The Colorful Canasteros…Huh?

I like canasteros. I like canasteros a lot. There are only five people in the world who like canasteros more than I do, and they ain’t admitting it. However, I have decided to break with the status quo (don’t voluntarily humiliate yourself in public) and admit my infatuation with these long wiry-tailed brown jobbies that live in brown places and probably eat brown things. Canasteros, to put it in terms my mom would understand, are neat. To put it in terms my brother would understand, canasteros are gettin’ jiggy with it.

Two canasteros, the more grassland Scribble-tailed (Argentina, Bolivia, and Peru) and the higher-elevation Streak-throated (Bolivia and Peru). Photos by guide George Armistead.

The Spanish word canastero means simply “basket-maker.” Canasteros make baskets, sort of. Their nests, which are made of fine grasses or small twigs, resemble baskets. Canasteros belong in the family Furnariidae, and are classed in one of two genera: Asthenes and Pseudasthenes. The genus Asthenes also includes Itatiaia Spinetail and 8 species of thistletail, which are, for all intents and purposes, also canasteros.

Junin Canastero, a species endemic to Peru which may be seen on Jesse Fagan’s Machu Picchu & Abra Malaga, Peru tour. Photo by guide Dan Lane.

If you read a description of the habitat or location of canasteros, you will find a repetition of the words “arid” and  “Andes.”  So, though technically many canasteros are found well within the New World tropics, you may be wearing a warm jacket when you see one; there could be snow on the ground and quite possibly no trees in sight.  If you read about their songs (if you can call what comes out of their syrinx a song), then you will find clarifying tidbits like “repetition,” “trill,” “descending,” “sometimes ascending,” or “strident.” These birds are loud vocalists, but their voices are not necessarily their endearing marks. Or, at least no one is describing them as accomplished songsters. Now then, what does one look for visually to distinguish them, that is, what are their field marks? Streaking (presence or absence; above or below). Chin patch (presence of ?). Any rufous on the tail? Any rufous on the wing? Oh boy, this sounds like a bit of a challenge. Hey, look at that Mountain Caracara! Wowwwwww.

Canasteros can be a bit of a mystery. While we were distracted by a flicker or that caracara, it has snuck in like a mouse, making its way through the bunchgrass, popping its little head up, sitting up to take a peek, moving closer, until just a few feet from our group its up on a rock, head held high, tail cocked, and singing. Okay, maybe just trilling, but it’s loud and we are still shocked. How did it get here so quietly and without our noticing?! Now, of course, this doesn’t happen every time. Sometimes it just pokes around in the grass or rocks, calls a few times, and we never see it. This frustrates us no end. It’s partly because in the field guide description on distribution it states many canasteros are “local and rare” or “local and uncommon” and always punctuated with “hard to see.” True, but that’s part of the allure.

A canastero quest will surely include a good deal of birding in high Andean habitat like this, as roughly 50% of these birds occur only above 8000 feet in elevation. Photo by guide Dan Lane.

Wish me luck. I am now on a Canastero Quest. You all are the first to know. Forget warblers, hummingbirds, and who needs those Tangara tanagers, anyway? I want brown, streaky, loudly trilling, local, and difficult to see. I want behavioral problems. I want color without the color.

Guide Jesse Fagan (a.k.a. theMotmot) still has a bunch of canasteros to see.  And where can you hope to see a canastero? Certainly on either of Jesse’s MACHU PICCHU & ABRA MALAGA, PERU tours, or on many of our Andean tours, a sampling of which includes:

Peru’s Magnetic North: Spatuletails, Owlet Lodge & More
Montane Ecuador: Cloudforests of the Andes
Ecuador: Rainforest & Andes
Bolivia’s Avian Riches
Northwestern Argentina: The Chaco, Cordoba & Northern Andes 



The Kirtland’s Warbler: Eleuthera Island, Bahamas

The Kirtland’s Warbler is one of the rarest of the temperate New World warblers. It is listed as a federally endangered species and Near Threatened by BirdLife International. Nearly its entire population (current estimates of more than 3600 individuals) breeds in north-central Michigan in young Jack Pine forests. These forests were once naturally fire-maintained ecosystems, but they are now heavily managed through controlled burns and harvesting.

Jesse Fagan
Jesse Fagan

Brown-headed Cowbirds, though native to the Great Plains,  spread into Michigan in the 1880s following the felling of eastern forests, which acted as a natural break to the expansion of this species eastward. Cowbird parasitism rates on Kirtland’s Warbler were once as high as 70%, but with control measures that began in the 1970s, this rate dropped to a low of 3%, and warbler productivity tripled. The population of Kirtland’s Warbler has continued to grow since the 1990s, so much so that the federal government is beginning to think about de-listing it. Pairs are now breeding in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, in Ontario, and most recently in central Wisconsin. Despite still being very rare in migration, birds are being found with more frequency, including at least two seen in northwest Ohio in May 2010. I was fortunate to see a female on migration in late September 2006 on Folly Island (Charleston County), South Carolina.

