I’ve been a good Citizen Scientist and have diligently contributed my birding checklists to the eBird collection for a couple of years now. It’s a well-designed system, and will present the most likely birds to compare with your list, based on the time of day, season, and your location. I’ve only strayed from the “most likely” path once, when we saw a bird on a High Sierra lake that’s more commonly seen along the coast. We were hiking in the Emigrant Wilderness, and saw a Bufflehead floating by itself on Bear Lake. We thought it was odd at the time, but it’s hard to mistake the Bufflehead for something else – the male of the species has a big white mark on his head, as if he’s been outfitted with a tiny white football helmet.
I put it on the list, and checked the eBird map when we got home – there were a handful of other sightings of the bird in the mountains, so I felt confident about the eBird submission. I clicked “submit”.
Last night, I received an email with the subject line, “Question about your Bufflehead sighting in eBird”. Oh boy. What have I gotten myself into now, I wondered. The person following up on this asked if I had any additional information, like a photo (no.) or a description of bird sounds (no.). But I did recall the field marks, and reported those in response. I could recall the look of this bird and what it was doing like it was yesterday. I can’t recall people’s names or what I’m supposed to do when I show up at work on Monday, but I can remember the birds.
And the additional detail sufficed to make this a confirmed sighting, I am happy to report. The official word was “your ID sounds correct to me”. My correspondent is a volunteer regional data reviewer for eBird. The work you can do as a volunteer sounds lot more interesting than what they have to pay you to do, it seems to me.
As a rule, I’m very cautious about adding birds to my eBird checklists if I’m unsure. Most of the time there is some local bird that’s a close match, but if I’m not confident in the ID it doesn’t get on the list. Many’s the time we’ve seen some brownish-gray or grayish-brown bird, and I tell the Resident Expert, “I’ll put that down as a juvenile Bald Eagle”. Eventually we’ll get these edge-case birds down, but for now there are plenty of birds with some wild field mark or behavior characteristic that will make identification more certain.
We ventured out today to Pescadero Marsh, which always has birds on offer. Right now is a great time to visit, with the migrants in motion and the over-wintering birds arriving. We saw about 30 different bird species on our walk today, which is a Day List high-water mark. The warblers were plentiful.
By lunchtime the bird action was slowing down, and we made our way back to the car. We passed another couple, obviously birders – he had one of those cameras with a lens that looks like a Howitzer – and as we passed by, she asked, “did you see the eagle?”. Wait, what? I was all set to report on our warbler sightings, but they’ve played the eagle card. “Where was it?”, I asked. “It’s right over there, on top of that green bush.” I would conservatively estimate that there are 10,000 green bushes at the marsh, but held that thought in check. Instead, I looked where the camera was aimed, and there’s this huge bird sitting on a green bush. Then he takes off. Swoops low across the marsh (a Northern Harrier on another bush swivels his head as the eagle passes) and towards the open water, where rafts of ducks float.
The eagle stirs up trouble wherever he goes: the ducks scatter, the Harrier is joined by Ravens and they harass the eagle. Other, smaller birds, join the fight. The eagle looks annoyed, and settles down in the eucalyptus trees (fortunately, off-season for the Great Blue Heron rookery located there). The birds go back to what they were doing.
This kind of cooperation among the birds when a threat is introduced is not uncommon. See for yourself when you step outside to get the mail. Some bird on post will see you and make a one or two-note alarm call, and every bird that hears it will go silent and still.
I sat down on a log to check to see if my pictures came out, but most are blurry. Now I’m wondering if I’ll have enough corroborating evidence to support including the eagle in my eBird checklist. We continue on our way back to the car, and the Resident Expert spots the eagle again. Now he’s bothering two Great Blue Herons. This is quite a sight. The herons don’t like this one bit, and complain loudly in their prehistoric voices. Again, the eagle sees this as too much trouble, and looks elsewhere in the marsh. The ducks scatter like a wake as he passes low overhead, and then he finally grabs something and goes off into the tall grass for lunch. We heard one loud squawk. Not sure if that was from the victor or the vanquished.
The marsh looks so beautiful and peaceful, but it’s endless war out here. Not always on such a grand scale, but it is always on. It’s very quiet in the farther reaches of the marsh, and we were watching a Black Phoebe as it fed on the flying bugs above the water. She would leave her perch, grab something out of mid-air, we’d hear a tiny “crunch”, and then she’s back to her viewing post. Here we see the elegant Phoebe, shortly after killing and devouring something.
I ended up with some decent pictures of the eagle, so it’s going on eBird, but I’m not putting it down as a juvenile Bald Eagle. Pretty confident that we have a Golden Eagle here.