Monday, November 14, 2016

How the West was birded

It's dark and miserable in Switzerland (snow on Nov. 7?!) and old world flycatchers and warblers are super boring, so let's flash back to happier times and a grand adventure out West.

The route, starting in San Fran and ending in LA, hitting up 7 national parks (Yosemite, Kings Canyon, Sequoia, Death Valley, Zion, Grand Canyon, Joshua Tree), one national disgrace (Las Vegas) and with a bonus add-on in South Texas.

Natalia's parents flew up for our graduations and this was kind of a celebration trip. Non-birders involved, so it was not a 'birding trip' per se, but with the focus on national parks, it was pretty easy to be opportunistic. Heck, I scored 24 lifers. And that was before scooting off to Texas.

Since Natalia and I had already done a good bit of birding around LA the opportunities for lifers were slim for the first several days, so we'll just gloss over those except for some obligatory landmark pics:

Golden Gate Bridge (sponsored by Hyundai)

Yosemite Valley

General Sherman Tree

During this stretch I was so desperate to see something new that I coerced the group into taking a small detour to a random city park outside Fresno to chase a Yellow-billed Magpie.

Yellow-billed Magpie, some park outside Fresno. This is one of the few birds endemic to the United States


After Sequoia we finally crossed the rain shadow to reach Death Valley, desert territory and the chance for some different bird life. The desolation surprised me with its beauty.

Death Valley. Last landscape shot from here on it will be all birds

At the Death Valley Visitor’s Center we picked up Lucy’s Warbler, Verdin and the much-desired Greater Roadrunner. Awesome!

I didn't manage any lifer photos in the 100+ degree heat, so have a Warbling Vireo instead. Death Valley

I was dreading the obligatory stopover in Las Vegas, but it proved to offer some great birding opportunities at local parks not far from The Strip.

Unlike game birds in a lot of parts of the world, these silly-looking Gambel's Quail are parking lot birds around Las Vegas.

I guess we were there during breeding season because this goof ball sat up for us to sing.

a skukling Verdin, one of my most-wanted desert birds in a park in Las Vegas
We also scored Abert's Towhee, Black-tailed Gnatcatcher, Costa's Hummingbird and Crissal Thrasher.

After surviving Vegas we took a "quick" detour by Zion National Park, which in retrospect, was a mistake. It added just a few hours of extra driving, but 4 hours is not nearly enough time to see this place. Heck, with the crowds it was barely enough time to park, have lunch and cram onto a bus for a spin around the valley.

It almost paid off big time.

California Condors are nesting in this hole in Zion Canyon. This is great news for condor conservation. Unfortunately for us the birds did not make an appearance.

Had the California Condor showed up at this hole where the ranger told us it nests, the Zion jaunt would have been well worth the effort.  But do yourself a favor and give this place at least a couple days.

After Zion, it was on to the main event, the Grand Canyon.

OK, I lied. This is also a landscape

The view really crushes the birds here though. I was surprised to find that Grand Canyon ended up being my favorite park of the seven. This was almost certainly because we took the time to slow down and stay a few days instead of stopping to tick a box and rush off to the next long drive. Also key was staying right in the park so we could get up at dawn to see the rim before the rush of tour buses packed things out. This is what we did wrong at Yosemite and Zion.

Black-throated Gray Warbler, Grand Canyon National Park
Violet-green Swallow at Grand Canyon National Park. Great shot for photo-stringing
White-breasted Nuthatch at Grand Canyon National Park. There are rumors that this bird may soon be split and have a new name. I have no idea what this one would be called.

Originally our plan had us cutting back through Vegas on the way to LA, but, fortunately, we instead cut south through Arizona in order to swing by Joshua Tree.  In Arizona we made tactical stops at Kaibab and Prescott State Forests.  These produced a nice haul: Red-faced Warbler, Painted Redstart, Scott’s Oriole, Canyon Towhee, Gray Vireo and Bridled Titmouse.

Finally at Joshua Tree, our 7th and final park of the tour, we found Rock Wren and Bendire’s Thrasher.

Bendire's Thrasher at Joshua Tree National Park, this bird is known to occur here, but apparently hasn't been photographed very often (or so the local eBird reviewer told me)

I caught a glimpse of what had to be a LeConte’s Thrasher scurry between a couple bushes, but like some jerk magician, it vanished into thin air.  Do these things burrow under the ground or something?  Not yet a nemesis bird, but I’ve got my eye on that one to show up later.

Black-throated Sparrow at Joshua Tree National Park

After the long drive back to Los Angeles, Natalia continued the tour with her parents down to San Diego, while I flew east to Corpus Christi Texas for a wetlands conference.

I don’t care too much for my U.S. list or the ABA area, so instead of driving south to Brownsville, I headed west for more lifer opportunities in the arid ecosystems around Falcon Dam State Park.

Pyrruloxia at Falcon Dam State Park

I finally got the Pyrruloxia I had always wanted to see after growing up surrounded by Northern Cardinals.  What surprised me about this bird is that it overlaps with the cardinal.  I saw both sing from the same bush by falcon lake.

Curve-billed Thrasher, Falcon Dam State Park

Inca Dove, Falcon Dam State Park
Ladder-backed Woodpecker
Gray Hawk, Lesser Nighthawk and Olive Sparrow rounded out my Texas lifers, but I dipped out on the orioles.  Altamira and Audubon’s both eluded me.

Technically I got my first Mexican birds at Chapeno looking across the Rio Grande (which is so narrow!), but I haven’t properly logged them yet. 

From close range a border wall here seems even sillier than it does in the abstract sense.

My life knows no walls. This trip was really just a warm-up for the real post-graduation trip: six weeks in South America starting in Southern Peru and ended at Iguazu Falls in Brazil/Argentina. Stay tuned for that!

