Thursday, December 19, 2013

Western subspecies: different-looking birds that don't count

This is a followup to my last couple posts (overview and woodpeckers) about birding around Los Angeles California. So be sure to check those out if you haven't already!

I finished up the woodpecker recap on the topic of flickers, and as I was saying...

The Northern "Red-shafted" Flicker is dramatically different than our eastern "Yellow-shafted" version, what with it's rosier shafts.  But these two superficially different birds are considered to make up one and the same "species," with intergrade/hybrids not all that difficult to find.

In this "sport" we call birding, points are awarded after a current list of species puported to be based on the most up-to-date taxonomic understanding.  It's a flawed system to be sure and one of the tragic consequences is that subspecies often get ignored.  Even when birders go to the trouble to try to pick out the "races" of birds that can be readily discerned in the field, it's usually a hedge against a potential future "split" that might one day turn into the beloved "armchair tick."

Western subspecies, those birds that clearly look different than the eastern versions with which I am familiar, but don't "count," is the theme of this post.

I was somewhat disappointed to discover that one of the most abundant passerines around Los Angeles is the Yellow-rumped Warbler.  At least this "Audubon's" Warbler has a bright yellow throat and is a candidate to be re-split from it's eastern relative, the "Myrtle" Warbler.

Audubon's Yellow-rumped Warbler, El Dorado Park, Los Angeles
This one isn't going to make any noise, but the chip note sounds quite different to my ear as well.

I'm not too ashamed to admit that this raptor had me puzzled at first.  I thought it looked like a Red-shouldered Hawk, but it was just so red!

California Red-shouldered Hawk, Los Angeles

So much different than the ones I see in North Carolina.

Same with this Red-tailed Hawk...

Western Red-tailed Hawk, Veterens Memorial Park, Sylmar

Way darker and redder than the pale eastern Red-tails.

And continuing on the western-birds-are-redder theme is this pelican:

California Brown Pelican, Bolsa Chica Ecological Preserve
It would be cool if they could inflate the red throat like a frigatebird can.

Possibly the most strikingly different bird that still doesn't count as a separate species is the Oregon Junco:

Oregon Dark-eyed Junco, San Gabriel Mountains
How can you take a gray bird, make it black and brown and still call it the same species?

And contrast that with this Great-tailed Grackle, which I only know is not Boat-tailed because of where I found it. 

Great-tailed Grackle, Ventura
If this bird appeared on a lawn in Wilmington, NC or someplace in Florida it would be called Boat-tailed Grackle automatically without more than a glance. 

This relatively unspectacular blackbird represents the only life bird in this post!

If these subspecific nuances haven't already driven you away from this blog and from birding entirely, these last two Savannah Sparrows should provide all the convincing you need that birding is a silly silly thing...

Non-birders are generally pretty unimpressed by sparrows (little brown jobs)...I'll admit that I found them a bit overwhelming when I first began birding, but when you start getting into subspecies, things get really crazy.

There are some 25 subspecies of Savannah Sparrow, for example, and I had the (mis)fortune to stumble upon two of the handful that are readily identifiable in the field.

Supposedly this is a Belding's Savannah Sparrow (can't you see the beldings?)
Belding's Savannah Sparrow, Bolsa Chica Ecological Preserve

And this House Finch is actually the "Large-billed" Savannah Sparrow. 

Large-billed Savannah Sparrow, Bolsa Chica Ecological Preserve
Don't blame me if you're confused though!  If it weren't for Sibley we would still be calling these all Savannah Sparrow or "little brown job."  Ignorance is bliss, as they say.

Phew!  That's about all the subspecies birding I can handle for now.  There were more interesting birds in the last couple posts about LA.  Maybe you prefer woodpeckers? Or Boobies/Scrub Jays/Curlews/etc/etc?