Deserts and Sky Islands

The yellow-eyed junco, a bird of Sierra Madrean forests, enters the US only in southeast Arizona and southwest New Mexico.  I photographed this one just as it took off at Santa Rita Lodge.

“I saw one day a little pigmy [hummingbird]…I thought, as I watched it, that there was no need for poets to invent elves and gnomes, whilst Nature furnishes us with such marvellous little sprites ready to hand.” – Henry Walter Bates, The Naturalist on the River Amazon (1873)

There exists a tiny, singular region within the United States where, in the span of one or two hours, one can drive through vastly different life zones from the entire continent–from Lower Sonoran to Canadian, even to Hudsonian–and see an amazing assortment of species.  That region is southeastern Arizona, a land of deserts and sky islands.  We were fortunate to be able to explore this area for a few days a couple months ago.

In southeast Arizona, one can see greater roadrunners, Chihuahuan ravens, phainopepla, and verdin amongst saguaro cacti, ocotillo, palo verde, and other desert plants, and soon after observe an assortment of birds nearly impossible to see elsewhere north of the border:  bridled titmice, painted redstarts, elegant trogons, yellow-eyed juncos, Arizona woodpeckers, Mexican jays, and many other species amongst sycamore, cypress, Mexican alder, spruce, pine, fir, and juniper trees of Sierra Madrean montane forest.

Between the Rocky Mountains to the north and Mexico’s Sierra Madre to the south, forty-two mountain ranges effectively form an archipelago of sky islands within the vast Sonoran and Chihuahuan deserts.  To become a sky island, a mountain must possess sufficient mass and height and must be isolated–in this case, by harsh desert. There are sky islands elsewhere in North America, but the location of this particular archipelago supports a unique overlap of flora and fauna from temperate North America, Mexico, and Central America that is unmatched elsewhere on the continent.1

I took this photo during a hike along the Carrie Nation trail in the Santa Rita Mountains.  The Sonoran desert is not far from here!

Even the elusive, near-mythical northern goshawk is found on these sky islands, though with numbers greatly diminished by hunters and farmers who shot them in the past, as well as by loss of habitat related to human development.1

We didn’t see any goshawks, trogons, or quetzals–the US range of the latter two is only in southeast Arizona–but we did see many other interesting species during our time there.

Initially based in Tucson, we took a short road trip in the Santa Catalina Mountains toward their highest peak, Mt. Lemmon.  The base of this range north of Tucson is mountainous desert dotted with saguaro cacti and palo verde desertscrub.  We stopped at multiple lookouts and hiking trails along the way, including Babad Do’ag Vista, above which we no longer saw saguaros.  (According to the excellent Finding Birds in Southeast Arizona, which was conceived of and cowritten by a physician, “Babad Do’ag” means “Frog Mountain” in the Tohono O’odham language.)

A photo from our hike along the Lower Bug Spring Trail in the Santa Catalina Mountains. Note the absence of saguaros.

We passed through multiple life zones, sometimes with dramatic changes of scenery.  Saguaros gave way to chaparral, which suddenly gave way to a landscape of mixed deciduous and coniferous forest dotted with hoodoos. One hoodoo resembled mo’ai figures, while another resembled a sphinx.

At Bear Canyon, among a stand of tall pine trees, we spotted our first set of life birds.  A clamor of bird calls in the background approached, soon revealing a mixed flock of clownish acorn woodpeckers, ruby-crowned kinglets, white-breasted nuthatches, a beautiful spotted towhee, and Sierra Madrean Mexican jays, which took over the trees and picnic tables around us.  After they left, with the late afternoon sun almost behind the mountains, my eyes happened upon a yellow-eyed junco quietly foraging on the ground in front of me, mere feet away. This montane species–found at 4000 feet and above–isn’t observed in the wild anywhere else in the US outside the sky islands of the desert southwest.

I realized a year or two ago that I bird because birding is the most accessible way to be a naturalist; it allows the most universal connection to nature.  One doesn’t even need binoculars.  By birding, one can observe, explore, and appreciate nature in practically all seasons and places, including otherwise ordinary or undesirable places that are infused with wonder and significance when certain species are present.  Birds are larger than insects, are easier to see with human eyes, add joy to our lives with their songs and their freedom, and are even found in places devoid of plant life.

One of the better photos I took of this yellow-eyed junco at Santa Rita Lodge.

