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Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Breeding Species of Lake St. Clair Metropark

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

A varied array of breeding species can be found at Lake St. Clair Metropark that either nest in the park or the surrounding area. Those featured here include:
  • Virginia Rail
  • Least Bittern
  • Great Egret
  • Great Blue Heron
  • Green Heron
  • Spotted Sandpiper
  • Yellow Warbler
  • Wood Duck
 Let's start with the Virginia Rail:

A medium-sized rail -- in between the Sora [much smaller] and the Clapper Rail [much larger] -- this secretive rail is rarely seen.

In Spring and early Summer, however, the Virginia Rail is quite vocal. It's distinctive kik-kaddick-kik and grunting sounds can be clearly heard at dusk or dawn.

Plumaged in brown, black and grey, the color scheme is decidedly cryptic; however, the orange bill and the white chin and grey cheeks are quite distinctive.

Unlike Virginia's Warbler, Virginia Rail isn't named after anyone -- it is named for geography (much like the Carolina Wren) although it isn't restricted to the state of Virginia. In fact, this rail has a huge range that covers much of North America while in winter, it moves South to Central America and the Southern US.

Long-toed, short-tailed and long billed, Virgina Rail prefers digging for grubs in the mud; in fact, its scientific name rallus limicola means "mud-dweller" rail.

The expression "thin as a rail" is erroneously thought to refer to being as slender as a bird of the rail family (rallus). However, the expression refers to a "rail" as a "narrow bar" as in the rail of a fence or a rake.

Apart from Killdeer, the only other breeding shorebird found here is the Spotted Sandpiper:

Seeing this sandpiper wintering in Florida, one would be forgiven for calling it the "spotless sandpiper"; however, in breeding plumage, there are spots a-plenty.

This is a polyandrous species and common across the entire US.

On the heron front, Great Blue Heron and Great Egret are widespread:

As are Green Heron; but not as commonly seen:

The big "miss" was the failure to photograph Least Bittern; all I could manage was a faint glimpse through the reeds:

A yellow warbler, was much more cooperative:

Male Yellow Warbler

With regard to waterfowl, wood duck breed at this park but are too wary to give good looks:

This female flew in and quickly hid herself:

While a female red-breasted merganser was less skittish:

All in all, a satisfactory excursion to a suburban park that is overrun by hordes of recreationists on weekends but still manages to provide adequate habitat for some choice breeding species.

Monday, June 24, 2013

SW Florida Specialties: Mangrove Cuckoo, Florida Prairie Warbler, Burrowing Owl and Scrub-Jay

[SW Florida. June, 2013]

Florida is rich in several species and subspecies that are best seen here than anywhere else:
  • Mangrove Cuckoo -- a tropical cuckoo widespread in the Caribbean and Central America. Seen in the US only in Florida.
  • Florida Burrowing Owl -- the subspecies Athene cunicularia floridana is found only in Florida and the Bahamas. This is distinct from the Western Burrowing Owl subspecies (found in California, for example).
  • Florida Prairie Warbler -- the subspecies Setophaga discolor paludicola is found only in Florida and inhabits coastal mangroves unlike the migratory subspecies that prefers pine-oak fields and forests
  • Florida Scrub Jay -- of full species status -- this corvid is endemic to Florida and does not occur anywhere else in the US or, for that matter, the planet
Incidentally, the richness of Florida-specific specialties was recently highlighted in the Audubon Magazine article "The Most Endangered Bird in the Continental US" on the Florida Grasshopper Sparrow (brief background here).

A quick trip to Southwest Florida in Spring or early Summer will provide good opportunity to observe all of the above specialties.

First the cuckoo:

A medium-sized, drab colored bird works its way secretly through the mangroves. A brief pause taken between short flights reveals the Mangrove Cuckoo.

A common bird of the neotropics; in the US, it is restricted to the mangroves of Southern Florida where its numbers are thought to be declining.

