Tuesday, November 18, 2014

November Warblers at Corkscrew Swamp and Musings on Audubon and His Legacy

[Corkscrew Swamp, FL. Nov 2014]

While everyone has heard of John James Audubon, it may be a surprise to some that Audubon is not considered to be the father of American Ornithology (that honor surely belongs to Alexander Wilson), but, what isn't disputable is that Audubon is most assuredly the foremost American master of bird art -- and hence, by consequence, singularly responsible for inspiring millions of people to delve into the fascinating subjects of the avian world through his exceptional imagery and vivid picturization of American birdlife.

This blog, in turn, is humbly inspired by the traditions of Audubon -- in documenting the visual brilliance of our Avifauna -- and by Wilson -- in exploring avian science and the issues that affect bird conservation. Both endeavors in which this blogger is engaged in sincere pursuit though with full knowledge of the resulting shortcomings that must inevitably accrue from aspiring to their high, perhaps even unattainable, standards.

Audubon was more than an Artist and Ornithologist, in his later years he was also a confirmed conservationist. The orgy of slaughter in America peaked in the late 1800's and early 1900's and it was in response to this scale of wanton killing that the Audubon society was established nationally in 1905. Thus every time this blogger visits an Audubon Sanctuary, he is reminded of this quote:

“A true conservationist is a man who knows that the world is not given by his fathers, but borrowed from his children.” [often misattributed to Audubon, this quote is actually from Wendell Berry]

And it is in this spirit that we offer to the reader eight species of North American wood warblers -- eight feathered jewels representing a tiny part of the avian treasure we must bequeath to successive generations -- that were observed at the Audubon Society's Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary in Southwest Florida:
  1. Prairie Warbler
  2. Black-and-white Warbler
  3. Louisiana Waterthrush
  4. Yellow-throated Warbler
  5. Common Yellowthroat
  6. Pine Warbler
  7. Palm Warbler
  8. Myrtle Warbler
We start with Prairie Warbler:

Prairie Warbler -- usually found at the periphery of the Sanctuary

Instantly recognizable in basic or alternate plumage due to its unique facial markings; its eye both eye-lined and prominently circumscribed, the Prairie Warbler is found year round in Southwest Florida. The migratory population (such as this one seen in Michigan) winters largely in the Caribbean unlike the Florida subspecies.

Black-and-white Warbler seen at Corkscrew Swamp
The Black-and-white Warbler, another Eastern warbler, surpasses the Prairie Warbler in both distribution and population by a factor of almost 20 (the global population of Prairie Warbler is about 1.4 million while that of the Black-and-white is about 20 million).

Black-and-white Warbler
Does the Black-and-white Warbler's zebra-esque plumage serve any functional purpose?  Does it help confuse predators or camouflage it from its prey? Or is it merely the neotropical breeding strategy of "the most outrageously flamboyant suitor gets the girl?" Surely, fascinating topics to explore; what we do know, however, is that the Black-and-white is unique among warblers with its nuthatch-like foraging habits as it creeps hurriedly along tree trunks and tree limbs in search of insects and spiders.

Our next warbler is a Waterthrush -- earlier grouped with the Ovenbird, the genus Parkesia now contains only two species: the Louisiana Waterthrush and the Northern Waterthrush. It is the former that was observed at Corkscrew during this blogger's visit:

Louisiana Waterthrush seen by the South Lettuce Lake at Corkscrew
As can be seen from the above images, the Louisiana Waterthrush has a great affinity for water and, while its size is much smaller than that of a thrush, the drab buff-and-pale color scheme is certainly reminiscent of one.

Louisiana Waterthrush
Both Waterthrushes are found at Corkscrew in migration and, when seen together, it results in a situation that inevitably leads to an identification challenge between these two very similar looking, similar sounding and similar foraging Waterthrushes.

Our next warbler, however, presents little ambiguity to even the most casual of observers; the Yellow-throated Warbler:

Our 5th warbler is the aptly named Common Yellowthroat:

Preferring wet and weedy environments and conspicuous on account of its loud (and harsh sounding) chips, the Common Yellowthroat doesn't look markedly different from its breeding best excepting pinker legs and a lighter green on the back.

Also observed was this Pine Warbler -- still showing a fair amount of yellow:

And, this bright Palm Warbler:

Palm Warbler seen at Corkscrew
Finally, we present a Myrtle Warbler -- these, after the Palm, are probably the most numerous over-wintering warblers in Southwest Florida:

Myrtle Warbler

John James Audubon's declared ambition in 1820 was to depict every single species of bird found in North America -- and, in 1825, his dream came to fruition in the publishing of the epic "Birds of America" which detailed 497 species in breathtaking beauty -- a spectacular achievement indeed! (imagine doing this today without the use of eBird, Birding Guides, and Bird Lines).

