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Sunday, January 22, 2017

Spectacular Sparrows of the Southwest featuing Sagebrush Sparrow

[SEAZ. December, 2016]

Birders are extremely faithful to their birds. Heroic chases, relentless pursuits and eternal quests are all fair game when searching for a nemesis bird, a visiting vagrant or a remarkable rarity -- these reflect both our stubborn fidelity to our feathered friends as well as an (almost obsessive) compulsion to engage in the endless joys of avian observation.

But, is this devotion reciprocated? Well, the short answer is "generally not". Indeed, many of our fair feathered friends are also our fair weather friends -- with us when it suits them; and, gone when it doesn't. Consider, for example, the warblers. All Spring and Summer, the object of our endless fascination; yet, come Winter, they callously desert us, en masse, to flee to more salubrious climes.

In contrast, we are grateful to our faithful sparrows -- with us through the thick of Summer and the thin of Winter. Juncos, Sparrows and Towhees do not conveniently vacate US territory just because of the seasonal plunge in temperature -- and as a consequence, in this post, we gratefully present a delightful collection of sparrows observed during this blogger's winter sojourn in Southeast Arizona:
  • Sagebrush Sparrow
  • Rufous-crowned Sparrow
  • Rufous-winged Sparrow
  • Lincoln's Sparrow
  • White-crowned Sparrow
  • Green-tailed Towhee
  • Canyon Towhee
  • Abert's Towhee
In a momentous and history-shaping edict, the venerable authorities of High Birding decreed in 2013 that Sage Sparrow be consigned to the trash heap of defunct taxa and, in its stead, be replaced by Sagebrush Sparrow and Bell's Sparrow. This was the culmination of a 115 year-old debate that was finally clinched on account of DNA analysis.

The advent of an additional countable species, while surely celebrated in every birding corner of the world, must, however, also be tempered with the risk of misidentification between these two quite similar sparrows.

Indeed, disambiguating Sagebrush and Bell's sparrows is much like the Long-billed vs. Short-billed Dowitcher conundrum -- an exercise that relies on subtle cues with perhaps no single definitive visual diagnostic.

Taking this identification challenge head-on, we start with (what looks to this blogger like) Sagebrush Sparrow:

A grey head, a brown, streaked back, white eyering, black mustachial stripe are all helpful in identifying this species.
A front view shows the dark spot on the breast and the two white patches above the lores.

The next picture shows a similar sparrow -- however, the mustachial stripe is fainter and the streaks on the back are less defined and shorter. These clues point to Bell's Sparrow:

However, it is worth quoting the Cornell Lab of Ornithology:

"Overall, the two species are extremely difficult to tell apart, and many times the best a birder can do on the wintering grounds is mark these birds as Bell’s/Sagebrush."

The above sparrows were observed at the Thrasher Spot in the Phoenix area. Having survived the perils of Sagebrush/Bell's identification, we move to the Tucson area for some id relief; starting with Rufous-crowned Sparrow:

Favoring hillside habitat, Rufous-crowned Sparrow is a grey sparrow with a bright rufous crown and half eye-stripe. The white eyering is also prominent. This individual was observed at Molino Basin, Mt. Lemmon.

Unlike Rufous-crowned, Rufous-winged Sparrow is much more range-restricted in the US to southernmost Arizona where it is found in the Sonoran desert and grasslands of the area.

Note the rufous wing patches in the lower image. This individual was seen on the approach to Florida Canyon.

Lincoln's Sparrow, here encountered in the foothills of Madera Canyon, is readily recognized thanks to its heavy streaking:

Probably the most common sparrow encountered was White-crowned Sparrow:

This and the Dark-eyed Junco were observed at Molino Basin:

Switching gear to the Towhees -- we start with the most spectacular Towhee in the country:

Green-tailed Towhee

Most Towhees are buffy brown and drab, such as Canyon Towhee:

... and Abert's Towhee:

The intrepid birder must confront many natural dangers -- such as mosquitoes, alligators, snakes and lizards -- in pursuit of interesting species; however, perhaps greater perils to the unsuspecting birder arise from misidentification, ignorance and inadequate preparation.

And, the Sagebrush/Bell's Sparrow conundrum poses just such a danger; whose silver lining, of course, is a further honing of observation and identification skills that will inevitably lead to growth as a birder.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Thrashing for Thrashers featuring our scarcest: Bendire's Thrasher

[December 2016. Phoenix area, AZ]

To discover a wealth of Thrashers, it is necessary to travel to the Western US. Indeed, the whole of the Eastern US, with the lone and wonderfully rufous Brown Thrasher, is limited to just that one species.

But, moving Westward, our Thrasher riches accrue quickly: first we come across Long-billed Thrasher (seen in this blog in Texas), Curve-billed Thrasher (seen here in Texas), Sage Thrasher (seen here in Colorado), Bendire's Thrasher (currently unsighted in this blog), Crissal Thrasher (seen here in New Mexico), California Thrasher (seen here in California), and the aristocratic-sounding Le Conte's Thrasher (unsighted).

And, the best place in the US to see Thrashers is the predictably named "The Thrasher Spot" (no joke -- this is the actual hotspot name in And, a winter visit to the Phoenix area afforded this blogger an opportunity to explore this fabled "Thrasher Spot" and other nearby areas; which yielded species such as:

  • Bendire's Thrasher
  • Crissal Thrasher
  • Curve-billed Thrasher
  • Say's Phoebe
  • Verdin
We start with Bendire's Thrasher. Discovered in Arizona by avid bird enthusiast Lt. Charles Bendire, it was first thought to be a female Curve-billed Thrasher by experts at the Smithsonian:

It was only when Lt. Bendire sent a further specimen of this species to Washington that Elliott Coues was able to confirm that it was indeed a new species and named it after the discoverer.

Bendire's, discovered only in 1872, is our newest Thrasher. Sadly, it is also our scarcest. While all other Thrashers in the US are classified as "Least Concern", the Bendire's population has crashed by over 90% since 1966 and is currently rated as "Vulnerable".

Crissal Thrasher is readily disambiguated from Le Conte's on account of it's pale eyes:

Crissal's Thrasher is named for it's bright reddish vent; and, unlike Bendire's, its bill curves sharply downwards much like our next thrasher -- Curve-billed Thrasher:

Note that the Curve-billed Thrasher has buffy spots on its breast unlike the arrow-shaped spots on Bendire's. It is the most common thrasher of the Southwest (seen here at Gilbert Water Ranch).

Also seen were:

Say's Phoebe:

Discovered by Thomas Say, this tyrant flycatcher is a common sight in the West.

Finally, a tiny songbird of the desert -- the Verdin:

Verdin is the only member of the Penduline-tit family of the Old World found in the US.

With the maiden sighting of Bendire's Thrasher on this trip, only Le Conte's Thrasher remains unobserved for this blogger to complete the entirety of Thrasher species in the US.

And, for all intrepid birders who have an interest in discovering the wonderful avian species of the desert -- just like Lt. Bendire did a 150 years ago -- there are wonderful hotspots waiting to be explored such as the Thrasher Spot in Phoenix.