Saturday, December 31, 2011

White-breasted Hawk

adult male White-breasted Hawk, Honduras, December 2011
White-breasted Hawk is a little known raptor from the Central American pine-oak forest. Officially (AOU) still a subspecies of the Sharp-shinned Hawk, most authors agree that this form should really be its own species. Currently, ten subspecies of Sharp-shinned Hawk (Accipiter striatus) are recognized, which can be subdivided in three main groups: the striatus (Sharp-shinned) group which contains four subspecies on the North American mainland and three island ssp; the Central American chionogaster (White-breasted) group with just one subspecies; and the erythronemius (Rufous-thighed) group with two South American subspecies (Bildstein & Meyer 2000). Future DNA work is likely to result in a split into at least three species: Sharp-shinned Hawk; White-breasted Hawk; and Rufous-thighed Hawk.

tail of adult male White-breasted Hawk, Honduras, December 2011
We caught this adult male while banding in Monte Uyuca (Honduras) last week. We have been banding there every month for two years now, and regularly see White-breasted Hawks around the net lanes. This was the first time we caught it here. Note (browner) retained outer rectrices from a previous molt generation.

Upperside wing ad male White-breasted Hawk, Honduras, December 2011
Upperside wing shot. Note the difference in (browner) retained primary coverts compared to (slaty) fresher secondary coverts.

adult male White-breasted Hawk, Honduras, December 2011
After we released the bird, it perched in a nearby tree. It may be worth noting that the tibial feathers appear white, like the rest of the underparts. Bildstein & Meyer (2000) describe light ochraceous-buff tibial feathering for the adult White-breasted Hawk...

juvenile male Sharp-shinned Hawk, Honduras, December 2011
Another first for the site was this juvenile male Sharp-shinned Hawk. We caught it two days later during the same pulse.

juvenile male Sharp-shinned Hawk, Honduras, December 2011
White-breasted Hawk is a resident species here in Honduras; Sharp-shinned Hawk is a winter visitor to the region.

Bildstein, Keith L. and Ken Meyer. 2000. Sharp-shinned Hawk (Accipiter striatus), The Birds of North America Online (A. Poole, Ed.). Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology; Retrieved from the Birds of North America Online:

Monday, December 19, 2011

A Prairie Merlin in Honduras

Adult male Prairie Merlin, Campus Zamorano University, Honduras, 18 December 2011
Yesterday, while birding the Zamorano University campus in central Honduras with Paul Stufkens, my friend Oliver and I found an adult male Merlin of the Richardson's or prairie subspecies. The Global Raptor Information Network (GRIN) calls the Merlin an "uncommon migrant and rare winter visitor (columbarius) in the lowlands of both coasts and in the Caribbean islands off Honduras", citing Monroe's 1968 Distributional Survey of the Birds of Honduras. eBird has few records for this species in Honduras, although I suspect that Merlins are probably regular along both coasts in migration and perhaps uncommon, but not rare, in winter.

But a Prairie Merlin this far south is spectacular!

Merlin, a species found in North America, Europe and Asia, has three distinct populations in North America: the highly migratory Taiga Merlin (columbarius) of the northern forests, the sedentary Black Merlin (suckleyi) from the Pacific Northwest, and the partially migratory Prairie Merlin (richardsonii) of northern prairies and aspen parkland. The latter form winters from extreme southern Alberta and Saskatchewan southward to the area bounded by eastern California, northwestern Mexico and central Texas (James et al. 1987). Thus, it is resident in parts of its breeding range, with the majority undertaking a relatively short migration into the southern Great Plains (Temple 1972).

It is much paler overall than the taiga Merlin, and has the light bands on the tail much wider than in that subspecies.

