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Sunday, August 18, 2013

Fall Migration Gets Underway at Lake St. Clair

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

The shores of Lake St. Clair provide a welcome respite to migrating sandpipers, plovers and other species on their way South to warmer climes. A mid-August excursion to this busy Metropark yielded 4 species of sandpipers and 2 of plovers.

First Semipalmated Sandpiper -- a tiny sandpiper with black legs and bill, this species is an abundant shorebird with a global population of 3.5 million. Breeding in the Tundra, it is a passage migrant through North America with massive flocks gathering in the Bay of Fundy and other favored areas.

Semiplalmated Sandpiper

Disambiguation with Least Sandpiper is usually possible without much trouble -- Leasts generally show more brown in their plumage; and, critically, have yellowish legs.

Semipalmated is very similar to Western Sandpiper especially in basic plumage; it also shares partially webbed feet and black legs. However, Western's bill is longer and more drooping. The half-webbed ("semipalmated") feature, therefore, is not diagnostic and generally not observable.

The migration range of Semipalmated and Western are disjoint -- the former down the Eastern half of the US and the latter, aptly, down the Western half of the country. However, in winter, peeps observed on the Southeast and Gulf coasts are also Western Sandpipers. For decades, they were being misidentified as Semipalmateds!

Just slightly smaller than Lesser Yellowlegs, the next sandpiper, is a medium sized calidrid  -- found as a breeder in North America as well as Northeast Asia. Strictly a passage migrant in the US, this species winters in South America and Australia.

Pectoral Sandpiper

While still fairly common, the current population is estimated to be less than 100,000 -- probably less than a tenth of what it was before market hunting decimated their populations (other sandpipers, notably, the Eskimo Curlew, were less fortunate).

The Pectoral Sandpiper is a "grasspiper" and feeds by sight;  not by probing. They are extremely long distance migrants -- known to travel up to 10,000 miles to their wintering grounds.

Least or Semipalmated?

The above sandpiper shows dull greenish legs; could this be a Least?

Least Sandpiper

Least Sandpiper shows yellowish legs and a short, fine bill. Compare the feet in the above two photographs -- the first photograph shows partial webbing which is absent in the 2nd image. Indeed, the first image is that of a Semipalmated Sandpiper whose black legs are covered in green slime (algae and mud); thus, highlighting the perils of reliance on leg color alone as a definitive diagnostic aid.

The rich brown in the plumage at this time of year of the Least Sandpiper is striking.

Least Sandpiper

 Aptly named, this is our smallest peep.

Unlike Pectoral, Leasts winter widely in the US and can be commonly found in suitable habitat.

The last of our 4 sandpipers, shown above, is the Spotted. Spotted Sandpiper is both a breeder and a migrant at Lake St. Clair.

Also observed was a stunning Black-bellied Plover in full breeding plumage.

Since they are generally encountered when they are in their basic plumage, they are known outside of the US as the "Grey Plover" (which aptly describes their winter look).

Black-bellied Plover

In the picture above, the Black-bellied is seen with another plover -- Killdeer. The latter act as sentries for the other shorebirds.

Other birds observed included the imposing Caspian Tern -- much like the fact that the Black-bellied is our largest plover, the Caspian is our largest Tern.

On the Heron front, a Great Egret was seen at the shore while a Green Heron was observed at one of the marsh ponds.

Great Egret

Green Heron

Finally, some songbirds:

An American Goldfinch and a Northern Cardinal -- never failing to brighten up the day.

A half-dozen species of shorebirds augurs well for a Fall migration that is gaining steam as shorebird momentum builds and species diversity increases. And, despite the occasional off-leash dogs, marauding beach goers, and throngs of ill-behaved juveniles, Lake St. Clair is still a choice location for observing the magic of migration.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Scratching the Surface: Birding the Western Palearctic

[Western Europe. July 2013]

As the astute are aware, the Birding Planet is divided into ecozones known as the Nearctic, Neotropic, Palearctic, Afrotropic, Indo-Malayan, and Australasian regions (excluding the polar regions). Living in the US, we reside in the Nearctic region but, luckily, in addition to Nearctic birds, we also get to enjoy our Neotropic visitors in Spring and Summer.

The Palearctic region is by far the largest ecozone by size -- a total of 21 million square miles. Of course, it would take a better part of a lifetime to bird this vast area. In this post, we will barely scratch the surface of the birds of the Western Palearctic region. The "scratch" made possible  by a quick vacation to the Swiss/French border region -- specifically, the La Petite Camargue Alsacienne nature preserve, the Chateau de Landskron foothills, as well as nearby areas in Switzerland including Basel and Lucerne.

