Birding Doldrums and a Note on Lumps and Splits

As with everything in life, birding definitely has its ups and downs. Since reporting on the Common Crane chase, we have been in a down phase.

Most of the reason for the lack of birding excitement is the natural consequence of the season. We arrived at our place in New Mexico on the cusp between winter and spring. Some of the wintering birds, such as cranes and waterfowl, are on their way north already and most of the spring birds have yet to arrive. Another reason for less birding action is that we have been busy working on the property and are not spending as much time afield as we would like. We’ll try to get out more and write more as the spring progresses.

There is some birding news, however. The American Ornithologist’s Union (AOU) is preparing to meet and the proposed changes to the classification of the North American bird fauna have been released for consideration. Most of the proposals involve arcane rules of taxonomy or nomenclature and will have no effect on the average birder, but some of the changes will affect the life lists of most North American birders.

Perhaps the most notable and talked about change is the proposal to lump Common Redpoll and Hoary Redpoll into a single species. Based on the latest data available, it seems as if the two former species are actually just variations of one species. Where the ranges of the forms overlap there is enough interbreeding and mixing of genes to suggest that the color variations and other field marks we see are part of a broader continuum. Bird listers hate lumps! Whenever lumping of species occurs, we lose a tick on our list just by the whim of some scientists voting somewhere. All the hard-fought effort to find and tick a species is lost by the stroke of a pen.

On the other hand, listers love splits, and fortunately for us, there are some proposed splits that will balance out the loss of the Hoary Redpoll, and even add a species or two. One of these splits is especially beneficial to us because the subspecies being proposed for elevation to full species status is found right where we are currently staying. The Lillian’s Meadowlark, a pale-cheeked variation of Eastern Meadowlark that occupies a disjunct range in Southwestern New Mexico and Southeastern Arizona, is singing on our property as I write this post. The geographic isolation of this population is the strongest evidence for its elevation to full species and removal from consideration as “just” a race of Eastern Meadowlark.

Another proposed split is the elevation of certain populations of Scrub-Jays in California to full species status. In fact, there was talk of as many as three or four “new” species of Scrub-Jays based on genetic studies, but the only one I saw in the released notes was the “California Scrub-Jay.” That species complex is certainly diverse and confusing. It hasn’t been all that long since the “original” Scrub-Jay was split into the Florida, Island, and Western species. It is not clear if we have actually seen the proposed new species in the past, (though we think we have) so we may need to travel out to California to add this bird if the proposal is accepted, much like we did when Bell’s Sparrow and Sagebrush Sparrow were split from Sage Sparrow.

There are also proposals to elevate certain subspecies of Leach’s Storm-Petrel to full species status. I know almost nothing about the merits of these proposals, but the Leach’s Storm-Petrel complex has long been among the most widespread and diverse of the pelagic birds, with seemingly disjunct populations scattered across several oceans. Whatever happens with the complex will have no effect on my new life list, however, since I don’t even have Leach’s on that list yet! (We need to do more pelagic trips!)

The bottom line for our new life list is that if the AOU proposals are accepted, we will lose one species, gain two more, and have several potential new species to chase. That’s not a bad result from just sitting here and reading an ornithological website!