Thick-billed Kingbird

On my last trip to the border region of Arizona, I was able to clean up on some life birds, bringing my total North American list nine birds closer to my goal of 600 species. As of today, the list stands at 555. I know those remaining 45 species will not come easy.

On my last day in Arizona, I had a flight to catch around 11 a.m., which gave me time to detour to Patagonia on my way back to the Tucson airport. I was attempting to add one more lifer to the list: the Thick-billed Kingbird. I wasn't certain when I would be in this part of the country next and didn't want to leave without pursuing every new bird that I could.

After striking out on this bird earlier in the trip, I felt my odds of picking it up dwindle as my chances to get out and look got fewer and farther between. This was my last-ditch effort.

In North America, this bird's range is limited to the riparian corridor along the San Pedro River, near Patagonia, Arizona. After searching high and low for an entire morning, I came to the conclusion that this bird's range is actually limited to the sycamore tree at the picnic area on the east side of the road between Patagonia and Nogales. That's where I found this guy, thanks to a tip from a local birder.
The Thick-billed Kingbird is a foliage-loving kingbird that prefers the vegetation of a giant cottonwood or sycamore over a high, open perch, where we find most North American kingbird species. I found this out after spending the better part of a day scanning open perches along the San Pedro, and only finding Tropical Kingbirds and Grey Hawks.


New Swarovski ELs

Update on this blog post (10/22/09): Swarovski has officially introduced these new binoculars. Information on pricing and pre-orders can be found at Eagle Optics here.

There has been a bit of buzz in the optics business as of late about a newly designed, high-end binocular from Swarovski. Rumblings from the rumor mill and speculation began early this summer and I didn't pay much attention. Since my friend and fellow blogger John Riutta let the cat out of the bag, I'll post what I know here.
The redesigned EL (pictured above) doesn't look entirely unlike the current version that many birders and naturalists have come to love. It's my understanding that under the hood, it is a completely different machine. Judging from my first impressions, I would have to concur. This is very much a new binocular.
Other than minor differences in the binocular's trim, the newer EL distinguishes itself from the current generation with a substantially larger ocular lens, as Clay Taylor proudly points out. It's my understanding that design change facilitated the superb edge sharpness, minimal field curvature, and very generous field of view (approx. 400ft@1000 yds).

New Swarovski ELs on the left, current model on the right

They don't look too different from the outside.

Did I mention that it has a 5 foot close focus???? Corey was impressed. So was I.
I think one of the big questions on the minds of optics nuts and avid birders is "What's this little dandy going to cost me and is it worth it?" I don't know the pricing on this yet, as it hasn't been officially introduced to the US market. I would count on it to be more expensive than any of the competition's glass. These are likely the final days of being able to purchase a Swarovski EL for under $2000.


A Visit to Swarovski Optik

Above is an image from a clandestine gathering of the United Council of Birding Bloggers. This is a small but influential group of individuals who meet in secret to plot the course of the birdy blogosphere. They are to bird blogging what the Federal Reserve is to US monetary policy. Needless to say, I found myself in some good company.
At this meeting, we were invited to Swarovski Optik's US headquarters to share our insights on blogging and other "new media" with them. I won't bore you with the details here, but read ahead for a virtual tour of Swarovski's technical facilities in Rhode Island.

Here we are, vacating the insides of an SLC binocular of your run of the mill air and replacing it with nitrogen. Once sealed, this will insure that the inside of the binocular remains free of water vapors, making it internally fog-proof.
Corey from 10,000 birds took advantage of an opportunity to upgrade his own eyes to 8.5 power using this patented binocular vision machine. After this, his pupils were topped off with Swaro-Bright coatings to enhance color contrast and low light performance. Now he can bird without needing any binoculars. The downsides are he can no longer drive a vehicle and is only able to focus on objects 10 feet away or further.
This machine directs a laser into the binocular's lens system to calibrate the optic's prism alignment.
Here is what a $2000 binocular looks like before it's put together.

I've heard it said that a binoculars prism is the heart of the optical system. This piece of mirrored glass accounts for a great deal of the performance birders experience with fine Austrian optics. Stay tuned for a sneak peak at the newest addition to the Swarovski Optik catalog....

Birding SE Arizona

Right now I'm in Sierra Vista, AZ at the Southwest Wings Birding Festival. This is one of my favorite places to bird in the entire country. The birds are fantastic and the landscape is absolutely stunning. I managed to do some birding near Tucson yesterday before getting ready for the festival and it was productive to say the least.
Thus far I have seen 8 lifebirds on this trip, and managed to digiscope 4 of them. Pictured above is the only image I was able to get of a Common Blackhawk. Not the cleanest of shots, though enough to identify the species. The Flame-colored Tanager (above) was a great find, as it's normal range is limited to mountain ranges in Mexico. This particular individual in Madera Canyon could very well be the only one currently in the US. A fantastic bird indeed!
I know this looks a lot like a Blue-grey Gnatcatcher but it's actually a female Black-capped Gnatcatcher. It can really only be distinguished by differences in range and a slightly different vocalization. The males are more readily differentiated by a prominent black cap.
The Varied bunting is another one of the new birds I saw. It's found in the same habitat as the Black-capped gnatcatchers, lower elevation desert scrub. One of the factors contributing to the fantastic birding here is the variation in habitat, primarily based on elevation. In the mountains you will find trogons, Olive Warblers, and Montezuma Quail while lower elevations provide habitat for a whole host of other specialty species including Rufous-Winged sparrows, Gnatcatchers, and the Varied Bunting.
Here's the list of new birds for those who care:
  • Common Blackhawk
  • Gilded Flicker
  • Black-Tailed Gnatcatcher
  • Flame-Colored Tanager
  • Black-Tailed Gnatcatcher
  • Hepatic Tanager
  • Varied Bunting
  • Rufous-Winged Sparrow


Roseate Tern

I just returned from a fantastic trip to Rhode Island where I got a tour of the Swarovski Optik facilities (more on that later) and had a chance to spend a day birding on Cape Cod. The birding was fantastic and I managed to pick up another lifebird getting me one more closer to my quest of 600 birds.

The Roseate Tern (pictured above) can be distinguished from the Common Tern by checking out a couple of key features. First note that the mantle (back of bird) is more pale along with the lighter, white edged outer primary feathers. Also, the tail extends well beyond the wing tips.

You can also see the darker colored wing tips of the Common Terns in the background, compared to the paler tips of the Roseate Tern. These two species often nest together in colonies. Soon, both of these species will begin their southern journey to overwinter along the northern coast of South America.

I will begin my own journey south tomorrow as I board a plane to Tucson for the Southwest Wings Birding Festival. I've got more tales to tell about my recent trip to New England as well, so stay tuned.