Thursday, August 25, 2011

Dendroica is no more: 2011 revised taxonomy

It appears after all these years of confusing taxonomy in the warbler group, the Dendroica genus has been removed entirely!

The news first appeared when Sibley announced it on his site: and here

Now the Dendroicas have been moved all over the place, many of them stuck in the genus Setophaga (which from what I gather means something eater; not sure what Seto means.). The pretty warblers have been cursed with a name that is no longer as pretty.

Plus Setophaga is annoyingly cumbersome, not only to say in front of people.

Dendroica has that ring that Setophaga doesn't. There is no chance that you will be changing my vocabularly here. If you walked amongst other birders and pointed out a "Setophaga" you'd get some funny looks. Point out a Dendroica and they would know what you were talking about.

It is all thanks to one of my favourite birds: the American Redstart. The Redstart was once in its own genus, Setophaga (!), and was the first to be named, well not the "first" first. To start things off here, a scientific name has 3 parts: a genus, a species and subspecies (the latter is not usually seen). The genus is the first word, the second is the species. The genus is shared by its close relatives, the species is specific to itself.  In the Magnolia Warbler, Dendroica magnolia, the genus is Dendroica and the species is magnolia. The reason with species being put together is that some new form of DNA testing or study has proven that these "seperate" birds are actually very closely related. When birds reach a certain point of relation (according to modern science), they end up being put in the same genus. Now that is cleared up:

When birds from different genera are put into one genus, the bird that was named first passes on its genus name to the entire genus, so for example:

Bird A, Birdus alpha (1920)
Bird B, Avius beta (1910)
Bird C, Twitter omega (1915)

The above birds were once considered seperate. But when merged the genus formed takes on the name of the first named bird. Bird B was named in 1910, which is before the other two, thus the genus formed becomes "Avius", so:

Bird A, Avius alpha
Bird B, Avius beta
Bird C, Avius omega

Because the Redstart is now considered to be closely related (enough) to the Dendroica genus, it was taken out of its seperate genus and put into Dendroica, and because the Redstart was named before the Dendroicas were named, the name Setophaga takes priority (First come, first serve in a way) over Dendroica.

Though not even this will take the charm away from this particular species, it is still annoying.

The redstart was not the only bird put into Dendroica. The "Parulas" (the namesake of the warbler family: Parulidae) were also put into the ex-Dendroica genus. Now if they were renamed Parula then thats a little better, but Setophaga....

I just now read Sibley's article after trying to think of what else to right on this page, and I am totally confused when they moved all the extremely similar grey-hooded eye-ring warblers (ex-genus Oporornis) into a seperate genus, but not the Connecticut. I can understand the Nashville Warbler being put in a different genus to the other grey-hoods as it is completely different in some aspects, but I can't see much difference with the Connecticut vs the other grey-hoods. Though I'm sure if I ever saw the Connecticut and another grey hood then I might be able to find a visible difference such as foraging style or something, but that proposal is probably far off. Yes they are common birds but "common" birds are my weakness. But, my lack of luck in finding such birds is not the topic of this post.

I'm just glad because the Parulas (as specified before: the namesake of the warbler family) original genus is gone, that the family name doesn't change. I don't think I could live with a "Setophagidae". That name sounds like a non-passerine family whose songs are like rusty gates, which is good if we are talking about the taxonomy of Yellow-headed Blackbirds or Cockatoos. Our songbirds (passerines) never deserve that.
And yes, if you are really smart then you would know Yellow-headed Blackbirds are indeed considered Songbirds; I just could not think of a better example to use.


Not anyones' cup of tea.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Rancho Sierra Vista revisited, August 16th, 2011

A rather late in the day visit to Rancho Sierra Vista was not planned until the last minute. At the visitor centre here was a little shop with those Audubon birds that play a rough version of their calls when you squeeze them. Chris, my 5-year old brother, decided after the visit to Oak Canyon's duck pond (where I got the Black-crowned Night-heron) that he really, really wanted a duck, and that if he didn't get one he couldn't go to sleep ever (emphasis on the ever).

So remembering that the shop had a Wood Duck in their collection I suggested this trip, and sure enough it happened, despite the fact this shop was very likely closed since it began to approach 4PM (though I cared a bit more about seeing as much as I could then the shop being open to be honest).

The car park was silent this time, with no evidence of Cliff Swallows from before. Bushtits and Oak Titmice were heard in various places, and I found another Chequered White, this time a little bit closer.

At the visitor center it was also silent apart from a single female Lazuli Bunting. Upon leaving I heard cheeping overhead and found a pair of Barn Swallows high up in the sky, which is my first sighting in this state.

On the way back to the car I happened to check a distant telegraph pole for any birds of prey and sure enough there was a male American Kestrel perched in the sun all by itself. A Bewick's Wren made a quick appearance in the hedgerow, which is a bird I haven't seen at this location before.

Entering the car park a California Towhee flew up to the water fountain which was only a metre or two away, and in the sun, which set me up for some very nice photos.

