Sunday, March 15, 2015

An Arctic Visitor: Common Redpoll plus Horned Lark

[DNR Point, MI. March 2015]

The global family of true finches, Fringillidae, includes species known commonly not only as finches but also honeycreepers, grosbeaks, siskins, euphonias, crossbills, and redpolls. It would be no exaggeration to suggest that our avifauna has been immeasurably enriched by the presence of these distinctive seed-eating birds that have been so generously bequeathed to the American continent by the evolutionary forces of Nature.

Indeed, in this blogger's own avian wanderings, a number of fascinating finch species such as Cassin's Finch, House Finch, Red Crossbill, Pine Siskin, Grey-crowned Rosy-finch, Brown-capped Rosy-finch, Black Rosy-finch, American Goldfinch, Lesser Goldfinch and Antillean Euphonia have all been encountered in the field and subsequently profiled within the modest confines of this very blog.

However, one finch species, the Common Redpoll (or, Fri.com.rp in trinomial shortform) has long been on this blogger's "most wanted" list; long enough that its position on this list threatened to acquire a sense of despondent permanency.  A condition, no doubt, due to the fact that this tiny finch of the high Arctic is an unpredictable visitor to temperate North America in Winter and, while reported annually in Michigan, it had thus far proved to be remarkably resistant to attempts at photographic observation.

Thus, when temperatures in early March crossed boldly into the balmy 40's (on the Fahrenheit scale), it afforded a perfect excuse to venture for birding opportunities at DNR Point (Department of Natural Resources) in Harrison Township on the shores of Lake St. Clair.

Common Redpoll seen at DNR Point
Breeding in the high arctic tundra, these hardy finches are known to withstand temperatures down to 65 Fahrenheit below zero and tunnel themselves into snow for warmth.

Common Redpoll seen at DNR Point
Thriving in the tens of millions in the circumpolar regions of the world, Redpolls are truly "global citizens" -- birds banded in Michigan have been sighted in Siberia; and, those in Belgium have been seen in China!

Common Redpoll seen at DNR Point
The winter range of com.rp is highly variable -- they can winter as far North as Northern Canada and as far South as the Central US.

Common Redpoll seen at DNR Point
These voracious seed eaters were seen working the dessicated shrubbery on the edges -- they are known to consume up to 40% of their body mass every day.

Common Redpoll seen at DNR Point
Identification of these finches should be fairly straightforward -- similar species such as Pine Siskin can be easily disambiguated thanks to the striking red crown patch; however, the much rarer Hoary Redpoll (Fri.hoa.rp) is a tougher candidate to eliminate. The Hoary looks almost identical; the differences boiling down to the paler, less-streaky look of the Hoary Redpoll vs. the Common (analogous to Nelson's vs. Saltmarsh Sparrow).

Common Redpoll seen at DNR Point
While this small flock of Redpolls monopolized observation, a couple of larger songbirds alighted nearby:

Horned Lark seen at DNR Point

With striking facial markings and small "horns", the Horned Lark (Ala.hor.l), is the only member of the Lark family natively found in the New World.

Every avian family offers a fascinating study of the characteristics that group related species together. And while, say, the tropical Antillean Euphonia and the Arctic Common Redpoll couldn't seem more dissimilar, a deeper dive offers subtle insights into why these finches are more alike than not.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

A Motley Melange: A Merlin amidst Mergansers

[Belle Isle, Detroit River. MI. Feb 2015]

The Detroit River is more of a strait than a river -- measuring a total of only 28 miles in length. In this short stretch, the river connects two massive bodies of water -- Lake St. Clair in the North with Lake Erie to the South; and, in doing so, it separates Michigan from Ontario and thus also marks the international border between the US and Canada.

Besides its enormous importance as a critical conduit for commercial transportation, the Detroit River's other notable feature is that it includes several small islands in its 28-mile run -- the chief of these are Belle Isle and Grosse Ile. Both islands offer excellent vantage points for viewing waterfowl; especially in winter as this is one of the few spaces where water is not frozen over thanks to icebreaking operations conducted by the US Coast Guard.

