A Very Urban Owl

Owls are found worldwide in a huge range of habitats from rainforests to grasslands to wooded areas to tundra.” (www.enchantedlearning.com 2009)

The quote above is representative of a common misconception about owls. Few people, including some very experienced birders, realize that certain species of owls inhabit urban and semi-urban areas and may even frequent your own backyard. This is the story of one such owl. 

When I’m not staying up half the night writing about birds, I run bi-monthly home delivery routes for the Schwan’s Food Company. Since I see my regular customers 26 times a year, we come to know one another quite well. Once they learn that I am a birder, I become the Roger Tory Peterson of frozen food sales, and I often find myself answering their questions about a strange bird they’ve encountered.

One afternoon more than three years ago, I pulled up in front of a customer’s home in Eugene, Oregon. The woman and her 10-year-old son were in their driveway talking to a neighbor. All three of them were gazing intently at something on the overhanging roof that covers their porch and part of their semi-circle drive. As I approached them, I asked the young boy what they were looking at. “We have an owl,” he replied. I asked, “Do you know what kind it is?” “No,” he responded. I took a quick glance up at the owl, which was sitting in plain view on top of the main pillar that supported the roof. “That’s a Western Screech-Owl,” I told him. At that point, his mother and the neighbor joined the conversation, realizing that I might be able to offer more information about their resident owl.

I learned that this eight-inch tall nocturnal bird of prey had been roosting atop this stone pillar for weeks. I explained that Western Screech-Owls are often more abundant in urban and semi-urban areas than in rural woodlands. Being much smaller, screech-owls tend not to fare as well in rural areas, where the much larger and highly aggressive Great Horned Owls rule the night.

Then I pointed out the carpet of “pellets” below the owl’s favorite perch. Owls typically consume their prey fur, bones, and all. Since owls cannot completely digest the non-fleshy parts of their prey, they must regurgitate compacted pellets that are made up of all the undigested parts (fur, bones, etc.). By dissecting these pellets, one can determine what a particular owl has been eating. There were dozens of pellets on the ground at the base of the pillar. I tore a few of them apart and found that they were riddled with beetle casings and devoid of any other recognizable prey remnants. A more complete discussion of an owl’s digestive system and how they form pellets can be found at: http://www.owlpages.com/articles.php?section=Owl+Physiology&title=Digestion

This Western Screech-Owl, photographed at Eugene, Oregon 7 February 2009, sleeps away the daylight hours. A couple of whistled imitations might cause it to briefly open its eyes and, perhaps, even call back quietly a few times before it closes its eyes again. (Photo by David Irons using a Canon EOS XSI 450D camera and an EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 lens)

Ever since this initial encounter, a Western Screech-Owl has occupied this pillar whenever I’ve visited this home. On occasion, I’ve seen a second owl hidden away on the main beam that supports the roof. The residents told me that they once had seen an entire family group, including several fuzzy owlets, on the lawn in their backyard just after dark.

Both Eastern and Western Screech-Owls readily respond to whistled imitations of their calls. During my 30 years in Oregon, I’ve whistled up Western Screech-Owls in nearly every neighborhood I’ve lived in. In the late 1970’s David Fix and I were doing some owling for our sector of the Portland Christmas Bird Count circle (well within the city limits). In the course of about three hours, we called up 26 Western Screech-Owls at various sites within two miles of my house in the Eastmoreland neighborhood. At that evening’s countdown, even the veteran birders were incredulous to learn that so many owls might be found right in town.

My Favorite Twitch: Michigan's 1st Green Violet-ear

“It’s February, we probably won’t see jack.” A good friend of mine used these words recently to assess his prospects for finding anything unusual during an upcoming day of birding. It is indeed the time of year when birders daydream about the approaching spring migration or in my case, let an idle mind wander to memories of enjoying a major rarity. It’s either that or head out to scour the local waterfowl flocks for the umpteenth time hoping that you and your local mates have somehow missed a Baikal Teal that’s been around all winter.

After a mundane day of birding today (it is still February), I began thinking about some of my favorite chases. My best “twitch” (a term used by British birders to describe chasing a rare bird) occurred more than a decade ago when I was living in Fairmount, Illinois. One evening in mid-July 1996, my friend Steve Bailey called to tell me that a Green Violet-ear (a large all green tropical hummingbird) was coming to a feeder in Edwardsburg, Michigan, which lies in the south-central part of the state just north of the Indiana border. Since the bird would be a lifer for both of us, and was a mere three-hour drive from home, this twitch was a no-brainer. At the time, this Green Violet-ear represented the northernmost occurrence in the Americas. I agreed to meet Steve at his home in Rantoul, Illinois around 3:30 the following morning.

With a bag of snacks and full travel mugs of coffee, we left Steve’s place at the appointed hour. We reached Edwardsburg around 6:45a.m., then set about finding our way to the semi-rural home where the bird had been seen. As we bounced down the final dirt road toward our destination, we realized that we both had full bladders. Anticipating that our soon-to-be hosts would likely not have a porta-potty in their yard, we pulled over. Returning from the roadside woodlot to the car, we noticed another vehicle rolling up on us. The personalized license plate P L O V E R told us that it was another birder, and in fact one that we knew. It was Bob Chapel who lived just a few miles to the south of Steve in Urbana, Illinois. During the four years I lived and birded in Illinois I came to know Bob well. It seemed like no matter where I was birding in the state, or in this case a neighboring state, I was sure to run into Bob. He stopped and I probably said something like… “Is there any place I can go birding where I won’t run into you?” But since this was no time for idle chitchat, we were quickly back in our vehicles.

