Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Tehachapi Travels II

Due to the success of the first bioblitz event at Tejon back in May, it was with no surprise that another event was held so soon after, this time in late August. But this was still only the second time that this sort of event had been held on the Tejon Ranch property, California's largest area of private land and superior in size to many national parks. Given that the property is an intermingling sanctuary of mountain, desert, chaparral and valley ecosystems, often in close proximity, it was a real privilege to gain any access to the land at all.

The wildlife was not particularly interested in waiting for anyone to give the go ahead for the event to begin however. In the rolling hinterlands many of us were able to observe a pronghorn frozen in place under the dry, burning sun, well before we reached base camp.

Pronghorn in the Tejon valley grasslands. Despite how it may look, it was unfortunately not particularly
close.
 Additionally, a roadside stop on the drive up procured a new late-summer buckwheat for me, Eriogonum baileyi.

Eriogonum baileyi growing at the base of a chaparral hillside.
To most perhaps not the most assuming or obvious of flowering plants, and indeed easily overlooked.
A few bumps later, and we finally arrived at the wind-strung realm of Sacatara Canyon and pitched the tents. We had good looks at a relative to the common "stinkbug" on the desert track nearby. Though it was much later in the season, several wildflowers were still in bloom, and many new species rose up to exhibit their best. Lessingia glandulifera was one such plant, flowering well along a small segment of the lower valley oak areas.

The Tenebrionid beetle Philothus cf. actusosus.
A small but showy growth of Lessingia glandulifera.
Heterotheca sessiflora, a close relative to the ubiquitous telegraphweed.
We were then treated to a bioblitz introduction talk by Scott Pipkin and Laura before being "let loose", so to speak. Given the large quantity of events, I'll keep myself to posting a few highlights for the remainder of the post.

The first highlight I'd like to post is a new ladybug for me, Exochomus aethiops. It comes from the notoriously difficult subfamily of Chilocorines, which often cannot be identified without the specimen, but this guy is relatively diagnostic in California fauna, if only for its complete lark of markings.
Exochomus aethiops swept from Ericameria nauseosa.
Care should be taken to separate other Exochomus, but
the high domed shape and shine rule out other species.

A new odonate for me, and a species that had been on my wishlist for some time, was the desert firetail, Telebasis salva, common around stagnated ponds just below the north and eastern hillsides. Others were able to see the dragonfly equivalent of this damselfly, the cardinal meadowhawk Sympetrum illotum, but they didn't show for me!

Desert firetail, Telebasis salva.
Perhaps one of the greatest surprises for me were the large numbers of Bell's sparrow in the canyon. This was a bird I had been seeking for several years without luck, not only did it surprise to see this species at all but it soon became apparent that it was easily the most common bird in the entire canyon at this time.

The sparsely streaked back and dark malar separate these birds from the closely related
and once conspecific sagebrush sparrow. 
One could only ask that they weren't so skittish and, at times, hard
to approach...

The lower portions of the canyon held great numbers of two more buckwheats I had not recorded before, Eriogonum wrightii and Eriogonum rosea. Eriogonum wrightii was a larger shrub with bigger flowers:



Yet despite its size it was still an easy plant to miss if you weren't paying attention:


In contrast Eriogonum rosea's colour made it a little easier to notice:

A curious find in the lower wetland was the European species Mantis religiosa. Though not uncommon since its introduction in California, it is supposedly absent from desert and dry regions, so this was an interesting record for the ranch property. The species is easily distinguished by the black spot on the front legs (which is usually but not always is adorned with a white bull's eye). The wetland itself held a number of plants that were new for me including scratchgrass Muhlenbergia asperifolia, Clematis ligusticifolia, Erigeron breweri, as well as the venus thistle Cirsium occidentale var. venustum.

