Thursday, March 9, 2017

Songbirds of the Sonoran Desert

[SEAZ, December 2016]

The Sonoran Desert covers a massive area of some 100,000 sq. miles and spans the arid regions of Arizona, New Mexico, California, Baja California and Sonora. It is renowned as the only place in the world that hosts the mighty saguaro cactus; yet, it also harbors a unique ecosystem that supports 350 species of birds as well as many other creatures such as mammals, reptiles and amphibians. 

And, in this vast desert, it is in Southeastern Arizona that the apex of biodiversity is attained thanks to the famous "Sky Islands" of the region. As the vast plains of Saguaro transition to montane coniferous forests (reaching elevations of 8,000 ft and above), a remarkable transformation also occurs in the birdlife -- a fact that we shall endeavor to illustrate in this post by profiling a selection of songbirds and other species recently encountered in the Tucson and Phoenix areas:
  • Phainopepla
  • Black-tailed Gnatcatcher
  • Lesser Goldfinch
  • House Finch
  • Northern Cardinal
  • Say's and Black Phoebe
  • Bewick's Wren
  • Loggerhead Shrike
  • Ruby-crowned Kinglet
  • Pygmy Nuthatch
  • Mexican Jay
  • Western Bluebird
  • White-breasted Nuthatch
  • Mexican Creeper
We start with the "Shining Robe" or (in Greek) Phainopepla:

The Phainopepla is a "silky flycatcher" and the only member of its family found in the US. And, while it is not unusual for some birds to raise two broods a year, the Phainopepla accomplishes this feat in two different habitats (desert and woodlands) and in two different social modes (monogamous and colonial breeding). Surely, something that no other bird in the US that can match! This outstanding male with the resplendent black plumage and striking red eye was observed at Rio Rillito Park in Tucson.

Also observed at this venue was this energetic songbird -- a Black-tailed Gnatcatcher (female):

In a couple of months, the males of these Gnatcatchers will develop a black cap that will make them instantly recognizable.

In the dry river bed, Lesser Goldfinch fed among the dry grasses:

Moving to Mt. Lemmon, a couple of bright songbirds were encountered -- a House Finch:

and a Northern Cardinal:

This is the Cardinal's Western limit.

Next, a couple of Phoebes: Say's and Black:

Thomas Say was Chief Zoologist in Major Long's expedition to the Rockies in 1819 and described many species new to science such as the Phoebe that bears his name but also Orange-crowned Warbler, Western Kingbird, Lazuli Bunting and Band-tailed Pigeon. These small tyrant flycatchers were observed at Proctor Rd and Gilbert Water Ranch respectively.

Also from the Water Ranch, a wintering Ruby-crowned Kinglet:

And, near Florida Canyon, a Loggerhead Shrike:

Other than perhaps Cactus Wren, our other wrens are splendid songsters and Bewick's Wren (seen at Molino Basin) is no exception:

Further up in the snow covered reaches of Mt. Lemmon, Pygmy Nuthatch was spied at Rose Canyon:

At Madera Canyon, on the other hand, observations were made of:

Mexican Jay:

Western Bluebird:

White-breasted Nuthatch:

And, Mexican Creeper:

While deserts don't typically come to mind when thinking about ideal habitat for birds, yet, the Sonoran Desert and its Sky Islands offer the perfect counterexample. And, the intrepid birder who ventures out to hotspots such as Mt. Lemmon, Madera Canyon and Florida Canyon will be rewarded with avian delights such as Phainopepla, Say's Phoebe and Mexican Jay.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Four Warblers and Woopeckers of the Southwest

[SEAZ, December 2016]

There are a number of specialty species that are found neither in the Eastern nor the Western regions of the US -- these are the avifauna of the unique habitats available solely in the Southwest. A winter trip to Southeastern Arizona afforded this blogger an opportunity to observe some of these specialty species at close quarters in the Maderan Sky Islands:

The four warblers:
  • Painted Redstart
  • Olive Warbler
  • Orange-crowned Warbler
  • Audubon's Warbler
And, the four Woodpeckers:
  • Ladder-backed Woodpecker
  • Arizona Woodpecker
  • Gila Woodpecker
  • Acorn Woodpecker
We start with the Redstart:

The Painted Restart is found year-round in Madera Canyon; its striking black and red plumage is a real standout against the green foliage of the oak woodlands.

Next -- Olive Warbler, this is technically not a wood-warbler and while not as flashy as the Redstart, it is still an attractive songbird:

The male's orange-turmeric head and throat, black mask, grey body and prominent white wingbars is unmistakable. 

The females are a duller version of the male:

The other warblers observed were Orange-crowned:

... and Audbuon's

The Orange-crowned was observed at Gilbert Water Ranch (Phoenix area) while the Audubon's was seen at Molino Basin (Mt. Lemmon).  And while all four warblers were seen in SEAZ, in truth, only two of the warblers are truly Southwestern specialties -- The Orange-crowned and Audubon's Warblers are both found in other parts of the US.

And, now for the woodies:

The Ladder-backed Woodpecker is a cactus specialist -- here seen near Florida Canyon:

While the Ladder-backed is found across the desert Southwest, the Arizona Woodpecker is only found -- predictably -- in Arizona:

The Arizona Woodpecker is our only brown-and-white woodpecker. It ranges largely in Mexico, barely reaching into the US. Madera Canyon is a reliable venue to observe this unique woodpecker.

