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Here We Go Again

The shorebirds are the most recent group to see radical realignment due to recent genetic research. It’s fascinating science, but what does it mean for the regular birder?

The American Ornithologists’ Union’s Committee on Classification and Nomenclature of North and Middle American Birds—the AOU Check-list Committee, for short—sure has been busy of late. Splits (lots) and lumps (not so many), especially those affecting North America north of the U.S.–Mexico border, inevitably elicit the loudest response from birders. But maybe the most substantial changes are the big checklist shuffles, dramatically affecting the linear sequence of bird names across large swaths of the Check-list.

In recent years, the Check-list Committee has massively reorganized such speciose and familiar groups as the gulls, terns, and warblers. Remember all those Larus gulls? Many of them have new scientific names, and new positions on the Check-list. How about the Sterna terns? They were even more drastically overhauled. And, of course, the Dendroica warblers. Birders took that one especially hard, it seems to me. There’s just something really weird, I guess, about seeing the familiar ole Black-throated Green Warbler practically at the bottom of the warblers, with a new name (Setophaga), no less—way, waaay further down the checklist than the Ovenbird, the Northern Waterthrush, and the Connecticut Warbler.

ShorebirdsWhat’s next?

How about a major reorganization of the large sandpiper family, so well represented here in North America.


The AOU has already made inroads here. The genus Tringa (the “shanks”) was recently reorganized, with such surprising results as the placement of the distinctive Willet not only within the shanks, but, in fact, between the Greater and Lesser yellowlegs.

Now, Paul Hess reports in the March/April 2013 Birding (“Sorting Out the Shorebirds,” pp. 27–28), a considerably larger overhaul may be in the works. Check out the figure at right, a distillation of a major new analysis by Rosemary Gibson and Allan Baker. In the Gibson–Baker scheme, the phalaropes would be united with the shanks. The godwits and curlews—which I’d always thought of as pretty close—would be quite far apart. Think about it: The Marbled Godwit, in this configuration, is closer to the Ruff and the Broad-billed Sandpiper than it is to the Long-billed Curlew.

Speaking of Ruffs and Broad-billed Sandpipers, the new research—reported by Gibson and Baker in Molecular Genetics and Evolution 64:66–72—proposes genus-level changes that will surprise almost all of us. Check this out: The Ruff, Broad-billed Sandpiper, and Sharp-tailed Sandpiper are closely related to each other, according to the new research. What about the Sharp-tail’s kissing cousin, the Pectoral Sandpiper? In the new arrangement, the Pec goes with Western Sandpiper, Semipalmated Sandpiper, and—wait for it—Buff-breasted Sandpiper.


I could go on, but you get the point. If the Gibson–Baker findings are evaluated and accepted by the AOU, our checklists will look very, very different. Which brings me to a question:

Do you like all these changes?

I confess, and I think many of you already know: I love these checklist changes! For me, it’s exhilarating to be a birder in an era of such rapidly evolving knowledge and understanding. At some point in the next few weeks, I’ll be seeing Greater and Lesser yellowlegs, Wilson’s Phalaropes, Willets, Marbled Godwits, and Semipalmated Sandpipers. And I’ll look at them with eyes wide open, wondering anew about their similarities and differences, their behavior and ecology, their vocalizations and plumages.

Offshore, I’ll see some ducks—they’re related to turkeys and chachalacas. A grebe will swim by—apparently, it’s allied with the flamingos. Then, if I’m lucky, a Peregrine Falcon will put up the shorebirds. And check this out: That Peregrine is more closely related to the pipits and swallows along the shore than it is to the Red-tailed Hawk sitting in the tree a bit farther out.

“There is grandeur in this view of life,” Charles Darwin wrote, in the finale to his Origin of Species, “…that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”

There is grandeur, too, in the view that human learning and understanding are forever advancing. Wouldn’t it be boring if the state of our knowledge suddenly froze in place? Wouldn’t it be disappointing if our checklists suddenly stabilized, never to change again?



