Sunday, March 24, 2013

Rufous-winged Sparrow and Black-tailed Gnatcatcher

[Sabino Canyon, AZ. March, 2013]

If one looks at the range map for Rufous-winged Sparrow, one finds that this New World sparrow has 95% of its range in Northern Mexico and the remaining 5% extends into a a tiny sliver into Southern Arizona. Indeed, it is not found anywhere else other than a few counties in that state (Pima, Cochise, and Santa Cruz).

This is a pale sparrow with a rufous crown, long tail, 2 mustache stripes on either side of the face, and a rufous partial eye-stripe.

Rufous-winged Sparrow was discovered by Major Charles Bendire, a noted naturalist-soldier in the US Army. Charles Bendire, born in Germany (as Karl Emil Bender), sailed to the US at 17 years of age and enlisted in the US Army a year later (as Charles Bendire). Decorated for gallantry in the Civil War, Bendire spent most of his time in Arizona, California, Idaho, New Mexico and Washington helping expand and consolidate US control while also extirpating native Americans; a job which, over the course of the 32 years of his service in the Cavalry, exposed him to the wonders of nature and where he developed an intense and addictive love for birds.


Bendire discovered the rufous-winged sparrow in 1872 near Tucson; in a couple of decades, the sparrow was eliminated from the region due to overgrazing. It began to recover starting in 1936 and its current population trends are stable.

Black-tailed Gnatcatcher is another range-restricted species -- found in a thin band largely parallel to the border with Mexico (and also stretching North into Southern Nevada).

Described by George Lawrence (of Lawrence's Goldfinch fame), the black-tailed gnatcatcher, has a black tail, black cap (breeding male), and white eye-ring.

Other birds observed in the area included:

Broad-billed hummingbird.
Black-throated sparrow -- conspicuously perched and singing this time of year.
Curve-billed thrasher were calling too:
.. their "wit-weet" calls resounding in the morning.
A Greater Roadrunner found foraging in the morning.
And a House Finch was found sunning itself.
Elsewhere, near the dam, a house wren was singing:
This bird is presumed to be heading North in its migration.
Phainopepla were also conspicuous, such as this male:
And, of course, Verdin were out and about:
Two range restricted species, the rufous-winged sparrow and the black-tailed gnatcatcher can be found thriving in Sabino Canyon. Their sightings coupled with those of the other common species, guarantee a memorable morning of birding.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Lucy's Warbler and Bell's Vireo

[Sabino Canyon, Tucson, AZ. March, 2013]

Lucy's Warbler is unique in the following ways:
  • It is our smallest warbler
  • It is our only desert warbler
  • It is a cavity nester (one of only 2 warblers that do this -- the other being the Prothonotary)
  • It is our least colorful warbler -- plumaged in pale grey and white
This very special bird was named by the naturalist and surgeon James Graham Cooper after the daughter (Lucy) of the giant of American Ornithology, Spencer Baird. Lucy Hunter Baird was recognized for the help and assistance she gave her father in his work. Lucy not only transcribed his notes but also accompanied him on many of his field trips. She died in 1913.

The main identification features of this elegant warbler are the the pale plumage (grey above, whitish below), white eye-ring, small pointed bill, rufous rump and, for the male, a small patch of rusty streaks on the crown.
Male Lucy's Warbler -- this view shows a hint of the rufous rump which is diagnostic.

Conservation-wise, Lucy's warbler population trends are overall largely stable despite the loss of suitable riparian habitat and brood parasitism by brown-headed cowbirds that has caused declines in localized areas. It is assessed as "Least Concern" by the IUCN.
Lucy's Warbler singing.

These distinctive warblers were seen by the dam in Sabino Canyon in the Coronado National Forest.

The other bird that was found in full song in the same area is the Bell's Vireo. Named by Audubon after the collector and taxidermist John Graham Bell. Like other vireos, the Bell's also shows the yellow and green hues which are typical of the family.

Nonetheless, Bell's Vireo is a drab bird; mainly grey with white underparts and yellow-green on the sides and wings. A faint eye-ring is also visible as is one wing-bar.
Bell's Vireo singing.
Bell's Vireo is classified as "Near Threatened" with a huge decline (a staggering loss of two-thirds of its population) over the last 4 decades in its population. Loss of habitat has been the main contributing factor. Recent conservation efforts have been successful in helping this species recover; however, the Californian subspecies remains classified as "Endangered".
Two birds found in dry habitat -- a warbler and a vireo -- symbolize the richness of our desert avifauna and there is perhaps no better place to enjoy them than Sabino Canyon.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Red Crossbill, Cassin's Finch: Highlights of the Sandia Mountains

[Sandia Crest, Albuquerque, NM, March 2013.]

Not far East of Albuquerque lie the Sandia Mountains.  An excellent resource regarding the avifauna of the area can be found at birding the sandias. Famous as the best place to see all species of Rosy Finch in the winter, the Sandia mountains also harbor other choice species such as the Red Crossbill.

