22 May 2018

Dusty Whirlwindy (AZ)

My most recent travels took me back to the desert southwest.  The big twist to this story is that it WASN'T for work.  Instead, my friend Caleb and I did a whirlwind trip through southern Arizona.  I think it's the first time I've flown somewhere for personal travel in quite a while.

We had a long list of targets but not a lot of time... so it was off to the races pretty quickly after starting in Phoenix.  Of course, the major target of mine was our first miss... the long-staying Streak-backed Oriole in Tucson was no longer long-staying... it was long gone (our checklist).  Oh well, I WILL catch up with one of those in the ABA area someday, somehow.

We stopped in Green Valley; eBird had a seemingly reliable place for HARRIS'S HAWKS.... and it was right!  Checklist and photo:
Farther south, we then spent some time at the Santa Gertrudis Lane area hoping for some of the continuing rarities.  Although we struck out on the Sinaloa Wren and Rufous-backed Robins, we did connect with the continuing THICK-BILLED KINGBIRDS:
It had been a while since I had seen ABERT'S TOWHEES (well, since last July) so I took a pic of one of those too:
... meanwhile, the BRIDLED TITMICE were fairly friendly:
We gave the location about two hours before calling it quits... we had other destinations that were also time sensitive.  Here's our checklist from that stop.

From there, it was out into the wilds towards California Gulch!  Thankfully, the weather was good, navigation was straightforward, and our rental Yukon made easy work of the roads.  Here's proof we made it to the confluence:
This spot is pretty special after nightfall... we had multiple BUFF-COLLARED NIGHTJARS singing along with COMMON POORWILL, WESTERN SCREECH-OWL, and ELF OWL.  A LESSER NIGHTHAWK flew over as well.  This one spot yielded 3 nightjar species and 2 owl species!  Here's the checklist with some of our recordings.  From there, it was the long, bumpy, late-night drive back to Nogales.

The next morning, we actually decided to return to Santa Gertrudis Lane to try our hand at the rarities again.  This time, stars aligned and we found the long-staying SINALOA WREN:
This is still a very rare species in the US, and it's still a Code 5 despite showing up in AZ multiple places in recent years.  In fact, this was the first time I had actually SEEN one here (I had heard it before).  It was also a new photo bird.

Our luck continued when we found a couple of the long-staying RUFOUS-BACKED ROBINS as well.  Checklist.  This day was starting out fantastically!  We zoomed over to Patagonia Lake State Park where we pulled out a BOTTERI'S SPARROW on the entrance road (checklist).  We hit a snag within the park though... we couldn't find the Black-capped Gnatcatchers!

We had to boogie out of there and so it was back to Patagonia for lunch and a quick visit to the Patton's Hummingbird Extravaganza (seriously, this place is becoming an amusement park).  We added a VIOLET-CROWNED HUMMINGBIRD and this impressive GOPHER SNAKE:
And then we hit the road headed for Sierra Vista.  A few stops along the way failed to turn up any Chihuahuan Ravens or Cassin's Sparrows but no matter, it was a rough time of day and not much was moving.  We made it to Sierra Vista in time to visit Mary Jo's feeders at Ash Canyon.  Our main target only stuck around for 10 seconds but we were successful in seeing it, a male LUCIFER HUMMINGBIRD.

The next morning it was straight up to Carr Canyon and the Reef Townsite campground area.  New birds came fast and furious.  GREATER PEWEE, ARIZONA WOODPECKER, BUFF-BREASTED FLYCATCHER, etc.  One of the highlights for me was watching this GRACE'S WARBLER hopping around on the ground collecting nesting material:
This was a treat because this relatively poorly-known species usually sticks high to trees where views are harder to get.

We also snagged a nice female OLIVE WARBLER here:
Down the road a bit, we finally hit a jackpot... a stunning RED-FACED WARBLER that put on a great show:
Sticking to our tight schedule though, we needed to make our way towards Portal and so we were off.  Although that drive doesn't take you through any particularly birdy hotspots, we were successful in finding a perched CHIHUAHUAN RAVEN that we were able to study:
On our way into Rodeo, we stopped at the Willow Tank to see if we could find any quail, thrashers, sparrows, or anything else of note.  It was here that we found multiple BENDIRE'S THRASHERS which was clutch.  It was hard to gauge bill length with the bill open though!
But still, you can see the pale base to the lower mandible.

