Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Coming and Going at the Ranch

I stopped by the Gilbert Water Ranch for a few hours of birding on Saturday. As expected, the place is teeming with White-crowned Sparrows, far more numerous than the combined waterfowl or even Great-tailed Grackle/House Sparrow/Starling/Pigeon combination of sooty city birds. It's a tough call whether or not the Sparrows or the Waterfowl are a more exciting aspect of autumn. I guess for now it's the Sparrows, since there are still new Sparrows for me to see in Phoenix but I'm got most of the expected ducks covered. At any rate, let me both apologize and warn that you'll likely be seeing lots of these White-crowns in the next few months.


The Water Ranch has played host to some interesting migrants/vagrants the last week or two. I dipped on the female Chestnut-sided Warbler there (which is still around, apparently) but did see a pair of American Redstarts. Warblers are hard enough to photograph and rarer Warblers all the more so. Instead I came away with shots of this mangy young male Costa's Hummingbird. Costa's Hummers aren't rare, but they're not overly common, especially late in October.


I think the white thing on the leaf is pocket lint, or maybe wadded up spider web. Always nice to see these guys, especially amidst the inundation of Anna's around Phoenix.


The Costa's Hummer looked very dainty, very petit atop its little leaf. This Great Egret, in contrast, looked chunky and uncomfortable. Come to think of it, Great Egrets often look this way.


And here is perhaps the only stage of the Black-crowned Night Heron life cycle wherein the bird is actually camouflaged. Clearly he thought it was a good-enough disguise to sit out in the open, which is pretty uncharacteristic for the GWR Night Herons.


There wasn't a whole lot to show for the trip, but it'll get me through the week. My two month loan Swarovski nocs' should arrive this week and I'm going to take them and a buddy to Tres Rios next Saturday. I expect it will ruin me.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Birdin' The Boot

Last week I found myself in Rome. While admiring the spectacle of the ancient sites, the renaissance sites, and the baroque sites, as well as the modern sites (and modern cuisine!), I snuck a little bit of birding in too. Unfortunately, the one excursion I made exclusively for birding was rained out almost immediately, but during this wonderful sojourn abroad I did see some new and interesting species. 

Old, New, and in between...it's all crammed together in Rome

To be honest, my birding enthusiasm wanes a bit when I head out of the country, at least regarding listing and finding new species. Part of it is an anxiety about opening the flood gates too wide. The quest to see every North American species is reasonable. Opening myself up to European or South American birding is...dangerous, with so many new species to see, so many of which I've never even heard. At any rate, it was nice to also find a few species that also turn up or have small populations in the U.S.

In lieu of Chickadees, the European canopies are adorned with Tits. Yes, there's not really a less awkward way to say it. The Great Tits are the most visible (obviously) but Eurasian Blues and Long-tailed can turn up as well.


The Tits' cheery and chittery companion is the European Robin. They're all over the Italian Peninsula (and Europe at large). I saw them at every single site we visited outside of Rome, including up high in Orvieto and Assisi as well as the ancient ruins of Ostia.


White Wagtails are another fairly common sight in the urban greenery. Without ever compromising their excellent posture, they run around the freshly mowed park lawns and gardens, murdering many insects and staying wary of the camera.



The Hooded Crows are the corvid creme de la creme around the Ancient City. Larger and meaner than Jackdaws, they boss the garbage cans and gutters in superlative fashion. Perhaps their success is in large part due to their ability to stand up very tall.




Though corvids are regarded as very intelligent birds, these Hooded Crows had moments when they seemed to exude profound unintelligence. To be fair, I have those moments too.



However, the creepy blank stare of a Muscovy Duck is no more reassuring. These funny-faced birds have established colonies in Texas and other parts of the U.S., and are now spreading into Europe as well. If I had to pick one species that possibility germinated the avian pox and/or bird flu, I'd vote Muscovy Duck. Look at this sinister thing...


As in the U.S., Mallards still comprise 85% of the waterfowl around urban Roman ponds. Also like the U.S., there are some interesting, colorful varieties and hybrids around the urban ponds. This crusty-eyebrowed fella here, only half exposed to the light, was the size of a goose.


Luckily the manky Mallards and un-listable Muscovy Ducks weren't the only waterfowl around. Ruddy Shelducks occasionally turn up in North America. From what I've read, no one has definitively confirmed they are of wild origin, and even in their native Eurasia their populations are declining. As such, I considered myself lucky to find a pair at the Borghese Villa park in north central Rome. 


