Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Who Needs the Ballet?

As promised, this past weekend was pretty rainy in central Phoenix, and when it wasn't rainy it was still pretty damn gloomy (which will be the case this weekend too). In combination with other business, this was enough of a deterrent for dedicated birding and exploring time through Sunday, but by Monday morning I could no longer resist the Call of the Wild, or of the Almost Wild, or of the Maybe Wild...or of the Definitely Not Wild.

Sunrise is usually good after a storm, even if there was still thick fog in the valley. RTHAs dig it.

Mopey weather given, western Maricopa has been host for the last few weeks to 3 swan species (couldn't turn up that Black Swan, alas), and questions of provenance the possibility of logging a '3 Swan Day' was too enticing to pass up.
It may not sound like an obvious migrant trap, but it seems every couple of years the alfalfa fields in the Buckeye/Jackrabbit area of western Phoenix hold one or more wayward Swans. A couple years ago it was a half-dozen Tundra, and this time around a lone Trumpeter decided that here would be as good a place as any to spend the winter.

Lamentably the bird was very far from public roads. Some birders have had luck asking for better access from the hay business in the area, but no dice on MLK Day. TRSW is a great county bird, even if this sighting was sort of better on paper than in practice. Of course, once one gets a taste for Swan--even from range--one is not easily sated.

The Deer Valley golf course, which runs through subdivisions in Sun City West (one of my very least favorite places in Arizona) has a perennial and pinioned population of Mute Swans patrolling its various water features. More excitingly, these birds were joined by a lone Tundra Swan first spotted in December.

Brontosaurus have since been, I recall, adjudicated never to have existed. Maybe the fellow who misconstrued his fossils originally had Mute Swans in mind?

To the extent anything with a large leathery testicle on its forehead can be elegant...these birds are pretty elegant.*Author's note the number of people who report these MUSWs on eBird as "Continuing rarities" is disconcerting.

Scanning the first several ponds where the most recent eBird reports placed TUSW was unsuccessful. The object bird did like to hang around with one or more Mutes (they're good listeners), but there were also Mutes that did not have this noteworthy accompaniment. One such pond did have a noteworthy Vermilion Flycatcher, noteworthy only because, well, it's a Vermilion Flycatcher.

It is widely accepted as impossible to properly photograph/expose this bird in overcast lighting. The color is too saturated at all times.

After dipping on the first 5 of 7 possible ponds I was feeling about as glum as the weather, but the last pair hit pay dirt. Behold this semi-tragic portrait of pinioned (crippled) Mute Swans, the lost Tundra, oblivious CAGOs, disparate lawn colors, and quintessential golf cart in the background. I guess it still beats landfill birding.

More so than other classes, vagrant waterfowl must pass the barometer provenance test. This bird is not a long-time or yearly resident (according to the long-time yearly residents), has all of its flight feathers (and has been witnessed flying), and is not missing any toes. Furthermore, TUSWs do winter somewhat regularly in Prescott, which is only about an hour north. That is negligible straying.


Naturally, if this bird hangs around after spring the provenance question may be opened again. But who could say he/she isn't just staying out of loyalty to the flightless Mute comrades trapped in Sun City, where the grass is well aged?

What nice halluxes you have, Tundra Swan.

Fun fact I read about TUSWs, the symbol of measured passion and love; they pair up for a year before breeding, taking it slow and getting to know. Lewis and Clark dubbed them "Whistling Swans" due to the sound of their wing-beats, but Prudent Swan would also suffice. 

P.S. Here's another Burrowing Owl shot. It was stored on my camera. I do not know when or where I took it, which is unusual. The ubiquitous setting of the shot is thus reflective of the ubiquity of Burrowers out in the agg. fields of west Maricopa--not that I'm complaining.  

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Aim Small, Miss Small

Recent goal-oriented birding in Carolina involved working long or hard hours to log relatively usual birds. Recent birding in Arizona involved distant duck sighting in dim lighting. Both of these provided their own satisfactions, but not without a bit of strain all the same. Some people like to say they have to take a vacation from their vacation, and to these people I say, "You are weak vacationers. Weakness disgusts me...but not in a way that weakens me." But on the other, more relatable hand, birding benefits from its changes of pace as well. Sometimes it's nice to watch and photograph the birdies without concern of lists or chasing, the lazier, more passive approach in local circles.
Of course, this should only be done on workdays when there's a spare hour or two in the evening. Doing this on weekends (soft birding around town) is disgusting weakness, to reiterate.

