Texas Part II

Day 3 (April 17) – As noted in the previous Texas post, the first half of our trip had been planned completely around seeing Black Rail, with three full days dedicated to the effort. Picking up Black Rail just a couple hours into the first of those days freed up a whole swath of time for other endeavors.

On the morning of the 17th, we set out for Laredo, and the Mexican border. We had both visited the Rio Grande Valley previously, but were itching for a return trip. I still needed White-collared Seedeater as an ABA bird, which was part of the motivation for making the trip down.

As we headed toward the valley, we made stops in far fields south of Houston, which yielded a number of highlights, including Swainson’s and White-tailed Hawks, White-rumped, Pectoral, Stilt, and Buff-breasted Sandpipers, and Sedge Wren.

A few hours later, in the mid-afternoon, we arrived in Laredo, where temps had entered the triple-digits. Undeterred, we headed to one of the locations where seedeaters had recently been reported: the Las Palmas Trail. Our search for the White-collared Seedeater was a success, and we ran up a total of five birds, including three males singing in the vegetation along the Rio Grande, with the Mexican city of Nuevo Laredo in the background.

White-collared Seedeater

We also notched a number of other RGV specialties, including Golden-fronted Woodpecker, Great Kiskadee, Couch’s Kingbird, Green Jay, Clay-colored Thrush, and Long-billed Thrasher. A migrant Grasshopper Sparrow was another solid pickup.

Grasshopper Sparrow

After Las Palmas, we headed to our lodging for the evening, and enjoyed some delicious Mexican food in town.

Day 4 (April 18) – Waking early, we set out for one of my all-time favorite birding spots: the small town of Salineño, and specifically, the portion along the Rio Grande. When you arrive, Mexico beckons from just a few meters away. The river is decently narrow in this area, and it is fairly easy to make out birds in the canopy on the other side. Our sense of place was further enhanced when we were passed by a boatload of Mexican men, heading off to work for the day.

I think multiple factors are involved in making Salineño one of my favorite places to go birding. First are the birds, of course. This is the best location in the ABA area to observe extremely restricted RGV specialties like Audubon’s Oriole, Red-billed Pigeon, and Muscovy Duck. The location also contains an abundance of all the fantastic Rio Grande Valley birds, and I saw many life birds here on my first visit in March 2011. Second is the location. The Rio Grande is probably more wild and unspoiled here than anywhere else east of Laredo, and the edge habitat created by the river makes birds easy to see. Finally, through a combination of these two factors, one really gets the sense of birding in the tropics, something that’s near impossible to come by in the rest of the ABA.

The best time to visit Salineño is probably February-March, when the three big species are easiest to see, the oriole thanks to a nearby feeding station that pulls them down to eye level. We were well past the location’s annual peak, with the winter visitors that maintain the feeders already gone, and had the spot to ourselves for the majority of our visit.

We walked up and down the river in both directions, our main goal simply to enjoy as many of the cool birds that this location offers as possible. In the end, we missed the three biggies, but still had a great time. Our highlights included loudly-calling Plain Chachalacas at sunrise, Northern Bobwhite, Gray Hawk, White-tipped Dove (calling from the Mexican side), Brown-crested Flycatcher, Western Kingbird, Green Jay, Olive and Lark Sparrows, Bronzed Cowbird, two Altamira Orioles building a nest (and mobbing a Crested Caracara that came too close), and three more White-collared Seedeaters singing along the river.

Crested Caracara


Crested Caracara and Altamira Oriole


American Coot

After Salineño, we birded some roads east of Falcon Dam State Park, where I’d had luck on my last trip to the area. The place was again birdy, and our highlights were great looks at a pair of Ash-throated Flycatchers, along with Harris’s Hawk, Cactus Wren, Cassin’s Sparrow, and Pyrrhuloxia.


Ash-throated Flycatchers

Eventually, we cut our losses and began heading north. We were slated to start making our way out to West Texas the next day, but in the meantime, we decided to dedicate the next twenty-four hours to pinning down some Edward’s Plateau specialties.

In the early afternoon, we stopped off on a productive piece of road, which yielded amazing looks at singing and skylarking Cassin’s Sparrows, in addition to Bell’s Vireo, Verdin, Curve-billed Thrasher, Clay-colored and Vesper Sparrows, and Blue Grosbeak.

