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No. 183 BATON ROUGE, LANovember 1998


Newsletter of the Louisiana Ornithological Society

Table of Contents

"Why Are All These People Picking On Me?" 1999 Yard List Competition
History of the LA List (Part 2, D. Muth) 1998-99 Xmas Bird Counts
Bird Records Committees (Part 3, D. Muth) LOS Fall Meeting Report
Mastering of the Process (Part 4, D. Muth) New Members/Changes
Id of Carpodacus Finches Jaeger ID Solution
Carpodacus Finch Figure 1999 LOS Winter Meeting
Swallow Roosts Winter Meeting Field Trips
All I Want for the Holidays . . . Birdwatching in NW LA
Project Feeder Watch LOS Officers
BREC Bluebonnet Swamp LOS Sales
The Botanical Birder Winter Meeting Registration
Wildlife Plant Sale Membership Form

Reporting Rare Birds or, "Why Are All These People Picking On Me?"
by David Muth
It might happen like this: you are out for a day of birding in January, enjoying yourself. You spot a kingbird perched on the overhead phone wire. You haven't seen any kingbirds for months, so you focus your binoculars, and, sure enough, it's not the old familiar Eastern Kingbird because it has yellow underparts: it must be a Western Kingbird. Great! You've seen Western Kingbird before while travelling through Texas as an incipient birder. Just last Spring down in Cameron you added it to your Louisiana list when you saw one on the barbed wire fence along the highway to Holleyman Sanctuary during LOS weekend. But this is your first sighting near home, in your favorite birding spot. .
That evening, as you are jotting down a few notes about the birds you saw that day, you remember the kingbird, and you pull out your favorite field guide to take a look at the illustration, just to savor the new bird for your area. But, wait a minute, according to the range map and the text, Western Kingbirds shouldn't be here in winter. And, come to think of it, how do you know it wasn't one of these other yellow-bellied kingbirds? In addition to Western, you've got to consider Couch's, or Tropical, or Cassin's. Uh-oh.
The next morning you leave for work a little early and drive past the spot. You are in luck! The bird is still perched on the same stretch of phone wire. You examine the bird carefully, and, sure enough, no white on the outer tail feathers: it must be one of the others. Its got a white chin, the breast looks pretty gray (but it is hard to tell in this light), and you can't see any fork to the brown tail at all. Great-- a life bird: this has to be a Cassin's Kingbird. You mention it to another more experienced local birder during a lunchtime phone call, who seems guardedly excited. She asks if she can post it on the Internet. Sure, why not? Next thing you know, someone has called asking a lot of questions and for directions to post it on the statewide Rare Bird Alert. But, unfortunately, it's not there when you stop by that afternoon, and no one else can find it thereafter.
And then it begins: the questions; the raised eyebrows; the patronizing re-assurances. "Did you get a photo?" "Of course you're aware that there are only about three previous records for Louisiana?" "I'm sure you must know that the white edge on the outer vane of the sixth retrix often wears off of verticalis?" "Sure, you ruled-out the obvious yellow-bellied candidates, but did you rule out an HY Thick-billed Kingbird?" "I know you understand that tail shape is an unreliable field mark, and that upper breast color can be very hard to see on an overhead bird, especially at first light." "One intriguing possibility that you may not have considered is the austral migrant, White-throated Kingbird of South America -- capable of long-distance trans-Amazonian flights, and a good candidate for mirror orientation (or overshot) vagrancy." "Did it vocalize?" "Did you take any field notes?" "Have you filled out a long form for the rare bird committee?" "You know, there are no previous documented records for the United States in January, except along the Mexican border and in California, and one winter record for Florida." And then, the unkindest cut of all: "Are you familiar with Eastern Phoebe?"
