Saturday, November 22, 2014

"Taken For Granted Challenge:" Allen vs. Maricopa; Cold vs. Hot; Light vs. Dark

Last year, birdwatching machine Nate McGowan and notorious reformed bird-hater Jen Sanford hatched a brilliant birding initiative, the "Taken for Granted" challenge. To add some spice and spectacle to their birding, each sent the other 5 species for their respective home counties, which they had to find and photograph in a given amount of time. The birds couldn't be rare by general understanding, but could be tricky to find due to transient or sneaky proclivities, restricted range, etc. They drew up battle lines, Texas vs. Oregon, and went to it while the rest of us watched from the sidelines. There were guts and glory and foul words--all essential for a good blog post. Since then, other less ambitious birders have been biding their time, thinking of such things with intrigue and arousal. Butler's Bird's own Butler, as well as Greg and Bird's own Greg, were two such up-and-comers. And as any serial killer can tell you, fantasizing only works for so long before you just have to do it. Greg threw down the gauntlet; I picked it up and handed it back to him politely, with appropriate eye contact. IT WAS ON! 
We had 12 hours, from 5am to 5pm on Saturday the 22nd. All birds, selected from corresponding eBird  county occurrence charts, required an accompanying photo to count. 

In a TGC, birds like Song Sparrow regain their relevancy...well not actually, since every state has its song sparrow or just about, but you get the idea.

In Allen County, Indiana, I challenged Greg to find Tundra Swan (swapped for Greater White-fronted Goose), Snow Bunting, Wilson's Snipe, Brown Creeper, and Pileated Woodpecker. 
In Maricopa County, Arizona, Greg challenged me to find Cinnamon Teal, Ladder-backed Woodpecker, Western Scrub Jay, Gambel's Quail, and Costa's Hummingbird, with black-tailed Gnatcatcher as the alternate bird. 
*I did not check my email in the morning to realize the BCGN as an alternate.

Greg and I both sent each other lists that would require traipsing through different habitats, and in my case elevations. Needless to say (since this is bird blogging and thus, is fundamentally needless), we both got an early start. Teeth were brushed, petals were pushed to metal, scarves were carefully braided, binoculars were charged and camera batteries were cleaned. 
My first destination was the Riparian Preserve, located in Gilbert, a suburb of Gerry-central. The multitudes of joggers, cyclists, and dog-walkers have diminished this site's popularity with lots of birders, but it still turns up vagrants from time to time, has a proud history, could provide me with a few of my birds, and, most importantly, was also on the east side of town, near the Hwy 87 that I would need to take to higher elevation to get Scrub Jay. No self-respecting riparian area is bereft of Green Herons, America's most underrated heron.

I was pretty confident I could get Cinnamon Teal in Gilbert. Its mesquite scrub, as well as cottonwoods, provided good potential habitat for Ladderbacks too. Costa's would be here later in the year, so maybe one of them would be over wintering too. After carving my way through the thick masses of Grackles and House Sparrows, while pausing to appreciate the foggy Green Heron above, the first engaged bird was a young male Anna's Hummingbird, reminding me that Costa's is a way cooler Hummingbird. 

It's funny how the competitive mindset changes, even corrupts the normal birding jive. Almost every time I've come to Gilbert in autumn/winter, I have the Teal species at one of the more secluded and overgrown ponds away from the other larger rafts of Pintails, Mallards, Coots, and Wigeons. Now, having not visited for several months, the scenery had changed. Water in the basins was different, some of the observation areas were overgrown or inaccessible. After about an hour without Teal, I started thinking of back up plans B, C, and D. What are some other parks near here with ponds? Where else might Teal be? Should I bail now and try to find something else on the way to my next site? How can I make an excuse for this? It gets nerve-wracking, but that intensity is also kinda fun. Especially when I remind myself the Teal are totally here, and the only reason their seemingly prolonged absence is noticeable is because this time I am looking for them specifically. It probably was an hour before I found them every other time too, but those other times it didn't matter, it was just another bird. 
Anyhow, the early-onset panic was averted and the Teal were located. I still have yet to crush this species with justice. 

A disgruntled Osprey and his buddy were also surveying the ponds, though they were less interested in ducks and more interested in pooping and what not.

Even with the waterfowl secured, Gilbert was comparably dead and I decided to move on to Sunflower. This site combines sycamore riparian habitat with higher elevation juniper scrub--great for nesting raptors in the spring--and could also yield most of my birds, excepting the Teal (done) and Quail. The first bird at Sunflower was a Ruby-crowned Kinglet showing off its red rocket. Kinglets in winter = super super super common. Kinglets actually being ruby-crowned = uncommon.

