Sunday, January 25, 2015

The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

The Sprague's Pipit is all of those things. Usually when bird and birding-related conversations come up in birding circles, I tend to keep my mouth shut. I have not been birding long enough to have accrued substantial personal experience, nor am I enough well studied to have educated opinions or even a lot of information about things relating to behaviors, distribution, migrations etc. on micro or macro level. But where I do opine is when the aesthetics discussion comes up, and when that discussion doesn't come up, I bring it up, because I'm bad at being quiet. One can't be proven wrong when arguing about a bird's appearance and subjective coolness any more than arguing about how many stars shine down on one night or another. 
Sprague's Pipit is a bird for which I have searched in varying Arizonan grasslands longer than it is prudent to admit. Having spent so many hours walking and driving around Sprague's habitat, I have obviously had a lot of time to brood about this bird. This Sunday I was finally able to end that search and see how the bird compared to the various machinations of a depraved and mediocre birder's mind.  

The Good: Sprague's Pipits attract a mate and declare territory by singing a descending call from high in the sky. This is reported to be the longest in-flight display of any bird in north America, including that commune of Canadian Skylarks. They begin their breeding cycle in April, relatively early, which  means their impressive displays are some of the first to be witnessed in early spring--full points for punctuality. They're insectivorous; one always has to appreciate any bird or other animal that eats some percentage of its own body weight in insects and spiders.  

The Bad: If it weren't counterintuitive for there to be a king or queen of skulk, then Sprague's Pipit would be such a monarch. They were actually going to name it Skulk's Pipit back in the early 1800s, but the Skunk Lobby in Washington, very powerful at the time, argued it was too close to trademark infringement, so they decided to throw a bone to the Czech rebels as part of an anti-Hapsburg statement.
These birds are small, dainty, duly and dully camouflaged, and walk through the grass very horizontally like a mouse. They lack all of the confidence and posture of their American counterparts. Unless they're crossing a dirt road or flushing, this makes them very, very difficult to spot. I recorded all of 6 other species in the 5 hours I was stalking around after this bird, shown below. On top of that, they tend to prefer areas with low activity overall, and apart from when they are mating they are solitary, which means one can't really pinpoint their location by following roving bands of Horned Larks (this might work, but it would be coincidental).    

The Ugly: American Pipits are good looking birds. Hell, Sparrows and other such ground-lovers are some of my favorites. SPPI is not a good looking bird. Its face, breast, and mantle patterning are very lackluster by both GLANA (Ground Loving Avians of North America) and Sparrow Cartel standards. The big bug-eye is somewhat peculiar and endearing, but it can't be described as pretty or elegant. When one of a bird's most-discussed features is its mildly pink legs (see top photo) then it's a sign the bird doesn't have much going on.
Also, crawling around in the Pipit's dry and dusty hang out for so long has condensed about 3 years of regular allergies into the remainder of my afternoon.

All that being said, it was so good--SO GOOD--to see this bird in the Santa Cruz grasslands. It is more impressive than overdue, and one I had to work pretty hard prior to enjoying the reward. It took five hours of ambling through grassy fields before the movement finally caught my eye, and it was literally at 11:50am, ten minutes before I told myself I would turn back for home.
It may not be the only individual in the area, and this or another bird has been found off and on for the last couple of weeks in this heavily birded area. That being said, two other birders who joined me in the morning tried to ID two different Savannah Sparrows as the SPPI and might well have claimed it had I not disagreed (they eventually left empty-handed). Picking up 27 Mountain Plover and a fly over Caracara for years birds nearby was also nice. It had been a while since Butler's Birds has lifered, but a good birder always brings extra pants.

This passive-agressive note on my windshield was also quaint:

Two birdermobiles pulled up by my car while I was out in the grass and convened for a few minutes. I actually had the bird in my sights at the time and waved to them, but apparently they were just policing the area (which, by the way, is not restricted like the adjacent sod farm--I spoke with employees directly about it instead of leaving them little sticky notes. It is a massive series of vacant grass fields deliberately left fallow and they do not care). Bummer; folks missed a good/bad/ugly/good bird.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Animorph Hawks (Hawks! Hawks! Hawks!)

