Phylogenetic Avian tree

I was reading Nick Minor's science of birds blog - and came across the following infographic, which is pretty cool, but the chronology is hard to infer without your mind melting a little:

But then it seems some of the folks at Imperial College have also built an beautifully organic moving visualisation of the same data set right here. I could play with this for hours.



South Central LA

 Just as the first polar front clawed its way across the north east and drove every New Yorker into a frenzy of online shopping for the warmest down coat, I stepped out at LAX into the endless sun.

Just flying over the Los Angeles region – the endless grids, malls, freeways veining the sprawling limbs of Long Beach, Santa Monica, Anaheim and Irvine, you’d think there were no redoubts for nature here.


Driving between client meetings I stopped at El Dorado park, a patchwork of microhabitats from coastal live oakwood to chaparral, sandwiched between the ganglands of Compton and Long Beach airport. Wilsons’ and Orange-crowned warblers had stalled their migrations in the riverine forest and out on some wasteland Allen’s hummers buzzed each other with territorial dive bombs more akin to breeding behavior.

Just outside the reserve, as the woods gave way to manicured parkland, a small group of 6 kingbirds came in. I left mounted the kerb, left the engine running and ripped the scope from the backseat. Cassin’s kingbirds confirmed by their surly disyllabic vocalisations.  Lifer #2 on my flying visit to LA.



I’ve been using the summer to put some of my old records into eBird. Partly because I’ve no idea how many birds I’ve actually seen, and am curious to know, and partly because I just think the whole concept of eBird and citizen science is awesome.

What I’ve realized though, is I kept really shitty notes on most of my trips, and none at all on others. I know when I came back from Morocco I had a list of over 100 birds including some pretty interesting Atlas mountain species. 10 years later I have a couple of scribbles in my fieldguide and no real idea what I saw,  apart from a vague memory of Moussier's Redstart because it had such a cool name.

Other trips my field guides seem to have scribbled dates, but no locations. In hindsight, I guess it's much more important to know where you saw something than when you saw it! I did manage to find a really old passport and use the stamps to at least work out what year I’d been to certain places.
Anyway, I’m just over 1700 birds into inputting data, and still going. I’ve yet to finish my Argentina list, which will be the hardest as I lived there, guided and birded for a few years.
I don't know why I thought I couldn't write stuff down while I was guiding...
This marginalia is about as good as my notes get:


Georgia in Fall

I was down in Atlanta the last few days for work. The migrants I'd seen passing through New York a few weeks are go are still moving through the north Georgia mountains. I headed out early along the Chattahoochee, one of my favorite rivers.

The riparian forest in these bottomlands is, in places, genuine old growth, and today it was alive with woodpeckers - that most sedentary of families - as well as migrants.

In fact, I had a six woodpecker morning, with what looked like a mated pair of pileated, a lone red-headed, and countless downies, sapsuckers, red-bellieds and flickers.

One big oak showed how foraging strategies differ to avoid niche competition, with the downies all at the outer reaches of the tree, the sapsuckers focussing slowly and methodically on the forks of the main trunks, and the red-bellieds more flighty and opportunistic. 


This got me wondering why there is high woodpecker diversity here. And about radiation within the woodpeckers generally. 

If woodpeckers are sedentary, and don't show much behavioral plasticity, why are they so successful in these kinds of forest? How can they sustain such diversity? Is woodpecking a really great niche? 

Maybe. It's a niche that's also been exploited by other birds that lack competition from woodpeckers, especially on islands, which woodpeckers haven't been great at colonising; vangas in Madagascar, crows in New Caledonia. 

Or maybe woodpecking is really lots of niches? So the lack of plasticity in behavior is part of the reason they've been able to radiate into sets of close-living specialists. 

Whatever, they're one of my favorite families, so seeing a bunch every time I walk through these forests is always great. 

On the way home, browsing amazon for woodpecker books, I saw the snow had already hit the ridges of the southern reaches of the Appalachians a few hundred miles north over the Tennessee border.



Sky Islands and Sparrows

The backroads to Patagonia Sonoita involved fording a river in full spate. Having been caught out by rental cars that look like 4x4s but are nothing more than 2WDs in chunky dress I almost hit the brakes at the last minute. But the promise of bridled titmouse and whatever else may lurk in the willows along the creek kept me going though.

Luckily the car pushed through, water sloshing the wheel arches.

The gravel road round the back of the preserve was quiet, a woodpecker yaffled from the creek and a few black vultures thermaled above. Rather than jump the fence and go into the closed preserve I settled for a walk along the road. I stumbled pretty quickly on a calling sparrow. Knowing a winter sparrow in AZ could be any of many great birds I scrambled the scope out the car After a bit of pishing and calling I got the bird back, even into the scope.  The little guy was only a rufous-browed sparrow, a lifer and one of the two sparrows I really wanted to see.

This would have been good enough to pack up and head home but a little more wandering turned up my first ever Bridled titmice. 

In keeping with the southern cone place-name theme I headed west to Buenos Aires National Refuge- a lonely wild grassland on the Mexican border, west of Nogales.  The only people I met here were a French couple who had bought a 70s Jaguar in Mexico and were sleeping in it.  This was like a red rag to a bull to the border patrol and when I bumped into them the next day they’d had a sleepless night of angry cops banging on the car windows looking for border runners. 

I made a mesquite fire and camped out, and though the desert temperatures fell off a cliff during the night I got some sleep and woke to the Babquivari peak in the dawn light, which was worth it.

I found my other sparrow, rufous-winged, in the Avianca creek, a breeding pair who were highly inquisitive and territorial in response to song playback. This was a tough sparrow and by late morning even the winter temperatures along the creek had soared into the 90s.

I met some folks from the local Audubon chapter and we scoped a raven, which, with the collective consensus of 10 people, was coalesced into a Chihuahuan raven, but the rictals are pretty evident in this shaky iphone/scope shot. I’d like to think I’d have been confident on my own but it’s good to call it with the locals sometimes.

I left Arizona with 99 species. A last minute drive around the back streets of Ajo to try to lure an Inca dove out of someone's trailer park didn't quite work to get me to 100. And almost got my bitten by a rabid stray.

Now I need a spring-time trip to the fabled Chiricara mountains.

My photo
I work in NYC and own a wildlife and wilderness agency specializing in the southern cone of South America. I still do some guiding down there, especially looking for Fuegian and Patagonian avifauna. I'm particularly interested in the wintering ecology of neotropical migrants, and in avian biogeography in general. You can follow me at - @domhall And find me at - AventuraArgentina.com