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Thursday, August 27, 2015

Madera Canyon: Elegant Trogon, Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher and Blue Grosbeak

[Madera Canyon, AZ. August 2015]

In remote outposts such as Madera Canyon where it would not be unreasonable to expect to find peaceful solitude and serenity to commune with Nature free of molestation, one is, instead, repeatedly jarred by reminders of the ugly trappings of the modern world. 

Noisy picnickers; blaring stereos; yelping pets (inevitably dragged, leashed or not, as obliging furry accessories to their masters); and, perhaps most objectionably, the ear-bursting rumblings of motorcycles -- a situation made worse by their propensity to travel in boisterous packs. And, one more thing: "Rumblings" might be putting it too mildly -- the explosive cacophony of motorcycle exhaust is more like a series of bomb blasts that reverberate obnoxiously throughout the canyon -- shattering the quietude of the natural surroundings irreparably. With this backdrop, one is left pondering how the many gifts of nature are squandered hopelessly on man -- as pearls before swine.

Who shall heed the wise adage "take only memories, leave only footprints"?  Surely a principle that is lost on these visitors from hell. But, perhaps more importantly, what must the impact of this vulgar and unrelenting disturbance be to the breeding species of the canyon? Species that have traveled from near and far to these creeks and woods only to find their nesting sites enveloped in a maelstrom of noxious fumes, jarring noises and the omnipresent threat of invasive pets.

Having unbosomed our sincere concerns over the fragility of our natural habitats; and, with a hope that our pleas and earnest lamentations should not fall on deaf ears of the eco-callous, we now move on to the subject of the blog post -- the incredible birdlife of Southeast Arizona -- starting with the incomparable Elegant Trogon:

This spectacular female was seen thanks to the efforts of a kind birding soul -- Jay Taylor -- who this blogger had the good fortune in encountering at Madera Canyon. Jay was pointing out the classic "squeaky toy" calls of the Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher when the Trogon was sighted -- at eye level!

Trogons are found in both New and Old Worlds in the tropics; but, the only place to see them here in the US is in SEAZ. In a scene that could only be replicated here, both the Trogon and the Flycatcher were found merely a tree apart!

Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher is an imposing and distinctive flycatcher -- perhaps the only other flycatcher it could possibly be confused with is the Great Kiskadee of South Texas. Like the Trogon, Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher is also exclusive to Arizona in the US and is seen well in Madera Canyon where it is a late breeder -- the young hatching in July during the Arizona monsoon.

Much more widespread is the Blue Grosbeak:

Found in the Southern half of the country from coast to coast, this brilliantly colorful member of the Cardinal family looks like a larger version of Indigo Bunting but with chestnut wingbars. This beautiful songbird was observed at the base of the canyon where there is a good mix of grasses and shrubs (the trails by Whitehouse Picnic Area).

Bonus birds seen at Madera Canyon included:

Summer Tanager -- seen feeding on a bee:

and, Mexican Jay:

The "poster birds" of the spectacular birdlife of Southeast Arizona are iconic species such as Elegant Trogon and Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher. These alone are enough to entice the enterprising birder to consider a trip to the "Sky Islands" of Arizona -- a trip that will surely be rewarded with sightings that can be had nowhere else in the country.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Lady Warblers of the West (plus one of the East)

[Mt. Lemmon, AZ. April, August 2015]

Gentleman warblers are well known to birders -- Audubon's, Wilson's, Kirtland's, Townsend's, Swainson's, MacGillivray's, ... to name but a few. However, how many of us are acquainted with our Lady Warblers?

This imbalance in nomenclature is surely a consequence of the regrettable historical fact that, earlier (although true to some degree even now), men and women have been role-bound by gender. And, in the 1700 and 1800's when the birdlife of America was being scientifically documented, men explorers greatly outnumbered women and were generally inspired by their own kind. Nonetheless, some warblers were indeed named after women. And, though smaller in number, our lady warblers are equally striking and deserve every birder's due consideration, and in light of their naming origins, perhaps also our outright fascination.