Saturday, November 5, 2016

Musing over Muscicapa (and fretting over Phylloscopus)

Birding in Southeast Asia during the months of September and October brought with it the chance to see, in addition to all the amazing tropical residents, migrants recently arrived or in transit from northern mainland Asia.

We began regularly seeing many little brown jobs at forest edges that look something like this:

This is a Muscicapa sp. at Wehea Forest (bird A), a bird you were quite happy to have not ever heard of

Now I love the Phillips Guide to the Birds of Borneo (really... it's one of my all-time faves), but it simply isn't all that helpful with sorting out which Muscicapa one might be looking at, especially for an out-of-towner like myself.

The book does at least lay out three likely candidates (which, confusingly, may actually be five).

1a. Asian Brown Flycatcher (Muscicapa daurica daurica) - allegedly the most commonly seen migrant, but see 1b and 1c...

1b. Asian Brown Flycatcher (Muscicapa daurica williamsoni) - apparently a rarer/overlooked/never recorded(?) migratory species/subspecies in Kalimantan.

1c. Asian Brown Flycatcher (Muscicapa daurica umbrosa) - a scarce resident subspecies/species that breeds in lowland forest

2. Dark-sided Flycatcher (Muscicapa sibirica) - a scarce migrant "Plumage is variable and this bird is easily confused with Grey-streaked Flycatcher. The extent and density of streaking varies from almost none to quite heavy. Breast is generally darker with streaks less contrasting than in Grey-streaked."

3. Gray-streaked Flycatcher (Muscicapa griseisticta) - a scarce migrant "Usually more heavily streaked than Dark-sided Flycatcher with streaks more contrasting against a whiter background. Also white streak in front of the eye is more prominent than in Dark-sided Flycatcher, and tip of primary feathers i the same length as the tail..."

If you could see the cartooning illustrations you would see the conundrum!

another Muscicapa sp at Wehea Forest (bird B)

The muscicapas kept piling up and I kept taking photos and focusing on more interesting birds.

yet another at Wehea (bird C). Most of the birds we saw in East Kalimantan looked like this. Blurry brown streaking
My initial thinking on these first three birds is that given that there were so many around (more than just these three I photographed that gave a similar giss) that they must be the most common of the choices, which would be: 1a Asian Brown Flycatcher (Muscicapa daurica daurica).

Then at Wehea I saw a different-looking musicapa:

4th individual Muscicapa sp at Wehea (bird D)

...instead of streaking on the underparts it has more of a matrix of dark blots and there's some dinginess to the undertail coverts where they seemed to be purely white on the previous birds.

bird D again

A closer look revealed this bird to an immature with pale spotting on the head and back, so probably just a young version of whatever the first three (A, B, C) were.

At Merabu Village forest the Muscicapa continued to pile up.

Muscicapa at Merabu (bird E), looks like another young bird

Bird E again. Yeah, the pattern on the underparts looks a lot like bird D from Wehea

One final shot of bird E, just to show how much speckling young birds can have on the upperparts

Unfortunately I didn't get a great show of this bird at Merabu (bird F), but it appears to lack underpart streaking altogether... or perhaps just a photographic artifact?

What happened at Sungai Lesan?  We saw more:

Muscicapa at Sungai Lesan (bird G) another young bird?
Bird G again

This is another bird (bird H) that is either significantly less streaked or the harsh light is tricking me. It's got some tail feather molt going on as well, which was not apparent in any other muscicapa we saw

Whatever these birds are, they are everywhere, so I just kind of assumed that they were all Asian Brown Flycatchers (a "common migrant").

But then in Singapore we saw these guys:

what the heck is this? (bird I)
Is this even a Muscicapa?

So my Singapore book is even less helpful for flycatcher ID because it doesn't exist.

bird I again
But I couldn't help but wonder if this Singapore bird (bird I) is the real Asian Brown Flycatcher (Muscicapa d. d.) and all the Borneo birds were Dark Sided Flycatchers (Muscicapa sibirica).

Google imaging (for what that's worth, which is probably not much) seems to support this conclusion, but I feel like I'm missing something here.

So, help a birder out and pass this post along to somebody who's experienced with Southeast Asia.  I'd love to be set straight with this Muscicapa mess.

Oh... and while you're at it, have a look at these phylloscopus.

The old world warbler family was already tough enough, but then some asshole geneticist had to come along and split Arctic Warbler into three, the cryptic trio of Artic/Kamchatka Leaf/Japanese Leaf Warbler.  Since they are mostly identified by voice and generally silent in winter, I'm not sure anybody yet has a great handle on their migration/wintering distributions (though I have read that the Japanese one prefers high elevations).

Also, these birds are about 100 times more difficult to photograph than muscicapa, so sorry for the poor quality.

Bird J, Singapore Botanic Garden

Bird J, Singapore Botanic Garden
Bird K, Sungei Buloh Wetland Park, Singapore

Bird L, Maratua Island, East Kalimantan

Bird L, Maratua Island, East Kalimantan

*Update: some Old World experts have chimed in a reached a consensus on the IDs of these birds (see the 'answer key' below). For details about their reasoning, see this thread over at Bird Forum. Also see this blog post by Dave Bakewell for more muscicapa musing (you just couldn't get enough could you?)

A - Dark-sided Flycatcher
B - Dark-sided Flycatcher
C - Dark-sided Flycatcher
D - Dark-sided Flycatcher
E - Dark-sided Flycatcher
F - Asian Brown Flycatcher
G - Dark-sided Flycatcher
H - Asian Brown Flycatcher
I - Asian Brown Flycatcher
J - Eastern Crowned Warbler
K - Eastern Crowned Warbler
L - 'Arctic' Warbler