19 April 2018

Almost 80 @ TESH

Yesterday we swung through Ted Shanks Conservation Area in Pike County.  You can click here to view the eBird hotspot page for Ted Shanks.  There you can view the bar charts, recent visits, click on the map, etc.

We were battling some moderate wind but we ended up tallying nearly 80 species in the 4 hours we were there (checklist here).

BUFFLEHEAD were flagged in eBird, presumably because it's getting on the late side (they'll be migrating out of here anytime).  Because they were flagged, I snapped a quick pic showing 12 of them, 2 males and 10 females:
We finally found decent shorebird habitat and ended up with: 

20 Dunlin
56 Greater Yellowlegs
165 Lesser Yellowlegs
2 Solitary Sandpiper
115 Pectoral Sandpiper
18 Wilson's Snipe
12 Killdeer
1 American Golden-Plover

Turns out, the Dunlin and golden-plover were county birds for me.  Here's a Lesser Yellowlegs, the most numerous shorebird species we had:
Another flagged species, again for being on the late side, was GOLDEN-CROWNED KINGLET:
Along the same theme, this AMERICAN TREE SPARROW was also flagged in eBird for being on the late side.  They're abundant here during the winter months... but winter is over (or so they say):
We found a small flock of RUSTY BLACKBIRDS which is always a treat.  This species was abundant at one time but they've gone through drastic declines in recent years.  According to breeding bird surveys and Christmas Bird Counts, numbers have declined 85%-98%.  That's alarming!  Here's a male:
... and a female in the same posture:
 I'm off to Texas in the morning.  Adios!

18 April 2018


The second edition of "A Swift Guide to Butterflies of North America", by Jeffrey Glassberg, was published in 2017 by Princeton University Press.  It's a 416 page paperback that costs $29.95.  You can find it online here.
Although butterfly weather has been slow to arrive around here in northern Missouri, I have seen a couple of species just in the last week (Red Admiral, Spring Azure, and some kind of fly-by comma).  Given that, I thought maybe it was a good time to review this book to see if I wanted to give it a go this year.

It's been a while since I've posted a book review, actually.  As I often do with these, I took a few simple pics of the book and will share them here.  I don't tend to rant on and on about minute details on a species-by-species basis... I'm just here to share my overall thoughts and I try to keep them brief.

So, you open the front cover and you're greeted with this "How to Use This Book" key:
Although most of it looks pretty straightforward, you'll see a variety of colors denoting different number of broods, and then another set of colors for range.  Hmm, that seems like it could be confusing, no?  And then there is another key with additional material:
It's at this point that I stopped trying to remember everything.  It's a lot of information if you're a casual user but I guess they had to key it somehow.

Moving on to what the species accounts look like... I'll just share a variety of these.  First up, this guy:
Right off the bat, I wondered "Where on earth is the NAME of this thing?".  Right at the top?  Nope, it says "Whites and Yellows", a broad category.  That's not it.  How about next to that?   It says "Whites: Florida White".  Is that it?  Seems weird to have the name framed like that in a small, normal font.  Anyway, I'll just spoil the surprise... the name is at the BOTTOM of the entire species account.  I'm not a fan of that at all.  I suppose a user could get used to this but if every other field guide has the name easy to see at the top, why change it up?

Let's try a different page and see how it's displayed there:
The top is still dominated by the yellow-colored banner reading "Whites and Yellows" with another banner next to it saying "Whites:  Lower Rio Grande Strays".  Ok, so that banner seems to be more of a subspecific banner.  But again, the names of the butterflies are beneath the species account which, as you can see above, becomes more confusing because there are three species on this page.  There's even a black line above each name which makes it even more confusing... the line isn't being used to separate anything despite there actually being a need to separate the species!

Here's another species account or two, this time from the Gossemerwings section:
I should point out how these have range maps... gotta have those for a book that covers all of the US and Canada!  The range maps ARE small though so brace yourself for that.  Granted, it would be hard to make them much bigger with how much other stuff is packed in.

