Thursday, February 19, 2009

Mexico - pine-oak forest

Climbing up out of the cloud forest, the colder drier high elevations become dominated by conifers and more “temperate” tree species. You are now in the high-elevation pine-oak forests. The high elevation forests have something in common with temperate forests and in fact, some of the same birds make their home in both. For example, up above 2500m or so in Mexico you start seeing Hairy Woodpeckers, House Wrens and Red Crossbills – resident species that i can also see in my “backyard” here in Canada.

I thought I’d start this entry with an owl in the pine-oak forest, just because it is a fun birding story. Stygian Owls did not seem to be calling much when we were there. I had only heard two and both give a single hoot just before dawn then shut up. As many will testify, I am owl obsessed and was determined to see this species well. On our last day in range, I hiked up alone at 4am and heard a single hoot at 6am coming from across the large canyon (Barranca Rancho Liebre). Muttering "one last shot" under my breath, I hiked across to the area where i thought the hoot had come from. I then reached into my bag of tricks from my screech-owl research and went into roost-search mode – scouring the area as systematically as i could and probably missing good birds around me. Shortly after 8am i spotted a lump high in a pine tree that turned out to be the “devil” himself (I believe he was male based on that one call)! Yep, the Stygian is aptly named with that dark plumage, long "horns", and unusually deep orange eyes.

As the sun got brighter, a flock of Tufted Jays came in behind me and i got photos of them mobbing the Stygian Owl (though we had words about just who was supposed to be finding the owls for whom!). So here is one of those tufties! A truly beautiful jay in the rather diverse Cyanocorax genus (to which Green Jay and Brown Jay also belong) and yet another west Mexican endemic. Tufted Jays have a tiny global range in a strip about 300km long from Sinaloa to northern Nayarit with a narrow altitudinal range of just 1500 – 2100m. For that reason alone, it amazes me that they are not listed by Birdlife International as near-threatened but, despite being so range-restricted, they are locally very common.

The Eared Poorwill is a very seldom seen wet Mexican endemic and finding one on this trip was a major bonus... we had not heard any at all despite our efforts and then, on that fateful night, our owling adventures didn't start off very well... we got a wheel stuck on the side of the road and as I got out to investigate ended up falling about 20 feet off the side of the cliff and getting scratched on barbed wire (it could have been much worse though)... some ever-friendly, ever-helpful Mexicans went and got a cable and pulled us out with about 6 people piled in the back of their van to balance the weight... anyway, not to be deterred by a little blood sacrifice we owled on but it was totally dead - not so much as a peep. We decided to drive out, Kyle driving with me spotlighting as you have to go very slow on Mexican dirt roads anyway. We had nearly reached the pavement when i detected a speck of red eyeshine about 100 metres away on a hillside... it took a while to manoevre closer and for everyone to get good enough views to confirm the ID, but amazingly it was an EARED POORWILL and it sat remarkably still for us! Maybe an offering to the gods is necessary to see this species because in just about the only other trip report I found online where people saw this species, they got hopelessly lost on the same road we were on and ended up seeing the poorwill in a state of panic!

If you’ve been to Arizona, the Whiskered Screech-Owl will be more familiar. We had a few sightings including a pair just before dawn right over our makeshift campsite.

By virtue of their tiny size and cryptic plumage, pygmy-owls can be tough to spot. You may not notice the Mountain Pygmy-Owl in this photo at first. The Mountain pygmy-Owl is considered the same species as Northern Pygmy-Owl by the AOU (American Ornithologists Union) but there is mounting vocal and genetic evidence that these taxa should be split. The Mountain Pygmy-Owl also occurs in extreme southern Arizona and may be partially sympatric with Northern Pygmy-Owl in that area.

Next, another one of those “magical moment” birding stories... at midday i had settled in for a culturally-appropriate siesta at a lookout over the canyon only to be woken 30 minutes later by the distant calls of Thick-billed Parrots from across the abyss (of space, not consciousness, I hope). In a dazed state, I tried cueing up my tape to make sure I was correct, and indeed the recording sounded exactly like the rhythm in my mind. Strangely enough though, something responded to the tape that was clearly much deeper and gruffer than Thick-billed Parrot. Stumbling across a few boulders to a break in the trees where I could see over the canyon, I arrived just in time to see a STUNNING pair of Military Macaws flying up towards me from the canyon below! If that wasn't enough to wake the dead, they flew past me at eye level and circled back once and then looped back again (i.e. 3 eye-level passes) before disappearing into the mist that had been slowly climbing the valley walls below them. Their magnificent green then faded to white with the echoes of their quaking voices reverberating in my bones. If you've never seen a macaw fly around your head before, all i can say is it is a little bit like being engulfed by a rainbow! I still wonder if they were real flesh and blood or figments of the mist! Now of course, I was a little bit dazed by all this and I didn't react in time to adjust the setting of my camera to compensate for the movement and mist so these shots are nothing in comparison to the experience... but enjoy!

After the yellow-bellied trogons in the previous post, here is a red-bellied one – the beautiful Mountain Trogon. Check out that dramatic tail pattern!

The two woodcreepers with the northernmost distribution are the Ivory-billed Woodcreeper (that’s Ivory-billed Woodcreeper, not Ivory-billed Woodpecker) and the White-striped Woodcreeper shown here. This little guy is demonstrating how woodcreepers can do more than climb straight up trunks. They have no qualms about feeding upside down.

The beautiful Tufted Flycatcher (or Northern Tufted Flycatcher if you prefer) is a delightful little bird. The one was darting out to catch bugs on the wing and then returning to the same perch. This species’ range extends to within <200km>

The beautiful long needles of the pines create a whispy air to the forests up here. They also rustle gently to add to the surreal effect. You might get a sense of this in this composite photos of a Hermit Warbler on the left and Grace’s Warbler on the right. You may also have noticed these long needles in the previous photos of White-striped Woodcreeper and Stygian Owl (and burnt ones in the photo of Mountain Pygmy Owl).

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  1. Facsinating adventures.I enjoyed experiencing them via your blog.Glad you were not too badly hurt during the fall.


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