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Sunday, December 27, 2015

Polyavian delights at Polywog Ponds: Green Kingfisher and Western Tanager

[Corpus Christi, TX. Dec 2015]

It is said that "Wealth lies in the eye of the beholder" (in taking liberty with a well known adage). Indeed, one could rank our 50 states by wealth in population; or income, or by days of sunshine; or by whatever metric suits one's definition of "wealth". Surely this is a subjective exercise but in relation to our avifauna, the states endowed with the most birding riches are Texas, California and Arizona. Texas, especially, is unique in affording observation of both Western and Eastern species in an unparalleled variety of habitats ranging from tropical, woodland, montane, desert, prairie and coastal. The lonestar state is exceptionally well blessed with a plethora of specialty and highly coveted species that are best seen here than anywhere else in the US.

A family vacation in Texas provided a couple of opportunities that underscored exactly why Texas is the heavyweight in the world of birding. One remarkable hotspot explored during this trip is Polywog (also spelt Pollywog) Ponds in Corpus Christi which yielded a delightful assortment of species such as:

The incomparable Green Kingfisher:

It is a lamentable fact that most birders in this country are acquainted solely with a single Kingfisher species -- the Belted Kingfisher. The Green Kingfisher is everything that the Belted is not -- it is tiny (about the size of a sparrow); the male has a prominent rufous chest band (in the Belted, it is the female that sports this feature); and its plumage is wholly devoid of blue. 

Of course, there are similarities too between the Green Kingfisher and the Belted -- both are highly skittish; their vocalizations consist of rattling calls and clicks and their feeding and breeding habits are almost identical.  

The trademark looks of the kingfisher -- manifesting a heron's bill on a songbird's body atop the tiny legs of a swallow -- are consistent throughout the members of this global family. And, if the Green Kingfisher is on your lifelist, there's a very good chance that the observation was made in Texas (where their range is much larger than in SE AZ).

At the entrance to Polywog Ponds, a medium-sized yellowish bird with two prominent wingbars was observed -- a Western Tanager:

Southern Texas is not normally in this songbird's range, so this sighting was wholly unexpected.

Western Tanagers are found from British Columbia to New Mexico and are considered to be the Western equivalent of the Scarlet Tanager.

Other species observed were -- Couch's Kingbird:

This kingbird is another Texan specialty and its closest relative is Tropical Kingbird. They are visually indistinguishable save for the thicker bill of the Tropical. However, their vocalizations are distinct and, where their ranges overlap, they do not interbreed.

White-winged Dove:

and a glorious Roseate Spoonbill flyby:

In the end, it is not our possessions that will define us. The experiences we receive and those we bequeath to others will be the true testament to wealth in our lifetime. And, in Texas, a wealth of exceptional birding experiences await the intrepid birder.
Photo of entrance:

Link to geotagged photo for map location.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Tanque Verde Wash & Sweetwater Wetlands: Cassin's Vireo, Phainopepla, Ladder-backed Woodpecker

[SE AZ. April and August 2015]

For all our ecologically righteous "gnashing of teeth" over the lamentable loss of habitat and the the squeezing out of wildlife by the inexorable (and hideous) march of "development", it will be no small relief to know that a surprising assortment of species are able to eke out an existence in a couple of small oases of nature found in the urban sprawl of Tucson: hotspots such as Tanque Verde Wash and Sweetwater Wetlands. And, a trip to Tucson earlier this year at these fabled venues was aptly rewarded with glorious sightings of:
  • Cassin's Vireo
  • Phainopepla
  • Yellow Warbler
  • Ladder-backed Woodpecker
  • Greater Roadrunner
  • Western Tanager
  • Common Yellowthroat
First, Cassin's Vireo:

Cassin's Vireo is a gift to the birding community through the wonderfully beneficent act of "splitting" by the AOU in 1997. Cassin's erstwhile incarnation was that of the "Solitary Vireo" -- which has been replaced by our 3 spectacled vireos: Cassin's Vireo, Blue-headed Vireo and Plumbeous Vireo. At Tanque Verde Wash, Cassin's Vireo was observed vocalizing frequently in the trees. Disambiguation with the Plumbeous is simple thanks to the overall grey color scheme of the latter. However, confusion of Cassin's and Blue-headed is inevitable -- and although there are subtle differences, the easier method is to rely on their (largely) distinct ranges (see the Blue-headed Vireo here).
Next, Phainopepla:

Both a female and a male were observed. This is the only member of its family present in the US. While it is only found in the desert Southwest, the next species should be familiar to all:

Yellow Warbler:

The Ladder-backed Woodpecker may look familiar -- it closely resembles Nutall's Woodpecker and sometimes it is even confused with Red-bellied Woodpecker; but there is no mistaking the red-crown and prominent eye-stripe:

While Tanque Verde Wash is excellent for songbirds, Sweetwater Wetlands (on the other side of town), offers a different mix of species -- especially waterfowl in winter. However, on this visit, a curious spectacle was observed -- a Roadrunner tailing a rather large snake:

Up in the trees, a Western Tanager was a nice surprise:

Finally, any habitat with marshy conditions is perfect for Common Yellowthroat:

Amidst the concrete jungle of Tucson, two outstanding hotspots offer the intrepid birder a chance to savor some choice species that are both familiar as well as extraordinary.