Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Winter's Subtleties

Imagine: you're immersed in the early-winter splendor of the Chiricahua Mountains.

 Dawn light on the Chiricahua Mountains (Photos by Narca)

The air is brisk and glorious, and, hiking up South Fork, you settle into the depths and subtleties of the season...

into the drifts of sycamore leaves...

Light gleams from the seedheads of Cane Beardstem...

and native thistles...

and Deer Grass.

Streamside willows still hold a few leaves,

and the sycamore's bark takes on a subtle hue of green from chloroplasts.

The riot of nesting and migrating birds has passed, and now you find winter's companions:

Acorn Woodpeckers are busy among the pines and oaks,

Gambel's Quail enliven the mountains' feet,

and Spotted Towhees scratch in the underbrush.

In fact, Spotted Towhees are having a banner winter in the Chiricahuas. Regrowth from the big fire of 2011 must have reached a stage that offers towhees plenty of nesting cover, for we've never before seen them this numerous in winter.

Adult male Scott's Oriole

And... what is a Scott's Oriole doing, still coming daily to our hummingbird feeders?? He lasted through the November snowstorm and shows every sign of being a snowbird in reverse. There's nothing subtle about this bird's summer yellows!

Okay, who has guessed? New camera!

Saturday, July 6, 2013

For Condor Enthusiasts!

What finer sight is there than a giant California Condor, soaring in thermals in a sky of peerless blue, above the painted rocks of canyon country, and the immense chasm of the Grand Canyon?

Gravitas: California Condor 
(Pen and ink by Narca)

We –– the Nature and Raptor Center of Pueblo, together with Naturalist Journeys –– plan to explore Arizona's condor country in early September, and we have a couple of spots left on the tour. I'll be co-leading this trip with the Center's John Gallagher. Would you like to join us?

Condors are today a relict species, their range shrunk from their glory days in the Pleistocene, when megafauna like Giant Ground Sloths provided abundant carrion for the condors' repast. Today they hang on to a precarious existence –– lead poisoning remains a serious threat –– while a dedicated crew of field biologists continues to work to assure their survival.

From a population low of 22 individuals in 1982, captive breeding-and-release efforts have built their numbers up to over 300 birds, with about half of those flying free in the wild today, in California, Arizona, Utah, and Baja California.

In December 1996,  six young captive-bred California Condors were released at the Vermilion Cliffs in Arizona, near the Grand Canyon. More annual releases have augmented that first group of six, and the condors are now nesting successfully on their own in caves in the Grand Canyon and the Vermilion Cliffs. Today more than 70 condors soar over the rimrock.

Rim of the Grand Canyon (Photo by Peg Abbott)

It's always a treat for me to return to Condor Country –– a treat that goes beyond the magnificent scenery and wildlife encounters. Two of the newer national monuments which protect this habitat for condors and all their relations were signed into law by Clinton in 2000, and my sister Kelly Burke, working with biologist Larry Stevens, figured out the boundaries for those two national monuments –– Vermilion Cliffs and Grand Canyon-Parashant –– based on factors like watersheds and animal migrations. Kelly and Larry did this work through Grand Canyon Wildlands Council.

A new effort is now underway to connect the Vermilion Cliffs to Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument via the Kaibab-Paunsagunt Wildlife Corridor, with the goal of forming one large national monument that will encompass these smaller monuments. It will be called Grand Canyon Watershed National Monument. If you would like to support this effort to link existing monuments, you can sign this petition.

Condors will be our primary focus on the September trip, but as always, we'll investigate whatever crosses our path. If you'd like more information, you can find it here and here.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Bicknell's Thrush in New Hampshire

The lure of finding a Bicknell's Thrush –– a rare summer denizen of high elevations in New England and southeasternmost Canada –– pulled me away from the heat of southern Arizona last month. (The cool mists of northern New Hampshire might have had something to do with it, too!)

