Saturday 22 November 2014

Eastern & Western Willets - SOS

This blog has nothing to do with current birding. There has been a drought in my blog postings due to a November-long sentencing to a ship off eastern Newfoundland where the birding has been monotonous.  Here is a filler posting until my release after which more frequent blog entries should occur. 

In early May 2013 I took a ten day holiday in southern Alberta for general birding and photography. The prairies are another kind of ocean supporting a rich and varied bird life - all of it novelty for a Newfoundland birder.  

All birds were fair game for the camera including Willets. I knew prairie Willets were larger and paler than east coast breeding Willets.  I do not get a lot of exposure to any Willets.  There are only a few pairs of Eastern Willets breeding in Newfoundland.  And except for occasional trips to Alberta during summer I basically see no other Willets.  Below are a selection of Western Willet from Alberta early in the breeding season.

Western Willet  8 May 2013 near Medicine Hat, Alberta

Western Willet 7 May 2013 at Lake Pakowski, Alberta - still not in full breeding plumage?

Western Willet 8 May 2013 near Medicine Hat, Alberta (more heavily barred than average)

Western Willet 8 May 2013 near Medicine Hat, Alberta.

Western Willets in a wrestling match 7 May 2013 at an isolated cattle watering hole in the middle of no where southern Alberta.

Soon after returning to Newfoundland with images of many Alberta Willets fresh in my mind I saw a member of the returning pair of Eastern Willets at Renews Beach, Avalon Peninsula.  I was instantly blown away at how small and heavily marked it was.  It had squat little legs and a short bill. Surely a different species.  At least as different as Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs. Then the alarm bells went off. I was breaking my own rule of Save Our Subspecies - SOS.

The Renews, Newfoundland Eastern Willet in June 2009 above and 2011 below. Probably the the same bird in each picture and possibly the same bird I saw in 2013. So different from the Alberta Willets. 

The recent rash of splitting hairs and creating full species out of perfectly good pairs of subspecies has been an irritation for me. It was the creation of Bicknell's Thrush that pushed me over the edge to start a movement of one person to Save Our Subspecies (SOS).  The Bicknell's is even a poor example of subspecies in my books let alone a pathetic excuse for full species. In the same league was peeling Saltmarsh Sparrow away from the Sharp-tailed Sparrow complex.  Yes there is an interesting selection of different looking Sharp-tailed Sparrows from an interesting range of breeding habitats.  All kissing cousin, all one species in my books.  

Cackling Goose is another sick species in the SOS rule book.  When visiting Saskatchewan during fall Whooping Crane season amid masses of migrating geese, I noted the local birders didn't bother with Cackling Goose even though it was numerous and sometimes was in pure flocks among Ross's and White-fronted Geese and no regular sized Canadas.  Now the splitting of Winter Wrens! And talk of splitting White-breasted Nuthatches.  Why? What is the point? Instead of being close cousins supporting each other as a strong species unit, they are being separated into weak species. What is wrong with a species having groups of within exhibiting different dialects, different shades of the same colour?  Look at Europe. All those little countries jammed into together. They've been there long enough for people to have developed different languages and identifiable physical features - yet they are all the same species. Why not the same way of thinking for birds.  Save Our Subspecies.  I could go on and on here with irritant species.

On the other hand there are some birds I'd like to see be officially made into a full species in North America.  I am so glad we were given back the Bullock's and Baltimore Oriole.  Waiting for the return of Audubon's and Myrtle Warblers.  Pet wants for splits involve Eurasian vs North American pairs.  Whimbrels with white rumps should be split from the North American Whimbrel.  And the teals. Look at the picture below taken in St. John's, Newfoundland on 1 March 2011.  Don't you feel a spark of excitement seeing all those European ducks in a North American pond.  They just feel like a different entity. That is good enough for full species status in the Save Our Subspecies society.  

Common Teal and one Green-winged Teal 1 March 2011 at Mundy Pond, St. John's, Newfoundland. Don't you feel the urge to tick something good here?


  1. I think it might have something to do with conservation. I believe (though am not sure) that it easier to get funding for a full species than just a subspecies. A subspecies of the White-breasted Nuthatch might be doing poorly, but overall the entire species is fine. No doubt the scientists like yourself and the conservationists understand why a subspecies needs to be protected, but to the general population, who give the money either through donations or tax money, well they`ll see a latin name and start talking about tree-huggers. You give them a species that`s about to go extinct and then everyone starts throwing about Passenger Pigeon and Carolina Parakeet.

  2. Or maybe somebody wants their name in parentheses.


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