Approaching the driveway of the house, it was abundantly clear that the news about this bird had spread like the common cold at a preschool. There were cars everywhere. As we walked up, another group of birders was just piling out of a sedan with Indiana plates. I noticed that their license plate had a “71J” prefix to the number. This prefix indicated they were residents of St. Joseph Co., where I had lived until I was 10 years old. Presuming that they were members of South Bend Audubon Society, St. Joe County’s only chapter, I introduced myself and explained that my family had been members of the South Bend chapter prior to moving to Oregon in 1970. One couple not only recognized my family name, but also knew some of the long time members I remembered from my childhood (26 years earlier).

When we finally entered the yard, a magnificently maintained cottage garden, we took our places among the 70+ birders already gathered there. Multiple hummingbird feeders and lots of flowering plants adorned the yard, which was abuzz with Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, the expected species in this region. There were at least 20 of them, with a half dozen or more attending the favorite feeder of the Green Violet-ear. “Is it here,” we asked. “You won’t have to wait long,” was the response. Almost immediately we heard the much louder wing whir of a large hummingbird rocketing in from our right. I was utterly unprepared for the sheer size of this emerald green hummingbird with a purplish-blue ear patch. Instantly commandeering the feeders, the tiny Ruby-throated Hummingbirds scattered like jackals from a carcass when a lion returns to its kill.

We spent about 40 minutes or so in the semi-circle of humanity blanketing one side of the yard. Birders came and went almost constantly while we enjoyed the guest of honor. The shared experience of seeing a great bird with others who share your passion is part of the glue that bonds the birding community. I may never again encounter most of these people, but there will be others who will forever remember meeting me at the Green Violet-ear.

The Green Violet-ear was by far the least expected of many rare birds that Steve and I saw together. This episode was made even more special by encountering folks from my family’s first Audubon chapter (we’ve joined a few others since). I moved from Illinois to Oregon in December 1998 and sadly, have not been back to visit. Several years after I moved away, Bob Chapel was tragically hit and killed by a drunk driver when he stopped to look at a bird along a highway south of Champaign-Urbana. It’s hard to think that we will share no more chance encounters.

Michigan’s first Green Violet-ear remained at this home in Edwardsburg, MI 16 July-18 Aug 1996. In 2002, a second Green Violet-ear made it to Michigan and this species has appeared with increasing frequency in the U.S. over the past decade or so. Images of the beautiful Michigan Green Violet-ears can be seen at michiganaudubon.org.

Please use the “comments” section to share your favorite twitch.

What's Different About These Common Birds? Part 3

Dark-eyed Acorn Woodpeckers in Baja California Sur (B.C.S.)

The distinctive “clown face” of the Acorn Woodpecker (Melanerpes formicivorus) is familiar to most birders along the Pacific Coast of North America. This species has one of the most elongated latitudinal ranges of any woodpecker in the Americas, extending north to south-central Washington state and south to the Andes Mountains of Colombia. It is the only woodpecker species native to both North and South America. Acorn Woodpeckers are essentially non-migratory and somewhat restricted to oak-dominated woodlands. Their extensive range is broken up by expanses of desert and other plant communities devoid of oak woodlands. The non-contiguous nature of their range genetically isolates many of these populations. The Vizcaino Desert, which bisects the middle third of the Baja Peninsula, is a major barrier to non-migratory arboreal species that reside in the Cape District of B.C.S. As discussed in the first two parts of this series, a number of taxa found in B.C.S. occur nowhere else. In the case of the Acorn Woodpecker, there are many subtle and not-so-subtle geographic variations in plumage (described and illustrated below). However, among all the disjunct populations of Acorn Woodpeckers, only the birds of Baja California Sur lack the conspicuous white eye.

This male, photographed near Grants Pass, Oregon on 13 January 2007, is typical of the Acorn Woodpeckers (subspecies bairdi) found in California, Oregon, and Washington, and matches depictions of this species found in the popular North American field guides. The underside of this bird exhibits the following features: a broad and nearly solid black breast band that frames the throat and connects to a broad black “mask” surrounding the eye, and a mostly clean white lower breast, belly, undertail, and flanks. In the U.S., Acorn Woodpeckers show dense black streaking immediately below the black breast band, but virtually no streaking on the white belly and sparse narrow black streaks on the otherwise white flanks. (Photograph taken by Phil Hicks using an Olympus C750UZ camera)

