Thursday, December 3, 2009

Sprague's Pipit - Endangered?

When I was working on a Mountain Plover project in northern Montana many moons ago, I really enjoyed birding at Bowdoin National Wildlife Refuge, and watching the Sprague's Pipits perform their beautiful figure 8 courtship flights. A sight that is apparently getting rarer every year.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Marriage on the Mountain

Just a bit of personal news. This past weekend I got married on Rich Mountain at the Queen Wilhelmina lodge. The long ridge that is Rich Mountain is located on the border of Oklahoma and Arkansas and is home to one of the most beautiful salamanders in the world, the highly endemic Rich Mountain Salamander. Found only on a few mountaintops in this part of the Ouachita Mountains, the Rich Mountain Salamander is one of several Ouachita Mountain endemic salamander species inhabitating the region.

Though I study birds, I have always been equally fascinated with salamanders. Many of the things I love to study in birds, endemism, speciation, biogeography can be appreciated in even greater detail in salamanders. They also can be very difficult to find and have beautiful and remote locations where they are found. It has always surprised me than that "salamander watching" is not a more popular pastime. But perhaps it is for the best, the habitats of these often rare creatures can be sensitive, and I am afraid that there are too many "herpers" interested in collecting rather than just watching or photographing these beautiful animals.

Still I hope that we as birders have a fascination and respect for all the biodiversity of the earth and a desire to see quality conservation across the spectrum of life!

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Some LRGV pics

White Peacock


Mexican Bluewing

Buff-bellied Hummingbird

Green Jay

Scissor-tailed Flycatcher

Coast Guard Helicopter patrolling the Rio Grande

Least Grebe


Texas Tortoise

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Rio Reforestation!

As you advance in birding in the ABA area, you gradually learn that the Lower Rio Grande Valley of Texas is amongst the top birding locations in all of the United States. With many Mexican species that just barely spill across the Rio Grande, as well as the confluence of two different migratory bird pathways, plus numerous species at the eastern or western edges of their ranges, the area has one of the most diverse avifaunas in the USA. Many exotic or tropical looking species like Green Jays, Great Kiskadees and various Orioles jump out of the pages of many birding books and magazines enticing birders to visit this part of the country.

One thing birders may not learn is that the natural habitats of this area are amongst the most endangered in all of the U.S. In fact numerous sources estimate that over 95% of native Tamaulipan brush habitat (the dominant habitat type of the LRGV) has been lost on the U.S. side of the border. That means that so many of the species of birds that thousands of birders travel to south Texas to see each year are pushed onto a tiny network of fragments of remnant habitats (primarily Santa Ana NWR, Bentsen Rio Grande Valley State Park and a few other tiny areas of public land owned by other conservation minded organizations and agencies).

Not all is doom and gloom however. The Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge, which is a collection of many different tracts of land stretching across all four counties that make up the valley (and currently covering over 90,000 acres) is attempting to create a "wildlife corridor" linking the best remaining areas of native habitats in the valley.

Many of these tracts are areas of reclaimed farmland that no longer support native vegetation. Because of this the LRGV NWR has developed an interesting revegetation effort. Native plant species are grown by the refuge or a collection of local farmers that help the refuge in return for the ability to farm certain areas. These native plant seedlings are then planted at refuge tracts in an attempt to restore the dense native brushlands required by much of the valley's wildlife species.

Currently researchers at the refuge are trying to determine the best mixes of native plants for quickly and effectively restoring native brushlands. Many factors come into play. Invasive Asian grasses are a constant threat to native plants in this area and quickly creating a native plant canopy to shade out the grass is one technique that may prove successful. Only time and careful research will tell what strategies will prove most effective for restoring quality wildlife habitat in the region.

With the help of farm crews, local school children and of course the biologists of the LRGV NWR, some of the fields of the Lower Rio Grande Valley may soon be restored to native brushlands supporting birds, Ocelots and other wildlife species. Hopefully the restoration of a viable wildlife corridor in the area will provide quality habitat in the valley for generations to come!

Monday, October 19, 2009

Yellow Rail!

Growing up in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, and spending a lot of time at Seney National Wildlife Refuge during the early days of my wildife career, I was lucky enough to work on part of the ongoing Yellow Rail research at Seney. Yellow Rails are often considered the most difficult bird to "see" in North America (in the right habitats during the breeding season hearing one is quite a bit easier). However this ultra secretive species is very much an "avian mouse" almost impossible to flush and even more impossible to see as they navigate underneath the tall grass and sedges of their marshes and meadow homes. Because of this they are almost always considered amongst the "most wanted" birds in North America by birders. They breed locally across a broad swath of sedge meadows and wet prairie in Canada and the farthert north parts of the U.S. and winter primarily along the Gulf Coast.

In recent years birders have begun to discover certain locations where Yellow Rails seem to concentrate during migration. One of the prime places for this has been Red Slough Wildlife Management Area in far southeastern Oklahoma. A former rice plantation that in recent years has been converted into a marsh complex that is one of the best birding locations in Oklahoma.