Before we left I checked the little ditch that last time had water and a few ducks, but this time it was parched. There was a Black Phoebe and a female Lazuli Bunting here, and later on a trio of Red-tailed Hawk appeared in the sky, as did yet another Turkey Vulture (they really are everywhere).

Like last time the last birds seen were a flock of Mourning Doves on the way out.

La Jolla Canyon, August 14th

Sycamore Canyon was planned today, but as La Jolla popped up along the way, a detour was made. Before even reaching this area, the GPS had taken us to "Sycamore Canyon Park", which is no more than a child's playground.

Mugu Lagoon was going to be planned, but as soon as we arrived we discovered it was right in the grounds of a Naval Air Weapons base. Doubt having a camera here is a good idea, not that there were any birds other than a lone Great Egret.

Mugu Rock was also located, but apart from the typical Western Gulls and Brown Pelicans there was nothing to offer, though the Pelicans did offer some very close fly-bys, which compared to the offshore birds before was definately appreciated.

Sycamore Canyon was approaching, but as the turn in for La Jolla came, I decided based on what I was told about this location, that this would be a nice detour. Apparently it had a good population of Lazuli Bunting, Costa's Hummer and the two chapparal wren species; the Rock and Canyon Wren. I also expected to find Wrentit here, which so far I have only heard off in the distance. In the car park a few Western Scrub-jays and California Towhees flitted around the gravel, the former later taking up residence in the Sycamore tree canopy. Bushtits were also present.

Further up the path was a sign warning us of Rattlesnakes and Mountain Lions (what is a park without these signs?). Despite the possiblity of near-death encounters, my 5-year old brother was much more worried about little spiders that stick to you i.e. ticks. For the next few minutes absolutely nothing was heard in terms of bird life, but I did start seeing some butterflies. Marine Blue was fairly abundant here, as was the Californian ssp. of the Common Ringlet. I even managed to find a few Northern White Skipper here too for revenge on the Rancho Sierra Vista visit a few weeks back.

From here to the end I found a few Lesser Goldfinch, heard a Wrentit (far off in the distance again) and saw a Raven and a Turkey Vulture (they seem to be extremely common in Los Angeles) fly over. Apart from these birds it was totally devoid of bird life.

On the way back a Tarantula Hawk-wasp flew over (a reminder that Tarantulas are indeed found in the United States), landed briefly and went on its way again. This would have been the first time I ever saw one land, but alas no it was not long enough for pictures. A pair of worn Marine Blue were fluttering around here which included my first female (the two-striped one) of this species.

A Red-tailed Hawk appeared over the canyon on the way back to the car park, and at a similar time a Nuttall's Woodpecker started calling, those respective birds being the last seen on the day.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

4 more where that came from

There has not been enough recently to make seperate blog posts for each event, so I will post them all together.

Firstly, at Oak Canyon Community Park came....

Common Yellowthroat, a new Parulid warbler for the Dendroica page. Their tail is much stubbier than I would have imagined, especially for a warbler, see the right image.

I also unexpectedly found a Buckeye (the North American Meadow Argus) here.

Some better Bushtit shots too:

At Sumac Park just a minute drive (literally over a hill away) I found two more that should be in our local area but apparently aren't.

Northern Mockingbird; a common sub-urban bird that I should have found ages ago. An immature bird on the right.

A Hooded Oriole, and a male at that. Not a bird I expected here (I didn't think this region was urban enough for them, especially as Bullock's is here). I assumed at a distance it was a Black-headed Grosbeak.

And also from Oak Canyon Community Park, from the duck pond near the entrance, was a Black-crowned Night-heron spending its time perched in the shade of a tree well above head height.

And because I feel like it, here are some California Ground Squirrel shots from the same location. If you haven't seen them before then you should be to tell from the pictures that they try to get as close to the ground as possible, getting around by inching very slowly. The image on the left is the highest they sit. This particular squirrel was very unique, as in the Canyon Park itself, they scatter from more than 10 metres away. They certainly have some charm, definately more than the Grey Squirrel which surprisingly I still haven't seen here yet.

And here is the commonest local dragonfly, the Flame Skimmer, which for the first time so far happened to sit.

And here is a "Golden hummingbird". Believe it or not its just a regular female Anna's (which are green) at a funny angle.

Rancho Sierra Vista, 7th August

Today I was to visit the closest place on my "list of places to go". Rancho Sierra Vista/Satwiwa, which was part of Mugu State Park was only 21 minutes drive from my residence, still technically in the suburbs, and by far the closest. According to Ventura Audubon, this place is good for Lazuli Bunting, Blue Grosbeak, Grasshopper Sparrow, White-tailed Kite, Costa's Hummingbird and Greater Roadrunners, but as you may know, there is a lot in determining these sightings not restricted to season, time of day and luck etc.

This location was very dry-looking to say the least. At the car park the regular Bushtit and Oak Titmouse were present, as well as a peculiar-sounding twittering overhead which alerted me to the presence of Cliff Swallows, a rather common bird which I had yet to see.

In the first minute along the trail I saw a bird with a slow, fluttering flight, which as soon as it sat I could recognize as a Western Kingbird, which is the Cassin's close cousin. While it was too far off to confirm the colour differences, the call alone is enough to tell them apart. Along here were several California Poppies, a plant which I was used to seeing in English gardens, but never before in the wild.

