Sunday, April 19, 2015

Ordinarily Good Birding

Maricopa County has its various birdy attractions throughout the year. Certain thrashers and sparrows come to mind in winter, while Cuckoos, Bitterns, and Rails tend to captivate the later summer interest. But as April runs into May, there's only one place to be in Maricopa: the tender, elevated, loving slopes  of Mt. Ord. After taking last weekend off from birding, due largely to hangover fall-out and from quite possibly the worst week of work ever, the trek up Mt. Ord was an overdue return. This was the case because many of the elevation breeders have now returned as well. The scrub lowlands were teeming with Sparrows as well as smaller numbers of the coveted Gray Vireo. 

Blue-gray Gnatcatchers and Black-throated Gray Warblers are by far the most common birds this time on year on Ord. Between those two names it sounds rather dour, but even if these birds are not bursting with color, they are bursting with song, or at least bursting with song-esque sorts of noises.

The juniper/pine/oak habitat hosts many other breeders, including WEBL, LEGO, WBNU, RBNU, JUTI, HETA, and VGSW. I was even fortunate enough to hear a Northern Pygmy-Owl tooting from somewhere out in this mess. The bird quieted down as I approached closer and I could not locate it, despite waiting in the area fro another 30 minutes. I don't even know why I am mentioning this failure. 

There were some vocal Grace's Warbler's mixed up in the canopy, jostling for position and prominence with Redstart and Hutton's Vireos. Yellow-throated or Grace's? Who wins in a beauty contest? Who wins in a fight? Who wins at bingo?

The old corral and water tank off FR 1688 was typically birdy, but otherwise the greatest concentrations of species were off from the main road nearer the summit of Ord, around 7,000 feet. Here I got more than an earful and less of an eyeful of the skulky Virginia's Warblers. It's ok; an eyeful of warbler sounds unpleasant anyway, makes one's eyes all black-throated blue.

There were also some holdover Cassin's Finches near the summit, and one weird-o finch hanging out on its own. It was bulkier and had more olive-green on its breast and supercilium. It looked pretty good for female Purple Finch is all I'm saying...but that would be very rare and I have no documentation, so I'm not actually saying anything.
Watching Violet-green Swallows streak through the blue sky atop Ord's summits never gets old. Trying to photograph them in flight does.

In other news, no one has re-found the Eared Quetzal since its original discovery on Friday, which is why I am writing this blog post, instead of affably losing myself in the Santa Rita Mountains. Things are getting pretty flavorful down there though, with Trogons moving onto territory and Sinaloa Wrens still ratcheting to such an extent that a desperate one-day weekend trip may be next on the cards. 

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Nullifying a Nocturnal Near-Nemesis

That's it below; that is my lifer Western Screech-Owl from ages past. I've run into so many people over the years that have seen this bird when out walking their dogs at night, perched in a citrus tree, a yard-bound cactus, or even on a street sign. Surely I too will have such an opportunity, I thought. As was often the case through grade school, high school, college, and various relationships...I thought wrong.

I'd hear WESOs plenty often, but never did I have that golden opportunity that seemed to present itself unwittingly to non-birders and birders alike. I'd seen it once, but never again. WESo was turning into a kinda Mobius Dick. 

This past week I met up with some prodigious bird-bloggers along the Salt River for some seasonal owling. We heard plenty of WESOs, had looks at Elf and Great-horned, and a Common Poorwill almost took my head off flying by. Eventually I had to get home and wouldn't ya know, they soon after found an absurdly accommodating WESO. Crushing occurred, selfies were posed, and as was often the case through grade school, high school, college, and various relationships...I was not a part of the party. 

So I returned several days later, and this time I convinced more people to come with me, including people that aren't normally into the birds. Pretty clever eh? With a full-moon lending its light, we managed to hear but not see Elf and Great-horned Owls, likewise with the Poorwill, but this time we heard, and then got killer looks at, Western friggin' Screech-Owl. 

It took some trudging through thick mesquite and abrasive, sock-destroying fox-tail grass, but eventually we found some nice spots and waited (instead of chasing after those calling owls, the mistake I often impatiently make). They came in to investigate our calls. There were intense stare-offs.

