Sunday, December 28, 2014

Bulletin 211 - winter birds and herps

I have been birding several times since Thanksgiving and here are some of the local wintering birds.

The American Oystercatcher (Haematopus palliatus) is a large (17.5") brightly colored shorebird that is readily IDed by the bright orange bill.

American Oystercatcher - adult
The juvenile has a black tip on the bill. This is the first time I have photographed a juvie.

American Oystercatcher - juvenile
The Willet (Tringa semipalmata) is a large (15") sandpiper, who is just dull gray in winter. There are 2 subspecies, eastern and western that are likely to be split soon as separate species. The birds in the winter on the Texas coast are the western birds. They have a completely gray bill. The eastern birds breed here in the summer and they have some pink at the base of the bill. Here is a winter western subspecies.

Willet - western
Another shorebird that was my most exciting find so far this winter is the Mountain Plover (Charadrius montanus). This 9" plover breeds in the mountains of Colorado, Wyoming and Montana. It winters in Mexico and extreme southern USA. It occurs on the upper Texas coast perhaps once or twice per decade. I have only seen it once before in the mid 1990's in Galveston. Since I started doing photography 8 years ago, I have looked for it several times in south Texas and once in California without success. So to have one show up on Bolivar flats, the famous shorebird location, across from Galveston was fantastic. In the non-breeding plumage, he is IDed by the brown back, no breast bands, grayish legs, and white all around the eye.

Mountain Plover - non-breeding

In the sun, he appears even a warmer brown color.

Mountain Plover - non-breeding

Have you ever had a fish bone get stuck in your throat? You know how uncomfortable that is. Well I can't imagine what this Brown Pelican must be feeling with a whole fish stuck sideways in his throat. I saw this pelican with a pink swelling in his neck and couldn't believe my eyes when I looked at the photo.

Brown Pelican

These is a very tame Osprey (Pandion haliaetus) at Anahuac NWR who perches on the road signs around the Shoveler Pond loop drive. He allows one to approach closely in your car. The guide books do not show that he has a crest, but in certain positions, he has a really great bushy crest.

And in this photo, he appears very menacing, as his preening was interrupted.

The next group of pictures are for my herp-loving friends. I got some up close and personal photos of a Cottonmouth (Agkistrodon piscivorus). This pit viper is also known as a Water Moccasin. This is only the second I have found on the road to photograph. This guy was only about 24" long so I wasn't too afraid of him. They can get to 7 feet in length. I was surprised to see how thin his tail is compared the rest of his body.

When I approached him, he opened his mouth and showed the white lining. I had not seen that before. But I had my long lens, so when I backed up to get him in focus, he closed his mouth. However, I was able to get a couple with his mouth partially open to show the white 'cottonmouth' lining. One can also see the 'pit' in front of his eye, and the vertical slit pupil.

Cottonmouth - detail

The common turtle at Anahuac NWR is the Pond Slider (Trachemys scripta). The subspecies here is the Red-eared Slider. They can 5-11 inches in length.

Pond Slider
A short distance away I saw another turtle but he lacked the red ear. I asked a Texas reptile expert for the ID and it is a River Cooter (Pseudemys concinna). They can  range in size from 6 to 16 inches.

River Cooter
Happy birding and photography,

David McDonald

photos copyright 2006 - 2014 David McDonald

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Monday, December 22, 2014

Bulletin 210 - Dominican Republic #3 - Vireo, Thrushes and Crows

One of the major problems the birds are facing is loss of habitat. Deforestation is a problem everywhere, but in Haiti, it is an ecological disaster.

The contrast between the Dominican Republic and Haiti, which share the same island, is stark. They both have about the same population of 10,000,000, but the Dominican Republic has the highest GDP in the Caribbean or Central America at $93 billion or about $11,000 per person. Haiti is the poorest country in the Americas with a GDP of $12.4 billion and per capita of $1,600. In the Dominican Republic, propane or electricity are used for cooking. However, Haiti still uses wood and charcoal. Because of that, the forests have been decimated. In the 1920s, 60% of Haiti was forested. By 2002, it was less than 2%. The Dominican Republic has set aside large areas for national parks in the mountains and in fact, the forest cover has modestly increased on the last few decades to about 40%.

