Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Great Horned Owl, Rusty Blackbird and White-breasted Nuthatch

[Lake St. Clair Metropark, MI. Jan 2015]

Most of our songbirds prefer to nest in the Spring and Summer, Owls, however, start much earlier -- typically beginning their nesting in winter. Presumably, this is because their prey items (rodents, birds, etc.) will be more abundant by the time their owlets fledge. 

Thus, it was not wholly unexpected when the foolhardy act of braving the freezing temperatures, brought on by a quick excursion to Lake St. Clair Metorpark, was rewarded with great sightings of  Great Horned Owl as well as other (mostly) familiar species such as:
  • Rusty Blackbird
  • Nuthatch
  • Downy Woodpecker
  • Northern Cardinal
  • Black-capped Chickadee
Great Horned Owl is an imposing owl that is found across the US. This blogger's first "close encounter" with this renowned raptor was at Lakes Park in Ft. Myers several years ago where it was observed, accidentally, superbly camouflaged in the trees:


Great Horned Owl seen at Lakes Park, Ft. Myers
In Michigan at this time of year the trees are bereft of foliage and spotting the owl is thus made considerably easier:


Great Horned Owl seen at Lake St. Clair Metropark
Lake St. Clair Metropark hosts a devoted pair of these owls and every year visitors delight in watching these owls nest, feed and fledge their young.


Great Horned Owl seen at Lake St. Clair Metropark
Unlike the owl, the Rusty Blackbird was entirely unexpected at the park this time of year:


Rusty Blackbird seen at Lake St. Clair Metropark
A perfunctory look at this Icterid could easily result in grave misidentification. The yellow eye and overall black plumage are temptingly similar to the Common Grackle:


Common Grackle seen at Corkscrew Swamp
However, a more considered examination will reveal, to the discerning observer, a couple of key differences: the thicker bill on the Grackle and the distinctive rusty markings on the Blackbird.

Rusty Blackbird seen at Lake St. Clair Metropark
Classified as "Vulnerable", this population of this charming blackbird is in free fall -- with an 85% decline over the last few decades. This species is observed well at Magee Marsh in early Spring.

Commoner species observed included:

White-breasted Nuthatch:







This is a year-round resident at the park but generally manages to evade attempts at photography.

Black-capped Chickadee:

Downy Woodpecker:

A striking Northern Cardinal:

.. and a Song Sparrow itching to sing:

With the advent of February, the renewed activity of birds -- starting with the nesting of raptors -- betray the first stirrings of Spring; that, within a couple of months, will be fully underway.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Plover's Plight and Winter Shorebirds of SW Florida

[Winter 2014/2015. SW Florida]

66 species of plovers exist on this planet; of these 8 are regularly found in the US and a further 6 can be located in SW Florida in the winter. This subfamily of Plovers consists of  small to mid-sized shorebirds with short bills that feed by sight as opposed to probing. 

Generally known by their common names as "Plovers" and "Dotterels" these delicate and distinctive shorebirds are found on every continent except Antarctica. Unfortunately, despite their wide distribution, many of these plover species face grave ecological threats; even the prospect of extinction -- consider for example the St. Helena Plover -- found nowhere else other than St. Helena (an island in the Southern Atlantic midway between Brazil and Angola), this remarkable plover is Critically Endangered and close to extinction. A predicament that could very well be in the sinister future of other threatened plover species.

In this post, we will review some plover species found in coastal SW Florida and their kin around the world plus some common shorebirds of the area.

We start with the familiar Piping Plover and the stunning Hooded Plover:

Piping Plover seen at Bunche Beach
Both Piping Plover and Hooded Plover (or Dotterel) are small orange-legged coastal shorebirds. The Hooded Plover is found half a world away -- here observed in the Southern hemisphere at Anglesea in Australia. Looking like a cross between Piping Plover and Hooded Warbler, this fantastic shorebird, although belonging to a different genus, does share the same environmental threats as the Piping Plover: both number less than 10,000 individuals and suffer from persistent beach disturbance during their nesting season by reckless primates and their marauding pets.
Hooded Dotterel seen at Anglesea, Australia
The Hooded Plover is closely related to the Shore Dotterel of New Zealand -- a species which regrettably is even worse off -- down to about only 200 individuals and is justly classified as Endangered.

