Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Flame in the Canyon

Here's a migration tale from near my home in Portal, Arizona.

Huge numbers of Rufous Hummingbirds cruise into southeastern Arizona during their fall migration, arriving after the summer monsoons have inspired a fall bloom, lush in good years. As the hummers arrive, the agaves which pepper the mountain slopes come into flower, providing nectar and pollen for hummingbirds, orioles and nectar bats.

Flame in the Canyon: Rufous Hummingbird 
(Watercolor by Narca)

It's possible to sit at the southern terminus of a small mountain range (as I have done at San Luis Pass in the Animas Mountains), and watch a stream of hummingbirds reach the end of the agaves, then launch themselves over the intervening grasslands, heading south for the winter.

Watching the hummingbirds flow south, watching the Vs of geese overhead, seeing the pulse of salmon returning up their natal streams to breed, we are immersed in the great cycles of planetary life.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

An Ordinary Marvel

If we open our eyes and unstop our ears, earth presents us with such ordinary, everyyear wonders, like the routine migrations of animals.

One ancient cycle––the great seasonal pulse of migrating birds––can strike a chord of deep awe in those of us who are fortunate to witness it. Who hasn't rushed outdoors when the primordial rattle of cranes or cry of swans seeps through the windows of daily life? After a long, dark, frozen winter, whose heart hasn't leapt at the appearance of the first hummingbird of the spring, as the tiny glittering miracle hovers for an instant at the kitchen window? 

Scarlet Tanager in Dogwood (Acrylics by Narca)

Over the years, Costa Rica has gifted our tour groups with riveting experiences of migration. Consider: it is April in the lowland rainforest of Selva Verde. A blustery spring storm descends, drenching the forest. We venture out anyway, and find that the storm has grounded a large flight of Eastern Kingbirds and Scarlet Tanagers. In just the trees that encircle us, we count at least 50 of the brilliant male tanagers. The green females are much harder to detect in the confusion of leaves, although we manage to find a couple. (In many of the passerines, the males migrate a week or two before the females, and that may be happening with these tanagers.)

In mid-afternoon the storm finally lifts, and migrating Swainson's Hawks immediately take to the skies, rising by the hundreds from the surrounding forest. I expect that the tanagers and kingbirds will lift off at nightfall, joining the hawks in the river of birds which wing their way north each spring.

Have you been especially impressed and delighted by one of your encounters with migrant birds? I welcome your comments.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Nightfall in Monteverde Cloud Forest

Night deepens in this Costa Rican reserve, where our tour group has special permission to stay until after dark. Black are the shapes of roosting guans, the silhouette of a forest falcon. A sleepy quetzal stirs. Jupiter and its moons shine overhead. A tarantula hulks inside her burrow.

Resplendent Quetzal in Monteverde 
(Watercolor by Narca)

Fireflies flicker on, first one, then two, and soon constellations of bioluminescent creatures are drifting through the forest. We see hundreds. Their lights gleam blue, green, pale lemon, ivory, pale orange, reddish, white. One pair of tan beetles mates, pulsing light. The stars have slipped to earth.

Saturday, December 19, 2009


I'm thinking back to Australia today! Here's another vignette from last summer's trip.

At the beginning of our trip, Jim bravely drove us out of the Sydney airport and headed for Glen Davis, en route to Bowra Station, using my 20-year-old map of New South Wales. The road system around Sydney had undergone a few changes in the past two decades. With our map proving unreliable, we steered west by the sun, and finally admitted that we needed a bit of guidance to find the right road to Mudgee and, beyond, to Glen Davis.

The road to Glen Davis (Photo by Narca)

We rounded a corner and were waved over by two policemen. One shoved an instrument that looked like a handheld radio in front of Jim's face and said, "OK mate, one-to-five." Jim looked confused. I interpreted, "He wants you to count."

"Oh...uh...one-two-three-four-five... Can I ask if this is the road to Mudgee?"

That simple question unleashed an exchange worthy of Saturday Night Live. "Me 'n' my mate, we're from Sydney, they just send us up here where it's too cold.... So you want to go to Sludgie... that's Mudgee.... Hey, do you know if this is the way to Sludgie-that's-Mudgee?" And so they cartwheeled through a 10-minute comedy routine that left us in no doubt as to their true calling. It ended with "Enjoy Sludgie-that's-Mudgee! We have to get back to work."

We enjoyed Sludgie-that's-Mudgee, but we enjoyed Glen Davis even more. The little-traveled road to Glen Davis winds through miles of eucalypt forest. At one dry stream crossing, several Superb Lyrebirds raced and flew back and forth across the road, much more concerned with their own urgent business than with four optic-laden humans.

Common Bronzewings (Photo by Noel Snyder)

Near the crest of a hill, flowering Eucalyptus trees were drawing in scores of nectar-feeding lorikeets and honeyeaters, and among them was a real prize––a spectacular yellow-black-and-white Regent Honeyeater. Masses of Sulphur-crested Cockatoos filled the valley. Each turn of the road brought another discovery: Common Bronzewings; Australian Pipits; multicolored finches; Red-rumped Parrots.

The hospitable village of Glen Davis has a small campground, complete with hot showers, where visitors may camp for free. Australian King Parrots and Brown Treecreepers greeted these four weary travelers.

Australian King Parrot (Photo by Narca)

Thursday, December 17, 2009

A Goose on the Lava Flows??

In Hawaii, wandering atop the dark lava flows (only recently colonized by 'ohi'a shrubs), is a small goose, the Nene. I marvel that a waterbird, a goose, is at home on these rough lava beds.

Nene on the Big Island (Photo by Narca)

Hawaii's extreme isolation has posed an enormous barrier to colonization by wildlife. Any bird, mammal or butterfly that came under its own power from the nearest continent had to cross nearly two thousand miles of ocean to get there. Yet some managed the feat: a bat; a few butterflies; an ancestral finch; an ancestral thrush; a hawk. In this tropical terrain of fire, mist and rainbows, a few winged colonizers gave rise to a marvelous radiation of species.

