Sunday, August 23, 2015

Colorado Canyonlands

I spent some time at the western edge of Colorado where the landscape is very dry and the canyons are very deep.

MacGillivray's Warbler

In addition to the scenery, there was an opportunity to search out some birds that are representative of the region, a few of which I hadn't seen before.

Painted Wall, Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park

In Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park my target bird was Green-tailed Towhee. After hiking the southern rim of the canyon for about an hour I was successful, but in the heat of the day the bird remained mostly concealed in the shade of the junipers so I was unable to get a photograph.

Gray Vireo

In Colorado National Monument my target birds were Gray Vireo and Virginia's Warbler; two range-restricted songbirds that are more-or-less confined to the "four corners" region of the southwestern United States.

Virginia's Warbler

Rim Rock Drive, the main road that traverses Colorado National Monument, is an excellent vantage point from which to view Golden Eagles and Turkey Vultures as they soar along the canyon rim.

Golden Eagle

Independence Rock, Colorado National Monument

On my return to Denver, I stopped at Vega State Park mid-way up the western slope of the Rockies where I was fortunate to observe a very obliging Dusky Flycatcher; a bird that I had somehow missed on previous trips out west.

Dusky Flycatcher

Sunday, August 16, 2015

The Black Swifts of Box Canyon Falls

Nesting Black Swifts tend to be difficult to observe as they typically occupy nest sites behind inaccessible mountain waterfalls. An exception is the well established nesting site at Box Canyon Falls in Ouray, Colorado where I visited recently.

Black Swift

Box Canyon Falls is itself a natural wonder; over time the rushing waters of Canyon Creek have eroded a deep tunnel or "box canyon" through a layer of fault-weakened limestone. The resulting waterfalls, surrounded by canyon walls on all sides is ideal for nesting Black Swifts. The site is easily accessible by a short trail and the canyon walls can be directly accessed via a metal scaffold and suspension bridge.

The State of Colorado is the stronghold of the breeding range of the North American race of Black Swift, and Colorado has been extensively censused for the breeding locations of these birds. Information about the life history as well as details about the efforts to record the nesting sites of these birds has been documented here. North American Black Swifts are migratory, however there is a separate Caribbean race of Black Swift that is non-migratory. It is noteworthy that Black Swift was the final North American migratory bird to have its wintering grounds confirmed; a discovery that was not made until 2010.*

Cordilleran Flycatcher

Other birds in the vicinity included Broad-tailed Hummingbird, Cordilleran Flycatcher, American Dipper, Western Tanager, Black-headed Grosbeak and Cassin's Finch.

"Audubon's" Yellow-rumped Warbler

As a side note, Ouray is a mountain town that attracts various tourists and adventure seekers. The most prominent activity in the summertime is off-roading and there were abundant jeep rental agencies in the area.

Ouray, CO

*Beason, J.P., C. Gunn, K.M. Potter, R.A. Sparks, and J.W. Fox. 2012. The Northern Black Swift: Migration Path and Wintering Area Revealed. Wilson Journal of Ornithology 124:1-8.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

BMW Birding on Mount Bierstadt

I visited my best friend in Colorado last week and we had a blast of a time. Although birding was not the main purpose of my visit, I was still able to get a few photographs of some great Colorado birds.

BMW 1-Series Convertible

Getting around together was made considerably more exciting in Matt's bimmer. Let's just say it gets a lot more attention than my Honda Civic.

We decided we should hike a mountain, and Mount Bierstadt was a nearby choice. Mount Bierstadt is not far from Denver in the front range of the Rocky Mountains and is one of Colorado's 14ers (mountains that exceed 14,000' elevation). We huffed and puffed our way to the summit and were rewarded on the way back down by a sighting of a hen White-tailed Ptarmigan and her two chicks.

White-tailed Ptarmigan

Hen & Chick


There is not a great variety of birds likely to be encountered at this elevation but we did see Clark's Nutcracker, Common Raven, White-crowned Sparrow and a recently fledged American Robin. It was odd to see the Robin at several thousand feet above the tree line, and I'm not exactly sure what it was doing there.

We were also fortunate to see a nice assortment of alpine mammals.

Mountain Goat

Bighorn Sheep

Yellow-bellied Marmot


Saturday, March 7, 2015

Getting Out of Dodge

During our recent visit to Florida, we encountered a banded Piping Plover at Howard Park near Tarpon Springs. Hannah immediately recorded the colour band combination in her notebook, and later I was able to obtain a photograph.