Semi-palmated Plover seen at Tigertail Beach
The Semipalmated Plover, on the other hand, is an abundant shorebird. And, like other plovers, shows a marked contrast between its basic and alternate plumage coloration. 
Black-fronted Dottrel seen at Serendip Sanctuary, Australia
There are exceptions to this rule, however, and the Black-fronted Dottrel is a a plover that has the same plumage year-round. A condition which is sure to delight birders who get to enjoy its striking black breast band, mask and prominent orange eye-ring in every season.
Common Ringed Plover seen at Chandlai, India
Sharing the genus Charadrius with Semipalamted Plover are the Common Ringed Plover and Little Ringed Plover of Eurasia -- while the latter is only Accidental in North America, the Common Ringed Plover's breeding range does include the extreme Northeast of Canada.

Little Ringed Plover seen at Sambhar Lake, India
While all of the above Plover species have short, stubby bills -- the next species to be reviewed have much more robust bills:

Wilson's Plover and the Sand Plovers:
Wilson's Plover seen at Little Estero Lagoon CWA
Greater Sand Plover, Marine National Park, India
Lesser Sand Plover, Marine National Park, India
Both Wilson's Plover and Greater Sand Plover are distinguished by their larger size and more robust bills. Lesser Sand Plover, on the other hand, has a smaller bill and has dark legs compared to the Greater's dull yellow legs.

When it comes to small size, however, it is the Snowy Plover that is the smallest Plover in the US (beating the Piping Plover by a hair). Snowy Plover was earlier considered the same species as Kentish Plover of the Old World:

Kentish Plover seen at Goa, India
Snowy Plover seen at Little Estero CWA
These tiny sand-colored plovers are superbly camouflaged at the beach and although classified as "Least Concern" can face many threats during the breeding season. The rangers and volunteers at Little Estero Critical Wildlife Area do a good job of posting signs to raise awareness about the need for the Snowy Plover's protection in the summer and dogs are explicitly barred from entering the area.
 
Our largest Plover, on the other hand, is Black-bellied Plover:

Black-bellied Plover seen at Tigertail Lagoon
Grey Plover seen at Sambhar Lake
This huge plover is known as the Grey Plover in the Old World (see above) -- both monikers accurately describing the shorebird in either alternate or basic plumage respectively.

Pacific Golden Plover seen in Goa, India
The Black-bellied Plover sits in the genus Pluvialis with the Golden Plovers -- American Golden Plover, European Golden Plover and Pacific Golden Plover (seen above). Southwest Florida hosts the Black-bellied Plover regularly over winter but sighting an American Golden Plover is rare.
 
We conclude with a photo review of SW Florida shorebirds:
Least Sandpiper seen at Tigertail:

Western Sandpiper seen at Tigertail:

Dunlin seen at Tigertail:

Ruddy Turnstone seen at Little Estero CWA:

Sanderling seen at Little Estero CWA:

Short-billed Dowitcher seen at Bunche Beach:

Marbled Godwit seen at Little Estero CWA:

American Oystercatcher seen at Little Estero CWA:


Shorebirds are fascinating birds and the Plover subfamily offers some of the most distinctive species in this group. While many species are at ecological risk, thoughtful use of shared bird-human areas (esp. beachfronts) can offer protection to nesting species so that future generations can continue to enjoy species such as the Hooded Dotterel.


Saturday, February 7, 2015

2015 Starts Off with a Bang: Snowy Owl and Rough-legged Hawk plus Snow Bunting

[SE Michigan. January 2015]

What better way to begin the year than getting a couple of Lifers? Better still when one of the species is the highly desirable and rarely seen Snowy Owl.

