Sunday, January 22, 2017

A Third Visit With Mr. Nutting

I saw the Nutting’s Flycatcher in California Gulch for the third time this month today. I don’t get tired of birding down there and would be happy to go back tomorrow, but my time in Tucson is running out before my next series of tours begins. Last week I went back there with Will Russell and Evan Obercian in advance of Evan’s first time leading the WINGS SE Arizona tour. We found the bird within seconds of parking (Will wasn’t even out of the car yet). This time presented me with some unique challenges.

One challenge was birding with a couple in their late 70’s and early 80’s who show various and obvious stages of hearing and sight loss as well as expected issues with balance, strength, speed, and stamina. I may not be at my peak either, and Jeff and June hold a special place in my heart. I met them when I was 20 years old, seemingly yesterday but actually over 26 years ago, when I was a junior in college during my year abroad in Freiburg, Germany. They have four lucky children of my generation, so I remind myself to cherish my time with them.

Another issue was the status of the water in the gulch. It must have rained well over an inch from the front that passed through this past Friday night and Saturday morning (which left about 0.6 of an inch of rain in my part of Tucson, not an insignificant amount). All of the washes were running with clear water when normally quite dry. The main drainage of California Gulch was a veritable torrent.

But we were able to make it in my friends’ low-clearance 2WD Hyundai Sonata as far as the usual spot at the junction of the California Gulch and Warsaw Canyon junctions.

Jeff and June are not wimpy tenderfoots. Though they both grew up in New York City (Staten Island and Brooklyn), you should hear their stories of farming in Bozeman while forging academic careers in the 1960's and 70’s. They didn’t think twice about pulling up their pants and wading across the unbelievably full California Gulch. June was actually pleased it wasn’t the icy cold waters one would have expected in Montana.

We spent well over an hour looking, pishing, wading, hobbling over boulders, and pausing for a quick picnic lunch. There was no sign of the bird. We watched a group of Chipping Sparrows, two pairs of Black-tailed Gnatcatchers, a pair of Rufous-winged Sparrows, a wonderful Dusky Flycatcher, and had a bit of excitement with what turned out to be an Ash-throated Flycatcher. I noticed what at first looked like a female Northern Cardinal (with a red bill), then changed my mind to Pyrrhuloxia when I saw the gray back, rump and tail. Then changed my mind again when I saw the brownish breast. Then began to wonder about a hybrid. This is indeed what I’m pretty certain is a rare Northern Cardinal X Pyrrhuloxia hybrid.

It was associating with this male Northern Cardinal.

Then suddenly I saw this bird with a rich yellow belly only 10 meters in front of me, just a meter off the ground. The Nutting’s Flycatcher! We spent some 15 minutes with it, as it foraged on grasshoppers. In the past three weeks it had been feeding on bees attracted to the blooming Desert Olive (Forestiera shrevei), but it was nearly done blooming, and there were few bees today.

I don’t think one could normally expect to see this bird three out of three tries, but I won’t be pushing my luck on this one. I’m home for just another five days before my next bout of travel begins – Baja California, Palm Springs, Peru, Japan, Costa Rica, and Nepal all loom in the next three months

Monday, January 16, 2017

Much Ado About Nutting

This past Wednesday I had the opportunity camp for a night and go birding and botanizing with some friends of a friend. Nina, Galen, and Amelia are past or present students at Whitman College, and this was their last week of enjoying the out-of-doors on their winter break. I chose to take us to the lowest reaches of California Gulch on the Mexican border to look for the Nutting’s Flycatcher found on the Atascosa Highlands CBC by my friends Dave Stejskal and Thomas Staudt. Amelia chose to hang back in Tucson to work on her undergraduate thesis, so it was just Nina, Galen, and I.

We arrived at one of my favorite camping spots at the confluence of California Gulch and Warsaw Canyon, where two years ago I heard a Buff-collared Nightjar on the early date of March 31. This time we heard just Western Screech-Owl, Great Horned Owl, and Coyotes. In the morning we began birding our way downstream about 1/2 mile to where the Nutting’s Flycatcher had been seen.

