Archive for the 'Travel' Category

Aug 02 2015


Published by under Travel

Painted redstart (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Painted redstart (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Another warbler, but this one is real.

The painted redstart (Myioboris pictus) of the U.S. Southwest and Central America is a famous singer, unusual among warblers because both males and females sing and perform duets during courtship.

Black and red with white accents, he has a white spot below his eye that’s similar in shape and position to the eye-black that football players wear to reduce glare.  I wonder if it has the same function.

Though not closely related to the American redstart, he also has white edges on his tail and flairs them as his eastern namesake does.  But he’s not a redstart, he’s a “whitestart” with many Central and South American relatives in the Myioborus genus.

Redstart?  Whitestart?  What shall we call him?

He’s always “Painted.”


(photo from Wikimedia Commons. Click on the image to see the original)

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Aug 01 2015

A Warbler That’s Not A Warbler … Or Is He?

Published by under Travel

Olive warbler (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Olive warbler (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

The olive warbler (Peucedramus taeniatus) was so hard to classify that he was removed from New World Warblers (Dendroica, now called Setophaga) in 1875 to a genus of his own.  This made him the only member of a genus found only in North and Central America.

The genus Peucedramus ranges from Arizona and New Mexico to Nicaragua, precisely where the olive warbler lives.

This level of uniqueness is troubling to biologists.  Every animal is descended from others so who were this bird’s ancestors?  Doesn’t he belong in some other group?

DNA testing confirmed that he’s not really a warbler but his characteristics are still hard enough to place that arguments continue.  He might be a finch or a sparrow or even an Old World Warbler (as are kinglets and gnatcatchers).

But he looks like a warbler and if you want to see him in the U.S. you have to visit where he lives.

Don’t look for him at Cornell Lab’s All About Birds website.  He’s not there!


(photo from Wikimedia Commons. Click on the image to see the original)

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Jul 31 2015

Slightly In Arizona

Published by under Travel

Arizona Woodpecker (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Arizona Woodpecker (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Though he’s called the Arizona woodpecker this brown-and-white bird is slightly misnamed.  Most of his range is in Mexico.

He’s one of nine Picoides woodpeckers found in North America, each with its own special habitat.  Some of them are familiar and wide ranging.  Others have such specific needs that you must travel to see them.

Here’s how they’ve divided up the continent.  At least one of them lives near you.

  • Downy woodpecker: found in most of North America in open woodlands and along streams.
  • Hairy: found in most of North America in mature woodlands.
  • Ladder-backed: in desert and desert scrub among cactus in the Southwest.
  • Nuttall’s: in California’s oak woodlands.
  • Red-cockaded: found in mature longleaf pine forests in the southeastern U.S.;  endangered.
  • Black-backed: in Canada and northern U.S. in boreal and coniferous forests with burned trees.
  • White-headed: in pine forests in Pacific Northwest and California mountains.
  • American Three-toed: in the Rockies and Canada in boreal and coniferous forests disturbed by disease or fire.
  • Arizona: in pine-oak forests in the mountains of Mexico and southeastern Arizona.

Like his familiar Downy and Hairy relatives in Pennsylvania, this woodpecker visits suet feeders.  That’s where I saw him for the first time at Madera Canyon.

In Arizona.


(photo from Wikimedia Commons. Click on the image to see the original)

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Jul 30 2015


Published by under Songbirds,Travel

Magnificent hummingbird (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Magnificent hummingbird (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

If you want to see a really magnificent hummingbird in the U.S. the only place to find one is in the mountains of southeastern Arizona.

Magnificent isn’t just an adjective, it’s part of his name:  The Magnificent Hummingbird (Eugenes fulgens).

Arizona is the northern edge of his range which extends south to Panama.  According to Wikipedia you can find him “at the edges and clearings of oak forests from about 2000 m altitude [6,500 feet] up to the timberline.”  He’s listed as common at the Southwest Wings Festival.

Common, but not a common size.  He’s the second largest hummingbird north of Mexico and can be twice as big as a ruby-throated hummingbird.

And he’s uncommonly dark.  Though he has a tiny white patch behind his eye, both males and females look black until the light shines on their iridescent feathers.

When you see one of these hummingbirds, you hope for a splash of sunshine.

The photo above is one of those magnificent moments when a black bird flashes color and takes your breath away.


(photo from Wikimedia Commons. Click on the image to see the original)

p.s. I saw this Life Bird yesterday at Santa Rita Lodge in Madera Canyon.  His throat flashed bright green, much greener than this photo.  🙂

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Jul 29 2015

How Big Is An Elegant Trogon?