The Gila Woodpecker is another range-restricted species:

The male (upper two photos) has a red crown while the female doesn't. This specimen was observed at Tucson's Rio Rillito Park.

Unlike Gila and Arizona which are specialty woodies of the Southwest, Acorn Woodpecker is found across the Western and Southwestern US:

The Acorn Woodpecker is unique in its social (cooperative breeding) and acorn stashing habits.

Lastly a Bonus woodpecker:

The Red-naped Sapsucker is a specialized sap foraging woodpecker -- here seen at Molino Basin.

Warblers and woodpeckers belong to completely different bird families but what they do share, as evinced in this post, is the scintillating diversity that they offer across their respective taxonomic spectrums -- a fact that is best appreciated in the spectacular vistas of the Southwest.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Spectacular Sparrows of the Southwest featuing Sagebrush Sparrow

[SEAZ. December, 2016]

Birders are extremely faithful to their birds. Heroic chases, relentless pursuits and eternal quests are all fair game when searching for a nemesis bird, a visiting vagrant or a remarkable rarity -- these reflect both our stubborn fidelity to our feathered friends as well as an (almost obsessive) compulsion to engage in the endless joys of avian observation.

But, is this devotion reciprocated? Well, the short answer is "generally not". Indeed, many of our fair feathered friends are also our fair weather friends -- with us when it suits them; and, gone when it doesn't. Consider, for example, the warblers. All Spring and Summer, the object of our endless fascination; yet, come Winter, they callously desert us, en masse, to flee to more salubrious climes.

In contrast, we are grateful to our faithful sparrows -- with us through the thick of Summer and the thin of Winter. Juncos, Sparrows and Towhees do not conveniently vacate US territory just because of the seasonal plunge in temperature -- and as a consequence, in this post, we gratefully present a delightful collection of sparrows observed during this blogger's winter sojourn in Southeast Arizona:
  • Sagebrush Sparrow
  • Rufous-crowned Sparrow
  • Rufous-winged Sparrow
  • Lincoln's Sparrow
  • White-crowned Sparrow
  • Green-tailed Towhee
  • Canyon Towhee
  • Abert's Towhee
In a momentous and history-shaping edict, the venerable authorities of High Birding decreed in 2013 that Sage Sparrow be consigned to the trash heap of defunct taxa and, in its stead, be replaced by Sagebrush Sparrow and Bell's Sparrow. This was the culmination of a 115 year-old debate that was finally clinched on account of DNA analysis.

The advent of an additional countable species, while surely celebrated in every birding corner of the world, must, however, also be tempered with the risk of misidentification between these two quite similar sparrows.

Indeed, disambiguating Sagebrush and Bell's sparrows is much like the Long-billed vs. Short-billed Dowitcher conundrum -- an exercise that relies on subtle cues with perhaps no single definitive visual diagnostic.

Taking this identification challenge head-on, we start with (what looks to this blogger like) Sagebrush Sparrow:

A grey head, a brown, streaked back, white eyering, black mustachial stripe are all helpful in identifying this species.
A front view shows the dark spot on the breast and the two white patches above the lores.

The next picture shows a similar sparrow -- however, the mustachial stripe is fainter and the streaks on the back are less defined and shorter. These clues point to Bell's Sparrow:

However, it is worth quoting the Cornell Lab of Ornithology:

"Overall, the two species are extremely difficult to tell apart, and many times the best a birder can do on the wintering grounds is mark these birds as Bell’s/Sagebrush."

The above sparrows were observed at the Thrasher Spot in the Phoenix area. Having survived the perils of Sagebrush/Bell's identification, we move to the Tucson area for some id relief; starting with Rufous-crowned Sparrow:

Favoring hillside habitat, Rufous-crowned Sparrow is a grey sparrow with a bright rufous crown and half eye-stripe. The white eyering is also prominent. This individual was observed at Molino Basin, Mt. Lemmon.

Unlike Rufous-crowned, Rufous-winged Sparrow is much more range-restricted in the US to southernmost Arizona where it is found in the Sonoran desert and grasslands of the area.

Note the rufous wing patches in the lower image. This individual was seen on the approach to Florida Canyon.

Lincoln's Sparrow, here encountered in the foothills of Madera Canyon, is readily recognized thanks to its heavy streaking:

Probably the most common sparrow encountered was White-crowned Sparrow:

This and the Dark-eyed Junco were observed at Molino Basin:

Switching gear to the Towhees -- we start with the most spectacular Towhee in the country:

Green-tailed Towhee

Most Towhees are buffy brown and drab, such as Canyon Towhee:

... and Abert's Towhee:

The intrepid birder must confront many natural dangers -- such as mosquitoes, alligators, snakes and lizards -- in pursuit of interesting species; however, perhaps greater perils to the unsuspecting birder arise from misidentification, ignorance and inadequate preparation.

And, the Sagebrush/Bell's Sparrow conundrum poses just such a danger; whose silver lining, of course, is a further honing of observation and identification skills that will inevitably lead to growth as a birder.