Saturday, March 15, 2014

No Ordinary Sparrows in the Shadow of Mt. Ord

The excellent winter sparrowing continued through the weekend, this time out in east Maricopa County where an immature Harris's Sparrow was kicking up at Mesquite Wash, not too far away from Sunflower (famous for its Black and Zone-tailed Hawks later in the year) and Mt. Ord (famous as the best high elevation birding in Maricopa Co.). Harris's Sparrow is annual in Arizona but tends to turn up farther south more often and, at any rate, was a lifer for me. 

So with the Superstition Mountains and Four Peaks marking my horizon, I drove out east early in the morning looking forward to one of my favorite birding exercises: Sparrow Sleuthing! Truly, there is no more virtuous or worthy a pastime known to philosophy or the annals of love than sparrowing. 

The young Harris's Sparrow, expectedly, was seen hanging around with very mobile White-crowned flocks. I met up at Mesquite Wash with Tommy DeBardeleben and Dominic Sherony and after appreciating some early Lucy's Warblers we set to work chasing around the Sparrow packs. The first few groups of White-crowns yielded little but turned up one of my favorite emberizids.

Black-throated Sparrows are absurdly good-looking birds, even if they lack the plumage complexities of some of the more secretive Sparrows, such as Le Conte's. They're like part Old Blood Spanish Nobleman, part wizard (the eyebrows), and part Edward Teach. So maybe I'm over-thinking it, but it's a pretty sharp Sparrow.

We spent about an hour with decent birding but little luck relating to Harris's Sparrow before running into another well-reputed Phoenix birder, Pierre Deviche, who had followed the White-crowned flocks past the mesquite wash and into the surrounding chaparral hillsides, which were now blooming nicely after recent rain. This was farther away than anyone had found the Sparrow in the previous week, but we stuck to our guns and were finally able to turn it up when it took to the bushes briefly. It even gave a few single call notes, something unexpected for this sort of vagrant.

I got a decent look at the bird but no photos before it disappeared over another cactus-ridden hill with its adopted friends. With everyone operating on a pretty tight schedule, we decided to head further down Highway 87 and up to Mt. Ord. The climb up to FR 1688 (elevation 6,000ft) winds on a treacherous dirt road through scrub oak and mesquite chaparral. We were too early for Gray Vireo, but the hills were alive, sound of music style, with the trills of Black-chinned Sparrows.

I didn't come away with any crushingly good photos but the sightings were pretty close and very enjoyable. There's no better place in central Arizona to find these guys, and they combined with the Song, Lincoln's, White-crowned, Black-throated, and Spotted Towhees (also very numerous) to make for an exceedingly emberizidish day.

It was a beautiful day atop Mt. Ord, and even though time constraints prevented us from properly dawdling and we couldn't turn up Pygmy Owls we still had some very nice sightings, including Juniper Titmouse and the first Painted Redstart of 2014 (for North America). 

We had a pair of boisterous Hutton's Vireos, as well as Bushtits foraging near us at one point, all of which I managed to substantially miss photographically speaking. The autofocus on my camera has been broken for nigh on a year now, and after one more birding trip this week I think it's finally time to bite the bullet and send it in for fixing. The soul can only endure so many missed opportunities for crushing birds without being torn asunder.

Atop Mt. Ord and down at Sunflower the Violet-green Swallows are already setting up shop. Doesn't he look cheerful? Hopefully I can get just a bit more mileage out of the camera before sending it in to repairs.

"Howdy Howdy how's it going?"

The east Maricopa birding was pretty rad, and picking up lifers in AZ, especially central state, is becoming an increasingly challenging proposition, so it was a great day indeed.
It's either SoCal for Wrentit, CA Thrasher and Gnatcatcher, and Tri-colored Blackbird, or else the Huachucas for that persistent Sinaloa Wren that I, and I alone, still have not seen. Stay tuned!