Continuing on, we reached the Neal’s Lodges area outside Uvalde with a couple hours of daylight left. Our target bird at this location was a recently-reported Tropical Parula, which managed to evade us despite our best efforts. A Northern Parula that landed with its back to us got our pulses rising before turning around and slamming our hopes back down.

The avifauna of the Edward’s Plateau is on odd one. It is primarily Eastern, despite its longitudinal position, but also contains some Western and RGV species. Last but not least, its uniqueness is confirmed by the presence of a breeding endemic: the Golden-cheeked Warbler.

All of these groups were represented on our visit, during which species like Carolina Chickadee, Great Kiskadee, and Black-chinned Hummingbird were seen side-by-side.

After daylight ran out, we returned to Uvalde to regroup, with plans to return to the area at sunrise.

Day 5 (April 19) – The previous evening, we’d stopped at the Neal’s Lodges office before heading back to Uvalde. The purpose of our visit was to inquire if there were any local birders present that might be aware of the most recent locations where the Tropical Parula had been seen. We were provided with a number, but unfortunately, the person did not pick up. The next morning, just as we were about to leave to return to Neal’s, we received a call, and were provided with a location for the parula, as well as a couple other Edward’s specialties.

Upon arrival, we headed straight to the Tropical Parula location. Immediately upon exiting the car, we had a possible sighting, but the bird was too fleeting and frankly so unexpectedly sudden, that we weren’t able to clinch the ID. Dave and I eventually split up; while he went down to check the river (where we’d tried the previous evening), I remained at the spot we’d been given.

A few minutes later, I heard a Tropical Parula sing. After what seemed like an eternity spent frantically trying to pin the bird down, a stunning male Tropical Parula flew onto a dead branch right in front of me:

Tropical Parula
In the words of Dave Hursh, “like a ripe citrus fruit.”

Dave came up and caught the bird before it flew off (he’d seen them in the ABA area before, including at this same location). We also got glimpses of a second bird, which was probably a female. Mission accomplished.

We spent another hour and a half scouring the lodge grounds, looking especially for the two big Edward’s Plateau birds: Golden-cheeked Warbler and Black-capped Vireo. We heard one Golden-cheeked sing, but weren’t able to pin it down. With time running out, we decided to run to an area where these two species are found in higher density, before making the long drive west.

(Other highlights at Neal’s included an almost ridiculous proliferation of White-eyed Vireos, great looks at a pair of Canyon Wrens singing and moving about the cabins along the river, Olive Sparrow, Summer Tanager, and Blue Grosbeak.)

A little less than an hour after departing Neal’s, we arrived at the Lost Maples SNA (State Natural Area), site of my life Golden-cheeked Warbler in 2011. It is a beautiful location set amongst the rolling hills of the plateau, and we greatly enjoyed the brief time we spent birding there.

The standouts were of course the two biggies. We had tremendous looks at multiple singing Golden-cheeked Warblers (including scope views!), and followed a male Black-capped Vireo around for a while, receiving only occasional glimpses as a reward.

Poor photo of a Golden-cheeked Warbler

Other good birds on this short but very successful stop included White-tipped Dove, both Ruby-throated and Black-chinned Hummingbirds, and stunning male Lazuli and Indigo Buntings. The Edward’s Plateau sits right at the confluence of East and West, and seeing both representatives of these groups certainly illustrates that point.

A subpar photo, but the only one I’ve ever taken that shows Lazuli and Indigo Buntings in the same frame.
Lazuli Bunting alongside a House Finch severely infected with conjunctivitis.
Black-crested Titmouse, also from Lost Maples.

Eventually, we tore ourselves away, and headed west, excited to begin the final climax of our adventure.


Texas Part I

Note: Apologies for the long pause between posts. My first semester in college has had a strong grip on all of my available time. I hope to get the rest of the Texas posts and a summary of the birding I was able to do over the fall up here soon.

Day 1 (April 15) – Dave and I arrived at separate airports, so after grabbing the rental car, Dave headed up to IAH to pick me up. Soon after, we were on the road and headed east on I-10. En route to our hotel, we started picking up birds like Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, Red-shouldered Hawk, and Great-tailed Grackle. After checking in, we spent the rest of the afternoon birding the fabulous Skillern/East Bayou Tract of Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge. Before even arriving at the refuge, we picked up many trip birds on the nearby roads, including Cattle Egret, Belted Kingfisher, Eastern Kingbird, Cliff Swallow, Eastern Meadowlark, and Baltimore Oriole.

