Saturday, April 28, 2012

Birding in Puerto Penasco

If you look at aerial photos of the region surrounding Puerto Penasco you might think no living creatures could survive there. It's sand and dust as far as the eye can see, with the dominant color being beige.

Most prominent of the region's features is the El Pinacate biosphere reserve, covering 714,556.6 hectares which includes parts of the municipalities of Puerto Peñasco, San Luís Río Colorado and Plutarco Elías Calles. This area has been considered one of the most arid and inhospitable of the Sonoran Desert.

Yet in spite of this, there is an incredible diversity of plants and wildlife to be found around Puerto Penasco, not the least of which is the presence of at least 237 species of birds. These birds inhabit all manner of niches in the area, but aside from the coastline the best places to look are often the many estuaries, along with places in town that provide good habitat with plenty of trees and bushes.

Nevertheless, you might encounter various bird species almost anywhere. The above photo of a dusty Great Blue Heron, for instance, was taken in a field just outside of the Desert Oasis development, quite some distance from any water. What it was doing there is anyone's guess, though from the blood on its beak it appears it had just finished a meal.

For some sightings, such as blue-footed and brown boobies, the best places to look are offshore near places like San Jorge Island (colloquially called "Bird Island", really a group of rocky outcroppings that are just above the surface of the ocean about 40km southeast of the city). You can hire a boat to take you there, with the added advantage of a snorkeling or scuba experience with a few thousand sea lions that hang out on the lower levels of the rocks.

The most obvious species seen by the casual visitor are the sea and shore birds that populate the coastline and carry out their daily affairs near the shore. The comical brown pelicans are a perennial favorite with everyone, and at any given time there are at least a couple thousand of them somewhere in the vicinity to entertain visitors and residents alike.

Gawky and clumsy on land, brown pelicans take on a grace and agility in the air that is a pleasure to watch. Whether flying in neat squadrons high in the air or soaring effortlessly just above the waves, heads tucked in along their upper backs, they suddenly look elegant and beautiful. Then they uncurl for a dive (this is the only pelican species that dives), their heads and necks pointing like lasers toward a fish, their wings and feet stretched back, and they become a lethal projectile ending in a mighty splash. If successful, they will surface, take the time to swallow their catch, then take off for another try. If they've missed their mark, they don't hang around.

There are also occasional sightings of white pelicans, but these are seen less frequently and are mostly found around the estuaries.

On the other hand, if you hang out a hummingbird feeder you will be inundated with Anna's and Costa's hummingbirds (this picture is a male Anna's hummingbird), which are always a pure pleasure to watch. Hummingbirds use nectar to fuel themselves while they pursue their true prey of tiny insects like midges and fruit flies; a friend once told me that she hangs an unpeeled banana near the feeders, which attracts the little insects and makes life that much easier for the tiny birds. I've never tried it, but you might want to.

Along the shore you will also see numerous species of gulls and terns. The most numerous gull species in the area are Heermann's, California, Ring-billed, Herring and Yellow-footed; but you may also spot a few Bonaparte's gulls, Thayer's gulls and Western gulls, along with rare sightings of other varieties that sometimes show up in small numbers.

Among the terns, the most common is the Forster's tern, followed in numbers by the Caspian, Royal and occasional Gull-billed tern.

The following is a partial list of some of the most commonly seen birds you might find within the greater Puerto Penasco area. I'll bet you'll be surprised!

Osprey, Kites, Hawks, Owls & Harriers:
  • Burrowing Owl
  • Cooper's Hawk
  • Ferruginous Hawk
  • Great Horned Owl
  • Harris' Hawk
  • Northern Harrier
  • Osprey
  • Red-tailed Hawk
  • Sharp-shinned Hawk
Caracaras and Falcons:
  • American Kestrel
  • Crested Caracara
  • Merlin
  • Prairie Falcon
Herons & Egrets
  • Black-crowned Night Heron
  • Cattle Egret
  • Great Blue Heron
  • Great Egret
  • Snowy Egret
Ducks & Geese:
  • American Green-winged Teal
  • American Wigeon
  • Bufflehead
  • Cinnamon Teal
  • Common Goldeneye
  • Lesser Scaup
  • Northern Pintail
  • Northern Shoveler
  • Ruddy Duck
  • Red-breasted Merganser
  • Surf Scoter
Grebes, Loons, Shearwaters and Cormorants:
  • Black-vented Shearwater
  • Clark's Grebe
  • Common Loon
  • Double-crested Cormorant
  • Eared Grebe
  • Pacific Loon
Boobies and Pelicans:
  • American White Pelican
  • Brown Pelican
  • Blue-footed Booby
  • Brown Booby
Quail and Doves:
  • Gambel's Quail
  • Inca Dove
  • Mourning Dove
  • Rock Pigeon (Dove)
Avocets, Coots, Stilts and Oystercatchers:
  • American Avocet
  • American Coot
  • American Oystercatcher
  • Black-necked Stilt
Plovers, Sandpipers (and allies):
  • Black-bellied Plover
  • Black Turnstone
  • Dunlin
  • Greater Yellowlegs
  • Killdeer
  • Least Sandpiper
  • Long-billed Curlew
  • Marbled Godwit
  • Ruddy Turnstone
  • Sanderling
  • Semipalmated Plover
  • Shortbilled Dowitcher
  • Snowy Plover
  • Surfbird
  • Western Sandpiper
  • Whimbrel
  • Willet
  • Wilson's Plover
Gulls, Terns and Skimmers:
  • Black Skimmer
  • Bonaparte's Gull
  • California Gull
  • Caspian Tern
  • Forster's Tern
  • Gull-billed Tern
  • Heermann's Gull
  • Herring Gull
  • Ring-billed Gull
  • Yellow-footed Gull
  • Anna's Hummingbird
  • Costa's Hummingbird
Kingfishers, Woodpeckers, Flycatchers and Larks:
  • Belted Kingfisher
  • Black Phoebe
  • Horned Lark
  • Loggerhead Shrike
  • Northern (Red-Shafted) Flicker
  • Say's Phoebe
  • Verdin
Gnatcatchers, Wrens, Mockingbirds, Pipits and Thrushes:
  • American Pipit
  • American Robin
  • Black-tailed Gnatcatcher
  • Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
  • House Wren
  • Marsh Wren
  • Mountain Bluebird (uncommon)
  • Northern Mockingbird
  • Rock Wren
  • Cactus Wren
  • Cedar Waxwing
Blackbirds, Orioles, Thrashers & Allies:
  • Brewer's Blackbird
  • Curve-billed Thrasher
  • European Starling
  • Great-tailed Grackle
  • Western Meadowlark
Sparrows, Finches, Warblers and...:
  • House Finch
  • House Sparrow
  • Lesser Goldfinch
  • Orange-crowned Warbler
  • Sage Sparrow
  • Savannah (Large-billed) Sparrow
  • Savannah Sparrow
  • Western Meadowlark
  • White-crowned Sparrow
  • Yellow-rumped (Audubon's) Warbler
And of course there are the ubiquitous Turkey Vultures, which are actually a lot of fun to watch.

There are many other bird species in the area that I have not listed here, some of which are seen only rarely or simply didn't make the count because there weren't enough people in the field to spot them during annual Christmas Counts under the auspices of the Audubon Society (the Southeastern Arizona Bird Observatory). So bring your binoculars with you, and a camera, and prepare to be delighted by all the birds you'll see!

Have you seen birds not listed here? Let me know about it, and if you have pictures I'd love to include them!

-La Huerita

Awaken your inner beachbum

Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover. -Mark Twain