So in hope of spotting some of the rare and beautiful Yellow Rails that I had known so well at Seney NWR I found myself dragging a rope across acres of wet fields on a beautiful October morning. One of the few ways to get the notoriously Yellow Rails to show themselves is to drag a rope with attached weighted bottles in a line with a large group of people behind it. If you are lucky perhaps you will get a brief look at a tiny dark rail with white patches on the back of their wings flush in front of you.

Sort of like this guy in the above photograph.

Some lucky birders watching the Yellow Rail fly above the wet fields of Red Slough WMA.

And if you are very lucky you get to see this happen not once or twice but five times in one morning!

Other birds seen on a Yellow Rail drag at Red Slough include quite a few Sedge Wrens and LeConte's Sparrows.

And if you are very very lucky. You actually spot a Yellow Rail walking amongst the grasses right ahead of you, where you can watch him and photograph this "shadow bird" in all its secretive glory!

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Species Focus - Lewis's Woodpecker

"I saw a black woodpecker (or crow) today… it is a distinct species of woodpecker; it has a long tail and flys a good deal like the jay bird” - Meriwether Lewis, July 2oth 1805.

I have long been fascinated by the Lewis and Clark expedition. I have read the journals and most of the available treatises on the subject. I even took a seminar class on the expedition in grad school. The thought of travelling out into the thrilling unknown, the romantacism of seeing the American West before it was "civilised", all of these things draw me and thousands of others into learning about the famed expedition. Perhaps as a biologist the part that intrigues be the most is the discovery of new species of plants and animals. Lewis was a pretty good naturalist in his own right, and when not suffering from one of his bouts of depression, would take copious notes and samples of the new flora and fauna they were seeing as the traversed the continent. As an ornithologist I am of course most interested in the new birds discovered by the expedition, perhaps the singular woodpecker (or crow) of Lewis most of all.

When visiting the Harvard Museum during an ornithological conference, I was able to see and photograph the voucher specimen of Lewis's Woodpecker, that is the actual Lewis's Woodpecker collected by Lewis himself and thus the first known to science. Sadly most of the specimens and other artifacts collected by the expedition have been lost, either in fires or other mishaps. So this lone Lewis's Woodpecker represents an extremely valuable part of American and scientific history, a truly fascinating and valuable artifact!

Besides its discovery having an interesting and fascinating backstory, the bird itself is decidedly odd. As you can tell from Captain Lewis's quote above, upon first glance many people, even with reasonable naturalist backgrounds may confuse Lewis's Woodpecker with some kind of corvid. It often perches upright at the top of a tree or limb (very un-woodpercker like), it flies kind of like a jay and has such a dark. odd color pattern (a mix of dark green, gray, crimson red, and blushy pink), so unlike any other bird, especially woodpecker!

I recently spent several days in the northwest corner of Oklahoma and the southeast corner of Colorado, right at the edge of the sporadic range of the Lewis's Woodpecker, and spent a leisurely hour watching the behavior of and photographing a group of five Lewis's Woodpeckers in the beautiful Cottonwood canyon in the Comanche National Grassland.

One of the most interesting things about Lewis's Woodpeckers is that in the summer, they rarely forage in the manner of other woodpeckers (that is hopping up and down the sides of trees, hammering and scraping at the bark to get at the coleoptera larva and other goodies underneath). Instead they spend much of their time hawking insects, much like a flycatcher! The group of LEWO that I watched were doing just that, flying out from a grove of cottonwoods in the beautiful canyon catching dragonflies and large grasshoppers! The above photo shows one of the LEWO with a large grasshopper.

In the winter, Lewis's Woodpeckers return to feeding much like other woodpeckers. They are known to cache acorns and other nuts, and that is in fact what the above bird was doing. They were collected acorns from a nearby oak and wedging them into gaps in the bark of this giant cottonwood!

Sadly, this odd and fascinating species is rapidly disappearing from the landscape. BBS records indicate a general decline since the 1960's and there are several instances of known local extirpations. Though loss of habitat and especially nesting places are often blamed, Lewis's Woodpeckers which are generally uncommon and spottily distributed throughout their range are difficult to study and thus poorly understood. Hopefully, more research will discover keys to conservation for the LEWO. One of my favorite species and a unique part of American history.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

The Wildlife Society - Wildlife Policy Updates

Quite a few important bills and potential policy changes being considered at this time. Its a good idea for wildlife conservationists to be aware of these things and write to their representitives. I have found that uniquely written messages sometimes do make there way into the hands of some of these politicians.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Sabine's Gull, Lake Carl Blackwell

I finally picked up my life Sabine's Gull this morning! This species, which breeds in the artic and winters mainly at sea, is a very rare visitor (though annual) in much of the interior of North America. One of the most beautiful gulls in the world, with I think a very attractive juvenile plumage (this SAGU was indeed a juvie). It was associating with a flock of about 30 Franklin's Gulls which in of itself was a nice little find on Lake Carl Blackwell, which is actually a pretty small reservoir about 10 miles outside Stillwater. The above photos were the best I could do, as the bird was about halfway out in the reservoir and never got closer, but at least they are diagnostic. A very nice find for me on a beautiful fall morning, I love fall migration!

