Sonoran Venturing – Photos

Just a handful of photos from my recent trip to Sonora, México! All photos © Marcel Such.

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Birding the basin above Arroyo Santa Barbara for the ReMM Christmas Bird Count

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Photography in low-light can be a challenge, but Colima Pygmy-Owl is well worth it
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Five-striped Sparrow in its shrub of choice
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The trail to Sierra de Álamos was fully socked in, rainy, and windy on the day of the Álamos Christmas Bird Count.
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A little break in the weather
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Crane Hawk can be a challenging bird in this area of the world!

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Finally managed a decent photo of a Greater Roadrunner…even if it was so close I could not quite fit the entire bird into one frame!
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Another species that almost never makes it north to the states, the Social Flycatcher!
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Birding stinks…when you visit the Álamos dump in search of first state record Common Grackle (lowest left bird), along with the abundant Bronzed Cowbird
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Sinaloan Crows were also quite numerous at the dump!
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A candid photo of Raymond Van Buskirk, aka the most fashionable birder in the world
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Winter Visitors

A couple of random chips suddenly emanate from a nearby fig tree. Could this be the flock we are looking for? My friends and I have been slowly walking this dry arroyo for only a few hundred meters, in search of a specific flock of birds that had been seen the other day by another group of friends. A drab Orange-crowned and a female Black-throated Gray Warbler are the first two birds I see. A Rufous-capped Warbler pauses briefly in the open before diving back into the tangled understory. We hear a bird seemingly mumble to itself, a dark shadow flits out briefly, a Blue Mockingbird exposes itself between two dark tangles in the underbrush…we are definitely not in the north.

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Rufous-capped Warbler – ©Marcel Such

A couple of Nashville Warblers make an appearance, then a handful of Warbling and Cassin’s Vireos, all feeding in the dry tropical deciduous woodland that lines the edge of the arroyo. Many of the trees look gray and leafless, and many columnar cacti grow intermittently between them, a habitat that does not appear north into the United States of America. This contrasts strikingly with the floral growth within the arroyo itself, with tall, fully-leafed figs sinking their tangled roots deep into the rocky bed of the wash in search of water.

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Fig Roots – ©Marcel Such

Soon enough, twenty-some birds have slowly worked their way past us, chattering amongst themselves as they glean insects from the winter foliage. “There’s the Black-cap!” one of us exclaims, quickly pointing out the bird. This federally endangered bird breeds exclusively in the Hill Country of Texas and Oklahoma, wintering here in western Mexico. Having never visited the Hill Country during the summer, this is my first time observing this unique species. This experience is made significantly sweeter knowing that most American birders will never see it here in its wintering habitat, which is also under attack by development, as are its summer breeding areas.

Finally, the prize bird shows itself…looking quite similar to a normal Warbling Vireo except bright gold and yellow all over, a Golden Vireo. An endemic to the Pacific slope of Mexico, during the winter it is almost exclusively found much further south, so we are extremely fortunate that this particular individual opted to spend the winter in this winter flock in Arroyo Aduana. Despite keeping itself buried deep and low within the brush, I somehow manage to get my focus to cooperate just long enough to snap off a couple of poor quality shots of a high quality bird.

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Golden Vireo – ©Marcel Such

Like us, these birds are winter visitors, living in this land for only a period of time before returning for other lands and habitats. This is just a glimpse into the time I recently spent traveling and birding in Sonora, México. There are far too many other wonderful moments and experiences to capture with words, so look here for a small photo gallery to be posted early tomorrow!

 

Sonoran Adventure – Part 1

Aventuras en Sonora, Primera Parte

Generally, when I think of a Christmas Bird Count (CBC), I think of a cold, snowy day spent scouring obscure suburban neighborhoods in search of backyard feeders and the host of finches, sparrows, and the like that are to be found with them. This year’s round of CBCs is different.

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The vista above Arroyo Santa Barbara

We have only been on the trail for a couple of hours since I rolled out of my hammock into the chilly predawn air of the Reserva Monte Mojino in southern Sonora, México. My companions, Raymond van Buskirk, Amanda Powell, and local guide Felix Garcia, and I scramble down the loose single track into a steep-walled riparian canyon downstream from the remote village of Santa Barbara where we stayed the night before. Already, the heat is quite oppressive to me, but the incredible song of the Brown-backed Solitaire echoes throughout the canyon, leading us onward. (I encourage you to listen to some recordings of their song, found here!)

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Amanda, Raymond, and Felix sorting through and counting flocks of wintering sparrows and warblers

The avian life of the area is quite astounding, with diversity ranging from birds familiar and common in the US, like Ruby-crowned Kinglet and Yellow-rumped Warbler, to such exotics as the Lilac-crowned Parrot and Spotted Wren, both species endemic to Mexico. We strain our ears, hoping for the screeches of the rare Military Macaw, the cliffs here being the northernmost extent of their range. After several false alarms elicited by the frequent ringing of cowbell-toting free-range cattle in the arroyo, we were rewarded by the faint but distinctive crawww of two distant macaws.

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Spotted Wren, one of several Mexican endemics we saw today

Staring through the patchily lit understory, we pick out the calls and later sight such elusive birds as Blue Mockingbirds, Crescent-chested and Rufous-capped Warblers, Rufous-crowned Ground-Sparrow, Elegant Trogons, and many others. Before we know it, the sun is rapidly disappearing behind the ridge of the arroyo, and we are forced to return to camp, meeting up and comparing notes with the other half of our group, who had spent their day climbing on the ridge high above the canyon.

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Black-throated Gray Warbler, a common breeder in the Piñon-Juniper woodland of Colorado

We eat our dinner of tacos around a small campfire, passing an old soda bottle of a fiery hand-crafted tequila, known locally as lechugía, that was gifted to us by a sociable and friendly neighbor. Despite the intense itching of black fly bites, I retire to my hammock and drift to sleep with the distant whinnying calls of Whiskered Screech-Owls and woops of a Mottled Owl in my ears, full of anticipation for the birds tomorrow will bring.

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Milky Way above our camp in Santa Barbara

eBird Checklist from Arroyo Santa Barbara

Island Hopping

The day’s first rays of sunlight creep over the dark horizon, finding me crossing through the ocean. I have been awake for a couple of hours already, the alarm on my wrist watch jarring me awake after what seems to be only moments after falling asleep. Waking up in the total darkness of early morning can be a challenge, as it is nearly impossible to tell the time without the assistance of a time keeping device. For me, this results in panicked wake-ups before my alarm, scrambling to find my cell phone to ensure that I have not overslept.

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This is my daily routine, as I complete the field work for the project I began setting up last fall. By the end of the morning, I will have put in several hours of hiking, listening, and watching, often returning home before my roommates have woken up or eaten breakfast. With these early starts and my seeming inability to take daytime naps (I either cannot fall sleep, or wake up several hours later–completely disoriented and hopelessly groggy), I have taken to the habit of turning into bed before the sun has set on the day, a challenge equally as daunting as napping.

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Though the sunrise is far from marking the beginning of my day, the first golden illumination of the landscape is the moment of the day that I look forward to the most. I soon approach my destination, a dark, dense island of trees amidst the sea of sage. Cold fingers gripping an even colder GPS unit, I quietly make my way to a small orange flag that I had placed weeks ago when I first visited this stand of Douglas-fir. Leaning against a tree, I feel the warmth of the sun finally penetrate the cool, still air as I begin a ten minute avian census, recording all the birds I see and hear from this spot. Having completed two other points before sunrise, I know I have several more to complete before my morning is over. There are birds to be seen, and there is nowhere on Earth I would rather be at this moment in time.

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