The Advisory Boar

By Abhijit Menon-Sen <>

Using eBird in 2016

Make eBird your New Year's Resolution for 2016!”, they said, with a picture of a Steller's Sea Eagle that looked like it meant business. So I did.

A month and a half into the year, it's become a habit to record and submit lists during the day. It's given me a reason to get out of the house for a while in the morning and evening, and to take occasional breaks from work during the day, all of which has made me fitter, happier, and more productive.

I have many complaints about the eBird interface. The "Submit observations" page needs to be a couple of orders of magnitude faster. The Android app shouldn't be so dependent on network connectivity. Both need to be much smarter about interpreting abbreviations. I can think of various features that would make reviewers' lives easier. But those are just details (I hear the eBird team is receptive to suggestions), and none of it takes away from the fact that eBird has helped me to start birding regularly and seriously again.

As new year's resolutions go, I can't think of one that's worked out better.

Thoughts on specimen collection

I have now lost count of the number of forwarded copies of the “A scientist found a bird that hadn’t been seen in half a century, then killed it” mail that people have sent me. The collection of a Bougainville Moustached Kingfisher specimen by an AMNH team in Guadalcanal has drawn intense criticism and reignited the debate about whether scientific collection is justified or even necessary.

Moustached Kingfisher [Illustration: J G Keulemans (1842–1912), Novitates Zoologicae]

I don't have anything new or insightful to add to this debate.

Read more…

Alpen Wings ED binoculars

Two years ago, I bought a pair of Alpen Wings 8x42 ED binoculars. These are one of the least expensive mid-range birding binoculars, but a big step up from my earlier Nikon Trailblazer 8x42 at three times the price.

Even so, I didn't expect them to be so much better than anything I had used before. The view is addictively bright and clear, and I use the 2.5m close-focus capabilities much more than I thought I would. The build quality is excellent, the adjustments are smooth and precise, and these binoculars feel reassuringly solid in the hand. The hard carrying case is also welcome.

On paper, the specifications are very similar to the Trailblazer: same magnification, similar field of view, waterproof and fogproof, slightly less eye relief, a bit smaller but a few grams heavier. I expected only a modest improvement in optics and better build quality, but they're in an altogether different league. Two years later, I'm still as happy and impressed with them as I was in the first five minutes.

(I also use an Alpen spotting scope, which I will review someday; suffice it to say that Alpen optics deserve their excellent reputation.)

The Black-browed Reed Warbler that wasn't

I am a big fan of written descriptions of field sightings.

Forcing myself to write down my observations and present them in an organised manner has helped me to learn to make better use of however little time I get with a bird in the field. Unless I did this consciously, it was all too easy to spend time looking at birds without seeing very much.

Written descriptions are not always reliable, and the reliable ones not always conclusive. A photograph, regardless of the quality, can often serve to clear up an incomplete description; but photographs can't be the beginning and end of identification, because they come with their own problems.

Here's an old thread from delhibirdpix that shows how photographs can mislead even a succession of expert observers. The ingredients were all in place: a location that has an extraordinary (and well-deserved) reputation for being a vagrant-trap, a small warbler with an unmistakable black brow, and only one species anywhere in the region matching that description.

Mystery warbler

But two and two did not add up to Black-browed Reed Warbler in this case. The identification hinged entirely on the black brow, which turned out to be an artifact introduced while lightening a dark photograph, as shown in the comparison above. The bird was (probably) a Booted Warbler with an entirely unremarkable pale brow.

Here's another post (from about the same time) about a similar problem.

My first Wallcreeper

Late in December 2009, as a birthday present to myself, I went on a solo trek to Dayara Bugyal, a high-altitude alpine meadow in Garhwal. I meant to write about the week I spent in the mountains, but upon my return, I found the experience too overwhelming to try to describe all at once.

Some six months after the trek, I posted a a photograph from my first campsite. Nearly a year later, I wrote about my decision to forego a field guide on the trek; that's where the paragraph quoted above comes from. It's been nearly five years since then, and I've typed that first sentence a dozen more times, but I never got much further.

One of my most enduring memories of the trip is of a small grey bird crawling up the face of a rock cliff just below Barsu village. I was driving back to Uttarkashi in the late afternoon after the trek, and I caught a flicker of movement on the cliff from the corner of my eye. I knew instantly what it was—a Wallcreeper, a bird I had been hoping to find for the past five years. I had barely a minute to admire it, but I'll never forget the sudden flash of scarlet when it flew away.


It's almost Wallcreeper season where I live now. They're a familiar sight in passage to lower altitudes in early winter, but that first sighting will always be the most precious.

Birds named after women

I've read many pieces about the people after whom birds are named, and it struck me recently that most of them are male. Not surprising, since there must have been many more male ornithologists than women; but there are nevertheless many birds named after women. Because of the regularity of Latin grammar, we can find a considerable number just by looking for names that end in -ae.