The Red Crossbill is one of two crossbills found in the country [the other is the white-winged]. The peculiar feature of this finch is, of course, the uniquely shaped bill -- ideally suited for extracting seeds from cones. It does this by using its bill to squeeze the bottom of a cone scale thereby pushing the seed up for easy extraction.
Red Crossbill (male) seen in the Sandia Mountains.
The global population of the Red Crossbill (also known as the Common Crossbill in Europe) is estimated to be 80 million-- about the same as the human population of California.
Crossbills can breed at any time of the year that their conifer food is abundant. Differences in calls, bill shape, and preferred food cones may result in future splits of this species.
Cassin's Finch was heard singing loudly high up in the canopy. Through heavy cropping, the main features of this Near Threatened finch become visible: the red crown, pink neck and sharply pointed bill. It is named after John Cassin -- the acclaimed American Ornithologist of the 1800's who is credited with describing close to 200 avian species.
The female Cassin's Finch is much plainer and shows brown streaking.This Western finch has a declining population with year-over-year declines noted over the last 40 years.
Perhaps the most chirpy, gregarious, and energetic birds seen in the area were Pine Siskin. Their notched tails, sharply pointed bills and heavy streaking are distinctive.
The sexes are similar and show yellow on the tail and wings [as above].
Siskin refer to the buzzing chrip sounds that this finch makes. Their movements are somewhat unpredictable in the winter when they range widely in search of food.
Of course, no visit to the Sandias could be complete without a visit to the Crest at 10,678 feet.
This afforded an opportunity to engage in a quick review of the three species of rosy finch that are found overwintering here. First, the Brown-capped Rosy Finch -- this is a highly range-restricted US endemic.
Brown-capped Rosy Finch.
The Grey Crowned is darker brown than the Brown-Capped and has a silver-grey "headband":
Grey-crowned Rosy Finch.
Perhaps the easier disambiguation is with the Black Rosy Finch:
Black Rosy Finch seen at Sandia Crest
This Rosy Finch -- a very dark brown -- is a grey-crowned; compare to the rich black and pink of the Black Rosy Finch.
Black Rosy Finch

A surprise observation at the Crest was this female Pine Grossbeak; humbled by the presence of the charismatic Rosy Finch.
The zealous banders at Sandia Crest have banded anything that moves at this hotspot. Perhaps the only thing left unbanded was this Abert's Squirrel:
An annoying, long-eared, rodent, this large squirrel had a habit of scaring away the birdlife at regular intervals.

Three lifers: the Pine Grossbeak, Cassin's Finch, and Red Crossbill combined with the stunning Rosy Finch species make this area a "must bird" hotspot for every birder.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Lapland Longspur, Snow Bunting and More ...

[Lake St. Clair Metropark, MI. March 2013]

Lapland Longspur is a songbird of the arctic tundra found in North America as well as Eurasia. Its global population is thought to number 150 million and, in certain areas, it is not uncommon to see wintering flocks in the millions. At Lake St. Clair Metropark in Michigan a small flock of about a half-dozen were observed feeding in a mixed flock with snow buntings and horned lark.

Taxonomically, this species were formerly placed with new world sparrows (Emberizidae) but now finds itself in its own family of longspurs and snow buntings (calcariidae) -- a family of just 6 species: 2 buntings (Snow and McKay's) and 4 longspurs (Lapland, McCown's, Smith's, and Chestnut-collared).

Lapland Longspur in full breeding plumage has a black face, forehead and bib; and, a chestnut nape and brow outlined in white. The male shown above shows signs of coming into alternate plumage.
The lapland longspur eats all manner of seeds in the winter but survives largely on insects in the summer.
The photo above shows the long hind claw, or long spur, of its feet -- a feature that gave rise to its common name.
Lapland Longspur bathing.

The longspur's close relative, the snow bunting, were also found in their company. These attractive birds with pure ivory plumage on the breast and undersides are always a pleasure to observe.
In breeding plumage, the male becomes even more dazzling -- completely white except for a black back.
Unlike the Longspur, the Snow Bunting's population trends are worrying -- the species has suffered a 60% decline in North America over the last few decades. However, its global population is still large and hence it is officially classified as "Least Concern".
A less cooperative bird -- the horned lark -- was also spotted but gave few good views. The horned lark is our only true lark despite our other "larks" such as the meadowlark, lark sparrow, or lark bunting [all of which are "lark" in name but not in biology].

Finally, some signs of spring: An American Robin -- its beauty oft overlooked because of its abundance.
.... Song Sparrows were singing....
And, red-winged blackbirds [not shown] were trilling and displaying.

Before Spring migrants arrive in full force, it is still time to enjoy our wintering guests such as the snow buntings and longspurs before they become a distant memory to our warblers, shorebirds, and flycatchers.