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Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Kirtland's Warbler and Vesper Sparrow

[Grayling, MI. Late May 2014]

Every serious birder in America is familiar with our rarest (though not our most endangered) warbler -- Kirtland's. The amazing conservation story underlining the comeback of this warbler from near extinction to a healthy and viable population today is good news for all conservationists and birders alike.

It is now possible to easily observe this "Near Threatened" songbird in appropriate habitat in North-Central Michigan where it can be locally common  -- especially in its stronghold of Grayling, MI.

The science behind the conservation efforts that helped the Kirtland's Warbler population increase from just 500 individuals in 1970 to ten-fold that number today, centers around understanding (and expanding) the unique breeding habitat required by the species.

Sadly, had the same principles been applied 50 years earlier to Bachman's Warbler, it might well be around today as well.

As is often the case with the "Law of unintended Consequences", seemingly benign efforts to stop and prevent naturally occurring forest fires resulted in forests with mature Jack Pines. Kirtland's Warbler, however, will not nest unless the trees are short -- between 5 to 10 feet high.

This was a double whammy for the warbler -- not only had most of its original habitat (once stretching from the Canadian Tundra to the Great Lakes region) been wiped out through logging, but the remaining Jack Pines were unsuitably tall for nesting.

There were therefore two critical thrusts to the conservation program -- (1) Prescribed burns to enable young Jack Pines to flourish; and, (2) Eradication of the warbler's brood parasite -- the Brown-headed Cowbird.

Virtually the Planet's entire population of this species breeds in Michigan. However, with the increase in population, some limited breeding has also been reported from Wisconsin and Ontario.

While there is tremendously greater understanding of the warbler's ecology and breeding in Michigan, much remains to be discovered about Kirtland's requirements in its winter habitat in the Bahamas.

The identification of Kirtland's Warbler is straightforward -- the male has a yellow throat and breast while the back and wings are grey (with 2 white wingbars). The flanks are streaked in black (as is the back); the eyes have distinct white eye-crescents and are set in a prominent black mask. The Kirtland's at 6" is relatively large as warblers go.

The most obvious distinction between the male and the female (shown above) is the lack of the black mask, paler grey upper-parts and pronounced black spotting on the breast. The under-parts are also a paler shade of yellow compared to the male's.

In addition to breeding Kirtland's Warbler, Myrtle Warbler was also nesting in the vicinity and Brown Thrasher was observed as well. Another breeder in this area is Vesper Sparrow:

Genetically closest to the Lark Sparrow, Vesper Sparrow is found coast-to-coast across much of the US.

An accomplished songster, it derives its common name from its habit of singing in the evening. This sparrow has a pale pink bill and legs and a striking facial pattern.

While the extinction narratives of the Passenger Pigeon, Eskimo Curlew, Carolina Parakeet, etc., are known only too well, it is heartening to know that extinction is not inevitable and that science can help man coexist with other species by understanding and implementing conservation programs that protect unique ecosystems. And, the Kirtland's Warbler is the perfect "poster child" for showcasing the success of these efforts.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Rio Grande Village: Vermilion Flycatcher, Painted Bunting and Yellow-breasted Chat

[Big Bend National Park, TX. June 2014]

No birding trip to Big Bend can be deemed complete without a visit to the Rio Grande Village area. This area is famed especially for its breeding raptors (Common Black Hawk, Grey Hawk). What makes it somewhat unique in the Park (which is otherwise arid), is the presence of water and this attracts an interesting assortment of birds in addition to the raptors.

We start with Vermilion Flycatcher.

Vermilion Flycatcher seen at Rio Grande Village

All our flycatchers pale in comparison to the Vermilion (including the Scissor-tailed which is the next most colorful). Of course, being drab in color is an advantage for a predating flycatcher. However, the male Vermilion Flycatcher is anything but -- and it isn't afraid to show its flamboyance by perching conspicuously.

Vermilion Flycatcher seen at Rio Grande Village

The Vermilion Flycatcher has a huge range -- from Argentina through Central America until it reaches the southern reaches of the US where it may be found in the border regions of Texas, Arizona, New Mexico and California.

Yellow-breasted Chat seen at Rio Grande Village

Unlike the conspicuous habits of the Vermilion Flycatcher, Yellow-breasted Chat is a renowned skulker.

Yellow-breasted Chat seen at Rio Grande Village

In a Field Guide, the Yellow-breasted Chat will be found under North American Wood Warblers. However, it shows obvious un-warbler like characteristics and it is therefore perhaps more accurately classified as Incertae sedis. When it comes to differences with true wood warblers, several points of difference arise: for starters, the Chat is much larger; doesn't warble (indeed it sounds more like a Jay) and has a stout bill unlike the slender bills of true warblers.

Wintering in Central America, the Chat can be found across the US in the breeding season.

Our next species, however, is neither as widespread nor as common: The Painted Bunting -- a spectacular bunting that is classified as "Near Threatened" by the IUCN

Painted Bunting seen at Rio Grande Village

Having previously observed this species only in its wintering range in Southern Florida, it was  a delight to find it in its breeding grounds at Big Bend.

Unarguably the most colorful bird in the US, the Painted Bunting features at the top of the "must see" lists of American birders. And, it isn't hard to figure out why -- this is a bird that features all the primary colors in their boldest and brightest.