The mission, then, of this post is to highlight, out of a total of 50-odd warbler species in the US, the only four that are named after women. And this mission was brought to delightful fruition thanks to a recent trip to Arizona. 

Accordingly, we shall review a quartet of lady warblers: Lucy's, Grace's and Virgina's Warblers of the West; as well as Blackburnian Warbler of the Eastern US; in addition, we shall also profile the women behind the names.

We start with Grace's Warbler which is named after Grace Coues. Grace's Warbler was collected by her brother, Elliot Coues, in 1864. Elliot turned over the specimen to Spencer Baird who was responsible for its scientific description. Elliot asked Baird to name the newly discovered species after his sister, Grace, who, at the time, was but a teenager. Grace grew up to live a distinguished life -- marrying the US Ambassador to Switzerland, Charles Page in 1868 and, upon her husband's death, remarried to wed the publisher Dana Estes in 1884.

Grace's Warbler observed at Rose Canyon, Mt. Lemmon

Grace's Warbler has a limited range in the US -- it is a summer breeder mainly found in mountain pine forests of Arizona and New Mexico but it is also seen somewhat uncommonly in similar habitat in adjacent states.

Next, Lucy's Warbler. This warbler was named by Dr. Cooper after Spencer Baird's daughter's Lucy (the same Spencer Baird who named Grace's Warbler). This is a tiny warbler and is unique in being our only desert warbler -- thriving in habitat that would be considered too arid for other wood warblers.

Lucy's Warbler observed at Molino Basin, Mt. Lemmon
Lucy's Warbler is best seen in Arizona where it is quite common in appropriate habitat. This blogger has also observed this warbler at Big Bend NP in Texas where a small population can be sighted. Plumed in delicate shades of cream and grey, this warbler has a rusty crown patch that is usually visible.

Our final Lady Warbler of the West is Virginia's Warbler:

Virginia's Warbler observed at Summerhaven, Mt. Lemman
Virginia's Warbler observed at Summerhaven, Mt. Lemman
Similar to how Grace's Warbler was named, Baird named this warbler after the collector's wishes -- in this case, Dr. William Andersen. A surgeon in the US Army, Dr. Andersen desired that the warbler's name should serve to immortalize his wife -- Virginia. This warbler is probably more widely distributed relative to Grace's and Lucy's  -- being found in Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Utah and Nevada. Virginia's Warbler has grey upperparts and white undersides; there is yellow on both the breast and vent; the white eye-rings are quite prominent.

And, lest we forget, we do indeed have a single Lady Warbler in the East -- Blackburnian Warbler which is named after the Englishwoman Anna Blackburne (1726 -- 1793). Mrs. Blackburne (as she preferred to be known although she never married) was a patron of Ornithology and owned a museum in Lancashire, England. It was her brother, Ashton Blackburne, who collected the type specimen and the species was named after Anna by the German zoologist Philipp Ludwig Statius Muller in 1776.

Blackburnian Warbler seen at Magee Marsh, OH
The Blackburnian Warbler outshines most other warblers with its drop-dead gorgeous looks -- a flame-colored throat and face -- the latter showing bold black markings -- set against white undersides and black upperparts. It is a perennial favorite at migration hotspots such as Magee Marsh where it is commonly observed.

Our "Lady Warblers" are a delightful assortment of songbirds that not only typify signature species of the Warbler family but also profile the women in the life of our early explorers and naturalists. Accordingly, the reader is exhorted to discover these 4 warblers that are not only photogenic but also historically significant.

Friday, August 14, 2015

A Kalkaska Kaleidosceope II: Canada Warbler, Blackburnian Warbler and Northern Waterthrush

[Kalkaska, MI. July, 2015]

We continue with a look through nature's kaleidoscope into the spectacular birdlife of Kalkaska County in Northern Michigan. 

Our appetite, having been whetted with the delightful sights of Ovenbird, Chestnut-sided Warbler and Black-and-white Warbler in the prior post, we are now ready for the "main course" -- iconic breeding warblers of the Northern US like Canada Warbler, the incomparable Blackburnian Warbler and the wonderfully musical Northern Waterthrush.

