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Friday, June 23, 2017

A Quartet of Owls

[Feb/April. Michigan/Florida]

When we think of raptors, or birds of prey, we picture soaring eagles, diving ospreys, pouncing hawks or swooping falcons. But this grouping also includes scavenging vultures and secretive nocturnal owls. The raptors, therefore, cover a lot of taxonomic ground; indeed, the early classification of raptors by Linnaeus also included the Shrikes before they were rightfully omitted by Veillot. 

From this grouping, then, it is this blogger's pleasure to profile 4 outstanding representatives of the Owls that were observed in Michigan and SW Florida:

  • Northern Saw-whet Owl
  • Burrowing Owl
  • Eastern Screech Owl
  • Barred Owl

We start with a tiny, ear-tuftless owl -- an owl that sounds like a saw being sharpened against a whetstone -- the Northern Saw-whet Owl:

Seen at DNR Point in Harrison Twp, MI, this tiny owl is about the same size as a Robin and is a deadly hunter of mice.

While the Saw-whet Owl is decidedly nocturnal, our next owl, the Burrowing Owl is not necessarily so:


Seen on Marco Island, the Burrowing Owl is surely the "unowl" owl -- active by day and instead of nesting in trees, it uses abandoned gopher tortoise burrows. How these owls have managed to eke out a precarious existence in the ugly suburban sprawl on Marco is a minor miracle in of itself. In the US, besides the West, these owls are restricted to Florida where they faced constant pressure due to habitat loss and disturbance from both bipeds and quadrupeds. 

The Eastern Screech Owl, in contrast, is a typical owl:

With tufted ears and near-perfect camouflage, this owl comes in two morphs (grey, as shown, and also red). This individual was observed at Sterling Heights Nature Center, MI.

We concluded with a family of Barred Owls observed at Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary:

This Owl (presumed female) was observed catching and devouring a fish that was then fed to her two little owlets:

An endearing sight indeed!

Owls are fascinating raptors that defy every stereotype -- some are truly nocturnal but not all. They can be large enough to kill cats (eg., Great Horned Owl) but can also be minuscule like the Saw-whet Owl or the Elf Owl. They hunt insects (like Burrowing Owls), mammals, birds and even fish (like the Barred Owl at CSS). 

Surely, the Owls present an opportunity for endless fascination and learning for the intrepid birder.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Florida Specialties: Mangrove Cuckoo, Snail Kite, Limpkin, Muscovy Duck and Painted Bunting

[SW Florida. April 2017]

Southwest Florida is renowned for its many avian marvels that attract keen interest from birders all over the US as well as internationally. We must acknowledge, however, that, in classic Orwellian double-speak, while all birds are special, some are indeed more special than others! 

This fact cannot ring truer than in consideration of the fabled specialty species of Southwest Florida: iconic birds such as Swallow-tailed Kite, White-crowned Pigeon, Smooth-billed Ani and Short-tailed Hawk and more. 

A Spring visit to SW Florida afforded this blogger an opportunity to reacquaint himself with the many compelling reasons why SW Florida is such a magnet for birders seeking species that are best observed here than anywhere else in the country -- species such as:

  • Mangrove Cuckoo
  • Snail Kite
  • Limpkin
  • Muscovy Duck
  • Painted Bunting
We start with the elusive Mangrove Cuckoo -- found nowhere else in the US except S. Florida:

The grey crown, black eye mask and buffy underside help distinguish this species from its commoner cousin, the Yellow-billed Cuckoo. This particular individual was observed at Bunche Beach where this blogger was amazed to witness the Cuckoo out in the open actively being observed by 3 other mesmerized onlookers!

Next up is the Snail Kite -- found extensively in South and Central America, it's only foothold in the US is in Florida:

The Limpkin has two things in common with the the Snail Kite -- it is exclusive to Florida in the US and feasts on a diet of Apple Snails.

Both the Snail Kite and the Limpkin were observed at Harns Marsh, a venue profiled extensively by acclaimed naturalist and photographer, Bob Pelkey

Also at Harns Marsh, was this peculiar waterfowl:

Muscovy Duck is found in the American tropics, and while it does range as far North as S. Texas, there are feral populations in the US -- especially, Florida.

Finally, Painted Bunting, while not exclusive to SW Florida, is a common sight here and can be observed at hotspots such as Corkscrew Swamp:

We end this post with a Bonus Feature on common raptors of SW Florida:

Bald Eagle (observed in flight at Corkscrew; an immature at Harns):

Red-shouldered Hawk (also at Corkscrew):

And, the Osprey -- a killing machine of unparalleled grace and beauty:

This Osprey with its massive talons was observed at Carlos Point/Little Estero CWA.

Birders have no shortage of choices when it comes to birding hotspots in the US. Every state in the country has something unique to offer; but, for those looking for an eclectic mix featuring secretive cuckoos, colorful finches, rare raptors and wattled ducks, there is no place like SW Florida!

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Extra-Ord-inary Highlights from Mt. Ord: Grey Vireo, Scott's Oriole and Painted Redstart

[Mt. Ord. April 2017]

Named after Maj Gen Edward Ord (who led a distinguished career as a soldier during the Civil War), Mt. Ord stands over 7,000 ft tall at the intersection of Maricopa and Gila counties in Arizona's Mazatzal mountain range within Tonto National Forest.

An ascent to the summit honors not just the mountain's namesake, but also affords the opportunity for the intrepid birder to get acquainted with the unique birdlife of the area -- featuring species such as:

  • Black-chinned Sparrow
  • Grey Vireo
  • Scott's Oriole
  • Grace's Warbler
  • Olive Warbler
  • Painted Redstart
  • Summer Tanager

We start with the distinctive sparrow of arid foothills of the Southwest -- Black-chinned Sparrow:

With its "spinning coin" song, grey body, rufous wings and black chin, this is indeed an unforgettable sparrow.

Much plainer is the Grey Vireo. A species whose maiden sighting was enjoyed by this blogger on this occasion. Vireos are perhaps relegated to "second class citizens" in juxtaposition to our much more colorful warblers, yet it is the interminably cheerful songs of our vireos that are a true harbinger of Spring.

And the Grey Vireo, although modest in looks, is a cheery songster:

Scott's Oriole: A dramatic lemon-yellow and black, Scott's Oriole looks like a giant goldfinch singing the sweet whistled notes that are typical of Orioles:

Grace's Warbler -- Unlike many of our flashy warblers, the subtle shades of grey, white and a yellow throat lend a graceful look to this Southwestern specialty:

Both the Grace's and the Olive Warbler were found in the upper reaches of the mountain where they regaled the observer with their swift movements and fine song:

One of the flashiest warblers of the Southwest, the Painted Redstart also brought a dash of color to the forest:

The ensuing chorus of warblers, orioles and vireos was enjoyed by all denizens of the forest; including this female Summer Tanager:

In the desert, mountains are an oasis not only of cooler weather and greenery but also of hidden avian gems such as the Grey Vireo, specialty Southwestern Warblers and Scott's Oriole. And, a perfect place to enjoy these delights is the stunning peak of the Mazatzals -- Mt. Ord.