Back at the hotel, in deepening twilight, we observed tiny, slow-flying bats foraging for insects low overhead. I’m pretty sure they were the smallest bat species in the country, the Western pipistrelle, with bodies the size of walnuts.  At night, the mountains and desert were tinted blue by the near-full moon, which appeared to float upon a sea of stars.

A seemingly fearless roadrunner I photographed during our hike in Sabino Canyon.

After spending more time exploring the area in and around Tucson, including Sabino Canyon and Saguaro National Park, we headed south to the Santa Rita Mountains and the most spectacular birding experience I’ve had in the US outside of spring migration at High Island.

An incredible view during our Sabino Canyon hike.

Upon arriving at Santa Rita Lodge in Madera Canyon, the first thing that impressed me was the great number and variety of birds at the feeders there, a diversity I have never before experienced.  I first noticed the Gould’s wild turkeys (M.g. mexicana), huge and with white-tipped tails, out in the open. An older couple–who also said that the lodge is probably the best place to bird in Arizona–told me that the wild turkeys used to be skittish/retiring many years ago.  After years of feeding, they are now accustomed to human presence.

Gould’s wild turkey atop a platform feeder at Santa Rita Lodge.  This is the largest subspecies of wild turkey.

There were Rivoli’s, rufous, and Anna’s hummingbirds; chipping, Lincoln’s, rufous-winged (only found in the Sonoran desert), and white-crowned sparrows; raucous Mexican jays, white-breasted nuthatches, acorn woodpeckers, and a charming little house wren that hopped around my feet, into the underbrush, and back out again multiple times.  There were dark-eyed and yellow-eyed juncos.  The following day, we saw pine siskins and lesser goldfinches all over the feeders, bridled titmice, red-naped sapsuckers, Arizona woodpeckers, a greater pewee (rare for November), and more!

After many tries, I finally snapped a decent photo of this male Rivoli’s hummingbird, a species with a tiny US range: a small part of southeast Arizona and southwest New Mexico.

Acorn woodpeckers have idiosyncratic, dramatic flight patterns: they often fly straight up like a whale spyhopping a peek out of the ocean, then dive sharply along a parabolic arc to a tree trunk or branch.

We went on a short hike along the lovely trail behind the lodge, almost immediately spotting a male hepatic tanager, a male Townsend’s warbler (resident year-round), and a  painted redstart.

I used Lightroom to try to improve this backlit photo I took of one of the painted redstarts we saw in Madera Canyon.

Madera Canyon is the quietest place at night I’ve ever visited.  The total darkness–one is surrounded by mountains–is well-matched by the total silence.  (We did hear some scuffling near our cabin the second night.)

The following day, we spent hours hiking the trails, hoping to see an elegant trogon, knowing that most had migrated south for the season.  We didn’t see the trogon or the red-faced warbler, both gorgeous Madrean species that overwinter in Mexico and Central America, but we greatly enjoyed our hikes through what looked like a magical forest.

I took this photo along the Super Trail in the Santa Ritas.  It’s difficult to tell that one is surrounded by desert!

We saw Arizona sycamores, Mexican blue oak, alligator juniper, and Arizona white oak, among many other plant species, as we hiked along Madera Creek. As we ascended the Super Trail, we encountered a mountain spiny lizard sunning itself atop a rock. Later, during a descent along the Carrie Nation trail, we encountered an Aphonopelma madera tarantula crossing to the other side, each leg moving with the delicate elegance of a human finger playing a piano sonata.  This tarantula just received a species name in 2016!

I photographed this male Aphonopelma madera tarantula along the Carrie Nation trail, in Madera Canyon.

A couple staying at an inn down the road from us photographed a ringtail drinking hummingbird feeder fluid at night.  There are black bears, mountain lions, coatis, even jaguars (extremely rare) in the area, none of which we encountered, although a black bear was seen at our lodge the night before we arrived.  We did see white-tailed deer, Arizona gray squirrels, and fox squirrels.  The mammalian fauna of Madera Canyon was once much richer and included grizzly bear, jaguarundi, ocelot, and wolf, but these have been extirpated by encroaching human civilization.1

Bridled titmouse, yet another Madrean species with a very limited US range. This one was only a few feet away from my camera.