This female Acorn Woodpecker, part of a small isolated population (subspecies angustifrons) in Baja California Sur (Koenig et al. 1995), was photographed near San Antonio de la Sierra, B.C.S., Mexico on 12 January 2009. We encountered 75+ Acorn Woodpeckers in this area, and all those seen well were similar in appearance to this bird. They had dark eyes and were heavily streaked along their flanks from their lower breast to their undertail coverts. Only the very middle of the belly lacked streaking. Their black flank streaks were much broader than those of birds in the U.S. I’ve seen hundreds of Acorn Woodpeckers in Oregon and California and none have shown the amount of heavy black flank streaking exhibited by this individual. The portion of the breast band that is solid black is not as broad in the B.C.S. birds and, as evidenced by this bird, they show lots of white-tipped feathers in the black breast band. Northern birds show far fewer white-tipped feathers in the breast band, giving their breast bands the appearance of being broader and more solid black. The primary difference between males and females is the head pattern. In males, the red crown patch extends farther forward and the black does not extend across the forehead, which it does in females. (Photo by David Irons using a Canon EOS XSI 450D camera and an EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 lens)

Variations in plumage and eye color between the B.C.S. population (on left) and birds in the U.S. (on right) are evident in this side-by-side comparison. These close-ups were cropped from the two photos above. The most obvious difference between these birds is eye color. The dark eye (red iris) seen on the bird on the left is unique to the B.C.S. population. All other populations of Acorn Woodpeckers in the U.S., mainland Mexico, Central America, and northern South America show white irises as adults. Note also that the somewhat circular, light-colored area wrapping around the face, referred to as the “facial circle” in this discussion, is entirely yellow on the bird on the left and mostly white with just a bit of yellow on the throat of the bird on the right. Again, only the B.C.S. birds show an all yellow facial circle. There are also subtle differences in the width of the facial circle. It is a little wider between the eye and the bill and a little narrower across the forehead on the B.C.S. birds. In all other Acorn Woodpecker populations, the light-colored facial circle is predominantly white with varying amounts of yellow on the throat.

This female Acorn Woodpecker, likely the subspecies striatipectus (Koenig et al. 1995), was photographed at Chinchona, Costa Rica in February 2007. Its features are somewhat intermediate between the B.C.S. birds and the typical birds found in North America. Like all Acorns (other than those in B.C.S.), it has white irises. The underparts are more streaked than birds in the U.S., but less heavily streaked on the flanks than those of the B.C.S. population. The black breast band is similar to the B.C.S. birds, in that it is not as broad and has a lot of white spotting. However, the facial circle of this bird is mostly white, with yellow restricted to the throat. This bird shows a broader white band across the forehead compared to the rather narrow band of yellow across the forehead of the B.C.S. birds. Note that this individual shows a few red-tipped feathers at the base of the throat, where the yellow on the throat meets the top of the black breast band. This smattering of red-tipped feathers is always shown by Acorn Woodpeckers from Oaxaca, Mexico to Panama (Koenig et al. 1995), but appears on only about 5% of the U.S. specimens (subspecies bairdi and aculeata) in the San Diego Natural History Museum (SDNHM). All four of that museum’s angustifrons specimens have red-tipped breast feathers (Phil Unitt pers. comm.). I took several images of the San Antonio de la Sierra bird shown in the images above, and found only one angle where the bird appears to show a single red-tipped breast feather. (Photograph was by Bill Tice using an Olympus D-550 camera through a Zeiss Diascope 65T)

Paying attention to geographical differences in common species is a great way to maintain interest in species of birds that are otherwise ignored during a typical day of birding. While I was able to pick up several life birds in Baja, the time spent studying the birds discussed in this three-part series was, perhaps, the most interesting aspect of the trip. My post-trip research and quest to find comparison photos answered a few questions, but most importantly raised several new ones. The Birds of North America Online is a fantastic web-based resource co-sponsored by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the American Ornithologists’ Union (AOU). When it came to answering specific questions about subspecies, range, and plumage variations in Acorn Woodpeckers, I referenced it often. I sincerely thank Phil Hicks, Sylvia Maulding, Ryan Merrill, and Bill Tice for allowing me to use their excellent photos, and I am also appreciative of those who provided photos that I examined, but did not include in this photo essay. I am indebted and grateful to Phil Unitt, curator of the San Diego Natural History Museum, who took time from his busy schedule to examine study skins and offer details about the various Acorn Woodpecker specimens in that museum’s collection. In particular I want to thank Steve Mlodinow, whose contagious interest in biogeography has furthered my enjoyment of birding and exploring new places.

Literature Cited:

Koenig, Walter D., Peter B. Stacey, Mark T. Stanback and Ronald L. Mumme. 1995. Acorn Woodpecker (Melanerpes formicivorus), The Birds of North America Online (A. Poole, Ed.). Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology; Retrieved from the Birds of North America Online: http://bna.birds.cornell.edu/bna/species/194

Do We Have A Right To Be Outraged?

Over the past 24 hours I’ve received several e-mails with links to an online National Geographic article showing a picture of a Worcester’s Buttonquail. The bird, presumed extinct, was photographed for the first time at a poultry market in the Philippines, where it was being sold for food. This article and picture can be viewed at news.nationalgeographic.com.

