Be Bold, Start Cold

The beam of my headlamp jolts as I fall, abruptly illuminating dark tree trunks before merely reflecting off crystalline white snow. With an effort, I pull my leg from the hip-deep posthole I just created. Cautiously, I take another step forward. This is a common occurrence on this crisp New Year’s morning, as adventure-buddy-in-chief Austin Riley and I climb the trail in Rocky Mountain National Park in the pre-dawn blackness.

Before I can even fully see without the benefit of my headlamp, I hear it, the two-part call note of my first bird of 2018, a Pine Grosbeak! Soon we approach treeline and prepare to leave the more or less defined trail, pausing on the side of a frozen lake to equip our boots with crampons and free ice axes from our packs. The wind here is absolutely brutal, with windchill temperatures around -16ºF, and my glove-free hands go completely numb within seconds as I fumble with straps. Through the howling wind, my second bird of the new year gives its rattling call from somewhere in the spruce-fir forest below us, an American Three-toed Woodpecker.

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Austin, geared up for the climb ahead

With the snow now much steeper and not a soul having broken the trail before us, the going gets a fair amount tougher and slower. Tucked into some low shrubs above treeline, though, Austin chances to flush the third bird, a rather mystical creature perhaps akin to a unicorn. With pure white plumage and striking black eyes and beaks, a small family group of White-tailed Ptarmigan break from their snow burrows and quickly shuffle a few feet away from us before bedding back down to watch us walk past.

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Not bad for an iPhone picture?

As we near our turnaround point well into the alpine tundra below the steep cliffs on the backside of Longs Peak, my first mammal of the year and a fourth bird (Brown-capped Rosy-Finch) make their presence known. Unlike most mammals that live in such cold ecosystems, the American pika does not hibernate. Instead, it survives the winter off of vast reserves of vegetative material that it spends its entire summer gathering. In cold, wind, and snow that makes me extremely uncomfortable even with all of my down and Gore-tex, this tiny, cute Lagomorph lives quite comfortably, as one neeps at us from a snow-covered boulder field.

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The sun rises on 2018

The final treat of the day romps into view soon after we reenter the subalpine fir. An American marten cautiously investigates us, curious as to why two humans are also out playing in the snow on such a blusteringly cold morning. It quickly loses interest in us and returns to hunting pika and squirrels, but not before I capture the following video. And for those of you curious, the remaining bird species I saw on this hike were Mountain Chickadee and Ruby-crowned Kinglet, and the final mammal was a Pine Squirrel.

My best wishes to you all for a fabulous 2018! Thank you for reading, and I look forward to taking you with me on many more adventures in the coming months!

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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

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