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Sunday, November 30, 2014

In the Company of the Eclectic: New World Specialties at Corkscrew

[Corkscrew Swamp. Nov 2014]

Anyone from the Old World would surely be forgiven for harboring a tinge of birding envy for the avian taxa that we in North America hold exclusive to our area. Familiar as birders are, on both sides of the "pond", with such cosmopolitan families as herons, storks, cranes, ducks, doves, hawks, pipits, jays, and kingfishers, it is nonetheless a fact of human nature to desire most what we most lack. Small wonder then, and illustrative of this peculiar affliction, is the fact that bird families such as Wood Warblers, become highly prized attractions to visiting birders owing in no small part to the fact that the Old World is wholly bereft of their spectacular presence.

But there's more to New World specialties than just colorful "avian butterflies" -- and this post will serve to remind us what uniquely American bird families we routinely enjoy (and perhaps even take for granted) by highlighting some of their outstanding representatives based on a recent visit to Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary. And, yes, we speak of an eclectic bunch of birds: Mimids, Icterids, Gnatcatchers, Sapsuckers, Vireos, and Tyrant Flycatchers that were found among the full list of observations at Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary:
  1. Baltimore Oriole
  2. Northern Mockingbird
  3. Blue-Grey Gnatcatcher
  4. White-eyed Vireo
  5. Great-crested Flycatcher
  6. Eastern Phoebe
  7. Yellow-bellied Sapsucker
  8. Pilieated Woodpecker
  9. Carolina Wren
We start with the New World Blackbirds aka the Icteridae, a family known for Meadowlarks, Grackles, Blackbirds, Cowbirds and Orioles; here, represented very ably by the Baltimore Oriole in black and golden-orange plumage.

Baltimore Oriole
Unlike the other Oriole species we are familiar with (eg., Bullock's, Hooded, Scott's and Orchard) that migrate to the neotropics in the Winter, the Baltimore Oriole is rare example of an oriole that will deign to over-winter in the US -- but only in the temperate conditions of South Florida.

Next, a Mimid: the Northern Mockingbird belongs to the New World family of Mimidae which includes Mockingbirds, Thrashers and Catbirds.

Northern Mockingbird
As the name Mimid suggests, species in these families are excellent mimics.

Compared to mimids, Gnatcatchers are positively tiny -- however, just like the Mockingbird, they are exclusive to the Americas.

Blue-grey Gnatcatcher
The Gnatcatcher, like the Oriole, is a winter visitor to Southern Florida unlike our next bird -- the White-eyed Vireo which is a resident species:

White-eyed Vireo
Vireos are also exclusively American but new research threatens that understanding -- suggesting provocatively that the Shrike-Babblers of Asia, long placed in Timaliidae (the Babbler family), should warrant reclassification as Vireos. Indeed, Shrike Babblers do share some common characteristics with our very own Vireos -- such as the monotonous song that they repeat continuously (Red-eyed Vireo come to mind, anyone?).

Next, two Tyrant Flycatchers:

Great Crested Flycatcher
Tyrant Flycatchers are a large family of over 400 species (the largest in the Avian Taxonomy) of insectivorous songbirds ranging in size from 2.5" to 16" and found from the Southern tip of Argentina to the high Arctic habitats of Canada (see here for additional Tyrant species observed in SE Arizona).

Eastern Phoebe
The Woodpecker family, unlike the Tyrannidae, is a global one; however, the 4 Sapsuckers species in the genus Sphyrapicus are exclusively North American -- here represented by the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker:

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Male
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Female
While this concludes our American specialties, we offer two further species hailing from families with global distributions:

The Pileated Woodpecker:

And, the Carolina Wren:

Carolina Wren
Thus, as this eclectic collection attests, caution is warranted when we talk of Orioles, Warblers, Sparrows, and Blackbirds as global families  -- although unambiguous in geographical context, they refer to completely different avian taxa that, while sharing many characteristics due to convergent evolution, are otherwise unrelated and found in discontinuous ecozones. Conversely, as molecular studies advance, we learn that families, previously considered uniquely American, such as the Vireos, do indeed have representation in the Old World.


Bonus animal:
This carnivorous mammal, a member of the Procyonidae, is also uniquely American:

Raccoon seen at Corkscrew Swamp

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

November Warblers at Corkscrew Swamp and Musings on Audubon and His Legacy

[Corkscrew Swamp, FL. Nov 2014]

While everyone has heard of John James Audubon, it may be a surprise to some that Audubon is not considered to be the father of American Ornithology (that honor surely belongs to Alexander Wilson), but, what isn't disputable is that Audubon is most assuredly the foremost American master of bird art -- and hence, by consequence, singularly responsible for inspiring millions of people to delve into the fascinating subjects of the avian world through his exceptional imagery and vivid picturization of American birdlife.

