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Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Little Kings at Lake St. Clair Starring Golden-crowned Kinglet

[Lake St. Clair, Fall 2015]

For most of mankind's history, oppression has, not infrequently, stemmed from the institutions of the monarchy (and their partners in the clergy). For this reason, man's struggle for a more equitable way of life has inspired popular revolutions in the US, France, Russia and elsewhere to overthrow the autocratic rule of kings, emperors and tsars. 

Yet while royalty has been largely abolished in today's world, their namesakes live on in the Aves -- witness species such as kingbirds, emperors, and kinglets (and their partners in the clergy-inspired Bishops, Prothonotaries, and Cardinals!). 

And, while the US is firmly established as a Republic since the late 1700's, we still have two "little kings" that rule our forests across the country year-round. In this post, we will review these "royal" kinglets as well as some "commoner" species found in the woods of Lake St. Clair Metropark:

  1. Golden-crowned Kinglet
  2. Ruby-crowned Kinglet
  3. Hermit Thrush
  4. Swainson's Thrush
  5. Veery
  6. Eastern Wood Pewee
  7. Brown Creeper
  8. Ruby-throated Hummingbird
  9. White-throated Sparrow
  10. Baltimore Oriole
  11. American Goldfinch
  12. Carolina Wren
  13. White-breasted Nuthatch
  14. Swamp Sparrow
We start with Golden-crowned Kinglet:

Golden-crowned Kinglet has a huge range in the US -- breeding in the Northeast and the Northwest and wintering pretty much throughout the country excepting Florida.

Disambiguation with the Ruby-crowned Kinglet is fairly straightforward even when the crown isn't visible -- note the black whiskers and white supercilium on the Golden-crowned compared to the oval eye-ring and plainer appearance of the Ruby-crowned:

Every year at the "Warbler Mecca" that is Magee Marsh -- these kinglets cause immense confusion in beginning (or perfunctory) birders when these songbirds are seen with the similarly sized warblers flitting through the branches.

And now for the "commoner" species --

Hermit Thrush -- frequently seen at this venue in migration:

Swainson's Thrush -- note the buffy spectacles:

The very delightful Veery:

Eastern Wood Pewee:

Brown Creeper -- described as "animated bark":

Ruby-throated Hummingbird:

White-throated Sparrow:

Baltimore Oriole:

American Goldfinch:

Carolina Wren -- while this wren is common to abundant in SW Florida, in Michigan it is quite uncommon at this venue:

White-breasted Nuthatch -- a year-round species here:

Swamp Sparrow:

Both species of "little kings" are seen in migration at Lake St. Clair -- and, these distinctive kinglets remind us that their feathered crowns are symbolic of nothing more than evolutionary traits in their propagation; and, not a mark of inequality as so often has been the case in man's history.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Towhees and Sparrows of the Southwest: Featuring Green-tailed Towhee, Black-chinned Sparrow and Rufous-crowned Sparrow

[SE Arizona and SW Texas. April, 2015]

Doesn't it seem that whatever bird species we have in the US -- whether warblers, vireos, tanagers, thrushes or flycatchers -- there's more of them found in tropical America than here?

While this suspicion will generally be borne by fact -- it isn't always true for every taxon. For example, we have more Thrashers and Towhees here in the US than anywhere else. And, the fact of the US being "Towhee Rich" is the inspiration for this post in which we review 4 Towhees (and 8 Sparrows) belonging to the New World family of sparrows that were encountered in Southeast Arizona and Southwest Texas earlier this year:
  1. Green-tailed Towhee
  2. Spotted Towhee
  3. Canyon Towhee
  4. Abert's Towhee
  5. Black-throated Sparrow
  6. Black-chinned Sparrow
  7. Rufous-crowned Sparrow
  8. White-crowned Sparrow
  9. Lincoln's Sparrow
  10. Song Sparrow
  11. Chipping Sparrow
  12. Yellow-eyed Junco
There are 8 Towhees (genus Pipoli) on this planet -- aside from the 2 Mexican Towhee endemics, the remaining 6 can all be found in the US. Towhees are large, stout New World sparrows; and while most are drab in plumage like their sparrow kin, some of them can be quite striking. And none is more striking than the  Green-tailed Towhee:

Green-tailed Towhee seen at Molino Basin, Mt. Lemmon, SEAZ
The Green-tailed Towhee is found across much of the Western US. It has a grey body with olive-lime wings and tail. The throat is white and the crown is a bright chestnut. The Green-tailed Towhee is found in brush habitat where it likes to forage on the ground scratching for seeds or insects.  Green is an unusual color in sparrows (here in the US seen in this Towhee and the Olive Sparrow) and our remaining Towhees show mainly tans and browns.

Spotted Towhee seen at Rose Canyon, Mt. Lemmon
Spotted Towhee is probably our commonest Towhee in the West. It has a bold look with distinctive white spots on a black back and red eyes. It was earlier considered conspecific with the Eastern Towhee and lumped into the "Rufous-sided Towhee" -- here's a picture of an Eastern Towhee taken in Michigan in June:

Eastern Towhee seen at Lapeer SGA, Michigan
It's easy to see why these sparrows were considered to be the same species.

Canyon Towhee is found in Texas, Arizona and New Mexico. It has a similar taxonomic history -- it was earlier lumped with California Towhee into the unimaginatively sounding "Brown Towhee".