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Ted Floyd

Ted Floyd

Editor, Birding magazine at American Birding Association
Ted Floyd is the Editor of Birding magazine, and he is broadly involved in other programs and initiatives of the ABA. He is the author of more than 100 magazine and journal articles, and has written four recent books, including an ABA title, the ABA Guide to Birds of Colorado. Floyd is a frequent speaker at birding festivals and state ornithological society meetings, and he has served on the boards of several nonprofit organizations. Mainly, he listens to birds at night.
Ted Floyd

Latest posts by Ted Floyd (see all)

  • What a grand subject, worthy of discussion. This is a fine blog for airing it all out!

    At issue here, I think, is the relationship between committees and this emerging science (which must publish, something, to maintain funding, credibility, contact with colleagues in the field, even if that something is tentative or preliminary, as is the case for so many papers that rest primarily on biochemical analysis in the past 20 years) – and in turn the relationship of the high-level checklist committees with people in the field who actually use checklists to record data (or to write field guides, etc., for folks who are presumably in the field some of the time).

    I confess the insertion of Willet between the yellowlegs species got my attention. I don’t have data to demonstrate this is incorrect, of course, but – as with the warblers – the end result of these massive upheavals is that I have to hunt around more to find taxa that used to be easily located. That seems only to increase and accelerate as the years pass. It’s not enjoyable to have these lists in such flux, particularly when it seems to me that so much of the shuffling and re-shuffling lands us back in familiar terrain and sequence (though, no, not always). I don’t mind that the AOU has taken a few decades to watch the falcons settle into their new place in the checklist. That was 20 years in which I could do my hawkwatch checklists much more rapidly. It’s less relevant to me that falcons are related to parrots when I’m entering data at a hawkwatch; I’m watching migratory “raptors” (that grab-bag concept), and it’s great to have them close to one another on the checklist.

    I am often happily surprised that my degreed ornithologist friends likewise have great difficulty keeping up with the rapid changes in sequence and in scientific name. It’s not easy, especially if your work includes the New World tropics, or even just the AOU North American Checklist area. But even keeping up with the ABA Area is challenging, and I find that many manuscript submissions contain numerous errors.

    The divergence here between the needs of science/committees and non-specialist users is germane in the context of some field guides, notably the Peterson field guide series, which will remain perpetually out of date because they have tried to stay current with changing AOU Checklist order. That field guide’s raison d’être and history – to help people identify birds that look similar – is partly lost. And I’m not sure why. To teach people about evolutionary history? I don’t think of that as a primary motivation for people using a field guide.

    I hear ya, Ted – “Change is good! Shake it up! Learn! Live! It makes for great grist for the mill of the mind!” And surely, we are getting closer to an accurate understanding of bird relationships rather than farther away. But sometimes, you know, I just want to enter my data, brush my teeth, and go to bed. My greatest need is for convenience when interacting with all these brave new checklists and technologies.

    Let me be clear: a checklist with a standard order is desirable to maintain scientific standards, and the AOU Checklist Committees do a service to the birding community (and for no pay!). But the end-users of the various checklist products are not well served by constantly shifting sands (except for the people who just put a check mark next to a species and are “done” with it, I guess). Perhaps we could have checklists that arrange birds by family (or better, by order?) and that then list birds by English name alphabetically. Maybe that would be a compromise for end-users who are not coming to a checklist to study birds’ evolutionary relationships.

    I admit I am going blind trying to find warblers when I do my eBird checklists – and most warblers haven’t arrived here yet! I would love to believe my scientific colleagues who tell me that we’re “almost done” with the shifting sands, but I just can’t quite believe we are.

    Ned Brinkley
    Cape Charles, VA

  • James Swanson

    Taxonomics is my passion and I love seeing new classifications based on good science. I was delighted with the new warbler classification and other restructuring of bird taxonomics like the moving of falcons closer to parrots and passerines. However, Steve Howell’s recent remarks have given me pause. What happened with the studies on New World Vultures? How could they have been so wrong? Have DNA studies reached the point of being reliable science? I hope so. If not, then science is not advancing. We are not getting a clearer understanding of bird taxonomics, we are getting more confused. There was no grandeur in putting New World Vultures with Storks, although at the time we could have trumpeted it just as loudly. I disagree with the opinion stated above: “Change is good!”. No it isn’t if it’s based on bad science. Perhaps some will think I am some kind of wet blanket or a backward thinking anti-Darwinist. Perhaps I am being overly cautious, but I just want to be sure that the changes are warranted, that they reflect real relationships and not some flaw in DNA studies. Some reassurance would be welcome.

