On Covid and Research

Wilson's Warbler

It’s apparently been ages since I’ve updated my site here! I’ll share an essay I wrote this spring that was published by the Golden Gate Audubon Society, a large local chapter of the national conservation organization. Given the start of the Covid closures, GGAS put out a call to members for essays on their experience with birds and birding during the shelter-in-place regulations that we still, more or less, are facing here in Northern California. Many people wrote about the opportunities of focusing on their local birds, or the importance of connecting with nature during challenging times. My thoughts turned to the hurdles my colleagues in the sciences would be facing.

Essay is here, from April 2020: When Birds Are More Than A Hobby.

Wyoming Bird Bonanza

Apart from the habitat and climate, there is another thing that separates birding in Wyoming compared with birding in California, and that is the community of birders out there actually looking at birds. The Bay Area has several Audubon Societies and a balkanization of email lists that distribute bird sighting to their members. In contrast, Wyoming has one email list (with ~250 members) for the entire state! Why does this matter? As citizen science projects such as eBird start to fill in our knowledge of bird distribution and abundance, Wyoming could be left as a blank spot on those maps.

Towards that end, two folks at the University of Wyoming, James Maley and Matt Carling, are again putting out a call for the few of us out there to submit our spring bird sightings to eBird. Hence the Wyoming Bird Bonanza.

One correction to the article I’ve copied below- there is no other registration needed aside from eBird. Matt and James will scour the statewide submissions themselves.


This edition of Bird Banter, about the upcoming Wyoming Birding Bonanza, was
published April 7, 2013, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle. Feel free to disperse
it to anyone interested in participating. Thanks to James Maley,
jmaley1@uwyo.edu, for the information. Contact the author at

Wyoming Birding Bonanza strikes again

By Barb Gorges

Are you ready for the second annual Wyoming Birding Bonanza?
Polish your binoculars because you can be a winner.

The competition was dreamed up last year by James Maley and Matt
Carling, both of the University of Wyoming’s Department of Zoology and
Physiology. James is collections manager of the Museum of Vertebrates and
Matt is an assistant professor.

Their goal is to increase the number of bird observations for Wyoming during
spring migration that are recorded in the eBird.org data base, and to get
birders into the habit of submitting information. The data is used by

Last year, the contest ran from mid-April to mid-June but this
year it is being pared back to May 1 – 31, migration peak weeks.

Thanks to sponsors like last year’s, Cheyenne – High Plains,
Laramie and Meadowlark Audubon societies, as well as UW’s Biodiversity
Institute, Audubon Wyoming and eBird, there are prizes. [Author's note: If
you would like to be a sponsor, contact James Maley, jmaley1@uwyo.edu.]

Registered contestants who enter at least 15 checklists will
receive a WBB T-shirt. A checklist is a list of bird species and number of
individuals of each, seen in a particular location during a period of time.
James promises this year’s T-shirt will be a work of art. Everyone who turns
in at least 10 checklists will be entered in a grand prize drawing.

Also, for each Wyoming county, the participant reporting the most species
will win a prize. Last year, I was the Laramie County winner and received
the latest edition of the National Geographic field guide. This year our
county is up for grabs since I’m going to be out less often.

For better odds, try birding Big Horn, Converse and Sublette
counties, where no checklists were turned in last year, James said.

“April, May, and June of 2012 are now the top three months of
all time for number of checklists statewide,” he said. There were 1,282
turned in, compared to 424 for the same months in 2010. A total of 266
species was observed in 2012.

I know I paid closer attention to the birds around me because of
the competition. I found a summer tanager in our backyard May 11, considered
rare for Wyoming.

