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Friday, October 31, 2014

Sparrow Extravaganza: White-throated, American Tree, Swamp and Song Sparrows plus Dark-eyed Junco

[Macomb Co. Hotspots. Oct, 2014]

The family of American Sparrows comprises, besides its namesake species, also plump Towhees and delicate Juncos numbering in all about two score distinct avian species. Of this wealth of "cryptic brown jobs" that grace our land, we shall endeavor to briefly profile a small selection of a half-dozen species that were observed in Fall at Lake St. Clair, Wetzel SRA and Wolcott Mill Metropark:
  • White-throated Sparrow
  • Dark-eyed Junco
  • Song Sparrow
  • Swamp Sparrow
  • American Tree Sparrow 
  • Eastern Towhee
We start with the White-Throated Sparrow:

White-throated Sparrow seen at Lake St. Clair Metropark
White-throated Sparrow is an abundant species across North America with a population, though declining, estimated at 140 million -- that's almost one sparrow for every two humans in the US.

White-throated Sparrow seen at Lake St. Clair Metropark
Breeding mainly across Canada, these distinctive sparrows move south to the US in winter.

White-throated Sparrow seen at Lake St. Clair Metropark
The yellow lores, white throat and supercilium, black eye-stripe and whiskers are all distinctive identification features of this sparrow.

In contrast to the White-throated Sparrow, the Dark-eyed Junco lacks the complexity of facial markings -- presenting simply a pink bill set against a slate-grey face with a dark eye (compare with Yellow-eyed Junco).

Dark-eyed Junco seen at Wolcott Mill Metropark
The Dark-eyed Junco comes in several races including the Oregon as well as the Grey Headed subspecies.
Dark-eyed Junco seen at Wolcott Mill Metropark
The white flash of the tail (see above) is distinctive as these small sparrows flit about the shrubbery looking for seeds to eat.

Dark-eyed Junco seen at Lake St. Clair Metropark

Other sparrows observed included:

Song Sparrow:
Song Sparrow seen at Lake St. Clair Metropark
Not terribly visually distinctive (unlike, say, the spectacular Olive Sparrow which has an unparalleled and unmistakable dark green back); this sparrow, however, more than makes up in song what it lacks in looks. Its stuttered, loud trilling is an indelible musical feature of marshlands in Spring and Summer.

Also observed was Swamp Sparrow:
Swamp Sparrow seen at Lake St. Clair Metropark

Swamp Sparrow seen at Lake St. Clair Metropark
Lacking the bold streaks of the Song Sparrow on its chest, Swamp Sparrow is a richly russet sparrow with a white throat and grey, un-striped chest.

Much brighter with a grey face, crisp rusty crown and two white wingbars is the American Tree Sparrow:

American Tree Sparrow seen at Wetzel SRA

American Tree Sparrow seen at Wetzel SRA
A winter resident, these distinctive sparrows are a familiar sight in fields of tall grass and shrubs.

Our last sparrow is a Towhee -- in this case, a juvenile Eastern Towhee that was observed foraging in the leaf litter:

Eastern Towhee seen at Lake St. Clair Metropark
This is our (as in those that live in the Eastern US) only Towhee -- a group of large, rotund sparrows that find their center of diversity and abundance in the West and Southwest of the country with signature species such as Abert's Towhee, California Towhee and the very special Green-tailed Towhee.

Bonus bird: a beautiful American Robin set against the red berries of a Hawthorn tree:

American Robin seen at Lake St. Clair Metropark
While warblers, tanagers and grosbeaks steal the show with their colorful flamboyance in Spring, the Sparrows gain ascendancy in the Fall as the former scurry away to tropical climes with the approach of Winter's colder temperatures.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

A Fine Finch: the Pine Siskin plus Hermit Thrush, Ruby-crowned Kinglet and White-breasted Nuthatch

[Wetzel SRA and Lake St. Clair Metropark. MI. October 2014]

The family of American finches boasts a wide array of finches, grosbeaks and crossbills. Some are truly spectacular -- such as this blogger's personal favorite: the Rosy Finches.  However, there's more to finches than the rather small-ranging and hard-to-see iconic rosy finches of the West. And, a prime example of a finch that is both delightful and yet fairly common across all of the US is the Pine Siskin.