Papago Park and the Desert Botanical Gardens, frequently mentioned on this site in times long past when I was very new to the Phoenix birding scene, are still some of the best places to crush common waterfowl, Sonoran species, and other just-a-bit-better-than-generic-park birds. (Most generic Arizona parks do not have cool Warblers like out east).

This GHOW is often in the cottonwood corner at the DBG. Some day it will poop on me, but this day was not that day.

So mild-mannered are these areas that even the timid Common Gallinule (red-shielded, obvi) will swim out into the open ocean without a life vest. Fun fact: The Common Gallinule actually used to be called the Common Morehen, because their entreating calls reminded one of a rakish greedy Oliver Twist impression.

Verdins are industrious nest-builders (not pictured). They build expansive breeding nests and more conservative roosting nests throughout the year--up to a dozen--because otherwise they would be idle, and idle feet are the Verdin Devil's playthings.

The DBG pulls in a vagrant rarity from time to time, but is mostly known for its close-up opportunities with desert flora and fauna. Even so, some unusual behaviors may still be observed. What flock of birds is feeding on buds in this mesquite?

Yes the answer is Quail, Gambel's Quail. Timid like most Quail species, GAQUs also become very tame and confident in the right setting, probably also like most Quail species.

Curve-billed Thrashers also take to the trees in groups, gregarious behavior untypical of the family. Although that may just be circumstantial because these Thrashers were obviously a family, with the two younger birds following the presumed parent around incessantly. The mature adult had a shorter, stubbier bill than many CUBUs I've seen. I have no idea if this is entirely random or may be a way to sex the birds, like with Curlew and Dowitchers? 

Cactus Wrens are notoriously hardy birds. They may not be as tough as Gray Jays, per se, but are nonetheless able to withstand living in areas entirely without free-standing water and can also withstand living in the middle of Phoenix suburbia--provided the landscaping suits. They are also highly territorial during nesting season and will chase reptiles and mammals either away or into cholla cactus snares near their nesting sites, like clever and less passive clown fish. They also destroy other bird nests and bust eggs. What a jerk. Pretty great state bird eh?

Monday, January 9, 2017

The Eternal Flame: Wayne County and Economy of Scale Birding

North Carolina is a land of many wonders, wonders that are horizontally spread. The outer banks and sites like Cape Hatteras are famous for their getaways and pelagic birding, while the inner banks offer their own liminal brand of beach life. The coastal plain and Piedmont areas are marvelous watersheds of agrarian life, and some of the best stretches of Appalachia just through the western border. Time spent in the Great Smokies is among my favorite, and I yet pine for a trip to the outer banks. Most of my time with family in Carolina is spent in Wayne County, in the heart of the rural plain.

Eastern Phoebes can be found throughout pretty much all of this various habitat in the southeastern states. This commonality is more appreciated in winter, perhaps, as there are few Flycatchers then and one should never go too long without.

Wayne County is wet. It is woody. It echos with firearm discharges on Christmas morning when everyone and his mother tries out their new presents. It is also the site--and maybe you've heard about this in Legendary Magazine, ABA Smack-down, or simply hovering in the ether above Lake Michigan--of an epic struggle for eBird supremacy. For the last few years the coveted-if-not-heavy crown of 'By Species Leader' in Wayne County rested upon the ordained head of one Matthew Daw. His infamous reign rested on a cunning and cruel record of 96 species up through 2011. As county leader, Matthew Daw was cold. Some say he didn't even bother to bird in Wayne anymore, that he was once green and good but turned up his nose for the lascivious bird-scene in the Triangle area. Others say he was cruelly meticulous, a veritable Sheriff of Nottingham in Wayne County determined to spook and flush all the birds away before anyone could approach his record. 
*(Author's acknowledgment: Matthew Daw is probably, in actuality, a super nice guy).

The people needed a hero, even if most of them didn't realize it when I asked or introduced myself. By way of reigniting my own lackluster birding, much less birding leadership, it became my pre-New Year's resolution to usurp the crown, free the land, and impose a much better form of county listing tyranny in Wayne: one that recognizes me, Laurence.