It's also clear by now that this is strictly a photo guide.  The photos are big and top notch.  Oftentimes, they include photos both of the closed wings and open wings.

To the left of the photos you'll find a couple of boxes with text explaining habitat, various notes, and abundance.  You'll see in the abundance box a "LR"... I'm sure we can figure this out by referring to the front but... hardly seems worth the effort.  That leaves me assuming it means "locally rare"?  Probably.

Here's another spread, this time with four species:
These are more compact and so you can see they opted to skip the range maps and just put a short "LRGV once" or similar description.  They squeezed in brief info about foodplants but left it at that, they were forced to leave out habitat, seasonality, and abundance info.

How about this page?
This has a whopping eight species crammed in, all of which are LRGV species (short for Lower Rio Grande Valley in Texas).

Here's another view, this time of a skipper... the very rare Poweshiek Skipperling:
Speaking of that species, it's one I've never seen and would love to try for... if they're still even in existence.  Last I heard, there were probably about 500 left on earth, many of which are in Michigan.

Here's another skipper or two, some giant-skippers:
As you can see with the Strecker's Giant-Skipper, included is a picture of the landscape where you might find this species.  A neat inclusion.  (As it so happens, I saw these often in western Nebraska and, aside from those mountains in the picture, the landscape looks right on).

At the end of the species accounts, I was surprised to find a couple pages with a few species found in Hawaii (two of which are native).  Pretty cool... now I just need to get to Hawaii to work on my Hawaii list!
I thought this was interesting... there is an index of foodplants in the back, in case you wanted to take that angle on identifying something:
And then there was the traditional index after that:
This is also somewhat interesting... there is a "visual index" in case you wanted to skim through by sight to see if you could find a match (or something close).  This seems like a good idea and I admit that I haven't used something like this before:
So, in the end... my thoughts?  


This book has a lot of information, plenty of nice photos, and an emphasis on foodplants.  All good things.

The photos in this book are top notch.  For that alone, this book is valuable to have on hand if you want to dig through a variety of guides for additional studying.

The author, Jeffrey Glassberg, is a well-known expert and this book really displays that impressive knowledge.  I don't know him but I know he wanted to author a book that had EVERY species in it, that is clear by flipping through the book.  But, I wonder if that goal came with a price....


... because if you're going to make a field guide with every species from the US and Canada, it's a simple fact that you'll be pressed for space.  Instead of splitting this information out into an "Eastern Butterflies" and a "Western Butterflies" book, it's lumped into one book.  Because of being pressed for space, this book is VERY crammed and busy.

I don't like the layout of this book at all.  I'm not a fan of data cramming and, to me, the layout of the text (things like the name placement) is poorly designed.  There is plenty of information in this book, true, but it hardly seems cohesive, standardized, and the knowledge certainly isn't displayed in a user-friendly fashion... at least not for this user.

The back cover says "The most user-friendly butterfly field guide ever created".  Whhhhaaat?  That surely seems bold and presumptuous!  I'd like to know whose idea it was to say that.  The author's?  Do you agree with it?  I don't.  That doesn't mean I hate the book though, I'm certainly happy to have it to reference.  Will it be my new, primary go-to guide though?  No.  Still, if you get a chance, I encourage you to flip through a copy and see what you make of it.

I received a complementary copy from the publisher for review purposes, but the viewpoint expressed in this article is entirely my own.

16 April 2018

Shanks, a new county bird, and creeper wings

Six days ago I posted here with a picture of snow.  And then it warmed up nicely into the 80s.  I honestly thought that was the last of the winter weather but, as I type this, it's snowing outside here in northern Missouri.  :-(

Although the spring continues to have a hard time warming up here, it hasn't kept everything quiet.  Some of the breeding warblers have returned to the area including YELLOW-THROATED WARBLER, NORTHERN PARULA, and LOUISIANA WATERTHRUSH.  Hearing those songsters for the first time each year is a big part of what spring means to me.

