My Life’s Birds: #499
August 5, 2008 – Grand Tetons NP, Wy – Wait… 2008? Isn’t that the wrong direction in this push to the present? Shouldn’t this bird have made it’s appearance sometime back in February?
Well, yes, that’s certainly when I saw the species formally considered Winter Wren, ticking about in a willow grove along a lake in Grand Tetons National Park. But I admit at the time I didn’t think much of it. This is my failing as a birder, my cross to bear, that it didn’t immediately occur to me that I was likely in the range of the western subspecies of Winter Wren and that this was a potential split and I really should have been paying closer attention for the inevitable, even in 2008, split of Troglodytes troglodytes into Winter Wren in the east and Pacific Wren in the west. As birders, we always need to be aware of potential armchair splits.
Pacific Wren was not my first armchair split, but it’s the first I remember adding at the time of the split. Back when I was in Arizona in 1994 I had a couple others that I’d ret-conned into trip reports and life lists since then. The Bullock’s Oriole I saw at Cave Creek Canyon was, of course, Northern Oriole then. The Plumbeous Vireo at Southwestern Research Station in the Chiricahuas was one of the three subspecies of Solitary Vireo, since triple split. It’s probably an understatement to say that paying attention to subspecies, especially those widely assumed to be potentially taxonomically distinct is important. Not only for your own benefit, the eventual life list plus one, but to contribute your small bit of data to the never-ending work of figuring out just how these populations interact with each other (hello, eBird!), which may well be one of the great ornithological riddles of the 21st century as genetic studies continue to provide clues that need to ultimately be puzzled out in the field.
So now I keep a list of all the potential splits that haven’t yet been approved by the AOU, who keep tabs on these things. If they ever get around to splitting the Willet, I’ll a new bird to my life list and my North Carolina state list. The Ipswich subspecies of Savannah Sparrow is probably a long shot though, as is Harlan’s Red-tailed Hawk, but Mexican Duck from south Texas, currently conspecific with Mallard but genetically much closer to Mottled and American Black Duck apparently, is another good possibility. At which point I’ll have to re-jigger my life list again. Better up than down.