Alan and I set out on an eventful drive through Tornado Alley, which results in our seeking refuge in a truck stop's reinforced shower area with perhaps 100 other refugees from the raging tornados. Truckers study the tornado apps on their cell phones while the winds howl.

Resuming our drive, we eventually land in Philadelphia at Bartram's Gardens, where I bequeath my painting of Bartram's Painted Vulture to the museum's permanent collection. Our friend Jim Shiflett joins us here, and curator Joel Fry gives the three of us a wonderfully fun tour of the famous botanical garden. (You can read more about William Bartram and see the painting in my post from March 20, 2013.)

But enough city! In my mind I can hear the haunting flute-song of a Bicknell's Thrush, shimmering over the krummholz. Krummholz is the stunted, bent forest often found at timberline, where exposure to fierce winds prunes the trees. These Black Spruce and Balsam Firs of New Hampshire's northwoods survive at timberline where they have sheltering rocks and enough snow cover. They form a dense tangle of twisted, short trees at timberline, which –– along with the taller bordering forest that grows slightly lower on the mountain –– is just this thrush's cup of tea... Labrador tea!

Krummholz on Mt Washington, New Hampshire (Photos by Narca)

Perhaps the harsh conditions contribute to the thrush's unusual breeding system: a single female will mate with as many as four males, all of whom help to feed the nestlings. It may take that many adults to optimize the chances of raising a clutch of chicks in this challenging environment!


Mt Washington wreathed in cloud

We have chosen Mt Washington in New Hampshire, with its private, good road to the top, as our destination for searching for the thrush. Rain threatens, and the mountain is crowned in cloud, as we make our way to timberline. A pullout allows for parking, and we walk back down through the krummholz and into the taller forest next to it. Very soon we hear the thrush's melody, and Jim spots our singer at the tip of a nearby spruce. Jubilation!

Bicknell's Thrush is a cryptic species, originally lumped with the more widespread Gray-cheeked Thrush. Studies show them to be a species in their own right. It is not only rare but secretive, and we are very lucky to have such a fine look, even though the early light doesn't allow for good photos. Here's the best I can do: guess you'll have to trust me with this one.

Yes, it really IS a Bicknell's Thrush!

Mt Washington is home to a host of other northern birds, like Yellow-bellied Flycatchers, Boreal Chickadees, and Blackpoll Warblers, and we thoroughly enjoy our morning. Even a Black Bear is romping through the ferns –– a mammal I didn't expect to see in New England!

A chewed-on Black Bear on Mt Washington, New Hampshire

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

TrekWest and the Western Wildway

John Davis is undertaking an epic journey––by foot, horseback, bicycle, boat––to dramatize the need for wildways, for safe wildlife corridors that connect habitats and wildlands to each other. This particular Western Wildway is a 6000-mile-long corridor stretching from the Northern Jaguar Preserve in Sonora, Mexico, into Canada. The wildway's route is based on more than a decade of scientific research and conservation mapping.

John Davis (Photo from his blog)

Not only will completion of the wildlife corridor allow large animals, requiring large home ranges, to roam where they need to go (and thus survive!), but the corridor may also buffer against the effects of global warming by conserving a north-south span of continuous natural landscapes, where changes in the plant and animal communities can proceed, by contracting or expanding with the changing climate.

The work of restoring connections between habitats is being undertaken by a coalition of highly respected conservation organizations, under the auspices of the Wildlands Network and including, in our own Arizona, the Sky Island Alliance and Grand Canyon Wildlands Council. Partners in Mexico include the Northern Jaguar Project, Naturalia, and Cuenca los Ojos (known to birders as the legendary Cajón Bonito).

I urge you to check out the TrekWest website, and to follow the excitement of the journey through John's blog of the epic trip. A film by Ed George is documenting and celebrating the journey, and will one day be launched for all to see.

Grand Canyon Wildland Council is also featuring TrekWest and other conservation news in their blog.

The vision of connecting wildways through North America (and elsewhere, like Australia) is perhaps the most exciting conservation initiative to emerge in recent decades.