The Nene's long-ago ancestor was very similar to the Canada Goose. In all, at least nine species of goose evolved on the Hawaiian Islands, but only the engaging Nene survives, a symbol of quintessential old Hawaii. 

You can see the Nene without too much trouble, on Kaua'i where they have been successfully introduced as part of a strategy to prevent their extinction, and on the Big Island, where they still roam the lava flows, quite at home. 

If you would enjoy seeing Nenes and other unique Hawaiian wildlife, I invite you to join me in March 2011 on a WINGS tour to explore Hawaii. Just click on the link to the WINGS website. 

We'll be linking the trip to a Midway tour, "The Albatrosses of Midway Atoll," for those who would enjoy coming on both. The Midway tour is also running this coming spring, in March 2010, and we still have a few spaces––why not join the fun?!

Nene (Pen and ink by Narca)

Sunday, December 13, 2009

What's in a Tail Pattern?

Ringtail (Pen and ink by Narca)

While assembling art for my book, I was very struck by the fact that such diverse mammals have evolved the same arresting tail pattern. Check it out!

Ring-tailed Lemurs (Pen and ink by Narca)

These animals aren't closely related. The marmoset is a New World primate, which fills a squirrel-type niche in the forests of Brazil. The Ring-tailed Lemur, like all lemurs, lives only in Madagascar and is a member of an early offshoot from the lineage that gave rise to primates. The Ringtail, or Ring-tailed Cat, is even more distantly related: it belongs to the raccoon family (not the cat family) and roams the southwestern US and northern Mexico.

White Tufted-eared Marmosets (Pen and ink by Narca)

What would be the advantage of having such a tail? Certainly the tails' length and weight would help these agile animals to balance as they scamper through the trees. But why the coloration?

We can run through the standard issues. Would this be disruptive coloration, as in zebras, where the black-and-white striping is thought to cause visual confusion among predators, making it harder to single out just one prey animal among the herd? Although these three species aren't herd animals, the pattern might still help divert a strike away from the more vulnerable parts of the body, enabling the animal to survive some close calls.

Other notions have nothing to do with pesky predators. Maybe a striking tail pattern helps these active critters to keep track of each other when they jump through the trees. So the function could be social, perhaps in addition to being protective.

Aldous Huxley had yet another idea, that sometimes Nature is simply extravagant in details such as the "polychromed posterior of the baboon" or the "self-importance of man." That view has a certain appeal, after the weighty seriousness of the scientist. Yet it probably isn't the best argument to apply here, since the same pattern crops up in several lineages––it must have practical advantages!

You can probably think of more animals sporting a black-and-white banded tail, and more reasons why the adaptation works. Feel free to comment!

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The Realm of Albatrosses

What is it about oceanic islands that exerts such a siren call? What comprises the allure of farflung bits of volcanic rock and mounds of sand ringed by coral reefs, where seabirds nest in clamorous multitudes?

To name just one marvel, the flight of albatrosses takes my breath away.

Buller's Albatross south of New Zealand (Photo by Narca)

Albatrosses occupy my thoughts, as I gaze over a sea of Chihuahuan Desert, preparing for next spring's WINGS tours to Hawaii and Midway Atoll. To place ourselves in the albatross's world, we must shift our mindset drastically, from the upland's rhyolitic cliffs and coniferous forest, from grassland and desert scrub stretching to the blue-gray horizon. We must enter a waterworld driven by wind and temperature to form currents, convergences, and plankton blooms.

Earth's vast oceans can be grouped, at the roughest scale, into the cold, productive polar waters at high latitudes both north and south, separated by the warm waters of the tropics, where winds falter then die for weeks on end, becalming sailing ships and albatrosses alike. The great albatrosses must have wind.

They also must have food, abundant only in certain regions of the ocean where currents and upwellings create the right conditions for plankton and the food web it supports. Albatrosses also must have nesting grounds, and within the vast oceans, protected islands suitable for nesting are scarce indeed.

Warm seas form a barrier for many oceanic organisms that is as great a challenge as the Himalaya and the Amazon River pose for land-based creatures. On rare occasions an albatross may cross that warm-ocean barrier, but for the most part northern and southern albatrosses have followed their own evolutionary paths. In part due to the immense size of the Southern Ocean––more than 10 times as large as the North Pacific––many more species of albatross soar in southern seas.

Here in northern seas we have three species: the Laysan, the Black-footed, and the endangered Short-tailed Albatross. The Hawaiian Islands are prime nesting grounds for the Laysan and Black-footeds, and among the 18 Hawaiian Islands, Midway Atoll's stupendous colony of nesting albatrosses eclipses all the others.

Satellite tracking of Midway's Laysan Albatrosses has revealed that they shuttle continually between the Hawaiian Islands and the Gulf of Alaska, flying as far as 500 km a day between their nesting islands and their foraging waters, where they find squid to feed their chicks.

In addition to the albatross nesting extravaganza, Midway Atoll has hosted one or two wintering Short-tailed Albatrosses in recent years. A former victim of the feather trade, the Short-tailed population was reduced to only 50 individuals, but is recovering with protection and now numbers over 2300 birds.

In 1912 Robert Cushman Murphy, the great seabird biologist, wrote, "I now belong to a higher cult of mortals, for I have seen the albatross!"

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Whiskered Screech-Owl

A year ago on the Atascosa Highlands Christmas Bird Count south of Tucson, Alan and I encountered a little Whiskered Screech-Owl at its day roost. The owlet perched at the entrance to its roost cavity, comfortably soaking up the sunshine on that wintry day. A brief Morse code call and its yellowish bill confirmed its identity.

Yesterday that image of the basking owl, shimmering in my awareness for the past year, finally made it to paper. Here's the beguiling little raptor, rendered in watercolor and gouache.

