Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Puerto Peñasco Christmas Bird Count

Here are a few images from my trip to Puerto Peñasco, Sonora December 17-19. I traveled there with my friends Will Russell, Rick Wright, and Molly Pollock to take part in the Christmas Bird Count on the 19th.

Western Gull at the harbor, a rare bird here.

Morning at the harbor. Huge shrimp are arriving in bushels.

Yellow-footed Gull, a Gulf of California endemic.

This one looks mostly like a Glaucous-winged Gull, but the highly patterned wing coverts and pale fringes to the primaries seemed odd to me. Maybe some Herring Gull heritage? Several comments from friends in Oregon and California were that this bird is well within the large range of pure Glaucous-winged Gulls. Puerto Peñasco is simply a fantastic place for gulls – I heard that a Lesser Black-backed was here a couple days after us. There are multiple records of both of these here, yet only one of each for all of Arizona.

A Glaucous Gull, one of the rarities we found at the sewage ponds.

A nice vagrant trap in the desert is this little nursery at the sewage ponds. We had a flock of about 10 juncos here, including one Pink-sided and one Gray-headed among the Oregon Juncos.

Western Bluebird by our hotel, Viña del Mar. There weren't huge numbers around, but they could be found almost anywhere. They are present only once a decade, at most.

A roosting group of Heerman's Gulls.

Brown Pelican, pretty near high breeding colors.

The rarest bird I found was this immature female Rusty Blackbird at the dump (note the plastic bag on the barb wire). The iris was gray, but narrow and hard to see well. The rufous highlights on the breast, head, back, and scapulars and especially the relatively sharp, thin bill separate it from Brewer's Blackbird. I think this photo also shows how the rump is contrastingly gray.

This Google Earth screen shot shows how barren the desert of this CBC circle is.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Butterflies in Winter

It seems that we've had just one moist Pacific front move through here in Southeastern Arizona so far this winter. Before and after, it's been lovely and sunny. Lows in the mid- to upper 30's and highs in the 60's. We haven't had any freezing weather to kill the short-lived insects. So on December 2, I saw thisd summery Cloudless Sulphur coming to wet soil near where I watered some pots.

More surprising was this Great Blue Hairstreak (Scarlet-dotted Greatstreak would be a more appropriate name) on my doorstep on November 28. The caterpillars of this rather tropical species feed on mistletoes. I saw one laying eggs on one of the few clumps of mistletoe in our yard last year.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Violet-crowned Hummingbirds

On the day before Thanksgiving, this gorgeous fellow appeared in our yard here in the Campus Farm Neighborhood of north-central Tucson. It's a Violet-crowned Hummingbird, one of the rarest of hummingbirds known to breed in the United States. That small population occurs along Sonoita Creek and associated drainages near Patagonia, Arizona and in Guadalupe Canyon, which crosses only a couple miles of the southeastern corner of Arizona 30 miles east of Douglas as it flows from New Mexico into Sonora. A much more common bird farther south into western Mexico, our population is rather isolated and is predominantly migratory, retreating into Mexico during the colder months. There are a few winter records from Patagonia, and most winters there are a few found wintering in Portal, Hereford or Bisbee. There have been more reported in recent years, with as many as 15 individuals scattered at feeders across the southern border area. But one as far north as Tucson is quite unexpected at any time of year.

Then the next day, Thanksgiving morning, this one showed up at a feeder on the opposite end of the yard. He looks mostly the same, but note the pinfeather on his forehead. I took these photos within a few minutes of each other. And though hummingbirds do fly very fast, I went back and forth to the feeders at opposite ends of the yard quickly, and each bird was always next to his feeder. I was amazed. Both appear to be males, showing a very rich, purple crown and singing their scratchy little song. I posted a recording of this bird on the Xeno-Canto website here.

It's now a week since the first bird appeared, and both are still here, occupying the same feeders. It's looking like they have found their winter territories and may end up staying all winter. It's interesting to note their differing personalities. The first one is rather shy and will start calling and flying around the yard, perching near other feeders and hiding in bushes when you are no closer than about 10 yards from his favorite feeder and bush. The second one likes to sit tight on a twig close to his feeder, and I've been able to stick my face within about 2 feet of his before he begins to shift perches and call. Sometimes he sits higher in the big eucalyptus to sing.