Tempted by the prospect of seeing this iconic winter visitor, this blogger joined an Oakland Audubon Society (OAS) trip to Pointe Mouillee SGA in Southeast Michigan with full knowledge that this would mean braving the inhuman, frigid, temperatures that characterize the stark and unforgiving Michigan winter.

However, true to the worn cliche' "no pain, no gain", hardship in the field is often a prerequisite to success in species observation. And, the results from the OAS outing, though not voluminous in quantity, are nevertheless noteworthy because of the excellence in species observed:
  • Snowy Owl
  • Rough-legged Hawk
  • Snow Bunting
  • Eastern Bluebird
We start with the Owl:


Snowy Owl seen at Pt. Mouillee
Snowy Owl is a global raptor found in the arctic fringes of North America, Europe and Asia. As our only white true owl (Barn Owls aren't "true" owls), identification of this species cannot be said to pose a challenge to even the most recklessly casual of observers. Juveniles will show darker barring while adult males are purer white.


Snowy Owl seen at Pt. Mouillee
A fellow participant on the Field Trip confided that a week earlier he had seen 5 Snowy Owls at close quarters at Pt. Mouillee. Evidently, the Owls had now dispersed and were much more skittish. During this excursion, it was a minor miracle that the Trip Leader sighted the owl at all -- not an easy feat to discern a whitish shape against an unbroken sea of white at a mile away!

Elation at getting a lifer in the Snowy Owl would soon redouble when a buzzard alighted on a nearby tree. The paler head, lack of pronounced white mottling to the back are signs that this is a pale-morph Rough-Legged Hawk:


Rough-legged Hawk seen at Pt. Mouillee

In flight, other marks to look for are: the dark-eyeline, white base to the tail:



.. and note the "wrist patches" visible on the undersides of the wings:

Rough-legged Hawk seen at Pt. Mouillee

The Rough-legged Hawk, like the Snowy Owl, is another winter visitor to Michigan -- but our guests from the Arctic are not restricted to raptors -- they include passerines as well. Indeed, our next species, the Snow Bunting is a delightful songbird that can be seen at this time of year:




Snow Bunting (male) seen at DNR Point
The Snow Bunting is one of 6 species belonging to the Longspur family.  It was earlier classified with the New World sparrows.


Snow Bunting (female) seen at DNR Point
Snow Buntings are another species with a global distribution and their populations are healthy.


Snow Bunting (male) seen at DNR Point

We end with a thrush: a small flock of Eastern Bluebirds observed feeding in the bare trees:





This beautiful thrush can brighten up any wintry day with its orange breast, white belly and electric blue back and head.


Eastern Bluebird seen at Crosswinds Marsh

While every moment in the Field holds the prospect of reward, the sighting of a Lifer not only fulfills every birder's quest for the new but also deepens the thrill of discovery.

Friday, January 30, 2015

Superb Sparrows featuring Nelson's, Swamp and Savannah plus Eastern Meadowlark and Western Kingbird

[SW Florida. December 2014]

Nelson's Sparrow has proven to be stubbornly averse to photographic observation with this blogger's prior attempts having been resoundingly defeated and rendered utterly fruitless on more than one occasion. Would a winter trip to SW Florida finally break the jinx?

A quick tour of hotspots in Southwest Florida including Bunche Beach Preserve (Ft. Myers), Church Rd (Felda) and Festival Park in Cape Coral, yielded a thrilling assortment of iconic species -- including the elusive Nelson's -- with species such as:
  • Nelson's Sparrow
  • Swamp Sparrow
  • Savannah Sparrow
  • Florida Scrub-Jay (endemic)
  • Eastern Meadowlark
  • Western Kingbird; and,
  • Loggerhead Shrike
We start with the sparrows:

Optimistic that the time was ripe for lifting the curse of the "no show" Nelson's, this blogger jumped at the opportunity to meet up with Bob Pelkey behind the Publix at John Morris and Summerlin at Bunche Beach Preserve.