Our intentions for Skillern were to get in some quick birding before moving out for an early dinner. But the place was incredibly birdy, and even when dusk set in, large numbers of birds streaming overhead made it impossible to peel ourselves away. Skillern set the tone for the rest of the trip, and produced some awesome birds in the process. The highlights were many and varied and included both whistling-ducks, Mottled Duck, both bitterns (and ten Ardeids overall), Sora, both gallinules, Upland Sandpiper, Whimbrel, Long-billed Dowitcher, Common Nighthawk, Ruby-throated Hummingbird, White-eyed Vireo, Marsh Wren, Brown Thrasher, Black-and-white, Tennessee, and Blackburnian Warblers, Painted Bunting, Yellow-headed Blackbird, Boat-tailed Grackle, and Orchard Oriole.


Dusk at Skillern.

Eventually, it got too dark for us to see anything, although night-herons and ibis continued moving by. Night in Winnie.

eBird Checklists: Road to Skillern, Skillern.

Day 2 (April 16) – We awoke early for one of the most anticipated events of the trip: the ‘Yellow Rail Walk‘ at Anahuac. Arriving at dawn, we picked up some new trip birds while waiting for the group to assemble, including Neotropic and Double-crested Cormorants, Glossy Ibis, Roseate Spoonbill, Black-necked Stilt, Caspian and Forster’s Terns, Loggerhead Shrike, and Bronzed Cowbird. Several calling King Rails (a life bird for me) taunted us from nearby cover.

After a briefing from the refuge staffer, we were on the road, heading south among a caravan of cars to the aptly-named ‘Yellow Rail Prairie.’ Disembarking, half of the group gathered along a line of rope at the edge of the field, while the other half (those not interested in the physical labor of trudging through thick, wet grass) waited on the road.

Because the rails would rather run than fly, our plan to induce them into flight was to fill milk jugs scattered along our rope with rocks, line up elbow to elbow along the rope, and walk at a fairly brisk pace, clapping all the while. With this impenetrable line bearing down upon them, the rail would have no choice but to flush. Or so we hoped.

As we started walking into the field, we flushed a Yellow Rail almost immediately. The bird flew just above the grass for about ten yards, put on the landing gear (flashing those distinctive white secondaries), and once again disappeared into the mass. It was one of four Yellow Rails we would flush during the walk, of which we were able to obtain satisfying flight views of every individual.

Other rails soon followed including two Virginias and seven Sora. A couple dozen Seaside Sparrows were also around.

Having picked up our target species, we left the field in order to limit the amount of disturbance we made to the habitat. As we disengaged, we picked up great looks at a few nearby Sedge Wrens (some of which were singing) as well as a flyover Black Tern molting into alternate plumage.

But Black Rail (our primary target in this region) was on the back of our minds for the entirety of the walk. We had planned to spend all of Day 2, as well as Days 3 and 4, looking for this species at Anahuac and nearby San Bernard and Brazoria NWRs.

We had gotten a tip from some other birders that calling Black Rails were present across the road from the Yellow Rail Prairie the day before. Sure enough, as we walked onto the road from the field, we were told that there was a calling Black Rail in that exact spot. Straining our ears, we soon picked up the distinctive kikikerr of a Black Rail. Awesome! Soon after, another bird started calling nearby.

The rails were close, calling from some thick, high grasses between the edge of the road and a fence line perhaps ten feet in. Dave and I, sensing this was the closest we could get to seeing this bird, rallied the staffer to make a go. A group of four people lined up alongside the rail, in hopes of swinging around it and corralling the bird into view for the 50+ others to see. That attempt ended up being a disaster. In (understandably) tense anticipation, the birders on the road refused to take a few steps back to allow the rail some space, and those walking in the grasses were also unable to move the bird in the right direction. It soon called again from further down the fence line.

Desperate to try again, Dave and I urgently tried to get a word in with the refuge staffer to try to make another attempt. While waiting our turn, nearby birders hit us with comments like, “Well you know, you can get them on the Colorado River,” or “Lots of people have them in San Francisco Bay.” To this, I couldn’t have been more frustrated: “I’m here, I have a calling Black Rail six feet away, and you’re telling me to go to $%^##$# California?!” I thought. It was one of many moments we experienced during the time leading up to and during this quest when the the shroud of secrecy and denial in the birding community around this bird came to bear.