Friday, October 2, 2009

Good News for a very rare bird!


After seeing my friend Heidi's post on bats today I was inspired to finally post this Hoary Bat picture I took about a month ago. This beautiful little guy had sadly been injured during a severe storm the night before and was found and brought to us hoping he could be rehabilitated (sadly no, his wing was far to shattered and he seemed to be in a lot of pain so he was humanely put down).
It did however remind me of the plight that faces bats around the world. These interesting and beautiful creatures are one of the truly great products of millions of years of evolution, the only flying mammals! They are among the most specious and diverse of all the groups of mammals, with forms most varied and interesting.
I've been interested in bats for about as long as birds. My hometown, Iron Mountain, MI has what is probably the largest bat hibernaculom in the midwest (actually located only about a quarter of a mile from the house where I grew up).
This site discovered only during my childhood, led to an in-town battle over whether the hibernaculom which is located in an abandoned Iron Ore mine, should be saved, or whether the town should go through with a plan to fill-in the mine due to concerns about safety.
This led the founder of Bat Conservation International, Merlin Tuttle
to come to Iron Mountain during a series of visits where he spoke at the town library about the importance of bats in the ecosystem and why bats needed to be saved. In a rare instance of wildlife winning a battle like this, it was decided that the hibernaculom would be saved, and made into an ecotourism site! As a young nature nerd, I was delighted (I was also delighted to meet Merlin Tuttle, I brought along several National Geographics he had written bat articles in to get autographed) and inspired to continue down a biologists path.
Bats may have won this one little battle, but unfortunately they continue to lose the war. Bats are still hated and feared by many people. So it is difficult to muster up the kind of conservation support that animals like Pandas, Whales and other charismatic species enjoy because of this stigma. But bats face countless problems and there are quite a few bat species on the Endangered Species list, and many more knocking on that door. Habitat loss, wind farms, persecution, and disease are just some of the issues facing bats today.
Please visit the Bat Conservation International Website to learn more about these beautiful, interesting and declining creatures.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Climate Worries

The above link is a San Francisco Chronicle article that discusses a study by the Point Reyes Bird Observatory that examined the potential effects of climate change on the avian community of California. The study which was just published today found that many species, particularly those occuring in mesic forest habitats will see a range reduction from the spread of dry conditions as predicted by most climate change models. Once again drawing attention to the potential consequences the environment will face from the effects of climate change.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Top 25 Best Mexican Birds

Top 25 Best Mexican Birds.

When I was a freshman at Michigan State, I enjoyed perusing Don Roberson’s website (you can find it here ). Featuring pages on a many of the worlds bird families, this was one of the major factors in me developing an interest and passion for learning about and seeing birds outside of the ABA area (the others being access to true high speed internet for the first time, and the immense resources of the Michigan State library where I could check out many great books featuring different bird families, as well as foreign field guides). You see before college I was one of those birders who on the main, thought that the ABA area was the be all and end all for my birding.

Anyway another interesting feature of Don Roberson’s site was his list of his choicest for the 50 “best” birds of the world. He defined “best” as a mixture of impressiveness, uniqueness, rarity, difficulty to see, and unique factors like interesting ecology or other things. He ranked birds on each of these categories from a 1-5 scale (5 I think being the best) to come up with his “best” bird rankings. These rankings spurred me to learn a ton about these various species, as well as other “best “ type birds, many of which are severely endangered, have highly endemic and restricted ranges, or have super interesting plumage or behavior, etc.

As I have chosen Wildlife Biology as a career, I doubt I will ever have the time or money to really make an effort at seeing too big a variety of the birds chosen by Don Roberson or other similar species. I do however enjoy thinking about these “best” type birds for different areas and regions. You could make your own list using similar criteria for the ABA area of course.
Here however I have decided to create a similar ranking for the birds of Mexico. I first travelled to Mexico for a conference during my first year of grad school. I visited the amazing hawk watching site north of Veracruz in Cardel, Mexico and got to watch literally hundreds of thousands of raptors soar by over me at the two main hawk watching spots. I also visited unique coastal savannahs and thorn forests, picking up Mexican endemic species and common resident birds. To put it simply I fell in love with the amazing and interesting birdlife of our neighbor to the south, as well as the culture and geography. I have been back and visited many of the interesting habitats and areas of south Mexico since, and plan on continuing to explore the many wonders of Mexico.

So knowing I will probably never be a world traveler on the scale of Don Roberson or many other international birders, but hoping to have the time and money to explore Mexico, I have made a Don Roberson style list for the Top 25 Best Birds of Mexico (a list I could more realistically complete) based on the following criteria:

1) Impressiveness/Interesting – Being beautiful or huge or something is great, but being a tiny skulker that only inhabits some interesting niche is cool too.
2) Unique – Is it really similar to other species or is it the only member of its genus?
3) Rare – Let’s face it, birders and other wildlife watchers like to see things that are rare and difficult to observe over ubiquitous backyard species.
4) Hard to see – see above
5) Endemic/special circumstances – Since I am doing this for just a single country I am giving points to species that are endemic or very nearly endemic to Mexico. Also points will be considered if there are interesting historical or cultural significance based on a species.
The List – Keep in mind before ranking, I hand selected a much smaller pool than all the birds that inhabit Mexico to save time. Therefore there were some really interesting and cool species I didn’t even consider. Any sort of list like this no matter the ranking system still has a lot of subjectivity. The last 5 or so species were especially difficult because there were so many great birds to consider that didn’t make it on the list. How do I not have any owls, nightjars, seabirds or island endemics? Oh well that’s for other people to debate and come up with their lists! Also I did not include extinct species, or species likely extirpated from Mexico, thus no Imperial Woodpecker or Harpy Eagle.