I realized this was a noteworthy sighting, and I expected our Central American record of this subspecies to be perhaps unprecedented, but it turns out that eBird has a record for northern Belize - from just 5 days prior! On 13 December 2011, Lee Jones and Roni Martínez reported a female or juvenile of the prairie subspecies in northern Belize, noting it was significantly paler than the taiga Merlins these observers normally see in Belize.

records of Prairie Merlin in eBird (recent records in red) - data courtesy of eBird
So... these two recent records beg the question: Is there currently a small-scale influx of Prairie Merlins going on into Mexico and Central America? It will be interesting to see if more individuals of this subspecies get reported in the coming weeks from the region.

Cited literature:
James, Paul C., Alan R. Smith, Lynn W. Oliphant, Ian G. Warkentin (1987) "Northward expansion of the wintering range of Richardson's Merlin" Journal of Field Ornithology 58 (2): 112—117.
Temple, Stanley A. (1972) "Systematics and evolution of the North American Merlins" The Auk 89: 325—338.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Photo contest

Laughing Falcon - photo Perla Damara
Some weeks ago, I decided to organize a photo contest, with my camera as the prize! Several crew members of the Veracruz River of Raptors project had expressed an interest in buying my camera, and I felt that selling it to one of them would leave others disappointed. Personally, I had been toying for a while with the idea of birding without a camera altogether. I felt that wanting to photograph a bird often got in the way of observing it, and more than one encounter with an interesting bird resulted in a couple of poor quality shots, when I could have had great views.

Thus, the idea for the contest was born. I'll be birding without a camera for a while, and will likely be blogging less also.

All VRR count crew members and the educational interns were eligible for participation, and many liked the idea well enough to take a day to go out in the field and document good birds. Anything could be photographed, but it was understood that a great photo of a very common, easily photographed bird was not going to win against an equally great photo of a rarer or more secretive bird. The idea was that all participants and myself would vote, and that you could not vote for your own photo.

Well, the voting part got curtailed by my sickness (food poisoning) the last few days, but the winner was obvious to everyone. So, I proudly present on this blog some of the entries in this competition.

Incidentally, the camera in question is a Canon PowerShot FZ-20.

The winning photo at the top of a Laughing Falcon was made by Perla, who worked on environmental education this season (and did a great job). Laughing Falcon is not a particularly rare species in central Veracruz, but like most raptors it is not so easily photographed when perched. She had many photos of this individual, from many different angles; it was clear that she had spent time thinking how to best capture the bird. Perla surprised us with great photos of other species also. She came into the project knowing little about birding, but quickly learned a great deal. I hope that she will continue to go out in the field and document her sightings, and maybe get hooked on birding. Mexico is a great place to live as a birder.

The other photos are in no particular order.

Vermilion Flycatcher - photo by Roberto Rodriguez
This photo of a Vermilion Flycatcher is also a treat. Roberto must have been very close to the bird when he took it. Again, there were many shots of this individual, some even showing behaviors like preening. My impression is that this species is an uncommon breeder in the area, but becomes much more common from early November on, when the local population is augmented by winter visitors from the north. Even on a dull day, the vermilion of the male is dashing, attractive.

Sharp-shinned Hawk and Ferruginous Pygmy Owl - photo by Rigoberto Mendoza
This is a completely different type of photography. Here, the photographer had to act very fast while the story developed. What happened was this: we were sitting on the lower level deck of the Chichicaxtle observation tower when an adult female Sharp-shinned Hawk suddenly came wheezing out of the sky with landing gear out, to try and grab a Ferruginous Pygmy Owl perched in a tree in front of us. A brief pursuit ended on the ground with the owl screaming, wings held open, and the sharpie trying to approach it, also with wings open. The cries of the owl attracted a Merlin, who came in to inspect what was going on. The owl took advantage of this brief distraction and escaped; in the end, the attack was unsuccessful. It may be worth mentioning that the BNA account for Sharp-shinned Hawk lists as known avian prey items members from the orders of Passeriformes (the majority), Falconiformes, Galliformes, Charadriiformes, Columbiformes, Apodiformes, and Piciformes - but not from Strigiformes (owls)! A unique opportunity where the photographer did not have any time to worry about proper camera settings, composition etc, and just had to document the action in front of him. Well done, I think.