Speaking of what spring sounds like around here... this CAROLINA WREN was amped up one morning (enough so to wake me up) and so I recorded it with my phone through the bedroom window:
More than warblers have returned to the Hannibal area though.  We've had quite a few BLUE-GRAY GNATCATCHERS make it back, a few CHIMNEY SWIFTS were seen swirling above downtown, and we had an early WARBLING VIREO in the yard a few days ago.

Ash and I also visited Ted Shanks Conservation Area this past week.  There was the expected variety of birds on the water like this PIED-BILLED GREBE hiding, albeit poorly:
Common on quiet water this time of year, HOODED MERGANSERS have been around including this male that was in a side canal:
I've been impressed by the number of Aythya that are out there.  This genus of diving duck includes species like Redhead, Canvasback, scaup, etc.  Here's a male LESSER SCAUP:
I'm still waiting for the big push of shorebirds.  So far, besides the abundant things like KILLDEER and WILSON'S SNIPE, I've only seen PECTORAL SANDPIPER a few times and both LESSER and GREATER YELLOWLEGS.

Here's a WILSON'S SNIPE that stayed put as our car rolled up beside it:
This species used to be conspecific with Common Snipe until 15 years ago when it was given full species status.  It's named after Alexander Wilson (1766-1813), a well-known ornithologist who, although born in Scotland, emigrated to the US in 1794 and spent the rest of his life there.

That same visit to Ted Shanks yielded a variety of other migrants too (we ended with 60-70 species in a few hours).  We came across this resting flock of white geese:
The ones you see in the photo above, with their small and rounded heads, short and triangular bills, are ROSS'S GEESE.  It wasn't a homogeneous flock though... check out the white goose in the background here:
That, of course, is the larger (and typically more common) SNOW GOOSE.  Note the difference in overall size of the Snow Goose (bigger),  the shape and size of the bill (again, bigger), and the black "grin patch" on the bill (mostly lacking in Ross's Geese).

Later in the week, Ash and I took a quick spin around Mark Twain Lake to see what was happening.  This man-made reservoir, which is the largest lake in northern Missouri, sits about 20 minutes to the west-southwest of where we live.  Here's a screen cap from Google with a pin on the lake:
There weren't too many surprises really on this visit... things like BONAPARTE'S GULLS were present in good numbers, our first FORSTER'S TERN of the spring was perched on a buoy, and a HORNED GREBE was showing its breeding colors nicely.

The rarest bird of the morning was this white blob at a marina that we check:
That's a CATTLE EGRET and it represents the first all-time record of that species for Ralls County.  Here's the eBird map for Cattle Egrets so far this year... you can see that a few have made their way into the Midwest in the last month:
Not rare by any means, we still have lots of BALD EAGLES around including this youngster that flew by at the lake:
No, it doesn't have the white head yet.  Only eagles that are ~5 years old or older have that white head that most people associate with the species.

On the other side of the size spectrum, here's the not-so-big BROWN CREEPER that was seen nearby:
The wingspan of this creeper is about 1/12th of the eagle's.  So now you know!

10 April 2018

No rush on waterthrush

It's April.  In Missouri.  So you can see why I wasn't impressed with THIS sight the other day:
Thankfully, the snow melted off pretty quickly and I resumed wishing for warbs.  I ventured to Steyermark Woods here in Hannibal today to see if maybe any had arrived.

A LOUISIANA WATERTHRUSH was back and singing along the stream.  This isn't surprising at all, they were here on 20 March last year!  But then again, everything has been late here this spring.

On my way back to the car, I heard the "chimp chimp" of a WINTER WREN.  A little work and it popped up briefly:
All in all, still a pretty quiet time of year.  There were 6 species of woodpeckers but that's not too crazy.  I managed 27 species in 51 minutes.  You can find the checklist here.  Embedded in it is a recording of the above waterthrush, one of my favorite spring sounds.  Enjoy.


Although I've been back in Missouri for a couple of weeks now, the last tour I was on was to Oaxaca, Mexico.  I know some of you might not know how to pronounce Oaxaca... it sounds like "wuh HAW kuh".  Ok, moving on...

