Our interview subject this time is Arnel Guanlao, the founder and moderator of a “yahoo group” called sfbayarea-birds (easily confused with sfbayareabirding, which is not the same!) Before Arnel did this interview, I knew he was a far more knowledgeable birder than me, and probably more observant and a quicker learner, too. Now, I know for sure that all of these are true. Read on for some information about Arnel, and especially about how he got to be so damn good…and where to go to see some birds!
1. Arnel, I know you as the moderator and main writer on the sfbayarea-birds yahoo group, but I don’t know much about you. Where are you from, how long have you been in the Bay Area, and when and how did you start birding?
I have been in the Bay Area since 1992, which is where I began
birding. I’ve always been curious about things natural, so after
dabbling with plants and mushrooms and botanical sorts of things,
I began to get curious about our local birds, so I would begin
studying them. This was in 1997.
2. On the yahoo group, you often post detailed, very readable write-ups about day trips to different sites around the Bay. I’m always impressed by how many different birds you see — I’m guessing I would miss at least half of what you see out there. I know I have some big weaknesses — for instance, I’m hopeless when it comes to bird songs, can’t recognize much besides a towhee and a jay, but I can tell that you recognize many birds by song. Do you have any big
strengths, like the ability to see through leaves or something? Any tips you can share?
Most of my expertise comes from experience and learning from
other birders. A lot of birding is focusing on details and being
alert to the birds around you. I learned the vocalizations of the
local birds simply because I would hear a song or a chip note,
wonder what was making it, then track down its owner. That
would allow me to associate the bird with its voice.
It’s a never-ending process….I was in North Carolina recently,
and I heard the American Goldfinches there make a chattering
noise that was very similar to chattering noise of the Lesser
Goldfinches out here on the West Coast. It wasn’t as nasal,
but the differences were subtle. I have never observed
American Goldfinches make that chattering noise out here on
the West Coast, so now I’m paying a bit more attention to our
local American Goldfinches, to see if they make the same
noise. I suspect that they don’t, because that would make
them sound too much like their Lesser Goldfinch cousins,
but that is only a theory. It can’t be proven without some
hard field experience.
3. When you write about your trips, you include lists of what you’ve seen, including the latin species names. Do you actually know the birds by both common and latin names, and type them in that way, or do you cut-and-paste from a list, or what? And if it’s the former,
does knowing the latin names help in some way? For instance, from the common names I would have thought an orange-crowned warbler and a yellow-rumped warbler are closely related, but the latin names are completely different (Vermivora celata and Dendroica coronata)…does
that tell you something?
Knowing the Latin helps group related birds together, which is helpful in identifying new bird species. Birds belonging to the same family tend to have similar key features. This isn’t 100% reliable, but it is reliable enough to come in handy. In the example that you cite, take a look at the bills. Vermivora-type warblers have short, pointy, dagger-like bills, whereas the Dendroica-type warbler have longer bills that are noticeably thicker at the base (not by much, but by just enough to be noticeable). This comes in handy when I am looking for a species that I am not that familiar with. For example, if I am chasing a vagrant Tennessee Warbler (Vermivora peregrina), I know that I am looking for a bird that has the same sort of bill as an Orange-crowned Warbler (Vermivora celata), not the longer, somewhat thicker bill of a Yellow-rumped Warbler (Dendroica coronata) or a Townsend’s Warbler (Dendroica townsendi).
4. Do you focus mostly on birds, or do you look for other wildlife too?
Yes, I look at mammals, reptiles and amphibians, butterflies, dragonflies….anything that can be identified without dissection. Most of the insect world is fascinating, but identification often requires taking apart a specimen, which I’m not interested in doing. I’ll leave that to professional entomologists.
You’ll often see a list of other wildlife seen during my outings at the end of my trip reports, just after the bird list.
5. What are your three favorite spots for shorebirds and your three favorite spots for upland birds (in the Bay Area)? Any tips on best times or seasons to go to them?
1) Alviso [the San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge, near San Jose]
2) Radio Road Waterbird Pond [in Redwood City; check a map carefully, it’s hard to find]
3) Hayward Regional Shoreline
All three sites are good at any time of the year except for June and early July.
1) Outer Point Reyes
2) Coyote Point [in San Mateo, south of the SF Airport]
3) Carmel River [just south of Carmel]
Outer Point Reyes is usually better in fall migration than spring;
I usually head out there in September. The other two sites are
good in spring and fall migration (April/early May, September/