Mantis religiosa, the "original" praying mantis.
Venus thistle Cirsium occidentale var. venustum.
We met back several times to share finds. One interesting spider was this nice example of Phidippus comatus, a spider that, as is typical of the jumping spider group, would rather sit perfectly still and stare at you than run away. Before night fell it was clear that the canyon was not going to spare us the curse of the eternal wind. It was above 20 mph within less than an hour, and above 30 mph before it turned completely dark. Despite this it was far from unsuitable conditions for wildlife hunting. 
Phidippus comatus.
We were treated to some nice early nocturnal species, though the wind made it virtually impossible to attract any proper moths or insects to the sheet. One bonus was seeing Ateloplus luteus on the desert track, an incredibly poorly known species that has not been photographed before, all thanks to Jeff Cole's oatmeal trails! The male seems to live up to the name luteus, while the females are greyer in colouration. Another bug, stripe-tailed scorpions Vaejovis waeringi, were not rare in the darkness, and we were able to demonstrate its bioluminescence under blacklight. One of these scorpions decided it was going to live directly under the center of my tent!
Ateloplus luteus on the desert track late at night.
Vaejovis cf. waeringi.
I saw a desert pocket mouse beside the path just before I decided to turn in for the night. I do wish I stayed up longer to scope out some neat nocturnal life. It would have been far more lucrative to spend more time doing that as opposed to trying to sleep in the high gusty winds of Sacatara Canyon which was a force in the ears as well as against anyone trying to stand still. The next day we spent the morning out again before packing up for the day. There was a period to pull in some final ticks for the event during that time, starting with the unusual leafhopper Cuerna yuccae which occurs only on joshua trees.

Cuerna yuccae.
I was additionally able to attend a short outing with Jeff Cole which landed some new grasshoppers for the range list. Not to mention many of the species were new for my personal list as well, including Trimerotropis californica, Melanoplus marginatusAulocara elliotti and Derotmema laticinctum. 

Trimerotropis californica.
Another individual of Trimerotropis californica demonstrating the
hidden wing pattern.
Melanoplus marginatus (note the chemical defense spot that it left on my finger!).
Derotmema laticinctum.
We also encountered some more common species in California, but a few were good crowd-pleasers nonetheless, especially Dissoteira pictipennis:


Another nice species was the hedgenettle stink bug, Cosmopepla conspicillaris, which as its name suggests is specific to Stachys. The lower plants here were home to small groups of another grasshopper which suffered from dull colouration, but made up for it with a great name: Melanoplus devastator.

Cosmopepla conspicillaris.
Melanoplus devastator.
Two of the best spiders were the shining silver Argiope trifasciata, and a really nice example of the uncommon genus Titiotus sp. Perhaps my biggest mistake of the trip (besides not understanding how tents work) was not photographing the epipygium of this spider. There are three identical species only separable from this feature, and two of them are completely endemic to this area. I'll never know which one it was! All three species lack photographs and information on the internet. Hopefully future excursions onto this property will nail what species occurs here specifically, but that may well be past my lifetime.

Argiope trifasciata crossing the path.
Titiotus cf. icenoglei. At least the rainbow iridescence on the base of the legs makes
up for its lack of species identification.
The final awesome find of the day was this guy on the path. Given that I had been stuck on 4 species of reptiles in North America for a good two years, it was fantastic to finally find a fifth. 

The coast horned lizard Phrynosoma blainvillii!
We spent the final hour sharing observations and potted specimens, and looking back on the experience and how it could have been improved. For me all I could have said was that, as usual, I wish I spent my time a bit better! But nonetheless a tremendous excursion with over 50 new species for my personal list, and a big thanks to the "big three" Scot Pipkin, Laura Pavliscak, and Mike White for organizing the event and sharing their knowledge. 

PS, turn the wind dial down next time. Anything above 20 is too high :)

The complete list of my sightings (there was too much to include here) can be found at this link.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Un-cockaded

Of all of the woodpecker species in North America, the most endangered is the red-cockaded woodpecker. Back in the days when this species was first named, people could probably understand the name of this bird without consulting a dictionary or the internet. The so-called "cockade" on this bird is the small red spot behind each cheek of male birds. These days no living soul seems to know what you are talking about when you use the word cockade, and the term seems to live only in scratchy old text in scratchy old tomes and in the name of this bird. The species epithet is curious as well, borealis, which would suggest it was a northern bird rather than a southern one.

I did not initially realize how lucky I was to be based right next to one of the few strongholds of the species in the world at the Croom section of Withlacoochee State Forest. Though pine forests are not uncommon, this woodpecker is extremely picky on the specifics, and the habitat has to be fairly large to begin with to sustain the species for any decent time. If there are too many of the wrong tree, the trees are not old enough or spaced far enough apart (but not spaced too far apart), if the shrubs are too high, it is no longer suitable for the species. Because the specific habitat it requires takes many decades to form in the first place, the clearing of this habitat is very costly for the future of the species, hence its current scarcity.