Birding in southeast Arizona feels like neotropical birding “lite,” in a sense: colorful species abound, there are multiple hummingbird species, and one can even see trogons. (If one is very lucky, one may even see an eared quetzal.)  For me, it feels a world apart from birding in the eastern half of the US because western flyway species and eastern flyway species don’t mix much. It feels like birding on another planet, at times, to one accustomed to birding the upper Texas coast.

The trail behind Santa Rita Lodge is filled with wonders for those who know what to look for.

Our final morning in Madera Canyon, we went for a short hike along the beautiful trail behind our casita.  Much to our surprise, we encountered a male Montezuma quail sitting, statuelike, atop a small boulder.  Initially unsure if it was real, we stopped walking and observed it.  I took photos.  It then slowly turned around and skulked away into the tall grass.  It reminded me of a bizarre Studio Ghibli character.  Reading about these birds later, it surprised me to learn that they can leap several feet straight up if startled.  I wasn’t surprised, however, to learn that the mechanism by which they locate the roots they dig up to eat is unknown, because so much of natural history is still unknown, even in well-explored places around the world.

Our hike that morning was also special in a different way.  I proposed that morning.  She said yes!

I photographed this Montezuma quail along the trail behind Santa Rita Lodge, shortly before my now-fiancée and I became engaged.

Further reading:
1. Moore, Douglas W. The Nature of Madera Canyon.  Green Valley: Friends of Madera Canyon, 1999. Print.
2. Finding Birds in Southeast Arizona (revised 8th ed.).  Tucson: Tucson Audubon Society, 2015. Print.


Lafitte’s Cove: a Tiny Hotspot of Biodiversity

I’ll probably never see a warbling vireo (left) and a first winter chestnut-sided warbler next to each other again!

Does Lafitte’s Cove, in Galveston Island, TX, host the highest number of bird species per acre per year of any birding hotspot in the US?  After birding there for the first time last weekend, I think the Cove not only holds that record, but that it’s also the best place in the nation, by a huge margin, in which to see migrating songbirds in the fall.  At a mere twenty acres of wilderness–marsh, tree-studded prairie, and woods–engulfed within a high-end residential neighborhood, it stunned my imagination to learn that 313 species have been recorded there on eBird.  313 is an impressive number of species for any location north of Mexico.  (Update: a Townsend’s warbler was photographed there in mid-September, increasing the total to 314.)

I don’t have hard evidence, but, based on my own experiences in the past month, speaking to other local birders, and checking eBird to see what species others are listing along the upper Texas coast these days, it seems the difference in yield–especially for songbirds like warblers, vireos, and tanagers, and for rare vagrants–between Lafitte’s and any other hotspot along the upper Texas coast is vast during fall migration.  Unlike spring migration, birds are more spread out when they migrate south in the fall.  However, many stop to rest, refuel, and quench their thirst at coastal green spaces like Lafitte’s before resuming their long journeys to Mexico or Central/South America.  Since Lafitte’s is so compact yet welcoming–with water drips, multiple habitats, and adequate cover–one’s odds of seeing migrant species there are disproportionately large relative to other places.

The day before I visited Lafitte’s, I spent four hours hiking the trails of a local noncoastal wilderness that’s 125 times bigger and still saw seven fewer species than I saw at Lafitte’s in an hour. More importantly, I saw three new life species that hour at Lafitte’s but only one new species the day before!

Bird populations have decreased significantly since my childhood and yours.  It’s nice to know that, despite the relative rarity of many species of birds now–many of which are locally extinct where they were once common–one can still visit a place like Lafitte’s and appreciate a diversity of life that’s increasingly difficult to find.

Texas Brown Tarantula in Transparent Watercolor

Texas Brown Tarantula by Farokh Jamalyaria

We saw this tarantula at Lost Maples last year.  (Did you know that the females can live longer than 30 years?)  I took blurry reference photos of the creature during our hike there, figured out a composition that I drew freehand onto 140-lb cold press Fluid Watercolor Paper with a pencil, then painted it entirely in Winsor & Newton transparent watercolor (no mixed media this time).  It took me about seven months off and on, spending anywhere from a few minutes to an hour 1-2 days a week most weeks until the “endgame,” during which I spent 1-2 hours a day for a few days (three hours today) to finish it.  Can you imagine spending so much time wetting, drying, and rewetting a single piece of paper?!  There’s no way I could have painted it all in a day or even a week, but I could have finished it much earlier if I’d worked eight hours daily as many professional painters do when they’re working on a project.