Almost all the birds I saw on the trip were in the mountains, so Haiti will no longer be available to them as a wintering ground or for the endemic birds. There is no border between the countries, so Haitians are now going into the forests in Dominican Republic and cutting the trees to make charcoal as a cooking fuel. Some areas along the border are being decimated on the Dominican side, even in the national parks. The Dominican government seems powerless to stop it. One of the areas we birded was right along the border and we could hear the people chopping the trees with machetes. They cut the hard wood to make charcoal and use some pines as fuel to dry out the hardwood, so in large areas, one would just see barren hills with a few scattered pines.

Immediately behind me in the picture was dense forest on the Dominican side of the border. Even this photo looks better than it actually is, as this was the rainy season and some grass has sprung up. In the dry season, it is just rock, where once trees and topsoil existed.

Deforestation in Haiti

The Flat-billed Vireo (Vireo nanus) is a Hispaniola endemic bird. It is similar to the White-eyed Vireo on North America, but paler. It has the white spectacles and 2 wing bars. The sexes are similar.

Flat-billed Vireo

Four species of thrushes were photographed, 1 endemic, 2 Caribbean endemics and 1 wintering from New England. The Hispaniola endemic is the endangered La Selle Thrush (Turdus swalesi). It is found in only 3 small mountainous forest areas on the island. The main problem is habitat loss due to deforestation on Haiti. It is very similar to the American Robin, but has a gray breast and white midline streak on the belly. The sexes are similar. In the mountains where we found it in a National Park, there is a big sign showing the bird and this is the place to observe it. I love the Spanish name 'Zorzal de la Selle'.  We had 2 fly into a fruiting tree directly overhead. The sexes are similar.

La Selle Thrush

And a moment later, another photo.

La Selle Thrush

The second thrush was the same genus. The Red-legged Thrush (Turdus plumbeus) is perhaps the Caribbean counterpart of the American Robin as it is found on lawns, gardens and open areas. It is a resident in the Bahamas, Cuba, Cayman Islands, Hispaniola and Puerto Rico. Then it skips several islands and appears in Dominica. Formerly it was also found on some islands off Honduras. I always find these distributions interesting as why it isn't found between Puerto Rico and Dominica. It skips Virgin Islands, Antigua, St. Kitts, Guadeloupe and Montserrat. Interestingly, the subspecies on Dominica has orange feet and bill rather than red. Maybe it will be split??
I saw the bird on Puerto Rico last year so it wasn't a lifer. It is gray with a red bill and legs.

Red-legged Thrush

The third was the Rufous-throated Solitaire (Myadestes genibarbis). This genus is found only in the New World and Hawaii. In general, myadestes thrushes are slender compared to the plumper turdus genus. This bird is found in Jamaica, Hispaniola, Dominica, Martinique, St. Lucia and St. Vincent, each with their own subspecies. It is grayish with red throat and undertail. The sexes are similar.

Rufous-throated Solitaire - adult
The last thrush was another exciting bird to find. It is the Bicknell's Thrush (Catharus bicknelli). This North American bird was a lifer for me. It breeds on mountains in the northeast above 3000 feet elevation. Its range is Vermont, New York, New Hampshire, Maine, southern Quebec, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. It is essentially identical to the Gray-cheeked Thrush and only was split in 1998. It is best separated by voice, and as usually the birds are silent in migration, most birders have to make the trip to New England in the spring to see this bird. However, 90-95% of the Bicknell's winter on Hispaniola and they do sing, so I was able to find and photo the bird. It is a small brown thrush with spotted breast and no eye-ring.

Bicknell's Thrush
Crows, jays and magpies make up the corvidae family. These were another interesting geographical distribution for me. There are 5 endemic species of crow in the Caribbean, but no jays. Why do some birds in a family, but not others occur? Both crows and jays are in Florida, and it is less than 100 miles to Cuba and the Bahamas, but the crows made it and the jays didn't or at least never survived and populated the islands. The 5 species of crow are just on the largest islands, 2 each on Cuba and Hispaniola and 1 on Jamaica.

The Hispaniolan Palm Crow (Corvus palmarum) is a smallish (17") all black crow closely related to the Fish Crow in Florida. We saw a flock of about 20. He is nothing special to look at, but he was a lifer.