Whiskered Screech-Owl by Narca

Whiskered Screech-Owls are common within their limited habitat in the southwestern Sky Islands. Their abundance in the Chiricahua Mountains helps to boost that area's density of nesting raptors to a dizzying level. Helen Snyder has investigated nesting raptors around Portal and the Chiricahuas for years, and found that when owls are included with the hawks, eagles and falcons, the density of nesting raptors in Cave Creek Canyon far exceeds that known for any other location in North America. The next closest is the Snake River Birds of Prey Area in southern Idaho, and it boasts less than 1/4 of the density of raptors found in Cave Creek Canyon. Helen and others are encouraging the US Forest Service to give Cave Creek Canyon a special designation that recognizes its unique importance to raptors and further protects the region from oddball threats that occasionally arise.

If you will be in southern Arizona in early January and would like to join Christmas Bird Counts for these areas, you can contact the compiler for the count that interests you. For Atascosa Highlands on Sunday January 3, email Rich Hoyer (calliope@theriver.com). For Portal on Saturday January 2, email Jackie Lewis (winjac12@vtc.net). Counts for Portal and the nearby Peloncillo Mountains are run back-to-back, and many people spend the weekend attending both counts. For the Peloncillo Mountains count on January 3, please contact Alan Craig (narca@vtc.net). Yes––the dates for Atascosa Highlands and Peloncillo Mountains do conflict!

Saturday, October 17, 2009


In most autumns, the Rabbitbrush and Desert Broom burst into bloom, and they are both fabulous butterfly attractants. This year, after our very light monsoon, flowers are scarce around Portal, Arizona. But last week, Noel Snyder noticed an especially fine mass of Rabbitbrush blooming along the road from Lordsburg to Silver City in New Mexico. So we have set out with our friend Dick Zweifel, retired curator from the American Museum of Natural History, to learn what butterflies might be flying.

Rabbitbrush, Chrysothamnus nauseosus (Photo by Narca)

The answer is close to being negative data! Very few butterflies are flying at all this year, even where the Rabbitbrush is in fine fettle. It's the poorest butterfly flight year in the memory of local experts. Once again we are seeing firsthand the dramatic effects that drought can have, especially in a region that receives only modest precipitation even in fairly good years.

Another example––on the nearby Peloncillo Christmas Bird Count, Brewer's Sparrow numbers went from an all-time national high count of 13,462 in 2000, to zero just four winters later. These extreme fluctuations in populations responding to drought and flood argue strongly for long-term studies of wildlife! How can we understand a population unless we investigate the full cycle of bounty and stress?

American Snout on Desert Broom, Baccharis sarothroides (Photo by Narca)

On this field day, only American Snouts are flying in good numbers. Perhaps 60 are swarming around the Desert Broom, which is interspersed with Rabbitbrush. Here is a tally of the other butterflies: Checkered White 3; Orange Sulphur 5; Southern Dogface 1; Dainty Sulphur 1; Western Pygmy Blue 1; Variegated Fritillary 1; Painted Lady 4; and Monarch 2.

Only nine species! Last year, Dick recorded 40 species of butterflies at a single patch of Rabbitbrush!

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

At Fred and Melly's Cabin

It's just after dawn, and the rising sun hits our outside sleeping deck. We're in the mountains of central Idaho at the home of our long-time friends, Fred and Melly Zeillemaker. Fred retired from the US Fish and Wildlife Service after a career of managing national wildlife refuges from Oregon to Hawaii to Nebraska to Alaska. He and Melly retain an undiminished enthusiasm for all things wild.

The cabin is situated next to a small stream, lush with hawthorn and cottonwood, alive with hummingbirds and quail. Volcanic rock underlying this region is fractured and jointed, and springs rise to the surface along those joints. These springs support riverine trees and shrubs like Bitter Cherry, Chokecherry, Blue Elderberry, Saskatoon Serviceberry and Mallow Ninebark. The berries in turn feed birds, Red Squirrels and Black Bears. (No more sleeping outside when the bears return to the valley!)

Central Idaho (Photo by Narca)

Away from the streams, Great Basin sage and grassland reach into stands of Douglas-fir, Ponderosa Pine and White Pine, which grow mainly on the cooler, moister north slopes of the hills. Fall has touched the land with the reds of chokecherry and the golds of bitter cherry and ninebark.

Alan & Fred check the moths (Photo by Narca)

Our first night we set up a black light over a sheet and draw in moths. Under the UV light, gray moths are transformed into shimmering silver, or gray with exquisite silvery highlights, edgings and curliques. As I study them, a bat swoops over my head, feasting on the bounty.

Wilson's Snipe (Photo by Narca)

This morning's field trip takes us up Dodson Pass and down Sheep Creek Road. American Goldfinches forage on patches of sunflowers. A Wilson's Snipe feeds at the edge of a small creek. We wind through ranch land and sage to Crane Creek Reservoir, where a few lingering Baird's Sandpipers and American Pipits work the exposed mudflats. Where cracks lace the drying mud, tiger beetles scurry.

Are we mouse-proof yet? (Photo by Narca)

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Finding Refuge in Nevada

Common Ringlet at Ruby Lake NWR (Photo by Narca)

The road north brings us to another stellar oasis: Pahranagat National Wildlife Refuge. Pahranagat means "valley of shining waters" in the Paiute language. Large thermal springs feed a system of wetlands, where impoundments assure water for thousands of migratory waterfowl and other wildlife. Alan and I visited the refuge once before, when two vagrants, an immature Mississippi Kite and a Zone-tailed Hawk, surprised us. The endangered Southwestern Willow Flycatcher nests at the northern lake.

With Rich Hoyer, we work our way along the shore of the southern lake. Rabbitbrush is in full bloom amid the shadscale, and the flowers are a magnet for insects. One butterfly is new for all of us, the Mojave Sootywing. This very small skipper, barely larger than the Western Pygmy Blues, is a saltbush specialist.