Anyway, I'd say the tour was rather successful (I might be a bit biased though).  This tour is a lot of fun because we get to stay in the same hotel for all of our nights.  No packing and repacking, just various daytrips.  Our triplist nearly hit the 200 mark (which is above average) and I think we ended with 25 Mexican endemics too which is a great haul.

Here are a few pictures, roughly in taxonomic order....

Our best luck with owls actually came during the day.  This NORTHERN PYGMY-OWL swooped in and landed right in front of us:
These are Glaucidium gnoma gnoma, the nominate subspecies, often referred to as "Mountain" Northern Pygmy-Owls.  This subspecies ranges from Arizona south through most of Mexico.

This swift photo is kinda painful, if I'm being honest:
Why?  Well, we had some crazy high swifts flying over at one point above Teotitlan but they were too high to make out much.  I snapped some photos and moved on, admitting that they're too high to do much with.  Now, in hindsight, and after reviewing the photos (and with the help of some folks who know swifts much better than I do), we think this bird belongs to the Cypseloides genus.  Maybe this is the little-known White-fronted Swift (Cypseloides storeri), a species that some aren't even convinced IS a species.  Perhaps they're instead a migratory subspecies of White-chinned Swift (Cypseloides cryptus) from farther south?  So yeah, this could have been one of those mythical White-fronted Swifts except that the not-uncommon Chestnut-collared Swift could also be around and that just complicates identification further.  -tosses hands up-

This tour managed to stir up nine species of hummingbirds, three of which are endemic to Mexico.  In fact, the most common hummingbird overall was the DUSKY HUMMINGBIRD.  Here's one on the hotel grounds:
Kinda bland, huh?  This is in the Cynanthus genus which it shares only with Broad-billed Hummingbird.  Here's a screen capture from eBird showing the entire range of Dusky Hummingbird:
The Oaxaca Valley, which is where the city is, sits at about 5000' in elevation.  Although it's dry and looks a bit "deserty", it's nearly the elevation of Denver.  However, one of the day-trips took us down in elevation to about 3600' and that lower elevation gave way to a different variety of birds including one of our stars, the RUSSET-CROWNED MOTMOT: 
This motmot would be endemic to western Mexico except that it's found a little bit in Guatemala as well.

Although this photo is one of the worst from the trip, I was unusually excited to see this blob near the ruins of Monte Alban:
It's a PILEATED FLYCATCHER, a species that's mostly confined to western Mexico (it used to be thought to be endemic).  It also happened to be a world lifer for me (not that that matters much).  It's in the Xenotriccus genus which it shares only with Belted Flycatcher (found farther south in Mexico and Guatemala).

The timing of this tour meant we were around a lot of singing birds.  One of the species we saw frequently was the VERMILION FLYCATCHER.  Here's a male doing his dramatic on-the-wing display where he puffs out his breast and flaps in slow-motion:
Pyrocephalus is the genus.  Pyro = fire... you get the idea....

Switching to some vireos... Mexico really is the land of the vireo.  We tallied nine different species of vireos and three of them are only found in Mexico.  First, we have the somewhat drab DWARF VIREO:
This little devil can be extremely hard to see.  So when this one popped up, out into the open, we tried to enjoy it best we could!  And yes, it does kinda look like a Ruby-crowned Kinglet!  Vireo nelsoni, it was named after the first president of the American Ornithologists' Union, Edward William Nelson (1855-1934), who spent more than a decade in Mexico.  Here are all the pins in eBird for this endemic vireo:
We had success with wrens as well, tallying eight species on this tour.  I especially enjoyed our time around the various Campylorhynchus species including Rufous-naped, Boucard's, and Gray-barred wrens; the latter two being endemic to Mexico.  Here's a GRAY-BARRED WREN probing some mosses:
Unlike most of the wrens in this genus, this arboreal species prefers treetops in moist forests at high elevations instead of dry, scrubby habitat.

