Brazil, April 2019

Just completed a week-long trip to Brazil, focusing on the Atlantic Forest area as well as the central Cerrado region. We spent most of our time (six days/nights) at REGUA (Reserva Ecológica de Guapiaçu) and did quite well there. All together we recorded 253 species and 134 lifers in about eight days of birding.

Maroon-Bellied Parakeets at REGUA

REGUA is a reserve with huge restored areas of the original South Atlantic rainforest. They have recorded 480 bird species on the site, with 118 being endemic to this area.

White-Flanked Antwren

There is an eco-lodge on the site; the food was good, the room was large, and every evening they served complimentary caipirinhas, a rum and lime drink. They also have a great bird guide (Adilei) available.

Rufescent Tiger-Heron

Getting to REGUA is quite easy, as it is only about a two-hour drive northeast of Rio de Janeiro. They arranged for transportation to and from the airport.

Crested Black-Tyrant

While everything went well at REGUA, getting around in other parts of Brazil was more of a challenge than we anticipated. We expected lots of Spanish-speakers, but this was not the case. Understanding written Portuguese was not too difficult, but most of our conversations were very confused.

Rufous-Fronted Thornbirds

At REGUA we did three days guided birding on the site, and three days with excursions to adjacent areas having different habitats. Specifically, Macaé de Cima, Sumidouro, and Pico da Caledônia. These are 2-3 hour drives from the reserve, and all worth visiting.

Black-and-Gold Cotinga
Immature Chaco Eagle
Surucua Trogon
Variegated Flycatcher

We did one night birding trip and found Giant Snipe, Rufous-browed, Mottled, and Tropical Screech Owls, as well as Common Paraque.

Tropical Screech-Owl
Mottled Owl

Best bird? Probably what we found in the Sumidouro region north of REGUA: many Three-Toed Jacamars, a species considered rare for the region. Few things are better than reporting a ‘rarity’ in eBird and having plenty of pictures to back it up.

Three-Toed Jacamar

After leaving REGUA, we spent a day and a half in Brasília, as it was on the way back and because it offers a different kind of habitat we’d never visited before – the dry Cerrado savanna.

Scaled Dove

The good news about birding in Brasília is that there is plenty of Cerrado to explore. The bad part is that transportation options are limited, and the large savannas are not particularly close to the city center.

Southern Caracara

One such area is the Jardim Botânico de Brasília, which lies about 18km from the center of the city. We spent the better part of our first day here, taking taxis both ways. Getting a taxi back to the city required some help from the guards at the entrance to the garden. You cannot hail a cab off the street out there.

Masked Gnatcatcher

In the savannas we had nice finds like Collared Crescentchest and Flavescent Warbler. On Saturday, we decided the spend the morning at Parque da Cidade Sarah Kubitschek – not the best hotspot in the area (that would be the National Park of Brasília, north of town, which we never made it to), but it was easy to access on foot. We we first rewarded with a Grey Monjita, previously unreported there.

Grey Monjita

This city park actually had rather good birding, and we picked up four lifers there, including the Monjita and oddly, a Toco Toucan. I’d never expected to see one of these outside of a rainforest, but there it was, in a small bare tree, overlooking the picnic tables and playgrounds.

Toco Toucan
Campo Flicker

This park also features Campo Flickers, Chalk-Browed Mockingbirds, Rufous Horneros, Chopi Blackbirds, and countless Burrowing Owls.

Burrowing Owls

Peru, February 2019

In 2018 we lived in Thailand, and went birding every weekend and during about five weeks of vacation and holidays. I determined that we boarded about 106  different airplanes in the course of a year, hitting over 20 countries, many of them multiple times. I was looking forward to a relaxed 2019, free from planes – for a while at least.

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Then my wife, who worked religiously in 2018, even as we were traveling (she only needs her laptop and wifi to be able to work), realized she had about four weeks of Use-it-or-Lose-it vacation to take before April. So we booked a trip to Peru in February.

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Yellow-billed Teal

I picked the Manú National Park area, as this holds the single biggest eBird hotspot (Cock-of-the-Rock Lodge,m with 714 species), and we did most all of our birding with Saturnino Llactahuaman, the owner of Manu Birding Lodge, and a fantastic guide.