An exceptionally cold and grey winter morning -- the kind that questions the climatic sanity of  anyone residing North of Interstate 10 -- afforded the opportunity to observe expected -- yet nevertheless enchanting --  species around Belle Isle consisting mainly of waterfowl but also including a surprise showing from an iconic falcon:
  • Common Merganser
  • Hooded Merganser
  • Merlin
  • Common Goldeneye
  • Bufflehead
  • Canvasback
  • Redhead
We start with Ana.com.m (Common Merganser abbreviated using the trinomial shortform as shorthand for bird names in this post):
Common Merganser (female) seen in the Detroit River
The com.m is a typical merganser with a serrated bill, long, sleek body and shaggy head. The female can oft be confused with the somewhat similar looking Red-breasted Merganser (Ana.red.bm) in basic plumage.

Common Merganser (male) seen in the Detroit River
The com.m is found in both the Old and New Worlds unlike our next merganser -- Hooded Merganser (Ana.hoo.m) which is exclusive to North America:

Hooded Merganser seen in the Detroit River
Like the com.m, hoo.m is also a saw-billed diving duck; in the winter, they are widely distributed even as far South as in the canals of Naples, FL!

Belle Isle is not a big island, only 1 and a half square miles. There are several pull-offs on the short perimeter road that invite the visitor to stop and explore further. It was at one of these stops while scouting for waterfowl that a striking falcon with bold markings on the breast was spied perched on a stark, bare branch:

Merlin seen at Belle Isle
Fal.mer is a handsome raptor that is found across the US and Eurasia. It is a small falcon -- larger than a Kestrel but smaller than the Peregrine. This particular individual is an imposing female with a brown rather than grey back (as in most raptors, the female outsizes the male).


Merlin seen on Belle Isle
The Merlin is a formidable hunter and is known to favor preying on small birds such as sparrows, peeps, and waxwings.

The Seaducks (i.e., the sub-family Merginae) comprises more than just the mergansers -- and a nice assortment of these distinctive ducks were also observed; such as:

Common Goldeneye (Ana.com.ge):



Common Goldeneye drakes in the Detroit River
Common Goldeneye (females) in the Detroit River



And, Bufflehead (Ana.buf):


Finally, a couple of diving ducks; starting with our largest duck:

Canvasback (Ana.can.b):



and, Redhead (Ana.red.h):



It is an undeniable fact of birding that many, initially optimistic, chases for a desired target species conclude rather miserably in a spectacularly disappointing "no show".  However, it must not be overlooked that, in a compensatory act of redemption, the converse is equally true -- for, is there any birder who has not had their routine and familiar birding excursion blissfully interrupted with the sighting of an unexpected yet welcome species wholly out of the blue? 

Monday, March 2, 2015

More from the Swamp: Ruby-crowned Kinglet, White-eyed Vireo and Red-bellied Cooter

[Corkscrew Swamp. December 2014]

A small songbird is fleetingly sighted gleaning insects in the trees at Corkscrew Swamp -- the observer's identification reflex kicks in -- suggesting the strong possibility of a warbler or, perhaps, a vireo? On this occasion, however, neither conclusion would hold true:


The wing-bars offer a hint; but a better clue, while invisible in the picture above, can clearly be seen in the following picture taken up North in Spring:

Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Magee Marsh. OH.
This "Little King" wears a ruby-red crown -- and indeed, this is a Ruby-crowned Kinglet -- a species, this blogger has not heretofore enjoyed with photographic success at Corkscrew Swamp. 

Although range maps for this species do cover most of South Florida, eBird data over the last decade show frequency of observation decidedly decreasing as one progresses South toward the tip of the Florida peninsula. 

