Thursday, October 16, 2014

Field Trips on the Western Field Ornithologists Meeting in San Diego

For four days this past week I attended the Western Field Ornithologists’ annual meeting in San Diego, where I helped lead field trips. I also attended the science paper sessions, the sound and visual ID panels, and also the big last evening banquet and talk by Ed Pandolfino on the 44 years of WFO history. Meeting so many new people and seeing old friends was thoroughly enjoyable.

The main area I birded on the field trips was the Tijuana River Valley on the Mexican border south of the city and bay, co-led by local birder Christine Harvey. We visited the Dairy Mart Road sod farms five times in search of one of the top rarities of the region, Red-throated Pipit. Unfortunately I saw two of them only on the scouting day before the conference, which I did with Christine, Guy McCaskie, an Elizabeth Copper. They were quite far out on the sod, but even a really distant, blurry photo shows the distinctive back stripes.

On all the scouting trip as well as one of the field trips we caught up with a Lapland Longspur.

Long-billed Curlews were present on every visit, usually walking around, not reclining so casually as this one.

Distracting were the many streaky Savannah Sparrows, migrants and winter birds of the subspecies from the north and northeast of here.

A birding location at the west end of our area was the Tijuana Slough National Wildlife Refuge. Here we did some seawatching from the dike above the beach, seeing a few Brown Boobies (which was ABA-bird #748 for me). Some lucky birders also saw Blue-footed Booby.

This is also where we saw the former Clapper Rail but newly dubbed Ridgway’s Rail in the recent shakedown of all the Clapper and King rail subspecies. The four subspecies of Clapper Rail in California, Arizona, and NW Mexico are all now Ridgway’s.

This marsh is also famous for hosting a tiny population of California’s only Yellow-crowned Night-Herons. Formerly only a very rare vagrant to the state, some pairs now breed in the ornamental pine trees at a nearby park and apartment complex. On our scouting trip we had to look hard to find this one juvenile. Only one angle let me see the top of the wing as an added ID confirmation. Compared to Black-crowned, immature Yellow-crowned has a bigger, more orange eye, a darker bill, and a darker gray wing with smaller spots at the tips of the feathers.

We then walked down to the marsh only to find an adult perched out in the open. Look in the lower right.

On the first field trip, we checked the same tree and the marsh with no luck, then found this adult in a tree by the apartment complex.

Then on my second field trip we were about to strike out when a subadult (2 or 3 years old, with a fully dark crown still) flew into the marsh and landed on a channel to hunt in the late morning. It landed in a nearly invisible spot, so we were lucky to see it arrive.

While we were at the bridge over the channel this Eared Grebe swam right below the group.

Rare migrants were on our minds everywhere we birded. Elsewhere in the county birders were reporting Dickcissel, Magnolia and Chestnut-sided Warblers, Painted Redstart, Green-tailed Towhee, Yellow-green Vireo, and others. On the day of scouting I spotted two Tennessee Warblers just about the same time at the butterflies & birds garden of the Tijuana River Valley Regional Park.

Northern Waterthrushes were almost at any little bit of water; we had four one day just at the Dairy Mart Road pond, and on Sunday this was one of two there.

Even though it’s a common breeding bird in the west, migrant Bullock's Oriole as this time year is not a daily occurrence. This one alerted us to its presence at the Tijuana Slough visitor center with it loud chattering.

By far the rarest and most exciting bird in our area was this Blackburnian Warbler that I spotted while we were having lunch at Nestor Park on the last day of field trips.

It was news to me that Black-throated Magpie-Jays have been breeding in the valley for 20 years, but the population remains small and very localized in just a few miles of riparian woodland and therefore is not countable as an established bird. We caught up with them on both of my field trips.

Birding was a bit slow at times, giving me a chance to get close to this Differential Grasshopper (Melanoplus differentialis) at the butterflies & birds garden.

On Friday, the second day of field trips, I led a group to Sweetwater Reservoir, about 10 miles east of San Diego. As the reservoir provides drinking water, access is strictly controlled, and our field trip was given special permission, with the biologist and watershed manager Peter Famolaro opening the locked gates and guiding us through the large area. We birded some dry chaparral where California Gnatcatcher and California Thrasher were found.

We also birded the lake itself, full of water birds such as Western and Clark’s Grebe and many ducks, as well as a nearby riparian strip where activity was limited to a few Yellow-rumped Warblers.

I had Saturday morning free to bird with my friend Lauren Harter as she scouted the area she was leading to the north of San Diego. Our first stop was San Elijo Lagoon.

Marbled Godwit was among several species of shorebirds on the exposed mud during low tide.

The chaparral was extremely dry, but this California Thrasher was singing full force.

Lauren is into bugs enough to stop for this stunning Neon Skimmer.

And several of these tiny skippers had me puzzled. I didn’t think there were many species over here, at least compared to SE Arizona. And indeed, there are only three species of small brown and orange skippers, but one is this local endemic to the southern California coastal marshes, the Wandering Skipper.

Finally, after the conference, I had a full day to visit my friends Michael and Claire in Escondido north of San Diego. They live next to a great birding hotspot, Kit Carson Park. Though its Sand Lake has been dredged and cleaned of vegetation, it now has some shorebird habitat until it fills again.

This Greater Yellowlegs was the first one Michael had ever seen here.

We had a very birdy morning as we walked around the big grove of willow, cottonwood, and eucalyptus, seeing 47 species, including this Costa's Hummingbird, not a common bird here. It was one of two, among many more Allen’s and Anna’s Hummingbirds, feeding on tiny gnats over a hedge of mulefat bushes.

Another skipper I didn’t recognize surprised me; this turns out to be Umber Skipper, which I hadn’t seen since Big Bend exactly 10 years ago.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Mixing Natural History and Human History for a Day

I was home for just a day and a half from Peru when I was pleased to have a visit from my old friends Thom and Kipp from Corvallis.

