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Monday, March 28, 2016

Familiar Songbirds of the West featuring Mountain Bluebird and Lark Sparrow

[California. March 2016]

A recent trip to California yielded a refreshing assortment of mostly familiar songbirds -- sparrows and thrushes that this blogger has had the good fortune to enjoy previously. On the subject of the "familiar", however, it is universally acknowledged that "familiarity breeds contempt" (an idiom that first finds written mention in Chaucer's works from the 1300's).  

Nevertheless, whatever its origin, we must assume that whoever coined this expression certainly could not have been a birder. For, all birders know that every observation of a species, even one thoroughly familiar, offers an opportunity to reacquaint, to refresh and to discover anew -- be it a revelation about avian identification, or behavior or habitat. Surely then, "contempt" would be a quality wholly unknown to a mind thus engaged in discovery and observation.

We review, then, this assortment of Western songbirds -- comprising the following thrushes and sparrows:
  • Mountain Bluebird
  • Western Bluebird
  • Hermit Thrush
  • Lark Sparrow
  • Savannah Sparrow
  • Song Sparrow
  • White-crowned Sparrow
  • Dark-eyed Junco [Oregon]
  • California Towhee 
We lead with the thrushes and the incomparable Mountain Bluebird:

Mountain Bluebird seen at Ramona Grasslands, San Diego Co.
Mountain Bluebird in winter plumage shows only a hint of the cerulean blue that it sports in Summer. It is otherwise pale and grey -- lacking the rusty coloration of the Western Bluebird. A mixed flock of both Mountain Bluebirds and Western Bluebirds at Ramona Grasslands allowed for close comparison of these lovely thrushes.
Western Bluebird is a deeper blue and the breast is rusty while the belly is white:

Western Bluebird seen at Cuesta Park
Western Bluebird seen at Ramona Grasslands
Western Bluebirds are found in a wide distribution in the American West -- having previously found mention in this blog when reporting from Arizona in the company of Grace's Warbler, Yellow-eyed Junco, and Hutton's Vireo.

Western Bluebird seen at Byxbee Park

As testament to our earlier thesis on discovering anew amidst the familiar, this particular observation was noteworthy for the first time that this blogger has captured the brilliant back view (above) of this amazingly colorful thrush.

Our final thrush is Hermit Thrush -- the back view facilitating observation of the "rusty tail" that is diagnostic:

Hermit Thrush seen at Ramona Grasslands, San Diego Co.
Moving on to sparrows, a distinctly marked songbird with chestnut cheeks and black whiskers alights on a branch:

Lark Sparrow seen at Ramona Grasslands, Wildflower Loop

This most unusual of sparrows is the Lark Sparrow -- its many unique characteristics having earned the Lark Sparrow its own genus.
The next sparrow is one of our most widespread: Savannah Sparrow:

Savannah Sparrow seen at Ramona Grasslands
Contrary to popular belief, this sparrow is not named "Savannah" for its affinity for grasslands and fields; instead the moniker stems from the place in Georgia that yielded the type specimen of the species.
Like the Savannah Sparrow, Song Sparrow is also distributed widely across the US:

Song Sparrow seen at Baylands

Next, White-crowned Sparrow is a common wintering species seen in the West:

The new world family of sparrows includes not just sparrows but also Juncos and Towhees and the former are some of our most delicate and fine-looking songbirds:

Dark-eyed Junco (Oregon race), Seen at Cuesta Park.
Dark-eyed Junco has several sub-species -- the one observed on this trip was the Oregon race which has a black hood, and brown back and flanks. Compare to the slate-colored race seen in the Eastern US, eg., in Michigan.
Finally, towhees are large sparrows found across the US; save for one, all other Towhee species are in the Western US -- such as this California Towhee:

California Towhee seen at Ramona Grasslands

From incomparable thrushes like the Mountain Bluebird to unusual sparrows such as Lark Sparrow, songbirds like these encountered in the West, offer new vistas for discovery and appreciation to the intrepid birder.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

A Wren, a Tit, and a Wrentit

[California. March 2016]

From our earlier post on hugely powerful eagles and hawks, we turn our attention to the other end of the avian spectrum -- the tiny and diminutive -- delightful and distinctive species that while small in dimension are decidedly grand on character. 

