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