Identification characteristics include a decurved black bill with a yellow lower mandible; broad black eye-stripe; grey head; pale throat and buff underparts. All of which make it easily distinguishable from either black-billed or yellow-billed cuckoos.

Mangrove Cuckoo observed at Bunche Beach Preserve, Ft. Myers, FL.

Thanks to a tip from Bob Pelkey a trip to Bunche Beach eventually resulted in a sighting of 3 individuals.

Now over to the warbler:

The Florida Prairie Warbler is a year-round resident of Florida's mangrove forests; unlike the neotropic species which comes to the US in Spring and stays through Summer.

Florida Prairie Warbler seen at Tigertail Beach, Marco Island.

A yellow warbler with a green back and distinctive black facial markings, the Prairie Warbler is an attractive songbird with an ascending buzzy zee-zee-zee-zee-zee song.

The total population of both species is 1.4 million but numbers have declined by over 40% since the '60's.

Unfortunately, like many other wood warblers, brood parasitism by the Brown-headed Cowbird is a major problem; affecting up to 25% of Prairie Warbler nests which are then abandoned by the nesting female.

Also at Marco Island, in season, the Florida Burrowing Owl is not hard to find. Eking out a perilous suburban living on home lots that await development.

A diurnal raptor, this is one owl that is active during the day; usually found perched on stakes erected in and around their burrows.

Florida Burrowing Owl seen at Marco Island, FL.

The Burrowing Owl is known to spread mammal dung around its burrow -- attracting dung beetles which are then promptly eaten.

And now for the corvid:

The Florida Scrub-Jay is a Floridian endemic that is in serious decline and classified as "Vulnerable".

Florida Scrub-Jay seen at Cape Coral, FL.

An intelligent and confiding species, its habitat of oak scrub is being lost to development and this endangered corvid's numbers continue to be under pressure.

Nothing works like a cure for the "birding summer doldrums", than a few specialty species of Southwest Florida.

Bonus bird: Common Ground Dove seen at Bunche Beach Preserve:

The common ground-dove is our smallest pigeon -- about the size of a large sparrow. Ranging from the Southern US to Northern South America, these attractive, tiny 6" doves are usually seen in pairs -- often foraging on the ground. Because of their terrestrial feeding and nesting habits, they are especially vulnerable to population loss due to predation and habitat destruction.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Indigo Bunting, Blue-winged Warbler and other breeding species at Port Huron SGA

[Port Huron SGA. MI. Late May/Early June 2013]

Update: Added Mourning Warbler, Ovenbird, Common Yellowthroat and new shots of Pine Warbler

Mourning Warbler is a skulking bird rarely seen in migration; however, in early summer when it's breeding, the males are singing and fairly easy to spot.

Male Mourning Warbler

Mourning Warbler is so named because of how it looks (wearing the grey hood appropriate for "funeral wear") and not because of how it sounds (a la Mourning Dove). 

Described by Wilson in 1810, the Mourning Warbler is a distinctive bird with grey hood, black bib, yellow underparts and olive-green upperparts; and, note the pink legs.

While in the area, one couldn't resist seeking out the Pine Warbler:

Pine Warbler seen at Port Huron SGA

This is another warbler described by Wilson; 1 year after he described the Mourning.

The Pine Warbler's name arises from their proclivity for nesting in Pine trees.

Pine Warbler

Pine Warbler is known as an early migrant; however, in some areas (such as Florida), they are permanent residents.

White belly and grey wings with two white wing-bars, olive-green upperparts and a bright-yellow throat with faint smudgy streaking, serve as the main identification characteristics of this highly specialized warbler.

And, finally, Common Yellowthroat and Ovenbird:

Common Yellowthroat

And, the very loud Ovenbird -- singing its heart out.

[Original Post]

With the arrival of June, migration's grand spectacle is replaced with its essential purpose. And, the purpose of migration, of course, is propagation of the species. Starting with the males establishing their breeding territories, then pairing and nesting; and finally fledging the young before migrating back to the Southern realms.