You remember those Animorph books? Yeah, I don't really either. I don't think I read any of them, in fact few people did; they just had compelling covers what with the transitional morphing illustration and all. I think they were offered up as prizes for good behavior in 2nd grade (definitely never read them then). The hawk kid was named Tobias as I recall, the name of a champion. 

Anyway, what's actually much cooler, and also real, are variegated hawk morphs. These guys are worth more than a quick 10 minute read at the dentist office. Y'all may remember this dark morph Ferruginous Hawk from a few weeks past, one of the more stoic and brooding morphs into which one might run out amongst the alfalfa fields. 

Now I'd like to introduce an ambitious morph on the other side of the Ferruginous spectrum, from the other side of the force, as it were. Whereas bird number 1 was born unto the dark side, our bold and brash protagonist below belongs to the "light."

Not that one can tell from these photos, but this fellow was a bit  under-grown for the 23'' one expects of a Ferruginous Hawk. It's ok though; he's a prime example of Sibley's immature 'light morph' and still has some bulking up (and some oxidizing) to do.

Taking crisp, unobstructed views of birds lifting off is so mainstream and reinforces unrealistic standards of beauty and skill both for birds and bird photographers--much like Barbie dolls and He-Man do for doe-eyed young people. Yeah, let's cut off the wings and get some high voltage wires running perpendicular to unnatural looking beams in the shot. Andy Warwho?

The light morph Ferruginous may have been an immature bird, but he still exerted enough dominance to see off this dark morph Red-Tail. So much morphing...I cannot wait until all the multifarious Swainson's Hawks start cycling through.

Why are raptors so variable? Are the variations just that much more visible on bigger birds? There are plenty of passerines and other birds with subspecies and plumage variation by region, but it's like almost all hawks have alternate morphs. And even though there are many morphs, the morph types are predominantly consistent (like light morph Ferruginous Hawks all still look very similar).

It's ok to geek out about it. You're not alone, and might not even be the extreme:
Video courtesy of Tommy DeBardeleben

Err hem...well then, interesting stuff. Below the morphing hawks in the troposphere, as well as the food chain, were some of the more variable waterfowl--Snow and Canada Geese with a couple of Ross's mixed in (not really visible in this photo).

These photos were all taken while I was out searching for Sprague's Pipit. The site where one such bird was found three weeks ago had been recently plowed, which meant I was out of luck some more again and always. Screw that bird. Hawks only. 

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Duck! It's a New Year of Birding

Oh, hello there dear readers, critics, and lost orphans of the internet. It has been too long. I could list some excuses here, including blogger deleting some photos and a post at one point as well as the increasing pleasure I have been taking from birding exclusively with binoculars, the west Phoenix Fulvous Whistler continuing to elude me (and everyone else) over the past few weeks, and rainy weekends. Instead of elaborating and whining on those things though we'll try to get back on track here with BB's first post of 2015.

However, we're starting with a Song Sparrow that many would recognize as not being the "sandstone" subspecies of Song Sparrow we have in Arizona, but the buffier east-coast variety. This bird was one of several other county birds I picked up in Wayne, NC, at the end of December, 2014. I fell (6) short of claiming the All-Time eBird #1 spot in Wayne County before heading back to Phoenix (although being the only person to submit a list there in 2015, I'm sitting pretty right now), and am currently riding in 2nd with 90. Someday...  

In contrast, this weekend I made it back to west Phoenix to resume searching for the lifer Fulvous Whistling-Duck that disappeared from the radar a couple of weeks back. It may well be gone now, but searching around the Tres Rios riparian and agricultural areas where it was last seen was also a great way to kickstart the 2015 birding year, and I put up 95 species in about 4 and 1/2 hours. The diversity is pretty impressive, even if some birds prefer their solitude. It ain't easy being great.