As a rare species, it is quite difficult to find information on where to find them to avoid disturbance by overzealous hobbyists (whether it be egg collectors or unethical birdwatchers, which unfortunately are far more common than this woodpecker). I found a sort of a lead when I discovered a field trip report that was several years old. However, it was not much: it merely detailed a trail number.

So that was how I ended up on this remote road, next to a white marker that had different numbers painted on each side, one of which that said "7". There were many of these markers, sometimes just randomly beside the road, and I still don't know to this day whether they were actually trail markers or something else. The big official trail map I obtained for the forest had no numbers marked anywhere. At least the habitat looked correct.

Looks inviting. right?

Not very far down the path I had already heard both red-bellied and pileated woodpeckers in the trees above, but little else. Save the occasional calls of these two birds, and the distant song of pine warblers, it could have been described as "pitch silent". By chance I happened upon this interesting autumnal looking specimen of Rhus copallinum:


A while after walking through silence, I noted a pale tree far away, gathered between its darker brethren. This tree was my first clue to this woodpecker's presence, and a useful landmark. As part of a conservation effort to keep snakes out of nests, conservationists shave the bark off known woodpecker nesting trees from the ground up to about two thirds up.


And if there was any doubt that this was a nesting tree...

Look, a hole!
There was one thing missing from this secret wooded glade, see if you can guess what that was. Either way it was a nice diversion, even if it was only for this moth which I happened upon by chance:

The geometrid moth Pseudanthracia coracias.
And another moth down the path:

Uresiphita reversalis. A more stunning moth if you see the wings spread out, unfortunately too skittish this time around
to capture.
Eventually, after a few miles of walking, I finally heard a rather raucous sound up in the pine canopy. It sounded more like a squeaky toy than a bird, and more like a parrot or parakeet. I noticed a small black and white woodpecker moving its way up a tree: just a downy woodpecker, but that was certainly not the bird that made that sound. A bit more searching and another woodpecker silhouette peeked its head from around the trunk of a tree, flashed its white cheeks, and there was my red-cockaded woodpecker. I took a few photographs of the speck-sized bird over a long distance, but at least it shows up in the pictures. It flew off after my third or so shot and rattled across the forest. A wonderful sighting despite the distance.

When the sun decided to peek through the clouds a few dogface butterflies drifted about the sunny vegetation, eternally expressing their habit of never landing. Other birds started picking up, including two very bright yellow palm warblers. One bird flew towards the tree beside me and landed a mere three feet or so above my head. Wait -- surely not? I had to take a few steps back but there was no doubt there--America's rarest woodpecker had flown across the pines and set down on the tree right beside. Despite its poor positioning with regards to light, no one could have asked for any better.

This bird was banded with the colour code WRW PBR. As a female, this
is not the most red-cockaded of red-cockaded woodpeckers. In fact it is quite un-cockaded.

Based on the time stamps of my photographs, this bird was on this tree for nearly 10 minutes. In that time it not only showed impeccably, but even hopped down the tree to head-height level, behaviour I had not seen from a woodpecker before. Even after it had left I was standing quite still, captivated by what had once been.

On the return path I encountered a stunning member of an already stunning family of tiger moths, Utetheisa ornatrix. In flight this species reveals its vibrantly red hindwings and orange underwings, though at rest it is more unassuming:


I had to temporarily hold it in a box to get non-flight views of its stunning colouration on the hindwings, as well as underneath.


I also cruised into this neat spider while traversing the brush. This spider is a nice tropical equivalent of the more temperate garden spider, and interesting to look at it:


And then finished off the day with my first snake on this trip so far: a black racer that I kicked up while walking off the path. I managed to relocate it hiding under a bush nearby for some better photographs. Remember kids, the first rule of encountering a snake is to get as close as you can. (Really -- don't do that).


Saturday, January 31, 2015

10,000 Steps

I once heard that Honeymoon Island was some form of wader haven. Admittedly this site is only one of two locations in this region of Florida that can boast a species total of 300 species or more, which suggests off the bat it is a good migrant trap as well.
Hotspot map courtesy of eBird.org and Google (maps). Fort de Soto Park is the lower red marker.

