Park Days 12/1/23

Love the Least

Least Sandpipers (Calidris minutilla)
Least Sandpiper with two Willets

These Least Sandpipers, the smallest shorebirds in the world, have been living on the rip-rap east of the Burrowing Owl Sanctuary for weeks now, and I am falling in love with them. Their flock is only about half a dozen strong, at the most, and I never see more than three of them in one place at the same time. All birds are amazing, but these birds are specially so. They weigh barely an ounce, yet they flew something like 2000 miles to get here. They seem to like this spot, keeping company with a flock of Willets who look like giants compared to the sandpipers. (See “So Small,” Nov 17 2023.) In the video above, they forage for tiny crustaceans like Allorchestes angustus that don’t even have their own Wikipedia page. They seem well fed and energetic.

Featured Bird: Black Phoebe

Forgive me if you were expecting all pictures of birds in a romantic pose looking pretty. Those are a bit further below. The first photo here shows something rarely seen: the Black Phoebe casting a pellet. Most people are familiar with owls casting pellets. The pellet contains the indigestible parts of the prey they ate, and the bird regurgitates it and coughs it out. (See for example a Burrowing Owl casting a pellet in “The Owls Came Back” movie.) Well, quite a few other birds also make pellets, and the Black Phoebe is one of them. It’s an insect hunter, with about 99 percent of its diet consisting of flies, beetles, wasps, and the like. All those insects have indigestible parts.

Black Phoebe (Sayornis nigricans) ejecting a pellet

The comprehensive Birds of the World subscription-only online guide by the Cornell Bird Lab says:

Casts pellets during day and while on roost at night; may do so less frequently during rainy periods. Pellets not cast every night; found under roost sites and within old nests used as roosts (Oberlander 1939, BOW). Pellets are spherical or conical and 4-9 mm in diameter (mean 7-8, n = 14; Oberlander 1939); composed of beetle forewings (most common item), insect femora and tibiae, parts of compound eyes, simple eyes, spurs and spines, setae, cranial parts, cocoon, and strings of woody material. Perched birds observed to eject pellets after stretching necks up and down while mouth is open; ejects pellet from or throws it out of mouth by whipping head to side. Pellets ejected >25 cm away from individual (Oberlander 1939Irwin 1985).

OK, enough of the bird biology class. Let’s show this bird being beautiful. The bird above perched on the east side, on the rocks below the Open Circle Viewpoint. All three shown below I photographed in the Native Plant Area. Also beautiful is its close cousin, the Say’s Phoebe (Sayornis saya), which showed up now and then on the east side, perching on the barbecue fixtures.

Some Other Birds Seen in the Park This Week

Bird Name Change: Halfway There

As this site noted almost a month ago (“Park Week 11/3/23“), the American Ornithological Society has voted to change bird names to bird names, eliminating people names. The move is a victory for the Bird Names for Birds movement. The move has been widely applauded, but also met with some of the same kinds of pushback as the move to remove Confederate statues. Disabled birder and equity advocate Freya McGregor published an article in the OT Birder taking on the opposition arguments; read it here.

A humorous piece with new name suggestions appeared in the Washington Post Nov. 24 by Alexandra Petri. Example: “Stork: Baby-Reveal Bird. Peacock: Just go with NBC. Less confusing branding.” Well, that’s progress. But it only gets us to the 50-yard line. The other half of the problem remains: scientific names. Many of the people names that will be dropped from birds’ common names, such as the slavery preacher and bird murderer John Bachman, survive in their scientific names. One example among many: the Black Oystercatcher, Haematopus bachmani. Scientific names get changed every year. There’s no good reason why science, of all things, should become a sanctuary for the memory of awful people.

Two Kinds of Bird Maps

Birding is newsy these days, and that’s good. The SF Chronicle posted a story this week with an interactive map of where in the Bay Area you are likely to see migrating birds in this season. (Thanks to Ilana DeBare of the Golden Gate Bird Alliance for spotting it.) The map is based on entries in the iNaturalist database. The map is very helpful. But don’t take it too literally: it shows a Burrowing Owl spotted in the center of the park. Vast amounts of birding data can also be found on eBird.

The other birdy map shows the impact of structural racism on bird prevalence and bird observations. As this blog noticed on Sept. 15, the practice of redlining residential neighborhoods by race, blocking mortgage credit, is reflected decades later in the data on bird observations. I posted a map of the East Bay showing the redlined areas. This week the NY Times picked up and developed the story, “Why Warblers Flock to Wealthier Neighborhoods.” The article quotes local UC Berkeley prof Christopher J. Schell. among others, about how systemic patterns of racist economic discrimination show up in the pattern of urban wildlife habitat, notably including birds. Wealthier neighborhoods do indeed have more warblers, because they have more trees and green space, while poorer neighborhoods have more pigeons and crows.

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