Rich Hoyer peruses the Rabbitbrush (Photo by Narca)

Imperceptibly, the warm Mojave Desert is grading into the cold Great Basin Desert. We begin to see Big Sage, the indicator plant for the Great Basin. Pahranagat's northern lake and campground are closed for repairs to the dam, so reluctantly we continue north toward a national wildlife refuge that is new for us, Ruby Lake.

First comes a lunch stop at the Silver Cafe in the old mining town of Pioche. Photos on the wall depict various atomic bombs exploding at the Nevada Test Site. It's hard to imagine that anyone close enough to take those photos lived for very long afterwards. At long last, closures due to lingering radiation at the test site have recently been announced.

Still pondering the long-overdue closures, we arrive at Ruby Lake NWR. Ruby Lake supports the largest nesting population of Canvasbacks in the western US. Like many western valleys with remnant wetlands, this valley was the site of a huge Pleistocene lake––Ancient Lake Franklin––about 12,000 years ago when the climate was wetter. Today more than 200 springs feed the refuge wetlands.

We don't have time for more than a short hike along a rushing, willow-lined stream, but the drive has been well worth the effort. The scenery of this isolated region is magnificent. The Ruby Mountains tower over a near-pristine valley. While we are here, a sudden plume of smoke announces the start of a prescribed burn in the Rubies, an effort to reduce the fuel load and reestablish the natural fire regime.

Our final campout on the road north is at Great Basin National Park. Now we've completely made the transition to this cold desert, which lies in the rainshadow of the Sierra Nevada and Cascade Mountains. The Great Basin is exactly that––a 200,000 square-mile region of hundreds of northwest-to-southeast trending basins and ranges, all with only internal drainage. All waters eventually evaporate or sink underground; none flow to the sea.

Wheeler Peak, at over 13,000 feet, shadows the national park. A system of about 40 caves laces the park, with Lehman Cave the best known and most developed. Fractures in the bedrock were created when the mountains uplifted, and acidic groundwater flowed along those fractures and dissolved the marble to form this cave. Some of the dissolved minerals were redeposited to form the unique, very beautiful formations of this living cave.

Aspens at Upper Lehman Campground (Photo by Narca)

We ascend to high-elevation forest of conifers and aspen, with their attendant Steller's Jays, Red-breasted Nuthatches and Townsend's Solitaires. In the dusk, the bark of aspen glows dramatically white. We fall asleep to the sound of the rushing mountain stream.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Nevada Oasis

The long drive north from Arizona to Idaho brings the perfect opportunity to revisit our favorite refuges in Nevada and to explore new ground. We pick up our friend Rich Hoyer in Tucson, and the three of us set off on a three-day camping trip through the vast, stark Nevada desert.

The Sonoran Desert grades into the Mojave as we exchange Saguaro for bristly, imposing Joshua Trees. The rainfall regime changes as well: Mojave Desert receives mainly winter rain; Sonoran Desert usually receives both winter and summer rains and is lusher.

Just a half-hour north of the glitter of Las Vegas lies a gem of an oasis: Corn Creek Field Station, a part of Desert National Wildlife Refuge. This refuge's 1.5 million acres encompass six mountain ranges, which are home to Desert Bighorn Sheep. Over the years, Alan and I have stopped at Corn Creek every chance we've had. During migration it often produces an impressive array of western migrants and eastern vagrants, such as White-eyed Vireo and Palm Warbler. Corn Creek is also a northerly nesting outpost for several typically southwestern birds, including Lucy's Warbler, Verdin and Vermilion Flycatcher.

Alan Craig & Rich Hoyer at Corn Creek (Photo by Narca)

We arrive in late afternoon, make a quick circuit of the spring-fed ponds, and set up camp not far away. (It's still possible to rough-camp here for free.) The 100-degree day cools with the setting sun, and Coyotes begin to sing. Soon the vast starfield stretches over our two tents, alone in the immensity. A glow to the south marks Las Vegas.

At dawn we're up, break camp, and return to Corn Creek. We meander along the paths through thick vegetation. Cedar Waxwings pluck fruit from the Russian Olive trees. A Red-shouldered Hawk (unusual in Nevada) swoops to a post next to a small pasture. Endangered Pahrump Poolfish fin through the ponds. We find a nice showing of western migrants––Peregrine Falcon; Willow and Gray Flycatchers; Nashville, Virginia's and MacGillivray's Warblers; Yellow-breasted Chats; Lazuli Bunting––before continuing our journey north.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Musing, as the Miles Roll By

Marble Canyon in northern Arizona (Photo by Narca)

One of the big perks of travel––of long, relaxed hours on the road––is that our minds disengage from our daily concerns, and we play, unfocused, with the elements of our experience, until suddenly there's a shift, and a new pattern or recognition emerges.

On this road trip from Idaho to Arizona, I'm watching the landscape unfold. We move from the coniferous forests of montane central Idaho, through the sagebrush and basin-and-range topography of the Great Basin, into the vivid and spectacular canyon country of southern Utah and northern Arizona, and finally return to the giant Saguaro of the Sonoran Desert. As the landscape unfolds, my mind drifts.

We are, all of us, rooted in the archetypes of our heritage. In Australia, I was struck by the ways in which Anglo Australians celebrate the settling of that continent by British criminals and cast-offs, who found within themselves the necessary fortitude and courage to start new lives. Similarly, for many North Americans, a pioneer ethic and ethos resonate. Think of the changes that have swept through our two countries since their founding.

Consider the publishing trade. During the 1800s, my great grandfather, Charles M. Boynton, was editor of a newspaper in Hamilton, Texas. The typewriter was invented during his lifetime. What a boon this machine was to the newspaper trade, and now it is seldom used. In contrast, my young grandson will never know a pre-computer, pre-internet world.

