Sunday, December 27, 2015

Polyavian delights at Polywog Ponds: Green Kingfisher and Western Tanager

[Corpus Christi, TX. Dec 2015]

It is said that "Wealth lies in the eye of the beholder" (in taking liberty with a well known adage). Indeed, one could rank our 50 states by wealth in population; or income, or by days of sunshine; or by whatever metric suits one's definition of "wealth". Surely this is a subjective exercise but in relation to our avifauna, the states endowed with the most birding riches are Texas, California and Arizona. Texas, especially, is unique in affording observation of both Western and Eastern species in an unparalleled variety of habitats ranging from tropical, woodland, montane, desert, prairie and coastal. The lonestar state is exceptionally well blessed with a plethora of specialty and highly coveted species that are best seen here than anywhere else in the US.

A family vacation in Texas provided a couple of opportunities that underscored exactly why Texas is the heavyweight in the world of birding. One remarkable hotspot explored during this trip is Polywog (also spelt Pollywog) Ponds in Corpus Christi which yielded a delightful assortment of species such as:

The incomparable Green Kingfisher:



It is a lamentable fact that most birders in this country are acquainted solely with a single Kingfisher species -- the Belted Kingfisher. The Green Kingfisher is everything that the Belted is not -- it is tiny (about the size of a sparrow); the male has a prominent rufous chest band (in the Belted, it is the female that sports this feature); and its plumage is wholly devoid of blue. 



Of course, there are similarities too between the Green Kingfisher and the Belted -- both are highly skittish; their vocalizations consist of rattling calls and clicks and their feeding and breeding habits are almost identical.  


The trademark looks of the kingfisher -- manifesting a heron's bill on a songbird's body atop the tiny legs of a swallow -- are consistent throughout the members of this global family. And, if the Green Kingfisher is on your lifelist, there's a very good chance that the observation was made in Texas (where their range is much larger than in SE AZ).

At the entrance to Polywog Ponds, a medium-sized yellowish bird with two prominent wingbars was observed -- a Western Tanager:



Southern Texas is not normally in this songbird's range, so this sighting was wholly unexpected.


Western Tanagers are found from British Columbia to New Mexico and are considered to be the Western equivalent of the Scarlet Tanager.

Other species observed were -- Couch's Kingbird:


This kingbird is another Texan specialty and its closest relative is Tropical Kingbird. They are visually indistinguishable save for the thicker bill of the Tropical. However, their vocalizations are distinct and, where their ranges overlap, they do not interbreed.

White-winged Dove:


and a glorious Roseate Spoonbill flyby:



In the end, it is not our possessions that will define us. The experiences we receive and those we bequeath to others will be the true testament to wealth in our lifetime. And, in Texas, a wealth of exceptional birding experiences await the intrepid birder.
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Photo of entrance:


Link to geotagged photo for map location.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Tanque Verde Wash & Sweetwater Wetlands: Cassin's Vireo, Phainopepla, Ladder-backed Woodpecker

[SE AZ. April and August 2015]

For all our ecologically righteous "gnashing of teeth" over the lamentable loss of habitat and the the squeezing out of wildlife by the inexorable (and hideous) march of "development", it will be no small relief to know that a surprising assortment of species are able to eke out an existence in a couple of small oases of nature found in the urban sprawl of Tucson: hotspots such as Tanque Verde Wash and Sweetwater Wetlands. And, a trip to Tucson earlier this year at these fabled venues was aptly rewarded with glorious sightings of:
  • Cassin's Vireo
  • Phainopepla
  • Yellow Warbler
  • Ladder-backed Woodpecker
  • Greater Roadrunner
  • Western Tanager
  • Common Yellowthroat
First, Cassin's Vireo:




Cassin's Vireo is a gift to the birding community through the wonderfully beneficent act of "splitting" by the AOU in 1997. Cassin's erstwhile incarnation was that of the "Solitary Vireo" -- which has been replaced by our 3 spectacled vireos: Cassin's Vireo, Blue-headed Vireo and Plumbeous Vireo. At Tanque Verde Wash, Cassin's Vireo was observed vocalizing frequently in the trees. Disambiguation with the Plumbeous is simple thanks to the overall grey color scheme of the latter. However, confusion of Cassin's and Blue-headed is inevitable -- and although there are subtle differences, the easier method is to rely on their (largely) distinct ranges (see the Blue-headed Vireo here).
 