Nelson's Sparrow seen at Bunche Beach Preserve
After diligently slogging through the tall grass in marshy habitat, and frustratingly beguiled into mis-identification by the odd Palm Warbler, our quarry was finally sighted. However, it would take a repeat attempt before the Nelson's Sparrow would acquiesce to photography.

Nelson's Sparrow seen at Bunche Beach Preserve
Both Nelson's and Saltmarsh Sparrow can be found at this venue (indeed, both were seen) and their similarity can spark confusion. The difference boils down to the degree of buffiness and the boldness of the streaking on the flanks -- Nelson's is buffier overall while Saltmarh's streaking is crisper and bolder.


Nelson's Sparrow seen at Bunche Beach Preserve
Elation over the successful sighting and (digital) capture of the Nelson's outweighed any concern over soggy footwear due to water-logging in this marshy area. A small price to pay for a Lifer!

Not too far from the Nelson's was the other sparrow species -- Swamp Sparrow:


Swamp Sparrow seen at Bunche Beach
With a grey face, black eyeline, reddish back and an unmarked grey breast, the Swamp Sparrow ranges across the Eastern half of the US. Contrast this with the Nelson's Sparrow which is much more restricted in its distribution -- found breeding only in the interior US and coastal North Atlantic.


Swamp Sparrow seen at Bunche Beach
Our third sparrow in the series is Savannah -- observed well at Harns Marsh:


Savannah Sparrow seen at Harns Marsh
Harns Marsh has been reliable for sparrow observation on prior occasions (eg., a Grasshopper Sparrow in Feb 2013) and Savannah Sparrows on this visit were found fairly commonly -- alternately flushing from, and dropping into, the thick grasses.


Savannah Sparrow seen at Harns Marsh
Compared to its breeding plumage (eg., a specimen from Michigan in May), there is less yellow on the supercilium but otherwise both alternate and basic plumages are similar. Savannah Sparrows are found coast to coast in the US and it is uniquely the Western subspecies,  the Belding's Savannah Sparrow, that tends to be darker and larger billed.

In Cape Coral, the target species was the Florida Scrub-Jay:


Florida Scrub-Jay seen at Festival Park
Endemic to Florida and classified as "Vulnerable", it is a delight to see these beautiful corvids amidst the ugly suburban sprawl of Cape Coral.


Florida Scrub-Jay seen at Festival Park

Also reliable at Festival Park is the unsung Icterid, Eastern Meadowlark:


Eastern Meadowlark seen at Festival Park


Eastern Meadowlark seen at Festival Park
While many of our blackbirds are atrocious songsters (Grackles, Red-winged and Yellow-headed Blackbirds, etc), it is only the Orioles and Meadowlarks that can truly musically impress.


Eastern Meadowlark seen at Festival Park

Southern Florida is fortunate to attract a unique mix of overwintering flycatchers -- besides the drab Eastern Phoebe, there are the more flamboyant Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, Vermilion Flycatcher, and Western Kingbird as well.

While a trip with Bob to Church Rd failed to offer up Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, we were kept amused by a small group of Western Kingbird:


Western Kingbird seen at Church Rd


Western Kingbird seen at Church Rd

It is always a delight to observe these bold and noisy tyrant flycatchers. 

Finally, Southern Florida is one of the few places where Loggerhead Shrike is thriving -- even in suburban areas:


Loggerhead Shrike seen at Festival Park
We end with a Bonus Bird:


Sandhill Crane seen at Harns Marsh

A Sandhill Crane flyby seen at Harns Marsh.

Sparrows are the "little brown jobs" that can both confound and delight in equal measure and a Lifer in the form of Nelson's Sparrow assured that this excursion to SW Florida was a success on many levels -- not least for finally breaking the Nelson's jinx!