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Monday, July 30, 2012

Flash Birding Madera Canyon. July 2012.

Madera Canyon is a premier birding destination in SE Arizona and one that a flash birding trip can hardly do justice to. Nonetheless, I spent a few hours at Madera and was able to observe some typical birds of the area.

A great place to start is the Santa Rita birding lodge. Observed in the vicinity were Western Tanager (middle). Black-headed Grosbeak (right and lower left), and White-Breasted Nuthatch (upper left). This grosbeak is a rather drab bird found in the Western US. The Western Tanager, like the black-headed Grosbeak, is also a member of the Cardinal family and found commonly in the area.

Also observed were bridled titmouse [center and lower left], lesser goldfinch [right] and ruby-crowned kinglet. The former is an Arizona specialty bird and Madera Canyon is a reliable place for it.

Also present were Mexican Jay [center] and, on the way to the canyon, Swainson's Hawk. The jays, are a noisy, gregarious bunch. Their subtle blue and grey plumage makes them easily distinguishable from the Stellar's Jays found at higher elevations.

Hiking on the upper trails resulted in sightings of painted redstarts [left and lower right] -- this is a distinctive warbler that is a nightmare to photograph. It is a quick feeder and flits about incessantly. I got several poor shots mostly ruined due to camera shake, inability to focus or obstructed views. It didn't help that many hikers decided to visit the same trail. In contrast, a relatively cooperative subject -- the Acorn Woodpecker -- provided no real frustration in capturing its image. There are a lot of target species in this area that will warrant a future trip; but, in the limited time I had, this was well worth it.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Birding Alaska 101: 24 hours in Anchorage.

There is no better way to be introduced to the birdlife of Alaska than a trip to Anchorage. Armed with A Birder's Guide to Alaska (ABA birdfinding guide), I booked an award ticket to Anchorage in July hoping for good weather and lots of lifers [first hope was dashed; the second came true].

 First stop was Westchester Lagoon; one of the most productive places of the trip. In the upper left is the American Black-billed magpie [a lifer]; which was considered conspecific with the European until DNA analysis showed otherwise. They are loud and quite conspicuous and were commonly seen. The orange-crowned warbler [middle and upper right] was found foraging in the shrubbery while the song sparrow [lower left] was hidden in the thicket but shows the darker colors typical of the Northwest race. A common redpoll completes the collage [lower left].

This trip was especially rich in lifers. Seen here are 3 of them: the Arctic Tern [upper left], Bohemian Waxwing [lower left], and Harlequin Duck [right; a juvenal]. Other than the rather common wigeon [middle], all 3 are specialty birds. The arctic tern is known for living an endless summer alternating between the two poles via its legendary migration.

 Definitely on the target species list was the Hudsonian Godwit [a lifer; center] which is seen in the continental US only in migration. The more common shorebirds seen were greater yellowlegs [right], solitary sandpiper [lower left], and short-billed dowitcher [upper left].

The birding guidebook had noted that Goose Lake on the campus of the University harbors a pair of breeding pacific loons. My first attempt to find the loons was dangerously unsuccessful. While circumambulating the lake perimeter, I had a close encounter with a black bear and hurriedly backtracked; resisting the temptation to take any photographs to document the event. Alarmed, I warned a student jogger headed in the wrong direction who surprisingly seemed nonplussed and carried on. In any case, the risk was well worth it as, after enduring a swarm of vicious mosquitoes, some decent shots of the loons were obtained. Another lifer!

Perhaps not quite as charismatic, but nonetheless a specialty species, was the red-necked grebe. These are elegant birds and hence the term "red necked" seems unfair. This is a large grebe and they were seen at multiple locations; on one occasion with lesser scaup [upper left].

Continuing with shorebirds, this time at Potter Marsh, a sizable number of Wilson's Snipe were seen [lower left and right] in addition to the yellow legs, solitary and spotted sandpipers.

Closing with sparrows -- in addition to Song, as noted earlier, other common species were Savannah [left and lower right] and Lincoln's [middle and upper right]. The Lincoln's is a handsome sparrow and they respond well to pishing.

All in all, despite the fact that it rained almost continuously under overcast skies, and some target species were missed [like American Dipper; there's always next time!] this trip was extremely rewarding especially in terms of lifers.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Signature Birds of Northern India. Part II.

Leaving the plains of Haryana, we ventured to Srinagar for a quick visit. Of course, I made it a point to ensure any birding opportunity would be capitalized upon.

Common birds of the area included Streaked Laughingthrush [shown left to right], long-tailed shrike, oriental turtle dove and golden oriole. Of course the laughingthrush is not a thrush at all but an old world babbler. It was seen foraging, keeping fairly low working the shrubbery for insects. The orioles' flutey calls were heard but the birds themselves seldom seen. Another common bird was the Asian Paradise flycatcher with stupendous white tail-plumes. It was seen fluttering around feeding its young which kept hidden in dense thickets.

The male [shown in the center] is a spectacular bird with a black, crested head, blue eye-ring, and flamboyant tail. Other birds seen were the black kite [lower left] and the himalayan bul-bul [upper left]. The shrike was spotted mobbing a domestic cat. The non-stop nagging by the shrike worked and the cat wandered off.

Next stop was Dal Lake for some wetland birds. Target species were common kingfisher, little bittern and black-bellied tern.

The kingfishers were easily seen but a challenge to photograph from the "shikara" [local gondola, hired with 2 oarsmen for about $30]. A bonus kingfisher -- the pied -- was also spotted on a couple of occasions [lower left]. The common kingfisher is extremely photogenic with jewel-like cyan highlights, an oversized dagger of a bill and rufous breast.