This blog, in turn, is humbly inspired by the traditions of Audubon -- in documenting the visual brilliance of our Avifauna -- and by Wilson -- in exploring avian science and the issues that affect bird conservation. Both endeavors in which this blogger is engaged in sincere pursuit though with full knowledge of the resulting shortcomings that must inevitably accrue from aspiring to their high, perhaps even unattainable, standards.

Audubon was more than an Artist and Ornithologist, in his later years he was also a confirmed conservationist. The orgy of slaughter in America peaked in the late 1800's and early 1900's and it was in response to this scale of wanton killing that the Audubon society was established nationally in 1905. Thus every time this blogger visits an Audubon Sanctuary, he is reminded of this quote:

“A true conservationist is a man who knows that the world is not given by his fathers, but borrowed from his children.” [often misattributed to Audubon, this quote is actually from Wendell Berry]

And it is in this spirit that we offer to the reader eight species of North American wood warblers -- eight feathered jewels representing a tiny part of the avian treasure we must bequeath to successive generations -- that were observed at the Audubon Society's Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary in Southwest Florida:
  1. Prairie Warbler
  2. Black-and-white Warbler
  3. Louisiana Waterthrush
  4. Yellow-throated Warbler
  5. Common Yellowthroat
  6. Pine Warbler
  7. Palm Warbler
  8. Myrtle Warbler
We start with Prairie Warbler:

Prairie Warbler -- usually found at the periphery of the Sanctuary

Instantly recognizable in basic or alternate plumage due to its unique facial markings; its eye both eye-lined and prominently circumscribed, the Prairie Warbler is found year round in Southwest Florida. The migratory population (such as this one seen in Michigan) winters largely in the Caribbean unlike the Florida subspecies.

Black-and-white Warbler seen at Corkscrew Swamp
The Black-and-white Warbler, another Eastern warbler, surpasses the Prairie Warbler in both distribution and population by a factor of almost 20 (the global population of Prairie Warbler is about 1.4 million while that of the Black-and-white is about 20 million).

Black-and-white Warbler
Does the Black-and-white Warbler's zebra-esque plumage serve any functional purpose?  Does it help confuse predators or camouflage it from its prey? Or is it merely the neotropical breeding strategy of "the most outrageously flamboyant suitor gets the girl?" Surely, fascinating topics to explore; what we do know, however, is that the Black-and-white is unique among warblers with its nuthatch-like foraging habits as it creeps hurriedly along tree trunks and tree limbs in search of insects and spiders.

Our next warbler is a Waterthrush -- earlier grouped with the Ovenbird, the genus Parkesia now contains only two species: the Louisiana Waterthrush and the Northern Waterthrush. It is the former that was observed at Corkscrew during this blogger's visit:

Louisiana Waterthrush seen by the South Lettuce Lake at Corkscrew
As can be seen from the above images, the Louisiana Waterthrush has a great affinity for water and, while its size is much smaller than that of a thrush, the drab buff-and-pale color scheme is certainly reminiscent of one.

Louisiana Waterthrush
Both Waterthrushes are found at Corkscrew in migration and, when seen together, it results in a situation that inevitably leads to an identification challenge between these two very similar looking, similar sounding and similar foraging Waterthrushes.

Our next warbler, however, presents little ambiguity to even the most casual of observers; the Yellow-throated Warbler:

Our 5th warbler is the aptly named Common Yellowthroat:

Preferring wet and weedy environments and conspicuous on account of its loud (and harsh sounding) chips, the Common Yellowthroat doesn't look markedly different from its breeding best excepting pinker legs and a lighter green on the back.

Also observed was this Pine Warbler -- still showing a fair amount of yellow:

And, this bright Palm Warbler:

Palm Warbler seen at Corkscrew
Finally, we present a Myrtle Warbler -- these, after the Palm, are probably the most numerous over-wintering warblers in Southwest Florida:

Myrtle Warbler

John James Audubon's declared ambition in 1820 was to depict every single species of bird found in North America -- and, in 1825, his dream came to fruition in the publishing of the epic "Birds of America" which detailed 497 species in breathtaking beauty -- a spectacular achievement indeed! (imagine doing this today without the use of eBird, Birding Guides, and Bird Lines).

