Green butterflies: better than green beer

My birding and butterfly-ing time has been limited recently, so I made it priority to get out into the foothills during yesterday’s pleasant weather before spring’s last (?) wind and snow hit the area. Joe and I met up to find some Sandia Hairstreaks in Embudito Canyon.

Sandia Hairstreak in Embudito Canyon. By Joe Schelling.

I coaxed one on to my hand. By Joe Schelling.

We found about half a dozen Sandia Hairstreaks, but our luck on this trip filled in the rest of the Irish flag with the white and orange of a “Sara” Orangetip!

“Sara” Orangetip, likely a Southwestern Orangetip. My little camera came through for me with this bug!

Why the quotes? The taxonomy of the western orangetips is confusing. All populations were once considered one variable species, but close attention to regional variation shows distinct groups. The ranges of each group aren’t well delineated.

Fantastic looking butterfly!

Other butterflies included a skipper of some kind, a Mourning Cloak, and a couple dozen Painted Ladies. This species is undergoing a big flight in the southwest, with up to 10s of thousands seen in Mexico. Fewer are here in New Mexico, but their numbers are on the rise.

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Red-backed Dark-eyed Juncos at the Sandia Crest

This post is not about my sightings, and may a bit dry for those not fascinated with Dark-eyed Junco population distributions and taxonomy. Be forewarned!

(I also promised more science on the blog…and a discussion of Cackling Geese. That will have to wait until I finish some more pressing science matters: my Master’s thesis! One month away…)

The common Dark-eyed Junco population that breeds in New Mexico is the Gray-headed Dark-eyed Junco, Junco hyemalis caniceps. These birds are uniformly gray above and below with dark lores, pink bill, and a reddish back.

Gray-headed Junco in Sierra County, NM. Taken by Jerry Oldenettel and used under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

New Mexico also has the Red-backed Dark-eyed Junco, Junco hyemalis dorsalis, which looks nearly identical to the Gray-headed Junco. It differs in having the throat and breast slightly lighter gray than the upperparts and a bicolored bill. The maxilla is dark and the mandible is dull pink. The Red-backed breeds along the Mogollon Rim in Arizona and New Mexico, but its distribution is not well known due to confusion with Gray-headed Juncos.

Red-backed Junco in Arizona. Taken by Celeste Ramsay and used under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

One Red-backed Junco have been spotted recently at the Sandia Crest House to the north and east of their usual range. The banders even captured it last weekend, allowing close inspection of plumage and size characters. Those photos don’t show the underparts or the mandible very well, but the maxilla is quite dark. I have seen Gray-headed Juncos with a dark culmen (the top ridge of the bill) and otherwise bright pink bills. Is this normal variaiton or evidence of introgression between the two populations?

Like many variable species such as Dark-eyed Juncos, the situation is even more confusing. The plumage, vocalizations, and genetics of Red-backed Juncos are closer to Yellow-eyed Juncos, Junco phaeonotus. Red-backed Juncos seem to form a bridge between Dark-eyed and Yellow-eyed Juncos. In which species do they really belong?

The more common Gray-headed Juncos at the Crest House are often misidentified as Red-backed Juncos by visitors (including myself at first!). I know the banders have caught very few Red-backed Juncos; they do occur, but very infrequently.

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Alameda Bridge Mew Gull

Trying to point out a bird to just one other person can be hard enough. Add a few dozen people and the difficulty increases. When that bird is a distant gull standing in a sea of other nearly identical gulls and you are the only one who has seen it…well, it can be almost impossible.

That’s the situation I found myself in last week on a Thursday birder trip to the Alameda Bridge and Open Space in northern Albuquerque. Hundreds of Ring-billed Gulls loaf on sandbars in the Rio Grande north and south of the bridge and at times the large flock contains individuals of rarer species. This winter, single birds of four unusual species have been found: immature Thayer’s Gull, adult Mew Gull, adult Franklin’s Gull, and adult California Gull. The first two wandered here from the Pacific coast; the last two are expected in migration, but unusual in winter. Even more unusual is that the Franklin’s Gull is in full breeding plumage.

The four rare gull species found this winter at the Alameda Bridge. Clockwise from top right: immature Thayer’s Gull, adult Mew Gull, adult California Gull, and adult Franklin’s Gull. THGU in NM by Jerry Odenettel, MEGU in WA by Tom Talbot, CAGU in NV by J. N. Stuart, and FRGU in UT by Bryant Olsen. All photos used under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 except FRGU under CC BY-NC 2.0.

When the gull flock rests south of the bridge, birders can search for the rare species from a fairly close distance only a short stroll from the parking lot. But if the flock is north of the bridge, a scope is essential for even decent views from the bridge itself or the east side of the river. Birders willing to put in more effort can walk over the bridge and then north through the bosque on the Corrales side of the river, although there are no official trails to follow along the river banks.

The gull flock last Thursday. The Mew Gull is eight gulls in from the right!