Hispaniolan Palm Crow

The other is the White-necked Crow (Corvus leucognaphalus). He is larger (20") and found in large flocks,  despite being listed as threatened. The white feathers on the nape of the neck are only seen during display. However, unusal for a crow, he has a bright red eye.

White-necked Crow

Happy birding and photography,

David McDonald

Lisa Kelly-McDonald

photos copyright 2006 - 2014 David McDonald

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Saturday, December 6, 2014

Bulletin 209 - Dominican Republic #2 - warblers, and parrots

I am interested all all aspects of the areas and countries I visit, history, geography, geology, birds, mammals, plants, reptiles etc and I try to read up before I go, so I can get the most out of the visit. In the last bulletin I talked briefly about the geography and geology of Hispaniola.

I found the early history to be fascinating as well. Columbus found Hispaniola on his first voyage in December 1492. He landed, met the Taino Indian inhabitants and on leaving on Dec 25, his flagship, the Santa Maria, struck a reef and was ruined. They salvaged much of the timber from the ship and built the first European shelters on what is now the north coast of Haiti. As he couldn't get all the men on the remaining two ships, 39 Spaniards were left at that place, which he called La Navidad.

The Taino Indians called the island Haiti (Mountainous Land). Columbus called it Spanish Island (La Isla Espanola). Peter Martyr of Angleria was an Italian historian in the Spanish court who produced detailed chronicles (1511 - 1526) of the Spanish exploration from letters and interviews with the explorers. The works were written in Latin and he translated the name as Hispaniola. His works were soon translated into English and French, and the name 'Hispaniola' became the term for the island in English-speaking countries.

When Columbus returned the next year with 17 ships and 1500 people, he found the shelters burned down and all 39 had been killed by the Indians, or succumbed to disease. Several more settlements were established along the coast and Hispaniola was to be the Spanish base in the New World with Columbus as governor as in his contract with the king.

His brother, Bartholomew Columbus, founded Neuva Isabela (named for Queen Isabella of Spain) on the south coast on the east bank at the mouth of the Ozama River in 1496. The settlement was destroyed by a hurricane 2 years later and he moved across to the west bank and founded Santo Domingo on August 5, 1498. It is the oldest permanent European settlement in the New World. It became known as the 'Gateway to the Caribbean'. Ponce de Leon's colonization of Puerto Rico, Velaquez's colonization of Cuba, Cortes' conquest of Mexico and Balboa's expedition across Panama and the first sighting of the Pacific Ocean were all launched from Santo Domingo.

In a letter dated March 20, 1503, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella decreed the building of the first hospital in the new world in Santo Domingo to look after the 'Christian poor and Indians'. This hospital was called Saint Nicholas. As a physician, I found this history of the hospital fascinating and looking further on the Internet found an article of the whole history of this hospital. Later in this bulletin you will see why I mentioned the hospital.

A number of other New World firsts occurred in Santo Domingo. In 1505, due to raiding by pirates, the first military fort was begun (Fortelaza Ozama). In 1510 a palace was constructed by Diego Columbus, Christopher's eldest son who was appointed as the Governor of the Indies in 1509. The first cathedral was begun in 1523 and the first university in 1538.

Unfortunately as elsewhere subsequently in the New World, the native population was decimated by European diseases for which they had no natural resistance. It was estimated that in 1492, there were 400,000 Taino Indians on Hispaniola. By 1512, the native population had shrunk to 60,000 primarly due to smallpox and measles. By 1542, it was just a remnant of 5,000.

There was some gold found and the natives were enslaved to mine it for the Spanish. As the local population collapsed, the first African slaves were brought to the New World in 1502, launching the Atlantic slave trade.

Eventually, Santo Domingo was surpassed in importance by San Juan, Puerto Rico (founded 1509) and Havana, Cuba (founded 1514)

In 1586, Sir Francis Drake raided and burned Santo Domingo and an earthquake 5 years later left the city ruined. The gold had been exhausted and with Cortez conquering the Aztecs in  Mexico (1521) and all their silver, and Pisarro conquering the Incas in Peru (1535) with their gold, Hispaniola became just became of minor importance. By the late 1600's Hispaniola was unprofitable for Spain, and a treaty allowed the French to settle in the western region which they named Saint-Dominge (now Haiti).

I saw a number of wintering warblers in the Dominican Republic. Not surprisingly, they were the ones from eastern North America that migrate through Florida to the Caribbean Islands.

