Saturday, May 1, 2010

Chasing the Hooded Crane

"Are you a watcher, a lister, or a chaser?" a birder will ask.

A bird watcher (or birder as many prefer to be called) is one who enjoys observing the appearance and behaviour of birds. Many do this by filling a bird feeder outside a convenient window, bringing some of the joy of nature to those indoors. Others take binoculars on walks or hikes to add to the enjoyment of fresh air and exercise.

A lister takes it a step further, and keeps records of what birds are observed. Some go to great lengths, documenting earliest and latest sightings in a year, age or gender, or even subspecies (also called races) seen. Lists are kept by state, by county, by latilong, or even a list for the backyard. The most common list discussed is the Life List, the number of bird species seen over a lifetime of watching.

A chaser moves closer to obsession, monitoring rare bird reports and making a point of going to see the rare birds (especially if they add to a Life List). Some go great distances to see a new bird. I've tried to avoid becoming a chaser, because it can get expensive, and for the simple reason that I have to work so can't just run out the door in the middle of the night (as a determined chaser would).

That said, a rare opportunity presented itself last week, and I made a foray into this next level of birding ... taking a day off from work, driving one evening to get closer, and waking at oh-dark-thirty the next morning and arriving half way across the state just after sunrise on a bitterly cold morning as the wind howled at least 30 mph. What could have led to this extreme action? A Hooded Crane.

There are perhaps less than 10,000 of these birds on the planet and they live in Siberia. There has never been a documented sighting of a wild Hooded Crane in North America, and there was a report on the email birding list I subscribe to that one was seen in Carey, Idaho. There was a photo posted, and the crane returned and was seen again the following day, so there was a chance it would be there if I took the long drive to try to view it.

Here's my photo, taken at a great distance. The Hooded Crane is on the left, the dark bird with the white neck. On the right is a Sandhill Crane. It seemed to me like the Hooded Crane had made friends with the Sandhill Cranes, and this one in particular, as they stayed quite close to one another over the hour or so I watched them.

So, another bird for my Life List, you ask? Good question. Some people play tennis for fun, or for exercise. Others want to win in a competition. Same for birding. But, if one is going to try for an award or recognition, there are generally accepted rules in birding, just as in tennis. Who would have thunk it? The official entity that makes the rules for birding competition is the American Birding Association (ABA), at least for North American birds ... and that's the group of birds I'm interested in, those that are "made in the USA". In case you want to read up on the rules, they can be found at ABA Recording Rules (as amended 1999).

Members who submit lifelist and annual list totals to the American Birding Association for publication in the annual ABA List Report must observe the ABA Recording Rules. Many non-members who enjoy maintaining lists find these rules useful.

A bird included in totals submitted for ABA lists must have been encountered in accordance with the following ABA Recording Rules.
(1) The bird must have been within the prescribed area and time-period when encountered.
(2) The bird must have been a species currently accepted by the ABA Checklist Committee for lists within its area, or by the A.O.U. Checklist for lists outside the ABA area and within the A.O.U. area, or by Clements for all other areas.
(3) The bird must have been alive, wild, and unrestrained when encountered.
(4) Diagnostic field-marks for the bird, sufficient to identify to species, must have been seen and/or heard and/or documented by the recorder at the time of the encounter.
(5) The bird must have been encountered under conditions that conform to the ABA Code of Birding Ethics.

There are a couple of pages of interpretations (explanations) following these five simple rules. But I'll give an abbreviated list of the things that do not count. You can't count a bird in the zoo, or even in a cage or net ... or even one that was caught in a net and then released in a daze. You can't look across the border into Mexico and count the bird as an American bird (unless it flies more than half way across the Rio Grande River toward the US). You can't count a flock of parrots that escaped in Florida or California, at least not until they become established and create a viable breeding colony, and get the nod from the rule-makers at the ABA. You should not count listening to other birders playing a tape recording of an owl, though such an event might be more common that we care to admit.

Some examples will illustrate. Here's one bird that does not count -- ever. I saw it foraging at a local park. It was in the wild. Honest.

I'm quite certain of my identification. Chicken. I've seen quite a few races of these. I recognize some, like Barred Rock, Rhode Island Red, White Leghorn. I'm still waiting for the ABA to rule that these count, though. Domestic birds like domestic ducks, chickens and geese don't count. Not by ABA Rules, and not even by my lax standards. This one is still not on my Life List.

Can you identify this next bird? I saw it in a field in Oregon.

Again, I'm confident in my identification. It was taller than I am. I'm more certain of the identification than I am of the pronunciation of its name. Emu. They were in a fenced field, so I guess that's like in a cage ... does not count. I don't think they could survive in the wild, either. Not a wild bird. Domesticated here in the United States. Same would go for the Ostrich I saw at the county fair. I think the ostrich counts in Africa, though. They breed in the wild there. Same for Emu in Australia.

Here's another everybody recognizes.

I saw one in Idaho and did not count it. This one, however, I did put on my world Life List. It was in the wild, in Hawaii. This gets us to an interesting point -- introduced or escaped birds. After all, the House Sparrow was not native to the US ... somebody brought a pair over from Europe and let them go in Central Park in New York. Now they're everywhere, and can be counted. Same goes for other introduced species that are now resident in the US such as the Eurasian Collared-dove and Common Mynah. The key is that the birds have shown that they're here to stay, sometimes despite our attempts to extirpate them as invasive pests.

In other instances we have introduced birds on purpose, or spread them to new areas outside their historic range. Wild Turkey have been introduced in Idaho so they can be hunted and eaten. This next bird was brought to the United States for the same reason. It is native to regions like Pakistan, India, and Afghanistan. It is a Chukar.

And, here's my final example, a wild White-breasted Nuthatch. This one can't be counted by me according to strict ABA Rules, so I'm so happy that I had seen one before this event.

So, why wouldn't this one count? After all, it's a native, wild bird and not in a zoo or cage. It does not count because it was just caught, banded for scientific study, and released. It flew to the nearest safe "tree trunk" which just happened to be the back of the shoulder of this birder watching the process. Under ABA Rules, this can only be counted by the people doing the scientific study, not the casual birders standing around waiting for new birds to be carried out of the banding station and released. (After a suitable period of time, once the bird resumes normal activity, separated by time from the influence of the capture, it will return to the pool of "countable" birds.)

With this background information, let's return to the example of the Hooded Crane which started this long ramble. Will I count it? You bet! I saw a Hooded Crane, and in the wild at that! It is very possible that it escaped from (possibly illegal) captivity. It's a rare bird, and I'd have been thrilled to see it in a zoo. I'm not going to Siberia to see birds, but I will travel around Idaho on a spring morning.

I won't submit it to any official competition records. Committees in Idaho (and maybe at the ABA as well) will have the dubious honor of debating and voting upon the "countability" of this Hooded Crane. One is known to have escaped about 9 years ago in Idaho, I'm told, and they can live to be 40 years old. Did it fly over from Siberia, to Carey, Idaho? Maybe. But not very likely.

Oh, and I saw my first Sora ever that morning, too. A Life Bird for me, even by ABA Rules.

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