Frodo didn't feel so good when he finally ditched the Ring of Power (to be fair, he did lose a finger in the exchange) nor did Luke Skywalker when he sunk his proton torpedos down the Death Star's scandalously exposed exhaust shaft. Captain Ahab didn't feel so good when he finally found his oblivion, nor  Hercules when he completed his 12th labor. Catharsis, you are mine.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Crappy Birding is Good Birding

Dumps and landfills, reclamation sites and sewage ponds, treatment facilities and New Jersey...yes indeed putrescence and productivity seem to go hand-in-hand when it comes to birding. While some of my fondest birding memories come from the beautiful mountains in Arizona and Carolina, or from the Rio Grande Valley of Texas and the coasts, I have picked up just as many lifers and birds-of-interest around otherwise unsavory sludge basins, and it's safe to say that many other birders have too. 

The latest such expedition was for an immature American Golden-Plover discovered in west Phoenix--very near the Tres Rios hotspot--in a run-off basin for a nearby cattle farm. It didn't exactly smell like coffee in the morning (although there were trace elements...) but it was equally enlivening, a much more multi-sensory experience! After scouting along the pond for a few minutes I quickly picked out the plump Plover with a few vociferous Stilts.
The AGPL was somewhat wary and flew farther down the slough, which left me taking nearby inventory before continuing the pursuit.

Burrowing Owls, much wiser and unimpressed by all that, looked on with typical blasé dispositions. Some birds are tough to see but really attractive, and others are easy to see but unattractive. BUOWs are easy to see and super attractive, and we should thank them for this.

I don't know how they compare to all other Owls, but BUOWs seem to be very fecund. Everyone has seen those adorable images of 3-10 BUOW chicks all gregarious and bug-eyed around their burrow. How many other birds are there that lay (much less hatch and raise) that many eggs in a clutch? Outside of waterfowl, I struggle to think of any.

The AGPL has been around for a few days now and given pretty clear, accessible looks to most everyone who has chased it, though the bird seems to disappear later in the day. This immature bird was more brown overall than BBPL, with a longer primary extension and browner cap contrasting with the broad white supercilium.

Another telltale identification sign, which you may have noticed from the photos, is that American Golden-Plovers always face to their left. ALWAYS. If you see a similar plover that is facing to its right, it's either an immature Black-bellied or an adult European Golden (in which case, congratulations).

The marshy theme continued at the nearby B & M WMA, where I was hoping to hear Ridgeway's Rails (to no avail). Vocalizing Sora are always a treat, though they continued to deny me that perfect bird blogger moment when they step totally into the open and in good light. 

Likewise Common Yellowthroats continue to be a species I have not properly crushed, which is additionally embarrassing considering their numerical presence.  When I get the camera on these birds I just...lose...focus. They've been singing on territory for a couple weeks now.  

So the chasing was productive, not to mention easy, and the rest of the birding was nicely complementary. Saturday night I returned to the Salt River mesquite bosques in search of a Western Screech Owl photo, since I had failed there where everyone else succeeded earlier in the week, and brought some reinforcements, plus a tripod and junk.  

Thursday, April 2, 2015

A Most Unusual Outing

I did not accumulate much material for a blogpost this past weekend, other than this ever-lovely Painted Redstart, but the paucity of weekend photos did not damage my calm, for an exciting an unorthodox WEEKDAY birding adventure beckoned.

I met up with Tommy Debardeleben and Josh Wallestad--who just couldn't resist the Phoenix bird scene as advertised by our blogs any more--on Wednesday evening at Coon Bluff for some seasonal owling. As temperatures warm, this mesquite-bosque and saguaro habitat becomes excellent for Elf, Western Screech, and Great-horned Owls, as well as Common Poorwill and Lesser Nighthawk.

When the sun goes down, the cacophony begins. Before 8pm we had multiple vocalizing Poorwills and WESO, although I unluckily had to leave before the super-crushy chance on WESO came later in the evening. Nocturnal birding, as one might expect, is a different beast from day birding. Vocalizations are not just important, they are essential, especially when one is trying to find tiny 6-inch Owls in dense mesquite scrub.

The calling WESOs led us on a goose chase for a while (which is not the right sort of chase to be on after dark) before we eventually moved to an area better for Elves. Nocturnal birding is also aided by numbers of people, which we had, and good lighting equipment, which I do not have. Even so we eventually earned some nice looks at Elf Owls and the other fellas crushed WESO later in the evening, which came nicely after crushing hard on Whiskered Screech the day before.

