Saturday, August 1, 2015

The Rarest Warbler in America: Kirtland's Warbler; plus Nashville Warbler and Brown Thrasher

[Crawford Co., Michigan. June 2015]

Of our many qualities, there are perhaps two defining features of homo sapiens that are universally acknowledged -- no, not our opposable thumbs or large craniums -- but, behaviorally, we are (1) relentlessly acquisitive; and, (2) fiercely possessive. 

Our insatiable urge to acquire objects, experiences, and knowledge is testament to the first quality; while, regarding the latter, it is almost legendary the great lengths that people will go to to protect anything they can stick a "my" in front of -- eg., "my land", "my car", "my pet", "my rights", etc. These two qualities together constitute an unstoppable force that is literally changing the face of this planet.

Thus, wildlife, which by definition is "wild" and "free" and therefore not subject to human ownership, is frequently at the losing end of the equation when it comes to competition or confrontation with our possessions -- animate or inanimate. Witness the ever shrinking numbers of wild animals and the ever burgeoning numbers of livestock and pets -- an increase no doubt helped by the loss of natural habitat to development. 

However, exceptions to this all-conquering rule of acquisition and possession thankfully do exist -- they are the scientists, naturalists, environmentalists, and their faithful supporters -- all dedicated conservationists -- who work against tremendous odds to preserve our natural heritage. 

And, it is this group of people that we must thank every time we see a Kirtland's Warbler today. For they have done something that very few people do -- work ceaselessly, and selflessly, to advance our understanding of the natural history of endangered species and protect the "unowned" denizens of wild America that otherwise would meet the same lamentable fate as the Passenger Pigeon, the Carolina Parakeet, Bachman's Warbler or Labrador Duck. 

The aforementioned are all species for which conservation action didn't effectively materialize; with the consequence that all of mankind will henceforth forever remain bereft of their incomparable and priceless presence. And, surely, with their loss, our record as responsible stewards of our environment too shall suffer -- indelibly stained as it will be with the ugly mark of extinction -- sadly, an occurrence that is still taking place under our watch even now.

We start with Kirtland's Warbler -- a species that a mere 50 years was headed to sure extinction with only 57 extant individuals left. 

This warbler is to Michigan what the Golden-cheeked Warbler is to Texas or the Red-faced Warbler is to Arizona -- best seen in that State and, as such, a much desired "specialty" species.

Kirtland's Warbler -- Male

Most birders are familiar with the comeback story of this species -- well intentioned environmental interventions by man to prevent forest fires actually resulted in habitat loss for the Kirtland's! 

Indeed, this warbler requires large areas of young Jack Pine forests to breed. And, forest fires are essential at regenerating the fresh growth of Jack Pines essential for nesting habitat.

Kirtland's Warbler -- Female
The other ecological threat to this warbler was brood parasitism by the Brown-headed Cowbird. The US Forest Service Rangers in Mio and Grayling construct traps for the Cowbirds to reduce their population to benefit the warblers.

Also in the area, Nashville Warbler was relatively common and offered ample opportunity for observation:

This is another handsome warbler with a prominent eyering that is found in both halves of the country.  The Western subspecies is brighter, has a different song and could be a candidate for a future split.

Other species observed included:

Brown thrasher

.. and Black-throated Green Warbler:

Man's interventions and intentional meddlings in Nature have had both constructive and destructive effects -- while the latter are generally well publicized (eg., oil spills in the Gulf, etc); it is imperative that the good work directed toward rebuilding habitat and restoring ecological balance be highlighted as well -- as this will serve to inspire and motivate the next generation of conservationists.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Lapeer SGA: Red-eyed Vireo, American Redstart and Eastern Towhee

[Lapeer SGA. Late May 2015]

Two Juncos and two Vireos. Four in all. A number whose significance, as the reader will soon learn, surpasses mere fascination with trivia -- representing as it does the sum of all songbird species in the US named on account of their eyes. 

The purpose of this post, then, modest though in ambition -- is to profile a full 25% of these songbird species! -- namely, the Red-eyed Vireo; plus, a number of other delightful songbirds recently observed at Lapeer State Game Area, such as:
  • American Redstart
  • Eastern Towhee
  • Chestnut-sided Warbler
  • Blue-winged Warbler
We start with the Red-eyed Vireo:

As seen from the two photographs above, the red-color of the eye of this Vireo is not readily apparent from afar. What is apparent, however, is the grey crown, olive back, dark eyeline, and white undersides.

However, a closer approach shows the red-eye clearly:

This is our most widespread vireo and its song -- a series of Robin-like notes rendered as if in haste -- alternatively ascending and descending in quick succession; sounding as it the Vireo were engaged in Q&A (question-and-answer) with itself! 

Disambiguation with our other vireo species is straightforward with all except perhaps the Black-whiskered Vireo. But, the latter is highly range-restricted to South Florida and will show, of course, two black throat-stripes or whiskers.

The American Redstart, on the other hand, offers no scope for misidentification even to the most callously negligent of observers. Especially, when dealing with a male in dazzling breeding plumage:

This warbler was spied in the vicinity of an Eastern Towhee. This plump and colorful sparrow manages to combine visual elements from both the Redstart and the Vireo -- showing the red-eye from the Vireo while possessing a color combination of black and reddish-brown that is reminiscent of the Redstart:

Also observed was a Chestnut-sided Warbler -- briefly visible with its striking yellow crown, black facial markings and white cheeks -- somewhat underrated as warblers go, the Chestnut-sided was sighted only once by John J Audubon in his travels. A fact that perhaps implies it was once much rarer that it is today.