Nothing else remarkable was seen or heard until we reached the visitor centre, where a pale little satyrid butterfly showed itself to be the Californian race of the "Common" Ringlet. Moving on, we started to leave cover of the forest and scattered shrubs and entered the proper hills of grass and nothing more. As expected, there was no birdlife in this area at all, but I did find a far-off white butterfly which happened to be a Chequered White, which is a long-standing want in terms of Lepidoptera. I also decided this area would make a good panorama. Below is the rushed copy (my laptop battery was running out, plus I lost patience on the time Photoshop took to save it!) but it should give you an idea on what the place was like. If it wasn't for my telephoto lens (I happened to have the short-range one  available for the panorama) I would do this more often.

At the trail that led up into the mountains, a pair of Common Ravens made a quick flight overhead. I am aware that Wrentit was heard far-off around this point, but as I did not know what it was at the time I cannot recall the exact time. Lesser Goldfinch was the only bird present up the mountain trail. Once again, it seemed better for butterflies than birds, including a Northern White Skipper which by the slightest circumstance I managed to miss.

Here is another (rushed panaroma) view from a bench near the top of the hill.

 Upperside shot of the California Common Ringlet. These butterflies and
its relatives never open their wings when perched, so a flight shot like this is your only chance of seeing it. Not much to see anyway.

Presumably an Acmon Blue but the upperside looks a little strange. A male either way.

Same applies for this female, except it seems perfectly normal. No idea if Lupine Blue is found here, which would be a troublesome species to seperate even on good photos.
Because of a certain 5-year old brother complaining his legs hurt, we had to reverse our route back to the center. If it wasn't for a missed White Skipper I wouldn't have particularly cared.

Back at the visitor centre, while everyone else caroused the shop, I had a look around the little garden. A nondescript group of birds did not offer many good opportunities, but a shady shot of a birds' back in a dense bush showed that its rump was blue, meaning nothing more than Lazuli Bunting. I never would have guessed. If I knew this at the time I would have spent more time trying to locate a male, which the blue-rumped bird would obviously have been.

Apart from the above, a Western Tiger Swallowtail, Monarch, California Towhee and Anna's Hummingbird made appearances, as did further Bushtits and Oak Titmice. Before leaving a female Lazuli Bunting perched itself on a signpost, but despite the amount of pictures I took not one of them showed the side of its head.

In the forested bit on the way back to the car park a Lorquin's Admiral perched in the sun with its wings spread for a change.
 A Red-tailed Hawk (without a red tail) was also seen upon leaving the cover of the trees.

At this time I began wondering about the expected birds for this site. At the time I didn't know the Lazuli Buntings were Lazuli Buntings due to the vague glimpses I had, and other than that I had not seen any of the "common" birds here, however I'm assuming the time of year has something to do with this.

Only a minute from the car park and I caught sight of a large-sized bird on a fence ahead. Seeing the crest and long tail, it was nothing other than a Greater Roadrunner. It was a particularly vocal bird as well, relating to its habit of sitting on high perches while singing. It came down when a couple walked right past us and went too close, oblivious to us and the bird itself. However, after they chased it a while they seemed to work out it was unusual and they took out their own cameras, a little too late.
I walked up the hillside and managed to get a few further shots as it came into the open, just above the path thanks to manual focus, but that was it for this bird.

I got some very nice flight shots of Cliff Swallows in the car park which nicely advertised the square shaped tail which is diagnostic of this particular bird, at least in this area of the world.
I later saw one coming down to a nest about one and a half metres above the ground near the toilet door, which, if it wasn't for this bird, I would have ignored. The space between visits was about five or so minutes, and unfortunately there was not the time to wait for it to return many times.

At the same time, a Turkey Vulture made an unexpected appearance low down and fairly close to us. This top shot shows the "Headless" appearance of these birds well. It is caused by the fact they soar with their head down.

A flock of Mourning Doves on the outskirts of the park were the last birds seen on this outing.

Total List: 18 species
SpeciesScientific NameCountComment
MallardAnas platyrhynchos Around water in a little ditch just before car park.
Turkey VultureCathartes aura1Near car park.
Red-tailed HawkButeo jamaicensis  
Mourning DoveZenaida macroura  
Greater RoadrunnerGeococcyx californianus1Near car park.
Anna's HummingbirdCalypte anna1 
Nuttall's WoodpeckerPicoides nuttallii  
Western KingbirdTyrannus verticalis1In hillside scrub about two minutes walk from car park.
American CrowCorvus brachyrhynchos  
Common RavenCorvus corax  
Cliff SwallowPetrochelidon pyrrhonota8Most near car park.
Oak TitmouseBaeolophus inornatus  
BushtitPsaltriparus minimus  
WrentitChamaea fasciata  
California TowheeMelozone crissalis  
Lazuli BuntingPasserina amoena Near the Visitor Centre. Mostly females, but the back of a male seen in the cover of a tree.
House FinchCarpodacus mexicanus  
Lesser GoldfinchSpinus psaltria