"I am a rock. I am a island" --Paul 'Egret' Simon

The Tres Rios area mixes riparian with desert habitat beautifully, but a fair portion of the complex is permanently fenced off-limits. While leaning against the Bird-lin Wall at different points searching out the Fulvous Duck, I recorded such solid-for-Maricopa-birds as Wood Duck, Hooded Merganser, Brown Pelican and Storm Wigeon. A Western Screech Owl calling from within the pre-dawn hours rubbed salt in the wound. This is all to say, I really wish they'd open up that prime real estate. It's a friggin' treasure trove, and I bet if they let people in for a fee, they'd come out well ahead vs. the liability. Work what you got Maricopa Gov.!

Massive flocks of Ibis and Blackbirds also made the morning hours pretty eventful while scanning the small retaining ponds for Fulvous-type birds. It is a veritable Eden there, where lions lay down with lambs, eagles nest with pigeons, and Pelicans swim peacefully with Wigeon as Carp swim below and gobble up everybody's shit.

Even such blissful scenes as this were not without orneriness. Some White Pelicans were partaking in a game of "Wigeon-Dwarfing," wherein they'd swim up behind AMWIs and make them look very, very small. I have also seen Canada Geese participating in this sort of bullying throughout Phoenix golf courses. The natural world is a cruel mistress indeed.

But she's seductive though ain't she? Don't take my perverted word for it, ogle this Cinnamon Teal for a little while and then go apologize to your significant other.

Some birds are poorly named, and some birds are poorly colored. This is not one of those birds.

Party Don't Stop Jen has been doing some beastly good owling up in the Northwest of late. I can't hang with it, not even close, but this weekend did bring the small consolation of turning up another Burrowing Owl haunt. I don't mean to brag (actually I do a bit), but I've got quite the portfolio of very crushable BUOW spots in West Phoenix so...all you millionaire owl enthusiasts out there who are also lazy...hit me up. 

It's been over a month now, and I'm daring to admit that this Fulvous Whistling-Duck might well be gone. What is one to do when one has been stood up repeatedly by a rare duck? Psht, score another one on the rebound of course, one that's sexy and easy. 
Cue the a Eurasian Wigeon drake that's been at the Dos Lagos park in Phoenix for a couple of weeks now--wintering here--and like most ducks hanging out at small urban parks, this fellow is tame. He has learned well from his AMWI accomplices how to eat the fresh winter-lawn tips, and just as eagerly approach pedestrians in case they have hand-outs. 

Of course, this sort of plebeian behavior denotes that the EUWI has sold out a little bit. I know, and when left tor his own recognizances he clearly feels a little bit guilty about it too.

One or two EUWIs seem to turn up in Maricopa every winter, but this one has by far been the most accommodating of the birds I've seen. Also of interest on this little pond was a lone Muscovy Duck, rocking 'the ugly' loud and proud. Now, I know what everyone is thinking, "THAT'S A DOMESTIC!!! THAT'S NOT COUNTABLE YOU GIANT BAKED PIE OF IGNORAMUS!!!"
Well, I cannot refute your accusation, but all I'm saying is this: as far as domestic Muscovy Ducks go, this fellow looks pretty good. The facial growths I've seen on pictures of wild birds show predominantly blackish, so obviously that's a giveaway here, but the otherwise dark body and iridescent wings are much cleaner than on other specimens I've seen.

It even had the white localized to its wing patches. So, don't worry, I'm not ticking it, but drop this duck off somewhere in the Rio Grande Valley or south Florida, and I bet it would be spurring a much larger discussion, and a few more people might be won over eh?

Anyhow, back to what we know. American Wigeon drakes fulfill a look that many 1970s shag carpets sought, but of which they often fell far short. I know AMWIs are a golf course duck, which puts them just about on the bottom of the pile in the winterfowl hierarchy, above only domestics, Mallards, and Coots, but they reproduce fructuously for a reason y'all.