Even today, it is striking how much our birding ambitions mirror Audubon's quest from almost 200 years ago. However, how we pursue and document the fulfillment of these ambitions has changed considerably (thanks to the inexorable march of technology) -- from the use of watercolor, copperplate etchings and subscription art books to digital photography, social media and internet blogging. And, consider some common examples of birding quests today:
In this, and countless other ways, we can sustain the American traditions of Audubon and Wilson to document, depict and publish our avian observations and therefore contribute, in however small measure, toward the preservation of our birdlife for future generations as so passionately exhorted by Wendell Berry.
Epilogue: some background on the examples chosen:
  • Any reader of ABA publications will be familiar with Brian Small's exquisite and exhaustive work where it features frequently
  • Kenn Kaufman's "Kingbird Highway" is a classic and epitomizes, in many ways, the wanderlust brought on by a birding quest. 
  • I met Robert B (who was doing a Big Year) in 2012 in June in Texas while birding Estero LLano Grande SP where I added many lifers to my list. Incredibly, I ran into him again 6 months later at Sabino Canyon, AZ, when both of us were chasing the same rarity: the Rufous-backed Robin
  • Missing a couple of warbler species myself, "52 Small Birds" was both informative and inspirational as it details one man's quest to photograph all species of wood warblers in the US
  • Bob's excellent work at SW Florida Birder is well known and who cannot but enjoy the thrill of the vicarious chase of a rarity or the beauty of SW Florida's birdlife as so passionately captured by Bob.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Red-tailed Hawk, Brown Creeper and Ruby-crowned Kinglet

[Wolcott Mill and Lake St. Clair Metroparks. MI. Late Oct/Early Nov 2014]

Living in Southwest Florida, one could not be faulted for thinking that the title of commonest hawk in the US belongs to the Red-shouldered Hawk by virtue if its near ubiquity in these parts.

However, this worthy distinction is claimed not by the Red-shouldered Hawk but by the featured Accipter of this post -- the Red-tailed Hawk whose massive range stretches across the whole of the North American continent and is found in every state of the Union (excepting Hawaii). In Southwest Florida, it is a winter visitor to its Red-shouldered cousin.

Besides the hawk, we will also review recent sightings of Brown Creeper, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, White-breasted Nuthatch and some common woodland species.

We start with the hawk:

Red-tailed Hawk seen at Wolcott Mill Metropark
Two sub-adults were sighted; one at Wolcott Mill and the other at Lake St. Clair Metroparks -- their tails not as deeply red as a fully mature adult.

Red-tailed Hawk seen at Lake St. Clair Metropark
Apart from their trademark red tail, Red-tailed Hawks offer little consistent identification marks owing to a high degree of variability with Pale, Rufous, Dark and Light morphs of the species occurring in the wild. Hence, the best way, in addition to size and shape, is to look for a square tail, yellow eyes and powerful yellow legs (eg., consider these individuals spotted in Arizona and California).

The red tail on this sub-adult is more brown than red
This individual seen at Lake St. Clair was hypnotized by the mouth-watering activity at a bird feeder behind the Nature Center at the park. Thus transfixed, it permitted close approach:

Close-up profile of a Red-tailed Hawk
Red-tailed Hawks have a preference for small mammals but birds also figure in their diet.

While it would be hard to overlook the hawk, our next bird has been described as a "moving piece of bark" -- the Brown Creeper:

Brown Creeper seen at Lake St. Clair Metropark

Brown Creepers appear cloaked in invisibility -- their diminutive size, cryptic coloration and fast movements make them difficult to see and (virtually) impossible to photograph.

Like the Hawk, the Creeper is found coast to coast in the US and is a year-round resident in its range although some Northern populations do undertake migratory movements.

Ruby-crowned Kinglet (note small red patch on crown)
The Ruby-crowned Kinglet, on the other hand, is strongly migratory. A kinglet is a "small king" and this bird indeed sports a tiny patch of red on its crown -- a feature that, unfortunately, is mostly hidden.

Ruby-crowned Kinglet seen at Wolcott Mill Metropark
This is one of our two Kinglet species -- identifiable by its small size, neckless body and bold eye-ring.

Sharing the Creeper's penchant for vertical climbing, the White-breasted Nuthatch is much more easily seen -- being larger, brighter and noisier.

White-breasted Nuthatch seen at Lake St. Clair Metropark
We conclude with some common woodland species:

A delightful corvid, a Blue Jay, seen at Wolcott Mill:

The delicately hued, slender billed and long-tailed Mourning Dove:

... and, finally, the Red-bellied Woodpecker:

In "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening", the poet extraordinaire Robert Frost wrote -- "The woods are lovely, dark and deep".  And, for a birder, these words ring true in countless ways -- from the lovely sounds of a nuthatch, the deep red of a kinglet's crown to the dark tail of a hawk -- there is a living avian poem in every habitat in a birder's world as this quick survey of woodland species so aptly attests.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Waterfowl in Migration: Snow Goose, Gadwall and Ruddy Duck

[Lake St. Clair Metropark, MI. Late Oct/Early Nov 2014]

Having covered the Fall movements of Shorebird and Songbird species in earlier posts, we turn our birding wits toward Waterfowl -- the varied and wonderful family of Geese, Ducks and Swans that form the tail-end of migration in this region.