We begin with Canada Warbler -- this is a late migrant to our area; usually seen in the 3rd week of May at Magee Marsh in Ohio on its journey Northward. 

Instantly recognizable on account of its black stripes radiating from a ring around the throat as well as prominent white eyerings, -- the Canada is our only warbler named after a country (we have a few named after the States in the US).

While names of Eastern warblers are generally descriptive; Western Warblers, on the other hand, frequently bear the names of giants of Ornithology, their patrons or their relations. But, there are some Eastern Warblers that fit this pattern as well -- for example, Kirtland's and Blackburnian:

Indeed, Blackburnian Warbler is named after Anna Blackburne, an English naturalist who collaborated with Linnaeus in her lifetime.

With black facial markings and a "burning" throat, the name of this warbler, coincidentally, also ends up being descriptive!

Next, in complete contrast to the dazzling Blackburnian Warbler, the Northern Waterthrush is a plain and rather dull looking warbler:

However, what it lacks in color, the Northern Waterthrush makes up in song -- a loud, cheerful warble that rings like a cascade of bells in our Northern forests.

We end with American Redstart -- perhaps not as exotic as Canada Warbler or as handsome as Blackburnian, but nonetheless, a striking combination of black and orange:

The metaphor of birding as a look through Nature's kaleidoscope brings to mind the dazzling colors and hues of our avifauna. And, nowhere does this metaphor come more to life than in our Northern forests in places like Kalkaska County, Michigan.

Saturday, August 8, 2015

A Kalkaska Kaleidoscope I: Red-breasted Nuthatch, Black-and-white Warbler, Chestnut-sided Warbler and Ovenbird

[Kalkaska, MI. Late June 2015]

The word Kaleidoscope -- per Wikipedia -- is derived from the Ancient Greek "kalos" meaning "beautiful"; "eidos" meaning "shape or form" and "skopeō" meaning "to look at, or, to examine" -- hence putting all 3 words together in "kaleidoscope" therefore means "observation of beautiful forms". What could be a better definition of Birding? And, unlike a mechanical kaleidoscope whose source of beauty is bits of colored glass and contrived symmetrical reflections, Birding offers us the "real deal" -- observation of Nature's pure beauty ensconced in the feathery colors of our avifauna.  

And, in this post (and the subsequent one), we offer to the reader reports of observations of signature species from Kalkaska County in Northern Michigan -- an area of prime importance to neotropical migrants in Summer -- a view through a Kalkaska Kaleidoscope, if you will!

We start with Chestnut-sided Warbler:

The Chestnut-sided Warbler is a dazzling songbird -- pure white undersides, boldly flanked with chestnut streaks, black facial markings, a striking yellow cap and a black back streaked with yellow. Unfairly relegated to the rear of the "birding bus", perhaps on account of its relative common and widespread status, it was historically much more uncommon; and, regardless, deserves every birder's full and keen attention.

Also observed on Sunset Trail in Kalkaska County, was a much more plain looking warbler -- the  Ovenbird:

It is sometimes hard to imagine that this is the same bird that is seen in Winter in Southern Florida as a sedate, largely quiet and terrestrial forager. But in Summer, the Ovenbird is the loudest songster in the woods -- belting out its "teacher, teacher" warble in full volume to all and sundry. It is not difficult to fathom why it was earlier classified with the waterthrushes -- it shares their subdued color scheme of an earth-toned back, white undersides and prominent black streaking.

In contrast, the Black-and-white Warbler's song is much softer:

Like the Ovenbird, this is another warbler whose Summer and Winter ranges partly span the US -- allowing us to enjoy them year-round. The colors of most male warblers fade in the Fall and Winter; however, for the Black-and-white, the colors remain intact. What happens instead is that the male's black throat and cheeks turn white in Winter (compare with a wintering Black-and-white in SW Florida).

