Sunday, January 4, 2009

Red-faced Warbler

Today’s flock didn’t have a Golden-cheeked Warbler – and thus ended our four day streak – but it did have a Red-faced Warbler. These birds are certainly more common here than they are in Honduran pine-oak forests. We see them almost daily. For some reason, I had always assumed that this was a resident species here in the mesoamerican pine-oak eco-region, but it’s actually a wintering migrant, just like many other warblers here.

It breeds primarily in northwestern Mexico, with northernmost breeders in New Mexico and Arizona.

Identification of this species, according to Dunn & Garrett (1997), is “straightforward”. And indeed there’s no other warbler here with red in the face, or it would have to be Pink-headed, which has red around the bill, then a pinkish cast on most of the head, and the rest of the body red. Very different from this bird.

The call is distinctive too: a sharp chip note that’s somehow drier and lower than those of the Dendroica virens complex. Those calls are similar in pitch and quality, but – to my ears, anyway – differentiate in loudness, with the sharp, loud chip calls of the Townsend’s Warbler at one end of the spectrum, and the softer chip calls of the Hermit Warbler at the other. The calls of Golden-cheeked and Black-throated Green Warblers are somewhere between these extremes, and are very similar.

Tail-flipping behavior of the Red-faced Warbler is very similar to that of the Wilson’s Warbler. It is usually found at mid-story in the forest.

I’ll admit that the photo isn’t great, but let’s say the photo illustrates the elusive quality of this bird. It is one of the least known North American warblers.

This is an adult male Hermit Warbler with a severe identity crisis: it believes that it is a Black-and-white Warbler.

It was acting like a Black-and-white Warbler during the 10 minutes that I observed it. Typical Hermit Warbler feeding behavior is to stick the head inside pine needle clusters, and with many pines around in today’s flock area, most Hermit Warblers were indeed doing that. Not this bird.

In the photo, the bird is still perched on a horizontal branch, while looking for insects and other invertebrates among lichens on the tree trunk. During the time that I observed it, it would often perch vertically on the tree trunk itself and continue to forage between those lichens.

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