Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Rare Rufous Rusty Bird Chasing in Phoenix

Since early December, there had been consistent reports of both a Rufous-Backed Robin and a Rusty Blackbird at the community park out in Anthem, a suburb about 25 miles north of Phoenix proper.
Since one of my new year's resolutions was to take my Life List to 300 species, I finally quit dragging my feet and decided to make the trip. Ordinarily it's not too hard to go chasing after birds and photos, but spending an hour in the car (during rush hour) with the possibility that, not only will might you not find the rare birds, but you might not find any interesting birds at all, is a fair deterrent.

Of course, I should not have worried. Within 10 minutes of arriving at the park I stumbled across the Rufous-Backed Robin. This rare but annual visitor from Mexico lacks the white eye ring of the American Robin, and instead has the rufous coloration, as its name indicates, on its back as well as its belly. The bird stayed low to the ground and was pretty skittish. After a couple shady shots, I was forced to hit it with the soft flash--something I prefer to avoid since I don't know how to use it--and I'm glad I did, as it soon eluded me and disappeared for the rest of the afternoon.

The first shot is without flash. While the rufous back is apparent, there's no light catching in the eye, which gives the bird a bit of a lifeless look. The flash illuminated the eye, but added a lot of haze to the picture and made the whole photo look kind of aged. Notice how the water in the background is now a light sky-blue, which I think has too much of a pastel effect.

I wasn't complaining though! A rare migrant in 10 minutes and definitive photos? I was pretty pleased. However, the Rusty Blackbird was another beast entirely. It's one of the few birds one prefers to see outside of its breeding plumage, as it's otherwise nearly indistinguishable from Brewer's Blackbirds. In essence, I was looking for a female grackle with a shorter tail, and given the large number of grackles and starlings in the area, flying in and out of trees and across the ponds, it was a pretty exhausting hour and a half search. I was about ready to call it quits when, thankfully, the bird finally showed near the water's edge.

The Rufous-Backed Robin must've been telling stories, because Rusty also stayed pretty far away. A rather intense looking bird, the pale eye is probably its most striking feature. The greenish-brown rust extends over the head and onto the torso and the white supercilia make for a pretty easy identification, once you've got it in your sights.

The Rusty Blackbird population has been steadily and significantly declining since the 1970s, though no one seems to be quite sure why. Although they're not too much to look at, it's great to see them while they're still around. Given that these birds are also supposed to spend the winter east of Texas, it's an especially nice find. Thanks to the Arizona Field Ornithologists group for publicizing it.

There  were also Wigeon, Coots, Mallards, and a couple Shovelers in the ponds, as well as Lesser Goldfinches and a surprisingly large amount of Eurasian Collared Doves around the park. While I don't think I'll be returning to Anthem, it was a really nice park and I'm grateful to add two cool new birds to my List so early in the year.

This may be my first official chase as a birder--driving a considerable distance to specifically find one or two species--and it was a great success.