Photo Backlog

Cleaning the decks, here are a few photos from recent, well daily outings. Comments are with each photo, they are not in any particular order.

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Above and below, Eastern Phoebe on Brier Island, 9/24/16, below a Black-and-White Warbler from the same trip.

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Hawks were moving over Brier Island, NS but not in the same sort of numbers seen last year. This Red-tailed Hawk was the only one we saw amongst a plethora of Merlins, American Kestrels and Sharp-shinned Hawks.

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Currently the default warbler, a Yellow-rumped pauses in the morning sun, below a Northern Parula does likewise.

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Song Sparrow above, obviously not flossed this morning. Below a Common Yellowthroat.

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The Peregrine above was contemplating a Sanderling snack. Below this Dark-eyed Junco obviously got made up in the dark. Under that a Ruby-crowned Kinglet, yes winter is coming.

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Above a Lesser Yellowlegs, below a yard Blue-headed Vireo. Below that a Broad-winged Hawk, one of a total of 16 that passed over the yard in two days.

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Blue-winged Teal are arriving, they’ll be off once the banging starts, hopefully. Below a Hermit Thrush checking me out, maybe my pishing was just irresistible.

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Next post is a shorebird one. They are coming through Nova Scotia still but in lower numbers so easier to pick through.

The Atlantic Canada Birding Pelagic

Off Brier Island, September 24th 2016.

Pelagic birds, you either love them or you hate them. For 41 birders willing to head out to sea in a small boat and on a distinctly choppy sea at 7:30am, it was definitely love in the air and an anticipation of what MIGHT be seen as to what is guaranteed. Pelagics are a lottery, you very rarely win but you very rarely lose too. No matter how many times you’ve seen it, the romance associated with Great Shearwaters fighting over fish guts gets you every time.

As it was a weekend and so no sick notes to employers were involved, I’m happy to publish the list of participants. If you are a former dictator of a bankrupt third-world country living in hiding in Nova Scotia and don’t want your name here, please let me know: Alan Covert, Alix d’Entremont, B Haley, Bernice Moores, Brian Hempstead (from Seattle), Carmel Smith, Chris Pepper, Dominic Cormier, Dorothy Poole, Diane LeBlanc, Eric Mills, Ervin Olsen, Gisele d’Entremont, Homer Noble, Jake Walker, James Hirtle, Jane White, Jason Dain, Joan Comeau, John Loch, Judy O’Brien, Kate Steele, Keith Lowe, Kevin Lantz, Kyle Shay, Larry Neily, Liz Voellinger, Lori Buhlman, Mark Dennis, Maureen Chapman, Mike MacDonald, Pat McKay, Paul Gould, Peggy Scanlon, Phil Taylor, Rick Whitman, Ronnie d’Entremont, Sharron d’Entremont, Simon d’Entremont, Sylvia Fullerton, Sandra Dennis.

The day before was foul late on with a rainstorm hitting Brier for a couple of hours just as the sea was getting interesting. The weather didn’t prevent those already there and intending to spend the night in the Briar Island Lodge getting out birding, although small migrant birds were thin on the ground. A Baird’s Sandpiper lingered and attracted people to Pond Cove, where two groups of two Caspian Terns passed through although they were missed by the majority. On the front of the rain, a jaeger pursued a Black-legged Kittiwake offshore while upwards of an estimated 5000 Great Shearwaters sheared. The signs were good for the next day as long as the weather had been accurately predicted, it was.

Saturday was cool, bright and full of feathered promise as people congregated on the wharf to board the whale watching boat run by Mariner, ‘The Chad and Sisters Two’. Chum was hauled down to the deck and we all filed aboard, ready for the off. Following the safety briefing by owner Penny, we ran through the basics of seeing seabirds, basically SHOUT OUT LOUD! We used a standard orientation of bow (pointy bit) being 12:00 and everything else follows. As this was a tester to see how such a trip would work, the boat maximum was set at 43 + crew, (but only 41 showed up), this kept the price reasonable and should have allowed everyone to be able to get to see the birds. More about how the next one next year will work later but yes, there will be another one, or maybe two.

We headed out and soon realised that this was going to be a bouncy one. Sea sickness was a possibility, and actually getting a decent look at the more distant birds while going up and down and side to side, would be a challenge. For some this was a first encounter with sea birds, for others, the old hands, they picked their stations and readied and steadied for the birds. The waters before we reached the shelf were quite choppy, after that it got even more lively.