Golden-crowned Kinglets are of little concern to most listers on anything grander than a Day or Site list. This is not because they are not cool birds--they're golden--but rather because they are common as hell.

Wayne is a pretty small county in a state made up of 100 relatively small counties. It has neither coast nor mountain nor desert, but one large river, a few lakes and reservoirs, and one State Park. Birding in Wayne County is thus largely restricted to a few elements by virtue of good and accessible habitat: birding Cliffs of the Neuse State Park, birding the Goldsboro Wastewater Treatment area and adjacent constructed wetlands, and then cruising the farmland and fallow fields with their border-woods that surrounds all the rest of it.
Sitting on 92 species, my endeavor was to bird the hell out of all these areas in between cramming biscuits and collared greens into my face and then having to hustle it off at the Goldsboro YMCA, and also finishing up Christmas shopping. The first two settings, Neuse SP and Water Treatment, provided the best numbers of new county birds. The third element, random rural birding, probably provided the most satisfying.

Before we go any further though I must share this image of Tufted Titmouse. This bird was not a county bird nor in any way relevant to this story, but somehow I have never photographed/posted TUTI on this website before. I did not even realize this at the time or I would've tried harder.  In my humble opinion all Titmice should be Black-crested or Bridled.

For picking up waterfowl, there's no place better (or, really, much at all) than the water plant and nearby run-off wetlands. This really should be scope-birding, considering the areas are gated off, but I had neither scope nor bolt cutters, so distant binocular views it was! Finding some species of duck was tricky; I still don't have Gadwall here. They're much more skittish than in Arizona, and I suspect this corresponds to the preponderance of hunting in the area. Redheads and Scaups were ticks from this raft.

Flying over the wetlands were lean-looking Turkey Vultures, which were not new, and stocky-looking silver-fingered Black Vultures, which were.

The wetlands also offered up petting opportunities for North America's most vitamin & mineral laden rodent, the Nutria. As I understand it, they were introduced for fur farming and are a destructive invasive species given their propensity for burrowing and eating delicate water plants. With those large orange teeth it's also a mug only a mother could love...and momma still makes them move out of the house.

In a way I've been talking down WC birding, which is not my intention objectively but just a result of comparative resources and space. These restrictions actually make one focus and maximize resources; it's essentially patch-birding highs strung together.
That being said, it was also with humility and foot-in-mouth that I logged a County Bird AND Lifer at the ponds. Palm Warbler. How did I not have Palm Warbler? Unhook your trailer and GO man!
Anyway taking photos with a foot in one's mouth is tricky business but PAWAs are cool birds, seemingly comfortable tail-bobbing and feeding in a variety of settings.

At times they seemed to be doing fly-catcher behavior, as do Yellow-rumps, but also foraging on the ground like Pipits or Larks--both behaviors unbecoming of many other Warbler sp. Truth be told I had kind of forgotten about these birds being here in the winter. Winter warblering just isn't really a thing. I am ashamed, but I'm also operating on a pretty low level of bird-awareness anyway. Most importantly, it was great. Birding is goddamned great.

Cliffs of the Neuse, where I had logged lifer Barred Owl and crushed Prothonotaries in summer months, was also productive. This stretch of the Neuse river itself is pretty gnarly and with disappointing to no water birds. The surrounding woodlands are great, both in terms of scenic easy walking and avifauna. Blue-headed Vireo was a solid CB, as was a weirdly high-perching and stationary Fox Sparrow. That bird stayed treed, silent, and still for like 10 minutes until I moved on. Weird.

Fracking is still a hot topic of environmental and economic concern, but drilling sap wells is largely unregulated. This suits Yellow-bellied Sapsucker--the most cowardly of woodpeckers--just fine. YBSA was another CB, one of those birds common enough to be found in the right habitat on any given day with some time and perseverance, but not necessarily found on any given walk in the park.
Other CBs here included PIWO along with White-breasted and Brown-headed Nuthatch (: ::sigh:: : yes, I know).

Those photos weren't very good though, so here is a Carolina Wren, perhaps one of North America's most crush-able bird species in general. I have no other way of fitting this bird into the narrative anyway, but it's good to have more Carolina flavor.
CAWRs are dapper, loud, curious, and largely unafraid. They are a true staple and lynch-pin of southeastern woodlands, and even if they go unappreciated at times, life would be sad without them. A Top 3 North American Wren? One could argue.