James passed on a list of other rare bird sightings from 2012:

–1 Glossy Ibis at Meeboer Lake (west of Laramie) on April 17

–1 Lesser Black-backed Gull also at Meeboer Lake on April 17

–1 Black-and-white Warbler at Holliday Park on April 21

–1 Juniper Titmouse at Guernsey State Park on April 22

–1 Long-tailed Jaeger at Hutton Lake NWR on May 3

–1 Northern Cardinal in Laramie on May 4

–5 Short-billed Dowitchers at Hutton on May 5

–1 Snowy Owl at Keyhole State Park on May 15

–1 Blackpoll Warbler at Hereford on May15

–1 Cattle Egret in Rock River on May 17

–1 White-eyed Vireo near Lander on May 28.

So, are you ready to earn that WBB T-shirt? You can do it by
simply counting the birds in your backyard for a few minutes at least 15
different times. Here’s what you need to do.

First, sign up at www.eBird.org, if you haven’t already. It’s
free. Click on the “About eBird” link, and then the “eBird Quick Start
Guide,” the first link on that page.

When setting up your observation locations, select a hotspot marker if there
is one at one of your locations already, such as Wyoming Hereford Ranch or
Lions Park. Otherwise, on the map your personal marker may be hidden
underneath the hotspot’s. You can view your data for a hotspot alone or
collated with everyone else’s. If you have questions about eBird, call me.

Next, sign up for the Wyoming Birding Bonanza at
http://www.uwyo.edu/biodiversity/vertebrate-museum/birding-bonanza/. It’s
also free.

Here are the rules.


1. Participants will count only full species as defined by the current
American Birding Association checklist.

2. Birds identified to a taxonomic level above species may be
counted if no other member of the taxonomic level is on the checklist. For
example, duck sp. can be counted if no other ducks are seen.

3. Birds counted must be alive and unrestrained. Sick and
injured birds are countable. Nests and eggs do not count.

4. Electronic devices are allowed, but see ABA’s Code of Ethics for

Time: We will extract final eBird data for the Bonanza on 30 June 2013.

Area: Anywhere in Wyoming.


1. Participants must only count birds unquestionably identified.
If in doubt, leave it out.

2. Know and abide by the rules.

3. Share information with other birders–they’ll thank you.

Good birding to all!


Great Backard Bird Count this Weekend

This Stellar's Jay is just one species I might get to see in by backyard this weekend.

I am a regular participant in the Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count, which is one probably it’s most well-known and longest running citizen science project (you can read more about this here). Audubon has a number of other citizen science efforts, including one taking place this weekend: the Great Backyard Bird Count. I see the GBBC as something of a cross between the CBC (targeted searching in a limited area during a specified time of the year, repeated year after year) and eBird from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, which is the more flexible bird-sightings platform for reporting (and viewing) bird occurrences from anywhere in the world at any time. So consider keeping track of your bird sightings this weekend, even if it’s just the birds seen at the feeders in your yard or at your neighborhood park, and help put together a robust snapshot of late-winter bird populations.

I’ll also say eBird is a great general tool *for* birding, as it maintains lists for you and allows you to see what species people are finding.

January 2013 presentations

Early January was pleasantly busy. It started with the SICB (Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology) meeting held in San Francisco. This was my first SICB, and I was really impressed. It was one of those meetings where you really learned a lot, whether it was cutting edge techniques or fascinating studies on all sorts of organisms (or, most likely, both at once). I’ve usually been to meetings that either focused on birds, or else more narrowly on the sorts of animals (fish, insects, birds, mammals) that are typically featured at animal behavior meetings. SICB really does have everything from fossils to enzyme activity in symbiotic bacteria to bird phylogeography. It’s also very student friendly- as much or moreso than Animal Behavior Society. I’ll heap on one more point of praise- the poster sessions were fairly well run, with plenty of space to get around. This is something almost every meeting does wrong by packing too many posters into to small a space.


I presented the more-or-less final version of the laterality study, and people seemed pretty interested in it.


Talking about grouse

I left SICB early to head down to Monterey where I was scheduled to speak to the Monterey Peninsula Audubon Society. This was a fun opportunity; one of my first public lectures as a graduate student was to this same group more than 10 years ago. I was reminiscing about that talk, and how that was in the era when people were starting to give Powerpoint presentations on the computer (rather than getting slides developed), but nobody actually had projectors yet. I showed up not knowing that if I wanted to give a talk from the computer I needed to bring my own projector! I managed to come up with an improvised solution- they did have a media projector that accepted composite input, and I happened to have a video camera from my field studies in my car, so I was able to film my laptop screen with a hi-8 camera. Not ideal, but better than not having any AV at all!


