Friday, April 24, 2015

Jewels of the West: Broad-tailed, Broad-billed, Black-chinned and Costa's Hummingbirds

[Hotspots in AZ and TX. April 2015]

Hummingbirds are delightfully enigmatic birds and their adaptive specializations demand a never-ending stream of superlatives in our attempts to describe them: the tiniest, the most brilliantly iridescent,  the most versatile in flight, the lightest, the most metabolically intense, and more... the list goes on.


Costa's Hummingbird seen at Molino Vista, Mt. Lemmon, AZ.

Little wonder, then, that hummingbirds are a source of endless fascination for us today and we can only imagine, two centuries ago, as they were being discovered scientifically, the novelty these unparalleled birds must have presented to naturalists from the Old World. 

One such hummingbird aficionado was Louis Costa, Marquis de Beauregard, a French nobleman who in the early 1800's amassed an unmatched collection of hummingbirds. Thus, when in 1839 the naturalist Jules Bourcier first encountered the type specimen for a 3-inch hummer with a brilliant violet crown and gorget, he had no hesitation in naming it, Calypte costae, or, Costa's Hummingbird. At the time, the Marquis was only 33 years old and must have felt exceedingly honored to have his name lent to this violet marvel.


Costa's Hummingbird seen at Molino Vista, Mt. Lemmon, AZ.
Costa's Hummingbird is found in the US only in appropriate habitat -- in a small area covering the Sonoran and Mojave deserts in Arizona and California. The individual pictured in this blog was observed at Molino Vista, Mt. Lemmon, AZ.


Costa's Hummingbird seen at Molino Vista, Mt. Lemmon, AZ.
Unlike the Costa's, the Broad-billed Hummingbird is restricted solely to Arizona; and, at 4 inches, it is also 33% larger:

Broad-billed Hummingbird seen at Tanque Verde Wash, Tucson, AZ.
The male is a metallic green with a deep blue throat; the bill is red and tipped in black. It is probably one of the most commonly seen hummingbird species observed in Southeast Arizona.


Broad-billed Hummingbird seen at Tanque Verde Wash, Tucson, AZ
The similar sounding Broad-tailed Hummingbird is the odd one out here -- it prefers sub-alpine meadows over desert habitat. In this instance, it was observed at Big Bend National Park which has a variety of habitats favorable to hummingbirds. Broad-tailed Hummers are found throughout the Rocky Mountains region of the US.


Broad-tailed Hummingbird seen at Big Bend NP, TX
Compare the Broad-tailed with Anna's Hummingbird and the key difference will be readily apparent: the color of the crown -- green in the latter and red in the former.

Finally, the Black-chinned Hummingbird:


Black-chinned Hummingbird seen at Tanque Verde Wash, Tucson, AZ
Black-chinned Hummingbird seen at Tanque Verde Wash, Tucson, AZ
When the light hits the male Black-chinned Hummingbird's gorget at just the right angle, it will shine a deep purple; however, as its name implies, most of the time the gorget appears an ordinary black. This is the most widespread hummer of the four presented here -- ranging West from Texas and North all the way up to southern British Columbia.

The only bird that can fly backward; or go into torpor; or that consumes more than its weight in nectar daily -- the hummers are exceptional in so many different respects that it is small wonder that they are favorites of birding folk the world over. A fact, no doubt, underscored by the quartet of enchanting hummer species presented here. But, to see the widest assortment of US hummers, the intrepid birder will have to heed the immortal words of Horace Greeley "Go West, young man" -- as the Eastern US is regrettably deficient in hummingbird species (excepting the Ruby-throated, of course).

Other hummers profiled in this blog: Blue-throated Hummingbird, Magnificent Hummingbird, Allen's Hummingbird, Anna's Hummingbird, Buff-bellied Hummingbird.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Davis Mountains State Park: Montezuma Quail

[Ft. Davis, TX. April 2015]

What is Patience? Is it the assured wait for something long wanted? Or, a dogged persistence that never quits? Perhaps it is the faith that good things will happen in their own time. However defined, surely Patience is a quality that rewards, in due course, those who are committed to its practice. 

And, in support of this thesis, on a third visit (in 3 years) to Davis Mountains State Park, the prior two having proved spectacularly fruitless, that this blogger's patience was rewarded handsomely with generous views of the fabled Montezuma Quail -- our most striking, restricted and secretive quail.