We made our way up to Portal where this familiar (but grand!) vista awaited:
Speaking of grand, we were living it up at the Portal Peak Lodge for the next two nights.  Wooo!  That night, we went up-canyon a bit and heard MEXICAN WHIP-POOR-WILL, ELF OWL, WHISKERED SCREECH-OWL, and FLAMMULATED OWL.  In fact, we heard an Elf Owl just outside of the lodge too.

The next morning, we cruised around the oak forests looking for Montezuma Quail but no luck.  We continued higher up towards East Turkey Creek Junction.  No chickadees there though.  Just beyond the junction, we had nice looks at this target, the BLACK-CHINNED SPARROW:
This nearby BLACK-THROATED GRAY WARBLER was looking sharp too:
Meanwhile, in a nearby treetop, a couple of RED CROSSBILLS posed quietly:
We then went to Rustler Park but it was rather quiet.  There was this butterfly flying around that I was curious about but it never perched at an angle I could get a pic of.  Instead, I had to settle for this blurry flight shot... but it was good enough to confirm it as a MEXICAN YELLOW:
No, it's not a rare species or anything... but it's certainly not one I see in Missouri!

Then it was up and over to Barfoot Park.  Upon arriving, we spotted a female WILLIAMSON'S SAPSUCKER which is always a good bird for the area.  It was flagged in eBird so I attempted to get photographic proof... which ended up being kind of difficult:
Although we were still having trouble finding chickadees, we had no trouble finding lots of tame YELLOW-EYED JUNCOS!
Finally, between Barfoot Junction and Onion Saddle, we found the right flock for scolding.  In came a couple of our key target, the MEXICAN CHICKADEE.  And boy, when they came in, they CAME IN:
It was a good morning at higher elevations and we had little remaining to target and so we returned downhill through Cave Creek Canyon.  The reliable day-roosting WHISKERED SCREECH-OWL was still at the hole (how long has this bird used this cavity?  Going on 3-4 years I believe).
We swung into the Cave Creek Ranch in Portal and saw the continuing LEWIS'S WOODPECKER which was pretty sweet!

We wanted to duck into Bob Rodrigues' yard and check out his feeders, hoping for the continuing Rufous-winged Sparrow that sometimes shows up (we had somehow missed them farther west).  No luck with that sparrow but we saw a wealth of other things like this continuing (and rare) HARRIS'S SPARROW:
It had been a good year for CASSIN'S FINCHES and they were present in town at several spots including Bob's feeders:
But, no luck with the Rufous-winged Sparrow.  However, that evening we worked the Portal-Paradise Road and somehow managed a quick look at a couple of CRISSAL THRASHERS in the wash near town.  That night, we drove some roads below town and ended up with zero snakes but two BARN OWLS.

The next morning, we needed to head straight out of town and so we drove right to Willcox (you HAVE to stop at Willcox if you're in the area, as you know).  Our timing worked out right and we connected with a rarity that had shown up the day before, this LEAST TERN:
It's kinda silly that we just happened to roll up to see it but that's how it goes.  The TROPICAL KINGBIRD was continuing as well.

At this point, we really needed to start making our way to Phoenix as we were both flying out later that day.  A quick call to Tom Johnson and he had a suggestion, via eBird, for Rufous-winged Sparrow.  It was behind a hotel in Benson.  Hmm, so off we went!  We rolled up and after a little exploring... well, it sounded like we were hearing a TENNESSEE WARBLER.... but those are really quite rare in AZ.  Maybe we were imagining it?  We found the bird and it, well, LOOKED like a Tennessee Warbler as well.  Shoot, that's a good bird!
After the dust settled from confirming that... we realized we were hearing our original target, a RUFOUS-WINGED SPARROW.  We tracked it down and sure enough, a last clutch target bird had just fallen into place (my pic is rubbish though!):
From there, it was back to Phoenix, a last PB&J sandwich out of the back of our Yukon, a quick car wash to remove the signs of California Gulch, and flights home.  It was a quick trip but we still managed to find most of the targets and tallied about 170-180 species in 5 days of birding.

Now... where was I... back in Missouri, it would seem!