Surely, every serious birder is familiar with the family of Tits and the family of Wrens. The former, known as the Paridae family, has scores of species that are found on every inhabited continent excepting S. America and Australia. On the other hand, the Wren family or the Troglodytidae comprise about 80 species globally -- most of them found in the New World and 10 of them can be found right here in the US. And, while 10 may not sound like a whole lot, keep in mind that the whole of Europe and Asia have just a single wren species to enjoy. The situation is a bit reversed on the Paridae front, with the majority of species found in the Old World and only a dozen species of Tits found in the US.

We lead, however, with the Wrentit -- an enigmatic songbird that despite its moniker, is neither wren nor tit:

The Wrentit has been a taxonomic nomad -- like a ship without a home port, it has been classified at various times under the following taxa:
  • The Chamaeidae -- the Wrentit's own monotypic family 
  • The Aegithalidae -- with the long-tailed tits
  • The Paridae -- with the true tits 
  • The Sylviidae -- with the Old World warblers
  • The Timaliidae -- with the Old World babblers 

The composite looks of the Wrentit don't help either -- it certainly has the long tail of the long-tailed tits; the overall body shape of a babbler; the coloration of a wren; the bright eyes of a bushtit and the bill of a warbler. 

Surely, this is a species that exists to confound and defy our understanding of taxonomy. Its ambiguous characteristics are a slap in the face of ornithologists who are generally accustomed to having species fit neatly in their vast system of classification!

Wrentit seen at Ramona Grasslands, San Diego County

Currently, the Wrentit is placed with the Old World Warblers; but, regardless of where it is classified, this shy and sedentary species needs to be on every birder's lifelist for the sheer aura of mystery regarding its taxonomic origins.

The next songbird, seen at Ramona Grasslands, presents no such mystery -- it is decidedly a wren:

Of the 10 wrens in the US, the Rock Wren is our palest. Seen in surroundings befitting its moniker, it is uncanny how well the wren's color and plumage-pattern blend in with the grain of its rocky perch.

Rock Wren seen at Ramona Grasslands
This Western wren is an accomplished songster and as befits a denizen of dry, rocky habitat, the Rock Wren never needs to drink water. 

Just like the Rock Wren, the Oak Titmouse (a member of the Paridae or true tits) is also perfectly adapted to its environment -- in this case, the dry oak-woods habitat of the West.

Oak Titmouse seen at Cuesta Park, Mountain View, CA
Oak Titmouse is a plain grey-brown colored tit -- small wonder that it was earlier lumped with the Juniper Titmouse into a single species known unimaginatively as simply "Plain Titmouse". 

We end with the only member of the Aegithalidae, or long-tailed tit family, in the US -- the Bushtit:

Bushtit seen at Ramona Grasslands
Bushtit seen at Cuesta Park

These tiny, energetic songbirds are commonly seen in the West and have been featured in this blog before as observed in California and Texas.

Compound bird names such as Wrentit, Hawk-Owl, Lark Sparrow, Sparrow-Lark, Magpie Lark, etc., remind us of a small number of species that are so enigmatic that they excite our curiosity endlessly for possessing a blend of seemingly unrelated qualities sourced from different bird families. And, the incomparable Wrentit of the West, not related to any other North American bird family, is a great example of precisely such a bird.

Friday, March 11, 2016

In Rapture with Raptors: Golden Eagle, Ferruginous Hawk and White-tailed Kite

[California. March 2016]

Having profiled the Peregrine Falcon in our last post, we continue our rapturous gallop further into raptor territory by profiling an outstanding quartet of birds of prey -- three of which are exclusive to the West Coast:
  • Golden Eagle
  • Ferruginous Hawk
  • White-tailed Kite
  • Red-shouldered Hawk
 We start with the Golden Eagle:

The fabled Golden Eagle is just slightly smaller than the Bald Eagle. However, it is much grander in every other trait -- indeed, there is considerable reason this global raptor was used as a symbol of Imperial Rome and continues to feature on the national coat of arms of several countries today.