1. Horned Guan - 25 – The “best” bird of Mexico, this amazing and bizarre Cracid is endemic to cloud forests on the border of Mexico and Guatemala. There are only a few places it can be seen and even here they can be hard to find. The seemingly best place (El Triunfo Biosphere Reserve in Chiapas State in Mexico requires a long hike in and overnight camping). – Have I seen it – NO

2. Sumichrast’s/Nava’s Wren – 24 – This pair of allopatric wrens have extremely small ranges encompassing only a few spots in a couple of Mexican states. They are drab and cryptic (and thus would not have been a major consideration on Don Roberson’s main list) but I think their really long bills, (for their size) makes them stand out and makes them two of the most distinctive wrens. They are also really hard to see, quite endangered, and inhabit a really cool (and disappearing) habitat type, evergreen rainforests with karst understory, meaning the forest floor is covered in large sharp rocks and caves. The wrens forage amongst these rocks on the forest floor. – Have I seen them – YES, they were a primary focus of my 2008 trip to Oaxaca and Veracruz.
3. Bearded Wood Partridge – 23 – This beautifully patterned wood partridge is a highly endangered and disappearing species. Inhabiting only a few locations in Veracruz and adjacent central Mexican states. It is now very hard to see, especially without locale guides. – Have I seen it – NO.

4. Resplendent Quetzal – 22 – One of the most beautiful and unique birds in the world. This species only inhabits a small portion of Mexico, mostly in the very southern cloud forests of Chiapas. Super famous as being one of the “Best” birds in the world but lost a couple points on my list because it is not endemic. - Have I seen them - NO

5. Thick-billed/Maroon-fronted Parrots – 22 – Gorgeous “proto-Macaws” inhabiting temperate pine forests in the northern Sierra Madres, this allopatric pair (Thick-billed in the Sierra Madre Occidental and Maroon-fronted in the Sierra Madre Oriental) are both highly endangered. The Thick-billed formerly spilled across the border into southeast Arizona but no longer regularly occurs there. Both can be considered endemic. – Have I seen them – NO

6. Dwarf Jay – 21 – This tiny and beautiful jay occurs only in a small area of east-central Mexican mountains, where it can be seen in mixed species flocks in humid Pine-oak forests at high elevations. It is an endangered species and there is only one or two reliable places to see it. - Have I seen them – Yes, thought we were going to dip out on this species on a trip to Oaxaca after not seeing them for several hours, but on our way back to the car a small group flew over us calling!

7. Cabanis’s Tanager -21 – A beautiful and uniquely patterned Tangara tanager. This species has a tiny range in Chiapas and adjacent Guatamala. Another species that most people seem to find at or near El Triunfo Biosphere Reserve. - Have I seen them – NO

8. Tufted Jay-21 – A striking Jay with a tiny range, this species resembles forms found in South America hundreds of miles away, leading some to wonder if they are descendents brought to Mexico as part of an ancient meso-american human bird trade. Either way an awesome bird of beautiful forested canyons in west Mexico. - Have I seen them – NO

9. Tuxtla Quail-Dove-20 – Another species with similar relatives that occur far away in South America. This striking and hard to see species is restricted to the Los Tuxtlas Mountains in Veracruz, where most of its habitat has been destroyed. - Have I seen them – NO

10. Short-crested Coquette -20- A tiny hummingbird that is critically endangered. Is found only along one road in the Sierras of Guerrero state where it is rarely seen. A similar species is found from Panama into South America. Have I seen them – NO
11. Eared Quetzal -20- This unique and beautiful Trogon is endemic to the Sierra Madre Occidental of northwest Mexico. It is rarely seen but occasionally shows up in southeast Arizona and southwest New Mexico. Have I seen them – NO

12. Belding’s/Altimira/Black-polled Yellowthroats – 20- This similar trio all have tiny ranges in different parts of Mexico. All inhabit severely degraded and declining marshes and are highly endangered. Very cool to the taxonomist but lose some uniqueness points for being closely related to the Common Yellowthroat. Have I seen them – NO

13. Chestnut-sided Shrike-vireo -19- A striking bird with a striking name, this species inhabits high elevation forests from central Mexico into Guatemala. They can be quite hard to spot as they forage slowly and quietly. Have I seen them – YES

14. Slaty Vireo-19- Another striking endemic vireo. Very unique colors and small range make this an interesting species. They are also quite skulky and difficult to see. Have I seen them – NO, probably my biggest dip on my trip to Oaxaca.

