Wednesday, July 27, 2011

New AOU Checklist Supplement!

It's that time of year again, when the American Ornithologists' Union North American checklist committee has gotten together and made some changes to the "official" checklist of North American birds - adding new species, recognizing splits, reorganizing families, changing names, and all that good stuff.  They don't always make good decisions, but it's always interesting to see where recent research in taxonomy has taken us.

The new supplement to the checklist is available in its entirety here, and you can even read the specific proposals here.  Or you can read this blog post to see what's been changed!  Be sure to stick around until the end, because the thorough reshuffling of the wood-warblers has got to be the most interesting thing to come out of this one.

I'm only outlining the more major points here (especially - but not entirely - the ones relevant to ABA-area birders), so if you're really interested in the nitty-gritty, be sure to check out the published proposal.

1. Species Added
Species are added when a new vagrant occurs in the AOU area, when existing species are split, or when the AOU recognizes an exotic as having a self-sustaining, established population.  These birds have been newly recorded in North America:
- Tahiti Petrel
- White-chinned Petrel
- Long-winged Harrier
- Gray-bellied Hawk
- Solitary Snipe
- Large-billed Seed-Finch

2. Name Changes
Sometimes what we see as name changes are really the results of splits, for example, with old-world birds.  Other times they're changes.  The name change from our beloved Common Moorhen to Common Gallinule is the result of a split with the old world Common Moorhen (neither of which, incidentally, are actually found on moors).

3. Just Splits and Lumps
If there is no name change resulting from a split or lump (say, with an old world species), it's likely to go unnoticed.  In other cases, North American birders may gain or lose a species on their life lists.
- Snowy Plover is split from the widespread old world Kentish Plover
- Chestnut-mandibled Toucan is considered a subspecies of Black-mandibled Toucan
- Mexican Jay has been split.  The birds in Arizona are still called Mexican Jay, while the birds farther south in Mexico have gained the awesome name Transvolcanic Jay

4. Taxonomic Reshuffling
Splits and lumps don't just happen at the species level!  Ornithologists learn new things all the time about the familial affinities of certain birds, where they belong in the grand scheme of things.  Based on some of this research, the AOU recognizes:
- Sandgrouse get their own order, Pteroclidiformes
- Sapayoa gets its own family, Sapayoidae
- Tityras, Becards, Schiffornis, and some Mourners are placed in the a new family, Tityridae (wait, we already knew that)
- Bluethroat, rubythroats, bluetails, wheatears, and Stonechat are moved from Turdidae (thrushes) to Muscicapidae (Old World Flycatchers)
- Bush-tanagers are moved from Thraupidae (tanagers) to Emberizidae (sparrows)

5. Wood-Warblers Rearrange
It's difficult to give a decent overview of this reshuffling of Parulidae without images, so I recommend checking out the proposal on this one.  There's a lot to get used to here...

First of all, forget about the genera Parula, Dendroica, and Wilsonia.  They've all been moved into other genera!
1. Formerly of Parula, Crescent-chested and Flame-throated Warblers have been moved into Oreothlypis.  You remember Oreothlypis, all those warblers that used to be called Vermivora?  But what about the parulas, you ask?  Newly christened Setophaga (see below).
2. American Redstart is no longer lonely in its own genus (Setophaga).  It's been lumped with all the (formerly known as) Dendroica warblers, a move which makes sense.  But since Setophaga has priority, that's what they will all be called, including Northern and Tropical Parula, which are now included in this group.
3. The warblers formerly known as Wilsonia have been scattered around to new genera.  Hooded Warbler joins the party in Setophaga.  Wilson's and Canada Warblers, along with Red and Pink-headed Warblers (formerly of Ergaticus), have been merged with Red-faced Warbler and its genus, Cardellina.

Another big change is the near-extermination of Oporornis.  It turns out that Kentucky, Mourning, and MacGillivray's Warblers are more closely related to yellowthroats (genus Geothlypis).  Connecticut Warbler, that strange creature that walks rather than hops, stays cozy in Oporornis.

The tropical-minded will be interested in the splitting of the genus Basileuterus.  The majority of North American species were split off as Myiothlypis, although none of these occur in the ABA-area.  Rufous-capped and Golden-crowned Warblers remain Basileuterus, and Fan-tailed Warbler was merged into it as well.

How about an overview of North American Parulid genera!
- Several monotypic genera remain unchanged, including Black-and White, Prothonotary, and Swainson's Warblers and Ovenbird.
- Parkesia includes the two waterthrushes
- Vermivora includes Bachman's, Blue-winged and Golden-winged Warblers
- Oreothlypis includes all the former Vermivora, along with Crescent-chested and Flame-throated Warblers
- Geothlypis includes the yellowthroats along with Kentucky, Mourning and MacGillivray's Warblers
- Setophaga includes all former Dendroica, American Redstart, and Hooded Warbler
- Myiothlypis includes a bunch of the former Basileuterus
- Basileuterus, much reduced, now includes Fan-tailed Warbler
- Cardellina includes Red-faced, Red, Pink-headed, Wilson's, and Canada Warblers
- Myioborus remains unchanged.  Good ol' whitestarts.

