Archive for Birding Festivals
If this year’s Biggest Week in American Birding had a feathered mascot, it would have to be the Eastern Warbling Vireo. Maybe not the prettiest of the migrants swarming northwest Ohio, maybe not the most sought-after, maybe not even the commonest, but certainly the one that meant the most to the most birders out on the boardwalks and trails and bus trips.
Let me explain: Again and again, I was privileged to be present when this drab little bird emerged from the vireo-colored foliage to be added to a ‘life list’. And again and again I witnessed how the same birders who had just seen their first saw their second, and their third, and their fourth — and identified them on their own. The sense of accomplishment that filled those birders was tremendous, exceeded, I think, only by the pleasure experienced by those who had, in small ways, helped them get there.
Seeing fancy warblers and roosting owls and incubating shorebirds may be the stuff of which memories are made, but learning a bird well enough to recognize it again is a real achievement — one that can be repeated over and over.
April, and it’s still chilly here in north Jersey. What to do, where to go…?
The Texas Ornithological Society gathered this past weekend in Laredo, and I joined the 60-odd registrants as field trip leader and banquet speaker.
The weather was cool, the company cooler, and the birding non-stop. With all those skilled and eager eyes afield, the weekend tally exceeded 200 species; but one above all others made my day — three days in a row.
I haven’t spent all that much time in the Rio Grande Valley, but I’ve certainly been there often enough and looked hard enough to make White-collared Seedeater one of the most conspicuous gaps on my US list. So the instant we arrived in Laredo, Lee and I set off for the wonderful Zacate Trail.
And there, singing from the tree tobacco, was a fancy little male seedeater, duller than the birds one sees so easily and so often in Middle America, but more contrasty than I had prepared myself for. The bird perched up for a good ten minutes, whistling away with a song that, interestingly, never once broke out into the expected final trill.
I would hear seedeaters each day, and had outstanding views again on Saturday, when my group found no newer than four individuals along the river. After Laredo, I’m never going back to the scenes of earlier failures in Zapata and San Ygnacio!
Thanks to TOS and its members for a fantastic weekend and some really fine birding. Hope to see everybody again soon — come to New Jersey sometime.
In my excitement the other day, I forgot to note that the Black Brant is one of those birds first discovered and described far from what we think of as its “normal” range.
Indeed, this classic Pacific coast specialty was first made known to science from a specimen shot in January 1846 in (ready for this?) New Jersey. On an earlier expedition, George Newbold Lawrence had seen an unfamiliar bird “at some distance” at Egg Harbor,
which our gunner said was a black brant. This was the first intimation I had of such a bird.
It took several years — such birds “were not common,” Lawrence noted — but local hunters were finally able to supply him with an adult female (the type specimen) and, shortly thereafter, a young male. In this very first of his scientific publications, Lawrence declared his Black-bellied Goose “a good and well-marked species,” and American Ornithology agreed.
For a while. Lawrence’s Black Brant vanished by 1983, when the AOU Check-list merged it with the White-bellied Brant, with a note that “some authorities” — among them, of course, the authors of the first five editions of the Check-list — had considered “the two groups” specifically distinct.
Nowadays, brant taxonomy (and brant identification) seem to be more complex than anyone ever imagined. And the identity of Lawrence’s own type has been disputed for more than 60 years now, with no lesser lights than Delacour and John Todd Zimmer suggesting that the early New Jersey specimens represented “an almost extinct subspecies” of eastern and southern “dark-bellied” Brant rather than the “true” Black Brant.
Progressive taxonomies (read: the Dutch) divvy the blackish geese up in different ways, but I suspect that the best treatment is simply to consider them all web-footed juncos: birds whose evolutionary relationships inevitably overwhelm any classification scheme imposed on them.
A wonderful long weekend–too short a long weekend–in southeast Arizona started with a surprisingly well-attended Sit at beautiful Boyce Thompson Arboretum.
Counting my co-leader Darlene and our sponsor Paul, we were a group of forty-nine, making this one of the three or four largest trips I’d ever led for Tucson Audubon.
The company was great, the birding perhaps a bit subdued, thanks to the chill and cloudy day. The clear avian highlight was, naturally enough, a sparrow, a wintering Red Fox Sparrow that eventually gave everyone ooh-aah views as it fed near the Demonstration Garden with White-crowned Sparrows and Lesser Goldfinches. Any fox sparrow (or should I write fox-sparrow?) is a “good” bird in southern Arizona, and this one started off a nice run of emberizids that lasted the entire weekend.
Friday I spoke at the Wings Over Willcox festival, but I had the morning and Saturday, too, to run around looking for puddles with sparrows in attendance. Brewer’s and Vesper Sparrows were around in heartening numbers, joining the thousands and tens of thousands of Lark Buntings out in the Sulphur Springs Valley.
A single Cassin’s Sparrow was a good find at the Willcox golf course’s leaf dump; that species is rarely detected in Arizona in winter. Less surprising but just as lovely was the Grasshopper Sparrow that joined a flock of Brewer’s Sparrows on the roadside; it’s just visible in the photo second above, but did step out from the crowd a few times to give nice, unobstructed views.
It’s always a delight to be reminded how colorful this bird is with its ochre face and purple collar.
I got back to Tucson too late Saturday to do any birding around town, but Darlene picked me up on Sunday for an excursion to Sweetwater Wetlands.
As it usually does, this urban oasis came through big time with winter rarities: a Chestnut-sided Warbler, a Summer Tanager, a surprising Solitary Sandpiper. There were a few Lawrence’s Goldfinches on the edges of the ponds, where they fed beneath buzzing and chattering Marsh Wrens while hundreds of ducks–including many hundred Northern Shovelers–courted and splashed.
Among all these birds one stood out: a Swamp Sparrow, annual at Sweetwater nowadays but still scarce anywhere in the state. This bird, with streaks still obvious on the upper breast, was probably in its first plumage cycle, putting paid to my old notion that Sweetwater had been hosting just one, long-returning individual.
Rain, welcome rain but cold, chased us out, and it was still spitting when I got up early Monday morning to go to Catalina State Park.
I wandered the washes and saguaro-studded slopes under a Chinese scroll of a sky, the mountains surging in and out of sight as the overcast rolled across their face.
The birding was good; I knew it would be when one of my first sightings was of a Lincoln’s Sparrow, one of two individuals I ran across on my walk. The emberizid flocks were composed mostly of White-crowned and Brewer’s Sparrows, as expected, but there were also four species of towhee mixed in: Abert’s and Canyon Towhees are common there all year, while Spotted and Green-tailed Towhees are only winterers in the park’s lowlands, both species in extremely variable numbers.
As I emerged into the drier desert on the ridges, Black-throated Sparrows became more and more conspicuous, their thin notes issuing from every clump of opuntia.
This abundant and familiar species is something of a nemesis bird for me: with what is fast approaching 40 years of birding under my belt, I’ve still never found this gorgeous sparrow anywhere in the east or midwest, where vagrants seem to show up–for other people–every winter.
Far less given to wandering is my favorite sparrow of all time.
I ran into only two groups of Rufous-winged Sparrows, one probably a pair, the other probably a family. After a moment’s fright, they all let me sit down with them and watch as they went about their quiet business on the ground beneath the catclaw, scratching for seeds and generally being irresistibly beautiful. No song yet from any of them, but it won’t be long. Wish I were there to hear it!
My weekend sparrow list:
And if you’re a traditionalist, Chestnut-collared Longspur, too.
Join me for my Friday lecture and for some excellent birding in the Sulphur Springs Valley.
See you there!