15. Red/Pink-headed Warbler -18- Both are very beautiful and uniquely plumaged warblers that are endemic to highlands in Mexico (Red) and Mexico and Guatemala (Pink-headed). Not particularly hard to see in the correct habitats but boy are they beautiful! - Have I seen them – YES

16. Rosita’s Bunting-18 – Another beautiful endemic. Rosita’s Bunting is endemic to a tiny area in the southern part of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. I just love the color pattern of this species. It is also named after the wife of pioneering Mexican ornithologist Francois Sumichrast. Have I seen them – YES

17. Aztec Thrush-18 – This uniquely plumaged thrush with a great name for Mexico is endemic to highlands in north and central Mexico. It can be a tricky species to pin down. Have I seen them – NO (another big dip)

18. Giant Wren-18 – This wren is huge! It is also endemic to the coastal part of the Mexican state of Chiapas. Have I seen them – NO

19. Ocellated Thrasher-17 – In my opinion the most beautiful species in an already classy looking group of birds. The Ocellated is also endemic to a relatively small area of south central Mexico. It can also be a bit of a challenge to see. Have I seen them – YES, a major highlight of any trip to Oaxaca.

20. Red-breasted/Grey-throated Chat-17 – Both of these beautiful and uniquely plumaged warblers are endemic or regional endemics. Red-breasted occurs only in thorn forests along the pacific coast of Mexico, while the Grey-throated is endemic to the Yucatan and adjacent lowland rainforests. Have I seen them – YES, Red-breasted was expected but we also picked up Grey-throated at Uxpanapa in Veracruz where they are not even on the site list in Howell.

21. Double-striped Thick-knee-17 – A truly amazing looking species! Stands out in the coastal savannahs of eastern Mexico. Not particularly rare seemingly across its large range, but range is apparently spotty. Have I seen them – YES

22. Mexican Ant-thrush – 17 – I had to have some sort of ant following species on the list and this one is endemic. Have I seen them – NO but I did hear some.

23. White Hawk – 16 – This beautiful hawk has to be one of the most striking and beautiful of all raptors. Occurring in lowland rainforests across a broad range of the Neotropics, the ones in Mexico have more white in their plumage and might be the most beautiful of all. Can be a bit tricky to see. Have I seen them – YES

24. Elegant Quail – 16 – Mexico has several beautiful species of endemic quail but I feel this is the most beautiful of them all. Have I seen them – NO

25. Sierra Madre Sparrow – 16 – I felt I needed to include one of Mexico’s endemic sparrows and this is rarest of them all. Have I seen them – NO

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

"State of the State Birds", or no I actually don't have this much time on my hands

Ok, this is a complete repost from something I wrote for my livejournal back in 2006. Now that I have a birding blog it seemed right to revisit the idea. So without further ado here it is.


Well I have had it in my head to do this for several days. No I am not actually this bored nor do I have a lot of time to kill but I just wanted to do this for some time. The recent attempts to have Michigan's state bird changed from the American Robin to the Kirtland's Warbler got me thinking about the "state" of our state birds. When looking at any list of our state birds, it is easy to see the lack of diversity between the states. For example 6 states have Western Meadowlark, 6 have Northern Cardinal, 5 have Northern Mockingbird, 3 have American Robin, 3 have American Goldfinch, 2 have Black-capped Chickadee, 2 have a breed of chicken, and 4 have some kind of bluebird. We have 51 "states" (including the district of columbia) that have named a state bird, but only 27 species represented. I feel this is a misuse of the state bird system.

Shouldn't a state bird reflect something interesting about the state? An interesting historical anecdote, or represent a unique habitat type or a dominant/unique ecoregion of the state (a mountain bird for a mountain state, a seabird for a maritime state, etc.). I feel this could help bolster state ecotourism. Wouldn't it be more interesting to travel to a state and see your lifer in the state where it was the state bird? Personally I don't like the trend of naming the most common or flashy and easy to see bird in a state the state bird. Doing something just because joe public (or a 2009 update "joe six-pack") might have heard of it or approve isn't always the greatest idea. This trend has resulted in the lack of diversity in the state bird mentioned above. Just because Robins, and Mockingbirds, Cardinals, etc. are easy to see doesn't mean EVERY state needs to name these ubiqutous species.

In fact naming a more obscure species might inspire the public to learn at least a little more about their local avifauna, which could lead to a better appreciation for conservation as a whole. I have decided to make a list of the current state birds and an example of what I feel would be a better choice. Feel free to comment on this and come up with your own choices!

Getting it right the first time, the states that did a good job.

1. Oklahoma: Scissor-tailed Flycatcher. Ah here is a state that did itself proud. No other state claims the beautiful ST Flycatcher as its state bird, it is also relatively breeding range restricted to the southern plains and is not a species everyone knows about. Good job Oklahoma!

2. New Mexico: Greater Roadrunner. An excellent choice. No other state has it as a state bird, it is an interesting species that truly speaks of the southwest. New Mexicans can be proud.

3. Pennsylvania: Ruffed Grouse. Very nice, only state to claim it, represents the eastern forests of pennsylvania well and represents the hunting culture of the quaker state.