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher - photo by Jeniffer Abrego
Jeni captured a very common winter visitor to the area, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher. This bird seems to be intently studying the substrate for possible prey items, seemingly oblivious to the photographer nearby. Maybe not a difficult species to photograph, I still like this photo for the way it captures a bird actively foraging.

Black Vulture with Turkey Vultures - photo by Lynn Schofield
Lynn said she wanted to photograph vultures. Her objective was to document a behavior rather than a rare bird. So here the Turkey Vultures timidly walking away while the Black Vulture unashamedly continues to gorge on the rotting fish creates the dramatic tension she was looking for.

Willet - photo by Alfredo Beltran
Alfredo was unlucky with the weather. He was one of the first and most enthusiastic contestants, but had the camera on a day when taking anything worthwhile was going to be difficult. Secretly I kinda wanted him to win the contest. Alfredo is a very funny, likeable kid. He's got a hat that reads "My Life is a Gamble" and sometimes it seemed that way, with him drawing the shorter of the two straws.

Ruddy Ducks - photo by Irving Chavez and Pilar González
Irving and Pilar chose to capture moving subjects, always more difficult than a stationary bird. Practically everything is in focus, up to the splashes of water flying around. In the same lagoon, they found a mega rarity - Common Loon - which they dutifully photo-documented and reported to eBird, but the shot of the ruddies taking off was the better photo.

Double-striped Thick-knee - photo by John van Dort
This is one of the last shots I took with that camera. We found these birds to be abundant in a stretch of dunes close to Playa Juan Angel. Had I known about this, I would have told our Dutch visitors, for this was one of their target birds, and I don't think they found any.

I'm not planning to give up birding altogether, but I'll be birding without a camera for a while. I may end up blogging less, or perhaps I'll just work on improving the static pages of this blog. I'm going to play it by ear a little bit.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Veracruz season wrap-up

Broad-winged Hawks, Turkey Vultures and Swainson's Hawks disappearing into a cloud
The Veracruz River of Raptors 2011 season ended 20 November. The total number of raptors counted - nearly 4.5 million - was about average, but that figure hides several surprises this season. Mississippi Kite (324,488), Northern Harrier (872), Peregrine Falcon (1,011) and American Kestrel (5,326) all had their best season ever, as did the two accipiters, Sharp-shinned (3,958) and Cooper's Hawk (2,693). The Red-shouldered Hawk with a season's total of 15 tied with 2009's total for best ever. The Hook-billed Kite count on the other hand ended up as the lowest of the last nine years.

Eagles were again seen this season, and surprisingly early: a Bald Eagle on the first of September, and a Golden Eagle on the 13th of September, followed by another Golden 6 days later. Not surprisingly, I did not see any of these eagles. This was my third year in this project and I am one of the very few if not only counters who has never seen an eagle in Veracruz. I did pick up a Ferruginous Hawk, though.

Of the four bulk species that together make up 99.9% of the flight,  i.e. Mississippi Kite, Broad-winged Hawk, Swainson's Hawk and Turkey Vulture, only the first did well. The other three had average years - the Swainson's Hawk actually a little below average.

The Zone-tailed Hawk flight was early this year, and was well under way by September, with good flights on September 7 (20), Sep 18 (22) and Sep 23 (12). October, however, was disappointing, with only 44 zonetails counted.

Count-wise, a couple of things were different this year. In Cardel, we counted from the roof of Hotel Estación - not from the famous Bienvenido, which had construction going on this fall. Another difference with previous years perhaps was the lack of tour groups visiting the count. Recent media reports of drug violence in the state of Veracruz kept away virtually all visitors from the US. Instead, we had international visitors from Holland, some of whom (Leo, Dick) diligently scoped through the lines and helped us find birds for nearly a month. They were great company, and everyone in the group enjoyed their company. Was their presence beneficial to the count? Quite possibly.

