Friday, November 15, 2013

Light Birding and a Feat of Swallowing

This past Saturday a strange thing occurred. I woke up, got dressed, and went outside (in no particular order of course) and it was chilly! Mark the calendar: it was November 16th when autumn finally happened in Phoenix. By now, most of our summer visitors have gone and many of the snow birds have arrived, even if the temperatures are just starting to get their act together. I decided to head up to the Hassayampa Preserve for one last visit (there aren't many reasons to visit this site in the full-on winter months) and see if any late migrants or vagrants, like the Catbird and Black and White Warbler from three weeks before, were still dawdling in the lush riparian channels.

Truth be told, it was pretty slow birding. The overcast skies didn't clear up for the first several hours of daylight, and the bird activity was never anywhere near what is usually is for Hassayampa. Either everybody had already left, or they were sleeping in this Saturday. This Great Blue Heron was running behind too, and hadn't started his breakfast until half past nine.

Some breakfasts are more manageable than others. While trying to position and undulate the willing catfish down its throat, the GBHE often had to stop and dip his head back into the water, the substantial weight of the fish being too much for him to bear for more than a few seconds.

Of course, it's harder to eat or dance or dance-eat when people are watching, and in that restrictive sense I was being somewhat rude intruding on the Heron's morning mastication.

This wasn't his first rodeo. The champ swallowed down and seemed almost surprised with himself for doing so. Just as he managed to close his jaws, he may have realized how his gluttony had totally cost him his mobility, and that if I were a predator, I'd be getting an easy two-for-one meal myself.

In the Phoenix area we do not get an indicative first frost or snowfall to introduce us to the cold season. We get a precipitation of Kinglets. As the delicate, yellow leaves detach from cottonwoods and willows, even from palo verde and other desert scrub, so too drop the Ruby-crowned Kinglets. Of course, they don't simply drop. They flutter and bounce like a rubber ball, and chitter all the while.

In relentless, garrulous hordes they descend upon hapless Phoenix, bringing both a blessed rejuvenation of motion to the emptying canopies but also tiring the poor birder with their constant reappearances in proximity to other birds.

A handful of Brown Creepers and some Spotted Towhees were nice highlights at Hassayampa, but the nicest bird of the day came later in the afternoon. The resident Harris's Hawk population seems to have done very well this year, and I'll go so far as to say that they're also one of the best looking raptors in North America. STATEMENT.

Just Keep Pecking Away

We left Tumacacori in high spirits after finding the Green Kingfisher so easily and getting such nice looks. We were even ahead of our loosely organized schedule as we headed north towards the Santa Ritas, so we decided to dally along Proctor Road and the White House Canyon picnic and to look for some lesser vagrants (lesser compared to an Eared Quetzal that is). 
A one-day Varied Thrush at Proctor Road was a bust, but persisting reports of a Red-breasted Sapsucker at the picnic area and a less reliable Evening Grosbeak were much more intriguing. Tommy and I had seen and photographed both of these birds already for the year, but as any witness can attest, they're too gorgeous to ever pass up, especially in Arizona. 

When we parked at the White House picnic area we were spoiled again. Another nice birder had already pinpointed the woodpecker, which was drilling sap-wells only fifteen feet or so away from the parking lot. It was absurdly time, like it wasn't even fair kinda tame, like it almost cheapened the sighting kinda tame. Almost, but not quite.
Understandably, he stayed on the shady side of his mesquite, and that didn't allow for his dazzling colors to have their full effect, but crikey what a bird! For his drilling persistence and despite his relative ease around people, I named him Daniel Plainview.

Throughout the morning we had been monitoring the listservs for any reports on the Quetzal. It was seen two days before by Laurens Halsey, a very well-known and respected bird guide in Arizona, but no one had been able to relocate the bird. Quetzals are a secretive species, and while this record in Madera was very believable, there were nothing but negative reports since the initial sighting. 

With the weather being nice and with us also having an urge to visit nearby Florida Canyon for its now-resident Rufous-capped Warblers, our patience in the Queztal hunt was not what it should have been. Every birder we talked to on our way up Madera Canyon to the Carrie Nation Trail--and there were a fair amount--was beleaguered. There was a constant stake-out by some half dozen birders around all of the upper canyon berry trees where the Quetzal might perch, and so after about an hour we decided just to call it quits and head next door for some better birding. Along the way though, the Woodpecker show continued. 
A female Arizona Woodpecker flew in and perched in the open at eye level--not the most common thing to see. Despite this being a staple bird of the Santa Ritas, it's not one I've been able to photograph very well and I was pleased to get more face time with this precocious little pecker. 

Yellow-eyed and Dark-eyed Juncos were also moving back and forth between their oaken perches and their leaf-littered foraging spots. It's a big messy family, but at the end of the day a Junco is a great bird with a great name. I'm always hoping to get a good face-to-face with an Olive Warbler in this area of Madera (near the Super Trail and Carrie Nation trail heads). That's how my first ever Oliver Warbler sighting occurred many years ago, but since then my sightings of the species have always been brief or obscured. It was only Juncos and Kinglets this time around, but that ain't so bad.

We couldn't turn up a Williamson's Sapsucker, but this accommodating Red-naped Sapsucker was a gorgeous consolation. This photo has a special place in my heart because it is not only the first post-able photo of the species that I've taken, but I shot in manual focus since my autofocus was on the fritz, and this is a big deal for me.

Unfortunately Florida Canyon was pretty dead; to be fair, we were hitting it around 1pm. We had very brief looks at the Warblers, though we helped point a Washington birder in the right direction in the mean time and, upon running into him later, learned that he got some amazingly close views. 
We left the Santa Ritas without getting our (longshot) target bird, but with some very nice hits on the side. We were also looking ahead to our planned pitstop in Eloi, Arizona, for Mountain Plover and Crested Caracara. 

The Santa Cruz Flats did not disappoint. We had nearly a dozen Caracaras perched near the corral on Baumgartner road and more than three dozen Mountain Plover on the sod farms off Pretzer and road 2750. These two birds are the essence of "locally common." They're very reliable in the winter months, but this is one of very few places in Arizona where both of these species are consistently seen. 

Even without the Quetzal, I added a lifer and three year birds on the trip. It was a nice coup de grace for what may well be my last trip down south for the year (Havasu and Yuma beckon next), unless that Queztal pops up again...