Saturday, July 30, 2016

July TFG Birding

If you are scope-less, shore-less, and/or south of the 49th parallel in July, your birding can be a dull affair. Many of the birds themselves are dealing with empty nest syndrome and can cope differently. Shorebirds deal with this by going on midlife crisis global tours from north to south. Flycatchers do this by making all sorts of incoherent and target-less vocalizations. Some birds, and some birders, cope better with the late-July doldrums than others.
Burrowing Owls spend a good amount of time subterranean anyway, and as such are less affected by the environment changing above them.

Acorn Woodpeckers, ever successful and gregarious, usually spend late July dealing with swollen family groups. The main problem is that dead trees do not directly replicate like ACWOs do, so sometimes the birds have to deal with overcrowding. 

Gray Hawks have to deal with much the same existential angst as always, namely, to attend Christmas festivities with Hawk family of Falcon family this year? Tough call.

Sulphur-bellied Flycatchers are especially grumpy come late July. I believe it is because their SE AZ woodlands are filled with one thousand and one shitty looking and sounding Western Wood-Pewees. I can sympathize. WWPEs or whatever the code is don't sound like Pewees and are very variable in plumage, but always drab. To make matters worse, the aforementioned Acorn Woodpeckers start to invade their cavities, or at least move into cavities near their own, and SBFLs are very protective and vocal about their neighborhoods.

If they cannot extricate or annoy the ACWO into leaving, Sulphurs often become irritated with each other, no doubt one blaming the other for leaving the cavity vacant and allowing the interloper  into their abode. It's trying times.

Even after some embarrassing displays of domestic distress, Sulphurs are still a Top 5 North American Flycatcher.

Broad-tailed Hummingbirds cope pretty well, in part because in places like Miller Canyon their food is provided for them and the rude Rufous Hummers are not yet unbearable. Life is always pretty good for Quetzalcoatl incarnate.

The end of July is tough. It's downhill now to the end of summer, to other journeys, work and hardships. It can be hard to get moving again, and sometimes everybody needs a little push.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Summer Carolina-ing

Another summer is wrapping up, at least in terms of vacation time, and as has come tradition now over the last three years, it's time to look back on some of the out-of-state vacation birds. An awesome May trip to Oregon yielded little real birding time and even fewer birds, and a couple weeks in Carolina was also preoccupied with many other worthwhile things, so in keeping with this year's new normal, there's not a lot to show for the birds, but we shall not go too quietly into that goodnight, not when the neighbors are obnoxious anyway.

Part of the birding dilemma in Carolina this summer was that I didn't get there until the doldrums of mid-July, which means the Warblers are as high as they are elevated, and most of the visible birds are immature caricatures--and before you ask, I did not get to the coast. One such bird that seems like a caricature but isn't is the Pileated Woodpecker, mightiest and punk rockiest of WPs this side of the Atlantic. 

Ever dutiful, I made one check-in trip to my local stomping ground in Washington, Carolina: Goose Creek SP, where one can get very crushy with PRWA and YTWA in June. Both of these warblers were scare to come by now, but a broody snapping turtle was pretty cool. By the way, you should watch this quick video of an alligator snapper biting a pineapple, and then never swim in murky water again. A young Pewee had no effect one way of the other. 

For part of Carolina time we stayed in the Asheville area, which truly does live up to its reputation for good brews, food, and music, and well as most exposed private parts per-park per-capita in the U.S. The proximity also enabled some lovely mountain hikes.

I'll quit whining about the lackluster birding, especially because the cataracts were 10/10.


Canada and Black-throated Green were the only Warblers I could pick up on the high trails (with a briefly vocalizing BTBW causing extra aggravation). That misty, haunting ridge forest, among the red fir and blankets of moss, is intoxicating nonetheless, and does still boast some vocal birds. Winter Wrens were seemingly everywhere along the trails, though getting them in decent light was yet another matter of inverse frequency.