I’ve realized that with classical guitar, it’s not possible to have a large repertoire if I practice for only thirty minutes a day.  As I gain skill and learn more pieces, I also need to practice longer if I want to maintain a decent repertoire (which I do not have at this time, since I don’t practice enough).  Similarly, it’s not possible to create precise, detailed paintings quickly if one spends only a small amount of time painting each day.  (I work full-time; guitar and watercolor are hobbies.)

During the course of a significant watercolor project, one invents one’s own techniques–important techniques not described in any book one has read–such as how to graduate a wet-in-wet over two or more existing washes.  (This reminds me of computer programming projects in college:  it was often necessary to create one’s own code “libraries.”) Any significantly detailed painting, especially in watercolor, is difficult because one must plan ahead, remain intensely focused whenever touching brush to paper, figure out the color scheme that will be used, patiently layer paint atop paint, figure out how to fix minor mistakes (major watercolor mistakes cannot be corrected),  keep thinking about how to express one’s ideas using a fickle medium, and keep improvising and persisting despite doubts that inevitably arise.  Painting is truly “manual” labor.

Pilgrimage to Santa Ana: Protest Border Wall Plans, Protect South Texas Wildlife

Fellow protesters standing on Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge’s levee, where the border wall will be erected, likely ending public access to the refuge.

At the confluence of multiple different environments–“subtropical climate, Gulf Coast, Great Plains and Chihuahuan Desert“–and at the nexus of “two major migratory routes for many species of birds” (the Central and Mississippi flyways), Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge is home to “half of all butterfly species in North America,” ~400 bird species, even more species of plants, and is home to the Texas ocelot and Gulf Coast jaguarundi, which are no longer found in the US outside South Texas.  This relatively small refuge (only 2,088 acres) is thus considered the “crown jewel” of the national wildlife refuge system.  It’s part of what makes America great.  Birders and other naturalists drawn to Santa Ana and the rest of the Rio Grande Valley support the local economy with at least $300 million every year, as estimated by this 2011 study based on off-peak visitation.

As federal land, it’s also one of the starting points this November for Trump’s ill-advised expansion of the US-Mexico border wall, which will be built on the levee between the parking lot/visitor center and the refuge itself, cutting the refuge off and threatening to destroy it.

The first place I ever wanted to visit, when I got into birding a decade ago, was Santa Ana.  I read that South Texas is the best place to bird (and to see butterflies) in the US and Canada, especially during spring and fall migrations.  Then the 2009 swine flu outbreak dissuaded me from making the trip.  I graduated from medical school, moved to California for residency, and didn’t bird in Texas again for years.

Last weekend, I finally visited for the first time.  We drove from Houston to Alamo, one of the most southerly Texas towns, to experience Santa Ana for ourselves, and, along with ~681 like-minded pilgrims from near and far, marched against the planned border wall and for Santa Ana’s continued protection and preservation.

Abstract superlatives about Santa Ana that anyone can read online are relatively meaningless until one actually visits the place.  This is an account of our brief experience.

As hot as it is right now where we live, it’s even hotter in three of the four cardinal directions away from Houston.  This is definitely not the best time to visit the refuge.  Nevertheless, within a few minutes, I encountered multiple “life species”–species I’d never seen before.*  What’s more, I wouldn’t be able to see several of them anywhere else in the US or Canada.

Groove-billed ani
Close-up of one of the many groove-billed anis we saw at Santa Ana NWR. We saw the smaller smooth-billed and the iridescent blue-black greater ani in Ecuador earlier this year but hadn’t encountered the saurian groove-billed ani until last weekend.*

Unlike most other natural places I’ve visited, Santa Ana is tucked away, with little signage, in an area dominated by development:  a paved jungle of gaudy chain stores and congested gas stations yields to old neighborhoods and finally to plowed land, with little trace of the original habitat.  Visiting the refuge is like taking a time machine to a lost natural world destroyed by development over many decades.

We visited an hour before dusk on Saturday with two friends who drove separately.  (Our friends had arrived earlier, were on a different trail.  We discovered the following morning that they became engaged during that hike!)  The refuge was bereft of employees or other visitors–it was all ours to explore.  >100-degree Fahrenheit daytime temperatures had dipped into the high 90s by this time.  It was noticeably more pleasant along the tree-shaded trails.

Santa Ana NWR
The Chachalaca Trail beckons.