For the first 40 minutes it was quiet and we had to be satisfied with the odd Northern Gannet and a few Atlantic Puffins before the first shearwater shout got people onto a few Greats passing. We also passed little rafts (known as a lilo) of phalaropes as we headed for the main area where we hoped to hit the feeding birds. Whale sign in the distance told us that Humpbacks were around but they were not what we were looking for, until that is a couple decided to breach clear a few times, if distantly, then we thought we’d head towards them to see whether the birds were hanging out that way. By now were seeing the odd loafing groups of Great Shearwaters and had started chumming, that is chucking bits of recently deceased fish, thanks Ellis, into the sea to attract a crowd, it worked.

We had already seen a Pomarine Jaeger, not particularly well but it was a start, when the yell of SKUA went up and an all too brief South Polar flashed left to right across the bow, then turned and went back before vanishing, as did all the shearwaters. Not everyone saw the bird which was actually best viewed without bins. The photos show a ‘standard’ South Polar so no worries with that one. As the flock had moved then so did we. We chased around a while looking for the main group but they became elusive, moving rapidly and greater distances that we could reasonably cover.

At one point we thought to head for a fishing boat but it was scalloping and not likely to pull the birds in like a dragger would. We kept at it, chumming, stopping for a while and drifting while hoping the accumulation of gulls and Great Shearwaters would prove a visual attraction for passing birds. Two Lesser Black-backed Gulls showed up, a few Black-legged Kittiwakes and a bizarre Artic Tern that was chasing a Sharp-shinned Hawk. Three more Pomarine Jaegers dropped by, as did the only Sooty Shearwater of the trip.

We decided to head in and bird as we went. The prediction was that at least one species of passerine would find us, one did and flew restlessly around us, mostly with the sun behind it. Digital photography once again came to the fore to reveal our interloper to be a Purple Finch. Not too long after, as we neared the calmer water, Jake called a skua sat on the ocean. The Captain skillfully got us all a bit nearer and we saw a rusty headed bird at range, then it flew. We followed it and it sat long enough to get good views before giving better flight photo opportunities. We lost it and the debate began. Here is a couple of edited photos, lightened a bit, cropped and sharpened. Verdict, South Polar Skua or at least a high percentage of one as they have been known to hybridise with Brown and Chilean Skua.

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We headed in a little late, the 12:30 whale watchers were stacking on the wharf. Once ashore, those who had felt a little queasy soon regained their equilibrium. We all dispersed, some to continue birding Brier, others to trek home. The late skua made the trip all worthwhile although the earlier skua had already been inked in. It would have been nice had it not been so choppy, but you take what you get when at sea, also we perhaps should have stuck with the whales as they are eating the same stuff the birds are after, more or less. It was perhaps surprising that no storm-petrels were seen, although they would have needed to be close, also Cory’s and Manx Shearwaters would have been welcome, as would Parasitic Jaeger, Pomarine does seem to be the default jaeger off Nova Scotia.

I have ideas about next year which I will float when I have more details. That Nova Scotia birders are keen to get out and see seabirds is without doubt. One day the planets will align and we all hope to be on the pelagic that is the ‘big one’, until then we will keep looking and hoping.

Thanks are due to Penny, owner of Mariner whale and sea bird cruises and her crew. They knew what we wanted did their best to make it happen. Thanks again to Ellis for helping with the chum and Ronnie and Alix for acting as guides on the day. Thanks to Sandra for letting me fill her freezer with chum and not complaining when she went arm-deep in it when she fell. Last but not least, thanks to everyone for showing up, being enthusiastic, and making, as Eric has christened it, the first ‘annual Atlantic Canada Birding Brier Island Pelagic’ a success.

I only took skua shots on the day, in part to ensure I didn’t revisit my breakfast so, if you want to contribute any images here, please send them and I’ll include a selection. Here are Sandra’s shots of the day.

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Here is a nice bunch of images from Jason Dain, thanks Jason.

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Round-up of the Recent

The lingering Least Bittern has attracted lots of admirers and has been the highlight of the month, so far. I make no apologies for presenting more images later, but first here is a Wilson’s Warbler from New Road, The Hawk (10/19), a CSI year bird for me, #216.

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Nearby, on Fish Plant Road, The Hawk, I got very much record shots of this Mourning Warbler but better shots of a Cape May Warbler (last image).

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Belted Kingfishers rarely sit still, so I was pleased to be able to stalk this one.

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We don’t get many Ring-billed Gulls on Daniel’s Head, this immature was dwarfed by the meaty Herring and Great Black-backed Gulls picking through the beached kelp.

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While searching for a Blue Grosbeak (10/18) I found a few American Pipits.