Many of the folks who forwarded this directly to me, or to birding listservs I subscribe to, expressed either incredulity or outrage that this ultra-rare bird might end up being someone’s dinner. I see some danger in making a habit of using our own yardstick (which is currently in need of repair) to measure the actions and cultures of others around the globe. It is easy to cast stones at those who have no apparent appreciation for our need to preserve this unique bird. My question is this, what life experiences have these Philippine natives had that might cause them to develop concerns over the continuing existence of a single species of bird?

I once heard a great analogy involving a beach ball. Two people were standing on opposite sides of the same multi-colored beach ball arguing over what color it was. After much back and forth, one combatant finally invited the other to look at their side of the beach ball. At this point, both of them realized that the beach ball’s color was a matter of perspective. Perhaps we should take a look at the other side of the beach ball in the case of this endangered quail.

Put yourself in the place of the person who captured/killed the Worcester’s Buttonquail and then took it to market to sell or trade. Does this person live on a five- or six-figure income? Is he/she highly-educated. Does he/she have an understanding of basic concepts of bio-diversity? The answers to these questions are surely, no, no, and no.

In many corners of the world humans are simply trying to survive, much like the buttonquail. Their waking hours are consumed with eking out a meager existence. They have no time to watch birds, no money to purchase bird books or bins, and they probably aren’t inclined to visit the local library (if one even exists) to research the rare and endemic birds of their region. The buttonquail represents one thing to such a person…food. Until we exhibit an appreciation of, and real concerns about their situation, our cries for change fall on deaf ears.

There was a time and a place in our pasts where wildlife preservation was of little concern, and that did not change until we reached a certain level of comfort. If you think we have no skeletons in the closet, do a little research about the Grand Kankakee Marsh. This massive freshwater wetland system once covered more than a half million acres at the south end of Lake Michigan. Gradually, rivers were straightened and channeled, and eventually nearly the entire marsh was drained to create more land for industry, agriculture, and human habitation. Today, only a few fragments of this once great marsh remain.

Our excitement and irritation over this buttonquail story are likely to be short-lived and then, predictably, we will move on to the next bird-related news story that captures our attention. While I offer no easy answers as far a balancing the global economic equation, I think it’s important to recognize that until the comparative luxury of leisure time is available to all, all will not share the views we hold towards wildlife, and in particular wild birds. Until such a time comes, we should be diligent in sharing our values with others, all the while respecting that their values have been shaped by life experiences utterly different than our own.

What is a Culmen?

My mother posed this question after reading the recent BirdFellow Journal post about San Lucas Robins. Rule #1 for a writer: Use language that your mother can understand. After all, she is likely to be the most loyal member of your audience.

Since I already knew what a culmen was (or so I thought), I decided it might be fun to do an online search for a definition, a strategy that might be applied by someone unfamiliar with this term.

The first hit was a Wikipedia link that read as follows: “The culmen is the portion of the anterior vermis adjacent to the primary fissure of cerebellum.” Huh??? Okay, now I’m as confused as mom. I have no idea what a “vermis” is or where it’s located. On what sort of beast might I find a vermis? Then, once the vermis is located, how do I determine which fissure is the “primary” one? Are there secondary and tertiary fissures? Exactly how many fissures does a typical cerebellum have? Now I know how mom felt.

As we move forward in the development of the BirdFellow website, we intend to create hotlinks to images like the one below. Whenever our content uses a technical word to describe a part of a bird’s anatomy or plumage, we will have a close-up image that will instantly answer this type of question. Our hope is to make the topography of a bird more accessible, rather than cause our highly-supportive parents to scratch their heads.

This close-up shows the dark brown culmen of a male San Lucas Robin’s bill. The culmen is the ridge along the top of the upper mandible (a bird’s beak is comprised of two mandibles). The shape of the culmen, or its coloration is often a helpful clue in the identification of certain bird species (i.e. loons, gulls and some alcids).

What's Different About These Common Birds? Part 2

The San Lucas Robin

The resident subspecies of American Robin (T. m. confinis) in Baja California Sur (B.C.S.) — often referred to as the San Lucas Robin — is every bit as confounding as the House Finch shown in the previous post. This taxon formerly enjoyed full species status, but was later lumped with the American Robin. San Lucas Robins are much paler above and below than American Robins found north of the U.S./Mexico border. Their bills are mostly rich orange rather than yellow in color, and these birds show a well-defined white supercilium in all plumages. It should be noted that some robins in the U.S. show a weak supercilium, but it is typically far less eye-catching. The flight calls of San Lucas Robins are noticeably higher-pitched and squeakier than those of their more northerly counterparts. I have not heard San Lucas Robins sing, but Steve Mlodinow, my birding mate during this Baja trip, and a veteran of several previous B.C.S. explorations, assures me that the song is distinctly different as well. The robins here are yet another example of a geographically isolated population that has evolved to look quite different than others within their species.

