Friday, January 29, 2016

A new standard for reviewing rare bird reports

A recent discussion on "good" vs. "bad" rare bird reports got me thinking..... The discussion involved producing a new "how to document rare birds" note or article, but we came to a stark conclusion --- that not many people really give a damn darn. So no matter how many times we re-hash the "please provide details on the bare parts colouration" - we are still going to get short reports...

On the flip side, we end up with people (myself included) who know exactly how to write a rare bird report, making it difficult to truly appreciate the circumstances surrounding the observation. For example, I've seen two Dovekie's in Ontario... One was total BS - distant and bad looks - and potentially a Long-billed Murrelet for all I know. The second was relatively close and in good light, leaving no doubt about the ID. BUT - in the eyes of the annual OBRC report, two equal Dovekie sightings occurred.

On the flip flip side, I also end up voting "no" to several records each year that were probably excellent circumstances by skilled observers  - who just aren't familiar with documenting birds in general.

On the flip flip flip side, you get birders who know what they're seeing - but don't care enough to write a proper report. Then you're really stuck, as you end up voting "no" to a bird you're totally confident was properly identified.

On the flip flip flip flip side, you get skilled birders who write an excellent report - that is nearly impossible to vote no to - but you get the very strong impression they have actually miss-identified the bird they saw in the field. (eg,/ I saw a Mountain Plover, and here's why it wasn't anything else without doubt --- when I suspect it's actually a 1st basic/alternate American Golden Plover).

On the flip flip flip flip flip side, you get birds - like Fish Crows - that you couldn't properly document with words no matter how hard you tried. I've reviewed no less than 50 reports saying "It was a crow that went nuh, uh, nu, uh, neh, nah, nu-nu, nuh-neh, nah-nah, uh-uh...

On the flip flip flip flip flip flip side. Actually that's enough flips.

I couldn't help but think that a new "standard" for review might help ease some of these problems.

Three levels of review:

1) - Media review

2) - Well supported observations

3) - Single party/observer observations or generally short observations

Media Review would involve, well, media. If you have a specimen, a photo, a recording, DNA etc - the review falls under this category. We would ask for circumstances of the observation and details about the day/weather etc - but overall you can forget 90% of the description and separation of similar species - cause the media takes care of it. Overall, the "easiest" or most lenient form of review.

Well Supported Observations would involve non-diagnostic media, or birds that have been seen well by several observers. A good example of this would be a hypothetical Cory's Shearwater at Van Wagner's Beach... Yes - no one got a photo of it, but it was seen by 38 observers flying around during a Hurricane. The accumulation of accounts and documentation helps ease concern that any mistakes are made - however this review is more strict than "Media review" and expects detailed notes on plumage and separation of similar species...

Single Observer (or single party) review would be more strict than the current review. I keep getting the impression that a high percentage of these reports are either misidentified, or misrepresented accounts of what actually happened. Not only would a reviewer expected detailed notes on the appearance of the bird, but would also consider WHO is writing the report, their skill level/experience, and expect an honest account of what was actually observed (based on circumstances). Observers should know, before writing this style of report/documentation - that it is difficult to get acceptance through this level of review for brief sightings.

So how would this shake down? Well occasionally "media" would be dubbed "non-diagnostic" and fall into one of the other two categories. Otherwise photos/media will solve the issue. I would also hope that this helps straight-arm people into trying to record the birds they see. (I'm specifically thinking about recording Fish Crow calls with your cell phone!)...

Well supported observations would also pass with relative ease, as long as they qualify for this level of review. There is onus on the observers to write a decent/standard OBRC report, but the reviewers will know in advance that they should write a decent report to help the cause!

