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Friday, November 29, 2013

Black-faced Grassquit, Venezuelan Troupial and Mangrove Cuckoo

[Puerto Rico. November 2013]

This post will cover a collection of species found in scrub forest habitat of Southwestern Puerto Rico -- specifically at Cabo Rojo National Wildlife Refuge (see FWS link here); incluuding:
  1. Black-faced Grassquit
  2. Mangrove Cuckoo
  3. Caribbean Elaenia
  4. Antillean Mango 
  5. American Kestrel 
  6. Venezuelan Troupial
Black-faced Grassquit is one of ~240 species of tanagers; this grassquit was earlier classified as a sparrow and, visually, it certainly looks like one. Nonetheless, the male Black-faced Grassquit is stunning -- resplendent in jet black with satin olive wings.


It is found in most of the Caribbean islands as well as coastal Venezuela and Colombia but is only casually found on our shores in Florida.

This is a tiny songbird, measuring only about 4.5 inches; the song itself is a soft buzzing sound.

The grassquit, as it name implies, tends to favor tall grasses and weeds; relishing the seeds for food.

Somewhat more drab than the grassquit is the Caribbean Elaenia. What it lacks in color it makes up in spirit -- this tyrant flycatcher is fearless and fiercely territorial.

A much smaller bird, the Antillean Mango was spotted alternatively perched and hovering to feed on nectar:

This medium-sized hummer has a downcurved bill and, compared to some of its cousins on the Island, is plumed rather modestly with a white breast and green uppersides.

Moving on to New World Blackbirds -- the Venezuelan Troupial, an attractive Icterid, is, like its name implies, not native to Puerto Rico.

Venezuelan Troupial

While this Oriole is quite the stunner, it however has had a very detrimental effect on the native avifauna. Being a nest pirate, the Troupial does not build a nest of its own; instead preferring to evict the rightful nest builders and killing their young.

This despicable behavior has had a particularly strong impact on the decline of the endangered and endemic Yellow-shouldered Blackbird.

Also spied was this Mangrove Cuckoo moving stealthily through the brush:

Mangrove Cuckoo seen at Cabo Rojo

Lastly, a familiar sight to the American birder -- a couple of American Kestrel:

American Kestrel

Every habitat brings a treasure trove of species uniquely suited to their environment; and the dry scrub forest of Southwestern Puerto Rico offers a spectacular collection of specialty birds such as the Black-faced Grassquit and the sinister Troupial.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Red-Legged Thrush plus Adelaide's and Elfin-Woods Warblers

[Puerto Rico. Nov 2013]

Species profiled in this post include:
  1. Adelaide's Warbler
  2. Elfin-woods Warbler
  3. Puerto Rican Vireo
  4. Puerto Rican Tanager
  5. Puerto Rican Tody
  6. Red-legged thrush
  7. Puerto Rican Bullfinch
First the thrush: Red-Legged Thrush the is most widespread thrush of the Caribbean. Indeed, in Puerto Rico, this is the only resident thrush. 

Red-legged Thrush seen at Maricao State Forest

A medium sized songbird, the Red-legged is a striking thrush plumed in clean shades of grey. The throat is white and heavily streaked. The bill, eye-ring and legs are bright red.

Red-legged Thrush. Seen at Maricao State Forest.

Next is our most recently discovered warbler -- the endemic Elfin-woods Warbler.

Elfin-woods Warbler seen at Maricao State Forest

Discovered accidentally by scientists studying the endemic avifauna of Puerto Rico, this Vulnerable-classified species is uncommonly found on the island.

This spectacular warbler is said to "slither" up and down tree branches in fast-paced movements, making it impossible to photograph. Lacking the Yellow that is the commonest warbler color, the Elfin-woods is plumed in a subdued charcoal-and-white combination. It can be carefully discerned from the Black-and-White (see below) by its two white eye-crescents, lack of white striping on the head, and lack of white supercilium.

Black-and-White Warbler seen at Corkscrew in January

The next warbler is also an endemic -- Adelaide's Warbler and, awash in yellow, it looks like a typical warbler.

Adelaide's Warbler seen at Cabo Rojo

Found in lowland, drier habitat than the Elfin-woods, the Adelaide's is classified as Least Concern.

Visually, it is similar to another warbler named after a woman: Grace's Warbler. Unlike the confusion that may result in seeing both the Elfin-woods and the Black-and-White (when over-wintering) co-located in the woods of Puerto Rico, Grace's Warbler is not found anywhere even remotely close to Puerto Rico -- Grace's is found in the Southwestern US.

Grace's Warbler seen in Mt. Lemmon, SE Arizona in April

As can been seen from the above, while there are several similarities between Adelaide's and Graces, closer inspection will reveal sufficient differences as well: leg color, undersides, etc.

