Saturday, September 24, 2011

More Dessert in the Desert

It was another beautiful morning at the Desert Botanical Gardens. Feeling empowered by my official membership, Pops and I showed up at 6 am to get in some early birding and maybe see some of the desert's more crepuscular denizens, but we were thwarted by an aged security guard informing us that early entries were only permitted on Sundays and Wednesdays.
After biding (not birding) our time, we entered and made a bee line for the wildflower garden, where a Yellow-Breasted Chat, mightiest of Warblers, was supposedly prospecting. This Chat may have been the fevered product of idle chatter, but we did see the usual suspects of Lesser Goldfinches and Rosy-Faced Lovebirds that converge on the sunflower seeds with about as much voracity as one may ever see in a herbivore.
The first interesting sighting was the uncommon Sage Thrasher, one of those fairly obscure desert birds whose rarity is belayed by their unassuming appearance. He was perched on top of some creosote bushes basking in the morning sun, although he quickly departed when he realized MAN had violated his solitude.

After completing a circuit in the wildflower garden, we proceeded to another shaded area that hosted the warblers and flycatchers seen on earlier trips. Except for the occasional Curve-Billed Thrasher, it was largely deserted--very odd. While exploring the other expositions of desert flora, we ran into the Gardens' contracted photographer, who made us privy to some Elf Owls sighted nearby! I had never seen an Elf Owl, and with it being tiny, uncommon, and predominantly nocturnal, I had never planned on it either. Pops had been hoping to see one for years, and neither of us were disappointed.
Although they were pretty far back from the trail, three Elf Owls--two adults and one chick--were indeed perched and visible out in the daylight.
I was blown away by how small they are. These birds were a bit puffed up as well, but they were less than six inches tall and totally motionless. We observed for a while and I tried to get some pictures, but the distance and adverse lighting denied me that satisfaction. It was still a great sighting though, and we continued around the Gardens already considering the day a great success.
We came across a molting Anna's Hummingbird and some bickering Broad-Tailed Hummers, who were drawn to the flowering foliage in numbers seeming to rival the bees.

The red throat is filling in as is the red crown, which is particular to the Anna's.
Even if not new, the hummingbirds are always fun to watch: the brain of a bird in the body of a bee flying around like a deflating balloon.
Soon after I was also able to get some excellent shots of the locally common Gila Woodpecker, which is seen and heard often enough but usually too skittish or high in the trees for me to get a good picture.

Before heading out for some biscuits and gravy, we decided to try the wildflower garden once more in hopes of seeing the Yellow-Breasted Chat. While we finished the day chat-less, we discovered another pair of Elf Owls in the "Hummingbird Garden". They were much closer to the trail, in decent light, and pretty comfortable with our gawking. They seemed even smaller than the earlier sightings, despite being closer to us. We shared binoculars with other passersby, and some other birding folk were very happy to get to see these remarkable little owls.
It was excellent. It seemed like all the pictures were coming out clearly today. The company was great and the birding exceptional. With two new birds on the list, some great Elf Owl pictures, and the birding only to get better with Autumn migrants, it was a very satisfactory outing. Elf Owls and Sage Thrashers are the sorts of birds you don't ever really expect too see; they're uncommon and tend to be well hidden, but today was a day for birders.

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