Friday, July 18, 2014

White-tailed Ptarmigan in Taos County, New Mexico

These photos are from my short weekend visit to northern New Mexico over the Four of July weekend. Last time I visited my friends Cathy and Gabe here, we drove to Roswell in the southeastern part of the state for Lesser Prairie-Chickens. Finally, more than five years later, we reunited for another chicken, this time the White-tailed Ptarmigan.

We started on the east side of Santa Barbara Ridge on a well-used trail that takes hikers up to Serpent Lake and beyond it to Jicarita Peak in the Pecos Wilderness.

We were joined by New Mexico birders John Parmeter and Wyatt Egelhoff. John had been here several times before, while Wyatt’s first time was only 10 days ago. One of the strategies in finding the ptarmigan is to have several pairs of eyes, with birders spreading out over the tundra-like ridge above treeline, scanning for cryptic lumps of feathers. Wyatt missed it on his hike here alone.

It was about 4 miles to the point where one might start looking for ptarmigan, and we had at least a half mile more to go before splitting up for the serious search; it had taken John a few hours of searching in the past.

I stopped to photograph this Yellow-bellied Marmot when I heard John yelling my name from only about 50 yards up the trail.

He flushed this White-tailed Ptarmigan from right in the trail, nearly stepping on it.

Characteristically unconcerned with humans, it walked only a few feet off the trail and watched a bit. When I arrived it sat only for a few more minutes before strolling slowly, browsing on plant shoots among the boulders.

It was only another couple hundred yards up to the windswept saddle to the south of Jicarita Peak. This is looking west towards the Jemez Mountains.

With amazingly early success in finding White-tailed Ptarmigan, we had time to photograph the fabulous wildflowers here. This is Ross's Avens, Geum rossii (thanks to Jerry Oldenettel for the names of some of these plants).

Arctic Alpine Forget-me-not, Eritrichium nanum

Cushion Phlox, Phlox pulvinata

This Rocky Mountain Nailwort, Paronychia pulvinata was a bit tricky to identify, but the papery sheaths around the leaf clusters convinced me to browse members of the family Caryophyllaceae in the Taos County list. It’s at the very southern end of its range here.

We also decided to take the short trail spur to Serpent Lake, something John had never had the time to do.

On the way down the transition zone from krumholz to pine-fir forest, we stopped for more wildflowers.

Colorado Blue Columbine, Aquilegia coerulea being visited by a syrphid fly

Mountain Deathcamas, Zigadenus elegans

Ledge Stonecrop, Rhodiola integrifolia

Matted Saxifrage, Saxifraga bronchialis

Alpine Clover, Trifolium dasyphyllum

Here we are at Serpent Lake.

The dense willow thickets here are home to one of the southernmost breeding populations of  Wilson’s Warbler.

We were surprised to see the lake full of Tiger Salamander larvae. This is apparently about as high in elevation that the species can occur, about 12,000 feet (3650 m).

The moist meadow and slightly protected basin was good for butterflies. This is Draco Skipper, Polites draco.

Mustard White, Pieris oleracea

Purplish Fritillary, Boloria chariclea

We stopped to pish and attract birds with our Northern Pygmy-Owl imitations a few times, usually bringing in just Mountain Chickadees, Dark-eyed Juncos (Gray-headed), and a few other nice things such as Olive-sided Flycatcher and Cassin’s Finch. Once we heard a pygmy-owl tooting back, but it didn’t take long for us to realize it was this Gray Jay imitating one in response to my whistles.  This is a very rare type of mimicry in birds, certainly requiring a relatively high level of intelligence.

The forest on the hike back was in general very quiet, so we hiked back quickly, stopping for only a few wildflowers.

Fern-leaved Lousewort, Pedicularis procera

Sickletop Lousewort, Pedicularis racemosa

Western Red Columbine, Aquilegia elegantula

Single Delight, Moneses uniflora

Near the parking lot was this Hoary Anglewing, Polygonia gracilis.

And a Sleepy Duskywing, Erynnis brizo.

We took the scenic drive back to Bernalillo on the southern end of the Taos High Road. I made Gabe stop for road cut with some beautiful composites.

Beautiful Fleabane, Erigeron formosissimus

Newberry's Hymenopappus, Hymenopappus newberryi

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

The Monsoon is Here!

This past Thursday morning, dawning typically sunny and already 80°F (27C), I had my coffee in the back yard, watching the 3 or 4 hummers fight over 16 feeders, noted the Verdins giving their “dzrr dzrr dzrr” call to warn everyone of the approaching Cooper’s Hawk, and wondered if the lone male Gambel’s Quail above was acting as sentinel for his mate that might be setting on a clutch of eggs. Just a few days ago they were a pair, walking through the yard together each morning.

By early afternoon it reached 105°F (41C), but there might be some clouds building up to the south. And then by 3:00 p.m. it looked like this. All dark overcast, lightning not far away (I quickly shut down my computer and unplugged everything in the house), and the wind howling through the neighbor’s Red River Gum, throwing huge curls of peeling bark all over the place.

