Saturday, February 6, 2016

Shorebirds of the Bolivar Peninsula: Long-billed Curlew, American Avocet and Marbled Godwit

[Bolivar Peninsula, TX. Dec 2015]

The US is blessed with 4 coasts -- the Pacific, Atlantic, Gulf and Arctic coasts in descending length of coastline. However, in winter, richness of shorebird life favors the Pacific and Gulf coasts over the Arctic and Atlantic coasts

On the Gulf Coast, Florida and Texas are both highly sought-after for their spectacular shorebirds and waders. In this post, we profile a recent trip to Bolivar Flats Sanctuary on the Bolivar Peninsula in Galveston County, TX, which illustrates precisely why this hotspot is so renowned for world-class shorebirding.

We start with the largest and most imposing of all our shorebirds -- the incomparable Long-billed Curlew:

"Long-billed" is an adjective mostly applied in a relative sense: Long-billed Thrasher has a bill longer than the Brown Thrasher; similarly, Long-billed Dowitcher exceeds Short-billed Dowitcher in bill dimension. Thus, Long-billed Curlew, while obviously accurate in an absolute sense, must also refer to bill superiority in comparison to the other curlews that were once observed in its company, namely the Eskimo Curlew and the Hudsonian Curlew. The Eskimo Curlew, once one of our most abundant shorebirds has long been shot to extinction and the Hudsonian Curlew, while still around, is no longer recognized as a full species and is now classified as a subspecies of Whimbrel. And, compared to their more modestly sized bills, the Long-billed Curlew's bill, which can be more than 8.5" in length, is awesomely massive.

Sadly, the carnage visited on the Eskimo Curlew has not been restricted to it alone. The Long-billed Curlew which in the mid 1800's was still relatively common on the Atlantic Coast in migration has now been extirpated from its former range. It is now best seen on the West Coast as well as the the Gulf Coast but in thinner numbers.    

A cursory glance at eBird records over the last 10 years shows that checklists on the Florida coast show sightings of one or two individuals. Compare to Texas, in similar fashion to California, where checklists show high counts of up to 30.

Another large shorebird with a similar plumage pattern:

This is the Marbled Godwit -- immediately recognizable from the curlews due its upturned bill.

Also seen were -- American Avocet:

Wintering plovers such as the threatened Piping Plover:

And Snowy Plover:

As well as common sandpipers such as Dunlin:

Western Sandpiper:

And the ubiquitous Sanderling:

Shorebirds face a dual threat -- conversion of their grassland breeding sites to agriculture and disturbance from beachgoers and their pets at their wintering grounds. Thankfully the menace of market hunting which annihilated shorebird populations in the late 1800's is now largely behind us but new threats abound including environmental degradation (eg., Oil Spills) and food depletion (eg., harvesting of horseshoe crab eggs for bait). Yet, sanctuaries like Bolivar Flats still harbor several signature species, including the incomparable Long-billed Curlew, that offer a glimpse of the former abundance of our shorebirds.

Saturday, January 30, 2016

A Corvid Trio featuring Clark's Nutcracker and Black-billed Magpie plus Townsend's Warbler

[Late Summer 2015. The Rockies, Co.]

If only we knew the language of birds, it would not be surprising to learn that "primate brain" in their parlance is an expression reserved for describing a creature slow of wit. And, as we primates look around us -- especially in relation to our politics -- we cannot but wonder if they are right.

And, yet while we use "bird brain" in an equivalent sense, we now know how grossly we err: birds are not only intelligent but also highly adaptable; being as they are among a select group of creatures on this planet capable of using tools. And, the corvids -- the family of jays and crows -- are renowned as among the most clever of avian species.

In this blog post, we review 3 corvid species encountered on a trip to Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado.

We start with Clark's Nutcracker:

Clark's Nutcracker is one of 3 species of Nutcrackers on the earth and the only nutcracker found in the New World. This particular individual was observed at Rainbow Curve Overlook at Rocky National Mountain Park in Colorado.

As their name implies, nutcrackers are nut specialists -- especially pine nuts. They are known to stash away 30,000 pine nuts in a single season for later consumption. Almost miraculously, they are able to remember the location of 70% of them -- i.e., they are able to remember where they hid 21,000 tiny seeds. Compare this to modern primates who struggle to remember the location of just a single parked vehicle in a lot!

Also observed was Steller's Jay:

This is one of two crested jays found in the US. It ranges in evergreen forest over much of the West.

Our last corvid is the the Black-billed Magpie:

Unlike Nutcrackers, the magpie is an omnivore and an opportunist when it comes to food -- feeding on nuts and insects as well as scavenging dead animals. With the elimination of the bison herds from which they gleaned ticks and insects, these adaptable corvids have now switched over to farm animals. 

Magpies are also able to recognize individual human faces -- they have been known to pick out specific individuals to mob from a crowd of people. A fact discovered by researchers who were studying magpie nesting and found that the parent magpies later recognized the same people who had earlier disturbed their nests (see article here).

While observing the Steller's Jay at Brainard Lake, flitting movement detected in the trees revealed a feeding flock of warblers:

A beautiful Townsend's Warbler! A nice bonus to supplement the wonderful jays.

But the Rockies hold more than just birds -- Brainard Lake is known for its Moose and RNMP is famous for its Elk and Bighorn Sheep.

In Late Summer, the rut is just starting and the bulls are herding up their harems:

Finally, Mule Deer:

This deer is named for its large, mule-like ears and is found only in Western N. America.

