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Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Scaled Quail Among Ancient Pictographs

Hueco Tanks State Park has the largest collection of pictographs in North America dating back thousands of years. Many of the rocks and pictographs have been severely vandalized and, today, visitation to the Park is tightly controlled and reservations are recommended. The park staff also require the watching of an instructional video before permitting admittance so future vandalism may be curtailed. The paleo-indians and other indigenous peoples to whom this place was so special created something unique with their pictographs that deserves careful preservation for future generations.

And, this venue also has scaled quail:

Walking the trails, this shy game bird flew directly ahead of me and then hid under a bush. A game of "hide and seek" ensued [bird hiding; me seeking] with the quail too coy to fly or enter open ground. Scaled quail have a range restricted to the Southwest; and, while their populations have declined, they are not considered threatened. After braving the thorns of several fierce cacti to get the best vantage point for a clear shot, the cooperative quail relented and gave good, though fleeting, views.

Other birds seen included loggerhead shrike, thrashers, sparrows and other desert scrub dwellers.

The park is famous also for the huecos which are natural "tanks" that collect rain water and provide  an oasis in the middle of the desert. This attracts all kinds of wildlife in addition to avifauna.

And, apart from the scaled quail and shrike, a texas crevice spiny lizard was briefly seen before it appropriately escaped into a crevice.

Identification quiz: this bird was seen in small flocks feeding at Hueco Tanks:

Please enter your answer (or guess) in the comments section if you recognize the bird!

Finally, the pictographs for which this park is famous:

Hueco tanks offers more than just birds and deserves a prominent place on every traveler's itinerary to the Southwest.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Cranes of the Bosque

Mention Bosque del Apache and images of throngs of sandhill cranes, snow geese, and others come to mind -- numbering well in to the 10's of thousands. Mention the Bosque in October, however, and the birds are just starting to trickle in -- as in this view:

And, the star attraction here are indubitably the Sandhills; seen typically in loose flocks, feeding in golden fields.

The stateley sandhill -- shown here a colt with its parents -- is a tall bird; indeed, the tallest after the whooper. But unlike its whooping cousin, it is not endangered: there are a thousand sandhills for every whooper (400,000 sandhills to 400 whooping cranes).

The sandhill (named after the Sandhills of Nebraska) is unmistakeable in its silver grey plumage with sand colored botches on their wings; white cheeks and red foreheads. And, like other cranes, their distinctive bugling calls can be heard from afar.

In addition to the cranes, there were the expected snow geese; I was also hoping to see Ross's Geese as well, but the considerable distance made it difficult to distinguish the two.

Bosque del Apache is a special place where wildlife abounds and the magic of the cranes can be felt at every turn.

It is a great place to see a variety of birds (sandhill cranes, American kestrel, western grebe), some in considerable numbers, from the comfort of your car and should be on everyone's itinerary when in New Mexico.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Scissor-Tailed Flycatcher

The scissor-tailed flycatcher is inarguably our most flamboyant kingbird -- a long tail like that of a bird of paradise; peach flanks and crimson "wingpits". Its range in the US is restricted -- centered around Texas and adjoining states (esp. Oklahoma) but in the winter it can be seen as far away as Southwest Florida.

This handsome flycatcher was seen in October at the Attwater Prairie Chicken Sanctuary in Texas. The namesake of the sanctuary (a grouse) is in steep decline and was not seen.

What was seen instead, however, was an American Bittern who fooled no one except itself into believing it was invisible.

Despite poor weather conditions [and probably the "wrong" season for watching lekking grouse], a nevertheless fruitful breeze-through with several good sightings of the "Texas bird of paradise".

American Avocets at Bolivar Flats

Of the 4 species of avocets, perhaps the American is the most colorful. However, in basic plumage, when their rufous color is absent, the monochromatic elegance of this distinctive shorebird is most evident.

American Avocets breed in the North and Western regions of our continent and overwinter in Florida, California, Central America and also Texas -- where this photograph was taken at Bolivar Flats Shorebird Sanctuary (Galveston, TX).

The female's bill is more up-turned than the male's -- other than that, the sexes are virtually indistinguishable.

Other birds seen included western sandpiper [left], white-morph reddish egret [center] and the humble sanderling [right].

