Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Bird of the Month: Salinas Monjita

The Salinas Monjita (Xolmis salinarum) is an endemic tyrant flycatcher found only in the salt flats of western Argentina, the Salinas Grandes and Salinas de Ambargasta.  It is beautifully patterned in white, black and warm brown, perfect for its unusual habitat.
This range-restricted species has a very specialized niche: it only inhabits the Salicornia and other salt-tolerant bushes at the edge of these huge salt flats.  These is quite unusual... no other bird species occupy this niche.  Check this video showing a 180º view of a tiny section of the Salinas Grandes and you will wonder how anything can survive there?
If you live in such a vast habitat, then the ability to turn your neck almost 360º should be very useful.
As I mentioned in a previous post, this species was described originally as a subspecies of the also endemic Rusty-backed Monjita... but now most authorities recognize this form as a distinctive species.  There are many physical differences in plumage (something unusual among subspecies of monjitas and their allies, the ground-tyrants)... in fact, one of these differences (the wing pattern) may play a role in reproductive isolation, since the monjitas (and the ground-tyrants) use wing-raising displays to attract mates.
Finding Salinas Monjita in Salinas Grandes, Cordoba (with my friend Jorge Martín Spinuzza of avespampa.com.ar) was the most shocking experience of all the trip!  Seeing these specialized birds against the salt, under the burning sun and in my only shot... priceless!
For these, and MANY other reasons, is why we chose the Salinas Monjita as our bird of the month!
Literature consulted:
1. South American Classification Committee, proposal #350 (available at http://www.museum.lsu.edu/~Remsen/SACCprop350.html)
2. NeotropicalBirds: Xolmis salinarum overview (available at http://neotropical.birds.cornell.edu/portal/species/overview?p_p_spp=466476)

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