Still, the high counts to me seem real, not a product of increased observer effort. The Mississippi Kite flight for example was more or less counted by the time Leo and Dick showed up. The exceptional Northern Harrier count also was real, as evidenced by extraordinary numbers caught by the Pronatura VRR banding operation, not far from the count site. They caught nearly forty harriers, when only one or two is normal for a season's worth of banding. The nearest hawk count site, the Corpus Christi count site in southern Texas, had their second best harrier season ever. They also had their best and second-best seasons for Sharp-shinned and Cooper's Hawks respectively. Like us, they counted more American Kestrels this year than any other year. Their Peregrine Falcon numbers, however, were not any higher than usual.

Non raptorial highlights this year included a Sandhill Crane on October 4 in Chichicaxtle, a Chihuahuan Raven on October 27 in Cardel, and a couple of Yellow-headed Blackbirds on November 4 in Chichicaxtle. A group of birders from the project led by Irving Chavez Dominguez found a Common Loon on nearby lagoon La Mancha on November 13, a bird that was still present at least 5 days later.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Sprague's Pipit

Sprague's Pipit - photo by Lynn Schofield
"One of the least-known birds in North America," according to Cornell's Birds of North America, is Sprague's Pipit. "Most information on this species comes from more general studies of northern prairie avian communities. Until very recently, even the persistent flight displays of territorial males had never been described in detail. These displays often last for over thirty minutes, with an occasional male displaying for up to three hours before returning to the ground. No other avian species is known to make such prolonged flight displays." (Robbins & Dale 1999).

Lynn and I found one yesterday in the dunes near Playa Juan Angel, in central Veracruz, more or less at the southern edge of its winter range.

"This pipit often goes undetected during migration through the Great Plains, and almost nothing is known about its behavior on the wintering grounds in the southwestern and south-central United States and northern Mexico." (Robbins & Dale 1999).

map courtesy of eBird

eBird has very few records south of the US border, where fewer birders are active. Central Veracruz has relatively good birder coverage during the month of October, when many birders from outside the region visit to enjoy the spectacle of migration. Sprague's Pipit, however, arrives after most tourists have left, and therefore perhaps has been reported very infrequently. It may well be a regular winter visitor to open arid areas such as the extensive dune system near Playa Juan Angel, where the more common American Pipit is also found.

Cited literature:
Robbins, Mark B. and Brenda C. Dale. 1999. Sprague's Pipit (Anthus spragueii), The Birds of North America Online (A. Poole, Ed.). Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology; Retrieved from the Birds of North America Online:

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Chihuahuan Raven

Chihuahuan Raven
Two days ago, while counting a line of Turkey Vultures migrating over Cardel, Veracruz (Mexico), my co-counter Irving excitedly called out a "cuervo!" or raven, something we don't see every day here. The line was more or less overhead and not terribly high, so it was easy to pick out the bird's different shape and snap a few pictures of it.

Chihuahuan Raven migrating with Turkey Vultures
It clearly looked like a raven, but appeared a little smaller and subtly differently proportioned than the familiar Common Raven. The tail was rounder, not as wedge-shaped as in Common Raven, and the head projection was smaller.

Thus we determined it to be a Chihuahuan Raven, a lifer for me, and evidently a short-distance migrant that more commonly winters north of here.

Chihuahuan Raven range map courtesy of
In fact, once our sighting has been processed by eBird, it will likely be the southernmost record in their dataset.

same range map, zoomed in, courtesy of
The current southernmost records in their dataset are from western Mexico. On the east coast, eBird has not had any records further south than Poza Rica, Veracruz - about 150 km north of here. So really not that far north, then. 

Monday, October 10, 2011

Prairie Falcon

adult Prairie Falcon (photo by Lynn Schofield)
Last Friday, I went with Lynn and two visiting Dutch birders, Leo and Dick, to the highlands around Perote, Veracruz, where we observed this Prairie Falcon.