We finally mustered up a group to make another attempt. The thick grasses ended a few yards to our right, with a gate and a short road leading out into another field. We decided to move the bird that way. We walked and then began to run. People on our line of six or so started catching brief glimpses. We were certain we had it, and began to make a tightening circle around where we thought the bird would be. Eventually, with only a square foot for the bird to move around in, we got down on our hands and knees in a circle and started moving back the grass. Nothing. The frickin rail had gotten away.

After all that, Dave had caught a brief glimpse and I had still not seen the bird. Birders began leaving in droves. Soon, only seven of us stood there, staring at the grasses, contemplating our chances of seeing this ghost of the marshes.

Our small, stalwart group adamantly decided that we would not leave until everyone had seen the bird. In the back of my head, I prayed that if we still didn’t have the bird in thirty minutes, that the others would hold to that promise. Some of us started making tunnels to coax the bird to walk through, while others stood on the road strategizing. Eventually, we came up with the plan that would seal the deal.

Our situation was this: in front and to our left were long green grasses, with a fence a couple of yards in (beyond that was a clipped field). To our right the fence gave out in a few yards, to a gravel patch with a gate. The grasses continued up to the gate, but along the fence were replaced with a few bushes, which created small openings to look through.

We mustered up for our third attempt and managed to corral the bird under the bushes. Each of us then lined up on our hands and knees on either side, each person peeking into a different crevice. Eventually people started seeing it, and with calls of “moving to the left,” I knew the bird was bearing down on me. Soon it appeared, and I squinted at disbelief at how small it was. Suddenly it was there, in a small bare patch under the bush, simply walking and bobbing its body, paying no attention to the pair of eyes just a foot away. Its most striking feature was its eye, which gleamed crimson. I noticed the spotting on the upper parts and chestnut nape, but was surprised, as they appeared subdued and dull (perhaps a female?).

Over the next twenty minutes or so, I caught two more glimpses exactly like this one, and eventually everyone in the group had similar views. When Gary, the last of us who hadn’t seen it, connected with the bird, we all jumped up onto the road and started hugging and high-fiving. We were jubilant: we had seen what is arguably the hardest bird to glimpse in all of North America, and despite multiple failures, we had persevered and eventually got great looks at the bird. As we were chatting excitedly, the rail finally did what we were hoping for all morning: we caught it skittering away on some of our flattened grasses, directly out in the open for a few seconds, in full running retreat. Soon after, as if nothing happened, the rail resumed calling in earnest.

I didn’t bring my camera on the rail walk, nor did I bring it when looking for the Black Rail. It would have been extremely difficult to obtain photos of the Yellow Rail in flight and my lens simply was too long to have been able to focus on the Black Rail. Furthermore, with birds as elusive and difficult to see as these, I wanted my life looks to be as complete as possible, not marred by possible camera issues. Next time I attempt to look for these species, I will definitely try to photograph them, and will have to remember to bring along a 50mm lens for the Black Rail!

With no photos to show for our effort, I decided to sketch the Black Rail after returning home from the trip.

Leaving the rail behind, Dave and I realized that our next two days had been completely freed up, a bonus that changed the outcome of the trip in numerous ways, one of which was that we avoided the devastating rain and flooding that occurred in the Houston area, an extremely lucky break only possible thanks to the dedication of our small group.

We spent the next few hours birding the refuge, picking up species like Gadwall, Blue-winged Teal, Northern Harrier, both gallinules, American Coot, Crested Caracara, Peregrine Falcon, and a gorgeous male Golden-winged Warbler. We also made a strong attempt to see one of the calling King Rails, but came away empty handed. I find it slightly comical that I have now seen Black and Yellow Rails before King.

In the early afternoon, we traded Anahuac for High Island, our first stop being the famous Boy Scout Woods Sanctuary owned by the Houston Audubon. High Island was pretty slow that afternoon, but we were content with our FOY Swainson’s and Wood Thrushes, Worm-eating Warbler, Scarlet Tanager, and Rose-breasted Grosbeak.

We then moved over to the Smith Oaks Sanctuary, notching a female Hooded Warbler as well as a gorgeous male Summer Tanager, obviously exhausted as it sat still for most of the time in low vegetation.


Summer Tanager

We ended our day with a two-hour drive from High Island to Lake Jackson, from which we would launch the next phase of our trip.

eBird Checklists: Anahuac, Boy Scout Woods, Smith Oaks.