The American Robin above, likely a female based on the paler edgings to the breast and belly feathers and the brown tones on the upper back and wing coverts, was photographed 18 December 2008 in Kirkland, Washington. The orange below is paler than what is exhibited by a typical adult male (see below), and the head is mostly gray with a bit of brown rather than being mostly black. The bill is not as bright yellow and shows a dark culmen (ridge along the top of the upper mandible). (Photograph taken by Ryan Merrill using a Nikon D300 & AF-S 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 VR lens)

The adult male American Robin shown above was photographed in Springfield, Oregon on 3 February 2007. Note the entirely yellow bill with no dark on the culmen, the fairly dark slate-gray back, and the mostly black head. This bird shows broad white eye arcs, but does not show a white supercilium. The underparts are predominantly uniform burnt orange and lack the pale feather margins usually seen on females and young males. (Photograph by Sylvia Maulding using a Sony DSC-H1 camera)

The female San Lucas Robins in the two images above differ from female American Robins in several ways. Among the most prominent field marks is the distinctive white supercilium, which extends well past the eye. Some female and immature American Robins can show whitish superciliums, but they are not as well-defined, or as clean white as they are on these birds. The overall coloration of San Lucas Robins is much paler, particularly on the underparts. Female San Lucas Robins are generally more buff than orange one the breast and upper belly. Their lower belly, undertail and lower flanks show more extensive white than the female American Robins in the U.S. Their upperparts tend to lack the charcoal gray tones shown by American Robins, instead they often appear more brown than gray above. Also note the weak whitish wingbar, which is often shown by female San Lucas Robins. The bills of San Lucas Robins are mostly orange rather than yellow, and both males and females have a dark culmen. Female American Robins also show a dark culmen, but the rest of the bill is typically more yellow. Finally, the bills of San Lucas Robins often give the appearance of being a bit longer and heavier than those of American Robins. (Photos by David Irons using a Canon EOS XSI 450D camera and a EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 lens)

The adult male San Lucas Robin in the images above is quite unlike an adult male American Robin. Its overall coloration is much paler above and below. Like the females, it also has a strongly orange bill with a dark culmen and dark tip. Adult male American Robins typically show an entirely yellow bill. The crown (see bottom image) and nape have a brownish cast and there is no black on the head, nape or back. The upperparts of male San Lucas Robins have a more brownish cast than the typical dark charcoal gray to black (mostly on the head) upperparts of male American Robins in the U.S.. The orange below is much paler and might better be described as “peach” or “salmon” rather than the deep burnt orange exhibited by an adult male American Robin. Lastly, adult male American Robins do not show a white supercilium. (Photos by David Irons using a Canon EOS XSI 450D camera and an EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 lens)

In the final installment of this three-part series, we’ll examine the Acorn Woodpeckers of Baja California Sur. This species, the only woodpecker native to both North and South America, shows a number of plumage variations across its expansive north-south range. However, the B.C.S. population exhibits two characteristics not shown by other populations of Acorn Woodpeckers.

What's Different About These Common Birds? Part 1

Most birders realize that individual bird species can show significant geographic variation. In fact, the differences in size and plumage can be radical. Classic examples include the Aleutian Song Sparrow, which dwarfs its con-specifics, and the “Blue” Snow Goose, which is almost totally lacking in white plumage and bears little resemblance to a typical Snow Goose. A recent trip to Baja California Sur (B.C.S.), Mexico exposed me to rather odd-looking populations of three species that I see regularly near my home in the Pacific Northwest. I was amazed when I saw Acorn Woodpeckers, “San Lucas” American Robins, and male House Finches in the Cape District of B.C.S., as they were quite unlike the populations that reside in the U.S. Unfortunately, standard field guides do not offer illustrations of these interesting variants, so I thought a series of photo essays was in order. The first bird we’ll explore is the House Finch.

The Ultra-Red House Finches of Baja California Sur

Before our trip, my travel mate Steve Mlodinow, who was making his 15th trip to Baja, warned me that I would see several local populations in B.C.S. that would look dramatically different than those of the same species in the Pacific Northwest. One example he cited was the House Finch, explaining that I would not believe how brightly colored they are. He was right. Had I not known in advance that Purple Finches do not occur in B.C.S., I might have called the first male House Finch I saw a Purple. I’ve read (but can’t remember where) that the amount of red these finches show is simply a reflection of diet. Perhaps the B.C.S. birds are getting into cans of fire engine paint. They are really red!

This male House Finch was photographed in Eugene, Oregon 25 December 2008. In terms of red on the head and breast, it’s fairly typical of the local resident population. In the Pacific Northwest, the red on the crown is most intense and generally limited to the forehead, forecrown, and supercilium. In this regard, this individual is near maximum red. The mid-crown and hind-crown on these House Finches is normally medium gray-brown, which creates the red “eye-browed” look shown by this bird. Note also that there is a lot of gray and gray-brown in the auriculars, nape, and hind-neck of this bird, which contributes to the patterned face and head one typically associates with a male House Finch. The red on the underparts is most evident on the breast and tends to fade to paler pink and off-white below. As shown by this individual, northerly male House Finches generally show heavier and more extensive brown streaking along the flanks, belly, and to a lesser extent the lower breast than other members of the Carpodacus genus--Cassin’s and Purple Finches. (Photo by David Irons using a Canon EOS XSI 450D camera and a EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 lens)

Many birders in the U.S. would take one look at this bird and call it a male Purple Finch. However, it was photographed 8 January 2009 at San Jose del Cabo, Baja California Sur, Mexico, where Purple Finches do not occur. It is a male House Finch exhibiting the typical appearance of the local population. The extensive red on the head and underparts was utterly unlike that of any House Finch one might encounter in the U.S. Nearly the entire head, including the nape and crown, was solid red with only a little brown showing in the auriculars. The throat, breast, most of the belly, and the flanks were also near-solid fire engine red with only a hint of the expected brown streaking. Though not apparent in this image, the back and wings of this bird also showed far more extensive red than we might expect on a House Finch in the U.S. This bird was comparatively un-streaked below. (Photo by David Irons using a Canon EOS XSI 450D camera and a EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 lens).

