Saturday, October 18, 2014

Stars of the Certhioidea plus assorted Tyrants

[SE Arizona. April 2014]

Despite the imposing and somewhat mysterious title of this week's blog, we will not be discussing the celestial bodies of a far off  galaxy called Certhioidea; neither shall we be discussing world despots -- indeed, the subject of this blog post is decidedly avian.

In the hallowed taxonomy of the Aves, the superfamily Certhioidea encompasses some truly interesting species belonging to the Treecreepers, Nuthatches, Wrens, and Gnatcatchers. We are fortunate that the Gnatcatchers and Wrens are especially well represented in the New World (indeed Gnatcatchers are exclusive to the Americas).  Treecreepers and Nuthatches, on the other hand, are much more richly represented in the Old World.

In this post we will review recent observations of species belonging to this superfamily plus a small selection of Tyrant Flycatchers that were observed in SE Arizona earlier this year. Specifically, we will briefly profile:

From the Certhioidea:
  • Canyon Wren
  • Rock Wren
  • House Wren
  • Black-tailed Gnatcatcher
  • Blue-grey Gnatcatcher
  • Pygmy Nuthatch
And, from Tyrant Flycatchers:
  • Ash-throated Flycatcher
  • Buff-breasted Flycatcher 
  • Dusky-capped Flycatcher
  • Cordilleran Flycatcher
The Americas are blessed with a wealth of wrens and while most wrens are cryptic brown jobs, the Canyon Wren breaks the mold somewhat in a smart combination of chestnut, brown, grey and white:

 Canyon Wren seen at Sabino Canyon

Canyon Wren seen at Sabino Canyon (river bed trail behind the dam)

One is first alerted to the presence of the Canyon Wren by its incredibly loud song -- a burst of tightly spaced whistled notes that gradually grow longer (and lower pitched) and conclude with a grating squawk.

 Canyon Wren seen at Sabino Canyon

Ranging all across the West, our most distinctive wren is a crevice specialist with an uncanny ability to flatten its body to forage in impossibly tight spaces.

Rock Wren seen at Molino Vista

The aptly named Rock Wren, compared to the Canyon Wren, is both stockier and greyer. However, in song, the Rock Wren is equally (and perhaps more) accomplished. Sadly, its population is declining across its Western range.

House Wren seen at Madera Canyon
House Wren seen at Bear Wallow

Our next wren is the humble House Wren. This songbird has one of the largest ranges of any bird in the New World ranging from Argentina to Canada. It is a cavity nester and population trends are fairly stable.

Closely related to the wrens but not found in the Old World are the delightful Gnatcatchers:

Blue-grey Gnatcatcher seen at Rose Canyon

Unlike the Blue-grey Gnatcatcher (above) which enjoys widespread distribution across the US, the Black-tailed Gnatcatcher is found in a small range close to the Mexican border from Texas westwards.

Black-tailed Gnatcatcher seen at Sabino Canyon

While disambiguating the Black-tailed Gnatcatcher from the Blue-grey may be problematic in Winter, in alternate plumage the identification is a cinch thanks to the spectacular black cap and flamboyant white-edged black tail.

Black-tailed Gnatcatcher seen at Sabino Canyon

Described by George Newbold Lawrence (of Lawrence's Goldfinch fame), this tiny bird is a feisty insectivore but, unlike the Blue-grey, it does not hawk insects in the air; preferring instead, to glean them from leaves and branches. 

We conclude our brief survey of representatives of the Certhioidea with a nuthatch:

Pygmy Nuthatch seen at Rose Canyon

Competing with the Brown-headed Nuthatch for the title to our smallest nuthatch, this pair were observed next to their nest cavity on the descent to Rose Canyon on Mt. Lemmon.

And now for the Tyrant Flycatchers:

Ash-throated Flycatcher:

Ash-throated Flycatcher seen at Molino Vista
And the spectacular Buff-breasted Flycatcher -- much favored for its exclusivity to Arizona in the US:

Preferring woodland habitat over arid scrub, the Dusky-capped Flycatcher appears otherwise quite similar to the Ash-throated:

Dusky-capped Flycatcher seen at Madera Canyon

We conclude with Cordilleran Flycatcher:

A magnet for those of the birding persuasion, SE Arizona is a treasure trove of stunning species some of which are found nowhere else in the US.

Friday, October 10, 2014

SE Arizona: Yellow-eyed Junco, Western Bluebird, Black-throated Sparrow and Canyon Towhee

[SE Arizona. April 2014]

Having meant to publish this post originally in Spring, the esteemed readership of this blog is owed an explanation at to why a post originally conceived in April appears now a full 6 months later in October.

As a matter of fact, the publishing cadence of this birder's humble blogography was hijacked by an explosion of expeditionary birding jaunts starting in April; with trips to:

However, now, with the bulk of Fall migration activity behind us, we are afforded a brief interlude to "course correct" and return this Blog to a more predictable sequence of  "observe and publish".

But first, in the next couple of posts, we pick up the thread from April where we report from Southeast Arizona with a feature focusing on Sparrows, Vireos, Thrushes and other assorted species featuring:

  • Black-throated Sparrow
  • Canyon Towhee
  • Spotted Towhee 
  • Yellow-eyed Junco 
  • Bell's Vireo
  • Plumbeous Vireo
  • Hermit Thrush
  • Western Bluebird
And, Misc:
  • Broad-billed Hummingbird
  • Bridled Titmouse
  • Verdin
  • Greater Roadrunner
  • Gila Woodpecker
  • Cooper's Hawk
  • Gould's Turkey
  • White-winged Dove
 We start with 4 New World sparrows:

Black-throated Sparrow seen at Molino Vista

Black-throated Sparrow (not to be confused with the similar sounding Black-chinned Sparrow) is a handsome sparrow of the Southwest. Somewhat unusual for sparrows, its color scheme has no tans or browns -- just grey and black.