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Andean Geese

Getting to Manú from Minneapolis is a bit involved. First, we flew down to Toronto. Yes, our Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul are in the USA, and Toronto is in Canada, but we sit significantly further north. Check the map if that doesn’t make sense to you.

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Hooded Mountain-tanager

From Toronto one flies directly, overnight, to Lima, and then it is a short flight down to Cuzco, the one-time capital of the Incan empire. Saturnino picked us up in the morning and we hit various lakes and hotspots throughout the Andes on our way towards Manú.

Giant Hummingbird

Without stopping for birds, it might have taken about six hours on the winding dirt roads from Cuzco to Cock-of-the-Rock Lodge. With birding it took the entire day. We stayed two nights at the lodge and birded up and down the famous Manú Road. Although power lines have been recently installed in the area, the hotel is still off the grid – the generator runs a few hours a night but otherwise there is no electricity. They do have beer, though.

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Madre de Dios, an Amazon tributary

From there, we drove two more hours and then boarded a small baot on the Madre de Dios river, where we would (thankfully) head downstream, into the Amazon basin. We had done a similar trip in Ecuador, going from Coca, down the Napo river, to Sacha Lodge. That trip took 90 minutes. This trip took six hours. and the current was really moving, too.

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Black-streaked Puffbird

I had thought Cock-of-the-Rock Lodge was pretty basic, and was looking forward to the comforts of the more sophisticated Manú Birding Lodge. Well, no. The latter is even more basic, and I realized to more horror on the first day, after a few hours in the buggy, humid heat, they they had NO BEER.

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Black-capped Donacobius

Luckily, they at least had plenty of the national drink of Peru, the Pisco Sour. It did the trick. Not a bad drink at all.

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Red-capped Cardinal

We spent a total of four nights there. The birding was insanely good, even though we had to contend with rain. Saturnino is one of those guides that can look up into the canopy of a dense, dark forest, during the rain, while swarmed by mosquitoes, and effortlessly put his scope on some distant, perched bird that the rest of us would not find even with hours of searching.

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Sand-colored Nighthawk

There are plenty of great spots to hit from Manú Birding Lodge – many of which require a short boat trip. The river itself holds a plethora of birds, including large roosts of Sand-colored Nighthawks.

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Red-and-green Macaw at Guacamayo

We spent a morning at Guacamayo, a large clay-lick with a nice blind (including ‘bathrooms’ – sort of) which is teeming with macaws, parrots, parakeets, and parrotlets,

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Hoatzin –  still my favorite bird ever

There are oxbox lakes in the area that hold many additional, different species, such as Hoatzin, Horned Screamer, and Red-capped Cardinal – not to mention the Giant Otters – los lobos del rio – which were very vocal and aggressive – chasing our boat for a while.

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El lobo del rio – Giant Otter

There is also a good tower near the lodge that gets you up above the canopy. Here we found Sclater’s Antwren and many other tough birds, including an Amazon Pygmy-owl.

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Amazonian Pygmy-owl

The lodge itself has many trails and a garden, which was a great place for Festive Coquette and Curl-crested Aracari.

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Horned Screamer

The lodge is also the home to a large South American Tapir. It showed up the second evening we were there. I had just showered and changed into my one set of clean clothes, and was ready to have dinner soon. Our guide, in a nearby room, called out for me to open the door and have a look. There it was.

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South American Tapir

The tapir came right up to me as I photographed it. Cool! Then it turned around, and thanks to some strange anatomical feature that I don’t want to understand, it proceeded to spray urine on me and my clean clothes.

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Claire and Manolo

I later learned that this animal, while wild, was a sort of pet at the lodge, and they fed it regularly. It’s name was Manolo. It seemed to think it was a dog. It wanted belly rubs, and everything.

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After the landslide

During our time at this lodge, our guide learned that our return to Cuzco was going to be more complicated than anticipated. He had planned to have us go back via a different route which used a modern highway. But on the day we arrived, a massive landslide wiped out about a quarter of the road.

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Arroyo nuevo en la carretera, por el derrumbe

Luckily he was able to arrange for multiple drivers – one of which got us to one side of the landslide, while the other waited on the other side to pick us up. We only had to clamber along the mountainside and cross a few new streams in order to get there.

