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At the beginning of every field guide is an illustration of a bird with all the parts named. Some such as the Peterson guide limit this to a single bird, while others, such as the Sibley Guide to Birds, devote seven pages to show bird parts of different groups of birds. This reflects the importance that Sibley attaches to this aspect of bird identification. Many people are unaware that knowing the different parts of a bird helps immensely in their ability to identify a confusing species.

The task of learning these terms is not as daunting as it might seem. Many of them, such as crown, nape, bill, belly, toes, tail, etc., are everyday words that would baffle few, leaving a smaller, more manageable group to incorporate into our vocabulary.

Years ago an enthusiastic student excitedly inquired about an amazing bird he had just seen. He felt it was probably very rare, as he had never seen it before. It was yellow and red and black! he bubbled. After encouraging him to relax and slow down a bit, we asked where on the bird was it yellow and red and black. After a few seconds he burst forth, Wow! It was yellow and red and black! He was so excited he could not remember where the colors were. As it was mid May and we had been seeing many Western Tanagers in the yard, we pointed out the illustration in our trusty field guide, and he excitedly said, Thats it! Thats it! But my bird was even brighter and more beautiful! We had to agree with him that they always are when they are seen in the wild.

Some identifications are more demanding and require attention to subtle detail. The more able the observer is in describing precise detail the more likely the end result will be successful. Many species are very similar to others but differ in ways that may require close attention to detail to separate the rare species from the look-alike fairly common species. Did the superciliary end at the eye or extend well beyond the eye? Were the lores black or the same color as the rest of the head? Were the auriculars bordered in black? Were the greater secondary coverts rusty or cream? Were the tertials broadly or finely edged in white? Were the undertail coverts streaked or unstreaked?

If any birder wants to grow beyond the rank of beginner, he/she must be ready to spend the small amount of time necessary with the illustrations at the front of the bird book and commit these terms to memory. Then look at wild birds closely to see what these parts look like on a moving bird. It is really an easy task and opens up a completely new level of identification and appreciation of these treasures with which we share the world.

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BELLS VIREO IN INYO COUNTY: An Endangered Species (3/'02)

The Bells Vireo, the smallest vireo found in Inyo County, usually returns in late March with an outlier arriving 17 Mar. Each year we wonder if any will return to spend spring and summer with us before retreating to a warmer and more hospitable climate in Mexico in fall and winter. There are so few pairs breeding in the county that some natural or man caused event could extirpate them. It was not always that way.

The first record of Bells Vireo in Inyo County appears in the pages of the Death Valley Expedition of 1891. This survey covered not just Death Valley but all of Inyo County and adjacent areas, e.g. Mono County, western Nevada, and limited areas on the western slope of the Sierra. This reports calls Bells Vireo a tolerably common summer resident in the Owens Valley. They found adults with young in Lone Pine in June 1891, saw them at Olancha 16-23 May 1891 and at Bishop Creek 4-10 August 1891and considered them not uncommon near Furnace Creek Ranch 21 June 1891.

When Joseph Grinnell, the dean of California ornithology, visited Furnace Creek Ranch in 1917, 1920, and 1923, there were still a few Bells Vireos there. Observers have noted one or two at a few locations in Death Valley National Park during the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s.

Tragically, two breeding pairs were eliminated at Scottys Castle in the mid 1990s when the NPS, without adhering to the laws, destroyed their breeding habitat by removing the dense willow and scrub understory in order to upgrade the water system. We, and others, have checked annually at Scottys Castle and other historical breeding sites and it seems the species has been extirpated as a breeder from the Park. If an endangered species is not protected in a National Park can it be safe anywhere?

No one knows just how many pairs currently breed in the county, but a good guess would be less than a dozen and it could be half. All recent records are from the Amargosa River drainage in the extreme southeast of the County. So what happened?

For breeding success, the species requires dense, low shrubbery near water with healthy willows or mesquite nearby. The mean nest height is 1 meter (3 feet) making it vulnerable to disturbance. There appear to be two major factors operating against the recovery of the Bells Vireo in Inyo. First is that cattle are allowed to graze in riparian habitats which eliminates the dense low shrubbery and limits young willow growth. Second is the Brown-headed Cowbird, a nest parasite, which lays its eggs in small passerine nests and lets the host family raise its young.