Poof! It's gone--same bird, about 2 seconds later.

The main target at Sunflower was Western Scrub Jay. I could get this bird guaranteed if I went up higher to Mt. Ord, but that drive is time consuming and tough on the car. I figured Sunflower had adequate habitat, and better possibilities for other species on the list. I walked for a few miles down the old Beeline Highway, counting good numbers and variety of passerines. The Scrub Jays eluded me, though a few Ladder-backed Woodpeckers in the sycamore creek cottonwoods maintained momentum.

After passing the 4th barricade on the old Beeline Highway (birding Sunflower is basically walking along this stretch of old two lane highway that's now overgrown since traffic between Phoenix and Payson was diverted onto the Hwy 87--it's pretty neat), I found a game trail leading up into the juniper scrub. The Jays had to be around, in fact, I had heard their harsh calls a few times, but photos were required and I needed to get closer. I had never explored this uphill trail before, since the main attraction of Sunflower, usually, is the raptors in the lowland riparian area.
It was a godsend. One of the first birds I encountered among the juniper trees was a male Williamson's Sapsucker, a solid bird for Maricopa County. It flushed too quickly for photos, but not too quickly as to be mistaken for anything but a good omen. As soon as you hear Canyon Wrens calling and see them scurrying among the boulders, you know you're in a good spot. Canyon Wrens are the best wren, hands down. In fact, if you disagree, get your hands up; them is fighting words.

Birding in juniper and low pine is tops. The trees don't keep the birds high, they're not too obscuring, and most of their denizens are pretty cool around people. In fact, this Kinglet almost landed on my camera. The cuteness is strong with this one.

The little birds work the lower and middle levels of the trees while the bigger fellows perch on the pedestals. I finally got visuals on the Western Scrub Jays, as well as some of the numerous but skittish Flickers. #toptobottombirding

With the Scrub Jays and Ladderbacks accounted for, Quail and Costa's remained, but both of these birds I would have to chase in the lowland desert nearer central Phoenix. That is to say, it left me, for the moment, without anything else to do but indulge in some conifer birds.

I had not realized how long it had been since I had a Red-breasted Nuthatch make faces at me from four feet away. A void was filled with tiny red breasts and beady eyes...that's not weird.

A full day of competitive and/or hardcore birding requires some good planning (also luck, vision and hearing, etc.). The next stage of the Butler's Birds plan was to go hang out with my folks, not to call it quits, but to get a brew and scope out the Gambel's Quail that live in the desert near their house. 

They also have a Costa's Hummingbird come to their feeders throughout the winter, a last resort if I couldn't turn one up elsewhere. Alas this bird did not make an appearance until 5:37pm and was scared off by a running dog (which was super frustrating). The Costa's got away from the requisite photo, but a respectable 4/5 left Butler's Birds in a strong position to finish the day. Damn, that bird looked good--I need to go back with some actual daylight and stake it out.
The TGC ended with Maricopa edging Allen County this time around, but this might well be just the beginning of a full and heady season of TGC competitions. It was a great time--thanks to Greg for initiating it, especially since birding early in Indiana might well be a bit more harsh than Phoenix in late November. Any other counties want to throw down?


  1. "With appropriate eye contact." You crack me up, dude.

    Nice stuff; I'm glad someone else picked up the torch. I'm trying to think of Maricopa birds that would be super tough for you, but I'm drawing a blank. More research is required.

    1. Cheers Nate; the torch is burning brightly, way better than the silly Olympic torch.

      Mayhaps I'll start compiling a Travis County itinerary as well for a little Dead Of Winter challenge in January.
      I also wonder how Travis and Maricopa County would square off in a head-to-head county big day in May or something, if you were to assemble a team and I did as well. Such a thing would rock the bird blogging world for years to come.

    2. This could be a lot of fun if teams are involved. Why stop with two counties? You could get this going across the country and explode the bird blogosphere and possibly the internet.

    3. Well hell, different teams in different states would be rad. It would require a genius of coordination and man-management to pull this thing off, and I dunno if we could do it without paying dues to the ABA--they're knee-breakers that guild.

      Even so, think you can field a team of 4 in Minnesota?

    4. Heck yeah, I'm just trying to figure out who's going to be benched. With the greenest of horns, it should probably be me, but I'm in it now! You get your Tommy; I'll get our Randy.