Other species observed included Summer Tanager (which was quite common in the area):

Ash-throated Flycatcher:

And, near the campground, there were a couple of Greater Roadrunners:

Greater Roadrunner

Big Bend's variety of habitats and its proximity to Mexico both make for spectacular birding with a mix of species that is probably unrivaled anywhere in the US.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Laguna Meadows Trail: Birds Crested, Headed and Chinned in Black

[Big Bend National Park, TX. June 2014]

Black is a popular adjective in the descriptive nomenclature of bird species. Thus we have a Chickadee and a Vireo that are "Black-capped"; a Whistling Duck and a Plover that are "Black-bellied"; a Cuckoo and a Magpie that are "Black-billed"... and, the list goes on with the most popular combination being "Black-throated" (of which we have 4 distinct species, suffixed in: Blue Warbler, Green Warbler, Grey Warbler, and Sparrow).

This post will cover 3 species with some aspect of their features described as "Black-" in their common names: Black-headed Grosbeak, Black-chinned Sparrow and Black-crested Titmouse (all recently observed at Big Bend National Park).

Our first bird is the stunning Black-headed Grosbeak -- belonging to the Cardinalidae, this is a typical grosbeak in rich cinnamon with a black head, back and wings. The latter show white patches while yellow hues feature on the belly and the underwing (see photo below).

 Black-headed Grosbeak seen on the Laguna Meadows Trail

The song of the male Black-headed Grosbeak is akin to that of the American Robin but sweeter and more softly modulated. 

 Black-headed Grosbeak seen on the Laguna Meadows Trail
Black-headed Grosbeaks range from Mexico to Southwest Canada and from the Pacific Coast to the Great Plains in woodland habitat. At Big Bend National Park, they were found in the Chisos Mountains with the Laguna Meadows Trail being especially productive.

The Black-headed Grosbeak's Eastern twin is the Rose-breasted Grosbeak. Both are closely related but geographically separated. Where their ranges do overlap (in the Great Plains), they will sometimes hybridize. The females of the species are indistinguishable.

Black-chinned Sparrow seen on the Laguna Meadows Trail

Moving from "headed" to "chinned" -- the Black-chinned Sparrow is a fabulous grey sparrow found mainly in 4 of our Western states ranging from West Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California.

Black-chinned Sparrow seen on the Laguna Meadows Trail
The bill is pink and the trademark chin (and forehead) are black. The tail is long and deeply notched while the back shows elegant brown streaking. At this time of year, the male is singing and its distinctive "spinning coin" song rings in the air.

Black-crested Titmouse seen on the Laguna Meadows Trail
The Black-crested Titmouse is another Texan specialty -- found in the US only in this state. A drab, grey bird, the prominent black crest helps distinguish it from the otherwise similar Tufted Titmouse with which it genetically diverged a quarter million years ago.

Big Bend National Park is richly endowed with a variety of habitats and the extensive trail system offers wonderful opportunities for exploration. One of the jewels in the trail system is the Laguna Meadows Trail as attested by the species profiled here.

Bonus bird: On the way down from the top of Boot Canyon on the Pinnacles Trail, a couple of corvids, hued in delicate baby blue, were observed in fading light: Mexican Jays:

Mexican Jay observed on the Pinnacles Trail

Monday, July 7, 2014

Green Gulch and Panther Junction: Varied Bunting and Scaled Quail

[Big Bend National Park, TX. June 2014]

Most visitors to Big Bend will (and should) make the Park Headquarters at Panther Junction their first stop. Not only is there a wealth of information available from the Rangers but in the surrounding area some typical desert scrubland species may be seen such as Pyrrhuloxia, Curve-billed Thrasher and Scaled Quail.

The first left coming out of Panther Junction (this will be on the way to the Chisos Basin) there is a nice stretch of road (appropriately named the Chisos Basin Rd) that goes through an area called the Green Gulch. There are pullovers for parking along the way where stopping to bird will yield a different mix of species including Varied Bunting [which was a target species for this blogger]:

Varied Bunting seen in the Green Gulch

Belonging to the North American Bunting group in the vast Cardinalidae family, this is a Mexican songbird that barely (but fortunately) crosses into the southern reaches of the US in Texas, Arizona and New Mexico.

Varied Bunting seen in the Green Gulch
The male Varied Bunting is a striking bird -- a melange of blue, purple, red and black that, in sum, impart a bit of a mysterious look -- the light and angle of view making the colors stand out or blend in together.

Varied Bunting in song

Varied Bunting seen in the Green Gulch

Although brightly colored, Varied Bunting can appear to be almost black from a distance. It certainly doesn't help that it prefers to remain hidden and rarely takes a break from its usual habit of being inconspicuous.

Varied Bunting seen in the Green Gulch

During this Blogger's quick trip, the Varied Bunting was found reliably at two locations: at the Green Gulch and Sam Nail Ranch.

Varied Bunting seen in the Green Gulch

 Much more conspicuous in desert scrub are the Blue Grosbeaks which can be found quite commonly:

Blue Grosbeak seen in the Green Gulch

Another delightful species, a cousin to the wrens, was observed in the same area: the Blue-grey Gnatcatcher.

Blue-grey Gnatcatcher seen in the Green Gulch

Gnatcatchers are exclusive to the New World and at Big Bend both the Blue-grey as well as the Black-tailed species can be found.

Curve-billed Thrasher seen at Panther Junction

At the Park Headquarters, a Curve-billed Thrasher was observed -- it was vigorously (nay, fiercely) fending off a Pyrrhuloxia that had strayed too close to the Thrasher's territory; not surprisingly given that June is still in the midst of their breeding season.

Scaled Quail seen near Panther Junction

Further along from Panther Juntion, Scaled Quail were observed with their young in tow. One look at this species and the origin of its name becomes abundantly clear.

Unlike the extreme physical exertions required to see Colima Warbler, there are a wealth of other species that can be found at Big Bend by simply driving around, stopping and observing.