Seagull Steve recently got very crushy with the EUWIs in California, and so once again aspects of this post seem mere after-shocks of the various quakes that left the bird blogosphere rocking, but why not indulge some more? Why not have seconds of that 3-layer carrot cake?

Aww yisss...flash that speculum baby.

I left the Wigeons all strutting their stuff, but the waterfowling was not to end. In fact, there was some fowl play going on right next to my car. Two Mallard drakes were fighting for the affection of a hen standing off to the side, apparently used to if not bemused, by this sort of occurrence. Notice how the drake on the right is more handsome than patch-eye on the left. Furthermore, he is much more photogenic; it's like the fight doesn't bother him at all and he wants to maintain eye contact with the camera--pretty studly. Naturally, we're all rooting for him.

The manky, domestic drake tore at his chest but the handsome drake simply flexed the ol' pectorals and advanced, without seeming to break much of a sweat.

With some conservative positioning, the handsome drake gained the better position and basically subdued the other drake without using much more than his chest. Name one other action hero character who's won duels in such a way. He squished the other male and then walked away with his lady, while I went to get lunch.
*It is also possible the handsome drake didn't want to fight at all, but was making advances on the the other male of a different sort.

The waterfowl are great right now, but it is also that dreaded time of year when I go in search of a Sprague's Pipit. If you don't hear from me in a while again, it's because I've thrown any and all gear into a ditch somewhere in frustration. 

Monday, December 29, 2014

Empty-Handed Chasing and Swarms of Things

Over the past couple weeks I have been very bad about posting, but this is not because I fear you or hate you, dear reader. Rather, it is because I had nothing much to post. Being unable to make longer trips throughout the AZ, and not desiring to seek out non-lifer scope-view Scoters at Lake Pleasant, my birding options and motivations took a hit this December. More recently, there has been a Fulvous Whistling-Duck reported in west Phoenix, first in the Arlington area and then around the Tres Rios Wetlands. Many people have chased after this wandering bird, among the many miles of agricultural fields, canals, and run off ponds. A few have been lucky enough to find it; while I am resolved to continue after the new year, I have not been one of them. On the up side, chasing after this phantom duck has at least given Butler's Birds some post-able material, so we're back in business!

Nothing announces a return to better days like a Kestrel on a telephone pole huh? This could be classified as a "vintage" or "classic" shot. It could also be classified as "crappy" and "mediocre."

Birding the agricultural fields is always fun. You can stay in the car for the most part, and the bird views are largely unobstructed. Of course, when the birds keep low to the ground, it presents its own problems. Bald Eagles still stick out like dislocated ogre thumbs. What is that duck nearby you ask? Is that a Fulvous??? No it is not. That would have been sweet.

Winter time and smelly farm country are a winning combination for non-Oriole Icterid watching in Maricopa County. Some people spend their entire careers and lives watching Icterids but not Orioles. True enough, not all Icterids are made equal. Look at the regal pose of this Yellow-headed Blackbird, compared to the sniveling, pusillanimous Cowbird nearby. But that would go for Orioles too right?

Well, when I ask non-Oriole Icteriders why they do what they do, the response is usually, "Up yours, kid." In their defense, Orioles don't congregate like this. 

...Or this

...Or this

Everybody likes swarms of things, except perhaps for ancient Egyptians (I don't mean swarms of Ancient Egyptians, although that does sound like bad news too) and people with a fear of bees. For those fearful of you out there, here's a nice, solitary and quiet Wilson's Snipe, one of the non-swarmiest birds there is. Theirs is an anxious existence, but damn they have nice mantles.

The trouble with the Fulvous Duck is that in its foraging it moves around a lot, and it has a lot of options. I went out to Arlington where it was first seen, thinking all the while that if I were that duck I'd head east towards Tres Rios, where there are larger, protected wetlands. Sure enough, I dipped on the duck and it turned up near Tres Rios. Since then it's been seen at different watering holes. Knowing the regular spots were being monitored without success, I decided to check a few from days of yore. This was also a mistake, because most of those retention ponds, where I birded a few years ago, now look like this. This is not very good Fulvous Whistling-Duck habitat.