The singular call of Veery was most welcome after a year away, and while some special sneaking was still required, I actually had much better views of this species than in previous years. 

 My salamander game was weak this time around, but how about a peeping Garter?

Although I couldn't materialize Eastern Screech-Owl, some of the best overall birding was in the relative lowlands around the property in the Asheville area. Indigo Buntings do not seem to stop ever. They were singing away on top of Mt. Mitchell, the highest point east of the Mississippi, and singing away in even greater numbers along the yard-side woodlands. Matching them in sound if not by sight were Field Sparrows. They deserve respect to...I guess.

The best sighting of the trip was a Scarlet Tanager couple, a species I had only seen once before, and poorly, as a vagrant in Arizona. I had all of about 5 seconds in the rain with this bird at eye level but good gracious gravy what a looker. I don't even mind anymore that I've had to wait like 6 years and many east-coast trips to see this bird again. All is forgiven for your scarlet letter, Natanager Scawthorne.

How often does one get up close and personal with a Luna Moth? Not often in my case, so that was also cool.
But you're thinking, "Butler, you kiss-ass namby pamby, what is with this vacationing and no birds? We want better. We deserve better. We're already dealing with the 2016 election depression, Chinese aggression and destabilization in Europe, a lackluster Olympics, and now this pablum!? You are a cad and in better days, would hang by the neck until dead."
Well, I agree, and this weekend is a birthday weekend, which means I can go birding in SE AZ and not no one can stop me not no how. Solid.


Thursday, June 23, 2016

Pining for Some Santa Rita Rarities

So maybe you've heard, but there is a nesting Pine Flycatcher at the Aliso Springs campground on the east side of the Santa Rita mountains. With this being both a first ABA record and a nesting record, it's kind of a big deal. For better or worse (probably for better), this bird happens to be nesting at the end of a remote 9-mile road that rife with steep climbs and descents, deep washes, loose rock, and various other perils. It is very do-able in a 4wd high-clearance vehicle, this is one chase that takes care as well as back up. At least there is no shortage of good birds along the away, including Botteri's Sparrows, Pyrrhuloxia, and Northern Pygmy-Owl.

I was fortunate to get in on a 5-person mission from Phoenix to chase the bird. We went split-skies on a rental rocked the kazbah down to Aliso Springs. After the drive the bird was easy (and also surrounded by a dozen other birders).

The PIFL looks more or less like other empids. Its lower mandible seems to show more yellow-orange while the body and tail gave an impression of being slightly longer and skinnier. The single note calls were recognizably different from other empids however, but even so, mad props to Dave Stejskal and the AZ bird police for getting excellent documentation and researching the ID.
PIFL was on many the informed birder's radar as a potential ABA 1st, but I must admit that for me it was not a bird I had heard of before. Unfortunately the preponderance of people precluded some of the really good and crushy photo-ops the early birds(ers) had a week before, but one is not entitled to very much complaining when hanging out with an ABA record, is one?

The Aliso Springs campground area was very nice with the springs running. While hoping for a close PIFL perch, we were also treated to Dusky-capped Flycatchers, Western Tanagers, and Blue Grosbeaks. It was another interesting instance in which the rarest bird, the chase bird, was both the most and least remarkable.

A Red-headed Woodpecker, a pretty rare and awesome bird for Arizona in its own right, was in another canyon nearby, definitely worth a detour on the way back out, especially to flush Montezuma Quail from the surrounding grassy hills.

From east to west, we cut through the Santa Ritas to Madera Canyon, whose Carrie Nation Trail had been hosting an Aztec Thrush up to two days prior to our arrival. Apparently the bird was flushed by some over-eager beavers and did not return, though to be fair this probably was not the first time it was flushed and it might have been on its way out anyway.
As the bird had not been re-found along the trail, I followed the creek up canyon where water pools might attract Thrush species. We picked up HETH and AMRO, but no Aztec.