Looking ahead…

Early morning at Pine Creek Open Space in Fairfield, Connecticut. August 26, 2012.

Yesterday morning I hit Pine Creek for my first visit of this fall migration season. Despite solid conditions the night before, and large numbers of birds moving on radar, the place was mostly devoid of the desired passerine migrants (warblers). As happens often at the beginning of a season, the pace of migration gets off to a stuttering start, with cold fronts failing to pass against the wretched soup that currently pervades the region.

Such an event is normal, even expected. But what isn’t normal is my schedule for the fall, at least in comparison to the last decade of birding Pine Creek: I’m going off to college. After a long and protracted college application process, I am excited to be heading off to Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, in order to start the next phase of my education.

Overall, though, my feelings about leaving are melancholy. On one hand, I’m excited to begin a new phase of my life (and explore the birding opportunities Rhode Island has to offer), while on the other, I am still grappling with the end of an old one. Fall is a uniquely nostalgic time for me, when the excitement of being back on [the high school] campus was mixed with the wonderment toward the passing migrants experienced by birding my local patches on the weekends. Despite taking a gap year this past year, I was able to maintain the latter, but this year am letting both go.

Looking back, my summer has been pretty low-key. I broke my arm at the end of May and that and its associated surgery in mid July have kept me pretty sedentary. Because of that, I still have some financial wiggle room to go on trips when my school schedule allows.

I am also still working through photos from trips earlier this year. I came back from Australia with 11,000 photos, and have slowly worked to decrease that number. Here’s hoping I can get some of those photos on here soon.

It was impossible for thoughts of the myriad number of epic fall days I experienced at Pine Creek (and the associated positive times in my life) not to enter my mind this morning. They remind me of, despite all I’ve faced, how lucky I am to be alive and to be connected to birds.


Western Scrub-Jay is no more

California Scrub-Jay by Jerry McFarland via Flickr. From Woodhouse’s, note the extensive white line going well beyond the eye, the bright white of the throat flanked by the blue collar going nearly around the chest, whitish belly and vent, deeper blue to the upperparts, more contrasty mantle, and larger features (such as bill) and overall size (tough to judge from a photo).

In one of the most exciting annual AOU Check-list Supplements since I started taking interest in them almost a decade ago, Western Scrub-Jay (Aphelocoma californica) has been split into two species: California Scrub-Jay (A. californica) and Woodhouse’s Scrub-Jay (A. woodhouseii). Being Scrub-Jays, my favorite group of birds, this is a really thrilling occasion.

(Note: Michael Retter does his usual fantastic job at the ABA Blog summarizing the Scrub-Jay split along with the remainder of the taxonomic changes, some of which I hope to touch on soon. To see the actual supplement, click HERE. A worthwhile, if slightly foot-dragging, review on the three Western Scrub-Jay subspecies is advertised by Retter and can be found in the April 2016 issue of Birding).

The split of Western Scrub-Jay has been anticipated since 1995, when Florida Scrub-Jay (A. coerulescens) and Island Scrub-Jay (A. insularis) were split from Western. There was historical context for this anticipation, as from 1910-1931, the Western Scrub-Jay complex actually made up four species: California and Woodhouse’s Scrub-Jays, as well as the Blue-eared Scrub-Jay of Mexico (corresponding somewhat with Sumichrast’s Scrub-Jay, more below on that group) and the Texas Scrub-Jay.

In 2010, the initial proposal to split the species was rejected by the AOU Committee, with further research into genetic differences and hybridization needed. I recall this event as feeling fairly deflating, as even then, having only seen one Scrub-Jay, the genus Aphelocoma was nevertheless always in my thoughts as I longed for experience with its other members.

Following the rejection, further research by ornithologists (as cited in the aforementioned  Birding article by Dessi Sieburth) “suggest[s] that Woodhouse’s and California Scrub-Jays are more different [genetically] than previously thought.” Prior to the 2010 decision, research had also shown that these two species “appear to be more genetically different from each other than are the Island and California Scrub-Jays,” which makes sense when considering the split and the likely way in which Island Scrub-Jay speciated.

Six years later, the first entry in this year’s initial batch of proposals detailed the recommendation to split the two groups, citing the genetic study mentioned in the preceding paragraph in addition to a second study done in 2014, which dealt with contact zones and reproductive isolation.