Of all our Towhees, this is the only US near-Endemic -- Abert's Towhee:

The black mask is diagnostic. Unlike our other Towhees whose ranges extend well into Canada or Mexico, the Abert's range is almost entirely in the US Southwest with only a small sliver reaching over into Mexico.

Now the Sparrows:
We begin with the Black-throated Sparrow:

Black-throated Sparrow feeding on Ocotillo flowers at Big Bend NP
This gorgeous sparrow is unmistakable with a greyish-brown body, prominent black throat and a white "harness" pattern on its face.

The similar sounding Black-chinned Sparrow also ranges in the desert Southwest but is not as commonly found; it prefers hilly habitat and is known for its "spinning coin" song.

The individual pictured here was observed on the Laguna Trail at Big Bend NP.

Also observed at Big Bend was this beautiful Rufous-crowned Sparrow:

Rufous-crowned Sparrow seen at Burro Pouroff Trail
This grey sparrow with a prominent rufous crown is a specialty sparrow of the Southwest.

Other sparrows included the familiar White-crowned Sparrow:
White-crowned Sparrow seen at Molino Basin, Mt. Lemmon

The beautifully streaked Lincoln's Sparrow:

Lincoln's Sparrow seen at Molino Basin, Mt. Lemmon
And one of our most widely ranging sparrows, the Song Sparrow:
Song Sparrow seen at Tanque Verde Wash, Tucson, AZ
Another sparrow found nationwide is the Chipping Sparrow:

Chipping Sparrow seen at Davis Mtsn SP, Texas
Finally, we conclude with a specialty Junco -- essentially a Mexican sparrow restricted to a small area in SEAZ and SW New Mexico: Yellow-eyed Junco:
Yellow-eyed Junco seen at Incinerator Ridge, Mt. Lemmon
"Little Brown Jobs" -- a term used in identification desperation resulting from birds such as sparrows seems wholly inappropriate when confronted with spectacular sparrows and towering towhees that are found in our Southwest.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Big Bend Highlights: Scott's Oriole, Black-headed Grosbeak and Acorn Woodpecker

[Big Bend NP, TX. April 2015]

America, as discovered at the advent of Western colonization, was no less than a "Garden of Eden" -- with unspoilt rainforests, grasslands, deserts and endless woods richly adorning the land. 

This pristine scenery hosted land and air migrations featuring thundering herds of buffalo and mega-flocks of pigeons that rivaled or exceeded the best that can be seen in wild Africa today. These grand spectacles of American Nature are no longer with us today; what remains of our earlier awe-inspiring ecosystems are preserved only as a pale shadow of their former glory in our National Forests and Parks that comprise about 15% of the country's total area

And, to visit these areas is the closest we can get to "time travel" -- to witness what this land was like before it was reduced to its present state. A state in which no land is left undeveloped, no tree uncut, no river undammed, no bird unshot and no animal unhunted.  

Without our National Parks, we would have nothing but strip malls, factory farms and endless suburbia; our sterile life would be devoid of the wealth of Nature's gifts that abound only in full wilderness. 

Big Bend National Park, in remote South-Central Texas, is precisely the kind of place that connects us to the land as it once was. A Spring visit to this unparalleled oasis rewarded this blogger with a choice selection of species including:
  1. Scott's Oriole
  2. Acorn Woodpecker 
  3. Black-headed Grosbeak
  4. Pyrrholoxia
  5. Varied Bunting
  6. Roadrunner
  7. Mexican Jay
  8. Wrens -- Canyon Wren, Cactus Wren, Bewick's Wren
  9. Tits -- Bushtit, Black-crested Titmouse
  10. Common Yellowthroat
  11. Bell's Vireo
  12. Great-horned Owl
  13. Inca Dove
  14. Blue-grey Gnatcatcher
First up, a gorgeous Icterid --  Scott's Oriole:

The first thing to strike the observer about this blackbird is the bright lemon yellow chest and underside of the male; as opposed to the orange hues commonly found in other orioles.

Scott's Oriole is found in hilly areas of the Southwest.  Habitat that similarly suits the Acorn Woodpecker as well:

The Acorn Woodpecker is hard to confuse with any other species of woodpecker in our area with a face that has oft been described as "clownish".
Black-headed Grosbeak:

The females of the Black-headed and Rose-breasted Grosbeaks are indistinguishable. The two species are known to hybridize where their ranges overlap.
Pyrrhuloxia is also known as the "desert cardinal":

April is when Varied Buntings arrive at Big Bend; and pretty soon they will be establishing their breeding territories:

Greater Roadrunner are commonly found in this Park:

In the Chisos Mountains, Mexican Jays can be seen -- cavorting in small flocks:

Moving on to a few Wrens -- Canyon Wren, Cactus Wren, Bewick's Wren:

Cactus Wren
Canyon Wren
Bewick's Wren
Tits -- Bushtit and Black-crested Titmouse:

Black-crested Titmouse

In Spring many warbler species can be seen in migration at Big Bend but Common Yellowthroat is a breeder:

The race seen here shows a lot more yellow than what's seen in the rest of the country.

Bell's Vireo -- which is suffering serious declines throughout its range:

The almost invisible Great-horned Owl:

Inca Dove:

Blue-grey Gnatcatcher:

About 450 species of birds can be found at Big Bend National Park. Even a short visit to this island will offer rewards to the intrepid birder.