Aug 01 2015

A Warbler That’s Not A Warbler … Or Is He?

Published by under Travel

Olive warbler (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Olive warbler (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

The olive warbler (Peucedramus taeniatus) was so hard to classify that he was removed from New World Warblers (Dendroica, now called Setophaga) in 1875 to a genus of his own.  This made him the only member of a genus found only in North and Central America.

The genus Peucedramus ranges from Arizona and New Mexico to Nicaragua, precisely where the olive warbler lives.

This level of uniqueness is troubling to biologists.  Every animal is descended from others so who were this bird’s ancestors?  Doesn’t he belong in some other group?

DNA testing confirmed that he’s not really a warbler but his characteristics are still hard enough to place that arguments continue.  He might be a finch or a sparrow or even an Old World Warbler (as are kinglets and gnatcatchers).

But he looks like a warbler and if you want to see him in the U.S. you have to visit where he lives.

Don’t look for him at Cornell Lab’s All About Birds website.  He’s not there!

 

(photo from Wikimedia Commons. Click on the image to see the original)

No responses yet

Jul 31 2015

Slightly In Arizona

Published by under Travel

Arizona Woodpecker (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Arizona Woodpecker (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Though he’s called the Arizona woodpecker this brown-and-white bird is slightly misnamed.  Most of his range is in Mexico.

He’s one of nine Picoides woodpeckers found in North America, each with its own special habitat.  Some of them are familiar and wide ranging.  Others have such specific needs that you must travel to see them.

Here’s how they’ve divided up the continent.  At least one of them lives near you.

  • Downy woodpecker: found in most of North America in open woodlands and along streams.
  • Hairy: found in most of North America in mature woodlands.
  • Ladder-backed: in desert and desert scrub among cactus in the Southwest.
  • Nuttall’s: in California’s oak woodlands.
  • Red-cockaded: found in mature longleaf pine forests in the southeastern U.S.;  endangered.
  • Black-backed: in Canada and northern U.S. in boreal and coniferous forests with burned trees.
  • White-headed: in pine forests in Pacific Northwest and California mountains.
  • American Three-toed: in the Rockies and Canada in boreal and coniferous forests disturbed by disease or fire.
  • Arizona: in pine-oak forests in the mountains of Mexico and southeastern Arizona.

Like his familiar Downy and Hairy relatives in Pennsylvania, this woodpecker visits suet feeders and that’s where I saw him for the first time at Madera Canyon.

In Arizona.

 

(photo from Wikimedia Commons. Click on the image to see the original)

No responses yet

Jul 30 2015

Magnificent!

Published by under Songbirds,Travel

Magnificent hummingbird (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Magnificent hummingbird (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

If you want to see a really magnificent hummingbird in the U.S. the only place to find one is in the mountains of southeastern Arizona.

Magnificent isn’t just an adjective, it’s part of his name:  The Magnificent Hummingbird (Eugenes fulgens).

Arizona is the northern edge of his range which extends south to Panama.  According to Wikipedia you can find him “at the edges and clearings of oak forests from about 2000 m altitude [6,500 feet] up to the timberline.”  He’s listed as common at the Southwest Wings Festival.

Common, but not a common size.  He’s the second largest hummingbird north of Mexico and can be twice as big as a ruby-throated hummingbird.

And he’s uncommonly dark.  Though he has a tiny white patch behind his eye, both males and females look black until the light shines on their iridescent feathers.

When you see one of these hummingbirds, you hope for a splash of sunshine.

The photo above is one of those magnificent moments when a black bird flashes color and takes your breath away.

 

(photo from Wikimedia Commons. Click on the image to see the original)

p.s. I saw this Life Bird yesterday at Santa Rita Lodge in Madera Canyon.  His throat flashed bright green, much greener than this photo.  :-)

3 responses so far

Jul 29 2015

How Big Is An Elegant Trogon?

Published by under Songbirds,Travel

Male Elegant Trogon (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Male Elegant Trogon (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Today I’m at the Southwest Wings Festival hoping to see the holy grail of Arizona birding: an elegant trogon (Trogon elegans).

In my imagination these birds are huge — the size of crows — but they’re really only as big as American robins.  Their bulky necks, long tails and upright posture make them look big in photographs. The male’s red breast and deep voice add to the illusion.

Elegant trogons range from southeastern Arizona through Mexico to Costa Rica where they live in deciduous forests and nest in unused woodpecker holes.  They leave Arizona for the winter(*) but are still present in July … which is why I’m here.