On the morning that we drove down in elevation, to the southeast towards the coast and the city of Tehuantepec, we dropped into the range of the WHITE-LORED GNATCATCHER:
I know, you're probably wondering where the white lore is!  Well, the name isn't accurate for the breeding males... they're nicely capped in black.  However, the nonbreeding plumage has a bit of a white eyebrow.

Melanotis caerulescens, or BLUE MOCKINGBIRD, is a big, usually secretive mimic endemic to Mexico.  As you can see below, it's dark blue overall with a black ear patch (melanotis = black ear):
Although these mockingbirds can be notoriously tricky to see, we had decent luck, perhaps due to more of them being in song at that season.  There's only one other species in the Melanotis genus and that's the Blue-and-white Mockingbird that's found from southeastern Mexico to El Salvador (I still crave that one).

One of the crowd favorites from this tour was the GRAY SILKY-FLYCATCHER, seen here:
Silky-flycatchers aren't closely related to the New World (or Old World) flycatchers at all, actually.  They're in their own family, there are only four species in the world, and all are found between the southwestern US and Panama.  If you're familiar with birds from the US, you may have heard of one of them... the Phainopepla.  Named "silky-flycatcher" for their plumage, these species specialize in eating fruit as well as some flycatching.  Interestingly, three of the four silky-flycatchers have crests.

Our tour enjoyed a variety of warblers, 17 species to be exact.  Included was a mix of migrants that were heading north, and resident warblers that will breed in Mexico.  One of those breeders is the CRESCENT-CHESTED WARBLER:
Can you see the blurry crescent-shaped mark on the chest?  This species, which has a pitiful song (if I'm being honest), favors pine-oak forests in montane regions from Mexico south to Nicaragua.

Here's that pitiful song:

Another of the main targets on this trip is the Mexican endemic RED WARBLER:
This attractive warbler had never been seen outside of Mexico... until yesterday when one was found in Arizona.

Another of the endemics we spent time around was the very attractive BRIDLED SPARROW:
This stunner is in the Peucaea genus alongside a few species you'd recognize from the US such as Cassin's, Botteri's, and Rufous-winged sparrows.  Here's another screen-capture from eBird, this time showing all the pins for the range-restricted Bridled Sparrow:
I'll continue with the endemic theme for this guy, the WHITE-THROATED TOWHEE:
Even among all the Mexican endemics, this species is especially range-restricted; it's nearly restricted just to the state of Oaxaca!  Here are the pins:
Lucky for us, these were abundant and we enjoyed lots of looks on lots of days.  They were fairly common on the hotel grounds even.

Here's another species I was especially happy to find, it's a RED-HEADED TANAGER:
Although it doesn't really look like much, this is a Piranga tanager which I find interesting.  That is the genus of Scarlet, Summer, Western, Flame-colored, Hepatic tanagers, etc.... a genus a lot of us are very familiar with.  So, did you know that there was an endemic Piranga in the mountains of western Mexico?  Maybe you did.  Either way, I've always been a fan of these and it was just last fall that I also saw my first Rose-throated Tanager, another in that genus.

Finishing up the bird photos for this post, I'll end with one last Mexican endemic.  It's the drop-dead gorgeous ORANGE-BREASTED BUNTING:
This is in the genus Passerina alongside Indigo, Lazuli, Painted, Varied buntings, etc.  Even within such a colorful genus, this particular species is a stunner.  I feel like it could have been named Cyan-backed Bunting or Green-fronted Bunting but Orange-breasted will have to do.

Although our Field Guides tour does focus on birding, we also visit a number of interesting human-history sites and our driver, Jorge Hererra, is also an accomplished and certified guide!  We visited the ruins at Mitla, Yagul, and Monte Alban.  Some of the stone work at Mitla was pretty wild:

... but it's hard to beat the 2500 year old Monte Alban in terms of grandeur.  Here's one of the views we enjoyed:
These buildings have endured for 2500 years.  Let that sink in.  That's 500 BC.  Oceans away from the Middle East, and many centuries before Christ walked on this earth... Monte Alban was already a thriving economic and socio-political center for the Zapotec people.  They had their own beliefs, their own religions.  Interesting to ponder.