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Peruvian Booby

Once in Cuzco we said goodbye to Saturnino and then headed to Lima for a day. Here we picked up some nice specialities of the region such as Belcher’s Gull and Peruvian Booby. All told 331 species in just over a week.

Minimal Number of Birding Sites Needed to Record Every Order?

Imagine a birding trip that would allow you to record at least one species from every taxonomic order – and that the trip included the least number of sites and required the least amount of time to complete. Clearly, certain countries will have to be in the itinerary (e.g., New Zealand, Madagascar) and the timing and accounting for seasonal factors would be important.

So what might be an optimal itinerary to get at least one species per order, with a good likelihood of success?

Before we can answer this, we need to consider the question of taxonomy, as schemes differ as to just how many orders there are and how they are defined. To simplify this, I started by downloading and parsing the most recent checklist spreadsheets available, namely for the Clements (41 orders), IOC (40), and the Handbook of the Birds of the World (HBW) (36) taxonomies. Another useful checklist that I considered is from the Taxonomy in Flux (TiF) site. This approach includes 46 orders, but does not include the Galbuliformes (puffbirds and jacamars) which are in the Clements list. So, the the most challenging approach would be to use the TiF list, plus the Galbuliformes, to give 47 orders. The differences between the taxonomies are summarized in the table below:

Order TiF Clements IOC HBW
Struthioniformes (Ostriches) x x x x
Rheiformes (Rheas) x x x  
Casuariiformes (Cassowaries, Emu) x x x  
Apterygiformes (Kiwi) x x x  
Tinamiformes (Tinamous) x x x  
Anseriformes (Ducks, Geese, Swans) x x x x
Galliformes (Fowls) x x x x
Gaviiformes (Loons) x x x x
Sphenisciformes (Penguins) x x x x
Procellariiformes (Tubenoses) x x x x
Podicipediformes (Grebes) x x x x
Phoenicopteriformes (Flamingos) x x x x
Phaethontiformes (Tropicbirds) x x x x
Ciconiiformes (Storks) x x x x
Pelecaniformes (Hammerkop, Shoebill, Pelicans) x x x x
Ardeiformes (Herons) x   x  
Plataleiformes (Ibises & Spoonbillls) x      
Suliformes (Frigatebirds, Boobies, Cormorants, Anhinga) x x   x
Accipitriformes (Hawks) x x x x
Cathartiformes (New World Vultures) x x   x
Otidiiformes (Bustards) x x x x
Mesitornithiformes (Mesites) x x x x
Cariamiformes (Seriemas) x x x x
Eurypygiformes (Kagu & Sunbittern) x x x x
Gruiformes (Cranes, Rails, and allies) x x x x
Charadriiformes (Shorebirds, Gulls, Alcids, and allies) x x x x
Pterocliformes (Sandgrouse) x x x x
Columbiformes (Pigeons & Doves) x x x x
Opisthocomiformes (Hoatzin) x x x x
Musophagiformes (Turacos) x x x x
Cuculiformes (Cuckoos) x x x x
Strigiformes (Owls) x x x x
Caprimulgiformes (Nightjars) x x x x
Steatornithiformes (Oilbird) x      
Nyctibiiformes (Potoos) x      
Podargiformes (Frogmouths) x      
Apodiformes (Swifts, Hummers) x   x  
Coliiformes (Mousebirds) x x x x
Trogoniformes (Trogons) x x x x
Leptosomiformes (Cuckoo Roller) x x x x
Coraciiformes (Bee Eaters, Kingfishers, Rollers, Motmots, Todies) x x x x
Bucerotiformes (Hoopoes, Hornbills) x x x x
Piciformes (Toucans, Woodpeckers) x x x x
Galbuliformes (Puffbirds, Jacamars)   x    
Falconiformes (Falcons) x x x x
Psittaciformes (Parrots) x x x x
Passeriformes (Songbirds) x x x x

Below is my proposed trip.

(A note on what is meant by birding “site” – how big can a site be? For simplicity, if you can bird an area in one day by car, I’m calling that entire spot a “site.”)

Start in mid-January.