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And the beach had a mixture of shorebirds, mostly Sanderling but a few Semipalmated Plovers too.

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A Great Egret was behind Mike MacDonald’s house recently, then moved to Daniel’s Head – distant though.

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Back to the shorebirds and the confusing differences between standard juvenile Semipalmated with their short, almost tubular bills and the same aged female Western Sandpiper impersonators, with their longer bills (last image). The  image is close enough to see the lower scapular pattern, Typically Western shows anchor shaped black tips whereas Semipalmated is less well-defined and blobby. Overall some rufous might be expected along the scapulars and possibly on the cheek patch although some Western Sandpipers can be remarkably plain.

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This second individual was only seen briefly and under different circumstances. It fed on a tide wrack with flighty Sanderlings and was hard to get an image of. The bill is long and slender and the scapulars do show a rusty wash, I suspect Western but can’t confirm it here, I’ll be checking the high tide flock at Daniel’s Head today (10/19) to see whether it is still around.

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Amongst the wandering shorebird flock was this White-rumped Sandpiper.

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Now, as promised, a few Least Bittern shots. It really is the most confiding Least Bittern I have ever seen and a unique opportunity to enjoy a normally elusive species as it goes about eating enough fish daily for a Great Blue Heron to survive on!

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Last and certainly least, this was found dead on The Cape recently, species anyone? Thanks to Ervin for the shot.

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Second Sight

Overnight 10/15/16 was cold, 3°C, and I expected warbler migration to be quite reasonable. Reviewing my options, I decided on The Hawk as being the most likely place for finding a warbler wave. Not long after dawn, I parked up in The Hawk Beach parking lot and did a cursory sweep of the roadside pool, locally known as Clinton’s Pond, looking for one of the Yellow-crowned Night-herons that have been around a while. Something must have hit my subconscious because a rusty brown area, looking something like a long-discarded plastic bag, made me return my Swarovski enhanced gaze. The second glance suggested Least Bittern – no, not likely.

The sun was becoming more insistent, and so I moved along the road and took a couple of snaps. Zooming in on one I was sure I could see a bill jutting out slightly from the difficult to discern bird, a scope was required. Unfortunately I left the scope in the car overnight and the damp kept making the image misty. Despite the murk I could see that it was a Least Bittern and I slouched into action.

Don’t you just love it when your expensive to run cell phone tells you that you can make emergency calls only. What!, this was an emergency, stupid phone. Eventually I got hold of everyone on my contact list and now came the period after finding a good bird where you wait for another observer to come on the scene. Approximately three months later Johnny arrived, swiftly followed by Mike as by that point, time had returned to normal.

I had record shots, but decided to make an effort at better documentation by sneaking nearer and taking advantage of available cover, not to mention my natural stealth. It worked and I now had a few reasonable shots in the bank. As it happened I needn’t have worried as the bird was very relaxed and allowed us with cameras to fill our boots. It is unusual for a Least Bittern to show for long, their regular habitat precludes easy observation – normally. This one had obviously not read the script and then spent all day bar about 40 minutes, gaily feeding on tiddlers (small fish) in full view.

The bright light made it hard to get truly good photos, ones with real definition and detail but I tried all the same. I hope it stays for the weekend and that every visitor gets to enjoy such a good bird.

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Dropping a Clanger

There is nothing quite like the bucket of cold water that is knowing you have made a stupid mistake and then shared it with half the planet on Facebook. Everyone makes them, some make a habit of making them, but we usually have an in-built device that prevents them, a little voice saying it doesn’t look quite right, it is a good device, if you take notice of it that is.

It is strangely quiet in Nova Scotia for peak migration time, so you tend to be left flogging the bushes more in hope than expectation. Such was the situation today (10/13/16) when I made my way for pick-up to go to The Cape. Five minutes earlier I’d had good scope views of a Long-billed Dowitcher, stood next to its less well-endowed cousin on The Guzzle and showing those nice, pale edged but not notched tertials of an immature.

Moving further down the road I pished and played alarm calls hoping for ANY warbler to show. None did but a sparrow, seen briefly through the camera lens, scuttled through and was duly snapped. I focused on the broad, grey collar and the lack of a line through the lores. Two and two made five and I leapt to the rash conclusion that it was a Clay-colored Sparrow, despite thinking it looked a little odd. A 5km walk around The Cape turned up nothing, almost literally, and so I buoyed my enthusiasm with the thought of a year-tick in the bag. At home I edited the first shot showing the whole bird and posted it to the Atlantic Canada Birding Facebook group.