By reputation, this eagle is probably the most formidable and fearless hunter in the world; capable of bringing down deer and wolves and reported to carry off prey weighing up to 10 lbs. Astonishingly, Golden Eagles have been documented to attack and kill prey like reindeer weighing 150 lbs! No other raptor extant today has these kind of killing credentials. 

The Golden Eagle is found in North Africa, Eurasia and North America. In the US, it is found in the West and while it will prey on large animals such as Pronghorn and livestock, its staple diet is small mammals such as hares and ground squirrels. The individual profiled here was observed at Ramona Grasslands near San Diego hunting for ground squirrels [note said rodent in the above image just above the watermark].

If the Golden Eagle exudes majesty, the next raptor is literally named for its regality -- Buteo Regalis:

Ferruginous Hawk seen at Ramona Grasslands

And Buteo Regalis is none other than Ferruginous Hawk -- the largest Hawk in North America and the second largest hawk in the world. It has a wingspan up to 5 feet across and weighs more than twice as much as the Red-shouldered Hawk.

From a regal raptor, we move to a bird of prey that in looks and build has the appearance of being crafted from the finest porcelain: the White-tailed Kite:

This hawk is found in North and South America. Although now relatively common in the Western US, it is easy to forget that it was brought to the point of extinction just 80 years ago in this country by indiscriminate shooting.

This elegant raptor was observed in San Diego at Los Pensaquitos. 

We conclude with a hawk that is found in both the East and the West -- the Red-shouldered Hawk:

Red-shouldered Hawk seen at Santa Teresa
Note that the California race of Red-shouldered Hawk is of bright orange-red coloration (especially on the head and face) -- compare to the much paler Florida race.

If warblers are the butterflies, surely raptors are the Lions of the Avian world. And, there is no better place to see the true "Lion of the Air", the Golden Eagle, with its ferocity and power, than in the Western US.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Bolivar Flats: The World's Fastest Animal

[Bolivar Peninsula, TX. Dec 2015]

It should come as no surprise that we are so immensely proud of all our technological achievements. And rightly so -- without technology, we are easily outrun, outswum, and outpowered -- our ability to survive in the wild without the fruits of technology would be very severely limited indeed.  

In sharp contrast to the human race, our fellow animals on earth seem perfectly capable of thriving in the raw environment of their habitat -- with nothing more than their god-given appendages and faculties

Consider, for example, the Peregrine Falcon. Its explosive combination of speed and power makes this falcon one of the deadliest hunters in the animal kingdom. The Peregrine brings down its prey by air-diving in excess of 240 mph and, what is effortlessly accomplished by the sheer natural prowess of this raptor, can only be matched by us through our clever inventions.

The inspiration, therefore, for this post is precisely "the world's fastest animal" -- the Peregrine Falcon -- which was observed on a recent excursion to Galveston County, TX. Driving south from Houston, through Galveston and then by the Port Bolivar-Galveston Ferry to Bolivar Peninsula, we return to the Bolivar Flats Sanctuary; where, in addition to the the highlighted species, this blogger was witness to an eclectic mix of species including:
  • Crested Caracara
  • Loggerhead Shrike
  • Eastern Meadowlark
  • Great Blue Heron
  • Savannah Sparrow
  • Forster's Tern
We start with the falcon:

The Peregrine was observed having seagull for lunch. This falcon is an avid bird hunter and its speed and power is rightfully legendary.

The Peregrine is a global raptor and found on every human-inhabited continent. 

Three Caracara were also observed at this venue -- unlike the Peregrine, these raptors are known mainly to scavenge.

Loggerhead Shrike is also a hunter but, unlike the Caracara and the Peregrine, it is a predatory songbird and not a member of the raptor family.

Also observed were:

Eastern Meadowlark:

And closer to the water, a Great Blue Heron:

The grasslands nearby harbor sparrows such as this Savannah Sparrow:

We conclude with a Forster's Tern:

The animal kingdom harbors creatures that truly personify the Olympics motto of "Citius - Altius - Fortius" [Latin for Faster - Higher - Stronger]. From the Bar-headed Goose that flies at almost 30,000 feet over the Himalayas to the Peregrine Falcon that is the world's fastest animal at over 240 mph, we share this planet with species that inspire our imagination and earn our respect for the superlative powers they possess so effortlessly and naturally.