Single observer (or party) observations will become a bit more challenging, and some good records will fall through the cracks, but that already happens. In 2013 a casual birder found a Roseate Spoonbill in Prince Edward County - and wrote a brief yet acceptable account - and it was ultimately rejected. Understanding the observer who wrote the report and the circumstances would have made it perfectly clear that it was an acceptable record. Likewise, rarity obsessed/hunting birders will know in advance that their single-observer records are going to be scrutinized in abnormal ways - like "How did they produce such incredibly detailed notes from a bird they saw from a Helicopter?"

I'm sure this plan would cause problems unto itself, but we haven't actually tested it yet - so it's hard to get worried about it at this point in time! What do you think? Would it work?

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Unusual foraging behaviour of a Summer Tanager (Piranga rubra) during a spring reorientation flight

An edited version of this has been published! ---

Holden, B.R. and K.G.D. Burrell. 2016. Foraging by a Summer Tanager during a reorientation flight. Ontario Birds. 33(3):83-85.

Onwards and upwards, as they say:


Spring reorientation flights of landbirds are a rarely studied phenomenon. Observed and previously defined by Lewis (1939) and Gunn (1951) these flights consist of birds flying diurnally in a southerly direction, opposite to what one would normally expect of a spring migrant in North America. Sandspits along the north shore of Lake Erie, Ontario have commonly harboured these flights (Burrell 2013, pers. obs.), while reorientation flights have also been observed to occur in the fall throughout the Atlantic Maritimes (Richardson 1982, McLaren et al. 2000), New Jersey (Weidner et al. 1992), and Fennoscandia (Åkesson 1999). The Pelee region in particular has regular flights involving dozens of species and thousands of individuals, predominantly in May (Lewis 1939, Gunn 1951, Burrell 2012 and 2013). These substantial flights have raised questions about the physical demands placed on the individuals taking part; as the elevated energy requirements of migration on passerines is well documented (Richardson 1978, Bairlein et al. 2012). This note documents an unusual observation of a Summer Tanager (Piranga rubra) foraging during a spring reorientation flight.

On 12 May 2014 Holden was observing a reorientation flight at the southerly tip of Point Pelee National Park, Ontario, Canada. As the morning progressed, many observers previously present (including Burrell) ventured elsewhere as activity was relatively light. Mid-morning Holden recorded two observations of Summer Tanagers; a first-alternate male (Humphrey and Parkes 1959) at 0924 EDT and an alternate female (Humphrey and Parkes 1959) first detected at 1009 EDT. While the male exhibited the expected behaviour of a reorienting migrant; that of steady flight southwards over the waters of Lake Erie; the female displayed unusual foraging behaviour during her passage. As she approached the tip of Point Pelee from the north at an estimated height of 50m, Holden raised his camera to document the individual. At this instant she made an erratic twisting flight, followed by a rapid descent to the southernmost trees remaining at Point Pelee. At this time it became apparent she had captured a wasp sp. (Order: Hymenoptera) and spent the following three minutes consuming her catch at close range. Upon consumption she made another unexpected move, rapidly ascending from her perch and immediately continuing her flight southwards over the open waters of Lake Erie. The sequence was captured with a Canon DSLR and 600mm lens (Figures 1, 2, and 3). An additional forty minutes of observation yielded no further observations of the species, or individuals.

The Summer Tanager is one of the quintessential “reverse migrants” in Ontario, where observation of reorientation flights have recurrently documented the species (Burrell 2013). With no confirmed nesting of Summer Tanager for the province (Reid 2007) observations here most likely pertain to overshooting migrants beyond their traditional breeding grounds. The individual documented here was presumably trying to leave Ontario, flying south from Point Pelee National Park over the open waters of Lake Erie, where considerable danger to diurnal migrants has been documented (Jehl and Henry 2010). With the mainland rapidly vanishing below, this individual managed the capture, descent and subsequent ascent with little hesitation. While it would be difficult to fully understand the energy expenditure placed on a single individual during a spring reorientation flight, this observation would indicate that the phenomenon is not engrossing to the point of stopping basic foraging instincts. We hope this observation can provide but a small piece to helping understanding reorientation flights in the future.

