2birdfeature #4

20130719-DSCN1290 Today's 2birdfeature presents a challenge. Every birder in the history of the world wrestles with an ID from time to time. Today is my day. I gave myself 10 minutes to ID this sparrow species above and I have come to no sure conclusion. Have a closer look.

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Most importantly, I know the bird is a juvenile. Two things tell me this right away. Have a look at the base of the bill. See that little yellow fleshy bit? That is a relic of being a baby. It disappears gradually and is then covered over by feathers. Secondly, the condition and coloration of the feathers tell me that the bird is young. Possibly only a week or two post-fledge.

What else do I know about the bird to make me assume sparrow species? Bill shape. It's not deep enough for a finch bill and not skinny enough for the bill of a vireo or thrush. Plus sparrow species are very numerous and populous in Washington, USA.

If you think you know what this little bird is, please venture a guess! I haven't the time to spend on thoroughly identifying him or her.

The second species today is a bit easier to ID.

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Blackish Oystercatchers are visually striking shorebirds with a very loud call and a propensity to scuttle along the rocks searching for mussels, limpets and barnacles to eat. They nest on bare rocks or tiny depressions in the sand that they scrape. Usually, oystercatchers position their nests as close to the high-water mark as the tide permits. Oystercatchers often have a low success rate hatching chicks because of their very exposed nests. If they get up to feed, gulls and mammals capitalize on the opportunity to snack on their eggs. Also, it would be very easy to step on their eggs if one was not being careful, as is the case for many shorebirds.

I took the following photos on a particularly foggy morning so the color and lighting is off. I hope you enjoy this beautiful bird anyway! See you this weekend!

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Grad School Updates

I didn't forget that I had a blog but I didn't exactly remember that I had one either. I just read my last post about studying Snowy Plovers and shorebirds and memories of Killdeer and blah blah blah. Great Scott are we ever in need of an update. EVERYTHING has changed. Except for the fact that I'm still studying birds and analyzing their vocalizations. I just wrote my first real research proposal. Or well, a draft of it. It was the longest 20-page word assemblage I have ever manifested into being. Because I'm that far along, I think it appropriate for an update of what I'm really doing. I have moved past the broad order of Charadriiformes (shorebirds) and honed in on the family Alcidae. This family includes puffins, auklets, murres, guillemots and other seabirds. There is an abundance of pelagic seabirds here in Newfoundland but I couldn't possibly do the easy thing and study birds here. I am traveling to Protection Island, Washington in that other large ocean across the way this summer to do my field term. I have further focused on two alcid species: the Rhinoceros Auklet and the Pigeon Guillemot (pronounced GILL-UH-MOT).

Here's the distinguished Rhino Auklet:

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The skinny on this species:

Rhinoceros Auklets are about a foot long and weigh roughly one pound. Both males and females have the characteristic "horn" on their bills which sheds off its outside covering once a year. They are nocturnal (which makes researching them interesting). Their culinary preferences include fish and crustaceans. They nest in burrows on grassy slopes and cliffs and only incubate one egg per year. The late stages of incubation up until the chick fledges is my time to shine. I will record the chick's vocalizations and take daily mass and length measurements. I have termed the Rhino Auklet chicks "puffles" and here's why:

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Nuff said.

The Pigeon Guillemot:

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And its chick:

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The Pigeon Guillemot is around the same size as the Rhinoceros Auklet. It is diurnal (sleeps at night, awake during the day). It also enjoys fish. It prefers crevices and burrows to nest in and lays 1-2 eggs per year.

I am doing a similar study with these guys. The reason that the two are a good comparison is because of where they occur on their family tree or phylogeny. The Rhinoceros Auklet, which is part of the puffin clade is more ancestral than the Pigeon Guillemot which means that the Pigeon Guillemot is essentially a newer species than the Rhino Auklet. Analyzing and comparing their calls says something about how speciation has affected the vocalizations in this lineage of birds. You see, alcids (or pelagic seabirds) don't learn their calls. They are born with every call they will ever need to know. This doesn't mean they make adult sounds when they are chicks, it just means that they are not learning from mom and dad nor are they learning other sounds such as the way a Northern Mockingbird can mimic other birds or parrots can learn our words. Because both of these species exhibit non-learned calls, we know that they are good indicators of phylogenetic signal, a physical character (the call in this case) that has evolved slowly enough to maintain the same state in closely related species.

So it's like any perfect relationship. The birds are different enough to stay interesting but similar enough to group together and compare.

I want to devote an entire blog to describing Protection Island because it is magnificent enough to deserve its own mention. I feel at least a bit better now that I have updated this blog though. And as usual, these pictures don't belong to me so kudos to the people who were cool enough to take them. Stay tuned, more exciting bird adventures to come...

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