Montezuma Quail (male)
While Montezuma II, last emperor of the Aztec Empire, is perhaps better known for his defeat to the Spanish conquistadors, he has also been famously immortalized not only in the Marine Corps Hymn ("From the Halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli ..."), the vernacular for Mexican diarrhea ("Montezuma's revenge"), and, perhaps most significantly, for lending his name to Cyrtonyx montezumae -- Montezuma Quail.

Montezuma Quail (male)

Smaller than a Northern Bobwhite, the Montezuma Quail's most distinctive feature is the male's strongly pattered face, golden crest, spotted sides, streaked back and deep brown chest.

Montezuma Quail (male)

This is a mainly Mexican quail that is found in just a few small regions in the US -- in Arizona, Western Texas and New Mexico. Preferring hilly and wooded habitat, these quail are classified as "Least Concern"; however, owing to their highly secretive nature are rarely sighted; which, is probably a good thing as they are regrettably hunted in all three states in which they occur.

Montezuma Quail (female)

In contrast to the male, the female is a much plainer specimen -- pale buff with some streaking on the back. Juveniles resemble the female in plumage.

Montezuma Quail (male)

Other birds observed at Davis Mountains State Park included:

White-winged Dove:





Pine Siskin:



and, Chipping Sparrow:




There is no better way for a three year wait to come to an end than with the sighting of a long desired species -- and, when the species in question is not only a Lifer but the stunning Montezuma Quail, the memory of the wait fades into trivial insignificance. A sentiment, that surely must find resonance in every birder's own experience with the value of Patience in the observation of iconic yet elusive species.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Lesser Black-backed Gull and Amazing Herons

[SW Florida. December 2014]

Even as April beckons, winter's taunts of flurries, freezing rain and snow continue unabated here in Michigan. Thus, with Spring temperatures plunging again below freezing, the only warmth to be found was in a retrospective of select winter pictures from SW Florida featuring some common, but nevertheless delightful, species such as:
  • Lesser Black-backed Gull
  • Yellow-crowned Night heron
  • Little Blue Heron
  • Green Heron
  • Great Egret
  • Reddish Egret 
We start with the gull:


Lesser Black-backed Gull seen at Sanibel Beach
This gull is a regular winter visitor to our Eastern shores from Iceland and other European regions. First profiled on this blog in 2013, this is an imposing, dark-mantled gull that is just smaller than a Herring Gull.


Lesser Black-backed Gull seen at Sanibel Beach
Gulls are not known to be picky eaters and this Lesser Black-backed was not above making a meal of a decomposing fish.


In a bit of a non sequitur, we now turn our attention to herons - starting with Yellow-crowned Night-Heron:


Yellow-crowned Night-heron seen at Corkscrew Swamp
Both Night-herons (Black-crowned and Yellow-crowned) can be seen at Corkscrew Swamp.


Yellow-crowned Night-heron seen at Corkscrew Swamp
As implied by their name, these herons are active in twilight and are generally found roosting in the day.  Unlike the sedentary Night-heron, however, this Little Blue Heron was spied actively foraging:




Little Blue Heron seen at Corkscrew Swamp
The Ard.lit.bh's proximity to the boardwalk made for an interesting composition as it walked on the lettuce lake.


Yellow-crowned Night-heron seen at Corkscrew Swamp
The ABA's bird of the year is the Green Heron and a sharp plunging sound revealed, through almost impenetrable vegetation, the bird of the year with a crayfish:


Green Heron seen at Corkscrew Swamp
Unlike the gre.h, the Ard.gre.e (in trinomial shortform) was much more cooperative -- having landed conveniently on the railing of the boardwalk:


Great Egret seen at Corkscrew Swamp
Perhaps no heron is as entertaining as the Ard.red.e:

Reddish Egret seen at Bunche Beach
Reddish Egret seen at Bunche Beach
Finally, some bonus birds:

An American Coot, walking on water:


American Coot at Harns Marsh
American White Pelican in a stately flypast:


American White Pelican seen at Bunche Beach

We conclude with a reptilian footnote:


Cottonmouth seen at Corkscrew Swamp

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?