The one glaring omission from all of this seems to be a further split of Sumichrast’s Scrub-Jay (a genetically and morphologically distinct subspecies of Woodhouse’s Scrub-Jay from Central Mexico), which the authors of this year’s proposal address:

With respect to the sumichrasti group (sumichrasti + remota subspecies), Gowen et al. (2014) confirmed reciprocal monophyly of mtDNA with respect to other woodhouseii individuals. The divergence between sumichrasti and populations of central Mexico is greater than the divergence between insularis and californica (Fig.1 below). In microsatellites, individuals of sumichrasti and southern populations of woodhouseii were largely assigned to different genetic clusters (Fig. 3E; Gowen et al. 2014). However, Gowen et al. (2014) did not assess populations close to the putative area of contact near Mexico City (Pitelka 1951). Despite compelling evidence that the populations in southern Mexico constitute a distinct species, there is insufficient information regarding reproductive isolation to recommend splitting the sumichrasti group at this time.

It is unfortunate that justice cannot be taken now, but we should be looking for Sumichrast’s Scrub-Jay to be split from Woodhouse’s Scrub-Jay in the next decade, if not sooner.

A fascinating point made here is the fact that A. californica and A. insularis are more closely related than sumichrasti and woodhouseii. Like that made above regarding the closeness of California and Island Scrub-Jays versus California and Woodhouse’s, this discovery is unsurprising when considering geography. Much of the range of Sumichrast’s Scrub-Jay lies south of the Mexican Transvolvanic Belt, a major geographic barrier that acts as a mechanism for speciation. A related, though not completely congruent example, can even be found within Aphelocoma, with Mexican and Transvolvanic Jays (A. wollweberi and A. ultramarina, respectively): Mexican Jay is found north of the belt, Transvolcanic Jay is found along it (a fascinating overview of Scrub-Jay speciation, centering on Island, Florida, and ‘Western’ Scrub-Jays can be found in this Neotropical Birds Account).

Woodhouse’s Scrub-Jay by John Breitsch via Flickr. In scouring photos for this post, I found it to be fairly easy to pick out the Woodhouse’s photos from the more numerous images of California Scrub-Jay. In comparison to the California at the top, this bird is overall less contrasty. Note the duller and shorter white line, less extensive blue bordering the duller white throat patch, tan lower chest and belly, faint blue vent, less contrasty mantle, and overall paler blue upperparts.

So what is the significance of this split?

Scientifically, it does ornithological justice by clearing up an issue that has come to light with further genetic research: the fact that ‘Western’ Scrub-Jay is in fact paraphyletic. As the authors of the proposal note: “because californica and insularis are sister lineages, maintaining the status quo is inconsistent with the treatment of A. insularis as a full species (AOU 1995).”

Personally, the split provided me with my first armchair tick ever, a long-awaited accomplishment (I couldn’t think of a better species for it to happen with!). I first saw Woodhouse’s Scrub-Jay over a year before my first California (March 30, 2011 to July 26, 2012), but the likely specific differences between these two definitely crossed my mind when I laid eyes on my first Cali, adding significance to the sighting. My initial encounter with that species took place while driving from San Francisco Airport to Point Reyes National Seashore on the first day of my and my dad’s epic 2012 California adventure. I glimpsed the bird on the side of the road as we drove by (we saw more during the trip), an unfortunate occasion for a first look, as the exact location of roadside sightings is often next to impossible to track down. Luckily for me though, the bird was along a memorably beautiful stretch of road, and a little ‘scouting’ on Google Maps Street View last night appeared to pick up on that original location.

Birding-wise, we will have to learn to get used to two new names, but the benefit of that is that it keeps the name ‘Western Scrub-Jay’ reserved for discussions of the species complex as a whole (i.e. the “Sage Sparrow Complex”). Initially, a lot of us (myself included) will likely slip up and reflexively call an individual by the former name, but in the vast majority of cases, the birder will be easily understood based on geography alone.

I find it wonderfully fortuitous that I was able to put this website together just in time to cover this split, likely one of the two last species-level changes in this seemingly straightforward yet phylogenetically complex group. There is still much to be learned about these birds, especially those south of our border, such as Sumichrast’s Scrub-Jay, whose continued connection to Woodhouse’s is likely only due to this hole in our knowledge.


In addendum: for a good map of former Western Scrub-Jay subspecies, see the sixth edition of the National Geographic Field Guide to Birds of North America.