We didn’t find it right away, in fact an Ash-throated Flycatcher was at the exact spot when we arrived. We took this opportunity to study the features on the Ash-throat that would be different if we were to find the Nutting’s – the color of the belly, the pattern of rufous vs. fuscous visible on the underside of the tail (on the outer tail feathers), the edging on the primaries and secondaries, and the color and shape of the crown and its contrast with the face. The Ash-throat was calling too, which is the easiest way to tell them apart. But we didn’t stand around just waiting, knowing that the bird had been seen quite a ways downstream in the past days. We also preferred to explore, making it as far as the Mexican border, about 3/4 mile farther down the canyon. We said hi to the two Mexican military guys who had camped on their side, on a regular patrol it seemed. We exchanged a few friendly words and made our way back to the flycatcher area.

Here’s a view looking southwest up at the fence line that is the international border, and the overgrazed Mexican side is more evident than the fence itself. No, there’s no wall here as you can see, and nor need there be one.

We finally found the Nutting’s Flycatcher at about 11:00 a.m., after some 2 1/2 hours of searching. It never vocalized, and we were lucky to find it about 1/4 mile away from the original location, upstream from where others had seen it. This is Nina’s photo showing the darker yellow belly, the yellow- and cinnamon-edge secondaries (rather than creamy white in Ash-throated), as well as the rounder and richer brown crown that bleeds into the ear coverts and face (which are all grayer in Ash-throated and blend more with the throat). These are very subtle points, and it was a good thing we had practiced on the Ash-throat.

Lucky for me, both Galen and Nina were interested in everything and enjoyed just poking around, looking at plants and bugs. This cactus is Echinocereus fendleri var. rectispinus, the Pink-flowered Hedgehog. It blooms in spring.

This is the common Ferocactus wislizeni, Candy Barrel or Fire Barrel. This one blooms in the summer, but I don’t know if the scarring in the crown will affect that.

We had two very distant flickers. The first one I used playback to see it fly, and I glimpsed the yellow wing linings. My poor photo also shows the bright cinnamon cap of Gilded Flicker.

Galen spotted this very distant one later in the day, and thanks to a camera with 65x optical zoom, you can see the red tail shafts of a Northern Flicker. The crown is also browner and doesn’t extend as far back.

You wouldn’t know it in the summer time, but one of the dominant shrubs here is Forestiera shrevei, the Desert Olive, which I first identified last year on the Buenos Aires NWR CBC ( They are in full bloom now before putting on leaves, and they really stand out. They were also swarming with pollinators, largely honey bees as many of these native bees which appear to be some mining bee in the family Andrenidae. I’ll post an update here if my photos on Bugguide are identified. The bees on these bushes seem to be the primary food source for the Nutting’s Flycatcher.
Update 1/18/17 : bee expert John Ascher has identified this for me as the mining bee Andrena impolita, Unpolished Andrena.

We saw two very different red-bodied wasps. This one is a parasitoid Ichneumonoid wasp, either family Braconidae or Ichneumonidae. Update 1/18/17: Entomologist and parasitoid expert Ross Hill has identified this for me as an Ichneumonid in the genus Cryptus.

This red-bodied wasp is in an entirely different family, but I don’t know which. I thought it might be a spider wasp in the family Pompilidae, but I’m not so certain now, and I wonder if it might be a male velvet ant (distantly related and in the same superfamily as spider wasps). Update 1/19/17: John Ascher has struck again, conclusively identifying this one as Xerochares expulsus, which confirms my original suspicion as a spider wasp – family Pompilidae (and continues down the line of classification in the subfamily Pompilinae and tribe Pompilini). It appears to be a monotypic genus found throughout Central America, reaching the US only in the desert SW, and as of a 1985 monograph on the subfamily in California nothing was known of its biology.

The landscapes here near the border are stunning, where drainages lead south into the Rio Magdalena watershed (unlike a vast majority of Arizona, which flows out the Colorado River). This is looking to the northeast back up California Gulch with Montaña Peak on the far left.

Here is looking to the southeast; Flat Top Mountain just right of center is just barely on the Arizona side of the border.

We climbed to a small peak and enjoyed the views.