Bitterns are reclusive herons and always difficult to find. I did see a few flying low over the lake and had given up hope of finding any cooperative individuals who might want to be photographed. I got lucky when one flew into the reeds close to our gondola.

The little bittern is a larger and less colorful version of our least bittern -- seen here in the center with its large feet holding onto the reed stems. Also seen were Indian Pond Heron [middle right and lower left], black-crowned night heron [same as ours!] and little egret [similar to the Snowy with its yellow feet but larger and darker bill].

The black-bellied tern is an endangered fresh-water tern with a decreasing population. It is considered probably extinct in SE Asia and is thus fast becoming an endemic to the subcontinent. Luckily, at least in Dal Lake, breeding success was observed with several juvenals [center].

The adult tern has a black cap and reddish bill with grey wings contrasting with a black belly. The juvenals appear similar to those of our own black tern. Other birds seen were moorhen [not pictured] and little grebes [lower right].

Unfortunately, most tourists do not come to bird so there isn't much of a birding infrastructure. However, the following resources may prove useful:

Dr. Jehangir Bakshi's website on local birds: Kashmir Birds
Blurb on the Black-Bellied Tern: Birdlife blurb
Map of the area: Dal Lake

Friday, July 20, 2012

Signature Birds of Northern India. July 2012.

A family vacation to Delhi and Srinagar afforded some opportunity to break away to bird some signature species of the area. Starting in the vicinity of Delhi, the state of Haryana has surprisingly rich habitat for birding centered around the Sultanpur Bird Sanctuary (Sultanpur National Park). Amusingly, the visitor's center has billboards publicizing some key species -- including among them Roseate Spoonbill and Scarlet Macaw! Were any of these to appear as a vagrant it would count as an ornithological miracle of biblical proportions! Having had my fill of Roseate Spoonbills in Florida, my focus was on the State bird (Black Francolin) and the quail that's not a qual -- the barred buttonquail. Given the paucity of time, I hired a local guide to expedite finding the target species.

The black francolin -- seen in this collage in the middle -- is a striking bird of the pheasant family. Only 5 of the 40 members of the francolin family are found in Asia [the rest are in Africa]. In the monsoon season the male is easily located by its loud calls. Seen with the francolin are barred buttonquail, greater coucal [lower right], red-vented bulbul [lower left] and crested lark.

 Barred Buttonqual

Black Francolin

The barred buttonquail exhibits reverse sexual dimporphism with the female [shown at the top with a black throat] more colorful and larger than the male [shown at the bottom]. The female is also polyandrous. DNA analysis would suggest that buttonquail are related to shorebirds rather than true quail.

Barred Buttonquail (female)

Traversing the fields in the vicinity of Sulanpur, a red-naped Ibis [top right] and a sarus crane were encountered. The sarus is the world's tallest flying bird and they are known to breed in Sultanpur. It is classified as "vulnerable" with decreasing population trends.

The striking Indian Courser

Next up were two endemics -- the yellow wattled lapwing [shown left] and the Indian Courser [shown right]. These are terrific shorebirds with the handsome courser taking the crown as the most photogenic.

Yellow-wattled Lapwing -- a signature endemic

The Lapwing was close to this ominous looking Monitor Lizard:

Back to the birds:

These shorebirds were joined in observation by the Eurasian Thick-knee [middle], the red-wattled lapwing [upper left], black-winged stilt [showing some resemblance to our own black-necked] as well as the odd Pond Heron. The thick-knee is a large shorebird with huge eyes and further exploration resulted in a wealth of cuckoos in addition to the sinister greater coucal seen earlier.

The grey-bellied cuckoo [left] and the common hawk-cuckoo [upper right] are both brood parasites. The common hawk-cuckoo is so called because it visually mimics the Shikra or Indian sparrowhawk. Also seen was a Hoopoe which is always a delight to photograph with its striking crest and downcurved bill.

Two more near-endemics awaited us: the ashy-crowned sparrow lark and the Indian bushlark. The former is a striking bird perhaps deserving a dedicated collage of its own:

 Ashy-crowned Sparrow Lark

The bush lark [top left] is a plain bird, shown here with other common birds of the region: Baya Wearver, Ashy Wren-Warbler, and Paddyfield Pipit [as seen clockwise].

Talking of common birds, our next stop was the wetlands and en route, we encountered pied cuckoo [lower left], little ringed plover, Alexandrine Parakeet, Asian pied starling and pied kingfisher [listed in clockwise order].

Arriving at Bhindawas (Bhindawas Link) wetlands, other than the common rails and herons, are target species were the owls. The typical wetland birds seen were [in clockwise order]: Purple Swamphen [yes, the same ones now found in Florida!], Grey Heron, Lesser Whistling Duck, Purple Heron, and White-breasted Water Hen.

Owls are always unique and eccentric birds and target species around the wetlands were the Eurasian Eagle Owl and the Dusky Eagle Owl. The Spotted Owlet, a small common owl, was also seen.

The dusky eagle owl [middle] was the real star of the show. Quite large and majestic, they were however, difficult to photography being both distant and in conditions somewhat contrajour. The Eurasian Eagle Owl [right] were also quite a find and yielded some very good views.

The spotted owlet is related to our burrowing owl but is not terrestrial. They are inquisitive and not easily spooked. All in all, a very productive couple of days in the area.

Useful resources:
Birding Book: A Birdwatcher's Guide to India
Map of Sultanpur National Park: Sultanpur Map
Map of Bhindawas: Bhindawas Map
Sanjay Sharma: 09812470521 [a highly recommended birding guide; very knowledgeable about the area]