Next, Phainopepla:



Both a female and a male were observed. This is the only member of its family present in the US. While it is only found in the desert Southwest, the next species should be familiar to all:

Yellow Warbler:



The Ladder-backed Woodpecker may look familiar -- it closely resembles Nutall's Woodpecker and sometimes it is even confused with Red-bellied Woodpecker; but there is no mistaking the red-crown and prominent eye-stripe:



While Tanque Verde Wash is excellent for songbirds, Sweetwater Wetlands (on the other side of town), offers a different mix of species -- especially waterfowl in winter. However, on this visit, a curious spectacle was observed -- a Roadrunner tailing a rather large snake:



Up in the trees, a Western Tanager was a nice surprise:




Finally, any habitat with marshy conditions is perfect for Common Yellowthroat:


Amidst the concrete jungle of Tucson, two outstanding hotspots offer the intrepid birder a chance to savor some choice species that are both familiar as well as extraordinary.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Little Kings at Lake St. Clair Starring Golden-crowned Kinglet

[Lake St. Clair, Fall 2015]

For most of mankind's history, oppression has, not infrequently, stemmed from the institutions of the monarchy (and their partners in the clergy). For this reason, man's struggle for a more equitable way of life has inspired popular revolutions in the US, France, Russia and elsewhere to overthrow the autocratic rule of kings, emperors and tsars. 

Yet while royalty has been largely abolished in today's world, their namesakes live on in the Aves -- witness species such as kingbirds, emperors, and kinglets (and their partners in the clergy-inspired Bishops, Prothonotaries, and Cardinals!). 

And, while the US is firmly established as a Republic since the late 1700's, we still have two "little kings" that rule our forests across the country year-round. In this post, we will review these "royal" kinglets as well as some "commoner" species found in the woods of Lake St. Clair Metropark:

  1. Golden-crowned Kinglet
  2. Ruby-crowned Kinglet
  3. Hermit Thrush
  4. Swainson's Thrush
  5. Veery
  6. Eastern Wood Pewee
  7. Brown Creeper
  8. Ruby-throated Hummingbird
  9. White-throated Sparrow
  10. Baltimore Oriole
  11. American Goldfinch
  12. Carolina Wren
  13. White-breasted Nuthatch
  14. Swamp Sparrow
We start with Golden-crowned Kinglet:




Golden-crowned Kinglet has a huge range in the US -- breeding in the Northeast and the Northwest and wintering pretty much throughout the country excepting Florida.


Disambiguation with the Ruby-crowned Kinglet is fairly straightforward even when the crown isn't visible -- note the black whiskers and white supercilium on the Golden-crowned compared to the oval eye-ring and plainer appearance of the Ruby-crowned:





Every year at the "Warbler Mecca" that is Magee Marsh -- these kinglets cause immense confusion in beginning (or perfunctory) birders when these songbirds are seen with the similarly sized warblers flitting through the branches.

 
And now for the "commoner" species --

Hermit Thrush -- frequently seen at this venue in migration:




Swainson's Thrush -- note the buffy spectacles:
 


The very delightful Veery:
 



Eastern Wood Pewee:
 



Brown Creeper -- described as "animated bark":
 


Ruby-throated Hummingbird:
 


White-throated Sparrow:
 


Baltimore Oriole:


American Goldfinch:
 


Carolina Wren -- while this wren is common to abundant in SW Florida, in Michigan it is quite uncommon at this venue:
 



White-breasted Nuthatch -- a year-round species here:



Swamp Sparrow:


Both species of "little kings" are seen in migration at Lake St. Clair -- and, these distinctive kinglets remind us that their feathered crowns are symbolic of nothing more than evolutionary traits in their propagation; and, not a mark of inequality as so often has been the case in man's history.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Towhees and Sparrows of the Southwest: Featuring Green-tailed Towhee, Black-chinned Sparrow and Rufous-crowned Sparrow

[SE Arizona and SW Texas. April, 2015]

Doesn't it seem that whatever bird species we have in the US -- whether warblers, vireos, tanagers, thrushes or flycatchers -- there's more of them found in tropical America than here?

