Sunday, May 4, 2014

Re-Runs and Hidden Gems

It's time for another exciting installment of everyone's favorite Buckeye/West Phoenix show, Terrible Photos of Terrific Birds! As is often the case, this episode takes place in the Trasher Spot, 50 miles west of Phoenix. I toured the sagely site a visiting Puerto Rican birder who was looking for a little Sonoran fix and some of Buckeye's famous chalky-white desert ghosts, the Le Conte's Thrasher (which is french for The Butt-Pain Thrasher). 

This is one of my favorite sites in central Arizona, in fact the whole state, for a couple of reasons. In the first place, this plain of low-lying desert sage and scrub is easily navigable. There are no tall trees with neck-pain, bird-concealing inducing canopies. Furthermore, it can produce up to 5 different Thrasher species (one of the best genera of birds), depending on time of year, and both species of the recently split Sage Sparrow. Best of all, this site hosts Le Conte's Thrashers, which can be very difficult to track down as they tend to have very localized populations within their uninviting desert ranges, and this is one of very few birds to which southeastern Arizona cannot also lay claim. That's right, there is a good bird in the central part of the state that CAN'T also be found in the Santa Rita or Chiricahua Mountains!

Unfortunately that good bird is a real pain for photography despite being a personal favorite. The Sage Sparrows have long gone and the Sage Thrashers have already moved through, but the Thrasher Spot was still very productive with its Big 3. We had 6 Le Conte's, in two groups of three, a pair of Crissal Thrashers, and 5 Bendire's all in about an hour and a half, and this was without vocalizations (they've all since shut up after this most early of springs). Some day, I will make a camouflage blind, go out into this desert, and mercilessly crush the Le Conte's Thrasher. In the mean time, I have to make do with such injustices, which I post both to my own degradation and to blearily illustrate my point:

It wasn't just the Le Conte's today. The cost of seeing all the birds is often paid in some other way. Here's a nicely posing Bendire's, obscured by proximal creosote branches. It was going to be one of those mornings. 

Here's a heavily cropped Crissal Thasher, which I must shamefully admit is my best photo of the species. I'm serious about that blind. I'm going to make it this summer. It will be spacious, have nice panoramic views, have room for snacks, and be highly mobile, maybe situated one 4 of those rumba robots that drive around and vaccuum floors.
**If anyone has any spare rumbas they'd like to donate, please email me privately.

After a productive hour and a half at the Thrasher spot, which also turned up some lifer Brewer's Sparrow for my birding pal, we headed east through the Palo Verde agr. land for the daily dose of Burrowing Owls. If one ever ventures into the west Phoenix farmosphere and returns without roadside Burrowing Owl photos, one has not lived up to one's potential. This species is perhaps the greatest ambassador between birds and people, less filthy than Gulls or Pigeons and much wiser than Finches. This fellow was hanging out near a drainage ditch by someone's driveway, and another was perched on the roof.

Inevitably, our west-Phoenix tour ended at Tres Rios, the absurdly birdy wetlands that combine three riparian channels with desert chaparral and small sections of grassland. At the right time of year, skilled and dedicated birders can pull 100+ species here in several hours.
The only remaining waterfowl when we went were Ruddy Ducks and Mallards, and even with few attenuating raptors we still finished in about 2.5 hours with 81 species, and that was starting around 8:30am. That tally up is not a boast of birding ability so much as the capacity of this site.

It was late enough in the morning that the Osprey were already finishing up breakfast and contemplating lunch.

However, the key to Tres Rios' diversity--it's sprawling, well-watered, and wild habitat--also makes it a pitfall of sorts for photographers going after some really close-up, crushing shots. The birds here typically, though not always, perch high and flush easily. It's quite the catch-22, a catch-23, if you will.