Kirtland's Warbler
Kirtland's Warbler, Eleuthera

Surprisingly though, my experiences with Kirtland’s have not occurred where most people are likely to see them. I mentioned the bird in migration (my lifer), but I have now had the pleasure of seeing Kirtland’s Warbler on its wintering grounds in the Bahamas. In late April 2008, I made my first visit to the island of Eleuthera in the Bahamas to scout the area for a Field Guides tour there. Eleuthera is one of just two islands in the archipelago where visitors can see Great Lizard-Cuckoo, though I must admit I had Kirtland’s on my mind as well. I searched extensively throughout the island but didn’t find a one. I suppose the late date of my trip may have had something to do with this. Kirtland’s generally arrive on their breeding grounds in mid-May, which would mean that many of them have probably left or are beginning to leave the islands by late April.

It was the following year in early April 2009 while leading the tour that I got my first look at a wintering Kirtland’s Warbler. We had spent the previous day on Eleuthera tracking down the Great Lizard-Cuckoo, eventually finding several individuals around our hotel grounds on the north end of the island near Gregory Town. These oversized Coccyzus cuckoos spend much of the day in the shadows of tall coppice hunting Anolis lizards. Occasionally they like to come out and sun themselves. They also make amazing cackling or growling sounds. However, on this day I knew I needed to find some good low scrub or coppice if we had any chance of locating a Kirtland’s, our remaining target bird. We set out and after driving several kilometers south of Governor’s Harbour I eased the van over to the right shoulder at a spot where the habitat looked good—a mix of low open scrub with visible bare ground between bushes. No sooner had we gotten out of the van than we began hearing a rich call note, tsip!, coming from the vegetation. All of a sudden, a bird popped up in front of us in the closest small scrub. A little surprised, I remember saying to the group, “Hey guys, that’s a Kirtland’s Warbler!”

Bahamas birds
A few resident friends that Kirtland's Warblers get to see in the Bahamas in winter: the rose-throated Bahama Parrot (likely to be split from Cuban), a glowing male Bahama Yellowthroat, and the dark-eyed Thick-billed Vireo. (All photos by Jesse Fagan)

We ended up finding a total of five Kirtland’s that day at two different sites. In April 2010 our tour group found another female. That totals six sightings of Kirtland’s in two years. Not bad, I believe, considering the paucity of records on the wintering grounds. All our sightings were of unbanded birds and most appeared to be females or first-year birds. It is surprising to me that we didn’t find any males, but perhaps males prefer a slightly different habitat type or maybe we just missed them. Adult male warblers typically leave the wintering grounds before females, but early April is still probably too early for migration of either sex.

It is exciting when tour leading and science can mix. I know our participants enjoy being a part of something that is not well studied—a feeling that every little photo or written note is helping us to learn a bit more about a species, in this case the Kirtland’s Warbler.

See our Bahamas tour page for more information on our upcoming tours, or visit Jesse’s guide page for his complete tour schedule.

Bird Buzz: Rufous Potoo!

Nightbirding leads us to some of the most interesting and poorly known birds we encounter on tour. Guide Bret Whitney‘s photos, video, and text below introduce us to one of the most seldom seen, the fabulous Rufous Potoo of Amazonia. The text and photos are great, but be sure also not to miss the 1-minute video at the bottom of this page.

Of the seven currently recognized species of potoos –- all in the genus Nyctibius (Greek for “night-feeding”) –- the Rufous Potoo is certainly the most distinctive… and the most mysterious.  Up until the late 1980s, very few ornithologists had seen one alive, and its voice remained unknown; to this day only a small cadre of researchers and birders has thrown the beam of a spotlight on one.  In that moment of epiphany, each and every one of them, without doubt, has marveled at the intricacy of the pearl-spotting on “gold-leaf” (hence the Latin epithet bracteatus) plumage that so sets the Rufous apart from its brethren. It is by far the smallest potoo, too, and it possesses the strangest dark apron at the bottom edge of its pupil, as if a black keyhole were set into the brilliant yellow orb of its iris.

The Rufous Potoo has evolved some remarkable life traits and survival strategies.  The “nest,” for example, is the exposed top of a vertical, broken stub a few inches in diameter in the understory of terra firme (never flooded) forest.  The single white egg is laid, necessarily, with unerring aim.  To escape the eyes of predators, adults rely on the camouflage of their plumage augmented, if even slightly threatened, by a slow, steady rocking motion that transforms the speckled, rufous lump of a bird into a dead leaf with holes in it stirred by the breeze!  (Watch the 1-minute video below to see this.)

The chick is an absolutely adorable creature that resembles a bird only vaguely.  Covered in cute little rufous-and-black curls and pinfeathers with a fierce stare and outsized feet to secure it atop its stub, it hopes, best-case, to be passed off as a tuft of rotting vegetation.  For those fearful moments, however, the Rufous Potoo chick reserves a threat display as shocking as any I have experienced in the world of birds.  If you get too close (as I did only once!), the tiny beast suddenly lunges forward with its mouth hugely open to flash a startling pink gape; it truly made me gasp and shiver, so unanticipated was it. Here’s a collage of three images of a chick:

Indeed, the Rufous Potoo is the oddest member of the bizarre and ancient potoo lineage, and recent studies including molecular analysis indicate that it deserves a separate, monotypic genus.  If you haven’t yet had the great luck to see a Rufous Potoo, you have a wonderful treat in store for you one day…or more likely, one starry, moonlit Amazonian night.

Check out the video below of an adult Rufous Potoo, especially the gentle rocking motion mentioned above (very cool!) and the amazing eye. For best resolution after you’ve started the video playing, click on the “360” button at the lower right to choose the higher-resolution “480” setting.