While birds never cease to amaze us with their color, song and power -- we should not overlook the fact that they are amazing in their intelligence as well -- a fact superbly underscored by the collection of corvids here presented.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Santa Ana and Vicinity: Least Grebe, White-faced Ibis and Long-billed Dowitcher

[Santa Anna NWR, TX. Dec 2015]

In the words of the renowned actress Elizabeth Taylor: "It's not the having, it's the getting" -- a saying that sums up perfectly the thrill of the chase and how the adrenaline-infused process of acquisition outweighs the placid act of possession

In Birding, however, the "not getting" can sometimes be unexpectedly rewarding as well. For example, this blogger was in pursuit of a Northern Jacana (a Mexican vagrant) that had been reported at Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge in late December. While the Jacana remained stubbornly elusive to attempts at observation, the process of "not getting" nonetheless produced other rewarding sightings including:
  • Least Grebe
  • White-faced Ibis (from nearby Estero Llano)
  • Great Kiskadee
  • Long-billed Dowitcher; and,
  • Lesser Yellowlegs
 We start with the grebe:

Our smallest grebe with its piercing yellow eyes is a striking sight that lent poetic inspiration to this blogger several years ago during a Lifer moment:

This Worthy Grebe
Would it not have been wise
To recognize spirit over size
This worthy grebe would then boast
Not the prefix "least"; but "most"

Aptly named, this is the smallest Grebe not only in the US but in the entire New World and while it ranges widely across S. America, in the US, it is restricted to Southern Texas [also occasionally seen as a vagrant in South Florida].

An Ibis spied at nearby Estero Llano Grande, on the other hand, evoked a ho-hum response -- a typical knee-jerk reaction that characterizes the observation of a thoroughly familiar species -- the Glossy Ibis. 

However, and this is why bird photography is such a powerful complement to birding -- closer inspection of the image upon return to Michigan underscored the perils of misidentification that can result from perfunctory observation in the field -- for, this is a White-faced Ibis; not a Glossy Ibis! Note the reddish legs and eyes. This "western counterpart" to the Glossy has an odd distribution -- found in the lower half of S. America it is then absent until it resurfaces in Central and Western N. America.

Also seen at Santa Ana NWR were Long-billed Dowitcher:

.. and Lesser Yellowlegs:

In addition to the waders and shorebirds, Santa Ana, which has a checklist of 397 species, is particularly renowned for its birds in passage. 

In the flash visit to this fabled venue that was afforded this blogger, full advantage of the available observation options was not availed. Any trip to the RGV area requires a good 4 to 7 days to fully appreciate the various hotspots and the avian treasures they hold.

We end with Great Kiskadee:  

This blogger's first visit to the RGV area was in 2009. A return visit in 2012 underscored why Southern Texas remains a mecca for the American birding community. And, with or without the odd rarity from Mexico, venues such as Santa Ana NWR and Estero Llano Grande SP continue to enchant.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Northern California: Five Saprrows, a Bushtit and a Wren

[Bay Area, CA. Dec 2015]

Compared to the open, lush-green lands found in the Eastern US, the desolate brown landscape of Silicon Valley in California, with its water-deficient ecology, over development and high population density, seems wholly unsuited to harbor any birdlife other than Rock Doves, Starlings, Grackles and House Sparrows. Indeed, Save The Bay, lists several factoids with regard to the ongoing environmental degradation of San Francisco Bay:
  • Streams draining into the Bay have, on average, 3 pieces of trash per foot
  • Astonishingly, people dump 3 million gallons of oil annually into the Bay
  • While 1 in 4 Americans are infected with parasites from cat feces (generally without health complications), the same parasite can be lethal to Sea Otters [the 150 million dogs and cats in the US annually generate a tsunami of excrement that eventually finds is way into the sea resulting in unhealthy beaches frothing with E. Coli as well as parasite-rich waters that infect native wildlife]  
Yet, somewhat miraculously, a precious few oases of semi-wilderness can still be found in the Bay Area and a recent visit to this mecca of technology innovation afforded some time to explore hotspots such as Byxbee Park, Lucy Evans Baylands (both in Palo Alto) and WPCP (Water Pollution Control Plant in Sunnyvale) where the following species were observed:
  • Fox Sparrow
  • White-crowned Sparrow
  • Golden-crowned Sparrow
  • Song Sparrow
  • California Towhee
  • Bushtit
  • Bewick's Wren
We start with Fox Sparrow:

There are 4 species of Fox in the US. The red of the streaking on this somewhat large sparrow resembles the color of one of the four Fox species -- the Red Fox -- and, hence the name for this charismatic sparrow. 

However, note that the resemblance to the Red Fox is "most true" for the Red race of the Fox Sparrow. The race shown here is the Slate-colored Fox Sparrow and an even darker variant, the Sooty Fox Sparrow, is found in the coastal Northwest. This outstanding individual was seen at Byxbee Park.

White-crowned Sparrow is a common songbird in this area and practically every birding venue has them in relative abundance:

In addition to White-crowned Sparrow, a few Golden-crowned Sparrows were seen at Lucy Evans Baylands in Palo Alto:

Over at WPCP, this blogger was surprised to hear Song Sparrows singing -- in December!

Our final sparrow is the near-endemic California Towhee (found outside the US only in Mexico):

California Towhee seen at Byxbee Park

Unlike the robust Towhee, the Bushtit is a hyperactive, tiny bird that blends in with the shrubs:

In the vicinity of where the Bushtit were sighted (Charleston Slough), a Bewick's Wren also made a brief appearance:

This western wren looks like a House Wren with a long tail and is now exceedingly uncommon in the East where it is being displaced by the House Wren.

Arnold Schwarzenegger is not only known for his muscle-bound roles in movies, but also as the Governor of California who signed into law, legislation that made it mandatory for kitty litter brands to carry a warning not to dump kitty feces into toilets or storm drains. This was necessitated by the unprecedented deaths of Sea Otters on California coasts and is a grim reminder of the ripple effects of how non-native animals in urban settings can still have devastating consequences on wildlife hundreds of miles away.