I began picking up life birds immediately.  The first was a plain chachalaca near the levee past the visitor center, just inside the refuge.  I saw gray-headed chachalacas near Arenal Volcano in Costa Rica in 2013 and speckled chachalacas in the Ecuadorian Amazon earlier this year, but, ironically, the plain chachalaca of my own state was a life bird for me last weekend.

At a branching point for trails, we took the Chachalaca Trail, a lucky choice since it was closed off Sunday during the protest hike.  The air was infused lightly with the scent of sage–blue sage?  It reminded me of my hikes in Southern California.  Mesquite trees and scrub seemed dabbed onto the landscape with a natural watercolor sponge dipped into a dull, light green paint.  We walked among live oaks with cascades of hoary Spanish moss billowing in the wind.  Sabal mexicana palms peeked out here and there.  I heard great kiskadees calling nearby.  (We heard their intermittent calls both days in Santa Ana.)


While admiring the Spanish moss, my eye meandered over a statue-like Harris’s hawk staring at me.

Harris's hawk at Santa Ana NWR
This Harris’s hawk let us take many great photos.

Flocks of white-winged doves dominated the trees and sky throughout the entire hike.  On our way back to the parking lot, several raucous green jays greeted us.  (I last–and first, in the wild–saw one of these beauties along a trail near Hacienda Chichen, in the Yucatán, in 2015.)  Groups of three or four groove-billed anis–another life bird–clucked melodiously (like a pleasant ringtone) as they hopped from branch to branch at eye level near the trail.*  Back at the trailhead, a golden-fronted woodpecker flew onto a nearby tree, staying only long-enough for us to identify it before flying off along the Pintail Lakes Trail–we saw several others of this species Sunday.

Green jay
Green jay

Our experience the following morning was very different.  Unlike Saturday’s spiritual experience of the refuge in the absence of other people, the refuge was crawling with them Sunday.  Friendly refuge employees guided us to parking spots as we arrived.  The parking lot filled up well before the scheduled protest.

A white-eyed vireo sang and a white-tipped dove flew overhead as we walked past a naturalist–one of many naturalists, birders, and conservationists there that day–being filmed as he expounded on the importance of the refuge and about the birds he’d already seen that morning.

We met up with our friends, hiked to a large grassy depression that’s a lake in other seasons (there are multiple such seasonal lakes there, with three species of kingfishers and other water-associated birds).  They pointed out olive sparrows to us along the way.  Great egrets and barn swallows occasionally flew overhead.  At one point, I saw at least seven northern rough-winged swallows sitting on a power line.  (We saw southern rough-winged swallows in the cloud forests of Ecuador in June.)  Along this same power line, I later saw a rare olive-sided flycatcher and then a Couch’s kingbird.  Four of these species were life birds for me.

Turkey vultures soared overhead, mourning doves sang unseen, and mockingbirds flew by as we walked to the hawk tower in preparation for the march.  On the way, I saw an Altamira oriole nest–the longest nest of any North American bird, by the largest North American oriole, another South Texas specialty.  It reminded me of the many oropendola nests I saw hanging from trees in Costa Rica and the Amazon.

Nest of an Altamira oriole.
Protesters on their way to the hawk tower.


Nearly an hour later, many more people had accumulated at the hawk tower.  We started our march toward the levee.  Along the way, a naturalist tried to help a large butterfly on the ground grasp his finger and flip right side up while another person watched.  A few large and innumerable small butterflies flew about the refuge–so many, in fact, that we later almost stepped on a couple of them while hiking one of the trails.

Border wall protesters on the levee where the border wall will be built.

As we stood on the levee in peaceful protest of a wall that could devastate this uniquely beautiful refuge, one of our friends spotted an Altamira oriole looking at us from the forest below.  I quickly snapped a photo of this life bird before it flew off.*  Large flocks of red-winged blackbirds rose and fell in the fields opposite the refuge while golden-fronted woodpeckers threaded between the Washingtonia robusta palms.  Beyond them, a stampede of deer escaped an unclear threat.

Altamira oriole
The Altamira oriole, one of several species found in the US only in the Rio Grande Valley.

I appreciate the Santa Ana employees and the organizers of this protest.  I am disappointed by the callousness, ignorance, and narrow-mindedness of our national leaders for threatening to destroy this vulnerable wildlife sanctuary.  I feel that I need to return to Santa Ana many more times, in different seasons, to explore the depths of its complexity; I’ve barely scratched the surface with last weekend’s visit.  However, future visits may not be possible if the border wall goes up at Santa Ana this fall.