This is a 180° panorama taken with my phone.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

A Final Day to the Tehuantepec Drainage

We had one last day on my Oaxaca at Christmastime tour based out of our Oaxaca City hotel on December 30. It’s always a fun day as we venture a bit farther afield, driving southeastward on the Panamerican Highway towards the Pacific coast at Tehuantepec. Just a few kilometers beyond the town of Matatlán, considered the birthplace of mezcal, the highway goes over a low pass (reaching only as high as scrub oaks mixed with mountain-mahogany and other dense shrubbery). It then begins to descend, entering TDF – tropical deciduous forest, which is very deciduous this time of year – dominated by a shocking diversity of giant columnar cacti.

Using an article by David Yetman titled “On the Trail of Oaxaca's Great Cacti” in the Cactus and Succulent Journal, I’ve attempted to identify these two species as Escontria chiotilla (L) and Pilosocereus quadricentralis (R).

Appreciating the diversity of giant cactus is the Gray-breasted Woodpecker.

One of the more conspicuous species here (and conspicuously absent from the extremely close Oaxaca Valley) is White-lored Gnatcatcher.

We often miss Pileated Flycatcher, as they are mostly silent and very furtive in the undergrowth this time of year, but this one called on its own and responded aggressively to playback of the song.

We had a few Plain-capped Starthroats, normally found at much lower elevations this time of year and a write-in species on our 14-year-old master list for this tour.

The vegetation here is stark and leafless this time of year, but a few things are blooming. This is a “goatbush” which I label as Castela cf. retusa, not being sure of the species.

This tree in the bombax family (actually now lumped into the mallow family) appears to be Ceiba aesculifolia.

This is a Beaucarnia sp., usually called ponytail-palm, and related to agaves, aloes, and sotol.

We were back in the Oaxaca valley where we had lunch at a restaurant that produces small quantities of mezcal. They have landscaped with native plants including this blooming Myrtillocactus schenckii.

In the same cactus was this Tillandsia sp. bromeliad.

We then visited the small but distinctive ruins of Mitla, made famous by these geometric designs in the façade.

I looked up into a hole in the ceiling of the ruins to discover this paper wasp nest.

Our last birding stop was the Zapotec ruins of Yagul, where we had two new species: Common Ground-Dove and White-tailed Hawk.

But our final stop of the tour which featured only a wintering Blue-gray Gnatcatcher was this spectacular 2000-plus-year-old Taxodium mucronatum, known as the Tule Tree.

Monday, January 9, 2017

A Dialog On The Way Back from Tuxtepec And Why I Didn't Get a Tip From PWWL

Participant With Eagle Eyes (loudly where the whole group can hear): I see a bird on the far side of the field with an all yellow breast, black head, and white stripe.

Me: It sounds like it might be a White-naped Brushfinch. Where exactly is it? Oh yes, I got it! Look everyone – it’s a pair of White-naped Brushfiches!

Participant Who Won’t Listen (standing right next to us): What are you looking at?

Me: White-naped Brushfinch. They're across the field in the bush to the left of the tall white stem.

PWWL: Where? Where? I think I see it! Does it have a yellow breast? There one just hopped up in the open! What’s it called again?

Me: It’s called White-naped Brushfinch. You’re looking for a sparrow-sized bird that is all yellow below, with a black face, and a white stripe down the top of the head.

PWWL: Yeah, what a beautiful bird!  I see its yellow breast. Wait, what color is its head?

Me: Black, with a white stripe down the top.

PWWL: Yeah, I got it. So what is its name?

Me: W.h.i.t.e.-n.a.p.e.d.  B.r.u.s.h.f.i.n.c.h.

PWWL: Right got it. I can’t find it in my book to check it off. So it’s a finch, right? What’s its full name?

Me: You’ve heard me say its name five times in the past 30 seconds, and I’m not saying again.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Our Three-day Side-trip to Tuxtepec

The highway north from Oaxaca City passes over two ranges of mountains that are sparsely populated and teeming with many species of little-studied plants and animals, and my Oaxaca at Christmastime tour takes a two-night break from the markets, ruins, and holiday festivities to indulge in pure birding and natural history bliss to travel over them to the lowland tropical town of Tuxtepec.