It is possible to overcome both factors with a two-pronged approach. Cattle must be prevented from destroying riparian habitat and cowbirds must be removed from the area. In the Lower Owens River Project, sections of the river are planned to be fenced to prevent cattle from entering. This excellent step should restore the habitat that used to house Bells Vireos a century ago. Cowbird trapping and habitat enhancement have been incredibly successful in Michigan where the Kirklands Warbler was on the verge of extinction and has made a remarkable recovery. The San Diego and Orange County Supervisors gave permission for cowbird trapping in an effort to save the few Bells Vireos they had left. Again, the vireo has made a dramatic recovery. The Kern Preserve also turned to cowbird trapping in an effort to save their Willow Flycatcher population. And again, they were successful. These success stories are only a part of the picture as there must be habitat in which the birds can breed.

The Bells Vireo is an indicator of the damage man has done to the States habitats, first because of ignorance, then as a matter of public policy. More than 50% of the population has disappeared in the last century. How much more has to be lost before the public says, Enough is enough!

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Do you have a favorite bird? Countless times that question has been posed to birders, usually by non-birders or relative newcomers to birdwatching. This innocuous inquiry is an almost impossible question to answer. The more one learns about any species the more fascinating it becomes, and the more questions arise resulting in a deeper appreciation of the uniqueness of that bird.

Most birders have had an exciting bird encounter that directed them to books to find an explanation or description that further enriched the experience. Without exception, this is true of all species, making the selection of a favorite just about impossible. The greater your experience with birds the greater your difficulty in selecting just one favorite.

Many birders prefer certain groups or families of birds. Some love warblers because of their bright colors while others prefer raptors with their dashing attacks on mammals, birds, or other prey. Some even prefer the more difficult groups such as gulls, shorebirds, or sparrows for the identification challenges they offer.

While it is not uncommon for a professional ornithologist to concentrate on one group of birds such as swifts, hummingbirds, or gulls, it is very uncommon to find a birder who is only interested in a single group of birds. Those who do, tend to concentrate on the more scientific aspects of their choice. Concentrating on one group allows the non-professionally trained individual to make valuable contributions to the scientific community. However, the vast majority of birders enjoy most groups of birds with as many reasons as there are individuals.

Who cannot marvel at hundreds of American White Pelicans circling low overhead while listening to the swooshing of their fixed, unmoving wings, slicing the air? Who can fail to get excited listening to a flock of bugling, rattling Sandhill Cranes lifting off a field on a crisp November morning? Who cannot be impressed by the fine feather detail and intricate pattern on a closely observed Townsends Warbler in early May? Who can remain calm and collected when viewing a Red-faced Warbler or Cerulean Warbler in Inyo knowing they are not supposed to occur here?

While it may be impossible for most birders to list one favorite bird, they will have no trouble answering the question What are your favorite birding experiences? Be ready for a lengthy response!

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Again this years IMBD was outstanding and the best ever in a couple of categories. Twenty six birders began before dawn and continued through dusk covering the Owens Valley, White & Inyo Mountains, eastern Sierra canyons, Deep Springs, and Death Valley. The goal, as always, was to see how many different bird species and how many individual birds can be found in Inyo County on the second Saturday of May.

When 196 bird species were found on the 2000 IMBD the realization that 200 was a possibility raised the ante for this count. Inland counties, without an ocean boundary and the many species tied to that specialized habitat, are hard pressed to break 200 species in a day.

The statistics from this years count: 26 observers was fewer than in the past but they found 199 species, an all time record, totaling 11,252 birds (a record by almost a thousand birds). Of the 199 species 142 were neotropical migrants (5 fewer than the record) who spend the winter in Mexico, Central and South America and the Caribbean and were migrating north to breed in North America. This years most numerous species were Barn Swallow (609), Mourning Dove (473), and California Gull (339). Eight species were new to the count (Dunlin, Ruddy Ground-Dove, Lewiss Woodpecker, Williamsons Sapsucker, Northern Waterthrush, White-throated Sparrow, Dickcissel, and Red Crossbill) bringing the total species seen during IMBDs to 243. Eleven species were seen in larger numbers than ever recorded in the county before: Vauxs Swift (319), Calliope Hummingbird (10), Acorn Woodpecker (9), Hammonds Flycatcher (42), Gray Flycatcher (122), Dusky Flycatcher (79), Stellers Jay (78), Common Raven (310) Violet-green Swallow (241), Townsends Solitaire (32), and Cedar Waxwing (156).