  • James,

    When we (as scientists and hobbyists) have absolutely no way to determine historical evolutionary relationships with 100% certainty, all we can do is rely on the best available methods to give us an idea of the most probable scenarios. What you are asking for are scientific hypotheses (that’s really what modern phylogenies are) that are pre-screened to be totally correct. By the very definition of a hypothesis, this is impossible. I understand that it is frustrating to have species bouncing around to different positions on the checklist every 6 months, but that is the nature of the game and just like Ted, I think it makes looking at birds all the more interesting.

    If we want a checklist that is super-simple to get around, and will remain stable relative to taxonomic revelations (true or false), we may as well just put the birds in alphabetical order by common name (I’m actually half-serious).

    And if you guys think the ABA are is bad…come join me in tropical Asia. Most of the diversity of S. America, and none of the history of rigorous science. It’s a mess!

    Andy Boyce
    Sabah, Malaysia

  • Another quick note; Using the absolute best available phylogenetic techniques is NOT CHEAP!!!! We’d all love to drive around in Porsches and Land Rovers but alas that is not the case.

    Andy Boyce

  • Steve Howell

    I agree with the sentiments of Ned Brinkley: I just want to do my notes and go to bed, and be able to find things in a list. That said, my notes follow my own sequence and I pay no heed to the AOU sequence (or even species definitions). However, I also agree with Ted Floyd that the newest taxonomic findings are fascinating and thought provoking, but I wear a different hat when I think about them. And that seems to be the crux of so many discussions – two things are often different vs. better and worse.

    Taxonomy versus field guides and checklist sequences? Yet another case of 2 systems, which are *different* not *better* or *worse*. It is a bit like molt – birders can communicate just fine with non-breeding plumages, adult plumages, etc. Ornithologists trying to understand the evolution of molt strategies, however, can communicate better with the Humphrey-Parkes system. Two systems, two end users, both well served by different systems. Another analogy would be birders using English names, scientists using scientific names – 2 systems, both useful to their respective audiences.

    If you want to find something in a field guide, or in different checklists – between regions, states, and even between years (!), then a fixed, *common sense* order is far more efficient; higher-level taxonomy is irrelevant to these aims. Field guides are written for birders, not for taxonomists, and taxonomic hypotheses, like the H-P molt system, are for scientists. Do you need to know the exact sequence of notes to identify different tunes and to arrange your music collection? Do you need to know the exact chemical composition of waves to go surfing? Can you not own a pet dog until you fully understand its phylogenetic history? Would you like all the vegetables at the market to be arranged taxonomically; would that help you find an apple?

    An imperfect but non-changing sequence of families, one that can be widely understood and learned, seems preferable to an imperfect list that is constantly changing in small and fiddly ways and which, by definition, cannot possibly reflect evolutionary relationships in a linear sequence and so is inherently flawed.

    Obviously, the *non-changing* list should be flexible for species-level splits and such, and perhaps every few years could be tweaked in the light of some significant family-level revision. Meanwhile, the taxonomic sequence could change radically, and change back, and then change again, but the birder on the street (indeed, many ornithologists, conservation organizations, and anyone who is not a professional taxonomist) would not be inconvenienced by something that has little if any bearing on what they do. *Convenience rules America, convenience owns our soul* as Felix Dennis wrote, and in this case convenience also = efficiency. Those birders who are fascinated by exploring taxonomy (and I include myself here) can do so; however, it is a field that need not be forced on the birding populace, as it is today.

    There is in fact a growing movement towards adopting a standardized, non-changing *world list* for bird families, driven by birders for birders. It is the simple, logical idea of waterbirds followed by landbirds, etc (as advocated for field guides in the November 2009 issue of Birding, pages 44-49, and used in *The Crossley Guide* and increasingly elsewhere)

    If this sequence of bird families gets established, and offered as an option by, say, eBird or the International Ornithological Congress world checklist, then I would be surprised if many birders opted to keep their notes in a constantly changing taxonomic sequence vs. a standard, non-changing sequence.