Other endemics observed included Puerto Rican Tanager:

.. Puerto Rican Bullfinch:

Puerto Rican Bullfinch

... and Puerto Rican Vireo:

Puerto Rican Vireo seen at Maricao State Forest

In ending, no bird evokes the Caribbean tropics better than the Tody:

A spectacular collection of endemic and specialty birds may be found in the unique habitats of the"Enchanted Island" that is Puerto Rico.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

The Amazing Todies: Caribbean "Kingfishers" of the Forest

[Maricao State Forest; El Yunque National Forest, Puerto Rico. Nov 2013]

The Todies are a family of 5 species of tiny, green birds that are found exclusively in the Caribbean islands of Puerto Rico, Jamaica, Hispaniola, Cuba, and the Cayman Islands:
  1. Puerto Rican Tody
  2. Cuban Tody
  3. Jamaican Tody
  4. Broad-billed Tody
  5. Narrow-billed Tody
While it may appear to be excessively indulgent to focus an entire blog post on a single species, the Tody's irresistible charisma is enough to overcome any objections that might be raised in this regard.

Ranging in size from 4 to 5 inches, the Todies are shaped like, and related to the Kingfishers (and Bee-eaters and Rollers).

Visually, all the 5 species share the same basic color scheme -- green on the head, wings and back, white on the breast and a brilliant red throat. Some species can also show accents of yellow and blue.

As a subject, the Tody family will be represented here by the Puerto Rican Tody which was studied in El Yunque National Forest and Maricao State Forest in the Northeast and Southwest corner of the Island respectively.

Todies are best located by listening to their buzzy chirps. They are quite skittish and if disturbed will quickly fly into the dense foliage where they become invisible in a thicket of green leaves. They will also clatter their bills when chasing off intruders.

The Puerto Rican Tody has a lime-green head and emerald wings and back. The throat is a brilliant crimson red, outlined by a pure white mustache. The flanks are yellow and the the breast is a dirty white. A tinge of turquoise blue is evident on the primaries and the back of the tail.

The male and female can be told apart from the color of the eyes -- the females have distinctive white eyes that make identification easy.

The Puerto Rican Tody is the smallest of the 5 Tody Species. Like other members of the family, it nests in tunnels dug into embankments. However, the Puerto Rican Tody is unique in its ability to control its body temperature -- by as much as 14 degrees Celsius.

Found in heavily forested areas on the Island, the Tody is a winged predator feeding on crickets, beetles, spiders and even small lizards.

As this photo essay amply demonstrates, the Todies are a fascinating family of birds and their smallest representative, the Puerto Rican Tody, can be found, among other places, in the the only Tropical Rainforest found in the US National Forest network.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

8 Herons and a Pelican

[SW Florida. November 2013]

Florida is a heron heaven -- it is easily possible to locate a dozen heron species in the state. Of these, 8 will be presented here:
  1. Yellow-crowned Night Heron
  2. Reddish Egret
  3. Great Blue Heron
  4. Little Blue Heron
  5. Green Heron
  6. Great Egret
  7. Snowy Egret
  8. Tri-colored Heron

Yellow-crowned Night Heron

As a night heron, it is usually observed roosting in the day. However, in the early morning, it can be seen actively feeding. This individual was seen at Big Carlos Pass. As winter sets in, they will increasingly be seen roosting at Corkscrew Swamp.

Reddish Egret

Reddish Egret is the uncommonest of our wading species -- unless, of course, the Great White Heron attains full-species status; currently it is considered a color morph of the Great Blue.

Reddish Egret

In addition to its relative scarcity, strictly coastal habits, the Reddish is also the poster child for canopy feeding among our herons.

Close-up View

Our largest heron, the Great Blue, strikes a truly imposing figure -- here seen at Little Estero Lagoon with prey caught in a lightning strike by its huge bill.

Great Blue Heron

In comparison to the giant that is the Great Blue, Little Blue Heron is about the same size as a Snowy Egret.

Little Blue Heron

Little Blue Heron's stalking movements are neither hyper like the Reddish nor have they the stoic composure like those of the Great Blue -- Little Blue's movements are somewhere in between -- as it makes deliberate, airy, snake-like movements with its neck.

Not found in coastal environments like the preceding herons, Green Heron was observed in freshwater habitat at Corkscrew Swamp.

From the tiny Green, is the huge Great Egret -- next only to the Great Blue in size:

Great Egret

Equally at home in coastal and freshwater habitat, Great Egret's long black legs and thinner profile set it apart from the very localized Great White Heron.

Snowy Egret

Snowy Egret is a delicate, miniature version of the Great. It's yellow feet are diagnostic.

Snowy Egret

Tri-colored Heron

Our last heron, the Tri-colored, is our most colorful -- especially in breeding plumage. It was also observed at Little Estero Lagoon.

Finally, the Brown Pelican:
Brown Pelican

From up-close, it's not obvious why it's called "Brown" -- there's virtually no brown present in the silvery tinges of its grey and slate plumage.