While this suspicion will generally be borne by fact -- it isn't always true for every taxon. For example, we have more Thrashers and Towhees here in the US than anywhere else. And, the fact of the US being "Towhee Rich" is the inspiration for this post in which we review 4 Towhees (and 8 Sparrows) belonging to the New World family of sparrows that were encountered in Southeast Arizona and Southwest Texas earlier this year:
  1. Green-tailed Towhee
  2. Spotted Towhee
  3. Canyon Towhee
  4. Abert's Towhee
  5. Black-throated Sparrow
  6. Black-chinned Sparrow
  7. Rufous-crowned Sparrow
  8. White-crowned Sparrow
  9. Lincoln's Sparrow
  10. Song Sparrow
  11. Chipping Sparrow
  12. Yellow-eyed Junco
There are 8 Towhees (genus Pipoli) on this planet -- aside from the 2 Mexican Towhee endemics, the remaining 6 can all be found in the US. Towhees are large, stout New World sparrows; and while most are drab in plumage like their sparrow kin, some of them can be quite striking. And none is more striking than the  Green-tailed Towhee:


Green-tailed Towhee seen at Molino Basin, Mt. Lemmon, SEAZ
The Green-tailed Towhee is found across much of the Western US. It has a grey body with olive-lime wings and tail. The throat is white and the crown is a bright chestnut. The Green-tailed Towhee is found in brush habitat where it likes to forage on the ground scratching for seeds or insects.  Green is an unusual color in sparrows (here in the US seen in this Towhee and the Olive Sparrow) and our remaining Towhees show mainly tans and browns.


Spotted Towhee seen at Rose Canyon, Mt. Lemmon
Spotted Towhee is probably our commonest Towhee in the West. It has a bold look with distinctive white spots on a black back and red eyes. It was earlier considered conspecific with the Eastern Towhee and lumped into the "Rufous-sided Towhee" -- here's a picture of an Eastern Towhee taken in Michigan in June:

Eastern Towhee seen at Lapeer SGA, Michigan
It's easy to see why these sparrows were considered to be the same species.

Canyon Towhee is found in Texas, Arizona and New Mexico. It has a similar taxonomic history -- it was earlier lumped with California Towhee into the unimaginatively sounding "Brown Towhee".



Of all our Towhees, this is the only US near-Endemic -- Abert's Towhee:



The black mask is diagnostic. Unlike our other Towhees whose ranges extend well into Canada or Mexico, the Abert's range is almost entirely in the US Southwest with only a small sliver reaching over into Mexico.

Now the Sparrows:
 
We begin with the Black-throated Sparrow:


Black-throated Sparrow feeding on Ocotillo flowers at Big Bend NP
This gorgeous sparrow is unmistakable with a greyish-brown body, prominent black throat and a white "harness" pattern on its face.

The similar sounding Black-chinned Sparrow also ranges in the desert Southwest but is not as commonly found; it prefers hilly habitat and is known for its "spinning coin" song.



The individual pictured here was observed on the Laguna Trail at Big Bend NP.

Also observed at Big Bend was this beautiful Rufous-crowned Sparrow:


Rufous-crowned Sparrow seen at Burro Pouroff Trail
This grey sparrow with a prominent rufous crown is a specialty sparrow of the Southwest.

Other sparrows included the familiar White-crowned Sparrow:
White-crowned Sparrow seen at Molino Basin, Mt. Lemmon

The beautifully streaked Lincoln's Sparrow:




Lincoln's Sparrow seen at Molino Basin, Mt. Lemmon
And one of our most widely ranging sparrows, the Song Sparrow:
Song Sparrow seen at Tanque Verde Wash, Tucson, AZ
Another sparrow found nationwide is the Chipping Sparrow:


Chipping Sparrow seen at Davis Mtsn SP, Texas
Finally, we conclude with a specialty Junco -- essentially a Mexican sparrow restricted to a small area in SEAZ and SW New Mexico: Yellow-eyed Junco:
Yellow-eyed Junco seen at Incinerator Ridge, Mt. Lemmon
"Little Brown Jobs" -- a term used in identification desperation resulting from birds such as sparrows seems wholly inappropriate when confronted with spectacular sparrows and towering towhees that are found in our Southwest.