  • In a 2009 commentary in Birding, Steve Howell and colleagues explore the taxonomy vs. field guides argument. Here’s the link:

  • I replied to Ted on this post last week and perhaps it’s still relevant in these changing times.

    Hi Ted –

    Thanks. In general I agree and don’t mind grand reshuffles and changes to families and even genera (species?…well you know my thoughts on that).

    But this comes with two presumptions, 1) the genetic analyses are correct or at least vastly improved over what was there, and 2) this will all die down some day. On point 1), I agree with Steve to a certain extent. Do we really need to immediately ask “how high”? when the latest genetic analyses say “jump!”. Evolution took a while to get us where we are, do we really need to react in the same month or the same year or the same decade or even the same century? I do worry about reliving Steve’s oriole tale over and over, and I’ve yet to be convinced that our understanding of the “latest” genetic techniques are that much improved over those of a decade ago. But, anyway, I’ve taken a new stance of trying to be as amused as possible by humans, and at this perspective I’m with you.

    I’m still hopeful about point 2).

    BTW, I’ve long argued that Sharp-tailed and Pectoral sandpipers are NOT sister, just because they can be hard to ID (but don’t molt the same or have the same breeding systems, sexual dimorphism, etc.) so on at least that tidbit of the latest analyses, I’m thumbs’ up.

    Also I wrote this in a review of McCarthy’s hybrid book for Western Birds several years (2006), perhaps a plug for the alphabetical species concept (ASP, which might not bite as hard..)

    “When I first opened the book, to the ever-popular (when it comes to hybridism) wood-warblers, I noticed that Dendroica preceded Vermivora and that Parula fell between Oporornis and Seiurus. Had the American Ornithologists’ Union (AOU) come out with a new supplement to its checklist? No. Rather, within each taxonomic division species are listed alphabetically by scientific name, a strategy I came to appreciate after just a few minutes of using the book. To save space, an account and the citations for each hybrid are listed only once, under the first parental species alphabetically, and are then cross-referenced under the second species. With increasing instability and confusion regarding “official” taxonomic sequences (e.g.,
    Sibley and Monroe vs. the AOU, the latter now recommending new sequences every
    year), the listing of species alphabetically is a straightforward approach that results in a lot less difficulty in the search for a cross-referenced taxon.”


  • Peter Pyle

    Do I type things too fast sometimes? Just ASC me and I’ll say yes.

  • Paul

    As a birder I thoroughly enjoy and like the yearly AOU taxonomic changes, but that doesn’t mean I think field guides should follow taxonomic order. And vice versa, I would like a stable field-friendly sequence for my guides as proposed by Howell, but that doesn’t mean the AOU needs to slow down in order to stabilize their checklists. We can have it both ways.

    These are 2 very different checklists that can be confused as either/or, but we can really have both. I don’t think the AOU should be faulted for updating their scientific taxonomies, but field guides could be faulted for following them.

  • I agree with Ned and Steve on their comments on this issue, but perhaps we should go a little farther? They and Peter Pyle have suggested the idea of a different, mostly stable, listing sequence for birding, one that is separate from that in-flux beast used for science. I’m not the first to suggest that this goes a step beyond and have the birding list be at the “identifiable form” level, and avoid using the term “species” – leaving it to give headaches to the scientific community. All that would then be needed is a cross-reference (perhaps maintained by the ABA Checklist Committee, who might also come up with a definition for the birding term) to translate between the two lists. The term “identifiable form” is clumsy, and no doubt someone has a more succinct term, and I think we’d all get use to it over time, and to it’s fluid relationship with the scientific term “species”.
    On a different tack, Ted’s provision of some of the detailed snippets of the proposed new phylogeny shout out “geography” rather than “morphology”, in that many of the examples he used have grouped birds from the same continent together. This suggests to me a strong Convergent Evolution element at play – if the proposed taxonomic sequence is correct. Perhaps the reason Marbled Godwit looks so similar (plumage-wise) to Long-billed Curlew is because after its ancestors arrived from Eurasia (godwits closer to Eurasian taxa), there was strong selective pressure to do so in the same primary environment?