The most numerous warbler of the area at this time of year, excepting the Yellow, is the Blue-winged Warbler -- with observers reporting up to 10 sightings a day in e-bird:

This distinctive yellow warbler with pale grey wings, white wing-bars and a prominent black eye-line is always heard before it is seen -- it's insect-like buzzy song is unmistakeable.

In the pristine forests of Northern Michigan, having left the "urban jungle" of concrete monstrosities behind, oases of nature may still be found -- harboring signature species of the American woods such as the vireos and warblers profiled here.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Jewels of Neotropical Migration Starring Hooded Warbler, Veery and Scarlet Tanager

[Port Huron SGA. May/June 2015]

There are thousands and thousands of avian species in South and Central America and the Caribbean. Indeed, the Neotropics is the richest area in the world when it comes to species diversity -- holding a whopping 3,600 taxa. This exceptional abundance is a result of favorable habitat, topography and climatic conditions that allow these species to thrive in their natural environment year round. However, there is but a tiny fraction of the 3,600 that are not content to stay put -- 160 Neotropical migrant species of the 3,600 -- travel North to the US and Canada every year in the Spring and fly back every Fall.

But what possessed this small fraction of the 3,600 to migrate to North America? Why only 160 and not more? What prompted the first species to migrate? Has the number of migrating species changed over time? Migration to our continent is hazardous -- involving long distances, overflight over vast bodies of water and the threat of predators. So, clearly, the rewards must outweigh the risks to make the journey worthwhile.

Indeed the 160-odd species of neotropical migrants that annually augment the other 700 species found in the US are rewarded on arrival with the prospect of fulfilling their primordial urges -- for suitable nesting habitat, favorable climate, lots of food and, equally important, less competition and hence greater availability of mates. 

And, despite our best efforts to derail the wonder of avian migration -- through wind turbines, concrete structures, light pollution, habitat destruction and degradation, zoological pollution, etc. -- the spectacle lives on as it has over millennia. A priceless living feature of our natural landscape no less than the grandeur of the Rockies or the majesty of the Great Lakes.  

Therefore, to live in North America and be oblivious to this miracle of migration, surely, would qualify as nothing less than a tragedy of missed opportunity. Yet for those who are alive to this living "feathered current" as it flows over our forests, migration offers an unparalleled opening to connect with the rhythms of life as seen through the prism of avian natural history.

And, this post aims to offer just that -- to offer a window to the phenomenon of Neotropical migration by bearing photographic witness to iconic species of the Summer forests of North America -- brilliant songbirds such as Hooded Warbler, Veery and Scarlet Tanager.

We start with the Hooded Warbler:

The face of the Hooded Warbler has been described as the "negative" or inverse of the Common Yellowthroat -- yellow surrounded by black vs. black surrounded by yellow.

This striking warbler winters in the Caribbean and Central America and it's Summer range barely stretches into Michigan and Southern Ontario.

Unlike the Hooded Warbler, the Spring migration for the Veery starts much farther South -- from Brazil.

This beautiful cinnamon thrush is named after the "veer" notes of its song which livens up any excursion through the Summer woods.

Another cheerful song is heard from the canopy -- sounding like an American Robin "on steroids", the Scarlet Tanager is a real dazzler:

Finally, at this time of year, warblers abound in appropriate habitat and also observed were:

American Redstart:

 Chestnut-sided Warbler:

A gorgeous Mourning Warbler:

and Blue-winged Warbler:

Of the many gifts we take for granted in the New World, none quite surpasses the beautiful-sounding, feathered jewels of the woods -- our Summer visitors from the Neotropics.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Port Huron SGA: Common Yellowthroat, Black-throated Green Warbler, and Indigo Bunting

[Port Huron SGA. May/June 2015]

One would surmise that any bird whose name bears the epithet "Common" would, if true to its import, offer easy sightings. 

However, observation of this warbler does not come unchallenged -- the Common Yellowthroat is a notorious skulker and is rarely seen out in the open -- a trait of shyness it shares with other members of the genus Geothlypis such as Mourning, MacGillivray's, and Kentucky Warbler.

Uncommonly beautiful with its broad, black mask, yellow throat and white "headband", the only thing "Common" about this warbler is its frequently heard (but harsh) "tsk" call; and, its enormously widespread distribution across the US -- this distinctive warbler is found as a breeder or over-winterer in almost all our states.

With migration now over, the enterprising birder's attention shifts to areas that offer suitable breeding habitat for our neotropical songsters. And, Port Huron SGA is a prime location for finding some choice warbler species in Summer. Besides the Common Yellowthroat seen at Abbotsford Rd, the
distinctive sound of a song that rings "Zoo Zee Zoo Zoo Zee" betrays the presence of a Black-throated Green Warbler:

This is one of the most common warblers found in migration in hotspots such as Magee Marsh. While common, this warbler is one that always delights with its bold black throat that extends to its flanks; the white belly, yellow face and olive back and eye-line completing the visual diagnostics.

Nearby, the brilliant blue of an Indigo Bunting offers a study in contrasts to the warblers:

The Indigo's bill is much stouter -- reflective of the prominent role of seeds in their diet -- compare to the Warbler's thin, sharp bill. The Indigo is also larger and its song more finch-like.

In song, however, both the warblers and the buntings are put to shame by the matchless, haunting melody of the Wood Thrush:

The Wood Thrush is able to sing two notes at once creating a song of flute-like resonance that was described by the Poet-Philosopher Henry David Thoreau as one of the most beautiful birdsongs in North America.

Sadly, numbers of this bright thrush have fallen 50% since the 1960's although it can still commonly be heard in appropriate habitat.