Common vs. Boat-tailed Grackle

Common species are common for a reason. Just as rare species are rare for a specific purpose. Just because species are rare does not mean that they are threatened or endangered. Species will exist for as long as they have an important niche in the ecosystem. And then they will go extinct. Often, people forget the difference between interfering and practicing conservation. There's absolutely no need to hang bird feeders in the forest, for example. That is interfering. But picking up garbage and respecting a bird's nesting area are examples of practicing conservation (and decency in general).

Two things come to mind here. 1) As exciting as birding is, it's important that we not get too close/be too disruptive with our gawking and photography. 2) Also, because there are species all over the world with very specific ranges, it's important that we bring binoculars everywhere we go and bird every minute of our waking hours.

This is a bird you've all seen before. The Common Grackle.

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I don't want to mislead you. I get very excited about each and every common bird. They're vital for the world around us. When people say, "You've seen a House Sparrow before Steph, what's the big deal?" I say, "But I haven't seen this House Sparrow. This particular one."

These glossy iridescent birds were filling their bills with bugs and then transporting them all over the glades. Let me zoom in so you can see just how many bugs.

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Sometimes near identical birds inhabit the same space. One may be very common like our Common Grackle above and the other, less common. Like these Boat-tailed Grackles.

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The main difference here is the tail. Boat-tailed Grackles have longer, more square tails. Their eyes are black instead of yellow and as you can see, the females are more brown.

The difference in range is astronomical. Common Grackles inhabit much of North America; from the Rockies eastward. But Boat-tailed Grackles stick to the Gulf of Mexico and the east coast of the United States.

Just in case you have your camera with you and are photographing birds, it pays to spare a few snaps for a bird that you think is common. Sometimes you get lucky upon returning home and realize you have captured more than one species. A look-alike!

Sandpipers are coming at you on Wednesday so be ready!

Saying Goodbye to Protection Island

20130816-DSCN1951 "At night I pedaled my rusty borrowed bicycle back to my sleeping bag. Rushing to beat the wind that swept the light from the sky. Hurrying past the tool shed that I hoped was empty of life. And in the morning I woke to the feeling of soft open air and the sporadic sting of grass seeds in my socks." --- from my journal shortly after departing the island

It's difficult to think of a proper send off for my time on Protection Island. I thought perhaps I would write a long post and try to capture every single memory that I made there. But it seems that photographs are really the only way for me to show you the beauty and pleasant isolation I came to know as a castaway.

I chose sunsets because they were spectacular firework displays every night. They were a reward for 20-hour work days and a show that only I had seats to. Please enjoy this gallery of Washington sunsets and let me know what you think. Thanks for reading!

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Tufted Puffins on Protection Island

20130620-DSCN0431 It was my second or third day on Protection Island. Dr. Jim Hayward of Andrews University took me out in his boat with a few other castaways to have a look at the northwest side of the island. There were eagle nests on one stretch and as the cliffs became steeper, westward, crevices and burrows erupted with tiny black flashes of wings. At one time, many more Tufted Puffins lived on the island. Now, there are only a handful of breeding pairs. They nest right next to their cousins, Rhinoceros Auklets. The rhinos, as you know, are my main study species and were my principal cause for inhabiting the island.

This was my very first look at a Tufted Puffin.

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Notice the two feather tufts that run down the back of the head. Those are both the namesake of the puffin and an attractive accoutrement for the breeding season. During winter, the tufts fall off and black feathers fill in the white spots on the face. The puffins also shed the enormous red bill plates and leave the birds looking almost unrecognizable from their summer costumes.

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Tufted Puffins were once a common bird all the way down the California shoreline but are now being seen less and less (even decreasing in numbers as far north as Protection Island, my field site). This is due to a host of introduced predators: rats, foxes, mink, feral cats and dogs, and livestock like goats, sheep and rabbits. Of course, the most direct threat to Tufted Puffins is human disturbance. This is partly why Protection Island went from being a vacation destination to a refuge where tourism and fishing are not allowed on the island at all. The Dungeness crab fishery is very present around the island but vessels must stay at least 200 yards away to respect the buffer zone that the birds utilize, especially during the breeding season.

It is a beautiful and important island worth protecting.

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Come back tomorrow for another post on this double-feature weekend!