Published by under Songbirds,Travel

Male Elegant Trogon (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Male Elegant Trogon (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Today I’m at the Southwest Wings Festival hoping to see the holy grail of Arizona birding: an elegant trogon (Trogon elegans).

In my imagination these birds are huge — the size of crows — but they’re really only as big as American robins.  Their bulky necks, long tails and upright posture make them look big in photographs. The male’s red breast and deep voice add to the illusion.

Elegant trogons range from southeastern Arizona through Mexico to Costa Rica where they live in deciduous forests and nest in natural cavities in sycamores or unused woodpecker holes.  They leave Arizona for the winter(*) but are still present in July … which is why I’m here.

If I’m lucky enough to see this Life Bird I’ll let you know if he “shrank” to his normal size.  😉


(photo from Wikimedia Commons. Click on the photo to see the original)

(*) I heard yesterday that because of warmer winters at least one pair of elegant trogons now stays in the area year-round.

p.s.  On July 31 in Huachuca Canyon I saw four elegant trogons.  Wow!

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Jul 28 2015

Are You Nuts?

Published by under Travel

High temperatures in Arizona, 26 July 2015 (image from NOAA National Weather Service)

High temperatures in Arizona, 26 July 2015 (image from NOAA National Weather Service)

When I tell people I’m going to Arizona in July I’m sure they wonder, “Are you nuts?”

Today I’m on my way to the Southwest Wings Festival, July 29 to August 1 in Sierra Vista, Arizona.  It’s one of the top 10 birding festivals in the U.S. and happens to be in one of the cooler places in the state.

“Cooler” in two ways:  cool birds and cooler temperatures than Phoenix.

The festival is held in the mountains of southeastern Arizona where it never gets as hot as Phoenix.  The arrow shows where it is.

The birds at this location are definitely cool.  The area is the northernmost range of many Central American mountain species and the only place in the U.S. where you can find them including 15 species of hummingbirds, the elegant trogon, the Arizona woodpecker, yellow-eyed juncoes and much, much more.

Many of the best birds are migratory so the festival is held in late July during southeastern Arizona’s “second spring” — the monsoon season.  I’m looking forward to a lot of new Life Birds and getting reacquainted with birds I saw the last time I was in Arizona in 1997.

Am I crazy?  Well, I’m the only one in the house who’s crazy enough to go to Minnesota in the winter and Arizona in the summer.  My non-birder husband is wisely staying home. 😉


(image from the National Weather Service)

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Feb 03 2015

In The Corvid Niche

Pearly-eyed thrasher (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
As I mentioned yesterday, there are no corvids in the Virgin Islands.  In fact there are no crows, jays or ravens in Puerto Rico and the Lesser Antilles but there is a bird who fills their niche.

The pearly-eyed thrasher is the size and shape of a normal thrasher but he’s not a skulker like the brown and Crissal thrashers of North America.  Instead he acts like a blue jay: bold, brash, adaptable and inquisitive.  Conspicuous in flight, he lands with a thud and hop-turns on his perch.  He calls in public and his youngsters beg loudly.

Like corvids, the pearly-eyed thrasher is omnivorous and opportunistic.  He eats fruit, insects and vertebrates including eggs, nestlings, lizards, land crabs and tree frogs.  He’s even earned a reputation for “stealing” because he’s willing to wait and swoop in when humans turn their backs at meal times.  The thrasher below was photographed at a restaurant in the British Virgin Islands “just waiting for the waitress to leave the area so he could enjoy the remains of breakfast left on the tables.”

Pearly-eyed thrasher (from Wikimedia Commons)

And like any corvid, he’s willing to peck an animal he thinks he can kill.

Last Friday during the Francis Bay bird walk our National Park Service guide, Laurel, looked around a corner and suddenly called, “Thrashie! Thrashie! He’s pecking a baby iguana!”  She rushed to the iguana’s rescue and the thrasher flew up to watch his prey.

Laurel showed us the green iguana which was about the same size as the thrasher.

Baby iguana just rescued from a pearly-eyed thrasher attack (photo by Kate St. John)

Here the iguana is a blur as it tries to get out of her hand.

Baby iguana, moving in hand (photo by Kate St. John)

Laurel hid the iguana among green leaves and we moved on to watch the black-necked stilts, leaving the pearly-eyed thrasher behind.

Who knows what happened next.


(Pearly-eyed thraser photos from Wikimedia Commons. Click on the images to see the originals.
Iguana photos by Kate St. John

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Feb 02 2015

A Very Different Place

Published by under Travel

Dawn at Concordia, St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands (photo by Kate St. John)

Dawn at Concordia, St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands (photo by Kate St. John)

When I visited St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands with Keystone Trails Association last week, I expected it to be different from Pittsburgh but I was surprised at how different it is from North America’s Atlantic coast.