If I’m lucky enough to see this Life Bird I’ll let you know if he “shrank” to his normal size.  😉

 

(photo from Wikimedia Commons. Click on the photo to see the original)

(*) I heard yesterday that because of warmer winters at least one pair of elegant trogons now stays in the area year-round.

p.s. I saw these Best Birds yesterday afternoon in Sierra Vista:  Curve-billed thrasher (a bird with Attitude), a handsome black-throated sparrow, a Swainson’s hawk hover-diving, and a noisy Cassin’s kingbird family.  These birds are common here but never seen in Pittsburgh.

p.p.s July 30:  We had a great outing to Madera Canyon on July 29.  I saw 16 Life Birds!  I didn’t see an elegant trogon but I’m hoping for another chance on Saturday.

3 responses so far

Jul 28 2015

Are You Nuts?

Published by under Travel

High temperatures in Arizona, 26 July 2015 (image from NOAA National Weather Service)

High temperatures in Arizona, 26 July 2015 (image from NOAA National Weather Service)

When I tell people I’m going to Arizona in July I’m sure they wonder, “Are you nuts?”

Today I’m on my way to the Southwest Wings Festival, July 29 to August 1 in Sierra Vista, Arizona.  It’s one of the top 10 birding festivals in the U.S. and happens to be in one of the cooler places in the state.

“Cooler” in two ways:  cool birds and cooler temperatures than Phoenix.

The festival is held in the mountains of southeastern Arizona where it never gets as hot as Phoenix.  The arrow shows where it is.

The birds at this location are definitely cool.  The area is the northernmost range of many Central American mountain species and the only place in the U.S. where you can find them including 15 species of hummingbirds, the elegant trogon, the Arizona woodpecker, yellow-eyed juncoes and much, much more.

Many of the best birds are migratory so the festival is held in late July before they leave the area.   I’m looking forward to a lot of new Life Birds and getting reacquainted with birds I saw the last time I was in Arizona in 1997.

Am I crazy?  Well, I’m the only one in the house who’s crazy enough to go to Minnesota in the winter and Arizona in the summer.  My non-birder husband is wisely staying home. 😉

 

(image from the National Weather Service)

6 responses so far

Jul 27 2015

Butterflies Taste With Their Feet

Published by under Insects, Fish, Frogs

Gulf Fritillary on passion vine (photo Edward Rooks via Wikimedia Commons)

Gulf Fritillary on passion vine (photo by Edward Rooks via Wikimedia Commons)

We normally see butterflies visiting flowers but they also flit from leaf to leaf.

Adult butterflies are on a mission to reproduce.  Yes, they sip flower nectar along the way, but the males are looking for females and the females are looking for host plants on which to lay their eggs.  When the eggs hatch, the larvae will eat the host leaves and grow into ever-larger caterpillars.

Each species has one or more hosts for their larvae.  Monarch caterpillars eat milkweed leaves.  Red Admirals eat nettle.  Gulf Fritillaries eat passionflower vine.

Butterflies taste with their feet, so when the female is ready to lay an egg she flits from leaf to leaf landing on each one to taste it.  Standing there she asks herself, “Does this taste good?”  If so, she lays an egg.

Sometimes butterflies are fooled. To a West Virginia White butterfly (Pieris virginiensis) the invasive alien garlic mustard tastes like her host plant toothwort so she lays her eggs on garlic mustard and her hatchlings die of starvation.

Tastes can be pretty subtle, too.  Monica Miller (my go-to butterfly expert) told me that if a food plant touches a nearby leaf, that leaf might taste good enough to be mistaken by a butterfly.

Here, a female Gulf Fritillary lands on her host plant (tasting it) and a male comes to court her.

Gulf Fritillary courtship on passion vine (photo Edward Rooks via Wikimedia Commons)

Gulf Fritillary courtship on passion vine (photo by Edward Rooks via Wikimedia Commons)

And here’s her goal:  She laid an egg on the passion vine.

Gulf Fritillary butterfly egg on passion vine leaf (photo by Edward Rooks via Wikimedia Commons)

Gulf Fritillary butterfly egg on passion vine leaf (photo by Edward Rooks via Wikimedia Commons)

 

Watch butterflies taste with their feet and you may see one lay an egg.

 

(photos by Edward Rooks via Wikimedia Commons. Click on each image to see its original)

2 responses so far

Jul 26 2015

Quickweed

Published by under Plants

Galinsoga or Quickweed, flower closeup (photo by Kate St.John)

Galinsoga or Quickweed, flower closeup (photo by Kate St.John)

This flower is blooming everywhere right now but we never notice it.  Its beauty is tiny and the plant is a weed so we pass it by.