Another upside to patrolling canals and retention ponds along agr. fields, of course, is the Burrowing Owls. I understand that Burrowing Owls are one of the only reasons people stop by Butler's Birds, and like any grimy politician, I give the people what they want. Different Owls, different times of day, same pose and cuteness factors.

The rarity chase has thus far been unsuccessful, but some neat stuff has turned up. Check out this dark morph raptor; Red-tail would be the first bet but the eyes and beak also are reminiscent of Ferruginous to me, and dark morph Ferruginous is pretty rare (10% of population, I have read). If this bird would have flown, that would've clinched it one way or another, but of course this is the one raptor that stayed still (and Buteo Regalis should be so brave...)

Butler's Birds has migrated over to North Carolina for its annual, weekly winter sojourn, so the Fulvous Duck must wait a little while (and maybe for a TX return, alas), but in the mean time we're going for the all time Wayne County, NC eBirding record. It's 97 species before Jan. 1st or bust, 21 to go!

Sunday, December 14, 2014

A Shroud, A Veil, Covering up a Fail

My birding has been pretty minimal these last few weeks. I must admit, considering how good November and December are for vagrant/rare birds, I am a total grinch in getting with the 'chasing' spirit. I justify this surliness in that most of the vagrant birds are eclipse-plumage waterfowl on large reservoirs, and it would have to be a very rare bird indeed to make crumby scope views worth a long chase. Some vagrant Warblers have turned up, as well as a Baltimore Oriole hanging out in Tucson. There was a time I would have chased many of these birds, but having now seen most of these species in other states, I've lost a fair bit of motivation, at least as much of the motivation as is required to get over the various and sundry obstacles inimical to early-morning birding. Plus it's been rainy the last two weekends.

Anyhow, even I had to get into gear when someone reported a Long-tailed Duck (not quite annual in AZ) at Saguaro Lake, a mere 35 minute drive without traffic. This would be both a lifer and a pretty great bird for Arizona, and it was close. But of course, all of those earlier grinch factors were still in play. The Saguaro Lake reservoir had a nice, primordial fog going as the sun labored to crest its bluffs. 

I set to work scanning the near-shore waterfowl, not expecting to find a Long-tailed so close to land, but more for a lack of anything else to do until the light improved and the stratus lifted.

I feel like every bird blogger and his cousin have all had one or more experiences in which a Sora walks out into plain view and just loiters, allowing for fantastic crushing. Soras, for the most part, have been mean to me in denying such an opportunity. One fellow was pretty accommodating this morning, but this was in large part due to the soporific lighting. The Hi-Res crush must wait.

The Saguaro Lake reservoir is a nice area, great for logging all of the expected waterfowl and some semi-rarities like Surf Scoter. The surrounding mesquite scrub is pretty good for the Sonoran species--woodpeckers, sparrows, thrashers, and wrens.

Out of the mist materialized many such birds, including some spiffy Buffleheads, but Long-tailed Duck was not one of them. I did have to make note of how quick it was to register all of the waterfowl in the area though, including 4 Grebe species. This might be quite the essential spot in a Big Day challenge come spring...


Eared Grebes are nice, though scant consolation for a Long-tailed Duck. If only the cheeks were whiter, the head less peaked.

Since the bird was first reported on Friday, there has been no further mention of it on the listerv, which was very curious considering how centrally located Saguaro Lake is. Perhaps the Long-tailed Duck was simply a long tale. Well, it was still nice to be out. White-crowns and Cardinals are expectedly everywhere. This is like the AZ equivalent of the Cardinal-eating-sunflower-seeds-in-snow that we'll all being from the east in the next few weeks:

So, even the close-to-home chase was bust this time around, doomed from the start perhaps. At any rate, I have one more week of work before winter break, and then there will be some serious chasing. Until then, I shall remain an existentially troubled Coot, wanting much, yet seeking little.