Having covered migration at Magee Marsh, it's now over to Port Huron State Game Area (Michigan DNR link). This hotspot hosts several breeding species and is a prime destination to observe a variety of warblers, thrushes, buntings and sparrows.

The color blue appears in scintillating shades in the plumage of birds -- as plain-and-simple "blue" [blue jay] but also "cerulean" [cerulean warbler], "azure" [azure-winged magpie], "turquoise" [turquoise-browed motmot], "lazuli" [lazuli bunting] and "indigo" -- as in bunting.

The indigo bunting is a striking member of the Cardinalidae family; strongly sexually dimorphic, the male is regal in resplendent blue while the female is a dull brown. This bunting is blue not due to the presence of pigment in its feathers but as a result of the refraction of light off its feathers [the same reason the sky is blue].

The Indigo Bunting has a large range in the US in Spring and Summer; mostly in the East; the West belongs to it's cousin, the Lazuli Bunting. Where their ranges overlap, they will sometimes hybridize.

Classified as "Least Concern", the global population of this charismatic bunting is estimated at about 30 million.The trend shows a small decline in numbers.

Now over to the warblers: Hooded Warblers have been extending their range Northward; I hear that 10 years ago they were not regularly seen at Port Huron SGA. Nowadays, they are reliable at this site.

In challenging light, a camera that shoots cleanly at up to ISO 6400 is recommended if camera shake is to be avoided; especially when shooting handheld. Warblers are fast moving birds and seldom pose making tripod use difficult.

This male was sparring with another in apparent territorial contention and then alighted on this branch.The lighting here brings out the lemony yellow of the face and breast in sharp contrast with the black hood.

Male Hooded Warbler Singing

The Hooded Warbler is one of 33 Setophaga warblers -- most of which can be seen in the US. The Blue-winged warbler, on the other hand, belongs to the genus Vermivora -- containing just 3 species of which 1 is mostly likely extinct (Bachman's Warbler).

The Blue-winged Warbler's range has increased to the detriment of the Golden-winged and hybrids occur regularly.

Blue-winged Warbler

The song of the Blue-winged is one of the easiest to remember "Beee Buzzz" although it has alternate songs as well.

With a total population of ~400,000 [one tenth of the Hooded Warbler population], this species is classified as least concern although its numbers do show a decline due to habitat loss.

Black-throated Green Warbler is another breeding species at Port Huron SGA; it is one of the few species that can also be found wintering in the US.

An indefatigable songster, this species is named "green" for the color of its back.

This attractive warbler's population trends are stable.

The pine trees at nearby Ruby Cemetery hold a different assortment of species. Among them, the beautiful Pine warbler:
The trilling song of this warbler can be easily confused with that of the chipping sparrow which is also found in this habitat.

Pine Warbler

The Pine Warbler is the only warbler that, in addition to insects, also feeds on seeds year round. A common songbird in the US, it has a healthy population of 11 million. These warblers are also a wintering species in the US and can be commonly seen in Southwest Florida -- here's an earlier post on them from this blog: Pine Warblers at Corkscrew Swamp.

Chestnut sided warbler is an unmistakeable songbird -- white cheeks outlined with a black brow and mustachial stripe; yellow crown and chestnut sided flanks.
Despite lacking a lot of yellow coloration, they are closely related to the Yellow Warbler.

Chestnut-sided Warbler

This species numbers are thought to be increasing and it is classified as "Least Concern".

Other breeding species observed included:
Red-eyed Vireo

Also, a bright, singing Veery.


Also found were more common species such as American Goldfinch:

Cedar Waxwing:

.. and Rose-breasted Grosbeak:

A visit to Port Huron SGA is always  an enjoyable experience. There are just 2 caveats: the mosquitoes are intolerable; and, being a State Game Area, recreational firearm use is common and widespread.