Canyon Towhee seen at Sabino Canyon

The Canyon Towhee is a large new world sparrow. Generally inconspicuous, they are more likely to be found on the ground than perched. It, and the similar California Towhee were once considered to be the same species.

Unlike the grey/black Black-throated Sparrow and the tan/brown Canyon Towhee, the next sparrow has a bit of both color schemes:

Spotted Towhee seen at Florida Canyon

Looking like an Eastern Towhee but with spots on the wings, this boldly colored, large sparrow is a common sight in the Western US ranging from British Columbia to California.

Perhaps the most delightful of our sparrows are the Junco's.

Yellow-eyed Junco seen at Rose Canyon

And the most delightful of our Junco's is the Yellow-eyed -- this is our only sparrow with yellow eyes. This Mexican bird barely extends into our territory in the Southern reaches of Arizona and New Mexico.

Now for the 2 Vireos:

Bell's Vireo seen at Molino Basin
Plumbeous Vireo seen at Madera Canyon

Bell's Vireo is a tiny vireo found from the West to the Central US. Interestingly, the color changes from grey to yellow moving Eastward. Thus, the specimen shown here (observed in Arizona) is largely grey with just a hint of yellow.

Plumbeous Vireo, unlike Bell's is altogether grey. If its white spectacles are reminiscent of  Blue-headed Vireo, it will be no surprise to learn that they were once considered to be the same species. Of course, unlike Blue-headed, Plumbeous Vireo does show the green that is typical of most vireos.

On the Thrush front, a drab Hermit Thrush seen at Madera Canyon was over-shadowed by a resplendent Western Bluebird:

Hermit Thrush seen at Madera Canyon
Western Bluebird seen at Rose Canyon

This brings us to the remaining assortment of species:

Broad-billed Hummingbird seen at Sabino Canyon:

Bridled Titmouse seen at Madera Canyon:

Cooper's Hawk seen at Rose Canyon:

Greater Roadrunner seen at Sabino Canyon:

Gila Woodpecker seen at Sabino Canyon:

Verdin seen at Sabino Canyon:

Wild Turkey seen at Madera Canyon:

White-winged Dove seen at Sabino Canyon:

"Late", it is said, is better than "Never" and it is hoped that this post of signature birds of SE Arizona provides ample testimony in support of the veracity of the adage.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Yellow-bellied Flycatcher and Assorted Migrants at Lake St. Clair

[Lake St. Clair Metropark, Sept. 2014]

A walk through woodland habitat at Lake St. Clair Metropark brought into view many species expected during Fall migration -- including warblers, flycatchers, vireos and grosbeaks.

However, the warblers, at this time of year -- neither in sweet song nor in nuptial bloom -- presented a drab and faded show of their erstwhile Spring brilliance.

The full set of species observed included:
  • Yellow-bellied Flycatcher
  • Northern Flicker
  • Hermit thrush
  • Swainson's thrush
  • Rose-breasted Grosbeak
  • American Redstart
  • Common Yellowthroat
  • Chestnut-sided Warbler
  • Magnolia Warbler
  • Red-eyed Vireo
  • Ruby-throated Hummingbird
The Yellow-bellied Flycatcher's breeding range lies mainly in Canada; and, with its wintering grounds in Central America, the majority of the American birding population is likely to see this flycatcher only in migration; and that too, only in the Eastern half of the country in a flyway that bypasses SW Florida.

Yellow-bellied Flycatcher seen at Lake St. Clair Metropark (Meadow loop trail)

Like other Empidonax flycatchers, the Yellow-bellied is a small, greenish flycatcher; but, distinctively, it also exhibits yellow on the breast. The big, round head and two yellow wing-bars are also useful identification characteristics.

Yellow-bellied Flycatcher seen at Lake St. Clair Metropark (Meadow loop trail)

The forces responsible for the naming of avian species have historically harbored a penchant for belly color -- and half a dozen species in our area are described in this manner.

Thus, we have bellies in black (a whistling duck and a plover), buff (as in hummingbird), red (a woodpecker), sulphur (a flycatcher), and yellow (a sapsucker and the flycatcher in question).

Unlike the Plover who is wont to sport its belly black only seasonally; or the woodpecker with the alleged (but decidedly dubious) red belly; the Yellow-bellied Flycatcher is convincingly blessed with a belly that's indisputably and permanently yellow.

Next, an ant-specialist woodpecker --the Northern Flicker:

 Northern Flicker seen at Lake St. Clair Metropark

The Western subspecies will show "red shafts" instead of yellow -- the only other Flicker species the Northern could possibly be confused with is the Gilded Flicker; however, the Gilded's range is restricted to the Sonoran Desert of the Southwest.

Thrushes observed were Hermit and Swainson's:

Hermit Thrush seen at Lake St. Clair Metropark

Swainson's Thrush seen at Lake St. Clair Metropark

A juvenile Rose-breasted Grosbeak was observed perched high up:

Warblers included American Redstart:

Chestnut-sided Warbler:

Common Yellowthroat:

and Magnolia Warbler:

We end with a vireo and a hummingbird.

Red-eyed Vireo seen at Lake St. Clair Metropark (Meadow loop trail)

And the hummer:

Ruby-throated Hummingbird

As winter approaches, this migration bonanza will pass and our woods will become eerily quiet while those of tropical America will be proportionately livelier thus completing a cycle that richly rewards the birding community bi-annually.