Saturday, March 30, 2013

Bull's Eye at Buckeye

During my spring break week I was able to visit some phenomenal and far away birding sites, with Patagonia and Madera Canyon down south and Mormon Lake up North being some of the highlight trips. During the subsequent week of work, I was of course still on a high from a week of near-nonstop birding, and given the great anticipation for a continuation of great birding, I had to plan that precious, upcoming Saturday carefully. With it being a holiday weekend and having some other responsibilities to attend, I decided to keep it fairly local and head out west to the Buckeye agricultural areas, with a stop at the Base Meridian Wildlife Refuge along the way.

The Base Meridian Refuge is essentially a little preserve where the Tres Rios water reclamation site ends and the Gila river continues to flow. It's one of the better places to try for Clapper Rail in central Arizona, and while my chances were still slim, that was the plan. Heavy overcast (for the third weekend in a row!) nixed the photography from the start, and in general the area wasn't very birdy. Some surprises came in the form of a Cattle Egret mixing it up with a few Snowies and a Barn Owl that flushed from under the northern end of the Avondale Bridge. Apart from these year birds there wasn't much to report, and I quickly moved farther west. It's the end of March and that means the birds they are a changin.' Well, some of them at least. 


Along Palo Verde and other north/south roads in Buckeye, it's now prime time to go trolling for Swainson's Hawks, the Hawk that wants to be a Falcon. These pointy-winged, long-tailed Hawks can currently be found perched on the ground in fallow fields and low farmlands as they refuel and rest up in their continued journey north. It's still on the early side of migration, so their numbers will continue to grow and a few weeks from now there will be real spectacles, with some fields hosting dozens and dozens, if not hundreds, of these grounded raptors. They come in a dark, light, or intermediate color morph, all of which were on display today but not all of which were photogenic. 


There were thirteen Swainson's Hawks in a field of Lower River Road and Palo Verde, and a bit farther south was another conspicuous raptor perched in an old cottonwood tree. When first approaching the bird I was thinking the white indicated a light-morph Swainson's, but when I had a full frontal view the predominant white and the feathered legs ID'd this bird as a juvenile Ferruginous Hawk. I hadn't taken any presentable photos of Ferruginous Hawk this winter so I was glad to have an opportunity, even if the hazy overcast made things less than ideal.
This young bird hasn't yet developed the rusty flanks of the adult Hawk, and still has the yellow gape of immaturity on its beak.  Even so, there's a burgeoning ruthlessness in those eyes...

"When I grow up, I'm going to be a mammal mass murderer..."

It's also that time of year when a new, but familiar silhouette again adorns the agrarian utility lines. The Western Kingbirds are prominent perchers and a common sight, but keep an eye out for Cassin's, and maybe even a Tropical, trying to disguise itself with these similar yellow-bellied tyrants.


When I first arrived at the Base Meridian site in the very early morning, I witnessed several hundred Ibis leaving the Tres Rios site in different flocks. They were all heading out west to graze in the Buckeye and Arlington fields. and I came across a group of sixty or so birds foraging near Palo Verde, not much farther north than where it terminates. Seldom do I get close to these birds at Tres Rios, so it was nice to run into a group out where the terrain isn't as limiting.


After finishing the raptor scanning, I headed farther west to the Arlington Wildlife Area off of Arlington School Road. This series of ponds and marshes borders some very lush farmland and is also a good spot for Rails, as well as the other expected waders and riparian birds.



Unsurprisingly for this time of year and this time of day (10am), I heard no clacking Clapper Rails. Instead, Yellow-headed Blackbirds filled the air with their tormented, metallic call as they sought to establish territory and prove their manliness.


There wasn't too much happening at the Wildlife Area, but the adjacent farmlands were very popular. A few dozen Great Egrets and Yellowlegs loped through the tall grass. The most exciting find there, even though it was not a new bird for the year, was a flock of forty-nine Long-billed Curlew. I had seen a couple of Curlew in this area before but they were distant and flying away from me--not a very satisfying way to see North America's superlative sandpiper.


This time they were contentedly grazing and gossiping in the tall grass, grass that would've frustrated and thwarted birds with lesser beaks, so I was able to spend a goodly while observing and photographing this incredibly cool species.


I took Arlington School Road back east, stopping along the way to gawk at a massive kettle of birds along one of the canal roads. When I reported thirty Black Vultures the eBird automated check was a bit incredulous, but hey there ain't no arguing with this, and if anything I under-counted.


Not that Black Vultures prefer to argue either. They'll just wait til' you're dead, and then have the last word. The cloudy weather was a bummer for photography, but I was able to have lots of close-up views to compensate for the poorer image quality. It was a super Saturday of birding, full of year birds and satisfactory sightings that made the wait for the weekend well worth the anticipation.



I'll follow up with more photos and specifics on each location and the sightings throughout this week, and hopefully that enduring focus will get me through to the next weekend!

14 comments:

  1. That is some tight birding! I would be psyched to see all of those birds- especially 49 curlews? I've seen like two at a time at most... Rad!

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    1. Cheers Jen. 49 is exactly the number of Curlews I was hoping to see!
      I got nervous when I first started counting, but it worked out in the end.

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  2. Great birds and great photos, even if the overcast sky was in full effect!

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    1. Thanks Gordon, for not raining on my parade : )

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  3. Man, that Ferruginous Hawk is pretty fierce looking! 49 Curlews must have been quite a sight! I wonder how cumbersome that bill is...

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    1. They made good use of them at least. I think they're less burdensome if they're constantly stuck in the mud. Nonetheless, a proboscis of that magnitude must always have a degree of cumber to it.

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  4. Awesome post Laurence! That's a great day of birding out "west". Clapper rails will be much easier in probably a month or so.

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    1. Yes...easy...
      It was a long shot but I had been feeling lucky. Time to come crashing down to earth again. Still, not a bad way to crash overall : )

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  5. Awesome images of a great variety of birds, Laurence! Your recent posts have me looking for new reasons to visit my daughter and her family in Mesa! I may be down your way in early May. That should be a great time for migration in Phoenix shouldn't it? May is great in Utah. I'll let you know when plans are formalized.

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    1. Sounds great Jeff, looking forward to it!
      I should warn you, I'll be out of town for a wedding May 3rd-7th, but any other time we can join forces in a most triumphant way!

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  6. Wonderful finds. I love when all the Black Vultures get together. It makes for very nice photos as do all of your other birds here. At least the school year is about to close....which of course means more epic birding ahead!:)

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    1. Oh yes...I'm already having trouble focussing.

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  7. What wonderful birds Laurence! That flock of Vultures is awesome and so are all the Long-billed Curlews. The weather... well being out in it is better than not being out at all :-)

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    1. Thanks Mia.

      I'll be honest though, that after seeing your Curlew shots, I am ashamed of mine : )

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