There was also this mouse.

With Conn Bluff being a 25 minute drive from home, the weather being so mild, and the the Owls being so sweet, this might have to become a regular thing. Next time I'm coming with flash grenades.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Salt Spray and Sea Breeze: Beach Birding on Break

This Spring Break was a long time coming. Many people anticipate this holiday and prepare for it with thematic shirts or tank-tops and large volume beer purchases. I'm not saying these things didn't also factor in, but definitely an escape from work and the general Phoenix scene were on the cards for Butler's truly. After some delays due to, yes, work, and other complications/restrictions, I departed for the coast on Wednesday, the same day or maybe a day before a gorgeous and chase-able Slate-throated Redstart showed up in Arizona. Best not to dwell on that...

I wasn't able to make stops for any of the SoCal desert resident birds nor spend time at the Salton Sea going to or fro, which leaves those less pleasant trips for when I'm rocking solo later this spring. Of course, birders want to cram as much birding into our travels as possible, but such considerations do not always resonate with a crowd that's contributing gas money and advocating more beach time. Fortunately, coastal birding brings its own rewards, and I found time to explore an estuary/inlet that brought salt marsh and seashore species together with a ripe, freshly-beached fish scent. 

Whimbrel was one of the first birds I spent time with along the estuarial mudflats. These kink-billed waders are very well-manufactured birds, with all of their highly-adpated parts and soft-spoken camouflage making for an easy life even during migration. These sightings were all the sweeter because Whimbrel was an overdue (and embarrassingly lacking) lifer, a bird with high vagrancy potential that nonetheless does not occur in Arizona very often. 
These praises and plaudits being established, one can tell that the wary Whimbrel has a chip on its shoulders, and this is largely because, despite their sturdy legs, lengthy proboscis, and economically stylish wardrobe, the Long-billed Curlew outshines them in all departments.   

Ah, the sicklebird, a behemoth of the shoreline and a prober of the deep muck untouched by any other. LBCUs are not simply the largest sandpipers in North America, they're also some of the most snazzy. They bully the Whimbrels around and the Whimbrels accede to the LBCU's superiority. If you had some dude get in your face, and he had a nose that was 3 feet long, you would too. These birds were migrants and they still gave all the other shorebirds the business; they were prickly, downright erinaceous. But this must not distract from the main thing about them, which is that they are gorgeous.

Even the disheveled and travel-weary bird shown above is inspiring on-the-wing..."and we petty men walk under its huge legs, and peep about."

Small to medium flocks of Curlew migrate through central Arizona fairly regularly, but unless one smacks into your car or gets stuck being a stick in the mud, it's pretty hard to compete with the sort of looks one gets in the more coastal settings. It was super calm.

The estuary was also populated with Black-bellied Plover and lesser peeps, though ammodramus Sparrows did not seem to be in the area. After making sure I had acrid mud well under my toenails, I proceeded out to the shoreline, which was pleasantly devoid of people and pleasantly populated with, you guessed it, birds.
Of course, the feeling of appreciation was not mutual. Red-breatsed Mergansers are always flighty and skiddish (which, incidentally, are also the two stages of life of a frisbee), and these shoreline Mergs remained true to form. They were not calm.

Most of the expected Gulls were around, including handsome Heermann's and California birds (so good that Utah adopted them right out of old folklore), but I got the impression that this strip of beach was not so frequently frequented by people, as these Gulls did not display the oft-observed tendency or either ignoring or pandering to me.

It's a shame. Phoenix duck ponds have spoiled me. I like being pandered to, like some sort of attention-seeking pander-bear, except with a more evolutionarily appropriate diet. HEGUs and CAGUs I was ready for, but a few smaller Gulls did cause some consternation. From the smaller pictures of Sibley came some textbook examples of adult non-breeding Bonaparte's Gulls--another bird and form of which I cannot boast familiarity (whereas, with Verdins, I can boast hella familiarity). The black tips and white coloration on the outer primaries and secondariness of the wings are sharp though, full credit.

More intriguing was a similarly-sized bird hanging with that same group. The black wing patterning was noticeably different, and the birdrenal gland started doing its thing when I recalled that first-year Black-legged Kittiwakes have the black beak and some sort of bold black pattern on the wings!