After the typewriter came the linotype machine. When I had a summer job at a publishing company in Denver, the noisy old linotype machines were still in use, although the company was starting to phase in offset presses. Each linotype operator sat before his or her machine, typing, and the metal letters fell into place in the line of type, and slugs of lead alloy separated word from word and line from line––all accompanied by tremendous racket. When a proofreader discovered a mistake in a galley, we had to run downstairs and arrest the plate before more printing was done. The offending "a" or "t" had to be pried out of the page and replaced with the correct letter, a far more labor-intensive procedure than is hitting a delete key today!

These workaday changes have paralleled changes in the landscape. C.M. Boynton knew a world where Bison still roamed areas of Texas, when unbelievably vast flocks of Passenger Pigeons took days to fly past a homestead, when Carolina Parakeets still munched cockleburs back East, and where bunch grasses in southern Arizona swept the bellies of horses.

I rue the impossibility of holding these ancestral experiences and perceptions alive in our minds. They would give us a benchmark to comprehend just how much change we've brought to the planet. They would give us deeper motivation for restoring lost ecological processes, for reclaiming watersheds, for maintaining viable populations of species, and for ensuring that a network of corridors exists, so that plants and animals can migrate to suitable conditions as global climate change digs in. I don't want my grandson (or any other young person) to have to witness the extinction of wildness from the land he knows.

Several organizations are striving to put wildlife corridors in place. Check out the work being done in the US by Grand Canyon Wildlands Council, The Wildlands Network (formerly the Wildlands Project), The Rewilding Institute, and Defenders of Wildlife. In the western US, a coalition of respected conservation organizations is promoting the Spine of the Continent Initiative to connect wild lands from Alaska's Brooks Range to Mexico's Sierra Madre Occidental.

Similarly, Australians are working to create the massive Alps-to-Atherton conservation corridor, which will span 2800 kilometers along the eastern rim of that continent.

Now there is a vision for the future!

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

South Hills Crossbills

South Hills Crossbill male (Rather poor photo by Narca)

Dr. Craig Benkman, who gave the banquet keynote talk at Western Field Ornithologists' annual meeting in Boise, has researched the habits and vocalizations of Red Crossbills for years. His work is helping to untangle the confusing crossbill complex. Just how many species of Red Crossbill are there? What distinguishes them? Are we seeing an example of evolving species, and at what point are they sufficiently distinct to be considered separate species?

Benkman recently proposed a new crossbill species: the South Hills Crossbill, a sedentary species known from the South Hills and Albion Mountains of southern Idaho. For more information on his publications and research, go to his website:


Here is the gist of his talk:

Red Crossbills in North America are divided into 9 or 10 "types," first recognized by Jeff Groth. Each type has corresponding calls, songs, and seed preferences. These types specialize in foraging on particular species of conifer seeds, and the grooved palates of their bills match perfectly the size of the seeds they eat.

"Type 1" lives in the eastern US and only rarely feeds on hard pines like Ponderosa.
"Type 2" feeds mainly on Ponderosa Pine.
"Type 3" feeds on the small seeds of Western Hemlock.
"Type 4" specializes on the thin seeds of Douglas-fir and is small-billed.
"Type 5" eats the seeds of Lodgepole Pine.
"Type 6" feeds on seeds of pines from the Sierra Madre and southwestern Sky Islands, and is large-billed.
"Type 7" is probably a generalist.
"Type 8" specializes on seeds of Black Spruce.
"Type 9" is the South Hills Crossbill, a specialist on Lodgepole Pine.
"Type 10" has been proposed by Ken Irwin; it specializes on coastal Sitka Spruce.

So why is Type 9 distinct? Only in a small area of southern Idaho does Lodgepole Pine grow in the absence of tree squirrels. Squirrels harvest pine nuts very efficiently, and begin their feeding at the top of the cone, unlike crossbills. Where squirrels feed on pines, they drive the evolution of pine cone structure. These pine cones have developed thicker protective bracts, especially at the tops of the cones. Squirrels harvest whole cones early in the fall, and cache them for winter, making the seeds unavailable to crossbills. Because crossbills must forage on seeds remaining on the tree, their food supply is more erratic where squirrels share the habitat, and those crossbills must become nomads when they run out of food.

Tree squirrels have never managed to cross the surrounding expanses of sage to reach the Lodgepole Pines of the South Hills, and pine cones here do not show the adaptations to squirrel predation found in Lodgepole Pine from other areas. Without squirrels, the supply of pine cones is more reliable, and these crossbills can afford to be sedentary. South Hills Crossbills have evolved large bills to deal with the pine cones, as well as distinctive calls. Researchers have found a very low frequency of hybridization between South Hills Crossbills and other types, which occasionally occur here as well. Indeed the proposed name for this proposed species is Loxia sinesciuris, which translates as the crossbill without squirrels.

In addition to Dr. Benkman's talk, Nathan Pieplow ably moderated the sound identification panel, both of which prepared us very well for Sunday's field trip to the South Hills to look for the crossbills. Sound ID panelist Rich Hoyer described the Type 9 call as "DYUP." That phrase I could remember. If you would like to hear crossbill calls, go to this website and click on the arrow next to each entry's name:


You can also find more information on calls at Nathan Pieplow's website, www.earbirding.com.

Sunday morning we set out very early in vans, eventually winding our way up into the South Hills of Sawtooth National Forest. No sooner had we arrived at an upper campground near Porcupine Springs, than "Type 9" South Hills Crossbills flew into the Lodgepole Pines next to the parking area, DYUP-ing as they came. For an hour or more, small groups of crossbills arrived and departed, giving everyone exceptionally good views. Yes!!

If this split is accepted by the American Ornithologists Union, Idaho will have gained an endemic bird species.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Idaho Bird Observatory

Sage meets conifers on Lucky Peak (Photo by Narca)

At the Western Field Ornithologists' annual meeting, Alan and I join an all-day field trip to the bird banding station run by Idaho Bird Observatory, a research institution under the auspices of Boise State University. The station is perched atop Lucky Peak, about 2500 feet above Boise. IBO director Greg Kaltenecker hosts us.