1. South Florida, USA: A good place to start is Bill Baggs State Park on Key Biscayne.  Here we must find a Common Loon (Gaviiformes), as no loons will be at any of the other destinations. At this site or nearby, one is certainly going to find songbirds (Passeriformes), doves (Columbiformes), ducks, (Anseriformes), herons (Ardeiformes), grebes (Podicipediformes), storks, (Ciconiiformes), vultures, (Cathartiformes), ibis (Plataleiformes), pelicans (Pelecaniformes), and gulls and shorebirds (Charadriiformes) without breaking a sweat. Moreover, all of these orders occur in many places that follow, so we won’t consider them any further. So that is 11 orders, doable in a day by car – other sites around Miami could be visited if not all 11 turn up on Key Biscayne.

2. Puerto Rico, USA: specifically, El Merendero de Guajataca on the northwest coast, where White-tailed Tropicbird (Phaethontiformes) can consistently be found. Between this and the previous site, we will certainly have seen at least one cormorant or booby by now (Suliformes).  13 orders to date.

3. Colombia: Go birding at Cañon de Rio Claro (between Medellin and Bogota), and the nearby Cueval de Condor, where Oilbird (Steatornithiformes) can be located. The area will also be a good place to pick up hummingbirds (Apodiformes), woodpeckers (Piciformes), trogons (Trogoniformes), tinamous (Tinamiformes), a puffbird or jacamar (Galbuliformes), and a parrot or two (Psittaciformes). 20 orders at this point are accounted for, at a minimum.

4. Colombia: Now by car move on to the southeast of Bogota to the Villavicencio region. This is a bit of a hike, so it constitutes a different site. Here we can get Sunbittern (Eurypygiformes) and Hoatzin (Opisthocomiformes). If they have not already been seen, this area should yield nightjars (Caprimulgiformes), potoos (Nyctibiiformes), cuckoos (Cuculiformes), hawks (Accipitriformes), and falcons (Falconiformes). 27 orders and a total of four sites so far.

5. Brazil: Head north of Porto Alegre to the São Francisco de Paula area, where there are regular sightings of Red-legged Seriema (Cariamiformes). By now we should have also ticked at least one owl (Strigiformes) and some kind of fowl (Galliformes), so let’s mark these off here. Less than four hours south from here is PN Lagoa do Peixe, where Greater Rhea (Rheiformes) can turn up.  By now we should have come across at least one rail (Gruiformes ) and kingfisher or motmot (Coraciiformes) as well. 33 orders down, we need to make a big jump th the next continent.

6. Kenya: Start early at Nairobi National Park and find Common Ostrich (Struthioniformes), Speckled Mousebird (Coliiformes), von der Decken’s or African Gray Hornbill (Bucerotiformes), White-bellied Go-Away Bird (Musophagiformes),  and a Kori Bustard (Otidiiformes).  Then a five hour drive to the southeast to Amboseli National Park for Lesser or Greater Flamingo (Phoenicopteriformes) and then over to Tsavo East National Park for Black-faced Sandgrouse (Pterocliformes). 40 orders, six sites.

7. Madagscar : Head north to Ankarafantsika Nature Reserve, which can produce both White-breasted Mesite (Mesitornithiformes) and Cuckoo-Roller (Leptosomiformes). 42 orders and in the home stretch.

8. Australia: Grampians National Park west of Melbourne can yield both Emu (Casuariiformes) and Tawny Frogmouth (Podargiformes) 44.

9. New Zealand: Stewart Island; specifically, Rakiura National Park / Ulva Island affords a good chance to see Southern Brown Kiwi (Apterygiformes), various albatross, petrels, or shearwaters (Procellariiformes), and several penguins (Sphenisciformes).

That’s it. All possible 47 orders, nine sites. Maybe just eight if a Tropicbird shows up in South Florida.

Global Big Working Year

From Dec 26, 2017 through December 25, 2018, I made a quixotic attempt to identify at least 2,500 species over the course of a single year, while working normal full-time hours. I called this a “Global Big Working Year” or GBWY.

Silver-eyes in New Zealand

In the end, I reached 1,770 species, which was just over 70% of the goal. As the plot below shows, the pace at which species were accumulated slowed appreciably in the second half of the year.  This reflects the fact that we eventually ran out of sufficiently varied destinations/habitats that were feasible for weekend trips out of Thailand. I did not account for this when drawing up my target of 2,500.