We were driving along a power line, scanning the surrounding fields, when the car was stopped and I was informed by Lynn that there was my lifer raptor. Peering out the window on her side, I spotted a distant bird that superficially looked like a Turkey Vulture. I studied it intently for a few seconds, lowered my bins and said, somewhat disappointed, "I think it's a Turkey Vulture." At this point my attention was drawn to a bird much closer, and quite happily I confirmed the initial assessment that here, indeed, was the last North American diurnal raptor I still needed for my 'life list'. What a great bird!

Robert Straub in his Site Guide to the birds of Veracruz mentions this species as a possibility for the site, and there is a 1999 record in eBird for the Perote Valley. Whether this bird winters here incidentally or more regularly is hard to say; observer coverage is thinner here than in the US. The Global Raptor Information Network calls it a "fairly common to common transient and winter visitor from October to March, ranging as high as 2,500 m, in Baja California and in Sonora and Tamaulipas and in the interior south over the plateau to eastern Jalisco and northern Hidalgo."

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Sandhill Crane in Chichicaxtle!

Sandhill Crane with Wood Storks, 4 October 2011, Chichicaxtle
Yesterday we counted more than 400,000 raptors on migration here in central Veracruz, Mexico. Incredible as that may sound, this is not unusual for this location - in fact, this is an expected number for this count this time of year.

What is unexpected, however, is a Sandhill Crane this far south. I photographed this individual in a flock of Wood Storks yesterday afternoon in Chichicaxtle.
map courtesy of, Cornell Lab of Ornithology
As far as I can tell - and I'm looking at this map from eBird - this will be the southernmost record in their dataset after I submit it and after their editor accepts it. I don't know if any other records have been reported this far south, for example in North American Birds.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Predicting big flights

Broad-winged Hawks soaring over Chichicaxtle (including one dark morph)
The raptor migration season here in Veracruz is now in its middle, high-volume part, with flights typically of 30,000 raptors or more each day (see The average day count over the last week was just over 76,000. The majority of the flight in this part of the season is of course broadwings.

the direct line measures 966 km, but that is not how the broadwing flies (image courtesy Google Earth)
I mentioned the Corpus Christi hawk watch in my previous entry, and we often look at their numbers to get a sense of what's on our doorstep. That site is located in Hazel Bazemore Park, just outside Corpus Christi, TX, about 1,000 km north of us - as the broadwing flies (their numbers are also posted to

Yesterday, the counters in Texas had a phenomenal day with more than 100,000 broadwings counted as migrants. Broad-winged Hawks migrate "up to 400 km / day in Central America" (Smith 1985, cited in Goodrich et al. 1996), or "500 km in 6 hours of ridge flight with favorable winds" (Kerlinger 1989, cited in Goodrich et al. 1996). A thousand kilometers then would probably take them 3 days or so.
September 2011 day totals for Broad-winged Hawk from Corpus Christi and Veracruz (source:
Wondering if such a traveling speed could be detected in a direct comparison between the daily counts of both sites, I decided to graph that out. I took daily totals of broadwings for both sites for September 2011. Note that the VRR (Veracruz River of Raptors) totals are really from two count sites combined: Cardel and nearby Chichicaxtle.

Obviously, weather events between southern Texas and central Veracruz will influence the broadwing flight between the two locations.

The Corpus Christi count reported their first larger broadwing flight on the 19th of September. Three days later, we had our first wave. From 21 through 24 September, CC had good sustained flights of broadwings. We (VRR) had two good days (23 & 24 September) and after that flights around the 40,000 mark.

The day after tomorrow, will we register the peak flight of broadwings that they had yesterday?

Cited literature:
Goodrich, L. J., S. C. Crocoll and S. E. Senner. 1996. Broad-winged Hawk (Buteo platypterus), The Birds of North America Online (A. Poole, Ed.). Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology; Retrieved from the Birds of North America Online:

Sunday, September 25, 2011

First big flights of the season

Broad-winged Hawks
We have now had the first of those 'big days' that the Veracruz River of Raptors is named for: literally a stream of many tens of thousands of hawks migrating overhead. Having counted in this project for a few years now I am not new to it, but it never ceases to impress me.