We depart at 5:30 one morning and drive nearly and hour and a half to our picnic breakfast spot along the tritely named Rio Grande. We first cross over the continental divide at La Cumbre Ixtepeji, where we’ve already birded twice, and drop down into the valley between those mountains and the Sierra de Juárez. Though the habitat in this valley is much more like the tropical deciduous forest and thornscrub of the Oaxaca Valley and the Pacific coast, we're actually in the Gulf of Mexico watershed – this river flows northwest at this point but downstream makes an abrupt righthand turn to pass through a narrow canyon in the Sierra de Juárez, exiting into the humid tropical lowlands by Tuxtepec. While no birds at home in those tropical lowlands have any interest in working their way up the canyon to this dry interior valley, several species of birds have crossed over the lowest pass in the continental divide to the northwest of Oaxaca City to populate this isolated habitat. We heard Happy Wren, saw a Oaxaca Sparrow, and had brief views of a Violet-crowned Hummingbird; there are also Rusty-crowned Ground-Sparrows, Orange-billed Nightingale-Thrushes, and many others here that would otherwise be unthinkable in the Gulf of Mexico watershed.

I suspect that many of the plants, much less capable of dispersing than birds, must be endemic to this valley. I’d also guess that this Echeveria sp. is one of them.

We made a brief stop in this valley on the way back and admired these Atta sp., leafcutter ants, one carring a petal from a Wigandia plant.

The Valle Nacional Cloud Forest, or the Gulf slope of the Sierra de Juárez, or Mexico federal highway 175 from Oaxaca City to Tuxtepec – whatever you call it, it is a gem of a road. This is a view from the mirador at the highest point on the Sierra Juárez looking north over an expanse of mindblowing diversity. (This was on our way back; on the way to Tuxtepec this was engulfed in clouds and a drenching drizzle.)

The higher elevations (over 9000 feet) are still clad in a temperate pine-oak forest, but there is a significant component of many unusual broad-leaved trees, and it’s much, much wetter than your typical Mexican pine-oak. Take for example this lush tree in the family Rubiaceae. It has been narrowed down for me as one of two species: Arachnothryx pyramidalis or Arachnothryx buddleioides by the Mexican botanist Alejandro Torres, and I suspect it’s largely pollinated by hummingbirds.

The orchid flora here is off the charts, though most bloom in the warmer months.  We saw but three species in bloom This one is Maxillaria cucullata, thanks to some keen orchid friends for the IDs.

This is Stelis platystylis.

A common roadside “weed” is this gorgeous terrestrial orchid Epidendrum radicans.

On our sunny return we even saw some butterflies, this one being a new one for me, Cyllopsis suivalens, Dyar's Gemmed-Satyr.

Farther down the road, the forest is even more lush, and the species diversity explodes.

At first glance I assumed this all dark satyr would be unidentifiable, as in my experience in the Andes there would be ten species that would look just like this from above. It turns out there are far fewer species of such temperate-zone satyrs in the Mexican cloud forests, and so this one must be Pedaliodes circumducta, Circumducta Satyr.

Same with this satyr, Pareuptychia ocirrhoe, White Satyr.

One more butterfly from the mid-elevations that was a real cloud-pleaser was this Philaethria diatonica, Northern Green Longwing feeding on a small tree-sized Poinsettia in a yard.

We had a full day in the tropical lowlands outside of Tuxtepec, though my favorite forest trail was occupied with wild rubber harvesters loading up their bounty into trucks. We found a nice side road nearby that passed through some pastures and led to a strip of trees that was hopping with birds. This Golden-olive Woodpecker was one of a pair that competed for our attention with a Gartered Trogon, Band-backed Wrens, and a Black-crowned Tityra.

We heard several Ferruginous Pygmy-Owls in response to my nearly continual tooting to bring in passerines, but one time both birds of a mated pair came in close (the larger and mostly silent female below the male).

We tallied a very high total of nine Roadside Hawks this day.

We made a stop where I had seen White-throated Flycatcher many years ago in an area dominated by sugar cane plantations and had a bird come in right on cue. This bird is in the genus Empidonax but is highly unusual in its entirely tropical distribution and open, marsh-like habitat preference.

At our first afternoon stop I mentioned that it might be good for Keel-billed Toucan, and when we got out of the van, one flew into a fruting Cecropia tree as if on cue. Ka-ching.

Surprisingly, there were rather few butterflies to be seen in the warm, humid, tropical lowlands. I came to the conclusion, based on the irregular forewing hyaline band and the five spots in the wingtip that this difficult long-tail was Urbanus tanna, Tanna Longtail.