Famous for its periodic irruption, Pine Siskin numbers can spike unpredictably year over year; but, the best chance of seeing one is definitely going to be in Winter -- a time when they can range as far down as Texas (eg., in Hueco Tanks) but rarely as far as in Southern Florida.

A quick tour of a couple of choice birding locales -- Wetzel State Recreation Area and Lake St. Clair Metropark -- yielded the Siskin as well as some other species:
  • Pine Siskin
  • Ruby-crowned Kinglet
  • White-breasted Nuthatch
  • Hermit Thrush
  • Red-winged Blackbird
  • European Starling
We start with the Pine Siskin observed at Wetzel SRA:
    Pine Siskin observed at Wetzel SRA
    Wetzel SRA is open to hunting starting September 1st and during this blogger's brief visit, more hunters than siskins were observed. While the identification characteristics of the former are somewhat more obvious (it's hard to ignore shotguns, orange vests and hunting dogs-in-tow); the latter may be identified by heavy streaking, a thin, pointed bill, a strongly notched tail and a conspicuous patch of yellow in the wings.

    Pine Siskin observed at Wetzel SRA
    Pine Siskins are both gregarious and noisy; their chattering, buzzing chips are often the first sign of their presence.
    Pine Siskin observed at Wetzel SRA
    With the Siskin "in the (photographic) bag" (so to speak), this blogger beat an urgent retreat from Wetzel as a result of stern and repeated admonishment administered by the hunters present -- the reason being, and rightly so, for the lack of bright safety-clothing on my person.

    Conditioned, as any birder is, by years of trying to blend into the surroundings, sartorial inconspicuousness is, regrettably, a virtue that can prove fatal in the hunting season.

    Clearly, "hunting plumes digitally" and "hunting plumes with lead" are vocations that require some important differences in approach.

    Ruby-crowned Kinglet seen at Lake St. Clair Metropark
    Unlike the dozen-odd species of finch, there are only two kinglets in the US -- the Golden-crowned and the Ruby-crowned.

    Ruby-crowned Kinglet seen at Lake St. Clair Metropark
    A tiny, olive-drab songster with a prominent white eye-ring and wingbar, this neckless, small-billed feathered wonder, unlike the seed favoring Siskin, is an insectivore.

    Other birds observed included the resident White-breasted Nuthatch:

    White-breasted Nuthatch seen at Lake St. Clair Metropark
    This nuthatch is ripe for a split with studies suggesting 3 (even possibly 4) species.

    White-breasted Nuthatch seen at Lake St. Clair Metropark
    The bird shown here would belong to the "Carolina" species if the split were to go ahead -- with a broad, black crown, pale grey back and buffy flanks. Unlike the finch and the kinglet, the Nuthatch is a year-round resident throughout its range.

    White-breasted Nuthatch seen at Lake St. Clair Metropark
    Next, a thrush, hiding in the thickets blending in perfectly:

    Hermit Thrush seen at Lake St. Clair Metropark

    Hermit Thrush seen at Lake St. Clair Metropark
    A view of its rusty tail, confirms that this is a Hermit Thrush:

    Hermit Thrush seen at Lake St. Clair Metropark
    Red-winged Blackbirds, which have been silent for a couple of months, have started to display and vocalize again:

    Red-winged Blackbird seen at Lake St. Clair Metropark
    And seen here with an autumnal background:
    Red-winged Blackbird seen at Lake St. Clair Metropark
    Derisively termed as a "trash bird", the European Starling is here for no fault of its own:

    European Starling seen at Lake St. Clair Metropark
    .. .and it has done in its adopted home what Nature demands of it -- adapt and survive.

    Winter threatens a slower recreational season with colder temperatures and shorter days but delightful arrivals such as the unique Pine Siskin keep the fires of birding aflame.

    Saturday, October 18, 2014

    Stars of the Certhioidea plus assorted Tyrants

    [SE Arizona. April 2014]

    Despite the imposing and somewhat mysterious title of this week's blog, we will not be discussing the celestial bodies of a far off  galaxy called Certhioidea; neither shall we be discussing world despots -- indeed, the subject of this blog post is decidedly avian.

