hour and the Party-Mile. This information is combined with bird numbers to help normalize the data for statistical analysis.

Think about it: If a group of 25 people bird in one group in Reid Park for an hour, how many species will they see? What if you divide them into five groups of five, each group covering a different area of the park for an hour – then how many will they see? We know that the five groups of five will see more than the one group of 25, even though you have 25 people birding for an hour in each case.

This illustrates the party-hour. In the first example, there is one party hour. One party (of 25) birding for one hour. In the second case, we end up with five party-hours. Each party of five people birding for an hour logs their own one party-hour.

So if you have a group of 4 people in your CBC area, you're one party of 4 if you stick together. But if you split up (out of voice range, essentially), then you become multiple parties, and you have to keep track of how much time you spend apart.

Party-miles works the same way, but in the example above, you don't know how far they traveled. A group of 25 birders probably won't move as much as a group of five, so you can't just assume that you've just quintupled some assumed distance. There might have been 0.5 party-mile in the first example and 3.5 party miles in the second.

For a concrete example, let's just take your group of 4, and say you split into two couples for 1 hour. One couple walks all around a (Tucson) block, logging 2 miles in the effort. The other group of two does a circuit through the Tucson Botanical Garden, doing a lot of standing and looking, logging no more than 0.1 of a mile. Here your team has logged two party hours and 2.1 party-miles – just add them together. Clear as mud? It's the responsibility of the Area Leader to fill this all in, but whoever in the team is most able to keep track and calculate this information should volunteer to do it.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Have You Seen These Birds?

The Wilson's Snipe has never been missed in the 41 years of the Tucson Valley CBC. Yet some years only one was reported, and the last one reported from with the circle to eBird this year was November 15.

You might notice the newer BirdTrax gadget to the right. These are all the species that people have posted to eBird within the Tucson Valley CBC circle (actually a slightly smaller circle of only 12 km in radius) within the past 12 days.

The 145 species fall a bit short of last year's total of 153 (which was an all-time record by the way!), so I was curious what's missing. What have eBirders not reported that should be in the circle?

I compared last year's CBC list with the eBird list from BirdTrax, and I found 3 categories of birds that have not been eBirded yet.

1. Vagrants from last year that are quite possibly not even in the circle this year. Most of these were staked out, though the ibis (probably a White-faced but seen only in flight by two different teams) was a complete surprise.
American Redstart
Chestnut-sided Warbler
Northern Parula
Plegadis sp.
Solitary Sandpiper
Yellow-throated Warbler

2. High-elevation species that have a very good chance of being reported by the teams hiking into the Catalina Foothills (one team going all the way to Mount Kimball).
Arizona Woodpecker
Crissal Thrasher
Mexican Jay
Olive Warbler
Red-breasted Nuthatch
Western Scrub-Jay
Whiskered Screech-Owl
Yellow-eyed Junco

3. Those species that aren't exactly rare here but also aren't common. Some vary in numbers greatly from year to year and others are just scarce enough to be overlooked, even by 100 birders combing the Tucson Valley.
HAVE  YOU SEEN THESE? Please eBird if so!
Ash-throated Flycatcher
Brewer's Sparrow
Bronzed Cowbird
Hooded Merganser
Horned Lark
Neotropic Cormorant
Northern Rough-winged Swallow
Pine Siskin
Red Crossbill
Savannah Sparrow
Western Meadowlark
Wilson's Snipe
Wood Duck

While we don't have any of the vagrants from last year's list staked out, some of them might be found on count day – American Redstart, Northern Parula, and Chestnut-sided Warbler are in particular are good possibilities. Furthermore, we do have some rarities staked out that we also got last year – Common Merganser, Summer Tanager, Wilson's Warbler, Pime Warbler, and Yellow Warbler for example.

And then considering what has been seen lately but missed last year, we might be in for a whopper of a CBC this year!

Barn Swallow
Black Scoter
Burrowing Owl
Common Goldeneye
Fox Sparrow
Golden Eagle
Greater Pewee
Greater White-fronted Goose
Louisiana Waterthrush
Lewis's Woodpecker
Red-shouldered Hawk
Ring-billed Gull
Violet-crowned Hummingbird
Western Screech-Owl
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Residential Owling

See the Western Screech-Owl? Ok, so it's a horrible photo, but this was taken with my iPhone 4 (several versions old) through my binoculars. This short post demonstrates two things:

1. You can find some pretty cool birds by walking streets through residential areas. This is a tall Phoenix palm in a front yard in the Tucson Country Club Estates, and the owl began tooting back at my imitation, which I had been using to bring in a Hermit Thrush, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, and Orange-crowned Warblers. We actually missed Western Screech-Owl on last year's CBC.