The Shelducks were probably my favorite birds of the trip. There's just something so satisfying about seeing big and new Waterfowl (and they're a mercifully straightforward lot to identify).


Perhaps the most fitting sighting of the trip was this Monk Parakeet outside of St. Paul's Cathedral. The Monk Parakeets were actually all over Rome, but always streaking by at considerable speed and with awful shrieking. 


The Rome birds were nice--a great bonus to an awesome trip. But I am really looking forward to North American birding again, particularly because it's waterfowl and sparrow season now. Yee-haw!

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

IDing Challenge: It's time to do or Dowitcher

This is the ultimate for me. It's not that the Dowitcher complex (Short-billed vs. Long-billed) is the most difficult to discern in the bird world. Differentiating silent Trail's Flycatchers or Pacific-Slope/Cordillerans in overlapping range can be more challenging, or at least there's less to tell them apart. And yet when trying to compare these two Dowitchers in photos and field guides, in the wild and in memory, I cannot keep them apart. Living in Phoenix, I have it pretty easy. There's a 99% chance that any Dowitcher in the middle of Arizona is a Long-billed. 

But earlier this autumn I went to the Salton Sea, where the two species are known to intermingle in this overlapping range. With excitement and trepidation, I set out to tell the two apart, and to definitively add Short-billed to my life list. It is now at great risk and with much anxiety that I submit these photos to you all. For my money, they're all still Long-billed...

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Peepity Peep Peep Peep

A Flock of Seagulls may produce a one-hit wonder, but a good pile of Peeps can sustain a birder for years, maybe even a lifetime. With a pocket of peeps on the beach a birder can find half a dozen species commingling within a few square feet of each other, or maybe just fifty of a single species. Either way, it can take days, weeks, or months to figure it out, with the exciting and frustrating possibility that their identity may not ever be fully known.    


There are many packs of roving peeps around the Salton Sea, like these Sandpipers here, but these ravenous bands can turn up anywhere there's a bit of water and some mud. 


Some Peeps make it easy on a fella/fellady, like the yellow-legged Least Sandpiper.


The Least Sandpiper has a diminutive name and equally diminutive personality. Snowy Plovers are shy  too, but they have a specialness about them. Maybe it's just that, with so many Sandpipers around, there's something refreshing in the gentle roundedness of a Plover, especially a Plover that is not also a Killdeer. 


Even the most dignified Peeps, birds that are eminently light on their feet, sometimes get stuck in the mud. This Snowy Plover hopped across a little eddy and muddied his undersides. He tried to play it cool for a minute, making it out like he wanted to skulk in the muck, but this is not usual Snowy Plover behavior.


After freeing himself, the Snowy Plover looked around nervously. He asked me not to tell anyone and so, naturally, I'm spreading his picture and story on the internet.


People watching is fun for the paparazzi, and Peep watching is fun for the birder paparazzi. As disreputable as it is, in the end many birders are Peeping Toms.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Friday, October 12, 2012

A Little Fall Migration Of My Own

Hello Readers,

I'll be out of town this week, wayyy out of town. Unfortunately my time and internet access will be restricted and I won't be able to post here as often nor visit all of your wonderful websites until next weekend.

Thanks for stopping by, and have a great week.
Here's a Mandarin Duck found in Phoenix last year. Someone could spend a week straight looking at this bird's absurd plumage, and it would not be time poorly spent.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Finding Forster and Fear-footed Gulls

I promise, I'm almost done with Salton Sea stuff. Ok, actually there are three more posts after this, but hey the Iliad and the Odyssey weren't short either.

Some of the Sea's better attractions are the Gulls and Terns than can be found there spring through early autumn (and a few all year round). It's gotta be one of the best inland areas to see these sorts of predominantly oceanic birds. Unfortunately, Pops and I dipped on the eminently cool Gull-billed Terns, but still came away with Black, Forster's, and Caspian Tern, along with California, Ring-billed, Herring, and Yellow-footed Gulls.

Most of the Tern sightings were fly-overs, but this little pack of Forster's Terns were doing their best to blend in with some Peeps. Although Forster's Terns are not exactly small birds, they're dwarfed by the Caspian Terns and outdone in attitude by the Gull-billed. Theirs must be an anxious life.


A Nervous wreck, I am afraid.


I appreciated seeing this pose. I think this is about how I felt and exactly how I may have looked as a boy when swinging as high as possible and then jettisoning from the seat at full extension. Y'all know what I'm talking about. Those few moments of free-fall from the swing were about as close as many of us will ever get to being an astronaut.