      Here's a thought on dates - each county could choose their own date for the Big Day within an agreed-upon time frame this spring. That way each county could have a fair shot at their most optimal time which is different everywhere. The results could be embargoed until all Big Days are completed, blogs are compiled, and injuries are healed. Then they could be released on the same day. Thoughts?

    5. You benched? You're one of Minnesota's premier birders, and king of your county! Nah man, I doubt I'd make the Maricopa Top 5 too, but it's all about the marketing!

      A limited window is an interesting idea. It would also give teams multiple opportunities though, if one 24 period missed some birds the group could try again before the deadline...if they be not men/women of honor.

  2. Yes! Good job dude! You killed it. I should have put money on it. Your initial feelings during the challenge of "How can I make an excuse for this?" were extremely familiar.

    I am mad jealous of your close encounters with Canyon Wrens. They do not enjoy my company in these parts.

    1. Thanks Jen,

      I have a pretty good relationship with Canyon Wren: they enjoy my parts in these company. These sorts of competitions always bring into sharp relief how wildly insecure I can become in about 7.3 seconds when pressure is on.

  3. Good show! I am glad to see you had a successful outing, even if you destroyed me. This gives me motivation to up my game. Well done.

    1. Cheers Greg,

      I also think, on the whole, that medium-toughness birds here are still easier to find than medium-toughness birds in the tundra of Allen County, simply because those numbers are going to be thinner and more hunkered down than in my mild climate neck of the woods.

      There'll have to be a rematch in the near future.

    2. I like the way you think; doing this in spring would be insanely entertaining. It also got my mind churning out other possible competitions...

  4. What I don't take for granted is what a challenge this type of birding can be. Well done on both finding your targets and selecting a challenging list for Greg.

    You've given me something to think about. Must this be a 12-hour affair?

    1. Jen and I went from sunup to sundown, but we're hardcore.

    2. 12 hours worked since we both had evening obligations, plus it's dark in AZ by 6pm this time of year. For a true and pure competition, the 24 hour window probably must be left open, and maybe 10 birds for the county, I dunno.

  5. Neat post and a fun thing to participate in, Laurence! Great shots on many of the birds, you crushed many of them. Too bad Costa's wasn't cooperative for photos. Next time you do this, the Salt River is between Gilbert and Sunflower, and Costa's Hummers and the Quail are easily found there also.

    Killer shots on the Canyon Wren and especially the Red-breasted Nuthatch! Was the Nuthatch at Sunflower or did you go up to Mount Ord for it? I agree that Canyons are the best of the wrens and congrats on finding a Williamson's Sapsucker-there have been several reports this winter so far for Maricopa. Hopefully one will show up and be cooperative at a Phoenix park like the Lewis's was at Encanto.

    1. Thanks Tommy,

      I actually swung by the Salt River in the afternoon but didn't see much to report--at that point I was already on a time crunch to get back into town : )
      The Nuthatches were in the same area as the Sapsucker, lower down than I would have expected them but otherwise in pretty good habitat. This trail I mentioned had a lot of pine growing in addition to the juniper.

      Here's hoping one of these Williamson's picks a park! I would lovingly add it to my folder of 'birds on palm trees that shouldn't be on palm trees folder' along with Lewis's, a Parakeet, Great Horned Owl, and others.

      I hope you're up for a Maricopa Big Day next spring; it looks like a state vs/ state thing might be in the works!

    2. Sorry to usurp your comment, Tommy, but I feel that I need to one-up The Laurence with my own "birds on palm trees that shouldn't be on palm trees" prizewinner. Red-Bellied Woodpecker, Monk Parakeet, and Eurasian Collared Dove. All in one photo.
      Unfortunately, I can't say that this was taken in Allen County, but rather Miami Beach. Although everyone says that Fort Wayne is pretty much the Miami Beach of northeastern Indiana.

      Hmm.. could there be another challenge around finding the weirdest collection of birds in the weirdest place all at the same time?

    3. Fair enough Greg, although I'd say there's something appropriate about having introduced bird species, like Parakeets and Eurasian Doves, on an introduced tree.

      At any rate, despite all the birding I need to do in the Miami-Dade area, I'd sooner visit Fort "Miami" Wayne!!

  6. Congrats on the win Mr. Laurence! You got some great photos. Sounds like a fun challenge, just hope no one picks MAWR : )

    1. Right? I felt lucky not to have many skulkers on my list.

  7. Laurence, what a fun challenge. You are ambitious, and these are some amazing photos! I love the little canyon wren, so no fighting with me required! Good job!

  8. What fantastic food for thought. I've now had two days (one recently) where we dipped on Mallards. Congrats on your success!