And you ask yourself: "Why are all these people picking on me?" Good question. In the worst light, you are being persecuted by a bunch of jealous competitors engaged with you in the game of birding. In the best light, you are being offered up as a sacrifice on the altar of science. It is really up to you to decide to which reality you want to consider yourself to have been subjected. Eventually, every avid birder will find a rare bird and face some version of the above. Some birders react to this invasion by vowing never to open their mouths again, to keep their own council, to confide in no one but their trusted friends. But if you choose to go on reporting birds to the birding public, you'll have to learn the unwritten rules, and prepare to play by them, or face the consequences.
It is important to remember that there are really two separate dynamics at play. The first is the game of birding and listing, a sometimes ferociously competitive sport. The second is the science of ornithology. Some people devote their field experience exclusively to one or the other of those pursuits. But most of us, from university zoology professors, to government biologists, to true amateurs like me, fall somewhere along the continuum between the two extremes. We are playing a game, but we want our observations to contribute, however marginally, to the scientific record; or, conversely, we are engaged in the profession of ornithology, but we relish the sport as well.
The game of birding can, like any game, be played by any rules you choose. You can play Monopoly by the Parker Brothers' rules written down on the inside of the box, or you can play by the great set of rules that evolved in my family after the box cover became too worn to read. You can play poker according to Hoyle, or you can play dealer's choice. You can add any bird to any list you keep, according to your own internal standards, or you can list according to the rules promulgated by the American Birding Association (ABA). Of course, if you ask the ABA to publish your year list, or life list total, or Big Day report, you are ethically obliged to compile your list according to their rules. Beyond that, though, the only thing that matters is that you are satisfied that you have met your own requirements for the admission of a bird to your list.
But be aware that there are a lot of other people playing the game, and if you report rare birds to them, they are going to want to know all about them, and all about you, and the questions will begin. You can shrink from those questions, or you can embrace the inherent challenge in them by sharpening your own skills and broadening your knowledge base. But, the truth is, as far as the game goes, in the end it all amounts to a hill of beans. Quick: who was the NFC's Western Division runner-up in 1995? And, even if you know the answer, does it really matter?
But what about the science? Ah, that is where our game gets really interesting. Science is a great jumble of theoretical constructs, of ideas, of mental formulations and inspired guesses. It is tied to reality only insofar as it is based upon and tested by data, by the accumulation of verifiable pieces of information. And that is just what we birders, we compulsive listers, are doing: accumulating bits and pieces of information, of data. Done carefully, bird watching can (and has) contributed valuably to ornithology, to understanding the ecology and behavior of birds, and has thus benefited wild birds.
Which brings us back to that "rare" bird of yours. ("Rare" has a lot of meanings: it could mean endangered, like an Eskimo Curlew; or out of place, like a White Wagtail in Louisiana; or in the right place at the wrong time, like a Blackburnian Warbler in Louisiana in late December, or rarely seen, like a Black Rail.) Documenting a rare bird contributes one more little piece of data to the science of birds, and, incidentally, to the game of birding. The scientific value of that piece of data is debatable, but I think that most knowledgeable observers would consider it to have some value well short of earth shattering, but beyond the merely trivial. One simple, but perhaps misleading, way to measure its value is to note that a lot of people want to know: did you really see a Cassin's Kingbird in Louisiana in January? In any case, if only for the sake of all the people who want to know the answer, it's important to try to get the answer right.
Muth's article continued
Table of Contents

Identification of Carpodacus finches.
Donna L. Dittmann and Steven W. Cardiff
Museum of Natural Science
119 Foster Hall, Louisiana State University
Let's take another look:
As Christmas Bird Counts are just around the corner, it seems like a good time to pick an under-publicized winter ID problem to review. Although field-guides seem to address the ID of this finch group adequately, it never hurts to re-emphasize ID features. Sometimes it just takes reorganizing the information into an easier format.