Close to 40 birders joined the trip last week–a huge number for one of these outings. The group ended up spread out along the riverbank trail trying to get direct views of the flock of gulls. I hadn’t brought my scope along due to some missing screws in the tripod legs, but I eventually scanned the flock through another birder’s scope. One gull caught my eye: it seemed to lack a black ring on the bill, but it wouldn’t stop preening. Some other birders took a peek and saw which bird I was looking at. Now the task of trying to describe where it was to everyone else. Wait, no, the bigger metal jetty jack beam. On the near edge of the flock, oh wait, it walked away from us behind two other gulls. Because of the angle between us and the edge of the flock, there was enough parallax between one end of the group and the other that describing the position of the Mew Gull only worked for each scope.

I think most birders in the group who wanted to get a look at the gull were able to. Gulls aren’t for everyone, and when the views aren’t that great and the bird doesn’t look much different from the gulls on either side of it, many birders can lose interest, understandably. Later in the trip, I offered to lead any who wanted a better look at the gull along the west side of the river. Eight of us walked north through the now very open bosque (most plants except for willows and cottonwoods have been bulldozed away). About half of the gulls had flown south, so there was no guarantee we’d get that better look. Luck was with us, and we found it! Even though we were closer, we sill had trouble picking it out as it walked and swam among the Ring-billed Gulls. From the new angle, depending on the lighting, the darker mantle color was clear.

This may not be the worst Mew Gull photo ever, but it’s close.

Success! My side trip paid off. The Mew Gull was a life bird for many in the group.

One birder on the trip was visiting from Massachusetts and was eager to see Cackling Geese. I ran into him later at the Rio Grande Nature Center where we had a short conversation about what exactly a Cackling Goose was and what all those tiny geese on the pond were. This topic will make a great next blog post, and one that I hope will shift the focus of my blog from merely local bird sightings to a more scientific look at the birds we see around us.

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Just another Rosy-Finch post

It’s a New Mexico birding tradition: head up to the Sandia Crest House sometime during the winter to see the Rosy-Finches.

Black Rosy-Finch. Usually my favorite, I grew to appreciate the subtle beauty of Brown-cappeds. Some of the males were particularly pink this year.

The weather this winter has been unseasonably warm; possibly as a result, the rosy-finch flock is smaller than in past years. I don’t know much about the migration patterns of the finches, but colder and snowier weather to our north seems to push more birds south. Brown-capped Rosy-Finches are the most abundant this year and Gray-crowned are almost absent. I didn’t see any of the latter this past weekend. Any birder hoping to see all three for the first time would have to look very hard this winter.

The usual cohort of birds milled about the Crest House feeders: Steller’s Jays, Red-breasted Nuthatches, Mountain Chickadees, and Gray-headed Dark-eyed Juncos.

Here are some photos, taken on my new smartphone!

Clouds covered the Crest overnight and left a beautiful coating of ice over everything. 

A cake for one of the bander’s birthdays. The decorators did a good job: no cake wreck here!

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California Condor nest camera

Watching Bald Eagles hatch and fledge from a nest is sooo 2011. This year, watch a condor chick hatch at the San Diego Zoo.

At the moment, the condor parents are duped into caring for a fake egg in case they fail. Sometime in March, the zoo staff will let them finish the job with the real one and then rear the chick.

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Rarities converge!

Over my holiday travels, I kept up on the bird news from New Mexico. On December 20th, two to four Rusty Blackbirds were found in the bosque southwest of the Albuquerque Zoo. Over the next two weeks, up to two Winter Wrens and a Pacific Wren were found nearby in a great example of the Patagonia Picnic Table Effect.

Just before New Year’s, one or two Thayer’s Gulls appeared in the winter Ring-billed Gull flock at the Alameda bridge. Would all these birds stick around until I got back?

I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to get out birding at all this week because Melissa and I adopted a 7 month old cat two days ago. I didn’t want to make him feel abandoned or get into trouble when he was alone, but it seemed like he’d be ok the next morning. He got very comfortable with us and his new home very quickly.

Meet Donut, who is already dreaming of catching birds. He can only dream, literally.

Joe and I met at the Alameda Bridge to look for the gull. The Ring-billed Gull flock was in their usual spot on the sandbars about 350 meters north of the bridge. Too far away to see any details well, but there was a larger gull standing in the flock. This was a good sign! It seemed fairly light for a 1st cycle bird (juvenile to 1st winter plumage) and the primaries weren’t a dark black.

Wanting a better look, we walked north a bit along the west side of the river to get a closer look at the flock. (We actually stood in Sandoval County but looked into Bernalillo. This is the kind of arbitrary boundary issue that keeps hard-core county listers up at night.) On our way, we noticed a sign warning against entry.

Garlon 4 Ultra, a pesticide for the control of woody plants and herbs. It can cause birth defects, kidney and liver damage, and blood disorders. This is a commonly used pesticide.

Was the danger worth a better view of a life bird especially if it’s just a gull? We didn’t go down the trail where this sign was, but we found more efforts at de-vegetating the bosque.