The Yellow-footed Gulls are probably the most treasured larus at the Salton Sea, and they are very appropriately named. Not only do they have yellow feet; these massive gulls (almost the size of Greater Black-backed) are very scared to show em'.


I mean, I guess the fact that these birds were all standing in water is at least in part to blame. They must be frustrating for the few larophile pedesphiles out there (yes, be sure you read that very carefully, for I'm talking about someone who loves Gulls and Feet, and nothing else).


There are few other places to find these locally common Gulls inland of the United States. While they weren't the most vivacious or revealing bunch, they certainly were a highlight, and in fact many birders migrate to the Salton Sea every year just to add these daffodil-footed dudes. HEre, for an ending note, is one such Gull chowing down on rotting fish, a typical Salton scene.


Saturday, October 6, 2012

Better Go to Papago

I'm still on a high from this morning's birding. Waking up at 6 am, this morning did not feel any more glorious than Saturdays past, and with my intended destinations being the Desert Botanical Gardens and Papago Ponds--two areas I had birded very often and with few surprises--there was little reason to expect anything but the usual. I'd been on some great birding trips recently, but my photography is always lacking when I visit knew areas. The plan today was to focus on some local spots and get some better shots of common Phoenix birds. The temperature had dropped a little bit, winterfowl were starting to arrive, and there's always the off-chance for a vagrant.


American Coots are not rare vagrants, and in fact descend on Phoenix by the thousand each autumn.

Since the DBG does not open until 8am, I had Maria drop me off at the Papago Ponds. The Papago Park has some nice rock formations, but the three little ponds are not very scenic. Even so, they are one of my favorite places to view waterfowl in the Phoenix area as they're fairly narrow and allow for closer looks without spooking the birds. This was my first trip out in several months, and I was immediately greeted by some Northern Pintails, Coots, and three Ring-necked Ducks. The Ring-necked Ducks were already in their breeding plumage but the Pintails were still being all solar-eclipse.


Floating out with the Ring-necks was a different, curiously shaped specimen. It had a spiky, erect tail, and since its head was tucked away I wondered if it might be some weird Ruddy Duck. As the bird turned around though and revealed its slender beak, revealed itself to be some sort of Merganser.



This was exciting! I'd never seen a Merganser in Phoenix before, although it's not a super uncommon sighting I'm sure. I knew that Common Mergansers turn up in the fall and winter--I'd just never seen them--and Red-breasted sometimes migrate through. But this bird was smaller than those other possibilities. At maybe eighteen inches, with a dark grey and yellow beak (as oppose to the pinkish-orange Common Merganser) and white showing on the primaries...this was a female Hooded Merganser. Hey, it's not a jaw-dropper, but it's uncommon enough that I knew eBird would flag it, and don't that sort of thing just make a birder feel like a million bucks?


After observing the Merganser for some time, watching her dive, bathe, and preen like some sort of creepy person, I headed down the canal to the DBG. I still consider the Botanical Gardens to be one of the best desert birding areas in Phoenix, but today they were a total bust. I saw eight species inside the grounds. Eight! Not a single Lesser Goldfinch, Cactus Wren, or even a Mourning Dove!!! It was very weird. There were lots of people there already, in part due to the late opening time and there seemed to be some sort of upcoming feature event. Whatever the reasons, the birds were nowhere to be found. Despite the DBG being largely deserted, I did see a Yellow-breasted Chat in the Wildflower Garden, which was a very pleasant surprise, especially given the otherwise low turn out.

The birding was much better at Papago so I decided to walk the desert trail out of the DBG and back to the ponds, thinking maybe I'd find a Rock Wren or Roadrunner along the way. About a quarter mile in I flushed a long-winged gray bird--clearly some sort of goatsucker. Without too much hope, I watched it fly away, expecting it to disappear into the distant hills. To my surprise, it only flew a short distance before landing in a creosote bush.



I had not seen distinct white flashes when the bird flew, and it seemed a bit small to be Lesser Nighthawk. However, the bird clearly had a long tail, too long for Common Poorwill. Regardless of the final ID, I was very giddy. I'd been wanting one of these sightings all summer, to be able to finally study a stationary goatsucker in the daylight.


I'd always loved watching these birds hunt in the twilight hours, appreciating their physique and dexterity even before I was an obsessive birder. But only with better light could I finally see the incredible feather detail and all the subtle coloration. Totally stunning.


Eventually the Nighthawk noticed that I'd noticed, and it took off. I felt bad to flush the bird a second time, but at least no one else would be passing through for a while, so it'd get some peace and quiet for the rest of the day.

