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Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Birding the Trans-Pecos: Varied Bunting, Yellow-breasted Chat and Blue Grosbeak

[Big Bend National Park, TX. July 2013]

Big Bend is a unique and remote National Park-- remote as in it takes 1.5 hrs from the nearest town (Marathon, TX or Alpine, TX) to get there; and, in addition, either of these are about 3 hours from the closest Airport (Midland-Odessa). Big Bend is literally in the middle of nowhere; and that isolation, coupled with its proximity to Mexico, and an incredible richness of habitat all make for an unparalleled birding experience.

There are some species better seen here than anywhere else. And while my fleeting visit could never do justice to the entirety of birding possibilities, it nevertheless afforded an opportunity to observe some signature species of the region such as Varied Bunting, Colima Warbler, Yellow-breasted Chat and Blue Grosbeak.

While the Painted Bunting is justifiably celebrated for its multi-colored (some might say gaudy) hues, it is the Varied Bunting that would not be faulted for staking a claim to be the color champion of the Bunting world. The Varied's plumage strikes a bold, almost enigmatic, polychromatic statement without appearing frivolous or clownish.

The Varied Bunting is essentially a Mexican species whose range barely extends into the Southernmost reaches of the US -- in Texas, Arizona and New Mexico. Hued in deep purple, blue, red and black, this stunning species was resplendent even in dull, overcast conditions.

Described by Bonaparte almost 200 years ago, the Varied Bunting has been a subject neglected by Ornithologists with the result that very little is known about the natural history of this species.

Just outside Panther Junction, which is the main Visitor Center at the Park, a brilliant blue bird with chestnut wingbars is observed in the thickets.

Blue Grosbeak in flight

The Blue Grosbeak is essentially a brilliant blue Cardinal; belonging to the same family as its cousin the Northern Cardinal. However, it's closest genetic relative is the Lazuli Bunting.

Blue Grosbeak seen at the Sam Nail Ranch Trail, Big Bend.

Found in the Southern half of the US from coast to coast, this uncommonly seen bird is primarily an insectivore

Blue Grosbeak Closeup.

In addition to the spectacular Grosbeak, there were also some plainer species such as the Canyon Towhee, Cactus Wren, and Rufous-crowned Sparrow.

Canyon Towhee

Canyon Towhee is found in the Desert Southwest; it is very similar to the California Towhee and the two were formerly considered conspecific. However, their ranges do not overlap and their genetics confirm their individual full-species status.

Cactus Wren

While Rock Wren were seen and Canyon Wren heard, the only wren that photographed was the Cactus. Our largest wren, it is almost as big as a Robin and is perfectly adapted to dry environments -- being able to obtain all the water it needs through its food.

Rufous-crowned Sparrow seen at Pinnacles Trail

Rufous-crowned Sparrow is a sparrow of the Southwest generally found between 3,000 and 6,000 feet; it was commonly found at Big Bend. Classified as "Least Concern", its global populations stands at a healthy 2.4 million.
Say's Phoebe

The other target species seen at Big Bend was the Yellow-breasted Chat. This taxonomic enigma is precariously classified with the New World warblers but anyone who has heard this Chat knows that this bird does not warble. It is the only member of the genus Icteria.

Yellow-breasted Chat

This elusive, large and loud "warbler" has many behaviors in common with the mockingbird/thrasher family -- including its ability to mimic calls from other birds, peculiar flight displays and its habit of gripping prey with its feet.

Scott's Oriole

Other birds seen were Scott's Orile, Mexican Jay and Ash-throated Flycatcher.

Scott's Oriole

Mexican Jay

Ash-throated Flycatcher

Ash-throated Flycatcher observed on Laguna Meadow Trail

Curve-billed Thrasher

Big Bend is also an excellent place for hummers; in this instance, a very large one -- the Blue-throated Hummingbird.

Blue-throated Hummingbird

This is our largest hummingbird -- about the same size as a Lucy's Warbler.

Big Bend National Park offers tremendous opportunity for observing some unique birds; perhaps, it is most famous for being the only place in the US where Colima Warbler is found. Indeed, it was observed on both days that I was there on Pinnacle's Trail. The first day it resisted attempts at photography; and on the 2nd day, it avoided photographic capture through camera malfunction.

One thing for sure, birding here is strenuous -- long drives, long hikes (I averaged over 10 miles a day), challenging conditions and extreme isolation. However, the birding rewards are equally proportionate to the challenge. All of these factors make Big Bend a preferred destination for the adventurous birder.