    In the hallowed taxonomy of the Aves, the superfamily Certhioidea encompasses some truly interesting species belonging to the Treecreepers, Nuthatches, Wrens, and Gnatcatchers. We are fortunate that the Gnatcatchers and Wrens are especially well represented in the New World (indeed Gnatcatchers are exclusive to the Americas).  Treecreepers and Nuthatches, on the other hand, are much more richly represented in the Old World.

    In this post we will review recent observations of species belonging to this superfamily plus a small selection of Tyrant Flycatchers that were observed in SE Arizona earlier this year. Specifically, we will briefly profile:

    From the Certhioidea:
    • Canyon Wren
    • Rock Wren
    • House Wren
    • Black-tailed Gnatcatcher
    • Blue-grey Gnatcatcher
    • Pygmy Nuthatch
    And, from Tyrant Flycatchers:
    • Ash-throated Flycatcher
    • Buff-breasted Flycatcher 
    • Dusky-capped Flycatcher
    • Cordilleran Flycatcher
    The Americas are blessed with a wealth of wrens and while most wrens are cryptic brown jobs, the Canyon Wren breaks the mold somewhat in a smart combination of chestnut, brown, grey and white:

     Canyon Wren seen at Sabino Canyon

    Canyon Wren seen at Sabino Canyon (river bed trail behind the dam)

    One is first alerted to the presence of the Canyon Wren by its incredibly loud song -- a burst of tightly spaced whistled notes that gradually grow longer (and lower pitched) and conclude with a grating squawk.

     Canyon Wren seen at Sabino Canyon

    Ranging all across the West, our most distinctive wren is a crevice specialist with an uncanny ability to flatten its body to forage in impossibly tight spaces.

    Rock Wren seen at Molino Vista

    The aptly named Rock Wren, compared to the Canyon Wren, is both stockier and greyer. However, in song, the Rock Wren is equally (and perhaps more) accomplished. Sadly, its population is declining across its Western range.

    House Wren seen at Madera Canyon
    House Wren seen at Bear Wallow

    Our next wren is the humble House Wren. This songbird has one of the largest ranges of any bird in the New World ranging from Argentina to Canada. It is a cavity nester and population trends are fairly stable.

    Closely related to the wrens but not found in the Old World are the delightful Gnatcatchers:

    Blue-grey Gnatcatcher seen at Rose Canyon

    Unlike the Blue-grey Gnatcatcher (above) which enjoys widespread distribution across the US, the Black-tailed Gnatcatcher is found in a small range close to the Mexican border from Texas westwards.

    Black-tailed Gnatcatcher seen at Sabino Canyon

    While disambiguating the Black-tailed Gnatcatcher from the Blue-grey may be problematic in Winter, in alternate plumage the identification is a cinch thanks to the spectacular black cap and flamboyant white-edged black tail.

    Black-tailed Gnatcatcher seen at Sabino Canyon

    Described by George Newbold Lawrence (of Lawrence's Goldfinch fame), this tiny bird is a feisty insectivore but, unlike the Blue-grey, it does not hawk insects in the air; preferring instead, to glean them from leaves and branches. 

    We conclude our brief survey of representatives of the Certhioidea with a nuthatch:

    Pygmy Nuthatch seen at Rose Canyon

    Competing with the Brown-headed Nuthatch for the title to our smallest nuthatch, this pair were observed next to their nest cavity on the descent to Rose Canyon on Mt. Lemmon.

    And now for the Tyrant Flycatchers:

    Ash-throated Flycatcher:

    Ash-throated Flycatcher seen at Molino Vista
    And the spectacular Buff-breasted Flycatcher -- much favored for its exclusivity to Arizona in the US:

    Preferring woodland habitat over arid scrub, the Dusky-capped Flycatcher appears otherwise quite similar to the Ash-throated:

    Dusky-capped Flycatcher seen at Madera Canyon

    We conclude with Cordilleran Flycatcher:

    A magnet for those of the birding persuasion, SE Arizona is a treasure trove of stunning species some of which are found nowhere else in the US.