Galinsoga or Quickweed is an annual in the Aster family with small daisy-like flowers with five notched petals.  The leaves are opposite and toothed in a jumbled mass below the long, branching flower stems that give the plant a messy “leggy” appearance, 6-18 inches high.

Look closely and you’ll see the leaves and stems are both hairy.  But no one looks closely unless they want to eat it (yes it’s edible).

Here’s what we typically see when walk past Galinsoga on the street.

Galinsoga flowers (photo by Kate St. John)

A patch of Quickweed by the street (photo by Kate St. John)

Once you start looking, Quickweed is everywhere: growing in the sidewalk cracks, sprouting in gardens, covering an abandoned lot where its density makes it pretty.  Local gardeners call it “Pittsburgh Pest.”

It earned the name Quickweed or Raceweed because it produces seed rapidly (7,500 seeds per plant per year) and has many generations in the same season.

When it’s gone to seed it looks like this.

Galinsoga gone to seed (photo by Kate St. John)

Galinsoga gone to seed (photo by Kate St. John)

The genus is Galinsoga but what is the species?

Good question!  My Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide lists only Galinsoga ciliata = Galinsoga quadriradiata.  Richard Nugent and Flora Pittsburghensis both identify it as Galinsoga parvifloraQuadriradiata is from Mexico, parviflora is from South America.  In any case, it didn’t jump an ocean to find us.

But it jumped an ocean to Europe.  Galinsoga parviflora was taken from Peru to Kew Gardens in 1796 where it escaped to the wild and quickly became a weed.

Aha!  Quickweed.

 

(photos by Kate St.John)

No responses yet

Jul 25 2015

Turk’s Cap

Published by under Plants

Turk's Cap Lily, 23 July 2015 (photo by Kate St. John)

Turk’s Cap Lily, 23 July 2015 (photo by Kate St. John)

Turk’s cap lilies are blooming in the Laurel Highlands this week.

I counted 35 flowers along two miles of the Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail but there should have been more. Deer love to eat them so the majority are topped off like this.

Turk's Cap Lily - eaten by deer, 23 July 2015 (photo by Kate St. John)

Turk’s Cap Lily – eaten by deer, 23 July 2015 (photo by Kate St. John)

Lillium superbum stand three to seven feet high but can be amazingly hard to notice in the dappled forest light.

Here are more views of these superb lilies.

Turk's Cap Lily, 23 July 2015 (photo by Kate St. John)

Turk’s Cap Lily, 23 July 2015 (photo by Kate St. John)

Turk's Cap Lily duo, 23 July 2015 (photo by Kate St. John)

Turk’s Cap Lily duo from a distance, 23 July 2015 (photo by Kate St. John)

Turk's Cap Lily from the side, 23 July 2015 (photo by Kate St. John)

Turk’s Cap Lily from the side, 23 July 2015 (photo by Kate St. John)

 

(photos by Kate St. John)

3 responses so far

Jul 24 2015

Learn About Burrowing Owls

This week a cute video of burrowing owls in Florida went viral on the web and prompted some questions about these adorable raptors.

Where do burrowing owls live?  What do they eat?  Was the Florida video taken in the wild?

Burrowing owls (Athene cunicularia) range from North to South America in dry, open areas with short vegetation and no trees.  In the U.S. they live year-round in Florida, the Southwest and California and breed in the Western dry plains and high plateau.

These owls need wide open spaces but are not picky about humans nearby.  They’ll happily dig or take over an existing burrow in remote locations as well as parks, vacant lots, pastures and campuses (Florida Atlantic University).  So yes, that video in Florida with people in the background was taken in the wild.

Burrowing owls eat insects, rodents, snakes and whatever they can catch, but they are small so they are wary.  They look cute when they stand tall but they’re actually watching for large raptors and mammals that might eat them.

How small are they?  The video above shows a research project last summer at Boise State University in which the students learn to hold, measure and band the owls.  What a privilege to learn about burrowing owls up close!

Don’t miss the end of the video when the owlets are released near their burrow.  Yes, they really are cute.

 

p.s.  Click here if you haven’t seen the Florida video.

(YouTube video from Boise State University, Boise, Idaho)

 

7 responses so far

Jul 23 2015

TBT: City Raccoons

Published by under Mammals

Raccoon family (photo by Chuck Tague)

Raccoon family (photo by Chuck Tague)

On Throw Back Thursday (TBT), a look back to the time when there were fewer raccoons in my neighborhood:  City Raccoons in July 2008.

 

(photo by Chuck Tague)

No responses yet

Next »

Bird Stories from OnQ