This tiny, rotund songbird is one of two kinglet species found in the US (however, the Golden-crowned Kinglet's distribution does not extend into Southern Florida).

Speaking of wing-bars, the White-eyed Vireo is similarly plumaged but, unlike the kinglet, a regular at Corkscrew:



White-eyed Vireo seen at Corkscrew Swamp
This striking vireo is found widely in the Southeast US and its characteristic song is a common refrain in Spring and Summer and annotated as "Quick -- with the beer. Check!"


White-eyed Vireo seen at Corkscrew Swamp
While the White-eyed Vireo is a permanent resident at the Swamp, the Blue-headed Vireo is a winter visitor only:

Blue-headed Vireo seen at Corkscrew Swamp
Other species observed included Blue-grey Gnatcatcher:


Carolina Wren:

Eastern Phoebe:


The noisy and ubiquitous Grey Catbird:
 
Further in to the woods, a crisp knocking betrays the presence of a Pileated Woodpecker -- our largest:



A Red-shouldered Hawk in its prime:



And, finally a Florida Red-bellied Cooter:



Pictured in what must undeniably rank as circumstances most unfortunate, this otherwise hardy turtle ranges in freshwater habitat from Southern Georgia through Florida. 

While it would be easy to fall in to the trap of sentimentality, in Nature's circle of life there are neither victims nor villains -- just a dance of survival between species whose lives are inextricably, and sometimes lethally, intertwined.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Great Horned Owl, Rusty Blackbird and White-breasted Nuthatch

[Lake St. Clair Metropark, MI. Jan 2015]

Most of our songbirds prefer to nest in the Spring and Summer, Owls, however, start much earlier -- typically beginning their nesting in winter. Presumably, this is because their prey items (rodents, birds, etc.) will be more abundant by the time their owlets fledge. 

Thus, it was not wholly unexpected when the foolhardy act of braving the freezing temperatures, brought on by a quick excursion to Lake St. Clair Metorpark, was rewarded with great sightings of  Great Horned Owl as well as other (mostly) familiar species such as:
  • Rusty Blackbird
  • Nuthatch
  • Downy Woodpecker
  • Northern Cardinal
  • Black-capped Chickadee
Great Horned Owl is an imposing owl that is found across the US. This blogger's first "close encounter" with this renowned raptor was at Lakes Park in Ft. Myers several years ago where it was observed, accidentally, superbly camouflaged in the trees:


Great Horned Owl seen at Lakes Park, Ft. Myers
In Michigan at this time of year the trees are bereft of foliage and spotting the owl is thus made considerably easier:


Great Horned Owl seen at Lake St. Clair Metropark
Lake St. Clair Metropark hosts a devoted pair of these owls and every year visitors delight in watching these owls nest, feed and fledge their young.


Great Horned Owl seen at Lake St. Clair Metropark
Unlike the owl, the Rusty Blackbird was entirely unexpected at the park this time of year:


Rusty Blackbird seen at Lake St. Clair Metropark
A perfunctory look at this Icterid could easily result in grave misidentification. The yellow eye and overall black plumage are temptingly similar to the Common Grackle:


Common Grackle seen at Corkscrew Swamp
However, a more considered examination will reveal, to the discerning observer, a couple of key differences: the thicker bill on the Grackle and the distinctive rusty markings on the Blackbird.

Rusty Blackbird seen at Lake St. Clair Metropark
Classified as "Vulnerable", this population of this charming blackbird is in free fall -- with an 85% decline over the last few decades. This species is observed well at Magee Marsh in early Spring.

Commoner species observed included:

White-breasted Nuthatch:







This is a year-round resident at the park but generally manages to evade attempts at photography.

Black-capped Chickadee:

Downy Woodpecker:

A striking Northern Cardinal:

.. and a Song Sparrow itching to sing:

With the advent of February, the renewed activity of birds -- starting with the nesting of raptors -- betray the first stirrings of Spring; that, within a couple of months, will be fully underway.