In the next BirdFellow Journal post, I’ll compare typical American Robins to the unique “San Lucas” Robins found in the higher elevations of Baja California Sur.

Thanks Again Mark: For a daughter's curiosity

Few who read this will have ever heard of Mark Koninendyke, and fewer still ever met him. Earlier this evening I took a short break from editing a Fall 2008 North American Birds column in order to check my e-mail. To say that I was stunned to see his name in the subject line of a message would be an understatement. Crazier still, the sender--unrecognized--was simply listed as “J O.”

This picture of Mark Koninendyke, taken in the early 1970s, appeared with Jeff Gilligan’s “In Memorium” piece that appeared in Oregon Birds Vol 12:152-153. (Photograph by Harry Nehls)

Mark was one of my favorite birding companions during my youth. More importantly, he was a friend. He died in a single-vehicle accident on 31 May 1986 while on his way to go birding in southeastern Oregon. I still think of him often, especially when I’m in the midst of a great birding trip like my recent adventures in Baja, or the December weekend in eastern Oregon and Washington. Mark would have been in his element. He was as genuine as any person I’ve ever met, and recollections of travels with him reside among my fondest memories.

When I opened the e-mail from this mysterious J O, I learned that it was from Mark’s daughter, who was just eight when he died. She had found my name when she did a Google search of her dad’s name. On occasion, I have written about Mark in posts to various birding listservs, thus she decided that I might be one who could offer insights about who her father was. I was heartened to learn that she was still interested in getting to “know” her father 23 years after his untimely death.

Obviously, he made an impact on her, as was the case with anyone who ever got to know her dad. I was immediately inspired to reach out to old birding buddies who all knew Mark well. I forwarded his daughter’s e-mail to several of them in hopes that they might be willing to share their own stories about Mark. After all, if this young woman wants to get to know her dad, shouldn’t we be the ones to tell his story? One of our mutual friends reminded me of a tribute to Mark published in Oregon Birds shortly after his death. Its author, Jeff Gilligan, had grown up with Mark and his cousin Randy Wright. The three of them and a couple other neighborhood teens started birding together in the 1960s. Jeff’s piece captures the essence of Mark and his tribute ends with three simple, telling words, “we miss him.”

Take a moment to think about those folks who you bird with regularly. I suspect that, like Mark was for me, they will be among your favorite people and, hopefully, your closest friends. The undistracted shared experiences one has while birding--long drives across the desert, a day of eating salt spray on pelagic trip, getting stopped by the police when you are out owling, or just wandering about your local patch--create opportunities to really get to know someone well. Embrace those times and you will surely come across some human gems… like Mark.

Would Lightning Strike Again at Miracleflores?

Dave Irons and Steven Mlodinow

On the third and fourth days of our Baja California Sur adventure, Steve Mlodinow and I drove about 45 minutes north of San Jose del Cabo to bird around a couple of small pueblos nestled at the base of the Sierra de la Laguna. In recent years, Steve and others have turned up several mega-rarities in and around the unassuming little town of Miraflores. This run of success led Steve to begin referring to this village as “Miracleflores.” Streak-backed Oriole, Common Black-Hawk, a flock of Mississippi Kites, and Yellow-throated Warbler are among the shocking rarities that have appeared here since 2002.

The crown jewel of all the “megas” at Miraflores is the Yellow-browed Warbler that Steve discovered near the edge of town on 24 March 2007. Yellow-browed Warblers are native to Europe and Asia and, aside from one fall record from Gambell, St. Lawrence Island, Alaska (23-24 September 1999), this species was unknown from the Americas. On that magical March morning an unfamiliar warbler appeared briefly then disappeared among a massive swarm of passerines that Steve had pished up. Were it not for his prior experience with this tiny warbler in Europe, his abbreviated initial looks may have left him scratching his head over its identity. However, he immediately recognized the bird to be a Yellow-browed Warbler and set about trying to get diagnostic photos. Several agonizing minutes of frantic pishing failed to re-attract the bird, resulting in one panicked birder. Birding alone, Steve was beginning to imagine the response he might get if he dared to report this bird without photos. The Yellow-browed Warbler finally made a second appearance and was photographed, documenting an unthinkable first for Mexico and just the second record for the New World. It is equally hard to fathom how amidst the swarm of local passerines Kurt Radamaker successfully relocated, photographed, and captured voice recordings of this bird during a chase trip two weeks later.

