Monday, February 25, 2013

Our Only Solitaire

[Tres Pistolas, NM. February, 2013]

There are 13 species of extant Solitaires in the World. We are fortunate to have 1 -- the Townsend's Solitaire. Here is the full list:
  1. Rufous-brown Solitaire (South America)
  2. White-eared Solitaire (Andes)
  3. Black Solitaire (Andes)
  4. Townsend's Solitaire (North America)
  5. Brown-backed Solitaire (Mexico, northern Central America)
  6. Cuban Solitaire (Cuba)
  7. Rufous-throated Solitaire (Caribbean)
  8. Black-faced Solitaire (Costa Rica, western Panama)
  9. Varied Solitaire (Panama, Colombia)
  10. Slate-coloured Solitaire (Mexico, Central America)
  11. Andean Solitaire (Andes)
  12. ʻŌmaʻo (island of Hawaiʻi)
  13. Puaiohi (Kauaʻi)
Solitaires are Thrushes and are mostly insectivorous but, like the Townsend's Solitaire, will eat berries and other fruit in the Winter. Also like other Thrushes, the Townsend's Solitaire is a fairly drab bird but what it lacks in color, it more than makes up with its beautiful song.

In the winter, Townsend's Solitaires live off Juniper Berries almost exclusively and therefore a good place to look for them is near, or on, their food source -- Juniper bushes.

Townsend's Solitaires are strongly territorial in winter, defending their Juniper bushes vigorously.
Townsend's Solitaire eating a Juniper berry. This thrush is named after the acclaimed American ornithologist John Townsend; who is responsible, among other things, for having described the Mountain Plover and Townsend's Warbler.

Plumaged in grey, the buff wing patches and a prominent white eye-ring are distinctive. Perhaps the only other bird it could carelessly be confused with would be the Northern Mockingbird.

The global population of this Western Thrush is estimated to be about 770,000 and is not considered under threat.
The other bird of note [another lifer for me] was Crissal Thrasher. The Crissal Thrasher was long confused with the California Thrasher to which it is closely related. Curiously, because of a typographical error, its scientific name [erroneously confused with a junco] was not corrected until  1983.

The bill is strongly decurved; more so than the curve-billed thrasher.

"Crissal" means pertaining to the crissum or the feathers around the cloacal opening. It is used to indicate the highly colored under-tail coverts present in this species. And, indeed this mimid was earlier also known as the red-vented thrasher. This feature (deep red-brown color of the undertail coverts) is diagnostic.

The bonus bird seen was the white-crowned sparrow:
Overall, a fruitful morning with both target species located; the highlight being our sole solitaire.

    Sunday, February 24, 2013

    A Hint of Spring at Corkscrew Swamp

    [Corkscrew Swamp, Feb. 2013]

    Late February in Florida and Spring is here: the trees show green shoots, Northern Parulas are singing and the first Swallow-tailed Kites have arrived from South America.

    This time, a couple of trips to Corkscrew, one with expert photographer and naturalist Bob Pelkey, yielded a nice assortment of warblers, flycatchers and breeding Barred Owl.

    Let's start with the bundle of energy that is the blue-grey gnatcatcher. When in breeding plumage, the male develops a distinctive black "monobrow" and the crown becomes blue instead of light grey. The eye-ring shows prominently.