If you feel as we do, please contact your senators.

*While reviewing my Yucatán journal, I saw that I had not only observed green jay, but also groove-billed ani and Altamira oriole, near Hacienda Chichen in 2015.  Later, I reviewed my Costa Rica journal and saw that I had observed groove-billed ani on the grounds of Green Lagoon Lodge, near Arenal Volcano.

On the Granularity of Wonder, Memories, and Development as a Naturalist

In the presence of nature, a wild delight runs through the man, in spite of real sorrows…Not the sun or the summer alone, but every hour and season yields its tribute of delight; for every hour and change corresponds to and authorizes a different state of the mind, from breathless noon to grimmest midnight…Crossing a bare common, in snow puddles, at twilight, under a clouded sky, without having in my thoughts any occurrence of special good fortune, I have enjoyed a perfect exhilaration. — Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nature, 1836

A truly open mind is fascinated with and open to exploration of many fields.  Nevertheless, the best and easiest way to refine one’s “wonder mechanism,” I’ve discovered, is to grow as a naturalist.  The endless variety and novelty of nature is compelling, not least because of its unparalleled complexity.

The granularity of one’s wonder mechanism is an important determinant of one’s baseline happiness.  It’s also important in the formation of memories; a finer granularity of wonder results in a richer, more positive set of memories throughout a lifetime.

A coarse granularity of wonder is possessed by this man: “I went on the Circuit de la Grande Chartreuse hike today…The first stretch of forest was…just an ordinary forest, not much more interesting than woods back home. The only spectacular thing was a mountain with two or three peaks between which nestled a…green valley…”

That hard-to-please man was me, twelve years ago, journaling about a solo hike in the beautiful Chartreuse mountains of France.  Not knowing anything about the natural history, geology, or archaeology of that region, I could only appreciate superficial, immediately accessible characteristics:  grand vistas, mountains, valleys, forests.  I remember some of the people I met, but I don’t remember which tree, bird, or insect species I saw, nor which types of rock I encountered, nor did I appreciate the significance of ruins I came across in a valley during that hike.  That leaves me with only a shallow impression of that experience.

A finer granularity of wonder is possessed by this man:  “A grass-like mantis was on the floor outside my home today.  I chased it with my finger toward a wall so it wouldn’t be crushed by an unaware passerby.  It didn’t let me touch it; at each near-touch or rare ephemeral touch, it ran forward, at one point flying smoothly up to the wall as if running along an invisible ramp.”

That was also me, journaling this week about an interesting insect species I’d never seen (or noticed) before 2017.  I’ve seen it intermittently all summer long in a space about twenty feet by six feet.

Here’s another recent journal entry:  “I also did see and photograph a wood stork soaring–it soared over the exact area (vast marsh with adjacent picnic park) where I saw the last male painted bunting of the day!  They showed up at the same time, presenting an observational/photographic dilemma.  I’ve never seen a wood stork before, as far as I know; this is a life bird.”

Twelve years ago, I had little interest in that marsh, precisely because I didn’t know much about it.  Not only did I have little interest, I actively wanted to keep my distance because it’s surrounded by oil refineries:

Screen Shot 2017-07-19 at 8.13.05 PM

However, it is here that I first saw a wood stork, a species not easily seen in the US outside of Florida and parts of Louisiana.  I also saw a male painted bunting here recently–another life bird for me.

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Each experience of wonder creates a pleasant memory.  No grand vistas required.  This humble, likely polluted marsh is now elevated in my mind to a new significance.

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One of the better photos I was able to take of this painted bunting.

“A special power of observing and remembering particulars, a special memory for places, allied to a love, a lyrical feeling for nature, is characteristic of this naturalist’s sort of mind.” – Oliver Sacks, Oaxaca Journal, 2002

Cotinga Trail, Yasuní National Park

For those without a naturalist bent, the lowland tropical jungle–as seen in the photograph I took this summer in Yasuní National Park in the Ecuadorian Amazon, above–is a gloomy, menacing, tediously green place.  One does not bask there in breathless views on par with those found in Yosemite, the Canadian Rockies, or similar places with awe-inspiring landscapes.  The biodiversity, however, remains unmatched…for those prepared to appreciate it.