This diversity of habitat yielded a decent assortment of birds including:
  • Alpine Chough
  • Western Jackdaw
  • Robin
  • Blackcap
  • Chiffchaff
  • Reed Warbler
  • Chaffinch
  • Great-crested Grebe
  • Black-headed Gull
  • Long-tailed Tit
  • Red-backed Shrike
  • Coot
  • Little Egret
  • Northern Lapwing
  • Goldfinch
  • Redstart
If some of these names sound Nearctic (redstart, goldfinch, robin) -- it's because birds of the New World that seemed familiar to Europeans where named by simply appending the prefix "American" to the European common name.  Of course, American common names for Palearctic species return the favor by affixing "European" or "Eurasian" to their British common names; eg., "Eurasian Coot" vs. "Coot".

First the quintessential bird of the Old World -- the Robin. The inspiration for the name of the American Robin (aka the "Lawn Thrush"), the European Robin is, however, a chat unlike the American namesake which is actually a thrush. A bold, vociferous songbird, the Robin is admired for its distinctive coloring and character resulting in the Robin featuring prominently in European folklore.


Now over to warblers -- not the wood warblers of the New World, but the "original" warblers of the Old World: the Sylviidae

First, a very loud warbler -- the Blackcap.  An indefatigable songster, the Blackcap is heard a hundred times for every one sighting! 

Plain in looks -- mostly pale grey but with a distinctive black cap, the Blackcap ranges widely in Western and Northern Europe and migrates to Africa for the Winter. Unfortunately, this migration route is one of the world's deadliest -- 140 million birds are killed every year in an orgy of slaughter that was highlighted recently in the press.

The rich warbling song of the Blackcap contrasts with the singsong chips of the Chiffchaff; indeed the name itself is onomatopoeic.


The Chiffchaff is a Leaf Warbler; somewhat nondescript in appearance, it is a wide ranging warbler that summers in most of Europe and is found in Asia and Africa in the winter.

Perhaps the most distinctive song belongs to the Reed Warbler -- aptly named for its preferred habitat of reed beds, the Reed Warbler is a buffy, medium-sized warbler with a forceful song that rhythmically alternates between squeaks and trills in a delightfully monotonous way.

Reed Warbler

We are indeed fortunate that our warblers are much more colorful and varied than those of the Old World. However, when it comes to the tit family, the opposite is true.

Blue Tit

First, the Blue Tit -- with a blue crown and back, white face bridled in black and yellow underparts. Like our Black-capped Chickadee of the same family, the Blue Tit is a cavity nester. Both parids have similar diets -- thriving on insects but also taking seeds and new buds.

Great Tit

Unlike the Blue Tit, the Great Tit shows a black cap and a black median stripe but is otherwise similar in behavior and habits; but perhaps the most distinctive member is the Long-tailed Tit:

Long-tailed Tit

Ranging widely from Europe and into Asia, the Long-tailed Tit has the tail of a parakeet, a short stubby bill, and a round, unkempt body.

Long-tailed Tit seen at Petite Camargue

The Long-tailed Tit, earlier placed in Parus, is now placed in the Bushtit family. This includes 11 species in 4 genera including our very own American Bushtit (profiled in this blog in late 2012).

Moving on to the Finch family:

The European Goldfinch is a brightly colored finch of the Old World showing a red mask on a white face, pale bill, buffy upperparts with black wings patched with yellow. A popular bird with Europeans, it has been introduced to America and Australia. It has thrived in the latter continent but in the US, despite repeated releases (some going back 150 years or more; and some more recently), it has failed to establish a viable ("countable") population.

Another finch that was fairly common was the Chaffinch:

Common Chaffinch

Not as bright as the Goldfinch, the Chaffinch is the most common finch in Western Europe. Named for its habit of eating the seeds from wheat chaffs (as in the popular expression), the Chaffinch is a small songbird favoring open woodlands.

A distinctively colored finch in brick-red, grey, olive with black shoulders and white wing patches, the Chaffinch is unmistakable.

Walking along the foothills of Landskron Castle, a bright yellow bird is spied singing its high pitched song in a tree:


This is the Yellowhammer -- a bright yellow bunting of open or scrub habitat; it is a common species that has also been introduced to New Zealand.

On a nearby garden shed, a Common Redstart hops along. Earlier thought to be a thrush, they are now placed in the (Old World) Flycatcher family.

Moving from chats to wagtails -- the white wagtail is found from Iceland to Japan -- an incredible range covered by11 subspecies. This individual was observed at La Petite Camargue.

Wagtails belong to the same family as Pipits and Longclaws; a family thinly represented in the Nearctic.  The white wagtail is typically found near water where they feed on aquatic insects.

Also at the Petite Camargue, a shrike sits perched on a shrub looking for prey. This is the red-backed shrike. Found over most of Europe, this species is recently making a very tentative comeback to Britain where they were earlier extirpated.