The Virgin Islands are mountainous like Acadia National Park or the Canadian Maritimes, but they’re steeper and their peaks are sharp because they were never scraped by glaciers.

The view from Drunk Bay, a rocky beach atSt. John, USVI (photo by Kate St. John)

The view from Drunk Bay, a rocky beach at St. John, USVI (photo by Kate St. John)

Here’s how steep it was: I climbed 135 steps from our Concordia Eco-Resort cabin to the upper parking area where this photo was taken. By Day Two the drivers in our group always fetched the cars and picked us up at the flat end of the boardwalk below.  Whew!

Steps at Concordia Eco Resort above Drunk Bay, St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands (photo by Kate St. John)

Steps at Concordia Eco Resort above Drunk Bay, St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands (photo by Kate St. John)

The climate is both dry and humid with a daily high of 81 degrees F in late January.  The tops of the mountains are moist and forested.  The lower elevations resemble southern California with cacti and succulent plants.  Here’s a view at Salt Pond where the water is saltier than the ocean.

Salt Pond Trail, St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands (photo by Kate St. John)

At Salt Pond Trail, St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands (photo by Kate St. John)

81 degrees F sounds comfortable but the dewpoint is always 70+ degrees so it felt hot as soon as the sun came up.  Because I don’t like heat, my favorite time of day was dawn and my favorite things were:

  • The wind.  Unlike North America’s prevailing west wind, the Virgin Islands have a strong east wind — the Trade Winds that brought Europeans to the West Indies.
  • The sound of the breakers at Drunk Bay.  Our cabin was perched high above boulder-strewn Drunk Bay where the sound of the breakers lulled me to sleep.
  • The views.  The islands are spectacularly beautiful with steep green mountain peaks and turquoise water.  My photos don’t do it justice.

And there are beautiful white sand beaches.  Trunk Bay, below, is rated one of the top 10 beaches in the world.

Turquoise water at Trunk Bay beach, St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands (photo by Kate St. John)

Turquoise water at Trunk Bay beach, St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands (photo by Kate St. John)

Most amazing of all were these differences in bird life. At St. John I found …

  • No flying flocks.  I was amazed not to see any flocks in flight.
  • No gulls at all.  According to a local birder, the laughing gulls return in April but that’s about it.
  • Few fishing birds.  Magnificent frigatebirds were most numerous (I saw five at once, soaring up from their roost), followed by royal terns (three) and brown pelicans (two).
  • Few shorebirds. Except for resident black-necked stilts at Francis Bay there were only single shorebirds at most locations.
  • No corvids.  No ravens, no crows, no jays.
  • No vultures.  They sorely needed vultures but this niche seemed to be filled by rats, feral cats and mongooses all of whom were imported to the island.
  • Few birds of prey.  I saw one red-tailed hawk and a few American kestrels.

Eventually this all made sense.  The lack of fishing birds matched the lack of fishing boats.  I suppose there are few catchable fish at St. John. Perhaps the coral reefs protect them.

If you like heat and sun and warm Caribbean water you will love St. John, USVI.  It’s a very different place from Pennsylvania.


(photos by Kate St. John)

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Feb 01 2015

A Saltwater Pintail

Published by under Travel,Water and Shore

White-cheeked pintail at St. Thomas, USVI (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Unlike their northern cousins, white-cheeked pintails (Anas bahamensis) prefer to feed in salty or brackish water.

They live in the West Indies, South America and the Galapagos and they don’t migrate. The pintails I’ve seen at St. John are year-round residents.

Why leave when you live in a saltwater paradise?


(photo from Wikimedia Commons. Click on the image to see the original.)

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Jan 31 2015

Not A Mourning Dove

Published by under Songbirds,Travel

Zenaida Dove (photo by Dick Daniels via Wikimedia Commons)

Zenaida doves (Zenaida aurita) are near matches for mourning doves except they’re slightly smaller and darker, have shorter more rounded tails, and white trailing edges on their wings.  They live on Caribbean islands, including Cuba.  They are very rare in Florida (*).

These field marks would make for a subtle and complicated identification except that mourning doves (Zenaida macroura) don’t live at St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands — at least not in the southeast corner where I’m staying.

Interestingly, they sound just like morning doves so you could be fooled by their song.


(photo by Dick Daniels on Wikimedia Commons.  Click on the image to see the original)

(*) See Vincent Lucas’ comment below on Zenaida doves in Florida.

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