A Western Screech Owl

Last night Alan and I ventured into Cave Creek Canyon above Portal, as wind swayed the sycamore branches, and a thickening crescent moon shone over the scene. We joined friends Dave Jasper and Rick Plage to see the location of a likely owl nest that Dodie Logue and Bob Hautman had found a couple of days ago.

Night deepened. We listened, hearing mostly the rustling of the leaves. When darkness was complete, a Western Screech Owl began to call, but it wasn't the usual territorial whistling or trilling. Dave thought it was perhaps a male's pillow talk. I wondered whether it was the female announcing to the male that she was ready for her evening meal. "Her" intensity while vocalizing in the cavity entrance made it clear that she was including the magic word: "Now!"

A Western Screech Owl calls in Cave Creek Canyon
(Photo by Narca)

Cave Creek Canyon is renowned for its small owls, which also include Whiskered Screech, Northern Pygmy, and Elf. Occasionally a Flammulated will also breed at lower elevations in the Chiricahua Mountains, though usually they are higher in the mountains.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

The Hummingbirds of Monteverde

In Costa Rica along the crest of the Cordillera of Tilarán, is a world of mist and greenery: the cloud forest of Monteverde. Trade winds from the Atlantic bring a steady flow of clouds across the mountain ridges, nourishing an astonishing forest, draped in ferns, moss and orchids. Resplendent Quetzals spend part of each year in this misty realm.

Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve, within the Bosque Eterno
 (Photos by Narca)

The original Monteverde Cloud Forest Preserve has been augmented by the Bosque Eterno de los Niños – the Children's Eternal Rainforest. The Bosque Eterno was conceived by schoolchildren in Sweden; when I used to go regularly to Costa Rica, fund-raising for the Bosque Eterno was just getting off the ground. It succeeded, and now a magnificent reserve is the result.

Years ago at the entrance to Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, a hummingbird gallery, complete with feeders, was established by local folks, including Patricia and Michael Fogden. Today that gallery teems with a truly dazzling array of hummingbirds. When we were there a week or two ago, many, many hummers of eight species were buzzing around the feeders, enchanting everyone who ventured onto the gallery grounds. Here are a few photos for your enjoyment!

The big Green Hermits come only infrequently to feeders. Most of the time they are deep in the forest, pollinating plants like Heliconia.

Green Hermit

Tiny Coppery-headed Emeralds used to be scarce at the Monteverde feeders, so I was surprised to see several of them the day we were there. Males blend darkly into the shadows, until they catch the light just right... then, a glorious flash of intense green! This emerald is a Costa Rican endemic, mostly on the Caribbean slope, although it spills over onto the Pacific slope in this region. Like many other tropical hummingbirds, the males gather in small breeding leks and call to attract receptive females.

A male Coppery-headed Emerald goes from subtle...

... to sublime!

 The female emeralds are much more modestly dressed.

A female Coppery-headed Emerald shows her pink-based lower bill.

Another of Monteverde's smaller hummingbirds is the Magenta-throated Woodstar, endemic to Costa Rica and western Panama. These buzz around, tails often raised, creating a distinctive wing-whir that lets you know they're in the neighborhood. Here's a challenge for you: the nest of this species has not yet been found and described... go for it!

A male Magenta-throated Woodstar

Rather larger is the Green-crowned Brilliant, here sporting the spotlights he uses to dazzle females. This brilliant is a creature of the high, wet mountains, and it ranges as far south as Ecuador (another country that boasts fabulous hummingbirds!)

 Male Green-crowned Brilliant...

...and a lovely female brilliant!

Purple-throated Mountaingems are perhaps the most abundant species at Monteverde's feeders. The female is a bright buffy-rufous below and sports a strong mask. Like other hummers, these are VIPs: Very Important Pollinators.

Female Purple-throated Mountaingem

And just in case you're thinking that the species is misnamed...

...the gorgeous male mountaingem is a show-stealer!