People with a more critical eye in operation yelled Swamp, so I looked and it was, that was exactly why it looked odd! One of the advantages of being a Facebook group admin is that you can remove posts, so I did before my faux-pas became more widely enjoyed. As very few people read this blog I can confess here and be confident of a certain amount of damage limitation. Unfortunately there are no mitigating circumstances for this one, just rank sloppiness and a comment ‘must concentrate more’ on my end of term report. Here is the photo of the Swamp Sparrow. Now squint for the Clay-colored effect!

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And when I next find a Clay-colored I do know I’ll need a photo!

I’m still wondering why pickings have become so scarce though. Saturday was a good day with some arrival but everything left that evening and there is little succor to be had. Will we miss out on the expected level of migration due to the ever-fine days?, or will Mother Nature finally pitch that storm our way (not before 10/24 please) and bring us the birds and the rain we desperately need.

On the bright side my evening reading will be occupied by poring through this:

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If you enjoy birding sites that capture the essence of bird migration, and you find yourself in the UK, specifically East Yorkshire in October-early November, you could do worse than visit Spurn. PS. Thanks for the use of the photo, whoever.

Addendum: There might not be much happening land-bird wise but a peaking tide, evening sea watch last night was pretty good. For once the sky was overcast and the sea not glassy. The details of the short watch are on eBird, the highlight was adding Northern Fulmar to my Cape Sable Island life and year list and Parasitic Jaeger to the latter too. I tried again this morning (10/14) but we are back to glassy, no Yellow-billed Cuckoo, as reported late yesterday either.

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Looking for the big one at Daniel’s Head.

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It was dark and foggy but a Great Horned Owl in the yard, Mike got to see it too, just look at those eyes.

 

Good Mourning

On Saturday September 10th Mike MacDonald, Ronnie d’Entremont, Liz Voellinger and I went off to The Cape (again). It was my 28th visit (so far) and, as usual, the promise of just what might be lurking raised the stakes. Liz, on her first Cape visit, wanted Buff-breasted Sandpiper, any godwit and anything else on offer. Things started well when two American Oystercatchers flew past as we waited for our boatman Leslie. They’ve been away for a few weeks so what were these?, the old guard coming back having been on vacation elsewhere or new birds roaming and scouting, I expect we’ll find out next April if it’s the latter.

Initially the only unexpected bird was a Killdeer although I did hear an American Goldie distantly – yes I had my bionic ears in. The Forest was quiet, save for the currently omnipresent Red-breasted Nuthatches while a scan of the wider scrub revealed the odd one bouncing south. Three of us got diverted back to The Forest by an odd call, Ronnie pressed on to the Lighthouse compound even though there were people in there working. The diversion failed to find the calling bird although we did see a Black Saddlebags (dragonfly). We made our way towards Ronnie who’d found a Baltimore Oriole, then the day changed a bit.

Imagine trying to bird while stood under a helicopter, so loud that you can’t hear what the person next to you says and with a machine beeping away while in reverse, plus your quarry, something of a skulker at the best of times, is taking advantage of every hiding place. That would describe the mayhem we enjoyed when we found an interesting warbler stood (briefly) on the ground below the obliging Baltimore Oriole.

For fifteen minutes we flushed and stalked, getting views that were inconclusive and while our senses were being shredded by the noise. The ground view was suggestive of Connecticut but the eye-ring was broken front and back, Macgillivray’s? Better views moved Mourning up the probability scale but it was hard to make a judgement from the images and at least one Common Yellowthroat kept muddying the waters. The bird slipped away and so did we, Ronnie to walk the shingle bank, we backtracked via The Forest, ever the optimists.

When we caught up with Ronnie he’d been following another warbler around. We intercepted the bird, a clear Mourning and a good Cape Sable Island bird.

We didn’t manage a buffy and wended our merry way back to the pick-up point. Leslie was ready and we started a steady cruise back. Suddenly the engine quit and we discovered a buttock inspired problem. A short while later we were on our way back again, problem resolved.

Here are a few images from the jaunt.

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Those Empids!

Empidexterous, according to no one’s dictionary, is the ability to identify any empidonax flycatcher with only a single look, and get it right. Few people have the talent and so most of us have to work at their empid identification almost every time. Noisy birds help, calls and songs are mostly diagnostic with just a couple sharing very similar notes. Visually, empids can be split up into four groups; drab, bright, small, large. That presupposes that you can figure out the size in the field. Realistically they are the eastern ones and the western ones, so we’d best start in the east.

