Scarlet Tanager (Piranga olivacea)

February 9, 2009 by  
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The Scarlet tanager, Piranga olivacea, is unusual in comparison to the other 230 species of the Neotropical Tanager family. The Scarlet Tanager differs in that its plumage changes seasonally, in fact only one other member of the family does this and that is the Tanager that comes from the South American species. Every fall the male bird changes his striking red and black plumage to olive green for a more nondescript look. The small bird is about 6.25 inches long and has a fairly stout bill. The scarlet tanager can mainly be found in treetops.

The adult male tanager is a spectacular looking bird with his vibrant scarlet red plumage set against his shiny black wings and tail. This colouring stays with the male between the spring and summer months.

The adult female has none of the famous red coloring that her counterpart has but has a more yellow plumage. The female has olive back-grey wings and tail with greenish edges at the end of the feathers, and yellow under parts. The juvenile plumage is similar to the female tanager but the males will have blacker tails and wings.

The male scarlet Tanager is very easy to identify because of its striking red coloring. The male summer and Hepatic Tanagers, on the other hand, are entirely red. The female scarlet Tanager is also easily identified as the female summer Tanager is a plain yellow and not just orangey-yellow on its under parts. The female Western Tanager has wing bars and the female Hepatic Tanager has a darker cheek and her under parts are more orangey.

During the winter the Scarlet Tanager will occupy the canopy of the South American tropical forest and then later start their nocturnal migration north with the change of season. First they migrate through Central America and then they head across to the Gulf of Mexico. Upon arrival the male bird will start singing short phrases, alternating between a low and a high pitch, similar to that of the American Robin. He will then move to the lower branches of the trees and start performing his courtship display by drooping his wings slightly away from the body, elongating his neck to show off his scarlet back, as the female takes a look from above. Once the courtship is complete and a mate has been found the male will go further up into the trees and start singing again. The female Scarlet Tanager also sings but has a softer voice then her male companion. Together they will go out and look for food and raise their young.

Neotropic Cormorant (Phalacrocorax brasilianus)

February 9, 2009 by  
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Most commonly found in the American tropics and subtropics, the Neotropic Cormorant (Phalacrocorax brasilianus) is a fairly large bird that generally nests around well-watered areas or lakes and rivers. Besides being found on the mainland of North America as far up as Rio Grand and the Californian coast through to Mexico, Central America and the southern parts of South America, it can also be found on smaller landmasses such as the Bahamas, Cuba and Trinidad. Most of these birds are permanent residents, though some do wander north in the warmer months. Because the bird is so widespread, some ornithologists prefer to treat those found north as one species and those found in the south as another species. However, they can also be grouped into the subspecies Phalacrocorax brasilianus mexicanus (the northern birds) and Phalacrocorax brasilianus brasilianus (the southern birds) and the two are therefore often grouped together as one species of cormorant. The Neotropic Cormorant was formerly known as the Olivaceous Cormorant.

Neotropic Cormorants usually have a body length of 64 cm with a wingspan of 100 cm. They can weigh between 1 and 1.5 kg and those found in the south are usually bigger than those found in the north. Neotropic Cormorants are somewhat slender compared to other cormorants and they have a long tail, hooked bill and long, thin neck, which it frequently holds in an S-shape. The Gular region is pointed and dull yellow in colour and there is a thin pale border around this area. The adult bird has dark plumage covering its entire body, though the throat becomes whiter during breeding season with white tufts appearing on the sides of the head. Immature Neotropic Cormorants have dull brown upperparts and pale underparts.

The Neotropic Cormorant is somewhat different from other cormorants in that it often perches on wires. When it does perch, it is usually with wings spread wide open to dry. These birds feed mainly on small fish and also eat tadpoles, frogs and aquatic insects. They obtain their food by diving underwater and using their feet as a means of propulsion. The Neotropic Cormorant may also forage in groups, beating their wings in the water to drive the fish into the shallows. When it comes to mating, the birds are monogamous and they breed in colonies. They usually build their nest out of sticks in a depression. The centre is usually lined with twigs and grass and cater to as many as five eggs. Both parents sit on the eggs for a period of 25-30 days and then both work together to feed the young until the chicks reach independence at 12 weeks of age. Neotropic Cormorants raise only one brood a year.

Black Swift (Cypseloides niger)

February 9, 2009 by  
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The Black Swift (Cypseloides niger), like other swifts, spends most of its time in the air. A nearctic-neotropical migrant bird species, the Black Swift breeds in areas ranging from Alaska to California, Montana and Colorado. During the winter months you will spot them in the tropics. If you are traveling through mountains or near coastal cliffs in the range of the Black Swift you are more likely to see them.

How can you identify the Black Swift? This bird species has the typical swift shape with a cigar-shaped body and crescent wings. The Black Swift is, however, a large and rather bulky swift measuring 7 inches in length. The tail is short with a deep notch. All the plumage is black except for its whitish forehead which is only seen at close quarters. Juvenile Black Swifts are marked by little white flecks. To clarify your identification of this quick moving bird, listen out for its harsh ci-chi-chi-chit call.

Black Swifts tend to be habitat specific, requiring particular conditions for nesting. Their prefered habitat is in forests near rivers. Typically they will nest behind waterfalls or even on wet cliffs and sometimes in limestone caves. These swifts enjoy a nesting environment that is damp, dark and difficult for predators to reach. Another important factor when choosing a nest site is that it must have an easy flyway for entering and leaving the nest. Because of their very particular nesting requirements, Black Swifts’ distribution is very patchy. The nests are constructed in a cup-like shape made of mud, algae and moss. Black Swifts will either nest on their own or may become part of a small colony. The female bird will lay just one egg in June or July which both parents take turns incubating. Incubation lasts about 4 weeks. The young swift will be able to fly at between 45 and 49 days old.

Black Swifts forage whilst flying either singly or in groups. They frequently forage in wide open areas or above the forest canopy in search of small airborne insects. These are certainly fascinating birds that you will want to watch out for.