Another beauty which seems to me more frequent now at the hummingbird gallery's feeders is the Green Violetear. This violetear occupies highlands from Mexico, all the way down into the Andes of Bolivia. Although its range overlaps that of the other two violetears (Sparkling and Brown), the Green prefers wetter, higher forests, and so is right at home in Monteverde.

Two views of a Green Violetear

Another hummer with a fairly large range (from southern Mexico to Panama) is the little Stripe-tailed Hummingbird. Those bright rufous wing patches are a good field mark. They are quite regular at the Monteverde feeders and in the cloud forest.

Stripe-tailed Hummingbird

One of the most impressive hummers in Costa Rica is the enormous Violet Sabrewing––at 6" long, the biggest hummingbird away from South America. For comparison, our Magnificents are 5.25". Just look at that scintillating deep blue-violet! The sabrewing's range is similar to the Stripe-tailed's: southern Mexico to western Panama. This hummer also feeds often at Heliconia, and the males, like the tiny Coppery-headed Emerald males and the Green Hermits, also gather in leks to "sing" for the females.

 Violet Sabrewing

A sudden dazzle announces the arrival of a stunning Violet Sabrewing!

Hummingbirds live only in the Americas. What a treasure they are!

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Bartram's Painted Vulture

OK, I've been lax about posting! Painting can dominate everything––I even forget to eat. Here is a recent project, an acrylic painting of Bartram's Painted Vulture.

I hadn't heard of it either.

Bartram's Painted Vulture, a bird that formerly inhabited Florida
(Acrylic painting by Narca)

Noel Snyder investigated the mystery surrounding this vanished bird, and with Joel Fry, has published an on-line paper in the journal Zootaxa which proposes, at long last, the acceptance of this now-extinct species – or subspecies – into the roster of North American avifauna. (An excellent review of this paper was written by Rick Wright for the American Birding Association's blog.)

William Bartram was the first naturalist ever to visit Florida, about the time of the Revolutionary War. He left a detailed description of this spectacular bird, whose existence is not recognized by the American Ornithologists' Union, although several ornithologists have independently acknowledged it. Very similar to the King Vulture of the American tropics from Mexico south, the Painted Vulture was likely either a closely related species or a subspecies of King Vulture.

The bird apparently vanished shortly after Bartram's encounter with it, for it was never seen by Audubon or other early ornithologists who visited Florida.

William Bartram and his father John Bartram left an impressive legacy.  John was North America's first botanist, called "the greatest natural botanist in the world" by Linnaeus. John was named the Royal Botanist in America by King George III, and the Bartram homestead is considered to be the birthplace of American botany and the first botanical garden in the US. You can visit their home in Philadelphia, now the Bartram Garden and Museum. (I've not yet visited this National Historic Landmark and garden, but certainly hope to see it soon – perhaps as soon as this summer! The museum would like to have this painting of Bartram's Painted Vulture in its permanent collection, and that strikes me as its perfect home.)

The Bartrams knew Benjamin Franklin and named a tree after their statesman friend––Franklinia alatamatha. The tree is feared to be extinct in the wild but still survives in cultivation, descended from the original plants collected by the Bartrams.

William carried on his father's natural history endeavors, traveling for several years through the eight southern colonies, observing the flora and fauna, and executing exquisite drawings. He built a reputation as an adept and perceptive observer of nature. Thomas Jefferson asked Bartram to accompany Lewis and Clark on their exploration of Louisiana Territory, but his health didn't permit it.

Today the Bartram Trail follows William's footsteps through North and South Carolina and Georgia. In Alabama, the Bartram Canoe Trail meanders along waterways in the Mobile-Tensaw River Delta.

William's travels through a truly wild America and his interest in the Native peoples he met are detailed in a marvelous book. If reading the firsthand accounts of early explorers appeals to you, track down the Travels of William Bartram, edited by Mark Van Doren. What a treasure! I also plan to track down another: Judith Magee's 2007 volume, Art and Science of William Bartram, for the pleasure of seeing more of his marvelous botanical illustrations.