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Blog Birding #292

Storm-petrels are among the most numerous birds on earth, but their habitat preferences put them out of reach of most birders. So it’s wonderful to have the opportunity to appreciate them the way Jared Clarke of Bird the Rock was able to recently.

For a place that boasts the world’s largest colonies of Leach’s Storm-Petrels, it is surprising how rarely most Newfoundland birders get to enjoy them. More than 3 million pairs (yes – pairs!) are estimated to breed on Baccalieu Island at the northern tip of the Avalon Peninsula and 600,000+ pairs in the Witless Bay Ecological Reserve alone! However, Leach’s Storm-Petrels spend the daylight hours far out to sea, feeding on plankton and small fish. Storm-petrels themselves are perfect meals for larger predatory birds like gulls, so they prefer the extra safety that comes with staying far away from land. Only at night, under the cover of darkness, do these robin-sized seabirds come back to their island abode and sneak into the safety of their underground burrows.

Most birders in the east know Chestnut-sided Warbler as one of the more commonly encountered wood-warblers of spring and fall, but that wasn’t always the case. At Audubon, Kenn Kaufman explains why Chestnut–sided Warbler was the nemesis of none other than John James Audubon.

As a teenager, I once bragged to a friend that I had seen more Chestnut-sided Warblers than John James Audubon ever did.

It was true, too. But it wasn’t much of a boast: JJA’s lifetime tally was five, all seen one morning in May 1808 in eastern Pennsylvania. That was it. In another three decades of actively seeking birds all over eastern North America, he never encountered the Chestnut-sided Warbler again. He did wonder about it, though. “Where this species goes to breed I am unable to say,” he wrote. “I ransacked the borders of Lake Ontario, and those of Lakes Erie and Michigan, without meeting with it.”

Continuing his series of posts full of useful information for the California birder, Steve Tucker of Bourbon, Bastards, & Birds, breaks down some of the more difficult ID challenges for western birders.

Most birds? Not that easy. Not that easy to find, not that easy to see well, not that easy to identify. I thought I would take the time today to run down some of the hardest families of birds in the western Lower 48…people like lists, after all, particularly birders. There is some overlap here with other parts of the country, but there are distinct differences…for example, the east coast has more terns and thrushes, but less storm-petrels and hummingbirds.

Nelson’s Gull is one of the most well-known gull hybrid combinations in North America, but it has a fascinating story and was formerly considered a species in its own right. Amar Ayyash at Anything Larus explores the gory details.

Jonathan Dwight was among the first to suspect nelsoni may be a hybrid form, noting that it showed intermediate characteristics between Glaucous and Herring Gull. The fact that “no two of them are marked alike” was Dwight’s primary concern. He also pointed out that very few specimens are available and no known breeding colonies existed, inferring Nelson’s must be an intermediate form that sporadically occurs as a result of hybridization. Incidentally, in his monograph, Dwight also casts doubt on Kumlien’s Gull being a valid species (Dwight 1925).

Fall is in full flight, and Don Freiday at Freiday Bird Blog explores the season’s angels.

Angels. That’s what meteorologists and defense workers called these then-strange signals showing up on radar at night when it was clear there was no precipitation involved. It was a real national security problem during an era when aerial attacks on the U.S. had happened (Pearl Harbor) and could happen again.

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Nate Swick

Nate Swick

Editor, Social Media Manager at American Birding Association
Nate Swick is the editor of the American Birding Association Blog, social media manager for the ABA, and the host of the American Birding Podcast. He lives in Greensboro, North Carolina, with his wife, Danielle, and two young children. He is the author of Birding for the Curious and The ABA Field Guide to Birds of the Carolinas.
Nate Swick

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  • Kowtown

    Serious question. What is the point behind “naming” hybrid combinations? Obviously it makes a little more sense when you’re using an archaic name that was given when the birds in question were actually thought to represent new or distinct species, like Nelson’s Gull. But we don’t stop there, do we? What, exactly, is an “Appledore Gull” and are we really that lazy that we can’t just spell out the hybrid combination? I get the impression that larophiles go nuts with these new “named hybrids” for two reasons: 1) to make themselves feel like they’re observing a more diverse mix of species than they really are, and 2) because some seem eager to coin these names in order to increase the apparent significance of their contribution to gull study. Sadly, I can think of no other motivation that might lie behind the otherwise pointless change suggested on Anything Larus.

    • Amar Ayyash

      Is this a serious question? Why so bitter, friend? Hybrids are more prevalent in gulls than most other families. Using names like Chandeleur Gull, Olympic Gull, Appledore Gull, Great Lakes Gull, Viking Gull and Nelson’s Gull are convinient identifiers. Use them, or not.

      • Kowtown

        Amar, I am not bitter and I am not your “friend”.

        Let’s make something clear—“Nelson’s Gull” is nothing more than a colloquial term (a cut below common names for species, even) for a hybrid form that no one understands particularly well. At the time it was given this name, it was thought to be a distinct species. What difference does it makes if Nelson described birds that had a vegae parent rather than smithsonianus?