Alas, the majority of matching names are toponyms. Some of these names are obvious, like novaehollandiae and novaeseelandiae, which account for 23 species between them. But many more are obscure, and there's no way to exclude them en masse. One must go through the list one entry at a time to discard the place names. One notable example of this genre is adeliae, which refers to Adélie Land, named after Adélie Vicomtesse Dumont d’Urville, wife of a French Antarctic explorer. Another problem comes from male names which have been Latinised as -ae (e.g. Matsudaira, Fea). When these and other complications are eliminated, we are left with just under a hundred female eponyms.

Only a handful of these names belong to women whose contributions to ornithology are well-documented.

  • Maria Emilia Ana Koepcke, a famous German ornithologist and explorer in Peru, has a Screech-owl, a Cacique, and a Hermit named koepckeae after her.
  • The Dot-winged Antwren Microrhopias [quixensis] emiliae is named after Henriette Mathilde Maria Emilie Snethlage, another German ornithologist in Brazil, and the Director of the Goeldi Museum.
  • Eleonora's Falcon Falco eleonorae is named after Giudicessa Eleonora d'Arborea of Sardinia, who made a law protecting goshawks and falcons at their nests… in the fourteenth century!
  • Marion A. Johnstone, an English aviculturalist, has three birds named johnstoniae after her.
  • Therese Charlotte Maria Anna Princess of Bavaria, a zoologist and explorer, has two birds named theresiae after her.
  • British ornithologist Beryl Patricia Hall had a bird named hallae after her (but I can't figure out what species it was).
  • The Jos Plateau Indigobird Vidua maryae is named after Mary Dyer for her field work on indigobirds in Nigeria.
  • The delightfully-named Elfin-woods Warbler Dendroica angelae is named after New Zealand zoologist and conservationist Dr. Angela Kay Kepler.
  • The Afghan Snowfinch Pyrgilauda theresae was named after Theresa Clay, a British expert on bird lice.
  • The Golden-rumped Flowerpecker Dicaeum annae is named after Anna A. Weber van Bosse, a Dutch botanist and collector in the East Indies.
  • Otus ireneae and Metallura odomae are named after Irene Morden and Babette Odom, sponsors and bird-watchers in Kenya and Peru respectively.
  • Lulu's Tody-tyrant Poecilotriccus luluae is named after Lulu May von Hagen in recognition of her support for research in avian genetics.

Read more…

Feathers, moult, and plumage

I gave a talk on feathers to the Delhibird group at the WWF auditorium, but the video and presentation are not yet available on this web site.

Write to if you're interested in them.

More Richard's Pipits

Last christmas, I saw a number of Richard's Pipits at Dadri. Yesterday, on a trip with Ramit and Ammu, I was pleased to make their acquaintance again. We had multiple good views of at least one bird out in the open, and saw and heard a few others in flight.

I noticed this time that, at a distance, the streaking on the back can be more obvious when the bird is running with its head down and body held parallel to the ground than when it stands upright, something that can be seen briefly in this video:

Perhaps when the bird is in its characteristic upright posture, the back feathers are pushed together, and the streaks are shifted out of alignment?

Apart from the pipits, the highlight of the morning was watching three young Peregrine Falcons hunting waders and waterfowl over the lake.

(Meanwhile, a number of Blyth's Pipits have been seen in Karnataka this year. I wonder if there are any at Sultanpur yet?)

Mangar banni: bird checklist

Mangar is one of many small villages nestled in the Aravali foothills near Delhi. In a region that is under increasing pressure from real estate development, Mangar is especially interesting because it adjoins a banni (sacred grove) that represents the largest remaining contiguous unspoiled Aravali habitat. The residents of Mangar and some neighbouring villages understand the value of this grove, and are exploring ways to secure lasting protection for the area.

The banni is important for many reasons, including its cultural significance, being a valuable groundwater resource, and being home to many species of trees, animals, and birds. I am studying the bird life of the banni and the area around it as part of an effort to establish its biodiversity value.

The banni comprises various distinct kinds of habitat, each with its own characteristic bird life. This is a work-in-progress checklist based on two visits to the area in September 2001, and will be refined as more data are collected. Considering the extent and richness of the habitat, there is no doubt that subsequent visits in winter and other seasons will add to this list significantly.

Read more…

My first bird recording

Today I recorded a Yellow-bellied Prinia Prinia flaviventris calling in the Typha reedbeds at Okhla Bird Sanctuary in New Delhi. The bird was very close to me—though I could not see it in the overgrown reeds—and one can hear its wing-snapping display in the recording. The incessant drone of Cicadas provides a backdrop.

Here's an MP3 file (which I created using Audacity), and here's an old photo of the species, also from Okhla.

Prinia flaviventris

(There are much better photographs on OBI.)

This is the first time I have used my new Olympus LS-11 recorder, and I am very impressed with the sound quality I obtained, given my complete inexperience at nature sound recording. I used the default 44.1KHz/16-bit settings, with the "low" mic sensitivity setting, and a recording level of 10.

I am delighted to have been able to record one of my favourite singers as my first subject. I've always tried and failed to describe the call to people, but now I can let the bird speak for itself.