Also seen were Caspian [lower left] and Forster's terns [upper left] -- and plovers were well represented with snowy [middle] as well as piping [right].

Finally, marbled godwit [upper left] together with long-billed curlew rounded out the morning's fine birding at this important shorebird sanctuary.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Our Largest Shorebird: The Long-Billed Curlew

Recently downlisted to "Least Concern", the Long-billed curlew has made a remarkable comeback after being shot to extirpation in many parts of the US. This curlew is an awesome shorebird -- tall, endowed with a huge, sickle-like bill, and colorfully distinctive in its cinnamon plumage.

This huge shorebird was seen in October at Bolivar Flats Shorebird Sanctuary (a world renown hotspot in Texas). Fresh from its alternate plumage, the cinnamon hues in the plumage are still prominent.

Farley Mowat's "Sea of Slaughter" (copyright Stackpole Books 2004) eloquently describes the wanton destruction of the curlews in North America in the 1800's (with devastating consequences for the now extinct Eskimo Curlew):

Most abundant of the three curlews found in eastern North America was the Eskimo, but the most individually impressive was the sicklebird, now known as the long-billed curlew. Although its major breeding grounds were on the western prairies, it migrated along the Atlantic coastal flyway in considerable numbers.

Standing two feet tall on pipe-stem legs, it swung a curving bill six inches in length. its great size and piercing cries gave it pride of place among the shorebird kind. Unfortunately, these very characteristics, plus the fact that it was excellent eating, made it a prime target as a pot bird. Although in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries it seems still to have been an abundant migrant from the Gulf of St. Lawrence region south along the coast to Florida, by the eighteenth century it had become scarce and by the latter part of the nineteenth century it had been virtually eliminated from eastern North America.

At Bolivar Flats, I was happy to see two curlews where they are reliably seen. However, In Southwest Florida's premier shorebird hotspot "Bunche Beach", they are regular but certainly not common.

The curlew's bill can measure up to eight and a half inches and is perfect for digging out crabs and other critters buried in the sand. In it's breeding grounds, it prefers insects and worms. The long-billed curlew has the longest bill of any shorebird (except perhaps that of the larger Far Eastern Curlew).

This delightful shorebird is the star attraction of the mud flats and its narrow escape from the same fate as that of the eskimo curlew is cause for great celebration among conservationists and birders alike.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Coastal Plovers of SW Florida

Last month, it was no small fortune to have observed American Golden Plover, Black Bellied Plover, Semipalmated Plover and "Meadow Plover" (killdeer) at Lake St. Clair Metropark (the "other" great lake). These large plovers are quite distinctive and, excepting, the black-bellied not frequently seen coastally.

In coastal Southwest Florida, however, a different mix of plovers can be found.  Resident plovers such as Wilson's and Snowy's are joined by Piping and Semipalmated in the winter. All four small plovers (perhaps the Wilson's is more medium than small) can be seen well from Fall to Spring on the Florida Gulf Coast (the photographs here were taken at Little Estero Lagoon and Bunche Beach).

Each of the four small plovers is readily distinguished by leg color, bill size, and plumage coloration as follows.

First -- Wilson's Plover [picture above taken at Little Estero, Florida]: this plover is medium sized with dull pinkish legs, a large bill, and a single neck band (more prominent in the male). Brown upper parts contrast with white elsewhere. The large bill comes in handy for larger prey like fiddler crabs. In the breeding season, they will nest on the beach and rear their young very attentively. The female does a credible job of the broken wing display (see below in collage) when luring away threats to her brood.

Unlike the Wilson's, Semipalmated Plover breeds in the Northern regions of the American continent. It is a widespread migrant and a common over-winterer in Florida. It has orange legs and, in breeding plumage, shows both a black band and a mask [see collage below]. It is classified as "Least Concern".

The Snowy Plover [above] has silvery legs, a broken neck band and a small forehead arc [in breeding plumage, like the Piping]. It has grey upper parts and blends perfectly in the sand.

The Piping Plover's plumage is pale like the Snowy's but has legs and bill like the semipalmated. it is perhaps the most distinctive of the four. It is classified as "Near Threatened" due to pressures related to lakeshore disturbance in the summer where it breeds.

This quartet of delightful plovers add color and variety to the drab greys of wintering peeps on the mudflats and will enthrall the discerning observer every time!