============ Views of Big Bend National Park ===============

Big Bend: View of Trail

Big Bend

 Big Bend: Chisos Basin

Big Bend: View from Pinnacles Trail

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Mt. Hood and the Cascades: In Search of American Dipper and Clark's Nutcracker

[Mt. Hood National Forest, Oregon. July 2013]

Think of a dark grey, almost black, bird that has white feathers on its eyelids; a stocky bird with a beautiful song. And imagine this songbird being entirely aquatic; belonging to a family of only 5 species globally; one of which is found right here in America: Yes, this is the American Dipper.

Having the body-shape of a wren and the size and musical prowess of a thrush but the habits of neither, the Dipper is as unique as they come.

Did I mention the white eyelids? Not to be confused with the transparent nictating membrane (their 3rd set of eyelids used as goggles when in water), these are thought to be a display mechanism that works even when auditory signals are drowned out by the roar of the rapids.

American Dipper, seen at Wildwood Recreation Site

American Dippers favor fast moving, shallow streams where they find aquatic insects, larvae, and other grubs for consumption.

American Dipper seen at Tawanamas Falls Trail, Mt. Hood National Forest

Mt. Hood National Forest is an excellent area to see these unique birds in action. Two individuals were seen at Wildwood Recreation Site and one at Tamanawas Falls Trail.

American Dippers are found in a huge swathe of Western North America -- all the way from Alaska down to Central America.

Next, think of a pale grey and black corvid that can remember the location of 10's of thousands of the pine seeds it stashes away every summer. While it is well known that members of the Crow/Jay family are highly intelligent, nonetheless, this feat of memory is truly remarkable for any animal and easily surpasses our ability at recall.

Clark's Nutcracker seen at Mt. Hood

There are only 3 species of nutcrackers in the world -- ours, named after 2nd Lt. William Clark (of the Lewis & Clark Expedition fame), is the mostly uniquely colored of the lot (the other two are spotted).

Clark's Nutcracker, like its name implies, is uniquely specialized in living off pine seeds, especially those of whitebark pines with which they share a unique and symbiotic relationship through seed dispersal.

A montane species of the West, this corvid can be found ranging from British Columbia to the Southwest US.

At Mt. Hood, they were commonly found -- always opportunistic, they were seen foraging for scraps around the parking lot; and one was even found calling from inside the giftshop building!

Another good birding site in the National Forest was Mt. Larch; here, Varied Thrushes were quite common and the woods resounded with their eerie singing. Nearby, a Hermit Warbler flitted about:

Found as a breeder in only 3 states: Washington, Oregon, and California, the Hermit Warbler is a bird of the coniferous canopy.

Hermit Warbler seen at Mt. Larch

The Hermit Warbler has the body of a black-throated grey with the head of a black-throated green warbler: black throat, yellow face, black nape, white undersides with grey upperparts with 2 white wing-bars.

An attractive yet reclusive bird, Hermit Warblers are being displaced with the more aggressive Townsend's Warbler where their ranges overlap.

The other warbler seen in the Mt. Hood National Forest was Wilson's:

While its breeding range includes all of Canada, in the US, it is restricted exclusively to the West.

Wilson's Warbler seen at Lost Creek Campground

The most distinctive feature of this delightful warbler, of course, is the black cap. A loud songster, this warbler is declining in its range due to habitat loss. This individual was observed at Lost Creek Campground.

Other species seen in the area included Cassin's Finch:

Cassin's Finch, male, seen at Mt. Hood

A finch of the West, the male has a deep red, almost scarlet, crest with a pink blush on the face and breast.

Nearer Portland, Powell Butte Nature Park offered a chance to see a different mix of species including Violet-Green Swallow (above), as well as Western Scrub Jay:

Western Scrub Jay

Red-breasted Nuthatch (seen at Mt. Larch) showed particularly well:

Red-breasted Nuthatch

Red-breasted Nuthatch

... and Bewick's Wren (seen at Powell Butte):

Bewick's Wren

Found commonly in the West, this wren is almost gone from the Eastern US. In addition to this long-tailed Wren, a Lazuli Bunting was seen in the distance.

Lazuli Bunting

Pacific Wren

The other wren observed was Pacific Wren, earlier considered conspecific with Winter Wren. Finally, some other species including hairy woodpecker, ravens, sparrows, and the trusty common yellowthroat.
Western Hairy Woodpecker

Common Raven

Chipping Sparrow

Savannah Sparrow

Cedar Waxwing

And, the widespread Common Yellowthroat.

In the summer doldrums, nothing acts better as a cure than a trip to an unexplored region offering the potential of lifers and exquisite new birding vistas.

====== Epilogue: View of Mt. Hood =========

Mt. Hood