The dirt road winds up the mountainside, through sage steppe habitat that shifts into Douglas-fir near the top. Along the ecotone between conifers and sage grows a band of fruit-laden shrubs and trees, mostly chokecherry and bitter cherry. (I taste one––yes, it's well-named!) These cherries attract hundreds of migrant songbirds. Today Western Tanagers outnumber the other species. An out-of-place Chestnut-sided Warbler spotted by Ron Martin adds spice to the morning.

The banding operation is really three separate efforts: in one area, songbirds, hummingbirds and woodpeckers have been banded for about 13 years; on a nearby promontory a hawk-banding operation has been underway for about 15 years; and a nighttime owl-banding operation was begun in 1999.

The banding station is exceedingly well-placed. Not only does it lie amid the cherries, but Lucky Peak is a jumping-off point for migrants moving south from the mountains of central Idaho. It's the southernmost peak on the Boise Ridge, and beyond it lies the desert of the Great Basin. Migrant hawks use the thermals generated along the ridge, and songbirds eat berries and insects, fueling up for the next stage of their journey. So thousands of migrants concentrate atop Lucky Peak.

Greg Kaltenecker and Alan Craig at mistnet (Photo by Narca)

Jay Carlisle and his enthusiastic interns conduct the songbird banding. Net lanes run through the cherry trees, and a small building houses the banding station itself. We join the banders on their rounds of the nets and admire the warblers, thrushes and grosbeaks as they are processed, then released to resume their journey.

About noon we climb to the hilltop and join the hawkwatch. During the next 4 hours, about 70 raptors stream past, including 2 Golden Eagles and an Osprey, along with the more common species. Accipiters are the most numerous. Below our perch, researchers at the hawk-banding station run a series of traps for capturing raptors. During the afternoon, they capture and band 13 Cooper's Hawks, Sharp-shinned Hawks, and American Kestrels.

Cooper's Hawk at banding station (Photo by Narca)

Banding programs run from mid July through October, and visitors are welcome. Check the IBO website for details: www.idahobirdobservatory.org. Their blog also details the species and numbers of individuals captured during the past couple of field seasons. In 2008 a big highlight was an immature Gyrfalcon!

You can find more photos from our day on Lucky Peak in my photo gallery.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009


Papuan Frogmouth at LotusBird Lodge (Photo by Narca)

On our southward journey back down the Cape York Peninsula, we take a long side-loop from Musgrave, stopping first at LotusBird Lodge, where Sue shows us a Papuan Frogmouth in her yard and gives us great tips on where to find several very local bird species. We also ask about crocodiles.

Australia has two species of crocodiles, the Freshwater (Freshie) and the Saltwater (Saltie). Salties grow much larger, and both can occur in the same river system, although they aren't very good at sharing.

Sue responds to our question: "Oh––well, there's Stumpy. We just saw him a few days ago. He's a Freshie, and he had a run-in with a Saltie, and lost his left hand. But it's all healed over. That's why we call him Stumpy."

We follow Sue's directions to a spot along 5-Mile Creek. The drive is challenging, especially considering that this is basically flat country. Alan and Jim elect to bird near the car, while Noel and I head upstream in search of Stumpy––cautiously. By now we've heard many tales of tourists becoming lunch for a Saltie. We pass scrape marks left in the sand by sunning crocodiles. I see one six-footer drop from the far bank into a big pool and swim at the surface straight towards us, before disappearing into the depths with a rolling dive. At the very next pool, we find Stumpy.

If you were hiking here, would you see Stumpy? (Photo by Narca)

Stumpy has hauled out and is sunning. His eye is bright, and he doesn't move as we carefully walk *just a little* closer. His healed foreleg is plain to see. But it's odd that he's letting us approach.

We circle around and see that Stumpy has much bigger problems than two humans sharing his riverbank. He has obviously had another encounter with a Saltie (perhaps the one in the pool just downstream), and has lost his entire right foreleg, and has a deep gash in his hindleg. With wounds so grievous, it is hard to see how he can survive.

Stumpy, a Freshwater Crocodile (Photo by Narca)

Noel and I return to the lower pool and sit on the bank, at a very respectful distance, and wait, hoping that the Saltie will reappear. We are silent. The sleepy afternoon seems deeply peaceful. The incessant sound of cicadas lulls us. A big goanna rustles leaves on the far bank. Double-barred Finches come in to drink. Yet beneath that seeming peace hangs an ominous threat, lurking below the surface, out of sight yet palpable, a shadow cast in our minds by the hidden Saltwater Crocodile. The moment is complex and deep.

Monday, September 14, 2009

The Magnificent Riflebird

Magnificent Riflebird displaying (Photo by Jim Shiflett)

The loud whistles of displaying male riflebirds cut through the rainforest of the Iron Range on the Cape York Peninsula. Largest of Australia's birds of paradise, the Magnificent Riflebird ranges from northeast Australia to New Guinea. Males are a velvet black, with a shimmering blue-green bib and throat. (The angle to the light determines the exact color that's reflected.)

Male riflebirds claim a display perch on a horizontal limb or the top of a broken stump and solicit the attention of females with loud whistles and a hopping dance. Jim was impressed by a film he recently saw depicting these "lovemasters" and is particularly focused on finding one, which he does.

Not far from the road, a male is displaying from an unusually low horizontal branch, only 8 or 10 feet above the ground. Through a scope we watch the undulations of his glistening breast as he whistles and dances. The next day, Jim and Noel spend hours in quiet concealment near the male, photographing his glittering moves.

When a brown-backed female appears, the male shifts his intensity into high gear, crisply flashing and arching his extended wings, head thrown back, dazzling the female with his shimmering iridescence. If he's impressive enough for the choosy lady, they will mate, and soon he'll be back on his perch whistling for another paramour.

The intensity reminds me of a penguin's ecstatic display––and what better term is there for what this riflebird is doing?!