21 May 2018

Big Bend/Hill Country

It's been a month since my last update which, sadly, seems about average.  However, I did do a tour in April though, to Big Bend and the Hill Country of Texas.  I joined Chris Benesh who does that tour every year.  In fact, I did it with Chris in 2016 as well.  You can find more info about this Field Guides tour here.

We start the tour in San Antonio and immediately start driving due west.  It doesn't take long to start seeing SCISSOR-TAILED FLYCATCHERS perched on the the fences and powerlines.  Here's one at a rest area that swooped over, resulting in one of my favorite images:
We spent a morning birding in the town of Del Rio which is, not surprising given the name, right on the Rio Grande.  We had a slew of fun and interesting species (checklist here) including this male PAINTED BUNTING:
... and this WHITE-COLLARED SEEDEATER:
This is about as far north in the US that you can find seedeaters.  It's a local species anywhere in the states and so it was a real treat for us to see these so well.

Once in Big Bend National Park, we spend 4 nights at the Chisos Basin Lodge which is a superb spot; it's host to interesting mammals and birds, incredible night skies, and stunning desert vistas.  Sometimes you can see SCOTT'S ORIOLES from the parking lot.  Here's one from down the trail a bit:
We hiked up Blue Creek Canyon on one of our days there.  Here's our group heading there first thing in the morning:
Our main highlight there was finding the rare LUCIFER HUMMINGBIRD, a species that's barely reliable anywhere in the US.  Here's our list for that hike.

One of the main reasons birders visit Big Bend National Park is to hope for the COLIMA WARBLER.  In the US, Big Bend is the only place to see it!  Granted, it's a pretty serious hike, about 5 miles up into the mountains (and then another 5 miles if you want to return to the lodge!).  This year, we were again successful in finding this specialty:
The hike, which we spend all day doing, usually yields a variety of species though like BLUE-THROATED HUMMINGBIRD and PAINTED REDSTART up in the Boot Springs area (checklist here).  There are often HERMIT THRUSHES around too like this one:
We stayed several days in Big Bend and visited a wide range of the birding spots including the Cottonwood Campground, Rio Grande Village, Sam Nail Ranch, Dugout Wells, etc.  A fairly common species at many of those spots is the bright VERMILION FLYCATCHER:
After Big Bend, we drove north to the Davis Mountains to spend an evening/morning there.  Although we didn't cross paths with any Montezuma Quail, we did have a fun encounter with a pair of ELF OWLS at a nest hole.

Then on to Balmorhea Lake which is always a migrant trap for waterbirds and shorebirds.  This year, our rarest find was this sleeping LAUGHING GULL back and left of the FRANKLIN'S GULL:
This Laughing Gull was the 5th Reeves County record all-time.  Anyway, here's our eBird checklist for this birdy spot.

Then it was on to the Hill Country back to the east.  One of main targets there is found at Lost Maples SNA... the endangered GOLDEN-CHEEKED WARBLER.  We found this one that performed very well for the entire group:
This species of warbler, by the way, is the only species of bird that breeds solely in the state of Texas.

That particular sunny day and abundance of flowers gave way to quite a nice showing of butterflies.  Here's a GULF FRITILLARY on a thistle:
There were also some cool dragonflies around too including this PRONGHORN CLUBTAIL which was new for me:
At Neal's Lodges, which was our home for 3 nights, there is a river that we birded along a couple of times.  When the birding was slow, we managed to find some local damselflies there instead.  Here's a pair of COPPERY DANCERS:
This is a very range-restricted species within the US; it's only found in a small area of south central Texas.  Truth be told, I was pretty clueless about most of these damselflies but thankfully Chris also has an interest in this stuff and kept suggesting I take a look here and there!

We also got to study some parulas at Neal's Lodges.  Here's one we were hopeful was a Tropical Parula:
However, you might see a tiny dot of white under the eye.  Significant?  Well, that little dot tells us that this is actually a hybrid between Northern Parula and Tropical Parula (Northerns have white crescents under the eyes, Tropicals don't.  This was a mix).  Interestingly, Chris recorded and analyzed the songs (which can be VERY similar) and found that the song it was singing was a closer fit to Northern Parula (although it looks more like Tropical).  Anyway, if any of the listing purists are paying attention, you better watch what you count as a Tropical at Neal's Lodges!