The hale, hardy, and eventually exhausted observers were Jim Parker (north Bishop to Aspendell), Mike & Nancy Prather, Bob Hudson, and Judy Wickman (Lone Pine area), Bob & Barb Toth (Haiwee Reservoir, Sage and Cactus Flats and Dirty Socks), Bill Mitchel, Larry Nahm, Andrew and Leah Kirk (Independence area), Chris Howard and Rosie Beach (Deep Springs and White Mountains), John and Ros Gorham (south of Big Pine), James Wilson (McElvoy Canyon, Inyo Mtns), Debbie House (Buttermilk area), Steve Holland (Starlite area), Jack Ferrell (Rocking K area), Zach Smith and others from PRBO (Horseshow Meadow), Jo Heindel (Big Pine area to Glacier Lodge), and Tom Heindel, Vicki & Gerry Wolfe, and Michael Thornton (Death Valley National Park).

This is the 11th year this international count has been conducted and the sixth for Inyo County. This is a cooperative global effort to inventory birds during migration. Many species are in serious trouble because of habitat destruction in both their wintering and summering grounds so counts like this one help scientists determine the severity of the problem and which species are most heavily impacted. While the observers benefited from their discoveries and the camaraderie shared with those with the same goal, the birds benefited with another year of data collection by a dedicated group of committed citizens. If you are interesting in becoming a part of this endeavor call Jo Heindel (938-2764). Previous birding experience is necessary and there is plenty of time to get ready for next years effort to break 200 bird species.

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It is November now, and as we look at the east slope of the Sierra we cannot help but notice that the green riparian in the canyon bottoms is now gold and crimson with touches of maroon. Winter is just around the corner, but what kind will we have this year and what birds will it bring?

Winter is the most unpredictable bird season of all. Some birds would never have been prophesied as potential winter visitors. The White-winged Junco that Debby Parker found near Laws on 22 December 2000 is just such an example. It remained into March 2001 and was seen by all the local birders as well as others who came from far and wide to see only the third record for the State of this Great Plains bird.

The Snow Bunting found at Scottys Castle 14 November 1970 was another amazing visitor. Fortunately for science, one of Californias premier birders, Guy McCaskie, was there to record it and asked a tourist to photograph it and send him the picture. She did and the rest is history.

Other winter birds that are regular visitors are anticipated with avid watchfulness. Tundra Swans arrive with startling regularity the first week of November, but in 1966, 1996 and 1997, the avant-garde were recorded on 22 Oct. Barrows Goldeneye has been recorded about a dozen times in Inyo County and most birds have been found after Thanksgiving although Jon Dunn, of Rovana, found a male at Tinemaha Reservoir on 5 November 1991. Most sightings are from Furnace Creek Ranch, Tinemaha and Pleasant Valley Reservoirs.

Bald Eagles typically arrive in early November, although in 1992 an immature made an early appearance at Tinemaha Reservoir on 8 Oct.

From the far north come Rough-legged Hawks. The 1970s had many more records than the last decade. There were many days when more Rough-leggeds were seen than Red-tailed Hawks! This species typically arrives in the County about mid November but Jon Dunn found one at Furnace Creek Ranch on 27 October 1978. Some winters this beautiful hawk is seen daily in the Owens Valley and other winters it goes virtually unrecorded.

Will this be a Northern Shrike winter? This rare visitor from the far north may occur annually but it is not reported every year. The first sightings usually occur in late November but one was found by Stephen F. Bailey at Big Pine 26 October 1975.

While the colorful Bohemian Waxwing is eagerly anticipated each winter, it usually disappoints birders and is not reported. When they do visit, they are not seen until after mid November. On 13 November 1994, Dave Shuford called at 0835 from Lee Vining to tell us that he had just seen about one hundred Bohemians take off and head due south and wanted to alert us. Four hours later we got a call from Bob Toth in Bishop, who knew nothing about the Early Alert, telling us that he had about 20 Bohemians in his yard!

Will it be an Evening Grosbeak year? In 1990, we had dozens in our yard every day for the entire winter. We were thrilled that we were going to see them each winter of our retirement! It has not happened since.

If ignorance is bliss then winter is the blissful season because we cannot predict what our best birds will be, but there surely will be treasures.

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