Some recent bird reports from the area had also been promising, including several waders that I either had not seen before because of sheer unluckiness or had never been in the range of to begin with. The most notable was the rather petite piping plover, a bird that is also endangered and rather rare.

The first impression of the location was perhaps not the best. What little there was of a beach for waders was packed full of people, despite it being a weekday. Half of the lower beach was closed off with heavy construction vehicles and metal fences, certainly not immediately promising!

I had walked for over an hour before seeing anything but a scattering of gulls, terns, palm warblers and ospreys. No sign of any shorebirds anywhere along this massive stretch of beach. Fortunately there were less and less people the further north I walked but there were still enough seashell collectors passing through to disturb any bird foraging here. After much walking I finally encountered the first shorebird of the day, a single sanderling on the edge of the water. Though a nice looking wader it is not uncommon for hundreds of these white birds packed tightly together on sun-speckled winter sands back in California.

I did see some horseshoe crabs though, albeit dead.


Finally I found something. The next spark of hope, or perhaps shadow of hope, were a pair of well-sized dark birds: American oystercatchers. Finally, a good start to the trip!

They certainly have interesting eyes. Unlike the European species, the eyes are pale yellow and not red.
With the fading presence of people, it was good to start finally seeing birds. Inevitably the first grey shaded willets of the day soon appeared and grew in numbers. A massive congregation of birds were preening at the very end of the spit, and smaller scattered flocks of other waders were found throughout. It seemed that the wader haven I had seen seeking was all squished into this tiny northern tip of the island.

Before I reached the main wader flocks I found some small rather sandy coloured plovers bunched together with sanderling and dunlin. Piping plovers. Success!

Piping plover, with dunlin (foreground).

Piping plovers (above) and 2 dunlin (far left and bottom).
The next mini-flock contained sanderlings and two darker plovers. I wrongly assumed they were semipalmated plover as I thought the bill looked too short for Wilson's plover. As it happens, the bill was far too long for semipalmated, which has a bill length more comparable to the piping plovers earlier. Either bird was new for me, and Wilson's the far better of the two since it has a far more restricted range.

Wilson's plover. The bird on the far left is a sanderling.
With the mini flocks dealt with I had time to go through the larger flock. There was a lot to see! The first half of the flock was mostly gulls and terns:

This section of the flock contains a good 6 species of birds: the three waders at the back are willets. The three
gulls in the foreground consist of four ring-billed gulls (yellow legs and pale grey wings) and two laughing
gull (black legs, smudged head, dark grey wings). There are at least three more laughing gulls in the middle of the
terns, look for the dark grey wings and black wing tips with white spots.

The large terns are royal terns. In the bottom left
is a sandwich tern followed by a Forster's tern to the upper right (black stripe through white head, red legs). The small tern just to the left of the center is another Forster's tern, as is the small preening tern on the right.

The second half was mostly shorebirds, which was more quantity rather than quality:

Nearly all the birds in this picture are willets (grey, white rump patch) with the exception of the two Forster's terns and the following:

the two brown birds in the center and right-center with the intricate markings are marbled godwits. The small bird on the ground between them, and the darker yellow-legged bird to the far right (it's standing on one leg), are short-billed dowitchers.
The bird with the black and white wing outstretched (left of center) is a willet. These wings markings make these
otherwise nondescript waders quite attractive in flight.
Finishing off this rather bird-packed area was another flock on the eastern side, made of turnstones and a few least sandpipers. It is interesting how the smaller sandpipers will habitually congregate with turnstones but not often with other waders. Perhaps it is because their foraging style is similar.

Turnstone (left) and least sandpiper.
Least sandpiper strutting around the sandy dunes.
Nearby one of the Forster's terns was trying to start arguments. Not sure why. 
Perhaps it was some territorialism that came with the imminency of breeding plumage.
It was a long 3 mile walk back but definitely worth the walk. I wonder how many more birds would be around if there were less people in general? It seems like such a promising place, too bad the main birding area is not accessible by car. Good exercise I suppose.

In the car park was a unusually tame common ground-dove. These tiny doves are generally very hard to approach.



I'd also like to point out this bizarre moth.
A moth: Melanochroia chephise
And did I mention that ospreys are everywhere?