Moving on to a couple of non-warblers -- first a nuthatch that cannot escape criticism for having one of the least imaginative songs -- the Red-breasted Nuthatch:

The monotonous beeping of this nuthatch would rival the annoying tones of most alarm clocks. This is a widespreach nuthatch species found coast to coast.

Finally, there is nothing like a Scarlet tanager to cap a day's birding:

The varied hues and colors seen through a "Kalkaska Kaleidoscope" are a scintillating reminder of why those who "have caught the bug" bird the outdoors with gusto -- fully benefitting from the presence of neotropical migrants in our forests.

Saturday, August 1, 2015

The Rarest Warbler in America: Kirtland's Warbler; plus Nashville Warbler and Brown Thrasher

[Crawford Co., Michigan. June 2015]

Of our many qualities, there are perhaps two defining features of homo sapiens that are universally acknowledged -- no, not our opposable thumbs or large craniums -- but, behaviorally, we are (1) relentlessly acquisitive; and, (2) fiercely possessive. 

Our insatiable urge to acquire objects, experiences, and knowledge is testament to the first quality; while, regarding the latter, it is almost legendary the great lengths that people will go to to protect anything they can stick a "my" in front of -- eg., "my land", "my car", "my pet", "my rights", etc. These two qualities together constitute an unstoppable force that is literally changing the face of this planet.

Thus, wildlife, which by definition is "wild" and "free" and therefore not subject to human ownership, is frequently at the losing end of the equation when it comes to competition or confrontation with our possessions -- animate or inanimate. Witness the ever shrinking numbers of wild animals and the ever burgeoning numbers of livestock and pets -- an increase no doubt helped by the loss of natural habitat to development. 

However, exceptions to this all-conquering rule of acquisition and possession thankfully do exist -- they are the scientists, naturalists, environmentalists, and their faithful supporters -- all dedicated conservationists -- who work against tremendous odds to preserve our natural heritage. 

And, it is this group of people that we must thank every time we see a Kirtland's Warbler today. For they have done something that very few people do -- work ceaselessly, and selflessly, to advance our understanding of the natural history of endangered species and protect the "unowned" denizens of wild America that otherwise would meet the same lamentable fate as the Passenger Pigeon, the Carolina Parakeet, Bachman's Warbler or Labrador Duck. 

The aforementioned are all species for which conservation action didn't effectively materialize; with the consequence that all of mankind will henceforth forever remain bereft of their incomparable and priceless presence. And, surely, with their loss, our record as responsible stewards of our environment too shall suffer -- indelibly stained as it will be with the ugly mark of extinction -- sadly, an occurrence that is still taking place under our watch even now.

We start with Kirtland's Warbler -- a species that a mere 50 years was headed to sure extinction with only 57 extant individuals left. 

This warbler is to Michigan what the Golden-cheeked Warbler is to Texas or the Red-faced Warbler is to Arizona -- best seen in that State and, as such, a much desired "specialty" species.

Kirtland's Warbler -- Male

Most birders are familiar with the comeback story of this species -- well intentioned environmental interventions by man to prevent forest fires actually resulted in habitat loss for the Kirtland's! 

Indeed, this warbler requires large areas of young Jack Pine forests to breed. And, forest fires are essential at regenerating the fresh growth of Jack Pines essential for nesting habitat.

Kirtland's Warbler -- Female
The other ecological threat to this warbler was brood parasitism by the Brown-headed Cowbird. The US Forest Service Rangers in Mio and Grayling construct traps for the Cowbirds to reduce their population to benefit the warblers.

Also in the area, Nashville Warbler was relatively common and offered ample opportunity for observation:

This is another handsome warbler with a prominent eyering that is found in both halves of the country.  The Western subspecies is brighter, has a different song and could be a candidate for a future split.

Other species observed included:

Brown thrasher

.. and Black-throated Green Warbler:

Man's interventions and intentional meddlings in Nature have had both constructive and destructive effects -- while the latter are generally well publicized (eg., oil spills in the Gulf, etc); it is imperative that the good work directed toward rebuilding habitat and restoring ecological balance be highlighted as well -- as this will serve to inspire and motivate the next generation of conservationists.