Corrales seems to be trying to remove the non-native Russian olives and salt cedars that have taken over river banks throughout the Southwest. They plan to replace the vegetation with willows for a more natural habitat. There is a downside (besides the destruction of all vegetation by bulldozer and pesticide): the Russian olives, at least, provide great cover and food for wintering birds. Species like thrushes (a Varied Thrush spent time in the thickets in Corrales last year) surely did ok before the invasive plants. Do they rely on the olives for winter cover and food now? What are the costs now, and how can we make sure the populations recover if they are harmed by the removal? Some birders don’t see the bigger picture. In Port Aransas, Texas, invasive peppertrees have run rampant, but come to provide a crucial resource for trans-Gulf migrants reaching land. The birds spread peppertree seeds to the detriment of habitats all around the Gulf. They should be eliminated, right? Ted Lee Eubanks at the ABA blog mentions some birders’ complaints that the trees should remain because they attract birds. There’s more to the natural world than birds, but the long-term effects of any influence by humans is a tough question.

Enough digression. We avoided the bulldozer and the pesticide (we hope) and were able to get within 30 meters of the gulls. The closer look confirmed our suspicions. It was probably a Thayer’s Gull (a life bird and #308 for New Mexico, 230 for Bernalillo County). Why do I say probably? Thayer’s and Iceland Gulls hybridize regularly and share many of the same genes. They are hard to tell apart and a light Thayer’s and a dark Iceland could be nearly identical. Thayer’s is more likely, but going on likelihood, however reasonable, can open up a can of worms. Thayer’s Gull may not be a “good” species, but the end of a continuum of genes (a cline) from western Canada to Europe where “good” Iceland Gulls breed. Most of the world apart from the AOU has already lumped the species together.

The 1st cycle Thayer’s Gull towers above it’s Ring-billed companions. My photo fails to capture the key field marks: primary and tertial feather patterns and head and bill shape. Oops.

Joe offered to show me where the blackbirds and wrens were seen south of the Tingley bosque ponds. We parked at the secret entrance and walked towards the river. At the first patch of unfrozen water on the river floodplain, we looked up and there was the pair of Rusty Blackbirds! (another new bird for the state and county.) We almost walked right under them.

Joe and one of the blackbirds. Follow his camera lens to the black blob to the left of a clump of leaves.

The pair acted very tame and fed in the mud no more than 2 meters from us. We never saw them eat anything, but they spent a lot of effort flipping over wet leaves in the mud.

The Rusty Blackbirds. See some better photos by Joe at his photo site.

Finding the wrens was a bit harder. Things were quiet at the usual floodplain pond where they’d often been seen, other than a very bemused Cooper’s Hawk sitting in the water (taken by Joe). A few wren-like chips, unlike a Winter Wren, came from the edge of the pond, then went silent. A short walk back north prompted more agitated chipping, and then there it was! A Pacific Wren sitting high on a dead stump, scolding us for walking by. Oddly, it gave only single chips rather than the usual double. That wren brought me to 310 for the state and 232 for the county!

Pacific Wren. At least it turned out better than my last attempt at a picture of a stub-tailed wren. Better photo by Joe.

We never did find the Winter Wren. It amazes me that a some out-of-range blackbirds and wrens all found their way to a spot in the Albuquerque bosque no more unique than any other part. I have a feeling that this area will get a lot more coverage by local birders over the next few months.

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A few winter birds back east

I traveled back east for Christmas and New Year’s, first to Virginia, then a little time in Pennsylvania, and finally to Connecticut before heading back to New Mexico. There wasn’t a lot of time or opportunity for birding but I managed a little bit.

The morning after I got back to Virginia, I looked out at my parent’s bird feeder and noticed a strange, crested, red bird. Honestly, for a few seconds I didn’t recognize it. It looked like some amazing tropical bird.

The gull flock at Weathersfield Cove. All ages of Ring-billed were present, but only 1st cycle and adult Herrings and adult Greater Black-backed.

A couple of Iceland Gulls were being seen around Hartford, CT while I was there. I convinced Melissa that we should go look for them despite the cold and the frustrating nature of gull identification. But Iceland Gulls usually stand out so this should be easy. We checked three spots where they had been reported on eBird, but failed to find anything other than the usual Ring-billed, Herring, and Greater Black-backed Gulls. At one of the sites, we resorted to buying a bagel at Dunkin Donuts to entice some of the gulls farther out in the water to come in. Only a few were interested.

Many Ring-billed Gulls with an adult Herring and Greater Black-backed.

We had a more exciting outing to a section of the Hockanum Linear Trail in East Hartford. An immature Red-headed Woodpecker had been seen there since at least November. Connecticut is far north for this species in general, especially in winter. This bird seemed like a sure thing: go down the trail, follow the boardwalk to where it turns sharply to the right, and look around. Melissa and I got to the turn, she looked up, and asked “Is that it?” It sure was. They can’t get any easier than that. A Winter Wren and some hunters of questionable legality were also in the area.

Next time I’m in Connecticut in the winter, I’ll have to get down to the sound to look for Razorbills and go look for whatever rare geese show up (a Pink-footed Goose showed up soon before we left and a Barnacle Goose was found just after we left).

Abandoned desk chairs at Batterson Park Pond. Watch gulls and find rarities with perfect ergonomic support.

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