(The remainder of this post was excerpted from Steve Mlodinow’s lengthy write-up of our trip. Steve draws on his vast experience in the region to provide a more authoritative account than I would be able to offer)

There are many small farms (like the one shown above) on the outskirts of Miraflores, Baja California Sur. The agriculture is very small-scale with little if any use of heavy equipment. These small openings create some “edge” to the otherwise lush woodlands where one is likely to encounter wintering flocks of sparrows, buntings, and other semi-open country species. The Sierra de la Laguna looms in the background. (photo taken by David Irons using a Canon EOS XSI 450D camera and an EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 lens)

This little puppy materialized at our feet as we started our day at Miraflores on 9 January 2009. Had there been a practical way to bring this adorable little stray home, one of us would have a new pet. (photo taken by David Irons using a Canon EOS XSI 450D camera and an EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 lens)

My first flirtation with Miraflores came during my initial visit to Baja in March 2002. Earlier that year Jim Pike had found Cape May Warbler there, and Dick Erickson highly recommended further exploration. I fell in love. I find wandering through lush desert (or what passes for lush in the desert) enthralling. Instead of a depauperate landscape, I see a world filled with quixotic lizards, peculiar insects, fantastical plants and relatively easy-to-see birds.

When we parked near the “first stream crossing,” I could feel that sense of wonderment fill me. Stress drained out from my soul and down through the desert sands. We were greeted by trees dripping with Orange-crowned Warblers and the echoing sounds of Gila Woodpeckers. That first flock dispersed when a car rumbled down the dirt road, and it was then that we noticed that we’d been befriended by a wee puppy. It seemed way to small to be separated from its mother, assuming it wasn’t a Chihuahua, which it wasn’t (one doesn’t find many small dogs wandering around the pueblos of Baja). It was definitely working the “adopt me” angle. Cute and frolicsome, we could not resist scratching it behind its sweet slightly drooped ears and patting its narrow flanks. We had made a friend.

As we started to walk away, it tried to trot after us on uncertain legs. It stopped when a schoolboy passing on a bike tossed a bag down at its feet; breakfast, no doubt. And so we started our 6- or 7-hour stroll around Miracleflores. Our route, which if plotted on paper might pass for an Etch-A-Sketch creation, required the crossing of at least 10 more barbed wire fences, but who’s counting, eh?

Dave almost immediately found a Baltimore Oriole, which I heard chattering only. Soon thereafter we found a Lucy’s Warbler traveling with another sizeable flock of Orange-crowneds. Thick-billed Kingbirds, a relatively recent addition to Baja’s avifauna, could be heard squeaking loudly from treetops; they were first recorded here in the 1970s and first bred locally a couple years ago. It quickly became apparent that some of the regular inhabitants were unusually numerous. Orange-crowned Warblers, always common in winter, were as thick as blackbirds at a feedlot. Xantus’s Hummingbird, the stunning orange, green, and black endemic hummingbird, was also very common. I’m accustomed to finding a dozen or so per day with relative ease at Miraflores, but the 60 or so we saw on this day (sometimes 10 in view at once), far surpassed any of my previous experiences. We were often distracted by these hummingbirds, which repeatedly taunted us by landing nearby in direct sunlight. Binoculars would fall to our chests and the cameras would come out. Xantus’s Hummingbirds seem to have an innate ability to sense the precise moment you are about the push the shutter button for that once in a lifetime image and then…they fly off. Both of us ended up with several shots of empty branches where a male hummingbird had been perched only nanoseconds earlier. Eventually, our persistence was rewarded and both of us captured dozens of close-up shots of male Xantus’s.

This gorgeous male Xantus’ Hummingbird, the best known of Baja California Sur’s three endemics, was one of dozens we saw around Miraflores on 9 January 2009. They are quite curious and will respond to pishing as readily as chickadees do in the U.S. (photo taken by David Irons using a Canon EOS XSI 450D camera and an EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 lens)

Though birds as a whole were plentiful, this ramble through Miracleflores produced no miracles. Beyond the Lucy’s Warbler and Baltimore Oriole, we found two Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, a Summer Tanager, and a Dusky Flycatcher. Interestingly, this “common Western bird” is rare in the Cape District, and this Dusky was the first I’d seen down there. Not bad birding, to be sure, but short of miraculous. Even the activity of common birds slowed down near mid-day, so I started in on insects, stalking dragonflies, and getting so close that my lens actually touched their wings, earning me the title “Dragonfly-whisperer” from Dave. Exhausted, hungry, and parched, we returned to the car after 2 p.m. Our faithful little friend was there waiting for us. We tossed him a couple pieces of breakfast bar. No lectures please; some calories are better than no calories when you are a starving pup--and yes, we realize that breakfast bars are not the ideal lunch for humans either.

We moved on to Caduaño. Caduaño is a neighboring pueblo not far from Miraflores; it is much smaller than Miraflores, and its vegetation is not nearly as lush. However, it has flowing water in the form of small irrigation channels. This, plus some trees and brush, attract birds in the parched landscape. As we arrived, I was flagging mentally and physically. We had spent hours and hours walking in the hot sun, traversing prickly fences, and crashing through dense brush--often enjoyable (I never claimed normalcy), but tiring. We’d gone a bit too long without food and water. We had pished and sifted through hundreds and hundreds of birds--again, fun but exhausting. Later that evening we allowed ourselves to wonder, “how many individual bird identifications do you think we made today?” We were too tired to attempt the math.