Another main target in this part of Texas is the now-NOT-endangered BLACK-CAPPED VIREO.  They can be super skulky but this one eventually popped out for all to see!
We end this tour with a visit to a bat cave near Concan.  The first time I visited here in 2016, I didn't think it would be that impressive.  But, I have to say, this is one of the more spectacular things I've ever watched.  If you ever get a chance to visit, I highly recommend it.  Basically, you stand near the opening to this cave as dusk approaches.  Then, all of a sudden, thousands upon thousands of BRAZILIAN FREE-TAILED BATS start pouring out of the cave:
How can you put this into words?  It's a stream of bats that pour from the cave for multiple hours.  How many bats come out?  About 13... MILLION.  It's jaw-dropping.
And with that, our tour concluded back in San Antonio!  We tallied 200+ species of birds which is mighty decent for staying within Texas.

Anyway, perhaps I'll have time for another post in a day or two before I head off for my next tour.  Stay tuned.

19 April 2018

Almost 80 @ TESH

Yesterday we swung through Ted Shanks Conservation Area in Pike County.  You can click here to view the eBird hotspot page for Ted Shanks.  There you can view the bar charts, recent visits, click on the map, etc.

We were battling some moderate wind but we ended up tallying nearly 80 species in the 4 hours we were there (checklist here).

BUFFLEHEAD were flagged in eBird, presumably because it's getting on the late side (they'll be migrating out of here anytime).  Because they were flagged, I snapped a quick pic showing 12 of them, 2 males and 10 females:
We finally found decent shorebird habitat and ended up with: 

20 Dunlin
56 Greater Yellowlegs
165 Lesser Yellowlegs
2 Solitary Sandpiper
115 Pectoral Sandpiper
18 Wilson's Snipe
12 Killdeer
1 American Golden-Plover

Turns out, the Dunlin and golden-plover were county birds for me.  Here's a Lesser Yellowlegs, the most numerous shorebird species we had:
Another flagged species, again for being on the late side, was GOLDEN-CROWNED KINGLET:
Along the same theme, this AMERICAN TREE SPARROW was also flagged in eBird for being on the late side.  They're abundant here during the winter months... but winter is over (or so they say):
We found a small flock of RUSTY BLACKBIRDS which is always a treat.  This species was abundant at one time but they've gone through drastic declines in recent years.  According to breeding bird surveys and Christmas Bird Counts, numbers have declined 85%-98%.  That's alarming!  Here's a male:
... and a female in the same posture:
 I'm off to Texas in the morning.  Adios!

18 April 2018

A SWIFT GUIDE TO BUTTERFLIES OF NORTH AMERICA, 2ND EDITION

The second edition of "A Swift Guide to Butterflies of North America", by Jeffrey Glassberg, was published in 2017 by Princeton University Press.  It's a 416 page paperback that costs $29.95.  You can find it online here.
Although butterfly weather has been slow to arrive around here in northern Missouri, I have seen a couple of species just in the last week (Red Admiral, Spring Azure, and some kind of fly-by comma).  Given that, I thought maybe it was a good time to review this book to see if I wanted to give it a go this year.

It's been a while since I've posted a book review, actually.  As I often do with these, I took a few simple pics of the book and will share them here.  I don't tend to rant on and on about minute details on a species-by-species basis... I'm just here to share my overall thoughts and I try to keep them brief.

So, you open the front cover and you're greeted with this "How to Use This Book" key:
Although most of it looks pretty straightforward, you'll see a variety of colors denoting different number of broods, and then another set of colors for range.  Hmm, that seems like it could be confusing, no?  And then there is another key with additional material:
It's at this point that I stopped trying to remember everything.  It's a lot of information if you're a casual user but I guess they had to key it somehow.

Moving on to what the species accounts look like... I'll just share a variety of these.  First up, this guy:
Right off the bat, I wondered "Where on earth is the NAME of this thing?".  Right at the top?  Nope, it says "Whites and Yellows", a broad category.  That's not it.  How about next to that?   It says "Whites: Florida White".  Is that it?  Seems weird to have the name framed like that in a small, normal font.  Anyway, I'll just spoil the surprise... the name is at the BOTTOM of the entire species account.  I'm not a fan of that at all.  I suppose a user could get used to this but if every other field guide has the name easy to see at the top, why change it up?