    Unlike the uninhibited gnatcatcher, the Common Yellowthroat is seldom seen. Found chipping harshly, and skulking low to the ground, this widespread warbler is distinctive in its black mask and yellow throat. It is "common" because it is found from coast to coast, from Northern Canada to Northern South America; in fact, it can be found across the continent except in the desert Southwest and the high Arctic.
    In the Swamp, the dense foliage means that unless your camera can shoot somewhat cleanly at ISO 3200 or you have a very fast lens, you will be struggling with either excessive image noise or camera shake.
    The Black and White warbler is the ultimate test for the photographer's reflexes. It undertakes its feeding with speed and concentration that make it oblivious to the fact that it may only be inches away from the observer. Moving every second, it seldom allows for accurate focus or composition.
    A more cooperative warbler is the terrestrially inclined Ovenbird -- when seen. "When seen" because, like the Yellowthroat, it is also a notorious skulker,
    The compulsive tail bobber, the Palm Warbler, another wintering warbler at the Swamp is starting to come into breeding plumage.
    One warbler that certainly senses that Spring is in the air, is the Northern Parula. Males in mixed feeding flocks try to keep a safe distance from each other while foraging. However, if they hear each other belting out their distinctive song too closely, a short scuffle ensues before they strike a truce and go their separate ways. This tiny warbler is seen year round at the Swamp.
    Other interesting birds were Painted Bunting, White-eyed Vireo, Carolina Wren and Great-crested Flycatcher.
    Painted Bunting (male)
    White-eyed Vireo
    Carolina Wren

    Great-crested Flycatcher

    Finally, the breeding Barred Owls and the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker.
    The wide variety of species at the Swamp -- resident (eg., vireos, common yellowthroat, carolina wren), migratory (both in Spring and Fall), wintering (eg., painted bunting, ovenbird, black-and-white warbler) or summering (eg., swallow tailed kite, northern parula) makes Corkscrew Swamp a special place to visit in Southwest Florida.

    Monday, February 18, 2013

    Portrait of a Hawk

    [Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, Collier Co., FL. Feb 2013]

    In nature photography, the subject, its surroundings and other elements are joyously [some would say frustratingly!] unpredictable -- lighting, background, foreground, etc -- are all in unplanned and random disarray. Rarely does the photographer get the "upper (creative) hand", as they would, for example, in the studio.

    Sometimes, however, the field affords conditions that merit the level of an improvised studio; and, in this post, the fortuitous sighting of a Red-shouldered Hawk within "petting" distance from the boardwalk has most photographic elements in favor.

    A Red-shouldered Hawk in its prime.

    The Red-shouldered Hawk is a breeding species at Corkscrew and for the few minutes that it held a small group of onlookers in breathless awe, it was completely focused on surveying the swamp for any feeding opportunities -- undistracted by human activity.
    A regal pose in profile. Large, liquid eyes highlight a raptor in meditative alertness of its surroundings.
    A slight tilt of the head in response to probable visual stimuli; also visible are the sharp talons ready to subdue any prey item unfortunate enough to become its next meal. Red shoulders show prominently in this view.
    A closer view throws the background out of focus -- the twig behind is the only distracting element. Not a tough job for Photoshop to eliminate it altogether; but this "imperfection" keeps the image faithfully real.
    The fine detail of the plumage, the glint in the eye and the texture of its bill lend a 3D realism to the image akin to that "being there" feeling.

    After this session, having seen and photographed many Red-shouldered Hawks before, this particular series, in my view, will set a standard that I believe will remain unsurpassed by my future endeavors.

     [All images shot with natural ambient lighting at ISO 1600 and 3200 at F5.6. Sigma 300/F4 lens with 1.4X extender].

    Thursday, February 14, 2013

    Ross's Goose and Northern Harrier

    [Bosque del Apache, NM. Feb., 2013]

    At this time of year, there are over 47,000 Snow Geese at Bosque del Apache -- and, among these teeming thousands are also a few of the rarer Ross's Goose.


    This tiny goose (the smallest goose species in the world) breeds at select sites in the Arctic Circle such as the Queen Maud Gulf Sanctuary. When seen with thousands of the larger snow geese, it can prove quite challenging to the casual observer to disambiguate between the two.
    Snow Goose.