Alas, it was not to be. A quick consultation of The Tome confirmed that this bird, though in my opinion handsomer than its older brethren, is a first-winter Bonaparte's. Blarg. Well, if lifer Gull-forms count for anything, then I got a little piece of something. Eh, that bird has a weird lumpy double forehead anyway.

But Terns are pretty sweet, as this recent anthology by Seagull Steve reminded the blogosphere. Elegant Tern was a lifer for me last September, and even though their numbers around Half Moon Bay were significant, there was not a lot of quality time. This exiguous experience of the past was put to rest  by a more eximious Spring Break party time further south.

As anyone who has one or more eyes and isn't obstinate on principle can tell you, Terns are good flyers. They are good at it, and they look good while they're doing it. In fact, they're so good they don't even have to follow the usual convention of comfort and aerodynamics.
Nah, this Tern was probably just checking out a dead pile below it, which I in turn checked out as well, getting my only Pacific Loon photo of the trip. 

By happy coincidence another lifer from September, lucky #500 as it turned out, reacquainted itself on the young sand. At first I did not know what this Surfbird was doing. It looked agitated or uncomfortable but did not take flight. It seems like it's sitting on eggs right, but it's about 3,000 miles too far south to be doing such things.

The bird spread its wings and did some sort of half-push ups. As it seemed to be injured, I sat and observed without further approach for a couple of minutes, which affected nothing, and then approached directly to see if I could help the bird. At this point it took off immediately, seemingly without issue except for a dangling leg. Best of luck with the remaining journey Surfbird.

In case you're wondering, the Slate-throated Redstart disappeared before I returned, so the sunburn- having-been-avoided only soothed so much. On the upswing, there should be some nice-looking Warblers arriving in the higher climes of Maricopa County now, and many birders are starting to pitch tents even earlier in the morning in anticipation of That Great Spring Movement.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Birding the Bush: It's that Time of Year Somewhere

March 8th and a projected high of 83 degrees? Yeah, and it's moving to 88° on Thursday. At any rate, such conditions mean it's time to  get out to the riparian channels and beat the bushes for early migrants and breeders, birds or otherwise. There are several good spots for such behavior along Highway 87, where sycamore riparian habitat and juniper/oak scrub coalesce beneath unambitious granite canyons. In the foothills of the Mazatzal Mountains, Mesquite Wash, Bushnell Tanks, and Sunflower make for fantastic sites, with excellent overall diversity as well as notable breeders like Common Black and Zone-tailed Hawk, Gray Vireo, and Violet-green Swallow. These sites are grouped close together and i in the shadow of Mt. Ord, Maricopa County's highest elevation and one of its best birding locations. 

I'm waiting on the Mt. Ord and/or Slate Creek Divide (another hot spot for tough-on-county birds) trips for a few more weeks, but the more easily accessed Bushnell Tanks felt like an overdue stop, and I was not disappointed. This is a bit cruel, because everyone else will be disappointed. the riparian corridor and liminal juniper scrub was super birdy, with several FOY birds and a county-first Greater Pewee, but with the bird activity being of a high octane, I was pretty lazy with the camera. Plus, the CBHA and  ZTHA had not yet arrived, so we all must still content ourselves with immature RTHAs, which is not contenting at all as it turns out.  

Of course, hawks are the best thing ever, the superlative thing to watch, and all the more so when they start getting their breed on. There was a whole political conglomerate in the early 1800s who wanted to go to war on their behalf against the British ("Red-tails over Redcoats!!"). But it's also just about time for the Black-throated Sparrows, Black-chinned Sparrows, Chin-throated black Sparrows, and Sparrow-chinned Blackthroats to start their breeding bonanzas--almost

This dude perched right next to the trail like he was ready to start his vocalizing and then, as if remembering what day it was and that he was now rudely early, the ugly cousin of fashionably late, he just kinda froze. It probably took him a while to work up the guts too.

The juniper scrub of the Mazatzal foothills has hosted some unusual vagrants/migrants this winter, especially considering the relatively mild winter we've experience west of the Rockies. Evening Grosbeaks and Cassin's Finches have been present in these channels throughout the winter, and while their numbers were much lower than on my visit to the area a month ago, they still had a very audible presence. Unfortunately, all the males were attending a stag party or something, or they're sick of juniper and ready to get back into the pines. 

