Dec 17 2008
Ever throw a really cool party, then go into semi-hibernation until you recovered? That’s pretty much what’s happened to me since hosting I and the Bird #90 last week. My sincere thanks to all who showed up, both bloggers and readers. It was really nice having you all stop by.
Getting back to the Mexico series, I’ve got a short string of posts planned, each featuring a bird species that is endemic to Northeast Mexico. First up, a real charmer: Tamaulipas Pygmy-Owl Glaucidium sanchezi.
Many birders will be familiar with pygmy-owls, or owlets, a genus that has representatives just about everywhere except Oceania and Antarctica. Fewer will recognize the Tamaulipas part of this bird’s name (and it’s not just birders–even this spell-checker doesn’t seem to have heard of it). Tamaulipas is the Maine of Mexico–the state that caps the country’s northeastern extreme. Note that there is also a Mexico in Maine, but I digress.
Tamaulipas is one of those words that English speakers look at and immediately despair of pronouncing. It’s not too hard, really, if you remember that there’s an OWL in Tamaulipas. Say, “tam–OWL–ee–pass.” You’re close. Now, say it again, but pronounce the pa in pass as pah, almost puh, and you’ll have it. Here’s a link to a sound file of a native son saying it.
However you say it or don’t, the crown jewel of Tamaulipas is the El Cielo Biosphere Reserve. Click that link for some beautiful scenics of the region. It’s a mountainous area in the state’s southern sector, where rugged limestone mountains guard extensive forests, including a tiny patch of cloud forest, a rare habitat type found where warm humid air is forced up mountain slopes, leading to persistent fog/mist/rain. The most famous cloud forest is probably Costa Rica’s Monteverde.
The Tamaulipas Pygmy-Owl is fairly common in and around El Cielo’s cloud forest. According to Howell & Webb, the owl ranges southeastward in a narrow band across the southeastern part of San Luis Potosí, perhaps tipping into bits of Hidalgo and Veracruz. But any way you slice it, this is a restricted-range bird. Maybe less so, if you’re a lumper, rather than a splitter. This population has also been considered part of a more wide-ranging (super)species, the Least Pygmy-Owl. But I think the evidence points to its being a good species in its own right.
When you’re birding upland forests in the El Cielo region, the quavering double and triple whistles of this species will be what you want to imitate if you’re trying to stir up songbird activity and you want to be biogeographically accurate. Just make sure to switch to Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl in the lowlands.
Actually, I’m unconvinced that such fastidiousness is always worth the effort–many small birds seem to respond lustily to imitations or playback of small owl calls that are wildly inappropriate geographically. So if it’s easier for you to whistle some other species, give it a shot. However, there is one indisputable advantage of matching the locals–you may get a real local owl to respond and that will get the small songbirds all fired up. Of course, you may wish to avoid bugging a real owl for a number of reasons, so there may be times when wrong is right.
Speaking of Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl, there’s one reasonably obvious feature you can use to tell that the bird above is not that species. The small pale marks on the forehead and crown are round dots, not linear streaks, as they would be on a Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl. Okay, maybe obvious is a relative term. With pygmy-owls, as with so many convoluted groups, voice and range are really your best clues.
For most of us, such taxonomic minutiae slip into the background whenever we’re in the presence of a creature as beguiling as pygmy-owl, no matter which kind it is. The fact that this is a very special type of pygmy-owl is something we savor before or after. When you’re with one, any pygmy-owl is special.