    The Snow Goose and Ross's Goose are superficially quite similar: both are white geese with red bills and legs, black wingtips and textured necks.
    However, when both species of geese are seen together [see photo above], the differences between them become a little more discernibly apparent:
    • The Ross's is smaller (i.e., it's about the same size as a mallard); and has a shorter neck
    • The Snow Goose bill displays pronounced "black lips" [see next photograph]
    • The junction between cheek and bill is curved (Snow) vs. straight (Ross's)

    Snow Goose showing the "grinning patch"
    Compare this to the Ross's profile:

    Ross's Goose profile

    The profile shots help highlight the differences discussed. The geese are  otherwise similar in their natural history and dietary habits. Both geese are also record defecators; a consequence of their high-fiber diets consisting of all kinds of grasses and other vegetable matter which they find in abundance in meadows and agricultural fields. This is a factor behind their current abundance and  thankful steady increase in population.

    Moving on to a non-vegetarian bird, the Northern or Hen Harrier. This global raptor is found in North America and Northern Eurasia. The American race of the Harrier is a separate subspecies and is distinguished by its darker color.
    Northern Harrier (female)

    The Northern Harrier is one of the few hawks that is strongly sexually dimorphic -- the male is a spectacular grey while the female is brown and rufous. Not usually seen on the ground, a Northern Harrier was seen landing in the grass for a few brief moments before taking off.

    Finally, no visit to the Bosque would be complete without a mention of the 8,000 Sandhill Cranes that were present:

    A diminutive white goose, a beautiful hawk with a striking facial disc, and a stately crane in a pristine wilderness offer a glimpse of a wild America that we must preserve for future generations.

    Saturday, February 9, 2013

    A Trifecta of Rosy Finches

    [Sandia Crest, NM. February 2012]

    The birding populace of the US can be divided into those who have had the good fortune of seeing a trifecta of rosy finches and those who have not.

    There are 7 species in the mountain finch family which occur in Asia and North America. Of these, the following 3, occur in North America:
    • Black Rosy Finch
    • Grey-crowned Rosy Finch; and,
    • Brown-capped Rosy Finch
    Of these, 2 are endemic to the US (the black and the brown-capped) and seeing all of them in one place is nothing short of a mystical experience. The best place to see them in winter is Sandia Crest in New Mexico.

    The Grey-crowned Rosy Finch.

    The grey-crowned is the only member of the trifecta that is not a national endemic --instead of being restricted to the Central mountains of the US like the others -- it ranges widely in the Western US, from Alaska, Western Canada, through the Northwest, to the Rockies.

    The other endemic -- Black Rosy Finch -- is perhaps the most handsome. Like all our rosy finches, the infusion of rosy pink in the plumage is distinctive; but here, contrasted with the black head with grey headband, and the black upper parts, the combination is particularly striking.

    The most uncooperative of the lot was the brown capped and while I think there's one in this flock, it will require an additional observation opportunity to reveal it in its full brilliance.

    A flock straight from the heavens; a swarm of rosy finches quickly descends, feeds and disappears -- confounding the observer with their sheer number, rosy exuberance and the befuddling similarity of plumage. Under these circumstances, carelessness in identification is a real risk, so let's revisit the identification features again:

    Both the black and the grey-crowned have black foreheads and grey headbands. Both show pink in their flanks and wings. The difference comes down to color of the upper body -- black instead of brown. Furthermore, the "the one that got away" -- the brown-capped -- is similar to the grey-crowned except for the head -- a solid brown instead of black with grey headband.

    Grey-crowned rosy finch.

    Adding to their mystical status is the fact that rosy finches are one of our least studied birds with the Cornell Lab of Ornithology reporting that only 3 researchers have seen the nest sites of the Black Rosy Finch (as of 2002).

    Other birds seen in the area included dark-eyed junco ("slate colored" race) and Stellar's Jay.
    Dark-eyed Junco.

    The target corvid for any birder in this area would surely be Clark's Nutcracker; but, it is the much more familiar Stellar's Jay that is usually observed here.

    Nonetheless, Sandia Crest, at a rarefied elevation of over 10,000 feet, where every 3 breaths give the oxygen content of one breath taken in Florida, has the power to leave the observer breathless in more ways than one: especially, when in the company of the charismatic rosy finches.