Sunday, September 6, 2009

On the Road

Alan and I are picking up Rich Hoyer and heading for the Western Field Ornithologists annual meeting in Boise, Idaho, so posts may be less frequent for the next couple of weeks. But stay tuned!

The WFO meeting is a special one––their 40th anniversary. Alan is one of the six founders of the organization. The Idaho Bird Observatory is hosting the meeting. We're looking forward to reunions with many long-time birding friends––plus, hopefully, an encounter with Idaho's newly described South Hills Crossbill, expected to become a split from Red Crossbill.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

The Iron Range

Heathland of the Iron Range (Photo by Narca)

The Iron Range... what does that name conjure for you? For me it's synonymous with remoteness, a place of mystery, a place with rich interweaving of viney rainforest, heathlands, and mangrove-fringed tropical beaches. Its fabled birdlife crisscrosses the Torres Strait between wintering grounds in Papua New Guinea and breeding grounds on the Cape York Peninsula. In this region of only two seasons––drought and flood––access by road is impossible for months at a time. The Iron Range! The timing of our entire trip to Australia has pivoted around being able to get to this place.

After we leave the main Peninsula Developmental Road with its clouds of red dust, washboard, and speeding drivers, the road east leads through progressively lusher forest and hills, until we're back in the rainforest haunts of cassowaries. We aim for Chili Beach, arrive after dark, and set up camp. The night is warm and humid, and the surfsound lulling, as we drift into sleep.

Chili Beach (Photo by Narca)

Morning brings us the first of the Iron Range's fabulous specialties––a huge, black Palm Cockatoo flies right over our camp. Jim tracks it into a Beach Almond, where it is unobtrusively perched near the treetop, gnawing the almond-like fruits and seeds. He finds it by the sprinkle of vegetable bits falling onto the path.

Palm Cockatoo at Chili Beach (Photo by Narca)

Thursday, September 3, 2009

The Butterflies of Oz

Male Cairns Birdwing (Photo by Narca)

We weren't in Australia at the best season for butterflies to be on the wing, yet a few were flying in the tropical northeast, and the butterfly house at Kuranda gives splendid photo ops at any time, of several showy species, including the spectacular Cairns Birdwing. Birdwings are in the swallowtail family.

Most of Australia's 416 butterfly species live in the rainforest, monsoon forest, and other moist habitats of the northern and eastern rims of the continent. The vast, dry interior has many fewer species.

Black Jezebel on bottlebrush (Photo by Narca)

Whites and sulphurs are gorgeously represented by the jezebels. We found Black Jezzies from the base of Mt. Lewis, to Inskip Point, to the Iron Range. Most were nectaring on flowering eucalypts.

Harlequin Metalmark in Iron Range (Photo by Narca)

Those of you familiar with the stunning array of gemlike metalmarks in the American tropics may be surprised to learn that only a single metalmark occurs in Australia, the Harlequin, which we were lucky to find in the Iron Range.

Lesser Wanderers (Photo by Narca)

Lesser Wanderers are relatives of the familiar Monarch, and they were flying at Townsville Commons.

For a slide show of more Australian butterflies, click on the link to my art gallery––and enjoy!

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Galahs in Every Light

A Gathering of Galahs (Photo by Narca)

Most of us grow jaded with what's familiar. However awesome the spectacle, however exquisite the trogon, once we've seen a hundred or a thousand, or twelve thousand, we eventually stop seeing––seeing––them. Noel is exceptional in this regard.

In Australia, Galahs gather with hundreds of their kind to chatter, and screech, and feed, and dangle acrobatically from telephone lines. These pink-and-gray cockatoos stalk around suburban lawns, hang out in trees and along railway tracks, descend on agricultural areas, and perch on snags to catch the early morning sun––and they do it across an entire continent.

Yet, for Noel, every Galah we see is the First Galah, new-minted and just arrived on planet Earth––and of course each one of them needs to be photographed. Our Aussie friends, jaded from a lifetime of living around Galahs, seem intrigued and (politely) amused when a flock of Galahs appears, and Noel grabs his camera. I try to explain: "The light's different now from what it was an hour ago when he photographed them. He's photographed Galahs at dawn, Galahs by noonlight, Galahs at dusk, Galahs by stormlight––but not yet Galahs by 9 AM light."

I think they looked more closely at those Galahs than they had for some time. Another person's enthusiasm can do that: it can reawaken our own wonder, and allow us to see freshly, with new eyes, with original eyes.

Galah by stormlight––now there's a subject for a painting!

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Little Red Flying Foxes

Little Red Flying Fox  (Photo by Narca)

South of Musgrave on the Cape York Peninsula is a chittering, rustling, squabbling, aromatic colony of 2.5 million Little Red Flying Foxes––reportedly the largest flying fox colony in Australia.

We find our way to the edge of the colony. The bats are very close overhead, their fur glowing red in the evening light. With wings stretched, they groom their pelage. Youngsters cling to their mothers (and are left behind when their mothers leave for the night to forage on nectar and pollen).

As dusk grows near, we return to open country and watch the bats in broad dispersal across the evening sky. These pollinators must service half of Cape York!

Little Red Flying Foxes (Photo by Narca)

Finally, as the vast star field of the southern sky stretches overhead––very brilliant in this isolated region––we drive towards our camp, and are surprised to see mobs of flying foxes drifting just above us through the forest, seeking flowering eucalypts. When they find a flowering tree, they cling to the branches to sip nectar. Outbreaks of chattering tell us where they are congregating.

I feel as if I'm underwater, looking up at a strange river, as the bats flow rustling overhead, through the treetops.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

The Powerful Owl

Powerful Owl on Mt. Coot-tha (Photo by Narca)

Our friend John Coons, a leader for Field Guides, has given us a tip about where to find a Powerful Owl: the track at Mt. Coot-tha near Brisbane. We arrive there and find a whole maze of trails, none of them seeming to match John's description of the place. So... what to do?