At least 80 Cassin’s Kingbirds--including the 14 in this image--were observed going to roost in the small pueblo of Caduaño, Baja California Sur on 10 January 2009 (photo taken by David Irons using a Canon EOS XSI 450D camera and an EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 lens)

As we entered Caduaño, I noted that the small tank which formerly hosted Belding’s Yellowthroats was destroyed, the trees around it gone, and the entire area heavily fenced off – not that we’d want to enter, since no habitat was left. This was the best single spot at Caduaño, and I mourned its loss, and the gradual degradation of the habitat at those places I love. We parked at the town square. It is a small and understated affair, across the street from a lovely unimposing church. The circuit around Caduaño encircles an area of short dense vegetation with the occasional taller acacia or guamuchilar. There are a few small pastures, a couple half-hearted agricultural fields, and trickles of water here and there. Also, you are almost always within earshot or sight of a household. This means people and barking dogs. Still, it is a pleasant perambulation. The biggest surprises (prior to returning to the car) were 3 more Lucy’s Warblers and 3 Hermit Thrushes. Hermit Thrush is a bird I only see on occasion away from the mountains, and three together was a definite surprise. As we approached the car, we were both drooping. A day that had started with high hopes was starting to feel just plain long and the birding, which had been for the most part enjoyable, was beginning to feel a bit like work. About that time we began noticing small groups of kingbirds passing overhead, rekindling our birding focus. Our energies were fully rejuvenated with the realization that dozens of kingbirds all seemed to be moving toward a stand of trees right above our parked car. The air was filled with the calls of Cassin’s Kingbirds. Occasionally a mass of kingbirds would flush in response to some apparent threat (invisible to us, anyway). The sight of 50 or more kingbirds taking flight simultaneously was truly impressive. We were able to detect one Western Kingbird among the 80+ Cassin’s and a couple of the local Thick-billeds also joined the party.

And then there was the oriole. Dave called out, “Check out this orange oriole in the tree with the Cassin’s!” After I sorted out which tree “the tree” was, I looked at the bird in question and thought that it actually was red. “It’s red, not orange,” I shouted back. I think Dave wanted to yell “B.S.” but said something more restrained. I came closer, and from a better light angle saw a distinctly orange bird atop the tree. A Baltimore Oriole, perched very much in the open, accompanying a treeful of Cassin’s Kingbirds. Weird, but photographable! We slogged back to San Jose del Cabo, hit the burrito stand near the Mega (and yes, the burrito pollo mole and the machaca were excellent) for dinner, and crashed, reaching the Land of Nod quickly despite the baying of the local hounds.

The following day we again started at Miraflores. Would it prove worthy of its nickname on day two? This day was spent birding from “wash crossing #2,” upstream from the main part of town, and where we’d spent the previous day. The habitat here is heavily grazed thornscrub with a higher proportion of live-oak than the area around wash #1. This stretch typically offers more in the way of Ash-throated Flycatchers, Black-throated Gray Warblers, Pacific-slope Flycatchers, and scrub-jays. It is also more likely to host the occasional downslope montane wanderer, such as Acorn Woodpecker, Band-tailed Pigeon, or Cape Pygmy-Owl. Initially, we encountered almost no birds, though activity slowly increased, and by the end of five or so hours of wandering about, we had seen another 200 Orange-crowned Warblers, 50 Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, 12 San Lucan Cassin’s Vireos (the local race is extremely bright, in many ways resembling a Blue-headed Vireo, though in many birds, almost the whole body seems suffused with a mustardy cast), and 30 Pacific-slope Flycatchers (many calling to confirm that they were not Cordilleran). We found one “eastern” rarity, a Tennessee Warbler, and had another Lucy’s Warbler. We’d been befriended by yet another dog, and were carefully scrutinized for signs of either danger or food by several small groups of cattle. As for barbed wire fences, a bit disappointing… only 2 or 3 had stood in our way.

The two San Lucan Cassin’s Vireos pictured above were both photographed at Miraflores on 10 January 2009. Note the contrast between the gray head and yellow-green back in the top image and the bright yellow flanks and the sharp contrast between the white throat and the dark gray head on the lower bird. This combination of characteristics is more suggestive of a Blue-headed Vireo than a typical Cassin’s. (both photos taken by Steven Mlodinow using a Nikon D300 with 300mm f4 lens and 1.4 teleconverter)

Enjoying the gentle breezes off the Sea of Cortez from a chaise lounge on our little patio at El Delfin Blanco with a cerveza fria close at hand was the perfect end to a day of birding. (photo by David Irons using a Canon EOS XSI 450D camera and a EF-S 18-55mm IS lens)

By the time the heat of the day set in around 2 p.m., we had spent nearly two full days of hiking up dry arroyos and making our way under, over, and through various obstacles. We were ready for a break. Earlier that morning we had already decided that this would be the day we would knock off early, lounge around our temporary residence, enjoy the sea breezes, and do a bit of sight-seeing on the plaza in San Jose del Cabo…and so it would be.