Back at Papago the Merganser was still cruising around (in fact, the earlier photos were taken on this second visit). The Finches, Towhees, and Thrashers that should've been partying at the DBG were all crowding around the ponds too, while skulking Green Herons stood watch in the trees.


A few dozen White-throated Swifts flew overhead and spent a few minutes snatching invisible bugs out of the invisible air. It was neat to see them in action so (relatively) close and I was able to snap a few distant shots of these fast flyers.


I left Papago feeling totally rejuvenated. It had been a few weekends since I had a really good bout of birding and photogrpahy, and the aftershock of this morning will keep me going for a while. Picking up Hooded Merganser, Lesser Nighthawk, and White-throated Swift puts me at 253 species identifiably photographed, passing the 250 goal I set for this year. Good birding!

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Never Bored on Mount Ord; Never Sick of McCormick

I finally made it out to Mount Ord this Sunday. For one reason or another (work, social obligations, laziness, and standardized testing) I'd been postponing this trip for too long. At long last, I was able to head uphill and see what lurked at the higher altitudes or Maricopa County. Only about an hour outside of Phoenix, Mount Ord combines desert scrub with oak and pine forests at elevations up to 7,500 feet. It's a big, winding, rocky, dusty mountain, and the birding there can be hit or miss, but it does pull in lots of migrants and hosts some species that cannot be found anywhere else in the central part of the state. I dipped on some of Mount Ord's signature species, like the Gray Vireo, Pygmy Owls, and Band-tailed Pigeons, but still came away with some new lifers and, thanks to the hiking, total inhibition for pigging out at dinner.

Leaving the house at 4:30 am, I arrived at the base of Mount Ord well before sunrise and had to snooze in the car for a little while until I had some light. The drive up to the top of the mountain passes through some winding sage brush, the perfect habitat for Gray Vireos and Black-chinned Sparrows. The gamble paid off in that I did glimpse a few distant Black-chins, but the Vireos eluded me. Always eager to provide an omen, this Turkey Vulture circled overhead while I scoured the scrub for little gray birds.


After a fairly unproductive exploration of the summit, I spent the rest of the morning and early afternoon exploring Forest Road 1688, which runs around the side of the mountain at about mid-altitude and has more of the shady, birdier pine growth. Spotted Towhees and White-breasted Nuthatches were the most common birds of the day, but one of my favorite sightings of the morning was a pair of purple-eyed Red-breatsed Nuthatches.


Mixed flocks of Nuthatches, Juniper Titmice, Kinglets, Vireos, and Juncos provided little bursts of excitement throughout the hike, but there were also long dry spells. The downside of mountain birding is that you move at half-speed while the birds still move just as quickly, and they have such a massive area in which to move...it can be a photographic quagmire. This Hermit Thrush was about the only other bird that came out to have its picture taken, content as he was to rustle around in low-lying juniper while everyone else cavorted up high.


There was a lot of down time (birdless time) on the mountain, but always still plenty to see. The mountain views are stunning, but I seldom remember to take pictures of them, in part because the photos don't do them justice. There are little things to appreciate on Mount Ord too.


One doesn't have to be a hard core lepidopterist to enjoy the Painted Lady Butterflies, nor an arachniholic to appreciate the Desert Tarantulas. I ended the Mount Ord excursion with about thirty species of birds and enough dust in my shoes to make a whole new person.


On the way back from Mount Ord, I decided to swing by the McCormick Ponds to supplement my very shallow avian photo pool. I didn't find the big rarity I'm waiting for there, but did get to practice some action photography. As the evening started to set in, hungry birds started to move out.

Large and slow, Great Blue Herons are accommodating subjects for in-flight photography.


Timid and fast, Kingfishers are generally a photographic nightmare. This doesn't make birders or photographers or birdographers love them any less.



Killdeer aren't super fast or super shy, but they are really loud and annoying. Up to this point, I did not have any passable in-flight photos of these raucous birds, so it was very nice to have this curious cuss cruise by with unusual poise and serenity for the perennially anxious species.


Like so many of the Phoenix area waterways, the McCormick features are tied to a well-watered and well-maintained golf course. Unfortunately, golf courses don't have the same appeal for shorebirds as sod farms, but they do provide a decent setting for some other avifauna. The McCormick Ranch course, for example, is covered with Say's Phoebes.


They're pretty skilled aviators. Catching bugs in the air is like bobbing for apples while flapping your arms really fast. Ok--I've never actually bobbed for apples in that manner, but I bet it's a challenge.


No Common Cuckoos or Northern Lapwings turned in Phoenix this weekend, but the birding was great as ever.