The first was the Northern Parula (Setophaga americana). The gray with green back, white eye arcs, wing bars and yellow breast are the ID marks.

Northern Parula
I saw the Black-and-white Warbler (Mniotilta varia) on several occasions. He has a large worm in his mouth

Black-and-white Warbler
The Palm Warbler (Setophaga palmarum) is a wintering resident in Hispaniola. As you know, he is IDed by the brown streaky coloration and reddish cap. He has yellow on his rump and undertail. He bobs his tail continuously.

Palm Warbler
The Mangrove Warbler (Setophaga petechia) is a split from Yellow Warbler. These birds are non-migratory residents of South Florida, Central America, Caribbean Islands and northern South America. This is the Hispaniloan endemic subspecies albicollis. The head is redder and the crown yellower than the Yellow Warblers of North America. Some of the birds even have completely reddish-brown heads in Central America. This of course is a male with the reddish streaking on the breast.

Mangrove Warbler - Hispaniola subspecies
The next 3 birds are very uncommon in Texas as they migrate almost exclusively through Florida to the Caribbean.

The male Black-throated Blue Warbler (Setophaga caerulescens) is beautiful and looks just the same, summer or winter. He has a blue back, white wing patch and black throat. I have seen the bird about 4-5 times in 25 years in Texas. I had to go to Michigan last summer to get a photo. I saw at least half a dozen on this trip.

Black-throated Blue Warbler - male

The female is drab olive and beige with a grayish face. The large white wing spot helps the ID. I think this was only my second time to see a female, and my first photo.

Black-throated Blue Warbler - female
The Cape May Warbler (Setophaga tigrina) is another eastern bird, but it is a little more commonly found in Texas. I have seen it about 10 times in 25 years. I have not seen it since starting photography in 2006 and again had to get a photo on the Michigan trip. The male is bright yellow with streaking on the breast and reddish cheek patches.

Cape May Warbler - male

The female is very drab, but the streaky breast helps the ID. I think this may be the first female I have ever seen, and we saw several on the trip.

Cape May Warbler - female
The Prairie Warbler (Setophaga discolor) is olive above, yellow below with black streaking along the flanks and 2 black lines across the face. The sexes are similar with female duller. I have seen this bird only 3 times in 25 years before the trip, but did photo him on 2 of the 3 occasions. On this trip I saw it almost every day.

Prairie Warbler
There is a resident endemic subspecies of the Pine Warbler (Setophaga pinus) on Hispaniola. It inhabits the pine forests in the mountains. These pines are also endemic, the Hispaniolan Pine.

Pine Warbler - Hispaniola subspecies
These next two birds are both Hispaniola endemics. They were initially thought to be warblers, but recent studies suggest that they may be more related to tanagers. Consequently, they have been removed from the Parulidae family and are in the uncertain class along with 2 warblers from Cuba and the Yellow-breasted Chat, until they can figure out where they belong.

The Green-tailed Warbler (Microligea palustris) is olive above, and gray below. The adult has a red eye, but the juvenile here has a dark eye.

Green-tailed Warbler - juvenile
The White-winged Warbler (Xenoligea montana) has an olive back, dark gray head and tail, light gray underparts and a white wing line.

White-winged Warbler
Other warblers seen were Ovenbird, Northern Waterthrush and American Redstart.

There are 3 parrots on Hispaniola, 2 of which are endemic and the other introduced. The Hispaniolan Parakeet (Psittacara chloroptera) is endangered. There is a population of the birds breeding in the ruins of the Saint Nicholas Hospital in colonial Santo Domingo. That is where I got these photos. The birds nest in holes in the between the bricks where the second floor timbers had been. I think that it is fitting that an old hospital is still working to save the lives of an endangered bird species. The red shoulders are the ID mark as well as the long parakeet tail.

Hispaniolan Parakeet
And here is a pair at the nest.

Hispaniolan Parakeet
I saw fly overs of the endemic Hispanolan Parrot, and one time a pair landed in a nearby tree. However, they are devilish to find in the leaves and despite 3 of us looking, we never located them to photograph, before they flew away 5 minutes later.

Happy birding and photography,

David McDonald

Lisa Kelly-McDonald

photos copyright 2006 - 2014 David McDonald

To have these trip reports sent to your email, please email me at the above address and ask to subscribe.