Let's try a different page and see how it's displayed there:
The top is still dominated by the yellow-colored banner reading "Whites and Yellows" with another banner next to it saying "Whites:  Lower Rio Grande Strays".  Ok, so that banner seems to be more of a subspecific banner.  But again, the names of the butterflies are beneath the species account which, as you can see above, becomes more confusing because there are three species on this page.  There's even a black line above each name which makes it even more confusing... the line isn't being used to separate anything despite there actually being a need to separate the species!

Here's another species account or two, this time from the Gossemerwings section:
I should point out how these have range maps... gotta have those for a book that covers all of the US and Canada!  The range maps ARE small though so brace yourself for that.  Granted, it would be hard to make them much bigger with how much other stuff is packed in.

It's also clear by now that this is strictly a photo guide.  The photos are big and top notch.  Oftentimes, they include photos both of the closed wings and open wings.

To the left of the photos you'll find a couple of boxes with text explaining habitat, various notes, and abundance.  You'll see in the abundance box a "LR"... I'm sure we can figure this out by referring to the front but... hardly seems worth the effort.  That leaves me assuming it means "locally rare"?  Probably.

Here's another spread, this time with four species:
These are more compact and so you can see they opted to skip the range maps and just put a short "LRGV once" or similar description.  They squeezed in brief info about foodplants but left it at that, they were forced to leave out habitat, seasonality, and abundance info.

How about this page?
This has a whopping eight species crammed in, all of which are LRGV species (short for Lower Rio Grande Valley in Texas).

Here's another view, this time of a skipper... the very rare Poweshiek Skipperling:
Speaking of that species, it's one I've never seen and would love to try for... if they're still even in existence.  Last I heard, there were probably about 500 left on earth, many of which are in Michigan.

Here's another skipper or two, some giant-skippers:
As you can see with the Strecker's Giant-Skipper, included is a picture of the landscape where you might find this species.  A neat inclusion.  (As it so happens, I saw these often in western Nebraska and, aside from those mountains in the picture, the landscape looks right on).

At the end of the species accounts, I was surprised to find a couple pages with a few species found in Hawaii (two of which are native).  Pretty cool... now I just need to get to Hawaii to work on my Hawaii list!
I thought this was interesting... there is an index of foodplants in the back, in case you wanted to take that angle on identifying something:
And then there was the traditional index after that:
This is also somewhat interesting... there is a "visual index" in case you wanted to skim through by sight to see if you could find a match (or something close).  This seems like a good idea and I admit that I haven't used something like this before:
So, in the end... my thoughts?  

Pros:

This book has a lot of information, plenty of nice photos, and an emphasis on foodplants.  All good things.

The photos in this book are top notch.  For that alone, this book is valuable to have on hand if you want to dig through a variety of guides for additional studying.

The author, Jeffrey Glassberg, is a well-known expert and this book really displays that impressive knowledge.  I don't know him but I know he wanted to author a book that had EVERY species in it, that is clear by flipping through the book.  But, I wonder if that goal came with a price....

Cons:

... because if you're going to make a field guide with every species from the US and Canada, it's a simple fact that you'll be pressed for space.  Instead of splitting this information out into an "Eastern Butterflies" and a "Western Butterflies" book, it's lumped into one book.  Because of being pressed for space, this book is VERY crammed and busy.

I don't like the layout of this book at all.  I'm not a fan of data cramming and, to me, the layout of the text (things like the name placement) is poorly designed.  There is plenty of information in this book, true, but it hardly seems cohesive, standardized, and the knowledge certainly isn't displayed in a user-friendly fashion... at least not for this user.

The back cover says "The most user-friendly butterfly field guide ever created".  Whhhhaaat?  That surely seems bold and presumptuous!  I'd like to know whose idea it was to say that.  The author's?  Do you agree with it?  I don't.  That doesn't mean I hate the book though, I'm certainly happy to have it to reference.  Will it be my new, primary go-to guide though?  No.  Still, if you get a chance, I encourage you to flip through a copy and see what you make of it.


Disclaimer:
I received a complementary copy from the publisher for review purposes, but the viewpoint expressed in this article is entirely my own.