        Our usage of “Nelson’s Gull” isn’t “50% flawed”—it’s 100% flawed. By attempting to “repair” what you feel is the problem here, you’re doing nothing more than insisting that we perpetuate a mistake as accurately as possible. What’s the point? Are you in any way confident in your ability to separate the two hybrid forms in question by any means except range or banding?

        I detect an element of intellectual dishonest in your blog entry. Yes, Howell and Dunn seem to avoid using “Nelson’s Gull”…and “Cook Inlet Gull” and “Great Lakes Gull”…what I draw from that is that they probably think these names are kind of dumb and prefer not to use them. Also, your interpretation of Larry Spear’s claim of “first known interbreeding between GLGU and HERG in North America” is clearly specious. A moment later, you mention that Spear did not use the term “Nelson’s Gull”, as if it poked yet another hole in this naming convention you’re trying to undo—did it not occur to you that Spear’s not using the term “Nelson’s Gull” might also be explained by the fact that he was unaware of the 1977 study? Occam’s razor need barely be applied here, really! Spear’s ignorance of the 1977 study would provide a full explanation for his “first in NA” claim AND his not using the term “Nelson’s Gull”, yet you went with a relatively convoluted explanation which assumes that Spear knew exactly what he was doing all along, even though it doesn’t seem he went out of his way to discuss or even mention the distinctions in question.

        Yeah—I call BS. You’re interpreting every little nuance such that it supports your conclusion, whether it’s warranted or not. Whether it’s even there or not, really.

        You come to the conclusion that “any suspected or known Glaucous x Vega hybrid should be given a unique label that differs from what we would call a Glaucous x American Herring”—okay, great. Sounds like a good job for some gull nut in east Asia. Let them worry about it.

        Wait a minute—wouldn’t a North American be in a much better position to coin the new, additional name if they could offer up some extremely convoluted, biased, and even somewhat arbitrary (there are certainly more pressing issues in nomenclature in general) reason that the rest of us should think that Glaucous x Vega has had a name all along, and that Glaucous x smiths actually lacks one?

        Dude…we call it a “Nelson’s Gull”. Have some sense of proportion. Why add confusion to an already confusing situation just for the sake of this self-serving hair-splitting? It’s the average gull fan that’s gonna pay for this little exercise, after all, being that you have clearly already wrapped your head around the topic.

        While I have great respect for your expertise, Amar, you entire blog seems infected with an almost cringeworthy level of narcissism. You openly express how impressed you are with yourself, comparing yourself favorably to arguably more experience and accomplished observers. Your recent “intro to gulls” post—where did that go?—began with the suggestion that they’re not as hard as they’re made out to be, but the rest of the post gave the distinct impression that you don’t actually believe this and are tacitly quite chuffed that gulls are such a dunce-making group. Let us not forget your “featured” post, in which you announce with much fanfare (did anyone else imagine a guy in frilly dress reading from a vertically-oriented scroll?) that you have come around to espousing an opinion that has been commonplace for ages.

        I love birders. I love talent and expertise. But personality is so important in the long run. I know mine kinda sucks too, but I’m not Mr. Gull Spokesman. Save the baubles for other birders and the birds themselves. Keep it classy!

        • Amar Ayyash

          I recognize this writing style. It reeks of someone who has sat on too many inflamed hemorrhoids. You’re bitter “dude”. There’s no second way to interpret your plaintive rant.

          So I guess we can’t be friends anymore. You can, however, continue to follow my narcissistic blog. Hater. But this time actually read the paragraphs and don’t just skim through them.

          Amar Ayyash

          PS, If you want that Intro to Gulls essay, you’ll find it in “Good Birders Still Don’t Wear White”. Meanwhile, check out this putative American Herring x Glaucous Gull that I found last week (i.e. NOT Nelson’s Gull).

          • Kowtown

            Thank you for staying on top of this pressing issue, dude. I can think of fewer problems in avian nomenclature that cause as much confusion and argument as the name “Nelson’s Gull”. I’m sure we can all see this is a very important and relevant mission you’re on and that it’s not merely a case of a narcissistic goof jumping on what he see as an opportunity to make himself seem important.

            I wait with bated breath to hear your official suggestion for the new hybrid name. I’m hoping for another “reading from an unfurled scroll” type thing. It’s not hate, dude…it’s mostly laughter on this end, plus a willingness to discuss how stupid this all is.

    • Ted Floyd

      We’ve learned recently that a certain kind of large-brained, relatively hairless, prolific and aggressive primate is a hybrid: Homo sapiens x H. neanderthalensis. We call those creatures “humans,” or, in the aggregate, “humanity.”

      Hybrids are real objects in nature. They are far more significant than we used to realize. Here is one of many examples: Plant hybrid zones in Arizona, Australia, and elsewhere support insect species that occur nowhere else. Hybrids are important, and it’s useful to give them names.

      For sure, hybrids contribute to biodiversity. By applying those names (Chandeleur Gull, Cook Inlet Gull, etc.), we signal our awareness of gull diversity.

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