Waterfowl are notable not only for their diversity, but also their vulnerability -- they are the species most at risk this time of year. Their spectacular migration, having attracted the sinister attention of hunters across the country, is lethally interrupted in an orgy of violence every year (see here on the details) -- clearly, the 16 million waterfowl killed represent16 million compelling reasons to pursue alternate and strictly non-violent recreational pursuits such as Birding, Hiking or Wildlife Photography!

A quick excursion to Lake St. Clair Metropark was rewarded by the sighting of a delightful sample of Waterfowl species including 1 goose and 5 duck species:
  • Snow Goose
  • Gadwall
  • Ruddy Duck
  • Northern Shoveler
  • Lesser Scaup
  • Redhead
While the distinction between different yet kindred species is sometimes obvious, defining the explicit rules for such differentiation may require deeper elaboration. Consider, as an example, the simple case of Deer and Antelope -- superficially similar yet so entirely different; and, in the same vein, Geese and Ducks.

In the former example, everything hinges on the antlers (branched vs. not; seasonal vs. permanent, etc). However, in the latter example, there are no hard-and-fast rules and exceptions abound. But, in general, it may be said that: Geese are longer-necked, larger sized, strictly monogamous, and herbivorous. Ducks, on the other hand, are smaller, shorter legged, seasonally monogamous, and omnivorous (with many species subsisting on fish or molluscs in addition to plants and insects). Also, Geese honk while ducks don't.

We start with Snow Goose -- a species that has rebounded spectacularly in numbers after hitting a low in the early 1900's. Indeed, they now number the same as the ubiquitous Canada Goose -- about 5 million in total. However, unlike the latter species, Snow Geese are not suburban and rarely seen outside their winter strongholds.

Snow Goose -- note the extensive black wing tips
The Snow Goose is exclusively an American species that breeds in the high tundra -- you won't find this bird in the Old World. Snow Geese tend to be selective about where they stopover while in migration and hence this individual's presence in Michigan was wholly unexpected and momentarily electrified the Michigan birdlines. Snow Goose flyways take them to their wintering grounds in the Southern US and Mexico where they congregate in staggering numbers such as at Bosque del Apache.

Snow Goose -- note the distinctive "grinning patch" on the bill

Reflecting its Arctic breeding habitat, the Snow Goose is plumaged in dazzling white; and, other than with Ross's Goose, it is hardly confusable with any other species (see how Ross's Goose differs from Snow Goose). Black wing tips and the signature "grinning patch" are also hard to miss.

Snow Goose with Canada Geese

Snow Goose feeding on vegetation at Lake St Clair Metropark
Now over to the ducks -- thanks to species such as Wood Duck, Mallard, etc., we are accustomed to a certain level of colorful flamboyance in our drakes. Thus, it should come as a bit of a surprise to learn that the Gadwall drake is cloaked entirely in subdued, but elegant, tans, greys, blacks and browns:

An elegant Gadwall Drake
Gadwall seen at Lake St. Clair Metropark
Unlike the Snow Goose, the Gadwall is a global species found in Europe and Asia as well (eg., seen in winter in India). In the East of the Country, Gadwall are highly migratory moving between their breeding grounds in the Great Plains and Prairies and South to their wintering grounds. However, in the West they may be found year round (eg., at Baylands Preserve).

Ruddy Duck seen at Lake St. Clair Metropark

Much smaller than Gadwall, Ruddy Duck is a stiff-tailed duck of the Center-West regions of the US; it is a New World duck although escapee populations exist in Europe. Small in size, the males can be extremely aggressive in the breeding season and will chase or attack anything or anyone they deem to be a threat. Here seen in their winter colors, Ruddy Duck's baby-blue bills and chestnut bodies are quite remarkable in alternate plumage (eg., as seen in Puerto Rico and California).

Other species observed were Lesser Scaup:

Northern Shoveler -- proudly sporting their honker bills:

... and a juvenile Redhead:

Red Head seen swimming in Lake St. Clair
We conclude with a couple of  bonus birds -- an American Coot and a Pied-billed Grebe that were spied in the vicinity:

Waterfowl are a highly adaptable family of species and, other than the Labrador Duck, are thriving in their home habitats in the US. Unfortunately, their reproductive success is a fact that has not gone unnoticed by those who would do them harm and, for this reason, we wish them Godspeed and all the conservation protections they rightfully deserve.