Other species seen included Great Spotted Woodpecker:

Great Spotted Woodpecker

Spotted Flycatcher

Two "Spotted" species -- the Great Spotted Woodpecker and the Spotted Flycatcher. The reason for the latter's name is less obvious. While there is some streaking on the breast there are no spots to be seen at all. Indeed, the origin of the name relates to the spots found on juvenile birds which disappear on attaining maturity.

A vigorous bout of singing reveals a Eurasian Wren. Astoundingly, all of Europe has but 1 species of wren. On that count alone, I'd say the Nearctic camp wins out.

The shorebird of the trip was the Northern Lapwing. A species widespread in Eurasia, the Northern Lapwing's crest, black breast, white face and green-tinged wings make this shorebird unmistakeable.

Northern Lapwing

Golden Oriole

In the vicinity, a stunning Golden Oriole alights on a twig. This melodious and brilliant songbird is rarely seen although it is fairly common. This species has recently been split into 2: the Eurasian Golden Oriole and the Indian Golden Oriole.

Back in Switzerland, a gondola ride up Mt. Pilatus and in this high Alpine habitat, a conspicuous corvid is observed at the summit.
Alpine Chough

There are only two choughs -- the red-billed and the yellow-billed or Alpine. The Alpine, as its name implies, is a master of mountain habitat ranging from the Alps dis-contiguously to the Himalayas. It is found typically between 4,000 ft to 16,000 ft; although, its nests have been found in the Himalayas at 21,000 ft -- earning it the distinction of the highest nester of the bird world.

The Alpine Chough is a study in contrast with a bright yellow bill, orange legs, and a jet-black body.

The only other corvid (worth observing) was the Western Jackdaw:

Western Jackdaw -- note the pale iris

Moving from corvids to thrushes, by far the most common thrush was the Blackbird -- like all thrushes, a beautiful songster, this thrush shows an orange bill and eye-ring with an all black body.

Common Blackbird

Not unlike our American Robin, the Blackbird is equally at home in suburban environments.

Also observed was the Song Thrush -- this looks like a typical thrush not unlike our Swainson's Thrush (at least superficially).

Song Thrush

On the raptor front, Red Kites (above) were fairly common and a pair of nesting Eurasian Hobby's were also observed:

Also seen in the woods was the aptly named Common Wood Pigeon -- this is a large dove with white edging on the wings and a white patch on the neck. It is the largest columbid in Europe.

Common Wood Pigeon

Lake Lucerne afforded a break from woodland species by offering an opportunity to observe waterfowl and gulls -- first the Black-headed Gull. Superficially similar to our Laughing Gull -- the Black-headed Gull has a chocolate colored head in breeding plumage with reddish legs.

 Black-headed Gull

Its closest genetic relative in the US is Bonaparte's Gull. You'll also find Black-headed Gulls on the North America checklist -- they breed in the Canadian maritimes and may be found wintering off the Northeast Atlantic.

The largest grebe in Europe, Great-crested Grebe, is a widespread grebe of the Old World. It is also found in Austalia and Africa.

In a familiar narrative, this grebe was almost hunted to extinction in the UK for the feathers of its crest (shown above).

Great-crested Grebe seen at Lake Lucerne

The only other grebe seen was the Little Grebe (above).

The Eurasian Coot (above) -- looks just like ours but look closely and you will observe that there is no red on the frontal shield.

Other waterfowl observed included Greylag Geese and Tufted Duck (both at La Petite Camargue).

Greylag Geese are widely found in the Old World -- they are grey colored geese whose migrations lag other members of the goose family; hence greylag.

The Tufted Duck looks like a tufted Scaup. It is a widespread diving duck of the Old World and is a vagrant to the US.

Red-crested Pochard is another diving duck -- the male, shown above, is unmistakable with a red bill and bright orange head.

Finally, on the heron front, observed were Great Egret (above), Grey Heron and Little Egret. The Great Egret is a familiar species to us; however, it is quite possible that our Great Egret will be split from the Old World species.

Grey Heron

Grey Heron

Grey Heron with Little Egret

The Grey Heron is smaller than the Great Egret but resembles our Great Blue Heron (except for size).

Little Egret

As this was not a birding vacation, I am hugely indebted to the Swiss birder (also scholar and teacher), Patrick Stohler, for sharing not only his knowledge of the local avifauna but also his wisdom and eclectic outlook.

Birding our different ecozones can be immensely rewarding and even the species familiar to the locals are marked off as "lifers" by the visiting birder. Every species in a foreign land offers the opportunity to learn something new -- new calls and songs; new bird taxa and unique natural histories.

=============== Epilogue: Vistas of the Region ==================

Landskron Castle

View of Foothills from the Castle
View of Lucerne -- the gateway to Mt. Pilatus where the Alpine Chough was observed

Swiss Rail -- indispensable for traversing the country

View of Jungfrau in the Swiss Alps