We got about 0.2 of an inch in a moderate downpour, but it continued to drizzle for about an hour or more, which is a very good kind of soaking rain. And then in the early evening before it got dark, the hummingbirds descended on the yard. It was amazing show, with perhaps 50 (or 100?) individuals zipping and zinging, chasing and chipping. A large majority of them was more or less divided evenly between Anna’s and Black-chinned, with there being a few Broad-bills and at least one Costa’s, a juvenile that appeared today for the first time this summer. It was already too dark for any good photos, but in these shots (the first without flash, the second with) you can barely make out three hummers fighting over this feeder.

This Anna’s Hummingbird (on top of the garden hook) was trying to hoard this feeder for himself.

Another feeder was possessed by this Broad-billed.

With the cooler, moist air signaling a potential shutdown, our lone yard colony of Rough Harvester Ants (Pogonomyrmex rugosus) were out in huge numbers, collecting seeds from all over the yard, up to 20 or more meters away.

I couldn’t stand anywhere with out one eventually crawling up onto my feet. Though they are slow and docile, usually turning back as soon as they sense skin, they will sting (yes, sting, not bite) if truly perturbed. One got me on the toe, and it’s a very unpleasant pain that lasts about 10 minutes. On the other side of the yard we have a small colony of Pogonomyrmex barbatus, the Red Harvester Ant. I’ve been stung by that one once (I picked one up to see its beard), and later learned that it has been considered one of the most painful hymenopteran stings you could possibly experience. I can vouch for that. The worst is that from a Tarantula Wasp. Good thing to keep in mind, and I won't be trying to see its beard any time soon.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Highlights From the Dean Hale Woodpecker Festival

The woodpecker diversity surrounding the town of Sisters, Oregon is nothing short of astonishing. Considering that woodpeckers occur worldwide, have an evolutionary history that may go back 55 million years, and yet do not occur in Australia, this is a fascinating family of birds. That a density of 11 species occurs in such a small area in the temperate latitude of Oregon’s northern Cascades is also surely worth some investigation; on my Southeastern Peru tour, in an area of the world’s highest bird diversity, we typically see only about 10 species in a much larger area. But that’s beyond the scope of my blog.

In any event, this is clearly a very good location for the Dean Hale Woodpecker Festival, and this is the second year that I have helped lead field trips for it. The following is the list of the species seen after the third day of trips.

The field trip that Tom Crabtree and I led was highlighted by the discovery of a pair of American Three-toed Woodpeckers, the most unpredictable species in this region.

In the same burn we found two different Black-backed Woodpeckers.

This is a female Williamson's Sapsucker, one of the most interesting birds in the area. You might have already read somewhere that when the first one was collected it was described as a new species separate from the male.

 A Red-breasted Sapsucker, a species which seems to be slowly encroaching and displacing Red-naped Sapsucker in this region. No bird distribution is totally static, human-caused habitat changes or not.

The White-headed Woodpecker is clearly one of the most charismatic birds of the region. I never tire of seeing this bird.

Not to be laughed at here is Downy Woodpecker, restricted to riparian areas.

The numerically rarest woodpecker in the region is the Pileated Woodpecker, which needs large trees in this part of the continent. We found ours on our last, half-day of field trips by Suttle Lake.

Of course there are other birds to be seen here. Western Tanager was in a few places, and this one was a lucky spot along the road to the old GW Burn near Sherman Camp.

In the same area we had this Townsend’s Warbler. Lacking yellow on the breast, it seems to show some intergradation with Hermit Warbler; perhaps two or three generations back.

Not far from here we had a typical Hermit Warbler.

This Green-tailed Towhee sat up nicely; we heard a few more, though the song is confusingly similar to the local thick-billed subspecies of Fox Sparrow.

We had two different Northern Pygmy-Owls this weekend, though neither were as cooperative as last year’s bird at Calliope Crossing. I took this photo – through the impenetrable Ponderosa Pine needles – with my camera held up to my binoculars.

If you know me, you know it’s more than just about birds. The Brown's Peonies here were early this year, now in fruit.

The participants were definitely into birds, but all were compelled to stop for this stunning concentration of Dwarf Purple Monkeyflower (Mimulus nanus).

The creek leading to the Black Butte swamp seems to be the only place in Deschutes County where one might find the delightfully fragrant Nootka Rose (Rosa nutkana).

In this area we came across a nest of the Western Tent Caterpillar moth (Malacosoma californica).

Pale Tiger Swallowtail (Pterourus eurymedon) was also in this area.

Higher up towards the Pacific Crest Trail near Big Lake we found several of this Persius Duskywing  (Erynnis persius borealis).

There were a couple of these small Two-banded Checkered-Skippers (Pyrgus ruralis) in the same area.

This lovely meadow in the old GW Burn was near the Linn-Deschutes county border as well.

The Common Beargrass here is in the lily family and not related to the agave relative we know in SE Arizona also called beargrass.