Thom was once a more avid birder, and Kipp never one. But they both like the outdoors and I knew some places and birds that would make for a nice day’s outing. We first went to Florida Canyon where there are lots of common birds as well as a chance to see some very localized rarities. We did glimpse one of the Black-capped Gnatcatchers that live here, but we had fabulous views of this Painted Redstart. Kipp was a birder for a moment.

We hiked up the canyon, but the abundant summer rains had created a dense thicket that made it tough to see the trail in places.

There were flowers and bugs all over the place. I smelled this Thurber’s Desertpeony, Acourtia thurberi, a very fancy composite from several yards away. The smell continues on the dry plant well into the winter months.

Birds were actually not so active, but my friends were happy to look at any colorful little creature. This tiny butterfly is an Elada Checkerspot.

An unusually shaped but common butterfly is this American Snout.

I showed them that even tiny little flies that one would normally ignore have field marks, much like birds. And with a digital camera you can get large enough images to actually see those field marks. This little bee fly (family Bombyliidae) turns out to be Exoprosopa dorcadion. It doesn’t appear that anyone has undertaken the task to coin English names for bee flies yet.

There were abundant grasshoppers wherever we went. This one was striking when it flew – appropriately named Red-winged Grasshopper (Arphia pseudonietana); the wings suddenly flash scarlet when it flies.

This one is called the Yellow-bellied Boopie, Boopedon flaviventris, and is not a great flier at all.

Afraid that this might be natural history overload for Kipp, I suggested Tumacacori National Historic Park, where I had also taken my non-birding friends from Germany last year. Oh, but while there is some interesting history to learn here…

…even inside the chapel it doesn’t stop. This Say's Phoebe was probably breeding in the nooks in the eroded adobe.

And the regional specialty Rufous-winged Sparrow was easy to see inside the compound.

Western Pygmy-Blues flitted along the trails among many other larger butterflies, and we saw a few more birds, such as Verdin. This beautiful Montezuma Grasshopper, Syrbula montezuma, was on the walkway.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

New Mammal for the Yard

Just before I left for Peru late last month I added a new mammal to our north-central Tucson yard list. We’re quite urban here, though the U of A agricultural center does add some diversity to the neighborhood. But we're far enough away from natural desert that we don’t have scorpions, rattlesnakes, or Black-throated Sparrows, for example. But we have had rare sightings of Collared Peccary (twice) and Bobcat (twice) over the past 16 years. I even had a Raccoon once. This guy moved fast and afternoon light was not abundant. Look carefully in the lower left.

But this White-throated Woodrat (Neotoma albigula) was rather a surprise. I was talking to Paul in the yard between our houses when I saw it run into an agave thicket by his and Irene’s back door. It was carrying a dead, dried cactus pad from one of the ornamental, spineless prickly pears planted here. It ran back and forth a few times between the cactus and the agave.

I stood quietly for 10 minutes before I finally  got some decent shots. It’s an adorable rodent, but people who live in the outskirts of Tucson where it is common, they hate it. They tend to make nests in vehicles, under hoods and under back seats, and they love to chew through electrical cables.

Years ago a young Spotted Owl spent a few winter months in an Oro Valley front yard, far from the mountain forests where they normally live. I picked up one of its pellets and teased out the skull of a White-throated Woodrat.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Butterflies and Birds of SE Peru Take 1

I’ve just completed a wonderful WINGS tour of butterfly and bird watching in the Kosñipata Valley of SE Peru, which I co-led with Jim Brock. Here’s Jim with a Comnena Jewel, Perisama comnena, on his hat.

This is just a short teaser of some highlights, as there is lots to share about the trip. We started with a short stop at a very high pass on the dry side of the Andes, a couple hours’ drive north of Cusco.

It’s often cloudy and cold here, but with a little bit of sun in this windswept hill, Jim spotted a butterfly he had been hoping to see for years, an obscure but delightful satyr called Argyrophorus lamna, which we dubbed the Silver Puna. The upper side of the forewing shimmers silver in flight.

Over the next days we then progressed down the wet, forested slope of the relatively low ridge starting at Acjanaco Pass where one skirts the upper edge of Manu National Park, and ending at Villa Carmen at Pilcopata – at the terminus of Kosñipata River where it joins the Tono, Piñipiñi, and Pilcopata rivers to form the Upper Madre de Dios.

We spotted about 480 species of butterflies, among which were several that we couldn’t identify. Many of the unidentifiable ones were clearwings, but this one we were able to name as Oleria athalina.

And this little-known False Purplewing, Sea sophronia, remained unidentified until we had internet access at the end of the tour. This photo represents the first record from the valley, with the list now well over 2100 species.

At Villa Carmen we experienced the mother of all puddle parties, a 100 meters of gravel bar on the Piñipiñi that had over 100 species of butterflies in just about 2 hours of searching. An almost unheard of experience, we had excellent looks at all four species of Baeotus here, including this Orange-banded Beauty, Baeotus deucalion (the orange band is above; the other three species have blue bands).

We saw and heard about 340 species of birds, a great number considering that after about 9:00 each day our focus was largely towards the ground. This memorable Andean Motmot was particularly cooperative at the Cock of the rock Lodge.

These Plumbeous Kites were perched over the gorgeous, brand-new cabins at Villa Carmen.

Not unexpected with a group that is into butterflies and birds, interests gravitated towards almost anything winged, especially if it was pretty. We were delighted by the sparkling ultraviolet wings of this Cora damselfly at a mid-elevation stream.

And this lavender-booted arctiine moth Palaeomolis purpurascens was one of hundreds of species at our lodging at Wayqecha Biological Station one night.