Even today, it is striking how much our birding ambitions mirror Audubon's quest from almost 200 years ago. However, how we pursue and document the fulfillment of these ambitions has changed considerably (thanks to the inexorable march of technology) -- from the use of watercolor, copperplate etchings and subscription art books to digital photography, social media and internet blogging. And, consider some common examples of birding quests today:
In this, and countless other ways, we can sustain the American traditions of Audubon and Wilson to document, depict and publish our avian observations and therefore contribute, in however small measure, toward the preservation of our birdlife for future generations as so passionately exhorted by Wendell Berry.
Epilogue: some background on the examples chosen:
  • Any reader of ABA publications will be familiar with Brian Small's exquisite and exhaustive work where it features frequently
  • Kenn Kaufman's "Kingbird Highway" is a classic and epitomizes, in many ways, the wanderlust brought on by a birding quest. 
  • I met Robert B (who was doing a Big Year) in 2012 in June in Texas while birding Estero LLano Grande SP where I added many lifers to my list. Incredibly, I ran into him again 6 months later at Sabino Canyon, AZ, when both of us were chasing the same rarity: the Rufous-backed Robin
  • Missing a couple of warbler species myself, "52 Small Birds" was both informative and inspirational as it details one man's quest to photograph all species of wood warblers in the US
  • Bob's excellent work at SW Florida Birder is well known and who cannot but enjoy the thrill of the vicarious chase of a rarity or the beauty of SW Florida's birdlife as so passionately captured by Bob.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Red-tailed Hawk, Brown Creeper and Ruby-crowned Kinglet

[Wolcott Mill and Lake St. Clair Metroparks. MI. Late Oct/Early Nov 2014]

Living in Southwest Florida, one could not be faulted for thinking that the title of commonest hawk in the US belongs to the Red-shouldered Hawk by virtue if its near ubiquity in these parts.

However, this worthy distinction is claimed not by the Red-shouldered Hawk but by the featured Accipter of this post -- the Red-tailed Hawk whose massive range stretches across the whole of the North American continent and is found in every state of the Union (excepting Hawaii). In Southwest Florida, it is a winter visitor to its Red-shouldered cousin.

Besides the hawk, we will also review recent sightings of Brown Creeper, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, White-breasted Nuthatch and some common woodland species.

We start with the hawk:

Red-tailed Hawk seen at Wolcott Mill Metropark
Two sub-adults were sighted; one at Wolcott Mill and the other at Lake St. Clair Metroparks -- their tails not as deeply red as a fully mature adult.

Red-tailed Hawk seen at Lake St. Clair Metropark
Apart from their trademark red tail, Red-tailed Hawks offer little consistent identification marks owing to a high degree of variability with Pale, Rufous, Dark and Light morphs of the species occurring in the wild. Hence, the best way, in addition to size and shape, is to look for a square tail, yellow eyes and powerful yellow legs (eg., consider these individuals spotted in Arizona and California).

The red tail on this sub-adult is more brown than red
This individual seen at Lake St. Clair was hypnotized by the mouth-watering activity at a bird feeder behind the Nature Center at the park. Thus transfixed, it permitted close approach:

Close-up profile of a Red-tailed Hawk
Red-tailed Hawks have a preference for small mammals but birds also figure in their diet.

While it would be hard to overlook the hawk, our next bird has been described as a "moving piece of bark" -- the Brown Creeper:

Brown Creeper seen at Lake St. Clair Metropark

Brown Creepers appear cloaked in invisibility -- their diminutive size, cryptic coloration and fast movements make them difficult to see and (virtually) impossible to photograph.

Like the Hawk, the Creeper is found coast to coast in the US and is a year-round resident in its range although some Northern populations do undertake migratory movements.

Ruby-crowned Kinglet (note small red patch on crown)
The Ruby-crowned Kinglet, on the other hand, is strongly migratory. A kinglet is a "small king" and this bird indeed sports a tiny patch of red on its crown -- a feature that, unfortunately, is mostly hidden.

Ruby-crowned Kinglet seen at Wolcott Mill Metropark
This is one of our two Kinglet species -- identifiable by its small size, neckless body and bold eye-ring.

Sharing the Creeper's penchant for vertical climbing, the White-breasted Nuthatch is much more easily seen -- being larger, brighter and noisier.

White-breasted Nuthatch seen at Lake St. Clair Metropark
We conclude with some common woodland species:

A delightful corvid, a Blue Jay, seen at Wolcott Mill:

The delicately hued, slender billed and long-tailed Mourning Dove:

... and, finally, the Red-bellied Woodpecker:

In "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening", the poet extraordinaire Robert Frost wrote -- "The woods are lovely, dark and deep".  And, for a birder, these words ring true in countless ways -- from the lovely sounds of a nuthatch, the deep red of a kinglet's crown to the dark tail of a hawk -- there is a living avian poem in every habitat in a birder's world as this quick survey of woodland species so aptly attests.