The history of Violet-crowned Hummingbird records in Tucson in recent years is interesting. There has been a single bird recorded on the local Christmas Bird Count for several years at the same foothills feeder since December 1996. It has been missed on count day some years, but it's generally believed that this is the same individual returning every year, since it's always one bird and always at the same feeders. It was seen last year too, so that would make it 12 years old if that were the case – which would be close to a longevity record for hummingbirds.

I had one here for two days in late January, 2003, at the time one of the most unexpected birds I had seen in the yard. The next time I saw one here was early February, 2008, and it stayed for about a week. Interestingly, Michael Bissontz had had one in his yard just three days earlier. He lives about a mile north of here, and he never saw his bird again. Then again last winter, Michael reported a Violet-crown at his feeder on December 31 in the morning; by that afternoon there was one at my feeder too. Michael never saw his again, but the one in my yard stayed a whole month. I began to think that the bird he saw at his feeder – both last winter and the winter before – were the same as mine. Then it occurred to me that these sightings may all refer to the same individual roaming around the Tucson area each winter. Bobby Lambert, who is the one in charge of finding the one on the Christmas Bird Count each year (it's a very private yard with no public access) did determine that while I had one in my yard last January, the one she had had on the Christmas Bird Count was not there any longer.

But with two birds in my yard at once, we now know that it's possible that multiple birds may have been responsible for the several records from Tucson over the years. But we'll never know how many there really have been.

Incidentally, the probable hybrid Costa's X Black-chinned Hummingbird is still in my yard each day. She doesn't "own" any of the feeders though, quickly taking a drink from any of a number of feeders (except for the ones that are strongly defended by the Violet-crowns and a few Anna's). She can usually be found resting in the bushes on the south-central side of the property or in the neighbor's yard, sitting low and chipping.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Mystery Hummingbird in the Yard

This hummingbird has been visiting the feeders in my Tucson yard for at least the past three weeks. Its voice does not sound like any of the normally occurring species – being too soft for Anna's, too high and percussive for Black-chinned, and not at all like the tinkling of Costa's. I've made sonograms (using Raven Lite) of several species to compare, and I'm still puzzled (see below).

Note: you can click on any image in this blog to see a larger image.

Visually, it looks most like a long-billed Costa's, but there are features that make me think Black-chinned. It actively pumps its tail while hovering, much like Black-chinned. The answer may lie in the shape of the primaries and tail feathers, and that may require trapping the bird.
A shot that shows the primary shapes a little better.

An Anna's Hummingbird for comparison

A Costa's Hummingbird for comparison

Vocally, this bird is most reminiscent of Archilochus, especially in rhythm. I've posted a clip to the mysteries page at Xeno-Canto.
And here are sonograms that compare all the similar species.

Mystery hummer
Anna's Hummingbird
Costa's Hummingbird
Black-chinned Hummingbird
Ruby-throated Hummingbird

Thursday, November 12, 2009

A Stranger in the Yard

Caught here mid-leap, just after 11:00 p.m. on this past Tuesday night, is a Collared Peccary that was in our yard in north-central Tucson. We are just about 3 miles north of the University of Arizona, and this is quite an unusual location for this pig-like animal, known locally also as javelina. I was just drifting off to sleep when I heard some rustling outside and thought there might be a burglar or some other unwelcome person trying to get into our garage. Instead here was this exciting find, rooting around in the compost pile. My friends Brad and Alice had one in their yard at Rancho Prince just 1/4 mile south of here a couple years ago, and I saw one dead in the middle of Campbell Ave. between Fort Lowell and Prince a few months ago. Maybe the drought has pushed more animals down into the lowlands as they run out of food and water in their normal haunts. They are common in the Catalina Foothills just a couple miles north of here but rarely cross the Rillito River into urban Tucson. Even Greater Roadrunner is a rarity here (one sighting in our yard in almost 12 years).