I do not bring this up to solicit sympathy nor profess false modesty, but merely as a preface for another realization I had about my peculiarly adjusted behavior at this, or any other oft-frequented site. 
There are many nifty birds I see every time at Tres Rios. 
They're not really crushable either, but I could consistently take decent, blog-complimentary images of American White Pelicans, Egrets and Herons, two species of Blackbird, etc. But because I see these birds constantly, I don't bother. Instead, I take mediocre images of the Gila Woodpecker above, or the Spotted Sandpiper below, because these birds don't present themselves as frequently. In the moment, I have a greater attraction to the opportunity presented by these birds because that opportunity comes around less often. This also means I lower standards sometimes. If the picture below were of a Least or Western Sandpiper it would've been chucked immediately, but Spotties are kinda hard to crush (in fact, upon further rumination, I don't recall seeing them crushed much ever at all on the blogosphere). It's not the first time I've pictured the species, but this relatively crumby sighting was more significant than the 1,000 Blackbirds (take it, Wallace Stevens) who were much more aesthetically pleasing subjects. Few people would argue this in-range, in-season Spotted Sandpiper is cooler than flying-in-formation Pelicans, but after enough Pelican sightings, that's how it registers. 

Which would be the better subject? Really I should just shoot both, shoot everything I can, shoot until the barrel overheats and melts shut, mwuahahaha! 
Nah, that obnoxious soliloquy was just a personal chastisement for being snooty at the expense of my photography. Anyway, one Tres Rios sighting of particular note was this Lesser Nighthawk, parallel-perching in a dead cotton-willow and generally winning at hide-and-seek. Finding nightjars in the day time has to be the highlight of almost any trip, even if these would be a dime-a-dozen after 7pm.

We had several other FOY birds at Tres Rios and finished the half day with 92 species. It was a pretty solid Phoenix birding run, a reminder of the excellent birding to be had closer to home before I head southeast next weekend to be spoiled once again, and maybe forever.


  1. Great shot of the LENI! That is one I have yet to find perched. Really cool that you found it!

    1. Cheers Gordon,

      It's really a case of looking in the right place, at the right time, by chance, because I wasn't specifically looking for the bird. There goes a lucky start : )

  2. Great job on spotting the nighthawk in the day and getting a killer photo! I know all too well about bad shots of great birds. I can also identify with spending my photography time/efforts on the less common birds even though the common stuff screams out to be photographed.

    Have you considered a turkey hunting blind to go after your thrashers and other birds? They are pop-up, portable things that fit nicely into small shoulder bag. They are roughly a a 4 ft cube when popped up with no floor, so you can move the thing while inside it by standing and walking (much like something Wile E. Coyote might do). Anyhow I want to say you can get them for around $100 at places like Cabela's.

    1. Hey Josh,

      I have indeed looked into the wildlife blind, and as you say you can turn them up for like $100. I'd feel better about making my own/not spending so much $$ on extraneous gear, but on the other hand I'd also feel much better about good Le Conte's photos...

  3. A blind wouldn't do us much here back in the east, but this week, my thoughts have been on platforms and climbing ropes. (Climbing ropes for parks that don't allow people to come in and alter anything, such as the place where I work). I had this notion when I was fully distracted by twitchy green leaves in the office. I was sitting there gazing through to the trees in our office space which is in the canopy due to the topography of the preserve and realized I often get better views from sitting at computer than I do crashing around on the ground.

    Last year, I was contemplating altering thermal or density reading equipment to find hollow trees that I could sit in at high heights in order to more closely observe the birds. Trees wouldn't move so well though, so that wouldn't help you out much.

    If only I spent this much time thinking about the birds....

    Oh wait, I do.

    Nice Nighthawk.... Now I'm looking at your photos wondering which I might see when I'm there!

    1. That's some high level bird nerding there Kathleen, I like it!
      When you get a rig going and slap a patent on it, you'll rake in the bucks, and birds.

      They'll be Lessers 99% of the time south of Flagstaff, but around Mt. Lemmon you'll have Mex Whip-poor-will too and Common Poorwill, and a chance at many cool owls : )