Field Notes: Great Egret


The Great Egret lives and breeds on all of the continents save Antarctica. It’s by no means the largest heron, but it’s arguably the most widely distributed. And its recovery from near-extirpation in North America is an example of how bird populations can be saved from human folly. WC has been lucky enough to see…

Field Notes: Hornbills


There are some 59 species of Hornbills, spread across 14 genera, all found exclusively in the Old World, from the East Indies to West Africa. What the family Bucerotidae have in common is an extravagant bill, often capped with a horn structure called a casque. Mind you, not as extravagant as the New World’s Toucans,…

Field Notes: Texas Flycatchers


This post is for WC’s friend, Nils Warnock, a consummate birder. He has forgotten more about birds and birding than WC will ever learn. He has carte blanc to correct all of WC’s errors. To misquote Calvin and Hobbs, there are about a bazillion flycatchers. Among the Tyrannidae, the New World’s Tyrant Flycatchers alone, there…

Geology and Birds


Anyone who has followed Wickersham’s Conscience for more than a few weeks knows that two of WC’s interests are geology and birds. Those two areas aren’t as unrelated as they might seem; often, geology and geomorphology dictate what birds are where. WC has already written about High Island, where the geologic accident of a salt…

A Parula Puzzle


The systematics of Northern and Tropical Parulas, small, brightly colored wood-warblers, have a long, twisted history. Presently, ornithologists treat the two Parulas as a part of the genus Setophaga, along with some 32 other species. Formerly, they had a genus of their own. The Northern Parula breeds across the eastern United States, as far north…

Greater Rhea with About Half of His Brood

The “Biggest Bird”


A reader recently asked WC what was the biggest bird WC has photographed. The question is imprecise, because there is more than one way to define the “biggest bird.” If that reader means “the heaviest bird,” then it is the Greater Rhea. Weighing in at as much as 27 kilograms, it’s not even close; the…

WC Is a Plover Lover


Plovers are a group of about 68 species across nine genera, all in the family Charadiidae. They are found on every continent but Antarctica, and they get pretty close there. The systematics are far from fully sorted out, and the life histories of most of those 68 species are pretty much unknown. Ornithologists cannot even…

The Tanagers That Aren’t


North America is graced with four species of Tanager: Scarlet, Summer, Western and Hepatic. Exceptionally colorful, beautiful and relatively common, they are long-distance migrants that grace our spring and summer days. But, alas, they aren’t really Tanagers; they aren’t members of the family Thraupidae, the true tanagers. Rather, they are members of the family Cardinalidae,…

Something to Rail About


Certainly the most difficult North American family of birds to see, let alone photograph, are the Rails. While there are some 139 species of Ralidae worldwide, WC in this post focuses on the six “true” North American Rails.1 WC has photos of five of them – for a given definition of “photo” – and is…

Salt Domes and High Island


A reader, in response to WC’s point that High Island is the result of a subterranean salt dome, asked what a “salt dome” was. It proved to be an irresistible opportunity for WC to geek out on geology. Imagine a salt pan, an area where salt is a major constituent of surface deposits. The Great…

Very, Very Vireo


Vireos, a family of songbirds distributed around the world, might be one of the families of birds least familiar to non-birders. Vireos don’t make it to Alaska; WC only had limited experience with this family of birds from trips to warmer climes before moving to Idaho. They aren’t as flashy as their warbler cousins, but…

A Few New Warblers


WC was recently in Texas.1 The occasion was spring migration and, in this case, the migration is extraordinary. Small songbirds – in the case of the Warblers that are the focus of this post, weighing about a third of an ounce – fly non-stop from South America to the Gulf Coast, a distance of some…

Some Shorebirds are Even Harder


WC did a post on Thailand’s shorebirds a few weeks back, complaining that Shorebirds are Hard. Bad news, patient readers; these shorebirds are even harder. Here’s a selection from the Pak Thale region of Thailand, showing off a few of the reasons that area is world famous as a place to view shorebirds. No, that’s…

Let’s Just Wade In


“Waders” is WC’s imprecise, unscientific term for the families of birds that make their living wading, mostly in still water, and stabbing fish and invertebrates for their food. The waders, for WC, encompasses everything from Great Egrets down to herons and bitterns. Let’s wade in to a sampling of waders. Storks are cosmopolitan; while North…

Why Woodpeckers Are Maddening


There’s a long list of birds that are hard to photograph for one reason or another. But, in WC’s experience, woodpeckers are on the short list of species that are consistently difficult. Not always in the same way, either. What follows are the best photos WC got of woodpeckers on his trip to Thailand. Not…

Notes on Leaf Birds


Several of WC’s readers have suggested the the identification of Old World Leaf Warblers, the family Phylloscopidae, isn’t that hard. Four different times, our excellent guide couldn’t determine which of three species of Leaf Warbler – Blyth’s, Claudia’s or Davison’s – we were looking at. Even with photos showing field marks, not just our guide…

WC Is Feeling Owlish


Owls are notoriously difficult for birders to find. Nocturnal, specializing in stealth and, outside of mating season, absolutely silent, they are never easy. Tropical owls, mostly roosting in the daytime in the densest part of the tangles and thickets of a tropical forest, might be the hardest. Even when they do call – at Baan…

Mynas Are Starlings? Who Knew?


Starlings are not native to the New World. The European Starling was introduced in North America when a total of about 100 individuals were released into Central Park, in New York City, in 1890 and 1891. The entire North American population, now numbering more than 200 million and distributed across most of the continent, is…