    Friday, October 10, 2014

    SE Arizona: Yellow-eyed Junco, Western Bluebird, Black-throated Sparrow and Canyon Towhee

    [SE Arizona. April 2014]

    Having meant to publish this post originally in Spring, the esteemed readership of this blog is owed an explanation at to why a post originally conceived in April appears now a full 6 months later in October.

    As a matter of fact, the publishing cadence of this birder's humble blogography was hijacked by an explosion of expeditionary birding jaunts starting in April; with trips to:

    However, now, with the bulk of Fall migration activity behind us, we are afforded a brief interlude to "course correct" and return this Blog to a more predictable sequence of  "observe and publish".

    But first, in the next couple of posts, we pick up the thread from April where we report from Southeast Arizona with a feature focusing on Sparrows, Vireos, Thrushes and other assorted species featuring:

    • Black-throated Sparrow
    • Canyon Towhee
    • Spotted Towhee 
    • Yellow-eyed Junco 
    • Bell's Vireo
    • Plumbeous Vireo
    • Hermit Thrush
    • Western Bluebird
    And, Misc:
    • Broad-billed Hummingbird
    • Bridled Titmouse
    • Verdin
    • Greater Roadrunner
    • Gila Woodpecker
    • Cooper's Hawk
    • Gould's Turkey
    • White-winged Dove
     We start with 4 New World sparrows:

    Black-throated Sparrow seen at Molino Vista

    Black-throated Sparrow (not to be confused with the similar sounding Black-chinned Sparrow) is a handsome sparrow of the Southwest. Somewhat unusual for sparrows, its color scheme has no tans or browns -- just grey and black.

    Canyon Towhee seen at Sabino Canyon

    The Canyon Towhee is a large new world sparrow. Generally inconspicuous, they are more likely to be found on the ground than perched. It, and the similar California Towhee were once considered to be the same species.

    Unlike the grey/black Black-throated Sparrow and the tan/brown Canyon Towhee, the next sparrow has a bit of both color schemes:

    Spotted Towhee seen at Florida Canyon

    Looking like an Eastern Towhee but with spots on the wings, this boldly colored, large sparrow is a common sight in the Western US ranging from British Columbia to California.

    Perhaps the most delightful of our sparrows are the Junco's.

    Yellow-eyed Junco seen at Rose Canyon

    And the most delightful of our Junco's is the Yellow-eyed -- this is our only sparrow with yellow eyes. This Mexican bird barely extends into our territory in the Southern reaches of Arizona and New Mexico.

    Now for the 2 Vireos:

    Bell's Vireo seen at Molino Basin
    Plumbeous Vireo seen at Madera Canyon

    Bell's Vireo is a tiny vireo found from the West to the Central US. Interestingly, the color changes from grey to yellow moving Eastward. Thus, the specimen shown here (observed in Arizona) is largely grey with just a hint of yellow.

    Plumbeous Vireo, unlike Bell's is altogether grey. If its white spectacles are reminiscent of  Blue-headed Vireo, it will be no surprise to learn that they were once considered to be the same species. Of course, unlike Blue-headed, Plumbeous Vireo does show the green that is typical of most vireos.

    On the Thrush front, a drab Hermit Thrush seen at Madera Canyon was over-shadowed by a resplendent Western Bluebird:

    Hermit Thrush seen at Madera Canyon
    Western Bluebird seen at Rose Canyon

    This brings us to the remaining assortment of species:

    Broad-billed Hummingbird seen at Sabino Canyon:

    Bridled Titmouse seen at Madera Canyon:

    Cooper's Hawk seen at Rose Canyon:

    Greater Roadrunner seen at Sabino Canyon:

    Gila Woodpecker seen at Sabino Canyon:

    Verdin seen at Sabino Canyon:

    Wild Turkey seen at Madera Canyon:

    White-winged Dove seen at Sabino Canyon:

    "Late", it is said, is better than "Never" and it is hoped that this post of signature birds of SE Arizona provides ample testimony in support of the veracity of the adage.