4. Minnesota: Common Loon. What bird better speaks to the image of the northwoods? The haunting call of the loon makes the lakes of the northwoods summer special. What better bird could you think of for the land of 10,000 lakes?

5. Utah: California Gull. This falls into the interesting historical anecdote catagory. I believe the people of Utah named this the state bird because they ate a locust or cricket plague that was threatening the early farmers of Utah.

6. Maryland: Baltimore Oriole. The bird named after the lord baltimore, whose coat of arms colors matched it perfectly.

7. Louisiana: Brown Pelican. Good choice, represents the gulf coast region well.

OK but could be changed

8. New Hampshire: Purple Finch. Does represent the northern regions but the range may be a bit wide. How about Bicknell's Thrush.

9. Alaska: Willow Ptarmigan. Really a good choice, unique to alaska (as far as not being in other US states) however the lack of birds of prey on the state birds list should be changed, so how about Gyrfalcon.

10. Hawaii: Nene. Unique, but what native Hawaiian birds aren't? How about one of the highly endangered honeycreepers to give evidence to their plight, my favorite is the akohekohe also known as the crested honeycreeper.

11. Colorado: Lark Bunting. I like Lark Buntings a lot and they are unique to the plains. However I think of Colorado as the quintensential Mountain state, so to reflect that, how about White-tailed Ptarmigan.

12. Vermont: Hermit Thrush. Only state to have it, the hermit thrush is a good indicator of the northern forests but its range is pretty wide. How about something more restricted to the northeast like Black-throated Blue Warbler.

13. South Carolina: Carolina Wren. It is named Carolina Wren, and it is a bird somewhat of the southeast. But what about the suite of birds truly endemic to the southeastern pine forests. Let's go with Red-cockaded Woodpecker.

14. District of Columbia: Wood Thrush. Good eastern forest bird but I think of DC as being surrounded by water with the potamac, so how about a wetland species like Prothonotary Warbler.

Not completely bad, but should be changed.

15/16. Delaware and Rhode Island. Varieties of the domestic Chicken. Not completely bad as these are quirky state birds for two little known states; but having domestic fowl as a state bird still seems like a bad idea. How about Red Knot for Delaware, as it is a crucial migration spot and Purple Sandpiper for Rhode Island, as the rocky coastline is prime wintering grounds for this species.

17. South Dakota: Ring-necked Pheasant. Well it is a bird many people hunt for in SD but it still is an introduced species. How about a native game species, like Greater Prairie-Chicken.

18. Alabama: Northern Flicker. Only state to have it as the state bird. However the Flicker is very widespread, how about another southeastern specialty, the Brown-headed Nuthatch.

19. Arizona: Cactus Wren. Really not a bad choice at all. But I just think Arizona needs to name the elf owl the state bird. How cool are the pictures of a tiny owl staring out of a cavity in a giant saguaro? The answer, VERY cool.

20. Georgia: Brown Thrasher. Only state to claim it but too widespread, another southeastern specialty, Bachman's Sparrow (sparrows are kind of drab for John Q. public but Bachman's do have a pretty song).

21. California: California Quail. Well similar to Carolina Wren, an ok choice. However California is so diverse and has so many species (including endemics) that it is difficult to name something here. However I have decided on Marbled Murrelet, a seabird that nests in the giant conifers, so represents the ocean and the unique giant trees of california.

The states that copy eachother, state birds that must be changed.

22. Arkansas: Mocker. Too many states have this bird, if the Ivory-billed discovery is ever verified, why not the Lord God bird? (2009 redo: as it appears ever more clearer that Ivory-bills are not haunting the swamps of Arkansas, I'll change this choice to Whip-poor-will because the Ozarks are a crucial part of their range).

23. Connecticut: Robin. Robins live pretty much everywhere, but I am having trouble thinking of something for this one, so how about Scarlet Tanager, more strictly a bird of the eastern half of the US.

24. Florida: Mocker. How about something that is more restricted to the swamps and marshes, like say Snail Kite.

25. Idaho: Mountain Bluebird. Also the state bird of Nevada. How about something associated with the Lewis and Clark expedition that famously struggled through the mountains of Idaho, like Clark's Nutcracker.

26. Illinois: Cardinal. How about something associated with the prairie country of pre-settlement illinois, like the Dickcissel.

27. Indiana: Cardinal. How about a species associated with the great deciduous forests of the pre-settlement ohio river vallery, like the Cerulean Warbler

28. Iowa: Goldfinch. Shared with other states. Another prairie bird, Upland Sandpiper?

29. Kansas: W. Meadowlark. Shared with other states. One of the last strongholds of Lesser Prairie Chicken

30. Kentucky: Cardinal. Can we say KENTUCKY WARBLER!

31. Maine: BC Chickadee. I struggled for a bit thinking I should put in a northern forest bird, but wait what better than Atlantic Puffin!

32. Massachusetts: BC Chickadee. Hmmm difficult but Harlequin Ducks do winter on the coast.

33. Mississippi: Mocker. Another good southeastern bird Anhinga?

34. Missouri: Eastern Bluebird. Shared with other states. Stronghold of Henslow's Sparrow.

35. Montana: Western Meadowlark. What state is more associated with Lewis and Clark? How about Lewis' Woodpecker.

36. Nebraska: Western Meadowlark. The famous Platte River migration spot and sandhill region leaves little choice but Sandhill Crane.