Somehow, Carolina Chickadee did not end up as the state bird for North or South Carolina. To be fair, South Carolina does have the Carolina Wren in lieu, but how was this not snagged by NC?? Clearly that election was hacked by Russians to boost the chances of Red Red Cardinal.

Living in a rural area, one often drives through open land, some of which is undeveloped and some of which has development since run to ruin. A derelict homage to the tobacco industry and its declining relevancy, there are many old tobacco barns and other abandoned buildings dotting the farmland. 
Apparently, having never learned my lesson from horror movies, "Deliverance," or common sense, these seemed like great spots to check for owls at dusk. To my surprise I checked near two dozen tobacco barns and found nothing, not even whitewash. On the upside I was not killed. With all their rafters and openings in the ceiling they seemed ideal, but many also smelled strongly of their former wares so, I dunno, maybe that's a turn-off to Barn and Great-Horned Owls.

After good work at the aforementioned sites I was up to 104 species. Eclipsing Matthew Daw and all but erasing him from the history books. Already the land of Wayne County seemed a bit brighter, a bit more fecund, a bit safer. But shoot, a difference of 8 birds? All it takes is one judiciously smuggled bag of 8 imported species from out west released and then photographed in one's backyard to catch up. Who would do or even think of doing such a thing? Matthew Daw would, obviously.

Thus the quest continued and nothing less than a distance of 10 species would be acceptable. A happenstance flock of Purple Finches supplied #105, which put me within striking distance on Dec. 29th. Traditionally, one strikes gold with a rich shining vein in the rock, typically a granitic or quartzite compound. Sometimes one strikes gold from the depths of a river bed. In my case, I struck gold here, not in a stately tobacco barn with history and tradition behind it, but a lean-to shed with old vacuums, toilets, and maybe a meth lab in it.

Who else is into that sort of stuff, apparently? This Eastern-screech Owl, who was grumpily perched in the left corner of the shed upon entering. There's a sub-theme in this post, as readers have no doubt wryly noticed, of logging birds either as lifers or CBs that are probably overdue. This EASO was a CB and only not a lifer by virtue of hearing one outside of Kerr WMA in Texas a few summers ago. From that initial exposure onward (and in that case, I was the one exposed) I never experienced EASO again, not even with the help of birder friends and a very reliable stake-out in Austin.

I'm probably not the only bedraggled fellow to enjoy catharsis in that dingy shed, but Specialness is not an exclusive place or feeling. It's been said many times but it holds: Owls are the best.
Relatedly, in addition to setting a new record for Maricopa County, Arizona legend Tommy Debardeleben also completed his quest in 2016 to see every North American owl. I highly recommend reading about it HERE for great story and great owling info.


I was also able to pick up a few more species--grassland types and a Sharpie--at the now-created birding spot of Walker Family Cemetery between La Grange and Goldsboro. For any Wayne Co. birders who might be reading this, check it out; It's a good little spot with lots of relative variety.

Thusly into the new year do I sit, mighty on my throne of 111, eminent in Wayne County and indigent in most other things. There is still much work to be done and I do not know when next I shall do it, but in the mean time Wayne County, be at peace.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Quality over Quantity

As you have probably noticed, or perhaps noticed like 6 months ago and stopped caring about 4 months ago, there hasn't been much quality or quantity on this site in a while. Understandably, you have probably moved on elsewhere due to my inattentiveness and lack of affection. You've started seeing other websites that have more going on, more excitement and rich content like you promised yourself you would have as a young, deserving, impassioned bird-blog reader with so much life and love yet to give. It's only natural and I am not jealous; I just hope we can still be friends as I promise to do a little bit better.
Instead of going into why and how life has been so busy, I'll just skip that--because I would not presume to think that is actually interesting to anybody else except my ever-loving Grandma--and get to the birding.

2016 was a crazy good year, CRAZY GOOD, for Arizona birding. Tropical storms blew Storm-petrels as far inland as Maricopa County, and there were numerous other rarities including Pine and Tufted Flycatcher (nesting 2nd summer in a row) and Lesser Sand-Plover. Of these I only snagged PIFL. Sometimes our own lives and movements do not coincide with the birds.
**Trying for the Maricopa petrel by skipping out from work early, I had a tire blow out on the way, obviously providential.