Our default eastern empids (in NS) are Alder, Least, Yellow-bellied and Willow, in that order. Two are big, two small. If you see a big one in Nova Scotia, it is probably an Alder. A small one is more likely a Least. If you are on an offshore island at the southern end of the province, the stakes change. Migrant empids are often silent, so you need to get more technical to sort them out. Least is simplest. Pale, flicks its tail, it’s a Least. Yellow-bellied should be simple too, except it has western congeners that muddy the water, and both have been found in NS, probably.

Recently The Forest on The Cape, the island off the end of Cape Sable Island (which itself is off the southern end of Nova Scotia, do keep up) has hosted four empids. A lone bird on August-28th was, I believe, an Alder. To confirm this I used the formula discussed later to confirm a long primary projection. In the field it looked typically Alder, round headed, slim, brown looking. The photos are not great (at least the ones from the side) and it was not our main focus that day, we were looking for Buff-breasted Sandpipers and American Golden Plovers.

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On September 2nd we (Ronnie d’Entremont and I) found an empid in The Forest but were distracted by the Feds who were surveying. The empid was obvious and active and would have had more attention at the time except we teased out another, smaller, greenish empid that gave the impression of looking like a Ruby-crowned Kinglet at times. It was small, dainty and active and should have been a Yellow-bellied but we weren’t 100% sure. This is where the island/rarity mentality kicks in. We were on an island, it was an odd looking (to us) empid, ergo it might have been a rare one.

The awareness of the possibility of rarities is not a bad thing and will serve you well unless you become obsessed. In this case it was obvious that we should photo document the bird which became more tractable with patience. The primaries seemed short and it reminded me of a Pacific-slope Flycatcher that I’d photographed on the Pacific slope. An image of our interesting empid was dispatched to Alix d’Entremont for comment and we continued our birding.

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This (above) is the Pacific-slope Flycatcher, one of several singing birds from Monterey in June 2014.

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This is the empid from The Forest. Had this been on the mainland it would have been enjoyed as a Yellow-bellied from the beginning without question. Although I don’t see that many Yellow-bellied Flycatchers, a spring bird in the Willow Clump at Chebogue Point just seemed meatier than the bird we were seeing in The Forest. Included here (below) is an image of that bird too.

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Although preoccupied with the identification of what turned out to be ‘only’ a Yellow-bellied Flycatcher, the other empid we saw at the time was from the Alder/Willow end of the spectrum. In the field this bird didn’t feel entirely Alder, not a feeling you can quantify. Later, and using the advantage of good images, a PC and software that allows resizing, Sandra and I went through the process suggested in the Ratio Approach article, see the link at the end.

By making the wing chord (measured as per Pyle) 69mm, we were then able to then measure the longest primary (primary tip to alula) and longest secondary and, through a simple subtraction, came up with a measurement that suggested that our bird was at the Willow Flycatcher end of the range. We did this with both wings but using different photographs of the same bird. We also did the same to a known Alder Flycatcher image which came out as being in the Alder end of the range. Forrest Rowland, in the article, makes it clear that his sample range is small but his findings, when used in conjunction with plumage and the indefinable giss of a bird (or however you want to spell it, jizz in the UK), then making an identification of the bird as a Willow Flycatcher is not unreasonable and at least has some biometric support.

Interestingly some Willow Flycatchers, and some ‘Traill’s’, those that cannot be readily identified in the field or hand, were banded on Bon Portage at around the same time. With Bon Portage being geographically adjacent to The Cape, it would not be surprising if we shared a species mix and even individuals. We’d probably get more if The Forest became the bigger Forest but that is something for the future. Below are the images of the Willow Flycatcher.

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The last empid encounter on The Cape was straightforward. On September 4th an active, slight looking, big headed bird with an obviously short primary projection, which tail pumped frequently and had a rather bland plumage was clearly a Least Flycatcher, (below) we did rule out Hammond’s!

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Sadly I am not Empidexterous and probably never will be but I am a giss birder, a skill acquired only through field practice, if not always 100% reliable, as shown by the Yellow-bellied Flycatcher. It may not seem to amount to a hill of beans to be able to identify, as correctly as possible, species from a group that are notoriously difficult but, if we stop trying how will we ever get any better?

For further reading on empid ID see the link below. The ABA ‘ratio’ article lacks some important information, such as defining precisely where measurements should be taken from, a line drawing would have been nice, and there is only one ratio referenced, I suppose ‘Best Guess’ might not have been such a catchy title. To use the information regarding primary projection you must first resize your (good) image to get the wing chord length correct, then secondary and primary measurements can be made. After that it is up to you (and your eBird reviewer) to make a choice.

https://www.aba.org/birding/v41n2p30.pdf

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