On target for 2,500 species through the first half of the year

To make this effort a bit more meaningful, I donated $5 for every species I found, with the results being split between ecological and blindness-related charities. The first half of the year was in support of the Friends of Sax-Zim Bog. The second half was in support of the Foundation Fighting Blindness. More details here and here.

The effort started in the Galapagos Islands and the Andes east of Quito for a few days, but the majority of the year was spent in the Eastern hemisphere, as we lived in Bangkok for almost all of 2018, for a work assignment. The sites birded there are shown below. In most cases, we had a weekend (or less) at each each locale, often with a guide, but many times on our own.

Eastern birding sites in 2018 GBWY

A few interesting stats and observations for the year:

Total number of lifers: 1040

Total number of planes boarded: 105

Number of weekends in which we did not board an airplane: 11

Number of vacation days used in addition to weekends: 25

Number of weekends in which we did not go birding at all: 1 (due to illness)

Total number of countries visited: 22

Number of continents birded: 5

Total number of birding guides worked with: 33

Total number of these guides that we would recommend to others: 25

Estimated approximate cost per bird: $35 (includes $5 pledge)

Most beautiful locations: (1) Balangshan Pass, Sichuan; (2) New Zealand

Locale with most new birds / day: Ethiopia (>46 species per day)

Locale with fewest new birds / day: Shanghai

Best restroom facilities: Any city / town in New Zealand. They have clean public restrooms everywhere and signs announcing them. This might be the most civilized place on earth.

Worst restroom facilities: Baihuashan area west of Beijing. Yikes.

Best food: Everything in Bangalore, India

Worst food: Cold, fried noodles in Cambodia, full of dead ants.

Most disappointing experiences: (1) Nanhui Dongtan, south of Shanghai, China; (2) Sepilok area of Borneo

Worst moments of year: (1) Late night intruder in our room in Sulawesi; (2) hornet attack in Bali; (3) that toilet in Baihuashan

Best moments of year: (1) Birding with Irene Dy in the Philippines; (2) everything in Australia

Most obnoxious dip: Red-flanked Bluetail that my wife saw but which I could not get my eyes on fast enough

Best birds: Bali Myna, Great Bowerbird, Narcissus Flycatcher

Links with photos, week-by-week summaries:

2018 GBWY – Weeks 1-8

2018 GBWY Weeks 9-16

2018 GBWY Weeks 17-26

2018 GBWY Weeks 27-36

2018 GBWY Weeks 37-44

2018 GBWY Weeks 45-52


Kalij or Silver Pheasant?

Today in Petchaburi Province of Thailand, we unwittingly waded into the taxonomic nightmare of Lophura nycthemera crawfurdi vs. Lophura leucomelanos crawfurdi.

Let’s start with a photo, taken at a blind referred to by our guide as Bo Lung Sin:

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Kalij or Silver?

Our guide called this a Kalij Pheasant. This surprised us, as we had been studying ahead of time and expected the Kalij to be much darker. We consulted out 2002 edition of Robson, which indicated that this should be the crawfurdi ssp. of the Silver Pheasant.

“No Silver Pheasant in Kaeng Krachan,” said our guide. He pointed out the plates in the Birds of Thailand (Lekhakhun):

Birds of Thailand
The book our guide was using, published in 2013. Nice plates, but limited english.
Note that crawfurdi is denoted as a ssp of L. nycthemra on the plate. Yet it is shown as number 19, which refers to Kalij on the opposite page.

We looked at his book, and we figured that the it simply contained an error, as it refers Kalij on the plate (#19) but lists the scientific name of the Silver (L.n.). So we thought we had this pegged as a Silver, until I attempted to enter this into eBird, which gives only Kalij as a possibility in this region! Now what?

Further searching revealed that there is still some debate about the where the crawfurdi ssp. belongs, with some authors putting them under Silver and others under Kalij. This site for Thai National Parks is fun; it states that Kalij is found in Kaeng Krachan, but Silver is not – ok, good; yet it then states that Kalij has grey legs (!) That doesn’t jive with what we saw; and then, as if to prove my point, they include a photo of an individual from Kaeng Krachan with red legs!

