Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Rio Grande Village: Vermilion Flycatcher, Painted Bunting and Yellow-breasted Chat

[Big Bend National Park, TX. June 2014]

No birding trip to Big Bend can be deemed complete without a visit to the Rio Grande Village area. This area is famed especially for its breeding raptors (Common Black Hawk, Grey Hawk). What makes it somewhat unique in the Park (which is otherwise arid), is the presence of water and this attracts an interesting assortment of birds in addition to the raptors.

We start with Vermilion Flycatcher.

Vermilion Flycatcher seen at Rio Grande Village

All our flycatchers pale in comparison to the Vermilion (including the Scissor-tailed which is the next most colorful). Of course, being drab in color is an advantage for a predating flycatcher. However, the male Vermilion Flycatcher is anything but -- and it isn't afraid to show its flamboyance by perching conspicuously.

Vermilion Flycatcher seen at Rio Grande Village

The Vermilion Flycatcher has a huge range -- from Argentina through Central America until it reaches the southern reaches of the US where it may be found in the border regions of Texas, Arizona, New Mexico and California.

Yellow-breasted Chat seen at Rio Grande Village

Unlike the conspicuous habits of the Vermilion Flycatcher, Yellow-breasted Chat is a renowned skulker.

Yellow-breasted Chat seen at Rio Grande Village

In a Field Guide, the Yellow-breasted Chat will be found under North American Wood Warblers. However, it shows obvious un-warbler like characteristics and it is therefore perhaps more accurately classified as Incertae sedis. When it comes to differences with true wood warblers, several points of difference arise: for starters, the Chat is much larger; doesn't warble (indeed it sounds more like a Jay) and has a stout bill unlike the slender bills of true warblers.

Wintering in Central America, the Chat can be found across the US in the breeding season.

Our next species, however, is neither as widespread nor as common: The Painted Bunting -- a spectacular bunting that is classified as "Near Threatened" by the IUCN

Painted Bunting seen at Rio Grande Village

Having previously observed this species only in its wintering range in Southern Florida, it was  a delight to find it in its breeding grounds at Big Bend.

Unarguably the most colorful bird in the US, the Painted Bunting features at the top of the "must see" lists of American birders. And, it isn't hard to figure out why -- this is a bird that features all the primary colors in their boldest and brightest.

Other species observed included Summer Tanager (which was quite common in the area):

Ash-throated Flycatcher:

And, near the campground, there were a couple of Greater Roadrunners:

Greater Roadrunner

Big Bend's variety of habitats and its proximity to Mexico both make for spectacular birding with a mix of species that is probably unrivaled anywhere in the US.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Laguna Meadows Trail: Birds Crested, Headed and Chinned in Black

[Big Bend National Park, TX. June 2014]

Black is a popular adjective in the descriptive nomenclature of bird species. Thus we have a Chickadee and a Vireo that are "Black-capped"; a Whistling Duck and a Plover that are "Black-bellied"; a Cuckoo and a Magpie that are "Black-billed"... and, the list goes on with the most popular combination being "Black-throated" (of which we have 4 distinct species, suffixed in: Blue Warbler, Green Warbler, Grey Warbler, and Sparrow).

This post will cover 3 species with some aspect of their features described as "Black-" in their common names: Black-headed Grosbeak, Black-chinned Sparrow and Black-crested Titmouse (all recently observed at Big Bend National Park).

Our first bird is the stunning Black-headed Grosbeak -- belonging to the Cardinalidae, this is a typical grosbeak in rich cinnamon with a black head, back and wings. The latter show white patches while yellow hues feature on the belly and the underwing (see photo below).

 Black-headed Grosbeak seen on the Laguna Meadows Trail

The song of the male Black-headed Grosbeak is akin to that of the American Robin but sweeter and more softly modulated. 

 Black-headed Grosbeak seen on the Laguna Meadows Trail
Black-headed Grosbeaks range from Mexico to Southwest Canada and from the Pacific Coast to the Great Plains in woodland habitat. At Big Bend National Park, they were found in the Chisos Mountains with the Laguna Meadows Trail being especially productive.

The Black-headed Grosbeak's Eastern twin is the Rose-breasted Grosbeak. Both are closely related but geographically separated. Where their ranges do overlap (in the Great Plains), they will sometimes hybridize. The females of the species are indistinguishable.