37. Nevada: Mountain Bluebird. Nevada is a tough one, hmmm Black-throated Sparrow?

38. New Jersey: Goldfinch. How about something to represent the Pine Barrens, Pine Warbler.

39. New York: Eastern Bluebird. How about another forest warbler, Blackburnian.

40. North Carolina: Cardinal. One of the most well known states for pelagics, Black-capped Petrel?

41. North Dakota: W. Meadowlark. Most people get lifer Bairds Sparrow here, also Nelson's Sharp-tailed Sparrow. Wow I have really violated my no obscure birds rule with all these sparrows, especially the several ammodramus. What can I say sparrows rule!

42. Ohio: Cardinal. another good forest warbler, Hooded.

43. Oregon: W. Meadowlark. A cool bird of the tall cool northwestern forests, the Hermit Warbler.

44. Tennessee: Mocker. Another southeasternish warbler, the Yellow-throated

45. Texas: Mocker. Texas is difficult with its huge size and wide range of habitats, but how about the breeding endemic, the Golden-cheeked Warbler.

46. Virgina: Cardinal. How about a bird of the coast, American Oystercatcher.

47. Washington: A. Goldfinch. The sound of the northwestern forests, Varied Thrush.

48. West Virgina: Cardinal. I always thought Worm-eating Warbler was a great bird to represent Appalachia

49. Wisconsin: Robin. Wisconsin is tough for me as I grew up only a couple miles away. How to represent both northern forest and prairie? I gave up and went with Black-backed woodpecker, Why? because I like them.

50. Wyoming: W. Meadowlark. Kind of tough what with mountain forests and short-grass prairie. I decided on Ferruginous Hawk to add another bird of prey.

The worst one

51. Michigan: Robin. How can you have a breeding endemic to a very small region in the northern temperate zone(a very unique situation) and instead have one of the most widespread and common birds in North America. GO KIRTLAND'S!!

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Some Stillwater Butterflies

On Sunday, Nikki and I visited the Oklahoma Gardens here in Stillwater. This is a pretty good area for picking up spring migrants, and also because of the abundance of planted native and exotic flowers, is also a great spot for butterflies. It was a beautiful day and there we counted hundreds of different butterflies of more than 20 species, including the Silver-spotted Skipper above. Here are a few more photos from our visit to the gardens.

There were several of these beautiful Gulf Fritillaries around. This species contracts back towards the warmer parts of Texas and the Gulf Coast in the winter, but comes back to Oklahoma every year in the late summer and fall.

This is Oklahoma's state butterfly (one of the few states that have named one actually) the Black Swallowtail.

And here Nikki makes a new friend. Hackberry Emporers commonly land on people, probably in search of the salt on our skin!

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Trouble on the Prairie

Check out this link from the Daily Oklahoman newspaper. Just the headline will show you what no doubt most Oklahomans think about the issue. Read the comments if you want to confirm that suspicion. Lesser Prairie Chickens are almost assuredly more "endangered" than many of the birds that are actually on the endangered species list. There has also been a lot of research to confirm that statement, contrary to what many of the commentors on the above article think. Unfortunately the politics of the region where LPCH's live will probably keep them off the list for a long time to come.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The Birding Life - Travels throughout the land - Part 7

For my last entry in this travel segment of The Birding Life, I will talk about the bird that is more responsible than any other for hooking me into a life of birds!

Our last night in Grand Marais there was a torrential downpour that lasted for hours, leaving us, our tent, and the U.P. more than a little damp! After a long day touring around Seney we couldn't quite decide if we wanted to drive all the way back to Iron Mountain, or just drive part of the way and then relax in a hotel. Ultimately this idea won out because I also had an idea to check around some of my old haunts to look for a very special bird, and staying in Escanaba put us a little closer to a potential location.

So anyway we got up the next day a little on the late side but I still thought that if there were birds around we would have a good chance at finding one, for when they are singing, they are very loud and actually quite tame. If you know your birds, you have probably already gathered from the top picture that I am of course speaking about the Kirtland's Warbler!

The Kirtland's Warbler is a federally endangered species that has been on the endangered species list since its inception. This bird has a tiny breeding range, basically confined to the state of Michigan (though a few have occassionally and recently been found breeding in Wisconsin and Ontario) and very exacting habitat requirements. It occurs only in areas with dense young jack pine, mostly between 5-12 years old, with porous, sandy soils and scattered openings. It nests on the ground typically concealed by overhanging braches from a young jack pine. Formerly the Kirtland's was restricted to just a few counties in the north-central part of the Lower Peninsual where it bred, and then migrated to the Bahamas to overwinter.

