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!