So not a whole lot to show from the weekend. Saturday was a recovery day from Friday, which was one of those rare and unholy events where work and personal life come together for an entire evening, and this always requires heavy imbibing. No doubt listservs and eBird alerts will be lit up with FOY/Early reports in the ensuing weeks. Birders will be on call. For those of you out east who are begrudging my constant prattling about our weather, I shall get just desserts when it starts breaking 100° in April. Then the sweaty shoe shall be on the other foot. Enjoy.  

Friday, March 6, 2015

Roger Wilco Foxtrot Willcox: More Chasing (...and a bit too fast)

One of my only and best streaks was broken on Sunday. A Red Phalarope was phalaroping in Willcox, about three hours east and south of Phoenix, and this would be both a lifer and a pretty sweet bird to pick up in the middle of not-the-coast land. Alas, I also had some time constraints, which meant this had to be a quick chase, leaving Phoenix at 5:00am and returning at 11:30am. The streak was that despite 9 different warnings in 7 different states in the last 10 years, I had not received a speeding ticket directly from a police officer (those unconstitutional cheating speed cameras in AZ were another story). That ended a bit south of Tucson on Sunday, where the speed quickly dips from 75 to 65 and yours truly was still cruise controllin' at 80mph, just minding his own business, which in this case was seeing good birds. So, that was a bit of a spoiler, as will the weekend traffic school likewise be. Anyhow, the trip was worth it. 

The first bird of the morning--after the obligatory highway birds--was a shady female Pyrrhuloxia who was demonstrating the truly bizarre mandible shape and configuration of this species. Great bird though, great bird...way better than Cardinal. 

Lake Cochise in Willcox is a modest body of water but it's one of very few in a pretty busy flyway, so it has had its share of rarities over the year, and is about the only place in Arizona to get White-rumped Sandpipers in spring. It also has more than its fair share of the common and expected birds.

Coming soon, to a parking lot near you...

Lake Cochise is a small drainage basin from the nearby Twin Lakes golf course, and it is surrounded by the otherwise natural desert grasslands, punctuated here and there by sprouts of wiry mesquite. The habitat and geographic location make it one of the best spots in Arizona to pick up Eastern Meadowlark, and several species of Sparrow, as well as some Longspurs, winter here with great success. There are also Lark Buntings, a bird I hope to see some day in sexy plumage--maybe this summer in Montana or North Dakota.

The golf course area itself provides some foreign habitat in the form of pine and willow trees, along with rushy reedy stuff on its derivative golf course ponds. The pond cover suits Teal species and maybe even an American Bittern if one is very lucky, while the ornamental pines make appreciated perches for   talon-less birds of prey. 
P.S. Why is no gang or sports team given the collective name "The Shrike." It sounds totally badass. 

"My favorite car is the Chevy Impala."

I know what you're thinking: "Quit stalling and just show the damn Phalarope or admit that you busted again and quit wasting my time you mook. Also, your casserole sucks and the only reason your mother hasn't publicly admitted that you were her least favorite child is because she knows she'll have to rely on you for drawn-out hospice care in 30 years." 
Well geez man, that was pretty harsh and personal, but I take your point. Here's the rub though, not only was the REPH in its expected non-breeding plumage, it was also pretty far away, so enjoy this for all of your impatient degradation!

Yeah, not great looks or really much else, but a great tick for Arizona. I should be thankful that this bird was so reliable and easy to spot with only binoculars (and I am; thank you, hopelessly lost Red Phalarope). Also of interest in the area were a pair of corvids that look pretty good for Chihuahuan Raven. They were smaller/more delicate than what I'd expect for CORA, and the nictal bristles on this bird seem to extend all the way to the downward curve of the culmen. The tail is also pretty flat across the edge of the primaries, less 'wedged' than I'd expect on CORA.

Why am I saying all of this out loud? Because CHRA is usually a bird I only count when I've got other people backing me up in the field. This prudence stems not only from my generally conservative birding nature and lack of ID skill, but also from a deeply ingrained belief that the less of anything 'chihuahua' in the world, outside perhaps that region in actual Mexico, the better.
(I kid I kid, CHRA is a cool bird, but I surely do dislike those little rat dogs).