When I first started reading about the Kirtland's Warbler in the late 1980s it was very very near extinction. In fact in 1987, the annual Kirtland's Warbler census revealed that the bird had fallen below 200 pairs. There were two principal causes for the near extinction of the Kirtland's. Number one being habitat destruction. As mentioned above the KIWA requires very specific habitats. Habitat that typically only occurred after a wildfire had swept through an area cleaning the slate clean and allowing for the regeneration of dense stands of jack pine. Humans in general try to prevent and control wildfires (sometimes for good reason of course!) but in the case of the Kirtland's Warbler, this lead to a large scale dissapearance of their already rare habitat. The second blow came when Brown-headed Cowbirds, formally a species of the Great Plains, expanded their range into Kirtland's country. This species is a nest parasite, laying its eggs in other birds nests for the host to raise. In its native range many of the species have defenses against the cowbird, but many species like the Kirtland's are defenseless and raise the aggressive cowbird nestlings to the deteriment of their own young.

Just when it looked the bleakest however, the Kirtland's Warbler population began to turn around. The key elements in the recovery have been habitat restoration using controlled burns and more recently another technique using machine planting that creates similar habitat; and also cowbird control. In fact just about the time I got my drivers license and began to explore the U.P. on my own, the Kirtland's had recovered to the point that presumably habitat in the L.P. became saturated and a few birds started showing up in the U.P. My first ever volunteer bird "job" was actually assisting with the U.P. Kirtland's Warbler census when I was just 16!

Long story short, I found some likely looking habitat relatively near Rapid River, MI. The first place I had ever seen a Kirtland's in fact. Nikki and I walked around for awhile but no Kirtland's were singing. Just as I was thinking of giving up, boom a Kirtland's appeared right in front of me without ever even singing! One of the nice things about Kirtland's is their extreme tameness. This one (which you can see was banded, later we would discover in 2006) allowed me to follow it around for 10 minutes or so, while I snapped all of these photos. A short time later we would discover another Kirtland's which made three for us on the trip counting the one I heard earlier in Chippewa County.
The Kirtland's Warbler's comeback has been impressive, they now can be seen in many areas in the Northcentral L.P. and in scattered locales across much of the U.P. However there are still only a little over 2,000 pairs or so. Not exactly the most numerous bird around! Because of the nature of their habitat, and limited potential breeding range, the KIWA will likely never be common. They will continue to require cowbird control and habitat restoration-creation to survive. If we stopped these measures it would be only a short time before they fell to previous lows because of the ephemeral nature of their habitats and lack of cowbird defenses. However, if we remain diligent and watchful, the "Bird of Fire" will continue to sing its song across the unique Jack Pine Barrens of Michigan.

The Birding Life - Travels throughout the land - Part 6

For me the east-central part of the Upper Peninsula, the area around Seney NWR in particular has been almost just as much as a home as Iron Mountain. In fact I probably know the area a little better, as I have explored close to every road, trail and deer path in the area. So no trip "home" is really complete for me until I visit Seney and the surrounding state forest lands. Plus I still have good friends who work at the refuge, which makes it even better.

Seney NWR is part of what was once known as "The Great Manistique Swamp", this immense area of marshes, bogs and pools was gradually logged out and drained away during the logging boom of the 1880s to 1920s. Afterword people tried to farm in the newly drained areas but poor soil conditions led to farm collapses during the great depression and the lands eventually reverted back to the United States government. They decided to create Seney NWR basically as a refuge for Canada Geese really. The civilian conservation corps was put to work in the 30s and 40s restoring the refuge, they dug pools and dikes and created the refuge that we know today.

The eastern two portions of the refuge (referred to as units 1 and 2) consist of a system of pools, dikes and roads within a general forested matrix. The wastern third (unit 3) is a designated wilderness area with very little access. This part of the refuge primarily consists of immense sedge meadows and striated bogs. The refuge features many of the different habitats that can be found in the U.P. including Black Spruce bogs, sedge meadows, open water, upland forests, jack pine/red pine savannahs, aspen regen, red oak openings, in other words its a veritable haven for U.P. biodiversity!

If you want to know why I am cheerleading so much its because I spent a considerable amount of my young adult life at Seney, working on various bird field projects and internships. So it is truly a place near and dear to my heart. Anyway here are some photos from in and around Seney.

This female Ruffed Grouse was actually a little north of Seney, she had chicks hiding just off the road and allowed us to approach quite closely in the car without flying away.

One of the highlights of any trip to Seney are the many Trumpeter Swans inhabiting the pools. The Trumpeter Swan (once extirpated across most of the United States) was reintroduced to Seney in the 90s and has been so successful there that they have occupied all of the available habitat and have started to colonize other nearby areas. (My first peer-reviewed journal article was actually on the Trumpeter Swan population at Seney in the journal Waterbirds)

Another great long-term study at Seney is on the Common Loon population here(and in fact I believe it is the longest running and most complete study of Loons anywhere!). The person currently doing the field work for the Loon project as Seney is my friend Damon (who let me tag along to assist in some loon banding many years ago) who has discovered many new and interesting things about loon ecology.

Loons are typically shy and difficult to approach, even by car, but this one was quite content to remain closeby as we drove along the Seney wildlife drive.

One interesting tidbit, the current Whooping Crane recovery project is largely based on techniques pioneered on Sandhill Cranes at Seney NWR.