Black-chinned Sparrow seen on the Laguna Meadows Trail

Moving from "headed" to "chinned" -- the Black-chinned Sparrow is a fabulous grey sparrow found mainly in 4 of our Western states ranging from West Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California.

Black-chinned Sparrow seen on the Laguna Meadows Trail
The bill is pink and the trademark chin (and forehead) are black. The tail is long and deeply notched while the back shows elegant brown streaking. At this time of year, the male is singing and its distinctive "spinning coin" song rings in the air.

Black-crested Titmouse seen on the Laguna Meadows Trail
The Black-crested Titmouse is another Texan specialty -- found in the US only in this state. A drab, grey bird, the prominent black crest helps distinguish it from the otherwise similar Tufted Titmouse with which it genetically diverged a quarter million years ago.

Big Bend National Park is richly endowed with a variety of habitats and the extensive trail system offers wonderful opportunities for exploration. One of the jewels in the trail system is the Laguna Meadows Trail as attested by the species profiled here.

Bonus bird: On the way down from the top of Boot Canyon on the Pinnacles Trail, a couple of corvids, hued in delicate baby blue, were observed in fading light: Mexican Jays:

Mexican Jay observed on the Pinnacles Trail

Monday, July 7, 2014

Green Gulch and Panther Junction: Varied Bunting and Scaled Quail

[Big Bend National Park, TX. June 2014]

Most visitors to Big Bend will (and should) make the Park Headquarters at Panther Junction their first stop. Not only is there a wealth of information available from the Rangers but in the surrounding area some typical desert scrubland species may be seen such as Pyrrhuloxia, Curve-billed Thrasher and Scaled Quail.

The first left coming out of Panther Junction (this will be on the way to the Chisos Basin) there is a nice stretch of road (appropriately named the Chisos Basin Rd) that goes through an area called the Green Gulch. There are pullovers for parking along the way where stopping to bird will yield a different mix of species including Varied Bunting [which was a target species for this blogger]:

Varied Bunting seen in the Green Gulch

Belonging to the North American Bunting group in the vast Cardinalidae family, this is a Mexican songbird that barely (but fortunately) crosses into the southern reaches of the US in Texas, Arizona and New Mexico.

Varied Bunting seen in the Green Gulch
The male Varied Bunting is a striking bird -- a melange of blue, purple, red and black that, in sum, impart a bit of a mysterious look -- the light and angle of view making the colors stand out or blend in together.

Varied Bunting in song

Varied Bunting seen in the Green Gulch

Although brightly colored, Varied Bunting can appear to be almost black from a distance. It certainly doesn't help that it prefers to remain hidden and rarely takes a break from its usual habit of being inconspicuous.

Varied Bunting seen in the Green Gulch

During this Blogger's quick trip, the Varied Bunting was found reliably at two locations: at the Green Gulch and Sam Nail Ranch.

Varied Bunting seen in the Green Gulch

 Much more conspicuous in desert scrub are the Blue Grosbeaks which can be found quite commonly:

Blue Grosbeak seen in the Green Gulch

Another delightful species, a cousin to the wrens, was observed in the same area: the Blue-grey Gnatcatcher.

Blue-grey Gnatcatcher seen in the Green Gulch

Gnatcatchers are exclusive to the New World and at Big Bend both the Blue-grey as well as the Black-tailed species can be found.

Curve-billed Thrasher seen at Panther Junction

At the Park Headquarters, a Curve-billed Thrasher was observed -- it was vigorously (nay, fiercely) fending off a Pyrrhuloxia that had strayed too close to the Thrasher's territory; not surprisingly given that June is still in the midst of their breeding season.

Scaled Quail seen near Panther Junction

Further along from Panther Juntion, Scaled Quail were observed with their young in tow. One look at this species and the origin of its name becomes abundantly clear.

Unlike the extreme physical exertions required to see Colima Warbler, there are a wealth of other species that can be found at Big Bend by simply driving around, stopping and observing.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Big Bend National Park: The Only Place for Colima Warbler in the US

[Big Bend National Park, TX. June 2014]

Most of our warblers are seen fairly well when in migration along well-established flyways that cross wide swathes of US territory in Spring and Fall.