It's early morning in eastern Australia; mid-afternoon––yesterday––in Arizona. I pull out my cell phone and it works! "Hi, John, this is Narca."

"Where are you?!" "Australia, on the top of Mt. Coot-tha, and we're confused." Soon John has set us straight, and we are climbing a trail alongside a stream, an excited Noel in the lead. He is first to spot the owl.

A bird of of great dignity, the Powerful Owl is unperturbed by our adoration and photo-taking. It's in a quintessentially Australasian genus of owls, the Ninox. Ninox owls are quite unusual, not only in their proportions, but in the fact that the males of the three largest Ninox species (including the Powerful Owl) are larger than the females. Usually it's the other way around in raptors.

Biologists have advanced many theories to try to explain the usual larger size of female raptors, but Noel says that they nearly always ignore the big exception to the rule: the three Ninox owls. He thinks that understanding the exception holds the key to our understanding the basis for the entire phenomenon of female raptors being larger than male raptors. I'm intrigued by that insight.

Aboriginal art on Mt. Coot-tha (Photo by Narca)

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Of Pythons and Flying Foxes

Spectacled Flying Foxes in Cairns (Photo by Narca)

Cairns in Queensland is justly famous for offering splendid birding along its Esplanade and excellent diving and snorkeling along the Great Barrier Reef. Not everyone, however, knows about the colony of huge bats––Spectacled Flying Foxes––that roosts in the large trees on the grounds of Cairns' main public library.

Wherever colonial animals gather, their predators aren't far away. We've heard intriguing rumors of Amethystine Pythons haunting the flying fox colony at the library. Who wouldn't want to see a snake with a name like that?!

Finding the bats is no problem. Any of several senses (vision, hearing, smell) leads us right to them. But the snake proves tougher, and it is hard to imagine where on these grounds a large snake might conceal itself well enough to live into magnificent old age.

Jim, ever the intrepid explorer and seeker-of-knowledge, sets out to find answers, starting in the obvious place––the library. Libraries have reference librarians, after all. As closely as I can reconstruct the conversation secondhand, it goes something like this:

Jim: "We've heard that the bat colony outside attracts pythons. Would you know where we might see one?"

Librarian: "There aren't any snakes here," in her best stern voice.

Jim: "But someone who'd seen one here...."

Librarian: "I've been here 20 years. If we'd ever had a snake here, I would have heard about it."

Jim: "But..."

Librarian: "No snakes!!"

Jim retreats, but later returns with another question. A different librarian sees him approaching and, holding up her hand to ward him off, exclaims simply, "NO!" delivered at a volume you don't often hear in libraries.

Undeterred, Jim finds the Aboriginal groundskeeper and asks him about seeing pythons. This man takes the question completely in stride and muses, "Not here. But you could try the mangroves."

So the flying foxes at the Cairns public library seem to have chosen their python-free dayroost with considerable wisdom and forethought.

Flying Fox Mosaic at the Cairns Esplanade (Photo by Narca)

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Lamington's Ancient Forest

Tree fern in Lamington's forest (Photo by Narca)

Lamington National Park's system of hiking trails penetrates the ancient, mossy Antarctic Beech forest, a relict from deeptime––from the misty, long-ago era of Gondwanaland. Antarctic Beech, a species of Nothofagus, is related to our oak trees, although they are no longer considered to be in the same family. The presence of Nothofagus species in Australia, New Zealand, New Guinea, Argentina and Chile, plus Nothofagus fossils in Antarctica, gives us strong botanical evidence of the ancient fusion of these southern continents.

Giant Brush Box tree (Photo by Narca)

Jim and I hike a 10-mile circuit that immerses us in Lamington's immensely old Nothofagus forest, before dropping into a spectacular valley of waterfalls. The trail eventually loops past other giants at a lower elevation––1500-year-old Giant Brush Box trees, whose limbs reach high into the sunlit canopy. Along the trail, a female Paradise Riflebird (one of the birds of paradise) forages in a leaf cluster, high up in one of the forest giants. An irruption of bewildering sounds betrays the presence of an Albert's Lyrebird, digging for morsels behind a fallen log. Lyrebirds are among the world's finest mimics.

Glossy Black Cockatoo in Casuarina (Photo by Narca)

From the World Heritage Site of Lamington, we descend into the lowlands via Duck Creek, a route that puts our 4WD rental car through its paces. Along the way, a cooperative pair of Glossy Black Cockatoos dines on woody Casuarina fruits, one of their favorite foods.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Bowra Station's Falcons and Parrots

Sunset along the Mitchell Highway (Photo by Narca)

Australian skies are brilliant, and their sunrises and sunsets magnificent. One such sunset graces the evening as we approach Bowra Station.

Bowra Station in southern Queensland, near the town of Cunnamulla, has become justly famous in birding circles for the rare species that thrive there. The owners, Ian and Julia McLaren, are selling Bowra to the Australian Nature Conservancy, so its management is now in a period of transition. Visitors may camp there, for a small fee.

Birding at Bowra Station (Photo by Narca)

Our first morning at Bowra, we enjoy the company of Aussie birders Roger and Greg. As everyone is standing around chatting, a family group of four Gray Falcons flies in, at first directly overhead, then spiraling in great circles till they are very high and distant. Gray Falcons are exceedingly rare; one of our new friends has been looking for the species for 40 years. And here they are. Birding has moments like that, and when such a moment comes after 40 years of searching, it is sweet indeed.

Bourke's Parrot (Photo by Narca)

During our two days at Bowra, other very interesting local species also cooperate: Chestnut-breasted Quail-Thrush; Hall's Babbler; White-browed Treecreeper––and Bourke's Parrot. We have given up on the parrot, having tramped through miles of country under the mulga trees, when Jim glimpses two of them flying up from the grass into a tree. Bourke's Parrots are lovely, subtly-colored grass parrots, rarely seen.

Tawny Frogmouth at Bowra Station (Sketch by Narca)