Peccaries are a family (Tayassuidae) of three species found only in the New World, and though often called "wild pigs" they are only distantly related. Peccaries differ from pigs (family Suidae) in many ways, such as having two or three instead of four hind toes; having a tail with less than half as many caudal vertebrae; having precocial young (fully furred, eyes open, ready to run upon birth), and having a different dental arrangement.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

NE Mexico Butterflies & Birds Photo Sheets

These are the photo sheets I prepared for the participants who were on the NE Mexico Butterflies & Birds tour with Jim Brock and me this past month.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Peru: Day 19 – Travel Day from Puerto Maldonado to Lima

This was our last day in Peru, and all plans revolved around the flight back to Lima, followed by our late night departures back to the United States (or Europe, in one case).

But the travel didn’t take all day, and we had a total of 3 hours’ worth of birding today – and tallied 94 species in the process.

First we birded near Puerto Maldonado, checking the side road where we had the Purus Jacamars yesterday. They were still there today.

But in addition to them was also a family group of White-throated Jacamars, a lifebird for everyone present. Many thanks to Barry Walker and other birding tour groups who staked these out for us.

We then birded some open country nearby where we found Southern Caracara and Grassland Sparrow. Yesterday we also had Southern Lapwing and Burrowing Owl near here, both recent immigrants to this area, once all rainforest (and again thanks to birders who came before us; it sometimes does pay to be the last ones out).

Then it was time to show up for our flight to Lima.

A shock to the system was the cool, marine air that greeted us. And lots of very, very different birds. Here we are in the Lima suburb of Ventanilla.

Peruvian Pelicans (like Brown Pelicans, only much larger, and formally split from them just two years ago).

A Great Grebe on a nest. It sports an amazingly long neck.

Gray-hooded Gull

Franklin’s Gull

White-cheeked Pintail

A view of the marsh, which also hosted many Common Gallinules, Slate-colored Coots, White-tufted Grebes, Cinnamon Teal, and Black-necked Stilts. A nearby mudflat had Killdeer, a Western Sandpiper, a Collared Plover (a rarity this far south on the coast), and Yellowish Pipit. Sadly, we did not find any Peruvian Thick-knees here.

Some seawatching also produced many Peruvian Boobies, a Red-legged and two Guanay Cormorants, an endless stream of Kelp, Gray, and Belcher’s Gulls, and a single Elegant Tern. Impressive was a huge, swirling flock of Sanderling over the distant end of the beach, probably numbering well over 10,000 birds. Big migrating flocks of Black-bellied Plovers and Ruddy Turnstone also joined them.

Here’s a rundown of the supporting cast, a really great group of people to travel with.

François Rousset

Paul Cozza

Ken Burden

Tom and Sharon Bradford

Dwight and Ann Chasar

And of course, I shouldn't forget Gary Rosenberg, the leader, and the many drivers and boat pilots.

Peru: Day 19 – Travel day from Manu Wildlife Center to Puerto Maldonado

Today began just like any other, only when we were sitting at breakfast, we heard thunder. We’ve had such great luck with the weather.

By 5:30 we were in our 40-foot boat, huddled under ponchos, and bearing down for what looked to be a very long day.

But the one shower we rode through was short-lived, and the sky began improving right away. The cloud formations were unlike any I had ever seen.

Time passed quickly enough, with the scenery racing by. The closer we got to Puerto Maldonado, the more we saw these dredgers looking for gold. There were a lot.

This clambering vine had buried itself in purple blossoms.

We didn't disembark for birding, but the boat did slow down a few times when we passed by birds of interest – such as a group of Jabirus (a gigantic stork), and a large piece of driftwood decorated with 70 Sand-colored Nighthawks. We ended up with 68 species during the ride.

Eight and a half hours later we were disembarking in Laberinto – the first town with a road. Here we met our bus and driver, Fruti.

We bid farewell to Carlos and Pancho who had to turn around and make the 24-hour boat ride back to Atalaya.

We still had a few hours in the afternoon heat to look for birds. One place we stopped was this Moriche palm grove. There are several birds that specialize in this one species of palm.

Such as this Red-bellied Macaw.

We then birded a side road just on the outskirts of Puerto Maldonado where we found a family group of Purus Jacamars.

It was strange being in a busy town after all these days in the jungle. This is the primary form of the taxis here.