The birding was solid and the herping was very good. Yarrow's Spiny Lizards abounded along the creek and we found a young Ridge-nosed Rattlesnake at trail's end by the old mine shaft. The Rattler was a lifer and 4th species of its kind I've seen in AZ.

A calling male Trogon towards the base of the trail was further consolation. A day when an Elegant Trogon is like the 3rd best bird is a very good day, even when dipping on AZTH (again). 

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Scraping off the Rust

Organ Pipe National Monument...for years it has been a pristine fortress of unspoiled Sonoran Desert habitat. For years it has also stood as a hot, desolate monument to an ongoing failure of B's Bs as an Arizona operation, and a nemesis saga.
On six different occasions spanning all times of day and even part of the night, I had traipsed through the trail and canyons of OPNM waiting to see the tawny flush or hear the metronomic tooting of the highly coveted and highly difficult Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl.
It went on for years. I knew where I was. I knew where they should be. Other people found them and seemingly did so easily. And yet, disappointment and sunburn alone persisted.
My drive was recently reignited when I saw photos of the desert owl dynamo posted by AZ birder Walker Noe, who was a great sport in sharing his information, confirming that the Owls were there, albeit just a little farther from where I had been searching.

With Walker's updated and much-appreciated information, I arrived at the OPNM trails with Pops before sun-up and began the short hike to the FEPO's purlieu, having to make peace with the notion that the owl was so close to where I had spent hours and hours searching other times, and thereby had probably just barely been missing it (or else there really is a conspiracy--probably that too).
Maybe in the past my timing was always a little off. Maybe in the past the canyon really had been deserted. Maybe in the past I had beeswax over my ears and scales over my eyes. Past shortcomings not withstanding, on this momentous day and within 10 minutes of beginning, I hard the diminutive tooting of one of Arizona's more desirable little rusty-brown blobs (and AZ does have a few).
One might worry that approaching a FEPO for photos is difficult business, given the extra set of eyes they have in the back of their heads.

Truth be told, they (or, at least, this bird) are pretty accommodating. The bird was first calling down in a wash running parallel to the trail but then moved prominently to the less-tangled flatland on the opposite side.
Although the sun had not yet crested the canyon ridge, disallowing close-detail lighting, the FEPO moved from perch to perch, overseeing his arid domain. The bird seemed especially to favor ironwood perches (though it also perched on mesquite), which I had to admit was something lacking from my previous excursions--the ironwoods only seem to grow on one side of the wash, not really in it, and in times before I was usually on the opposite side or in the wash itself.

Cathartic pronouncements and the peaceful calm of closure echoed and permeated through the cool shady canyons of the OPNM. The FEPO called intermittently but consistently, vocalizing 5-7 times in about 5 minutes periods before moving to a new perch in a cyclical fashion. I stuck with the bird waiting for the sunlight to crest the eastern ridge, realizing not long before the moment of truth that I had forgotten to switch out camera batteries beforehand. 

The subsequent blinking red lights and mad dash back to the car resulted in substantial and not necessarily un-boastworthy lacerations, and thankfully the FEPO stayed local with Pops maintaining the stakeout, moving to a larger palo verde tree as the sun finally flooded the little valley.
After my many previous high intensity and high energy excursions for this bird, he just sat, super chill, and compelled me to do the same.

Perhaps there was a lesson here. Be cool. Relax. Take in the surroundings and abide. Well the FEPO didn't have to worry about time, heat, and gas prices in the same way, even if he is also keeping a list of birds he has seen and/or eaten, so don't get too lecture-y there FEPO, but the point is taken.
Sweet, sweet release.

With a little extra time to kill, I also stopped by the Avondale/PIR bridge for Barn Owl, where there were also hundreds of Cliff Swallows building nests and foraging with impressive coordination.


Neighborhood Great Horned Owls and a briefly calling WESO made for a four-owl day, which is a very good day by various and sundry standards. With FEPO falling, that leaves Five-striped as the only AZ resident species I have yet to see. So look out California Gulch; I am feeling sassy.