There are twenty-one species of Carpodacus finches. Most species in the genus occur in the Old World, with most representatives in Asia. The group is collectively referred to as the rosefinches to acknowledge the coloration of the males. Three species occur regularly in the US: House Finch (Carpodacus mexicanus), Purple Finch (C. purpureus), and Cassin's Finch (C. cassinii). One additional species has occurred as a vagrant (Alaska): Common Rosefinch (C. erythrinus). Only Purple and House finches have occurred in Louisiana.
House Finch is a relative newcomer to Louisiana. as an Introduced Species. After an illegal release of birds from a pet store in New York in 1940, this adaptable species (whose native range was the West and Mexico) gradually spread throughout the eastern US. The first report from Louisiana was from a feeder during the winter of 1977-78 in Natchitoches. It was accepted to the State List in 1986 as an Introduced Species. House Finch can now be found breeding in many urban and suburban areas of our state. House Finch numbers increase during the winter as northern birds move south to winter, and as individuals congregate at feeding stations. Peak counts occurred during winter 1995-96, but numbers dropped in subsequent years - coincidental with increasing reports of birds infected with avian conjunctivitis. Over the last decade, House Finch has become the expected Carpodacus at feeders.
Purple Finch is an irruptive species. Breeding well to the north of Louisiana, numbers of individuals visiting Louisiana vary from winter to winter from a few to many hundreds. Our last sizable invasions penetrating into southern Louisiana were in the mid-80s. At least a few Purple Finches are detected most winters. Purple Finch is rare before late November and rare after March, so any non-winter Carpodacus is more likely a House Finch. Suspected Purple Finches at feeders during non-invasion winters should be carefully scrutinized to rule out House Finch. Purple Finch is a regular at feeders, but many individuals may be found foraging away from feeders on pinecone crops, especially in pinewoods of the northeastern part of the state. This is especially true during non-invasion years.
Cassin's Finch, a western montane species, and a possible vagrant to Louisiana. Like Purple Finch, it is also an irruptive species. So, to sleuth out the possible Cassin's at your feeder (males and females resemble Purple Finch), you will have to be very familiar with the other two species! Fortunately, both House and Purple finches are easily drawn to sunflower and thistle seed feeders in urban and rural yards, where close, leisurely studies are possible.
House, Purple, and Cassin's finches are sexually dimorphic. Males are brightly dressed with a reddish head and breast. Purple and Cassin's finches tend to be more purplish-red than typical House Finches, which average more orange-red. But, some House Finches overlap in color with Purple, which is likely the cause most of the ID problems--a purplish-red finch is not necessarily a Purple. Females of all three species are generally dull brown above and white below, the white streaked with brown. Immature males are essentially identical to females until they obtain their adult colors in their second year. A mall percentage of immature males and adult females may show varying degrees of red in the plumage. The entire underparts may be washed with rose, or it may be restricted to the crown, chin, or cheeks. For that reason it is difficult to identify immature males versus females, unless, of course, the bird is singing!
The general structure of the two regularly-occurring species is very different. The most important features are: bill shape and size, overall body proportions, and shape of the tail.
House Finch is recognized by its more slender body proportions, short primary extention (the amount of "wing tip" that extends past the folded secondary feathers), and long, un-notched tail. Bill shape is also very different than the other two species. The culmen (ridge or top of the upper mandible) is curved throughout and giving the bill a somewhat "parrot-like" appearance.
Purple Finch is heavier-billed, the culmen is straight, but then has a distinct curve near the tip. Although there is overlap on the size of the bill with House Finch, in general, Purple Finch appears to be relatively larger-billed. The body is generally plumper and fluffier compared to a House Finch, and the tail is shorter and prominently notched. Purple Finch has a much greater primary projection.
Cassin's Finch is most similar to Purple Finch in overall bill and body proportions, and tail notch. The most notable difference is the shape of the bill. The bill appears large, like a Purple Finch, but has a straight culmen without the curve at the tip. This gives the bill a very triangular-look or chisel-like appearance.
Adult males = birds with red crowns and breasts.