Figure 1. The mid-air capture of the Wasp. Photo: Brandon R. Holden

Figure 2. The female Summer Tanager consuming the Wasp at the very tip of Point Pelee. Photo: Brandon R. Holden

Figure 3. The female Summer Tanager resuming its reverse migration immediately after the Wasp was consumed. Photo: Brandon R. Holden

Brandon R. Holden and Kenneth G.D. Burrell 



Åkesson, S. 1999. Do Passerine Migrants Captured at an Inland Site Perform Temporary Reverse Migration in Autumn? Ardea, 87 (1): 129-137.
Bairlein, F., D.R. Norris, R. Nagel, M. Bulte, C.C. Voigt, J.W. Fox, D.J.T. Hussell, and H. Schmaljohann. 2012. Cross-hemisphere migration of a 25g songbird. Biology Letters, 8: 505-507.
Burrell, K. G. 2013. The spring reverse migration of landbirds in the Pelee region: 2010-2012. Masters Thesis. University of Waterloo, Waterloo, ON. 70pp.
Burrell, K.G. 2012. Examining a large reverse migration off Fish Point, Pelee Island. Ontario Birds, 30:140-147.
Gunn, W.W.H. 1951. Reverse migration of birds in the Pelee Region in relation to the weather. PhD Thesis. University of Toronto. Toronto, ON. 108 pp.
Humphrey, P.S. and K.C. Parkes. 1959. An Approach to the Study of Molts and Plumages. Auk 76:1-31.
Jehl, Jr., J.R., and A.E. Henry. 2010. The Postbreeding Migration of Eared Grebes. The Wilson Journal of Ornithology, 122(2): 217-227.
Lewis, H.F. 1939. Reverse Migration. Auk, 56(1): 13-27.
McLaren, I., B. Maybank, K. Keddy, P.D Taylor, and T. Fitzgerald. 2000. A notable autumn arrival of reverse-migrants in southern Nova Scotia. North American Birds, 54(1): 4-10.
Reid, F.A. 2007. Summer Tanager, pp. 532-533 in Cadman, M.D., D.A. Sutherland, G.G. Beck, D. Lepage, and A.R. Couturier, eds. Atlas of the Breeding Birds of Ontario, 2001-2005. Bird Studies Canada, Environment Canada, Ontario Field Ornithologists, Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources, and Ontario Nature, Toronto, xxii + 706 pp.
Richardson, W.J. 1978. Timing and amount of bird migration in relation to weather: A review. Oikos, 30: 224-272.
Richardson, W.J. 1982. Northeastward reverse migration of birds over Nova Scotia, Canada, in autumn. Behavioural Ecology and Sociobiology, 10 (3): 193-206.
Robinson, W. D. 2012. Summer Tanager (Piranga rubra), The Birds of North America Online (A. Poole, Ed.). Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology; Retrieved from the Birds of North America Online: (

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Raccoon (Procyon lotor) Wind Turbine Mortality

Still digging through old photos (from early 2015)... Photographic proof of a Raccoon mortality due to a strike from a wind turbine blade. Check it out:

Sunday, January 10, 2016

House Sparrow ain't need no feet

At first - I thought this would make an interesting article somewhere. Something like, "House Sparrow (Passer domesticus), surviving despite limb impairment" ... After throwing up in my mouth a little bit, I wrote this post. 

Waaay back when things were green - I saw this House Sparrow at my parents place in Burlington. They had seen him around for quite some time. In the above photo, the posture isn't particularly unusual - especially among young (lazy) birds. 

I was unable to capture the exact sequence - but the bird was well enough to consider bathing. In the above image, he is ready for launch. Below - he has flapped his way across the entire birdbath - through the water - and ended up on the other side. 

Feeding didn't seem like much of an issue either. In the image below, he had flown up to the feeder and carefully flopped into the perching ring. 

Overall it was rather sad to see the loss of function - but also uplifting to see him go about his daily activities without too much difficulty.