F.O.Y.  As far as acronyms go, this one doesn’t mean much to the vast majority of people. But to birders, it can represent a treasured landmark. First Of the Year. Many birders keep many different lists, but a perennial favourite is the year list. Starting on January 1st and ending on Dec 31st each year, this list lets you bury those painful twitching failures of the year past and start afresh. Come midnight, January 1st, it is a new beginning. My personal year list in 2009 was so great, that I don’t know if I’ll ever top it (just shy of 1500 species, or roughly 15% of all the world’s birds). In contrast, I didn’t even bother adding up my 2011 year list, but it likely hovered around 300.

Year listing also gives one the opportunity to get excited about common species all over again. You might see thousands of Mallards in a year, but you only get one first-of-the-year Mallard. It is in such spirit that some birders go to great lengths to try to make their absolute first bird of the year a really special one to kick off the remaining 365 days. Some will drive blind-folded and with ear plugs to avoid getting some  scoundrel like House Sparrow as their very first bird. Those birders rarely report back, so I’m not sure if they ever succeed, but the point stands. For those birders that live in cities, it can be awfully difficult to nab some alluring species before one of the commoners swoops past or “caws” into your window.

The two most common birds in my neighbourhood are Glaucous-winged Gull and Northwestern Crow. Both considered “dirt” birds by many, owing to their sheer abundance and proclivity to human settlements. There is often a Song Sparrow around the hedges below our window though, and if I plug my ears and stare at the hedges long enough, surely I can manage that as a year first. At least the Song Sparrow doesn’t pick through garbage, happily float in sewage, or, as in the case of the gull, partake in extra-species relations.

But the best laid plans don’t amount to much when you have a toddler to chase after. I could neither plug my ears nor stare devotedly into greenery while a book-destroying bundle of danger and energy was running around. Shortly after sunrise I heard my first bird of the year: Glaucous-winged Gull. A few minutes later, out of the corner of my eye, I couldn’t help but notice the Northwestern Crow landing on the chimney pipe next door.

At first I was a bit chagrined. But after a while I realized that these were both extraordinary and iconic species to get. After all, the Song Sparrow is found continent-wide, but the Northwestern Crow is emblematic of coastal shores only from S. Alaska to N. Washington. The Glaucous-winged Gull is slightly more prolific, but not much more so. Birders from around the world come to the Pacific Northwest in part to see these two species. Both are masters of adaptability, being amongst a very small group of birds that not only tolerate human presence, but thrive in it. Unlike European Starling, House Sparrow and Rock Pigeon (other common city-dwellers), the gull and the crow predate human settlement on this coast by many eons. It is very likely that on New Years Day, many thousands of years ago, somebody from one of the coastal First Nations stepped out into the brisk, cold, wet air and was greeted by none other than a Glaucous-winged Gull. And if you listen carefully, you just might be able to hear his reaction in the whisper of the wind “Dang, I was hoping to start the year off with a Thunderbird!”

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3 Responses to F.O.Y.

  1. Kevan says:

    My first bird was Black-capped Chickadee. It is a bundle of energy, flitting through trees no matter how cold. I’ve seen them hopping back and forth from the feeder in the middle of a blizzard. Well adapted, resourceful, full of seeming cheer and gregariousness, a perfect bird for a FOY (yeah, that’s what I keep telling myself…..)

    As an aside….are you allowed to count birds if you only hear them on a recording device that you put out? How about a recording device that you didn’t put out, but you’re the first one to listen to and interpret the recordings?

    • volantbc says:

      You can count whatever you like, but for any official listing it doesn’t count. I once heard a Common Nighthawk through the phone when talking to somebody. For a while that was my only nighthawk of the year, but eventually I saw another one so didn’t need to worry about whether to count it or not. Some people take pictures of every bird they see, then go back and just count whatever they can ID from the photos. That’s a slightly greyer area, since they at least did encounter the bird in life. Keeping busy with the sound analysis? How do you think it compares to having a qualified observer perform a point count?

  2. Kevan says:

    On the whole, I think the recordings are better. Disadvantage is that it can be difficult to determine even a guess distance for species singing (but even in field estimations are highly inaccurate), and with some species it may be hard to determine how many there are (e.g. WTSP). I have detected birds on site further away than the recordings could manage, but they’re so far distant they may be in another habitat, which isn’t what you want when you’re tying habitat/veg to birds.

    Advantages are…. (stolen from the rough draft section of a report I’m helping write)
    1. Increase sampling efforts. Song meters can collect numerous recordings at as many locations as there are song meters, and within widely spaced geographical areas that would not be possible for a single observer to traverse in the limited time available in the morning.

    2. Controls for observer variability: There can be a significant variability in birds detected based on observer skills and hearing ability. With one observer listening to all recordings, this bias is greatly reduced.

    3. Long-term quality control: Even with the same observer variability in detection rates from year to year may occur as the observer’s skills change through practice or lack of use. With archived recordings, it is possible to control for observer changes over time.

    4. Cost savings: In one they found a cost savings of at least $1500/month by hiring untrained crews to set out song meters rather than hiring an expert to conduct all the in-field point counts.

    5. Rate of detection: Observers with declining hearing acuity were able to detect birds on recordings that they failed to hear on site (sort of like point 3).

    6. Recording editing: Recordings can be open in sound software and edited to remove extraneous hiss and other noise. They can be converted to sonograms so the expert can use their eyes as well as their ears to detect species (Blackpoll calls may be missed if there are numerous other birds calling, but with a sonogram you can easily spot them as they are high enough to visually stand out from all the other birds calling. I can actually identify many birds just by looking at the sonograms—and they are great for comparing different birds with similar songs side-by-side. It can be easier to identify a bird based on its sonogram rather than its actual call although that isn’t often the case).

    7. Other statistical analyses: With archived material different analyses can be applied if an agency asks for information and analyses not done in the original point counts. New analytical methods can be completed for past years recordings rather than having observers return to the field and collect new information using new data collection protocols. For example, a time of detection method is a new method to estimate population size and density of singing birds by subdividing the point count into sub-intervals and recording in which sub-intervals the birds call. If this new method is brought into more common usage then archived recordings can be reanalyzed to maintain long-term continuity across the years, and to satisfy regulatory agencies that may ask for analyses not originally done.

    Anyway, that’s my perspective but I might be biased as I do a lot of work with the interpretations (this summer/winter was the first time I’ve done, am doing, interpretations for sites I haven’t actually visited myself–although I’ve worked in the general vicinity so am familiar with the local dialects).

    btw, if you haven’t seen it, this other Nathan has a good site on earbirding and sonograms.

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