Foam Lake Birding No. 152

No. 152
            In keeping with our California desert theme I decided to write about one of the most common and conspicuous of our desert birds, the Cactus Wren.  It is more of a true desert inhabitant than either the Black Phoebe or the Phainopepla discussed in the previous two articles, but still, it is often seen in the same locales as these two species. 
            I am rather fortunate in that I have seen eight of the nine species of wrens that occur in North America.  The odd thing is that the one species that I have not seen, the Sedge Wren, is found in the Foam Lake area.  Eight of the nine species of wrens are small chunky birds with short tails and the males of all eight sit on open perches and sing loudly claiming their territory.  The Cactus Wren is different in almost all ways from other members of its family.  First, it is a giant compared to the others being about halfway between a sparrow and robin in size.  Second, it is not a songster in any sense of the word.  Rather, it makes a kind of grunting or chugging sound as it forages.  An interesting characteristic is that it prefers to nest in the very dense and prickly Cholla Cactus which explains the origin of the bird’s name. 
            In terms of field marks it looks like a short tailed thrasher for which it is often mistaken.  That is, it is a mottled brown and white bird with a rather long down curved bill.  Its only distinguishing mark is a pronounced white eyebrow line.  Unlike thrashers the Cactus Wren is quite confiding and seems to like living close to man.  It is not uncommon to see one or several wrens running across a paved parking lot, penguin-like, chasing after something to eat.  Like thrashers they like to flip over dead leaves in order to expose something tasty.  Their primary food is insects but they will catch small lizards and literally beat them to death by swinging them against something hard like a rock, brick or pavement.  I have seen all of this take place within a few metres of where I was standing. 
            This week’s pictures were taken several years ago in two different places.  The photo of the lone wren was taken in Arizona; the photo of the Cactus Wren and Phainopepla sharing a snag was taken in California.  I included the second photo simply because I liked it. 

Foam Lake Birding No. 151

No. 151
            Another bird, coincidentally black in colour, is found in the same kind of desert areas as the Black Phoebe.  The Phainopepla is not related to the Black Phoebe but to a family of birds known as Silky Flycatchers (not related to the true flycatchers either).  This New World family consists of only four species of which the Phainopepla is the most northerly extending its range well into the USA.  The only other member of the family to be found in the USA is the Grey Silky Flycatcher which strays into the country along the Mexican border.  Silky Flycatchers physically resemble waxwings and for many years were included in same family. 
            The Phainopepla behaves like a typical flycatcher in that it sits quietly on a prominent perch from which it flies out to snag flying insects.  Unlike true flycatchers the Phainopepla is a   voracious fruit eater.  Small flocks will gorge themselves on elderberries found along riparian woods.  This preference for berries is one of the main reasons that the Silky Flycatchers were originally lumped into the same family as the waxwings.  When elder berries are not in season or when eaten by the birds themselves, lone males will fly into drier areas and lay claim to the parasitic desert mistletoe found hanging from Mesquite trees.  Although the mistletoe berries are poisonous they do not seem to bother the Phainopepla at all.  When driving along a desert road it is a common sight to see a lone male Phainopepla fiercely guarding his “berry patch” against all comers. 
            The Phainopepla is very easy to identify in the field.  It is a slender sparrow sized black bird with a perky crest and long tail.  Its habit of sitting conspicuously out in the open makes it very easy to observe and photograph.  In good light the male’s coat gives off a bit of a sheen that gives rise to the family name “silky”.  In contrast to the male the female is a grey-brown version of the male’s.  Both sexes show distinct white wing patches near the tips of their wings (visible in flight only) and both have red eyes.  The red eyes are more distinctive in the male. 
            An interesting piece of trivia is that this is one of only a few birds that does not have a common “English” name, rather it carries its scientific name, Phainopepla.  For example, if our Robin did not have a common name it would be called “turdus”.  Now, that would raise a few eyebrows.  This week’s photo was taken in the desert on the outskirts of the Joshua Tree National Park in California.