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Golden-mantled tamarins we observed near Napo Wildlife Center. They live in a very small area in the Ecuadorian and Peruvian Amazon and are threatened by deforestation.

It may be obvious that preparation increases appreciation, but this is particularly true of nature travel in the neotropics, where the rare is commonplace, the commonplace is rare, and where each bit of background knowledge yields outsized rewards for the observer.

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Masked crimson tanager seen along Lake Anangucocha. This is one of my favorite tanager species.

One of our guides–who has worked as a generalist guide as well as a specialist birding guide in the Amazon, the cloud forests, the Galápagos, and elsewhere in Ecuador–confirmed my suspicion that birders seem to get more out of their Amazon experience than do non-naturalist visitors.  We ended up seeing or hearing 325 bird species total in the Chocó region of northwest Ecuador and Yasuní National Park.  We also saw a tayra, two black caiman, agoutis, several giant river otters, five monkey species (including five common woolly monkeys, which are not common at all), several puma and tapir tracks, and two electric eels.

Our guides spotted this collared puffbird along the Cotinga Trail!  Puffbirds, being sedentary, are notoriously difficult to notice.

Each of these sightings, for me, is pegged to a wondrous memory, in addition to memories of all the people we interacted with during the trip–our hosts, our guides, our drivers, and everyone else–and to memories of a more standardized nature: landmarks, street scenes, cityscapes, historical buildings, food, etc.

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Ecuador poison frog.  Poison frogs have little to fear, so these tiny amphibians can be seen boldly displaying themselves in the open.
Scarlet macaw drinking at a clay lick in Yasuní National Park. This is the only bird that flew down to the clay lick during the hour we were there.

“It is similar with Tom Morgan–he remembers, I think, every fern of significance he has ever seen, and not only remembers it, but exactly where it was located.” – Oliver Sacks, Oaxaca Journal, 2002

I still have a long way to go as a naturalist and as a learner in general.  I look forward to learning much more botany, entomology, geology, anthropology, archaeology, and other fields.

Painted Buntings

Summer is an oppressive season in southeast Texas.  Long days allow heat to build up–it can be nearly ninety degrees Fahrenheit well after sunset–and the humidity doesn’t letup. If northerners are snowbound in winter, we’re sunbound in summer. We visited the Ecuadorean Amazon recently, where it was cool sometimes (cold, even), days were much shorter, wind pollination was refreshingly absent (or rare), and where one stands much less of a chance of being swarmed by mosquitoes than in summertime wildernesses of the temperate zone.

However, despite the unpleasantness of the season, one can still experience the beauty of nature here, as I found out less than two weeks ago when I saw a male painted bunting for the very first time. Ironically, I’ve lived within its breeding range for most of my life but never birded within its habitat during summer.  (Also ironic: I saw it only ten minutes from where I grew up!)

If one rises early enough and travels to its breeding grounds–a shrubby, overgrown prairie with not too few and not too many small- or medium-sized trees–then one might see a male painted bunting in a treetop, head thrown back, singing its lovely song.  It might even fly from treetop to treetop, singing at each location, as did the males I observed–a magical experience!  Here are a couple photos I took of one of them:

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In May, during the tail end of spring migration, I also saw a playful, beautifully green, female painted bunting in a nearby marsh.  I was observing a female indigo bunting when the female painted suddenly appeared and landed on the same stalk of grass, making them both drop down.  The indigo flew off, but the painted remained nearby.  Here’s the quick photo I took of it:

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“[For a naturalist,] the concrete significance of living things in their natural setting is at least as precious as any generalization.” — Alexander F. Skutch, A Naturalist in Costa Rica

An Irruption of Neotropical Songbirds

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Male scarlet tanager photographed by Christine Casas at Boy Scout Woods on 4/29/17.

“For lack of attention, a thousand forms of loveliness elude us every day.” – Evelyn Underhill

Last Sunday, my girlfriend, two friends, and I had a remarkable experience in High Island, TX:  a quiet Sunday morning hike in coastal woods slowly transitioned from seeming “birdlessness” to finding ourselves literally surrounded by tens of migrant bird species just-arrived from Central and South America.  It felt like a Big Bang of birdlife; it felt as though God had just decreed, let there be birds.  We were in the midst of a “fallout” of songbirds precipitated by a storm the night before and by abatement of the south wind that had previously allowed them to skip the island entirely.