  • This is a serious question: To those of you who favor a stable field guide checklist taxonomy and sequence, on what authority would you base it? The Peterson Guide you grew up with in the 1960s? The Nat Geo you grew up with in the 1980s? The Sibley Guide you grew up with in the 2000s?

    Still, aren’t y’all tilting at windmills? I mean, even if you aspire to keep the linear sequence stable, what do you about the massive changes that have nothing to do with checklist sequence per se?

    I just whipped out my Peterson 4th from 1980, the bird book I grew up with, and it’s got Blue-gray Tanager and Eurasian Goldfinch, but not Purple Swamphen and Eurasian Collared-Dove; it’s got Sharp-tailed Sparrow, but not Nelson’s and Saltmarsh sparrows; it’s got Cave Swallow in an appendix with Stolid Flycatcher and Antillean Palm Swift, but it’s got Corn Crake, Scarlet Ibis, and even King Vulture in the main text; it’s not got Cackling Goose, but it’s got something called Rufous-sided Towhee; etc., etc.

    Hey, no diss at all on Peterson-4; it was great at the time. But there have been massive changes, these past 30+ years, to our checklists in ways that have nothing to do with linear sequence. If you keep the checklists stable, you’re still constantly updating with splits and lumps, new distributional knowledge (think tubenoses), truly new distribution (think Cave Swallow), newly introduced and established exotics, extinction and extirpation, deletions (Peterson-4’s got Cape Petrel, Greater Antillean Bullfinch, and Caribbean Coot), and a lot more.

    I (still) want a field guide that helps me organize and make sense out of all the avian diversity around me–and that is best accomplished by a biological approach that admits current knowledge about morphology and behavior, status and distribution, and, yes, taxonomy and systematics.

  • Ted I can’t believe you are in need of help from a field guide 🙂 Even if you were, surely the purpose of a field guide is to help make an identification in the field, no? Are you likely to mistake a Gyrfalcon for a Parrot? No, but you might mistake it for some kind of hawk… Does knowing that Willet is taxonomically between the yellowlegs help you with an ID, or would having the two yellowlegs next to each other in the field guide? And keep in mind I am not meaning you, Ted, as I am sure you left such problems in the dust years ago. But for the majority of birders (who are not experts) having an ID-friendly arrangement in a field guide seems the right choice.

  • Ted Floyd
      “Does knowing that Willet is taxonomically between the yellowlegs help you with an ID,”

    Absolutely, positively, 100% yes.

      “or would having the two yellowlegs next to each other in the field guide?”

    When I go birding with beginners (I do a lot of that), they and I talk about the similarities between Greater Yellowlegs and Willet, and the differences between Greater Yellowlegs and Lesser Yellowlegs.

    When we see American Kestrels and Sharp-shinned Hawks (sorry, don’t have many Gyrfalcons and parrots here for reference!), we talk about how different they are.

    I think I’ve shared with some of you this anecdote: A while back, one of my kids pointed out to me a passing kestrel, and I said, rather causally, “Oh. Nice. A small raptor.” I got an earful: “That is not a raptor. I said it’s a kestrel, a kind of falcon.”

    I am not at all convinced that the field guides have in some sense been “right” for portraying longspurs as sparrow-like, for portraying Connecticut Warblers as Mourning Warbler-like, for portraying Golden Eagles as Bald Eagle-like; and, conversely, for portraying Hooded Warblers as quite different from American Redstarts, for portraying Aleutian Terns as quite different from Sooty Terns, and, yes, for portraying Greater Yellowlegs as quite different from Willets.

    I totally get that you perceive these similarities and differences. But in what sense are your perceptions necessarily a reflection of reality? To what extent are they culturally conditioned? A lot of stuff that seems obvious is powerfully rooted in our cultural expectations.

    Pretend that you’re brand-new at this stuff–like all the 2nd-graders I’ll be hanging out with during a bug-and-birds camp later this month. We’re going to see Bald and Golden eagles, and we’re going to talk about how they’re quite distinct from one another; we’re going to see Greater Yellowlegs and Willets, and we’re going to talk about how they’re quite similar to one another.

