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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

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