The last couple of days we've had big flights of Broad-winged Hawk, one of the four raptor species that together make up 99.9% of our count here in Veracruz. (The other three are Mississippi Kite, Swainson's Hawk and Turkey Vulture.) We knew these birds were on our doorstep when we saw the counts in Corpus Christi (Texas) soar last week. We often get what they get - in tenfold. The only exception to that rule appears to be Prairie Falcon, a bird they get annually in low numbers, but we don't get at all.

Broad-winged Hawks
Flocks of more than 20,000 broadwings are not exceptional here in central Veracruz. The flight is often very concentrated, with tens of thousands of birds moving through in only a few hours. Typically, the flight starts in Cardel, then moves further inland to Chichicaxtle, which gets the afternoon flight of soaring raptors. Afternoons in Cardel are usually more laid-back, with falcons, Ospreys and accipiters dripping through.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Kites still pushing through

Swallow-tailed Kite
As noted before, the Veracruz River of Raptors has already logged more Mississippi Kites this season than in any other year. Even Swallow-tailed Kites are still in the mix, although those must be the ultimate ones. Their migration is the earliest of all, and was already well underway when this count started in August.

a healthy-looking immature Mississippi Kite
Yesterday, we saw a bird that at first had us scratching our heads, wondering even which bird family it belonged to. Eventually it was termed the "zombie kite". The bird was all-dark, blackish, about the size of a Mississippi Kite, with long, thin wings tapering to a point, and a dark tail also tapering to a point, more or less like a booby tail. From a distance, the head seemed very small.

As it got a little closer (but still too far for identifiable photos), we noted heavily abraded flight feathers and a mostly bald head. We figured it was a Mississippi Kite that apparently had been in a fire, and was blackened and burned, but somehow still alive. Many of these late straggling kites that we get these days look scruffy, but this bird was obviously at a whole different level. It held its wings down as it soared on lift it was getting from rising warm air, and never once flapped for all the time we saw it. It seemed disoriented too, for first it flew west toward the mountains, to return a little later eastward to the coast. All other migrants here fly southeast.

We've been getting decent Osprey flights recently, and the Peregrine Falcon flight has picked up, but we still haven't had any big days. This is odd, given the date. I suspect that very soon we will be getting large Broad-winged Hawk flights, but apparently we still have a few kites we need to get out of the way first.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

The woodpeckers of Chichicaxtle

male Ladder-backed Woodpecker
In the southwestern United States, Ladder-backed Woodpecker is a desert species, associated with cactus. Here in Veracruz, it is fairly common in open, disturbed lowland habitat, such as the hedge rows surrounding the cane fields of Chichicaxtle (where cactus is also commonly found). This and two other resident woodpecker species are found around the observation tower in Chichi, the other two being Golden-fronted and Lineated Woodpeckers.

Golden-fronted Woodpecker
Golden-fronted is by far the most common of the three. A typical Melanerpes woodpecker (like the Red-bellied Woodpecker familiar to birders in the eastern US), it is a vocal and conspicuous species. Here in central Veracruz (and in much of Central America) one cannot go very far in disturbed habitats without encountering a few individuals.

male Lineated Woodpecker
Less vocal outside the breeding season but still regularly heard and seen is Lineated Woodpecker, a large and colorful species with a wide range in the Neotropics. We sometimes see and more often hear this species from the observation tower in Chichi. A few years ago, we had it nesting in our yard in Chichi. We have also had it at the new, possibly temporary count site in Cardel, atop the Hotel Estación, which is situated slightly more peripheral than the legendary Hotel Bienvenido.

male Ladder-backed Woodpecker
Of the three, I think Ladder-backed Woodpecker is the one that's most easily overlooked. It does not vocalize very frequently nor fly around much. I don't think it is rare in the area but its retiring habits make it the one least frequently encountered.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Temporada loca

immature Mississippi Kite
As I wrote a couple of blog posts ago, we're seeing higher numbers than usual of Mississippi Kites here in Pronatura's Veracruz River of Raptors migration watch this year. In fact, last week we broke the previous season record of Mississippi Kite, dating from 2002 when 306,274 individuals were counted. We're now at 316,470 - and counting! They're still coming through in good numbers, although Tropical Storm Nate has interrupted the flow momentarily. Birds are likely bottling up north of us, and we may have a big flight on our hands when skies clear on Tuesday or Wednesday.

Mississippi Kite about to catch that dragonfly
The first cold front of the season last week brought migrants that are generally expected a bit later in the season, like Swainson's Hawk, Turkey Vulture, Northern Harrier, and American Kestrel. The broadwing flight also got underway, with almost a thousand individuals moving through these past days. And the first Hook-billed Kites of the season have been recorded - those birds at least perfectly on schedule.

A strong Mississippi Kite flight on the 7th of September produced a wonderful lift-off the next day, when for about an hour and a half we had a constant stream of low-flying kites in Chichicaxtle at the start of the count. Several thousand birds had spent the night in the surrounding areas and were trying to gain lift from the first developing thermals that day. Some of them hunted the also abundant migrant dragonflies.

our resident Zone-tail with an Inca Dove it just caught
An adult rufous morph Swainson's Hawk on the 3rd of September was the earliest ever recorded by the project. (A couple of days later, the Pronatura hawk banders caught a Swainson's Hawk in nearby Cansaburro, their earliest ever capture of this species.) Another unusual phenomenon thus far has been the high number of Zone-tailed Hawks this season. We're already at 77 migrants for the season, when until this time last year only 7 had been recorded.

Clearly, 2011 is exceptional, and the counters here speak of a "temporada loca" (crazy season).

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Late nesting of Buff-bellied Hummingbird

While birding the area near the Pronatura River of Raptors observation tower in Chichicaxtle this morning, Pablo Camacho and I found a female Buff-bellied Hummingbird - incubating! According to Howell & Webb (1995), the nesting period for the eastern Mexico population is April to July, while the Yucatan population breeds February to April.

Buff-bellied Hummingbird occurs in coastal Texas, where it appears to be expanding its range (Lockwood & Freeman 2004). According to the BNA account, breeding takes place in south Texas between mid-March (first eggs) to early October (last fledglings), with the majority of fledglings around between late May and late August (Chavez-Ramirez & Moreno-Valdez 1999). These authors mention two nestlings observed in October in south Texas, suggesting that eggs were laid in September. Our bird is nesting late, but not unheard-of late.

It's nesting in someone's yard, at the edge of the baseball field that we look on to from the hawk observation tower. I'll be sure to check in from time to time, to get a sense of when the eggs will hatch, and when the young will fledge. Let's hope the nest survives tropical storm Nate, scheduled to make landfall here in Veracruz tonight.

Cited literature:
Chavez-Ramirez, Felipe and Arnulfo Moreno-Valdez. 1999. Buff-bellied Hummingbird (Amazilia yucatanensis), The Birds of North America Online (A. Poole, Ed.). Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology; Retrieved from the Birds of North America Online:
Howell, S. N. G. and S. Webb. 1995. A guide to the birds of Mexico and northern Central America. Oxford Univ. Press, Oxford, UK.
Lockwood, Mark. & Brush Freeman. 2004. The TOS handbook of Texas birds. Texas A&M University press.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

A good kite year

This is obviously a good kite year here in Veracruz, Mexico. At September 5, the 2011 Veracruz River of Raptors count had already logged 266,166 Mississippi Kites and 213 Swallow-tailed Kites, with both species still coming through in some numbers. Especially Mississippi Kites are expected to continue for some time in the order of thousands a day, usually trailing off to hundreds a day by late September. They still pass through in October, but in very small numbers.

Looking at counts from 2002-2011 (, we see that this year we've already surpassed the seasonal totals for Mississippi Kite of 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2008 and 2009. We will likely exceed last year's count (274,621), and have a real chance at breaking the exceptional 2002 record of 306,274 Mississippi Kites. The mean number of Mississippi Kites recorded at the two Veracruz count sites combined for the period 1995-2004 was 157,199 (Ruelas Inzunza 2007). The species' recent expansion of its breeding area has been well-documented by excited northeastern birders, and that expansion is reflected in the higher recent counts in central Veracruz, where virtually the entire world population is believed to pass through a relatively small area each fall.

We're also seeing more Swallow-tailed Kites this year than were recorded on average for the period 1995-2004, but we are still far away from the exceptional 2007 seasonal total, when a new record was set with 563 Swallow-tailed Kites. The  average number of STKI for the period 2002-2010 is 275, a number we seem to be on track for this year.

For other raptors it is of course still way too early to say anything about trends. We have had an unusual number of Zone-tailed Hawks already, but this and many other species normally peak late September / early October, when we will have a much better idea about how this year's numbers fit into the larger trend line.

Cited literature: 
Ruelas Inzunza, E. (2007) Raptor and wading bird migration in Veracruz, Mexico: spatial and temporal dynamics, flight performance, and monitoring applications - Dissertation University of Missouri - Columbia.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011


Yesterday, the river of raptors here in Veracruz was momentarily dwarfed by the river of Anhingas. In Cardel, Citlali, Lynn and I counted 'only' 3,001 Mississippi Kites, a number that would be astounding at any other North American hawk watch, but early September in Veracruz is easily dismissed as 'nothing much'. And indeed we saw more Anhingas than Mississippi Kites, which does not happen very often.

In Cardel, we ended up with a count of 3,622 migrating Anhingas yesterday. Like raptors, they are diurnal migrants depending on thermals for lift, and are often found kettling up and then streaming out in search of the next thermal. Unlike raptors, they tend to all move synchronized when riding a thermal, a character that serves as an identification clue at great distances.

The species is resident in the area, but resident populations are augmented with northern migrants during the winter. eBird's Anhinga filter insists that any count over a few hundred individuals is a "great number" that it wants me to confirm, but counters and visitors to the project know that it is by no means unusual to see more than a thousand Anhingas in just one day here.

Seasonal counts at the site during the period 1995-2004 yielded a seasonal average of 31,000 individuals (Ruelas Inzunza 2007), with the 2002 count being exceptional with 40,000 Anhingas counted, i.e. 20% more than the estimated entire North American population! Clearly, those estimates need to be updated. This count in Veracruz provides valuable data not only for population estimates but also for population trends.

Cited literature:
Ruelas Inzunza, E. (2007) Raptor and wading bird migration in Veracruz, Mexico: spatial and temporal dynamics, flight performance, and monitoring applications - Dissertation University of Missouri - Columbia.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Aplomado Falcon

Today some photos of a juvenile Aplomado Falcon, which I took in the dunes near Playa Juan Angel in central Veracruz. This charismatic species, once rare and endangered, is making a healthy comeback, and can now be found throughout the coastal plain of Veracruz.  We sometimes see this species from either of the two Pronatura count sites, and it is virtually a guaranteed sighting when birding anywhere in the coastal dunes.

They're about the size of a Peregrine, but are easily told from that species, even at some distance, by their much longer tail. Closer views reveal pronounced plumage differences such as a whitish eyebrow, a black hour-glass shaped belly patch, orange leg feathering, dark underwing, pale trailing edge of wings etc.

Juveniles, like this individual, show a heavily streaked breast. The breast is unstreaked in adult males, and with only a hint of streaking in adult females.

The leg feathering is pale orange on juveniles, darker orange on adults. There's also a difference in the color of the eye ring and cere: blue on juveniles, yellow on adults (like in Prairie Falcon).

A social raptor, they are often found in loose family groups.