Pimped-out Piping Plover

The upper left leg has a metal USGS numbered band. The lower left leg has an orange auxiliary band over a black band. The lower right leg has two green bands, and the upper right leg has a light blue "flag".

The flag is important because no two regions where these birds are banded will use the same colour. In this case light blue denotes that the bird was banded in the vicinity of the Platte River by staff from the Nebraska Game & Parks Commission. More particularly, it was banded in Dodge County, Nebraska. If I was him I would want to get out of Dodge for the winter too!

We submitted the information about our encounter to Patuxent Bird Banding Laboratory and received a reply shortly thereafter with some additional details together with the standard "certificate of appreciation". This individual bird was banded as a hatchling on July 1, 2014. It is interesting that a Piping Plover originating from the Great Plains population would spend the winter on the Florida Gulf coast. I would otherwise have assumed that birds from the prairie population spend the winter in Texas and that this was a bird from the Atlantic coast breeding population.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Other Florida Specialties 2015

Here are some more feathered Floridians!

Mottled Duck (rear) with feral Mallard (front)

To many, the Mottled Duck might appear boring, blending in with the now globally ubiquitous Mallard. Historically, the breeding range of the Mottled Duck was separated from that of Mallard and Black Duck without a zone of hybridization. Mallards have gradually encroached to the point that doubts have been raised about the future genetic integrity of Mottled Duck as a species.

*Update: after reviewing the timely article on eBird found here, the putative Mottled Duck above actually shows some indications of a mixed genealogy. In particular, the extensive streaking in the cheek together with the appearance of white edging in the tail feathers suggests some unknown degree of Mallard ancestry.

Wood Stork

Wood Storks are not the baby-delivering kind of European fable, but rather an unrelated New World taxon. Genetic analysis confirms that Wood Storks have greatest affinity with the New World Vultures, Pelicans, Ibis and...

Roseate Spoonbill

...Roseate Spoonbill whose pinkish colouration is thought to be derived from its diet, like that of the American Flamingo.


Somewhat of an taxonomic anomaly, the Limpkin is not quite a rail, not quite a crane and not quite anything else! In fact it has been assigned to a taxonomic family all unto itself (Aramidae). The geographical range of the Limpkin includes most of the Caribbean, Central and South America, and Florida is the only place in North American where it occurs with regularity.

Reddish Egret

To me, the Reddish Egret is the most charismatic of the North American herons. Unlike most herons that forage with precise and deliberate movements, the Reddish Egret "dances" frenetically with its wings open; a behaviour thought to flush its fish, frog & crustacean prey.

Black Skimmer

Here's a bizarre one; in order to catch fish, the Black Skimmer drags its elongated lower mandible across the surface of the water while flying.

Sandwich Tern

Sandwich Terns are such a nicely proportioned tern, and the yellow tipped, black bill is a distinct field mark.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Florida Shorebird Spectacular

We were in Florida again this winter and the shorebirding was particularly good. Here are some photo highlights...

We had a sweep of the four regularly occurring North American "small belted plovers". Here are photos of three of them (quiz: what's the fourth?)

Wilson's Plover

Snowy Plover

Piping Plover

Willets were plentiful along the coastline and posed nicely for the camera.


We took a tourist boat to Anclote Key Preserve State Park; an offshore gulf coast barrier island only accessible by water. These barrier islands are important habitations for wintering shorebirds. While there, Hannah discovered a previously unreported Long-billed Curlew; North America's largest sandpiper which regularly but sparsely occurs in winter on the Florida Gulf Coast. We received some "eyebrows raised" emails from the local eBird police for submitting this one ("what you saw was almost certainly a Whimbrel"). Luckily I had the photo evidence.

Long-billed Curlew

While roaming the beach at Howard Park in northern Pinellas County, we startled a pair of American Oystercatchers that were sleeping in the tidal wrack line.

American Oystercatcher

Notice the peculiar shape of the pupil in the bird above. The dark "fleck" which occurs in both American and Black Oystercatchers (and less prominently in other taxa) is thought by some researchers to be a sex-linked trait indicative of a female bird.*

* Reference: Guzzetti, B.M., Talbot, S.L., Tessler, D.F., Gill, V.A., and Murphy, E.C. 2008. Secrets in the eyes of Black Oystercatchers: a new sexing technique. Journal Of Field Ornithology 79 (2): 215-223.