2. If you find a really rare bird, there are all sorts of tools you can use to document it. Even better than a photo, and easier to execute, would have been a sound recording, which you can make with almost any phone or camera these days. My favorite iPhone app is Audio Memos.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Habitats You'd Never Think to Check

I conducted a short workshop this morning on developing birding skills for Christmas Bird Counts, organized by the Arizona Field Ornithologists ( and sponsored by the Tucson Audubon Society.

We had a 40-minute powerpoint presentation, followed by some birding in the area.  We covered topics such as preparing for the CBC by studying maps and scouting the route, estimating numbers of groups of birds, and use of mobile phone apps for ID, data entry, and visualizing the CBC circle. My favorite focus is learning how to identify habitats worth checking for maximizing your bird list.

Check out this satellite image from Google Maps.

There's a nice chunk of native Sonoran Desert habitat on the west, and that's TAS's Mason Center property where we held the workshop and then birded on the sinuous desert path. It was honest-to-goodness desert, with Pyrrhuloxia, Curve-billed Thrasher, Verdin, Black-tailed Gnatcatcher, Gambel's Quail, and Black-throated Sparrow, with a bonus Great Horned Owl sitting low in a palo verde. If you were just driving by here, you'd be drawn to check the attractive desert for birds, and habitat like that should definitely be covered.

But look at the complex on the right –  the Sunnyvale professional plaza, with a dental office, fitness studio, and such. Mostly pavement, plenty of non-native Chilean or Argentinian mesquites, oleander hedges, a large African Sumac. Yuck. But look again. First of all, it has a darker patch of green along the western and southern edges. Second, the parking lot backs up against several back yards which tend to have milder climates and might have bird feeders. Finally, upon closer inspection, one sees a few native plants (palo verde, Velvet Mesquite and Sonoran Ironwood), and one back yard had a blooming Cape Honeysuckle draping over the brick wall. So I pished, and here's what we had in a matter of 5 minutes:

1 Anna's Hummingbird, 1 Costa's Hummingbird, 2 Verdin, 2 Orange-crowned Warbler, 1
Yellow-rumped Warbler (Audubon's) S, 2 Abert's Towhee, and 2 House Sparrow.

Definitely worth the stop.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Seeding The Flocks

It's been 10 years since the Tucson Valley CBC has had Harris's Sparrow. In fact, it has been found on only 4 out of the 40 years of data for the current circle. In 1972 there were four, an unusually large number. Will we get one this year?

Harris's Sparrows are usually found in the same sorts of places you find flocks of White-crowned Sparrows – brushy lots, washes, feeders. But what if you don't have any feeders in your area? Well then make one! All you have to do is scatter some seed on the ground.

Spreading seed during the week or two before a CBC in a likely spot to hold rare sparrows is a time-honored tradition, but one that few people think of doing. If, during the scouting of your area (you've been birding every morning so far in advance, right?), you find a few sparrows flitting off into a thicket, go back to your car, get a bucket of bird seed, and spread it around where you can stand at a distance and see it. It would be fantastic if everyone had 3 or 4 such spots in their areas.

What kind of seed you use is up to you, and since it involves quantity, price may be an issue. I find that our native sparrows (Zonotrichiae and Spizellae) like small seed and aren't as fond of millet. Mixtures that contain finely cracked corn are probably best, or an untreated grass seed mix is also good. I have found the latter in 50-pound sacks at about $1/pound at Ewing Irrigation at 4905 North Shamrock Place in Tucson; other turf stores might also have options.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

The Tucson Valley CBC Map

Every CBC circle is 15 miles in diameter and is defined by its center coordinates. Formerly this was a location that one could locate on a topographic map so that the circle could be drawn (using a protractor or a ruler and clever use of a slide rule). But these days all you need is Google Earth and maps downloadable from the Internet.

The latitude and longitude for AZTV are 32.301632, -110.973489, and I've divided the circle into 27 areas, each with a team leader and a crew of birders to help spot, ID, and count as many birds as possible. Here's the map, which you can click on for a larger version to save to your computer if you want.