Whew, that was exciting.  The biggest changes for me will be the name change for Common Gallinule and the warbler reshuffling.  I'll have to catch myself when I write "COMO" in my notes (COGA now) and when I start talking about Dendroica chip notes.

Folks may be interested in hearing about some proposals that didn't pass.  Some of these may well be valid changes that come up again after further research.
- Split Mountain Chickadee
- Split Yellow-rumped Warbler
- Change the names of Winter and Pacific Wrens to Western and Eastern Winter Wren
- Recognize Mexican Duck as a full species

Cardellina canadensis

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

How I Spent My Spring

To say I had a busy spring would be an impressive understatement!  I continued my part-time job with the City of Lake Havasu, but caved to my desire to get out in the field by working for the Great Basin Bird Observatory.  The GBBO is doing work for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which is doing a lot of work creating and monitoring habitat on the LCRV.  The main part of this work that I've been involved in is the Multi-Species Conservation Plan (MSCP), through which the Bureau monitors certain focal species that are not federally listed.  Those that are listed or candidates - Yuma Clapper Rail, Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Southwestern Willow Flycatcher - are covered by species-specific projects.  The Bureau has done a lot of great work with the MSCP and gathered an impressive amount of data.  The technical reports are available online here, a very interesting resource.

The project I helped with this spring was aimed at quantifying the use of different riparian habitats by breeding birds, especially MSCP covered species - Gilded Flicker, Gila Woodpecker, Yellow Warbler, Bell's Vireo, Summer Tanager, and Vermilion Flycatcher.  Essentially, we were surveying 400m x 400m (ish) plots, recording migrants and mapping every breeding bird we could locate in a morning.  The plots were randomly selected, falling from Laughlin to Yuma, and up the Bill Williams River almost to Alamo Dam.  I won't go over the protocols and study design in detail here - you can read about it in the 2009 report.

Since I was also working for the city, I was working a bit less than the others on the project, but I was still plenty busy.  I surveyed one site twice a week, another site once a week, and several sites only twice over the season.  The twice a week site was my "extreme intensive" at 'Ahakhav Tribal Preserve.  I was pleased as punch to visit that site 16 times over the field season!  Since it's a habitat creation site, it's easy to walk around and find nests, and it is also full of birds.  The Vermilion Flycatchers and Lawrence's Goldfinches breeding there were especially fun to watch.  The site I visited once a week was actually immediately adjacent to the hill we scan the north end of Lake Havasu from, which we call "Lehman Hill".  The hill is the southern boundary of the plot, which extends north about a kilometer in a dense tamarisk/mesquite stringer with patches of arrowweed and some big willows.  The breeders weren't as interesting, but the site was great for migrants.  Since the site ran along the shore of the lake, I surveyed it by kayak several times.

Ahakhav, great spot to spend two days a week
Vermilion Flycatcher babies!

Kayaking the north end

My other surveys were mainly in La Paz County.  Several were in Cibola NWR, one was in Mosquito Flats on the Bill Will, and one was up the Bill Will at Lincoln Ranch, about six miles downstream from the Alamo Dam.  One fell in San Bernardino County near Needles, and I also surveyed the Island STP in Lake Havasu City.

Lincoln Ranch Rd
Lincoln Ranch

Just for fun, I put together this summary of spring migration on the LCRV.  This only includes regular migrants, not rarities.  I also omitted any species for which I didn't get a good sense of their migratory patterns - for example, I missed the arrival of Lucy's Warblers and saw my FOS long after many had arrived.  This only includes my sightings, so it is by no means a complete summary of migrants this spring.  To read about rarities and overall sightings, we'll have to wait for AZFO's spring Seasonal Report.

This being a 12-page word document, I thought I'd stick it behind a cut...

Tuesday, July 5, 2011


I promise I am working on a post to explain my long blogging hiatus.  But for right now, I just have to note that our first monsoon storms paid us a visit!  On July 3, a thick, dusty haze blocked out our view of the mountains.  That night, a thunderstorm rolled into town, producing some impressive winds (chairs ended up in pools), dazzling lightning, and turned the streets of Lake Havasu City into temporary torrents.

So far, we haven't seen anything crazy, but we have the whole monsoon ahead of us!  July 4 we did spot a Common Tern at the north end of Lake Havasu, and two biologists working at the Bill Will spotted a Brown Pelican there.  Who knows what fall will bring!