Sunday, May 30, 2010
Black-capped vireo, Vireo atricapilla. The vireo is the only bird whose name is a sentence. In Latin, Vireo means "I am green." This photo lifted in desperation from Wikipedia. I didn't get a photo of my own, despite grandiose dreams. For truly spectacular photos, see Greg Lasley's web site at the hotlink below.
Debby, Tim and I had come to the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge for many reasons, but chief among them was a small vireo, the black-capped vireo. This Federally endangered bird now occurs on a small patch of the planet from Oklahoma, south through Texas and just into northern Mexico. Its range keeps shrinking, for it suffers greatly from twin threats. Black-capped vireos, like endangered Kirtland's warblers, prefer vegetation that is at a certain stage of early succession. Smoky Bear's extravagantly successful campaign to eradicate forest fires also nearly eradicated a bunch of species that depend on fire to replenish the new growth they need. Brown-headed cowbirds like that early successional stuff, too, and they plague black-capped vireos and Kirtland's warblers alike by laying their eggs in the endangered birds' nests, usurping food and care from baby vireos and warblers. Drat those cowbirds, how they target the vanishing ones.
Debby Kaspari led us through rock and pine, cactus and wildflowers to a riparian zone beneath a glowering canyon wall that surprise! rang with the chattering, noodly song of black-capped vireos. It was a stretch to believe that song emanated from a vireo. Hearing them was one thing, seeing them was quite another. The oaks were thick; the habitat was dense, and the vireos were cagey. The "shinnery," a tangle of oaks and sumac where the vegetation reaches to ground level, that the birds prefer is nearly impenetrable.
No wonder these little birds make themselves known with constant song, only vaguely vireolike. It has so many syllables it sounds more like a whispery purple finch to me.
This has to be wild verbena. It looks just like what I plant in my hanging baskets every spring.
Blue star (Amsonia hubrichtii) bloomed among the rocks of our trail.
Deb identified it, and sent me this iPhone photo she took:
At one point in our quest we heard cracking sticks and heavy, stentorian breathing, which could have been either a bison or a longhorn. It is a spine-tingling feeling to hear a very large something breathing, and not be able to see so much as a hair of it. We freshened our pace and moved along.
There was a lot of wildlife here. A wild turkey hen pecks cagily about. I imagine she had a nest hidden nearby.
There were beautiful rootscapes. I could see Debby just sitting down with a pencil and sketchpad and getting lost in these roots for a day or two. We pulled her along.
We listened and watched, listened and watched.
There were mosscapes in the tumbling stream.
There was a small grasshopper nymph who perfectly matched the granite he sat on.
Finally, several hundred yards distant, we caught the motion of a singing black-capped vireo as he rocketed amongst the branches of small oaks. We all got on it, all saw its ebony cap and white spectacles, and it was gone. Ahh, birding with birders--it was so nice not to have to painstakingly point out where the thing was, as I've been doing all spring!
But it had been enough, really, to be in its home, to hear it and six other singing males, to know it was here.
And so were we, on a perfect day in April.
Julie and Debby Kaspari, April 19, 2010, Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge. Photo by Tim Ryan