American Ornithologists’ Union [AOU]. 2016. Fifty-seventh Supplement to the American Ornithologists’ Union Check-list of North American Birds. The Auk. 2016. 133: 544-560.

The History of Bird Names in the American Ornithologists’ Union Checklists 1886-2000: Swifts through Creepers [Internet]. [2008 May 24, cited 2016 Jul 9] . Available from: http://darwiniana.org/zoo/AOUmenu.htm

American Ornithologists’ Union [AOU]. 2010. Fifty-first Supplement to the American Ornithologists’ Union Check-list of North American Birds. The Auk. 2010. 127(3): 726-744.

Sieburth, D. North America’s Scrub-Jays: How Many Species? Birding. 2016. 48(2):52-56.

McCormack, J., Maley, J., Cicero C. Elevate Aphelocoma californica woodhouseii to species rank. AOU Classification Committee – North and Middle America Proposal Set 2016-A. 2015. 1:2-6.

Willow Flycatcher and the Trials of Year Listing

A territorial Willow Flycatcher at Ash Creek Open Space in Fairfield, CT. June 12, 2012.

I finally picked up my year Willow Flycatcher (Empidonax trailli) this morning. On July 6th. I’d spent multiple outings in the last couple weeks looking for this bird: an afternoon at all the best spots in Fairfield and a morning hitting the best locations on Cape Cod, from Eastham to Brewster to Barnstable. Thanks to a report for Tina Green, I paid the $9 entry fee and went for what has been a fairly reliable bird at Sherwood Island State Park in Westport. At first, I didn’t catch any sign of the bird at its favored wet ditch on the east side of the park. But then the bird called, and I was eventually able to catch a glimpse. Relief. Not from suffering or trauma. But from embarrassment.

Every year, there seems to be one bird or another that lingers far too long on my “NE Year Birds Needed” list. In 2014, it was Peregrine Falcon. In 2015, Marsh Wren was the bugger. And this year it was that aforementioned Empidonax.

I remember spending the last few days of 2010 furiously searching for Fox Sparrow, to no avail. All of these birds have widespread distributions and are on the scale of reliability in our region. But when there are so many to seek out annually, one or two inevitably slip through the cracks. For instance, I never made it to New York in time for the Kentucky Warblers at Doodletown (they stayed a lot later last year). Unlike the species mentioned above, this species is uncommon and rather restricted in our region, but not a species I wanted to miss (and at this point in the year, I’ve relegated it to the “Only by the grace of god” bin).

This is the stuff that fills the mind of a year lister. Year listing, for me (and many others), is mostly personal. I wasn’t worried about missing Willow Flycatcher because of what others might think. Birding always has been a very personal passion, and I was thus worried about missing the bird because I knew it would eat away at me.

Luckily, this seemingly easy species being outstanding for too long thing only seems to happen with one or two birds each year, and there are none I’m missing that currently fit that bill (at least for CT). Mostly, I find year listing to be a fun game of strategy and love competing with my previous totals. I also see it as a motivator to getting out into the field slightly more often and encouragement to visit new places.

I have kept a thorough year list since 2010, but am unfortunately thinking this will be my last year of dedicated year listing for a while. I will be heading off to college at the start of September (more on that soon), and unlike in middle and high school, I won’t have the same kind of flexibility or control on weekends. Besides, I have enough to worry about in college that doesn’t entail whether or not Glaucous Gull or Purple Sandpiper are still missing for the year.

I am fascinated to see how my interest in birds and birding will evolve as I move into the college and then the adult stage of my life. Maybe the year listing will come back at some point. Or maybe I just won’t be able to resist and will start one up for 2017. Or perhaps I’ll move on to another passion within birding (I already have several).

If anything, this whole exercise makes me appreciate that individual elusive species more. As I was driving to Sherwood, I remembered how an old birding friend and I used to love the Empid plates in the Peterson Field Guide, all illustrated for habitat coupled with song descriptions. I remember we were together the day I saw my first Willow Flycatcher. It was late June in 2008, and we were visiting a spot we visited at least weekly during that wonderful year: Larsen Sanctuary in Fairfield. It was the spot of so many firsts, from Yellow-bellied Sapsucker to Northern Pintail to Brown Creeper, so it’s not surprising to have first picked up Willow there. The bird was along the gasline cut that runs through the southern half of the sanctuary. I can still picture it in my head. Perched on one of the gas posts, eyeing us quizzically.