Moreover, the breeding season affords additional opportunity to observe those warblers whose nesting grounds encompass either several states (most of our warblers such as Cerulean, Swainson's, etc); or, a few states (some of our warblers eg., Red-faced Warbler, Grace's); or, rarely, a single state (eg., Kirtland's, Golden-cheeked).

However, when it comes to limited distribution, our range-restriction champion must surely be the Colima Warbler: it is found not in a single state or even a single county -- its presence in the US is confined to only one National Park (Big Bend) and that too to a handful of trails in the Chisos Mountains area of the Park.

Colima Warbler seen on the Laguna Meadows Trail

Appropriately, some very special effort is required to see such a special bird: A 10-mile loop that ascends from 5,400 ft to 7,100 ft starts at the Chisos Basin Trailhead beginning with Laguna Meadows, then Colima Warbler, Boot Canyon and finally down on Pinnacles Trail. The terrain can be rough and steep. To do this with a DSLR, a 600 mm lens and the mandatory gallon of water (there is no drinking water along the way) in tow, is a hugely strenuous and physically uber-exhausting ordeal that should only be attempted with great care.

Colima Warbler seen on the Laguna Meadows Trail -- note yellow rump

Visually, Colima Warbler, at first glance, doesn't appear to have the chromatic charisma that would compel middle-aged birders to undertake acts of hiking heroics. Although it lacks the visual "punch" of a Blackburnian or Red-faced Warbler, what it does possess is an understated elegance composed of a grey body with yellow highlights in the vent and rump; a brown patch on the crown and white eye-rings. Indeed, the obvious mustard vent (or crissum) is referenced in its scientific name Oreothlypis crissalis.

Colima Warbler seen on the Laguna Meadows Trail -- note yellow vent

The common name "Colima" comes to us from the area of Sierra Nevada de Colima in Mexico where the type specimen was collected. However, before the Colima Warbler is seen, it is the song of the male that betrays the first sign of the warbler's presence -- somewhat akin to Pine Warbler's song.

Sign at the end of the Laguna Meadows Trail

After completing the Colima Trail, it is a further trek to Boot Canyon before catching Pinnacles Trail for the descent. Boot Canyon trail offers some breathtaking landscape photo opportunities (which were not taken adequate advantage of). Boot Canyon's giveaway is the upside down boot:

The "Boot" in Boot Canyon

And, it was on Pinnacles Trail that the second Colima Warbler of the hike was observed:

Colima Warbler seen on the Pinnacles Trail

Colima Warbler is in the same genus as Virgina's, Nashville and Orange-crowned Warblers and the family resemblance is certainly visible.

Colima Warbler seen on the Pinnacles Trail
Colima Warblers are ground nesters and their population trends are relatively stable.

Colima Warbler seen on the Pinnacles Trail

This is probably the last month that this male will sing. The best time to see them here is April through June and they will depart to their Mexican grounds in August.

Beautiful vistas seen on the way down:

... coupled with a magical sunset spied through the canyon:

Mercifully, the hike's end nears as the Chisos Basin comes into view:

Seen from left to right are the green water tanks, the Chisos Lodge buildings (Block A of the Casa Grande where this blogger stayed); in the far middle is the Store and the Park Office while the rightmost building is Registration, the Gift Shop and the Dining Hall.

Tips if (preferably "when") you go to Big Bend:
  • Fly into San Antonio or Midland-Odessa Airports. The former has the added advantage of offering birding opportunities within city limits: bird the Friedrich Wilderness Park for Golden-cheeked Warbler. The latter is closer to the Park. Either way, be prepared for long drives.
  • Stay a minimum of 2 nights (more if time permits) in the Park. While there are hotel accommodations outside the Park (eg., at Alpine or Marathon), it is highly advantageous to stay at the Chisos Mountain Lodge to maximize birding time and minimize driving time. 
  • The "must do" trails: Laguna Meadows (ascent) and Pinnacles (descent) Trails (allow for at least half a day to do this strenuous 10 mile hike). The Window Trail; the Green Gulch, Sam Nail Ranch and Rio Grande Village.
  • On the drive back to the Airport, consider making a stop at Davis Mountains State Park
Other references: Link to a 1936 publication on the discovery of the Colima Warbler nest at Big Bend by Josselyn Van Tyne.