I did get out a bit towards year's end, first with the O.G. Butler Birder at the Santa Cruz flats between Phoenix and Tucson, and then joining forces again at the Glendale Recharge Ponds to start the New Year.

Pops has been Butler Birding since when TVs were operated with dials and there was only eleven species of Scrub Jay in the Americas.

The Flats have a couple migrant/vagrant traps that have notably produced Black-throated Blue Warbler and Rufous-backed Robin in recent years, both very good-looking and anatomically named birds in their own right. The vagrants are often just particularly sweet icing on the cake, a three-layered bird cake that is the mainstay attraction throughout winter months.

The soy and alfalfa fields around Baumgartner and Greene Reservoir roads are, without doubt, the best areas to view Caracara in Arizona. We logged 18 individuals in one large family group or flock on this day, and I've had high counts near 30 before. Interestingly, I see reports of these or other birds straying into nearby Maricopa or Cochise and Santa Cruz County much less often than I see reports of many Code 3 vagrants.
Whether they're falcons or vultures or something in between, CRCAs are loyal to their turf.

The other two layers of Flats birding cake are certainly less conspicuous by intent and design. Sprague's Pipits were thought to be occasional strays this far north, but they're now found with enough regularity and in large enough numbers in the area to be considered an expected wintering species here. SPPIs are also known colloquially as "5-inch Bitterns of the Barrens." Elegant skulkers.


Lastly, the mighty Mountain Plover, a bird perhaps with more affinity for dry crackly grass and furrows than even SPPI. Counts for this species in the area vary from a few individuals to 40+ in a given day. Much of this can be attributed to their camouflage and typically skittish behavior, as well as the relative inaccessibility of their location. Mostly I attribute it to the fact that they, unlike other birds, walk single file to hide their numbers.

Winter holidays were enjoyed in Carolina this year, where I spent time reestablishing my eternal legend as Wayne County, NC's ultimate top eBirder, but that is another post. Coinciding with my absence, a Long-tailed Duck was reported at the Glendale Recharge Ponds. This spot yields great water-birding (not illegal or unethical) and great rarities throughout the year. Typically the site itself is pretty ugly though, unless you catch it at sunrise.

The Long-tailed Duck was reported and confirmed on a remarkable day when, if memory serves, 2 or 3 others were also found across AZ. Mercifully and unusually, the bird stuck around for two weeks, and Pops and I set out early to nab it before heading in to our respective places of work. It was cool, peaceful, and pulchritudinous, except for the Least Sandpipers who were pretty certain we were going to eat them. It's unbecoming when other peeps have the startability of Killdeer.

We didn't have a large window in which to see the LTDU, nor particularly favorable conditions, but it was still pretty cool even without extra long butt feathers.

We happened to spot the bird just before direct sun-up, as it was transitioning from its tucked-away roosting spot and heading to deeper diving areas. The LTDU was chill on its own, but panicky Shovelers brought it to flight as well. Damn.

By time we had relocated the duck and cycled around Basin 3 the clouds had burned off a bit, but back-lighting is a merciless adversary. Once it gets going with its diving routine, LTDU does not let up! I was disappointed not to get better shots of the bird, but the behavior was pretty great to observe. We watched for another 30 minutes or so and in that time it would stay under for 20-30 second spells and never stay above water for more than 12 second at a time. Very go-getter. 

The Cornell Ornithology website is very enthusiastic about Spotted Sandpipers, and this is unsurprising given the lobbying powers this particular peeps species has. SPSAs are known to have at least 4 congressman in their collective pockets. Credit where it's due, they are one of few shorebirds with a breeding population n Arizona, though you have to hit up the alpine lakes to find them. Winter birds are closer by, but keeping with the theme of quality over quantity, they don't have the same dapper action.

Welcome back to you and to me and to the NSA and whoever else is here again! I am hopeful and optimistic that 2017 will have more birding and posting than 2016, despite the fact that Butler's Birds will be adding on another generation of its own this summer.
First bird of 2017? Dead Red-naped Sapsucker. An omen? Absolutely. Good or bad? Rain check.