Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Fun & humbling bird bumblings

Subtitle: Why egg on your face is good for your brain

Late in the afternoon at the Tijuana Estuary last weekend,
I saw a flash of yellow, black, and white,
which then disappeared into the tules.


First thought: some super cool warbler?!?
and I stopped breathing.

But, it'd dropped, so was now invisible.
What was that?!?

And though my heart was pounding with excitement,
nothing came to mind--I'm not the best birder,
and have NOT been practicing, so extra flabby re: ID.

A minute later it surfaced, flew across the trail into some buckwheat plants,
and I got another QUICK look.

Staring RIGHT into late afternoon sun/white sky/ocean. Ow.
Eyes commence to water. Vision blurs.

A FAT black mask, and bright yellow breast,
w/ such bright white at top and back of head/neck
that it cast a FAT glare-haze so I still didn't get a great view
before it dropped down, again.

This time for good.

I did think at the time that the body shape and big head looked like a shrike.

Which also has a mask, but no yellow.

Loggerhead Shrike (Lanius ludovicianus) photo from Wiki, posted by "Whoa dude"

So, I left. Ignorant. But still stoked.

Later, out of the blue, my brain asks:

Great Kiskadee (Pitangus sulphuratus) photo by Mike and Chris

Given that I'd seen this bird plenty whilst in BELIZE and GUATEMALA,
I thought "Heck no. Silly."

It occurs in extreme southern Texas, northern Mexico, and southward.
Not very likely. But stranger things have happened...

Later, I learned via Sibley's that it likes forested areas by water.


I had been at a wetlands (water!) in coastal sage scrub (uh...)
which, for all it's fabulousness, is practically tree-free.

Another reason to doubt.

So, the photo in Sibleys said "Possibly!" to me,
distribution said "Silly," and habitat said "Meh."

I looked for a better alternative.
And didn't find one.
Mind you, Sibley's is HUGE and I'm impatient.

I had thought the mask stopped before the back of the head,
where the glare-y white took over (unlike kiskadee),
but what did I know?

So I screwed up my courage,
and asked An Ornithologist a blatantly IGNORANT question:

"Could it possibly be...
a Great Kiskadee
that I saw at the TJ estuary?"

I then waited (for e-mail reply).

That night my husband came home, heard my story,
said "Oh, I know what that is,"
 spent 5 seconds with Sibley's,
and showed me this:

Common Yellowthroat photo by Dan Pacamo via Wiki

"THAT'S IT!" shouted I.

Probably startled the husband. =)

Granted a great kiskadee is about 8.7 (Wiki) - 10.5-ish (Audubon) inches long,
and the common yellowthroat is is 4.5 - 6 (Audubon),
but, hey, I caught a fleeting glimpse, as they say,
and in ROUGH lighting.

And I was having a heart attack at the time. =)

CYs are distributed ALL OVER the U.S.,
and their habitat is listed as "Moist thickets and grassy marshes."
Sweet. I'd been standing amid a GIANT coastal wetland.

So, I then e-mailed The Ornithologist (Mr. Bourbon, Bastards and Birds--
picked him v. others I knew better 'cause he's in San Diego now)
and said:

Nevermind! =) hee.
Common yellowthroat.


And backed slowly away, making no eye contact.

So, why am I telling you this?

I share this story not only to show you SUPER cool birds,
but to share w/those who are unaware,


I am VERY grateful that I am HAPPY to say "uh, NO idea."

Yes, felt like an ass, but you never know what is possible.
Animals move around.
Global climate change is the new normal, etc.

My favorite trait for anyone I'm going to work with
is a ready willingness to say "Dood, I have no idea. Let's figure it out."
Excruciating honesty.

There's nothing more scary than the thought that
someone recording data YOU care about
would rather fake it (record incorrect data) than ask for help.
And you may never even know it.


So, yes, I asked a pretty silly question,
but now I know. And learned.


And if you didn't already,
now you know too, yes?

Finally, as I've learned especially recently,
one reason I get paid the big bucks (ha!)
is because I MUST understand.

HAVE to figure stuff out.

So, may discover very useful things others have overlooked.

In part, because I am willing to look like an idiot,
to ask the question no one wants to ask.

This saves our company $$ and time.
And makes us look smart.





  1. Okay, but isn't "common yellowthroat" an absurdly drab name for such a dramatic and lovely bird? Wouldn't "black-masked bandit warbler" be a better monicker?

  2. I don't know why we become "embarrassed" to ask questions as we age.......that was how we learned when very young. Now THERE'S a research question!! Why does that happen???
    Loved this post--you have a very charming style of writing.....I learn new things from you, but it isn't in a stuffy scientific way. Love it!

  3. @ Olivia: I KNOW, right? Stunner.

    @ Sue: =) Good question. Re; my writing, well, color me blushing. THANKS so much. =)

  4. common as in - I see it!, not common as in 'tacky'
    I err towards naming things I'm sure of, glossing over the unknowns, and always willing to correct a name if the supplier is more informed than I.

  5. Haha, that was a good account...I have to admit, I was a bit surprised that you wrote back admitting it was a yellowthroat. Yes, there are lots of bird people out there (qualified and otherwise) who never do aggravating.

    Anyways, Social Flycatchers are closer in size to yellowthroats than kiskadees ;)

  6. Ha! This is awesome. I am with ya on finding out stuff for sure rather than making up the answer (or bird).


Cool people write inside rectangles....