Monday, October 10, 2011

Awesome Bird Monday

After a relatively uneventful morning at the Desert Botanical Garden, I decided to stop by the McCormick Ranch pond were I had yesterday seen the Sora and the Common Yellowthroat. Although the company was very nice at the DBG, and we did see the normal desert quarry one comes to expect at the Gardens, I did not get a single good picture, nor any new birds. That's just the way the cookie crumbles sometime, so I hadn't quite got my fix.
My stomach was communicating to my brain that it was lunch time, but my brain had to explain to my stomach that we just won't be satisfied, even after a meal, with so little to show for our troubles.
I parked farther away from the pond this time and walked along more of the McCormick golf course, and saw nothing along the way other than a few Grackles.
However, as soon as I reached the southern banks of the 'U' shaped pond, I saw that treasure of a bird, the fiery flyer I had been longing to see since I got my camera: the Vermillion Flycatcher.

Photography in noonday lighting is never ideal, especially when you're trying to track a flycatcher that never let's you get closer than 30 feet, only sits still in 3 second increments, and keeps going from shady to sunny perches. I guess I couldn't have it all on my photographical debut with the Vermillion, so when I took off across the pond, I followed in his direction without expecting or needing to see more.
It was a bonus then to see a weather-beaten Harris's Hawk in one of the larger trees on the north side of the pond. He stayed put for a while and seemed content to finish with his preening before moving on.

 At 20-21 inches tall, the Harris's Hawk is about average size for a Hawk, but this specimen seemed especially large to me.
There's no other hawk with the dark head, and dark body offset by the brown shoulders. The tattered end of his tail feathers indicate this hawk has seen the seasons change many times.
 Yes, he is scratching his lower back with his face--no big deal. The white rump here and white tips of the tail (almost worn away) enclose the dark tail, and make for an easy identification when you see a Harris's flying overhead.
 Is it just me, or does this Harris's have especially prominent eyebrows?
 It was a tiny bit frustrating to never get the clean body shot--a stick always seemed to be in the way.

By time the Harris's Hawk left, I could no longer see the male Vermillion Flycatcher, but I did notice a Black Phoebe arguing with a slightly smaller bird, which turned out to be the lovely female!

 She was even more skittish than the male, but still preferred to stay out in the sunshine. I have to admit, I woefully underestimated how bright it was. I was shooting here at f6.3 and 400 ISO--error.
The female Vermillion Flycatcher has to be one of the prettiest lady birds out there. It was odd though, that the male and female never occupied the same side of the pond. It was almost like they stayed opposite each other on purpose, as if they weren't getting along or didn't want to compete for food.

I made my way back into the bullrushes hoping to stir up some warblers or sparrows. I did get a decent look at a pair of Marsh Wrens, which was a new bird, but never enough for a picture. It was at this point a sympathetic Cooper's Hawk landed in a nearby mesquite tree, paused for a quick shot (again with me underestimating the brightness), and then departed. Two new birds in as many minutes!

Excelsior Accipiter!

This swampy soiree was already hugely successful, and on my way back around the Vermillion male gave me one more look.

 That poor other bird has never felt more dull and drab in its entire life. To be fair, it'll probably never get it's picture taken again either. Vermillion Flycatcher, you're the best!

Dear McCormick Ranch Drainage Pond,

I'm sorry I ever thought you didn't have much to offer. I'm sorry that, even after seeing my first Sora hidden on your reedy banks, I did not think you were the most special pond in Arizona. Thank you for giving me another chance, and for hosting awesome birds today.
I love you, to the extent a man can love a pond, which it turns out is a lot.

Vermillion Flycatcher

More than any other, except maybe for the Rose-Breasted Grosbeak, this is the bird I've been wanting to see again and photograph. Most of my photography has been spent capturing images of birds I had already seen before I got my camera. The camera made re-seeing old birds much more exciting and challenging, and also allowed for me to more generally share my experiences with others.
The last time I saw a Vermillion Flycatcher was in 2009 at the Gilbert Water Ranch in Arizona. I had seen one once before in Harlingen, Texas, and let me tell you every time you see this bird it's just jaw dropping. It's to vivid and sanguine for any birder to ever become jaded, and so seeing it with camera-in-hand was twice the excitement.
That all being said, it's an uncommon bird, and I wasn't fully prepared.

The Vermillion Flycatcher has about the same attention span as a warbler, and tends to alternate between super sunny and super shady perches, so while I'm fiddling with my ISO and f-stop and EV compensation and all other manner of improvised human attempts at capturing nature, the Vermillion Flycatcher has already eaten lunch and moved to the other side of the pond.

It was great to see a female around too. I've never been able to count on a constant Vermillion Flycatcher population, but maybe here nature will take its course and I can return for more...
The pond where these Flycatchers seemed to have set up shop was teeming with other avian activity, but I did get one more pass at the male, and while I can't say I am 100% satisfied with the pictures, I'm ecstatic about the experience!

I don't think the sparrow here has ever felt so dull. 

Even though these birds are very transient, they seem to prefer the liminal space between arid landscape/desert scrub and water, or at least this has held true every time I've seen the Vermillions. 

Cooper's Hawk

I don't know who Cooper is, but I found his Hawk, or rather, it found me. Since the Middle Ages, someone who made or repaired casks and barrels was called a cooper (is that where recuperate comes from?). I doubt there's much correlation here though.
According to the Cornell Ornithology Lab, the Cooper's Hawk is one of the more skillful flyers in the raptor group. Regrettably I didn't get to see any dexterous displays, but it was nice to get such a cool new bird while looking for wrens of all things.
The Cooper's Hawk looks very similar to the Sharp-Shinned Hawk with its rusty marked breast/belly and chin. It also had has the darker wings and banded tail. Despite this potentially tricky identification, the hawk was close enough that I could tell its size (20 inches), which is substantially larger than the 16-17 inch Sharp-Shinned Hawks. The rounded tail is also a helpful clue, since the Sharp-Shinned Hawk's tail has a squared edge.
The Cooper's is an accipiter, which means it has a longer body and longer legs, but shorter and more compact wings, which all serve to help it fly quickly through tree canopies and in wooded country.
The talons on this bird seem to be exceptionally long as well.

A couple of weeks later I saw a juvenile Cooper's at the same location.