    Will they be somehow less correct in their impressions and perceptions than you are in yours?

    The culture you grow up in powerfully influences how you perceive such color and sound, even space and time. Surely, the field guides you grow up with powerfully influence how you perceive the birds you see and hear. Steve Howell has a marvelous commentary, in the forthcoming May/June 2013 Birding, wherein he speculates that we would no doubt be fantastically skilled at ID’ing Empidonax flycatchers if some of them were delectably edible and others of them fatally toxic.

    We perceive the world through powerful cultural filters. And the filter I apply is evolutionary biology, not the whim of field guide authors from the 20th century.

  • Ted Floyd

    Here’s a wonderful insight from Annie Dillard:

      “What would it be like to live in open-ended time broken only by days and nights? You could say, ‘it’s cold again; it was cold before,’ but you couldn’t make the key connection and say, ‘it was cold this time last year,’ because the notion of ‘year’ is precisely the one you lack.”

    Most people think that seasonality is self-evident, but it’s not at all. Not a one of us discovered this on our own. It’s received wisdom. It’s culturally conditioned.

    I’m currently refereeing a splendid book by a brilliant author who makes the mistake of saying that there are four seasons in the temperate zones, but only two in the tropics. Yet if you talk to some of the indigenous peoples in the tropics, they speak of four seasons: a wet season, a gathering season, a dry season, and a blooming season. They might well say that we have only two seasons, a hot one and a dry one.

    Something as seemingly fundamental as the four seasons is culturally conditioned. Are there really four seasons? Why aren’t there five? Why aren’t there two or three? And whose to say it’s fundamentally annual? Could it be biennial? Could it be lunar?

    It’s the same with the birds we ID. We receive wisdom from field guides. We’re told that Greater Yellowlegs look like Lesser Yellowlegs. Do they really? Or are we seeing through the filter of our field guides?

  • Ted Floyd

    A final thought for now. I am completely on board with the following:

      “[F]or the majority of birders (who are not experts) having an ID-friendly arrangement in a field guide seems the right choice.”

    Thus, for a Colorado field guide I’m working on right now, I have Sage Thrasher with the other thrashers, despite the amazing similarity in plumage with American Pipit. (I’m totally serious. Can you name any differences in plumage between basic Sage Thrasher and basic American Pipit?) In my mind, the ID-friendly arrangement places the Sage Thrasher with birds it’s evolutionarily close to, not the one it coincidentally resembles in a particular manner, namely, plumage.

  • Dennis Paulson

    These comments are all very interesting, and just from the few people who have posted, the diversity of opinions on the subject is clear. I’m coming at it from the perspective of a museum curator who arranged a bird collection in “taxonomic” order some years ago. We have made some rearrangements within families and genera to keep up with taxonomic changes, but once whole orders began to jump to different branches of the phylogenetic tree, we gave up.

    Like most of you who have posted, I have looked at and thought about birds for a heckuva long time. DNA evidence or not, I’m still not comfortable with some of the changes in warbler phylogeny (I’m specifically using that term rather than taxonomy, as I agree that the taxonomy should reflect the phylogeny). They are more counterintuitive than most of the changes suggested by genetic analyses.

    And then there are the shorebirds. I reviewed a paper years ago that suggested that Wilson’s Phalarope was a tringine, quite disjunct from the other phalaropes, and I just couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t believe that convergent evolution could be quite that convergent. The paper wasn’t published, as I recall there were some flaws in the methodology. Probably some of the conclusions are supported in this new study putting all the phalaropes with the tringines. But if the paper had been published and the conclusions accepted, we would now have a series of checklists and field guides that separated Wilson’s from the other phalaropes – apparently incorrectly. So I’m a firm believer in looking at dramatically new ideas based on genes with a very critical eye.

    I still find it hard to believe that Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs aren’t sister species and that one is more closely related to Willet. There are just too many similarities between the yellowlegs and too many jumps in morphology, behavior, and vocalizations, even biogeography, between Willet and either yellowlegs. I would personally like that part of the shorebird study replicated by other workers.

    Martin, check out my article in Birding some years back to find out why Marbled Godwits look like Long-billed Curlews! 😉

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