Since I use eBird, I’m going with Kalij for now, but I plan to query them on this in order to be certain that they agree that this red-legged bird is being categorized correctly. It seems that the majority opinion I can find so far would indicate Kalij. But I’m open to being corrected!

eBird Cartograms for US Counties

The previous post showed a simple cartogram of the US using the eBird species counts by state in order reshape the map. The relative sizes of the states in the cartogram are proportional to the species diversity.

A more detailed version can be obtained by using the species counts at the county level. Data as of early December 2017 was collected from eBird to generate the cartogram shown in Figure 1. The color scheme is based on the number of lists submitted by county, with blue representing more and red less.

Figure 1. Cartogram of eBird species reported by county. Colors represent the number of lists submitted, with blue being highest and red being lowest.

It is an interesting image because it would seem to indicate that greater species diversity in the central US as opposed to the Pacific and Rocky Mountain states. But that really isn’t the case. The counties in the west are typically much larger than those in the central and eastern US. And those large counties do not have, on average, proportionately more bird species. So we end up with a map for which it is difficult to see much of any difference in the new sizes of the counties.

The color scheme shows a broad swath of reddish tones from Montana to the southwest and into Louisiana, then up into Appalachia. Judging from relative county size, this means there are a lot of under-birded but potentially very rewarding counties out there to be explored.

What does not jump out here is the fact that the nine counties with the highest species totals are in California. You’d think the opposite, given how the state has shrunken so much. Again, it is because those counties are so big to start with. And so, we see an example of how a cartogtram can seem to undercut its own purpose.

In this specific case, the problem is exacerbated by the fact that the overall distribution of birds by county does not span much range. The histograms for the species counts (left) and total number of lists submitted (right) are shown in Figure 2.

Figure 2. Left: Distribution of species reported per county. Right: Distribution of lists by county.

The distribution of species counts is not very wide; 805 of the data lies between 157 and 318, and the maximum value is scarcely more than the mean. The number of lists submitted is quite different; the 90th percentile is 15550. Only a very few counties get significantly larger numbers.

Maybe we should make our cartogram the other way around? Let’s let the total number of species reported by county be reflected by the color, and warp the map based on the total number of lists submitted. Here it is, in Figure 3:

county lists
Figure 3. Cartogram of eBird lists submitted by county. Color represented number of species.

Not surprisingly, highly populated areas and coastline counties are swelled up. Does it help to illustrate the differences in eBird data? Hard to say. Multivariate data is always a challenge to present.

eBird Species Cartogram for the United States

The previous post presented a cartogram for global eBird data by county. Here, we do the same for the States (and Washington D.C.). It is worth noting what the starting conditions are; that is, what base map will be used to generate the cartogram. I am using the WGS84 geographic coordinate system/projection, shown here without any morphing:

Base map image from Natural Earth

A cartogram of the same map based on eBird species counts by states was produced using the QGIS cartogram plugin and is shown in the following figure. The colors of the states correspond to the number of lists submitted, with darker colors representing more lists.

Cartogram of total eBird species counts. Colors indicate number of lists submitted.

What jumps out is the large size of the New England states, an increase in the area of Florida, and a reduction to Texas. The loss in area for Texas leaves California slightly larger, reflecting its status as our leading state for species diversity.

Speaking of California, it is also the home to the best counties in the US for bird variety. There are nine counties in the state with higher species totals than any other county in the rest of the US:

  1. San Diego, 543
  2. Los Angeles, 540*
  3. Santa Barbara, 500
  4. Marin, 499
  5. Monterey, 495
  6. Orange, 483
  7. Humboldt, 474
  8. Ventura, 473
  9. San Francisco, 472
  10. Cochise (Arizona), 464

This seems counter-intuitive, at least to someone living far enough to the east; you would think that none of the many eastern warblers, south Texas or south Florida specialties would contribute to these high numbers. (A reader noted in the comments section that a number of eastern birds have been seen in these counties. A more detailed analysis is in order…)

Future posts will look into the county data more closely.

*I never would have thought that one could live in our second largest city and have access to more avian diversity than what is found in 46 other states, without leaving the county! And the 5th best county alone, Monterey, has more bird species than 40 entire states: Colorado, the 10th higher state, has 496, with number 11 New York at 484.