At Boy Scout Woods (BSW), the warblers trickled in slowly at first.  We saw male birds almost exclusively the entire weekend–in many species, males migrate first–indicating that females may be seen in the next week or two.  A hooded warbler started the show by appearing suddenly at Prothonotary Pond, then a magnolia warbler and a northern waterthrush became visible.  Soon, the treetops were alive with black-throated green warblers.  Occasionally found solo, but usually in mixed flocks, we eventually saw bay-breasted, Tennessee, Canada, Nashville, and chestnut-sided warblers, as well as American redstarts and a common yellow-throat, punctuated by sightings of other species:  a peregrine falcon and a broad-winged hawk flying inland, a green heron at Prothonotary Pond, an immature orchard oriole singing far beyond the boardwalk.

Sighting a warbler–a tiny, quiet bird constantly on the move–or any other “new” bird is quite thrilling, even addictive: one raises one’s binocular in eager anticipation of identifying the species before the bird moves out of view.

By noon, in the small parking lot and adjacent street alone, in the span of fifteen minutes, I saw four male indigo buntings, at least four female indigo buntings, male and female summer tanagers, innumerable black-throated green warblers, two male Baltimore orioles, a male rose-breasted grosbeak, and a male scarlet tanager.  Soon after my girlfriend and I left for Smith Oaks, our friends saw a male painted bunting in the parking lot.  Very few of these birds will stay for the summer; most will radiate to their breeding grounds in the northeastern US and Canada.  (In fact, when I returned to High Island today, I only saw two of the above species at BSW: the rest may already be at their summer homes.)

At Smith Oaks, where I hiked for about an hour last weekend, I saw numerous male and female Baltimore orioles, summer and scarlet tanagers, gray catbirds, a black-billed cuckoo (we saw a yellow-billed the day before at BSW), a brief flash identified by others as a vagrant black-whiskered vireo, and, at water drips in the forest, males in breeding plumage of the following warbler species: Blackburnian, Magnolia, Tennessee (unclear if male), chestnut-sided, American redstart.  So many species observed in so little time amongst the lovely old oaks and other trees!  (The birding was so good this week along the upper Texas coast that even I–a casual birder who doesn’t aim to maximize the number of species seen, unlike more “muscular” birders–ended up seeing sixteen warbler species, including the rare golden-winged warbler.)  A short walk away, the famous High Island rookery teemed with nesting wetland species we observed and photographed the day before:  roseate spoonbills, purple gallinules, common gallinules feeding with their chicks, neotropic cormorants, great egrets, snowy egrets, and other species.  Down the road, Bolivar Flats–we didn’t go there this trip–hosted numerous shorebird species, including (rumor had it) red knots and piping plovers, the latter of which I saw in February on a birding trip with two other friends.

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Such irruptions of songbirds and other bird species are a rare occurrence for the occasional visitor to High Island, but do occur with some frequency during spring migration, especially following storms or when there’s a north wind.  However, I’ve met serious birders who have visited High Island for years without experiencing such a “fallout” of birds.

We met many other birders while there, including the ever-helpful and enthusiastic Houston Audubon Society volunteers who manage High Island’s nature sanctuaries.  It was a joy to help others see the birds we saw and to allow them to help us see what they were seeing.  Birders are a diverse bunch:  while many were casual, some were very professional, taking high-quality photographs of the birds they encountered.  Most birders are warm, engaging, and helpful people; I was surprised to find that a few were rather cold and businesslike and seemed to be there just to lengthen their lists of species seen.

I visited High Island for the first time about nine years ago.  Since then, I’ve unintentionally built up a store of happy memories associated with this tiny, unassuming salt dome in the Texas backcountry.  One of my first visits was with my friends, Jeff and Noam.  On that trip, we serendipitously chanced upon the Texas Birding Classic.  We were seen as “rare birds” by Texas Parks & Wildlife for being young men out birding–this was even rarer then than it is today–and were interviewed on the spot, had many photos taken of us, and were given free T-shirts (I still wear it; a songbird is displayed on the front with “Portable Audio Device” written under it).

A year ago, serendipity struck again:  I found one of those photos while hiking Lost Maples State Park!  At the end of a long hike, my girlfriend rested by a bird blind while I went to get the car.  When I returned, she recommended I check it out.  I glanced at the sign in front of the blind and immediately saw myself in a photo taken with a Texas Parks & Wildlife staff member that day I birded High Island with Jeff and Noam nine years ago: