Thursday, November 12, 2009

Old Cottontop

Scaled Quail. Photo by David Powell.

I knew that I should be driving slowly on the back roads of P-J land, shorthand for pinyon-juniper, because of the myriad of small animals that just might decide to cross the road at the exact same time as my vehicle arrived. It’s happened to me before, even though I try my best to be alert to animals that have evolved over millions of years without the hazards wrought by high speed vehicles that have only been around for about 100. Once, a little House Wren inadvertently committed suicide by flying right into the side of my car. Another time, a Lesser Goldfinch crossed the road in front of my car, right at hood height. I picked tiny little, bright yellow feathers from my air filter after that, all that remained of a formerly vibrant songbird. Then, at night there are the rabbits! They sit quietly, nearly invisible, but as a car approaches, they run, first off the road and then right back onto the road, sometimes right beneath the wheels.

But, there is one group of birds that I find particularly endearing, quail, and they also tend to hang out near back country roads. In New Mexico, the two most common species are the Scaled Quail and the Gambel’s Quail. Often, I’ll catch a glimpse of one individual, generally standing beneath the shade of a low shrub. When I see that one bird, I just KNOW to drive slow, because it is NEVER just one bird. Spooked by the car, the observed bird waits until I am almost upon it and then dashes across the road, followed by one, then another, and finally a whole covey of them, sometimes up to fifty strong.
Gambel’s Quail are the ones with the curly top knot, most common in the southern part of New Mexico. In our neck of the woods, we more often find their cousins, the Scaled Quail, also called Cottontop, so named for the distinctive white top-knot on its crest. They usually run from predators rather than fly, which is precisely why they are at greater risk of car strikes.
Because Scaled Quail are usually seen running or flying away, folks often don’t get a chance to give them a good, once-over viewing, and to marvel at their buffy breast feathers, spectacularly edged with dark brown, giving them a lovely scalloped look. It’s one of those cases where nature achieved subtle perfection in design, since the scalies actually do blend in with their surroundings despite their elaborate plumage.

Common in the lower elevations of New Mexico, they call to each other as they wander through brushy arroyos, cactus flats, sagebrush and pinyon-juniper woodland. They charming call, “pay-cos, pay-cos,” has become synonymous with the arid lands which they call home. Here, they wander along, picking up insects, seeds, and berries as they go, opportunistically foraging for whatever foods are available. They are often found around ranches, farms, and even on the outskirts of urban centers. They readily come to seed placed on the ground or in platform feeders positioned low to the ground, and have become a familiar and much loved back yard bird. However, their nests are extremely well hidden, often in dense, shaded vegetation, under brush piles, old machinery, and along fields, and very difficult to detect.

Scaled and Gambel’s Quail populations cycle through “booms and busts” generally associated with drought years where low rainfall results in a lack of succulent foods. During these times, quail suffer widespread reproductive failure. Succulent vegetation is especially important to quail during drought periods, as it is to other desert dwellers that must obtain their fluids from moisture in the plants they consume rather than water.

Scaled Quail are a high priority species for many North American bird conservation initiatives due to long-term population declines. Although quail are game birds, hunting does not appear to be a factor in their decline. However, like many other upland game birds of the desert Southwest, they are particularly vulnerable to overgrazing by livestock, which has severely reduced feeding, nesting, and roosting cover in many areas.

So, the next time you are meandering along a back country road, remember to give a bird a brake. If you take the time to stop, look, and listen, you just might be in for an eye-popping extravaganza, especially during the spring and summer when Mom and Dad Quail have little ones. They look like cotton balls on short, little legs as they race along behind their parents. Wait until the whole covey passes and then wait a tad longer. There’s often a straggler racing to catch up.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Meet the Butcherbird: Loggerhead Shrike

Loggerhead Shrike. Photo by Doug Brown.

Far from home, along the Texas Gulf Coast, the birding had been exceptional for our small group of wanderers. We’d already covered many of the noted birding destinations such as High Island and Bolivar Flats, and now were looking for wetland obligate species at Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge northeast of Houston.

Initially, I thought that the gray bird with the white wing patches might be a Northern Mockingbird, but its flight was direct, nothing like the undulating, almost flirtatious flight pattern of the mockingbird. Indeed, the Loggerhead Shrike seemed to be a bird on a mission, with a purpose for alighting on the bare branch of a tree only about 30 feet distant. It just sat without moving though, and our birding group soon lost interest. We turned our attention to the numerous wetland birds, remarking on the Least Bittern lurking in the vegetation and the abundant Northern Rough-winged Swallows gracefully swooping over the open water, snaring aerial insects.

Suddenly, a piercing shriek broke the otherwise idyllic sounds of nature. As one, our heads turned toward the sound, only to witness two birds, shrike and swallow, locked in mortal combat. It seemed improbable that the shrike even would have tried to capture the swallow, so buoyant and aerially superior in flight, but it did just that. As we watched with mixed emotions, the shrike first pinned the hapless swallow to the ground, biting its neck, and then flew off out of sight with the victim firmly clamped in its bill.

Loggerhead Shrikes are medium- sized songbirds with bird of prey personalities. At first glance, the shrike hardly appears to be a predator, but it regularly preys on insects, lizards, mice, and birds, hence the common name, “Butcherbird”. Its head is large in proportion to the rest of its body, hence the name “Loggerhead”, which also means blockhead. Not a kind moniker for the little fellow trying to make a living on larger than average-sized prey for songbirds. Although it is technically classified as a member of the order, Passeriformes, to which all songbirds belong, its behavior mimics that of its larger, distantly related cousins, raptors.

Like a raptor, the shrike scans for food from perches. It kills by biting prey in back of neck, cutting the spinal cord. Because it lacks the strong feet and talons of a raptor necessary to hold down and tear its food, it uses thorns and barbed wire to hold large prey while it rips it up, and may wedge prey into a fork in a branch for the same purpose. In some cases, an individual will store, or cache, several carcasses for later consumption and, occasionally a cache cactus or barbed wire fence might be festooned with bodies. Like a raptor, it has a strongly hooked bill for gripping flesh. And, like a falcon it has a strong notch or "tooth" near the bill tip that helps sever the spinal cord of its prey.

Although these attributes sound like a recipe for success, the outlook for the total population is not rosy. Significant declines in this once abundant species have been documented across almost the entire United States since at least the 1970s. Scientific estimates place the total population somewhere between 2.9 and 4 million birds, down from about 10 million birds 40 years ago. This represents a population decline ranging between 60-70%.

In New Mexico, Loggerhead Shrike frequents open pinyon/juniper woodland and deciduous forest. Because they require large territories to adequately support themselves and their offspring (up to 7 per clutch), densities are low, and the bird might be difficult to locate. Keep an eye out on those mockingbirds that also have large white wing patches on their gray bodies. Perhaps you will be lucky and find one with a distinctive black face mask – that would be a Loggerhead Shrike.