The most important features to study are the shape of the bill, coloration of the back, shape of the tail, and pattern of the undertail coverts.
House Finch has underparts streaked with brown beneath the red breast. The color of "red" can vary from a pale yellow to orange, reddish-orange, or purplish-red (same as a Purple or Cassin's finch). The red does not often bleed onto the plain brown back. The undertail coverts are distinctly streaked.
Purple Finch has clean, unstreaked underparts, usually including the undertail coverts. The flanks may have streaks, but these do not continue across the belly as does the streaking on a House Finch. The typical color of the head and breast is a rose-red, wine-red, or purplish-red. The color never approaches the orange-red tones of the House Finch. The crown is often the most brightly colored area on the bird, and the reddish color usually continues as a wash down the back, which is only vaguely streaked. There is varying amounts of grissled-white in front of the eye and across the forehead, a pattern essentially lacking in House Finch. Some birds also have a hint of head markings similar to female-plumaged birds, including a brownish cheek patch and moustache stripe.
Cassin's Finch has unstreaked underparts except for streaking on the undertail coverts and sometimes on the flanks. The flank streaking is usually very fine, unlike the coarser streaking of the Purple. Some red-breasted males (younger individuals?) show streaking on the sides. The back is noticeably streaked with darker brown. The "red" coloration is most similar to a Purple Finch (and similarly does not show the range of colors as a House Finch). The purplish-red is brightest on the crown and is accentuated by the brown-streaked back. The breast is typically paler purplish-red. Cassin's also shares with the Purple the grissled-white areas on the face, as well as the hint of female-type head markings.
Females and immature males = brown birds with streaks.
Female-plumaged birds (including immature males) are probably more distinct once you get past the superficial appearance of a generally brown-backed bird with a dark-streaked dull white breast. Important features are those of the head (pattern and bill structure), degree of streaking on the back (especially important to ID a Cassin's Finch), and pattern of the undertail coverts. Purple and House finches have relatively uniform back patterns, Purple appearing slightly more streaked, and Cassin's is obviously streaked. Pine Siskin (Carduelis pinus) is also a brown bird with streaks. It is approximately 1/3 smaller than the three Carpodacus species an has a very small pointed bill. Most individuals also show a prominent yellow stripe in the primaries, lacking in the Carpodacus finches.
Purple Finch has a pronounced face pattern: light post-supercilliary stripe, dark cheek patch, and a dark malar patch (like a heavy moustache). The chin may sometimes appear all dark as some females have streaks between the moustache stripes, whereas other females appear white-chinned. There is usually white in the loral area and on the forehead. The face pattern literally jumps out at you. The streaking on the underparts is either formed by indistinct arrowhead-shaped blobs of dark or thick long streaks. Undertail coverts are essentially all white; some individuals may have obscure streaks (more common in the western subspecies that sports a more "greener" tone to the upperparts).
House Finch is relatively bland-looking. The post-supercilliary stripe is usually barely visible, there is no pronounced cheek patch, and there is no moustache mark, so the head looks more uniformly brown. There is usually no white on the forehead or in the loral area. The underpart streaks of House Finch are generally thinner.
Cassin's Finch is very similar in appearance to Purple Finch. The major plumage difference being the streaked back and undertail coverts.
The call notes of the three species are very different. Away from feeders, these species are often first located by their flight notes as they hurtle overhead. Away from feeders, this is the way birds are located on CBCs.
House Finch has a simple, House Sparrow-like chirp. A good rendition is "churt". House Sparrow is the only bird whose call could easily be confused with House Finch.
Purple Finch as a single, "pick" note. Beware of confusion with distinct Red-winged Blackbird call notes.
Cassin's Finch utters a more complex two-three-noted "chi de ep" call.
Table of Contents

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LOS News Editor: Carol Foil, 1180 Stanford Ave, Baton Rouge, LA 70808
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posted 21November1998