Maybe somewhat appropriately, we had a bit of a scramble to get the audio speakers set up this time around as well, but it all worked out. The audience seemed to enjoy the talk and especially the high speed video of the grouse displays. Folks kept me there for a long time with great questions, and apparently I was even on public access TV. I even got to meet the mother and father-in-law of Marc Dantzker, one of our collaborators.


Of course no trip to Monterey is complete without a stop at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Even with the sea otter exhibit closed for construction and no mola mola in the big Outer Bay tank, it’s still a magical place to go. I’m sure I’m not alone in this thought: standing in the dark watching the jellyfish or big tuna tank is almost a religious experience.

Outer Bay Tank at Monterey Bay Aquarium


I’ve been to the aquarium several times, and each time there’s something new to see. I think my favorite part was getting an up close look at a Laysan Albatross that some handlers brought out in front of the kelp tank. I also had fun using my new macro lens to get photos of shorebirds in the aviary.


Laysan Albatross

Phalarope in Monterey Bay Aquarium

Although we missed up close looks at sea otters at the aquarium, we did see them several places along the coast there, including some really nice looks right by the wharf in downtown Monterey.

Sea Otter

2012 Christmas Bird Counts

Intrepid birders braving the rain.

I’m back to the blog- I do have a bit to catch up on. First, the 2012 Christmas Bird Count. I’ve talked a bit about these counts in the past, so you can read a bit more background in an older post.

I was able to continue my new tradition of helping census birds in two of the nearby count circles. The first count was in the Oakland area, and once again I met up with fearless leader Kevin along with regulars Steve, Phil (and some newcomers) to find birds in our part of the map. We have a fantastic territory in the northern edge of the overall count circle; it stretches from the south side of Pt. Isabel down to Gilman St. and Golden Gate fields, and up through Albany and El Cerrito more or less to the top of the ridge in the Berkeley Hills. This area covers a surprising variety of habitats including the open bay and shoreline with it’s mudflats and marsh, some ponds in the horse track infield, some oak woodland with a stream on the back side of Albany Hill, and a mix of trees in the Sunset View Cemetery.

Black-and-White Warbler, Albany, CA

We had unusually nice weather, and at least one pretty good bird, a Black-and-White warbler that Kevin found between Albany Hill and the Ranch 99 parking lot. This is a migrant that isn’t typically found here even during the breeding season, so finding one in the winter is pretty uncommon. I had my camera along and managed to get a couple of decent photos that Golden Gate Audubon was able to use for a number of their press releases for the event. The day ended with a grand total of 116 species of birds- pretty good number for a square mile or two of extremely urbanized real estate. The total for all territories in the Oakland count circle was around 177 or so, which seemed to be “good but not great” in terms of species diversity.

River Otter in Pleasant Hill

The second count was Central Contra Costa County (it’s 15 mile circle is centered in Walnut Creek). It started out much less promising- it was pouring buckets as I drove out to meet leaders Hugh and Rosita in Pleasant Hill. This territory isn’t quite as productive as the Albany site, but we were just happy that the rain let up. No particular highlights as rare as the black-and-white warbler, but we ended up with close to 90 species, including several that were relatively rare for our area (Peregrine Falcon, White-throated Swift, Least Sandpiper to name a few). The entire count circle had around 154 species seen that day- getting more than 150 is seen as good for the this count so I’d guess the organizers were happy with the outcome. The highlight for me was seeing a river otter in downtown Pleasant Hill next to Diablo Valley College.

A few other photos from the two days.

Of course, it’s the data that are important, and if you are interested in learning more about one of the longest running and most popular citizen science programs in existence, you can go to the Audubon Christmas Bird Count website.