Sunday, February 1, 2015

Bluffing Bandits and Foggy-headed Birding

Friday and Saturday were, once again, the setting for some pretty impressive deluges throughout the valley. This made Sunday, Superbowl Sunday, the only viable birding day this weekend. Bearing that in mind, and the fact that Glendale, AZ, was hosting the party, I decided to forego the temptation of chasing a Greater Pewee in west Phoenix. Greater Pewee is a great bird in Maricopa, especially in winter, especially in the lowlands where it was found. But between the weather and the traffic, I decided to chase on the east side of town and hitched my birding raft onto the Salt River. 

The Coon Bluff site is one of my favorites in Maricopa, combining interesting geology with some flowing water and a very healthy mesquite bosque. This habitat doesn't yield that many crazy rarities, but what birds it does have it has in abundance; they tend to be reliable, readily visible, and they tend to be awesome. Driving down to the river there was heavy fog settled in from the previous days' precipitation, and for the first hour or so my camera lens collected moisture enough to make it inoperable. As visibility improved, it revealed an eerie, primordial hollow that smelled wonderful. 

Coon Bluff is unofficially the Phainopepla capital of Arizona. They are, by far, the most numerous, vocal, and conspicuous bird around the bosque. For the most part, these birds are not overly friendly to photography, but with so many of them about the odds eventually pay off. The male below was perched eye level on the side of the road, of course before the fog was letting through much light. I have no good examples this time, but if you want to crush silky flycatchers, come to this place.

For sure, the Phainopeplas are a very impressive, abstract kind of cool, kinda like people that are very good at cooking oriental food or are very good at dancing to a specific kind of music. Another common aerial acrobat at Coon Bluff, the Vermilion Flycatcher, is a different kinda cool, like a trans-genre red corvette everyone acknowledges this bird is cool, kinda cool.

Then there is the Gray Flycatcher, the least eye-catching of these three. It tends to perch lower in the canopy and, in typical empid fashion, is pretty drab. But the simple fact that despite these proclivities they're willing to mix it up with their more aggressive and colorful neighbors is a testament to their fortitude. Since they make one work a little harder for the visual than the other two species, these tail-bobbing fiends have more mystique as well. I appreciate that they are willing to winter in the area. Waiting until spring for any empids would be nigh unbearable.

Do you ever go up to your perch in the morning for a nice preen and get the feeling, well, that someone is watching you? Someone robed in black, with red devil eyes and maniacal hair? This is but a day in the terrifying life of a Ladder-backed Woodpecker, and many other birds who must live near Phainopeplas. After all, those silky flycatchers nest in mistletoe; they do not respect personal space or boundaries.

Ladder-backed Woodpeckers do not have an expansive range, continentally speaking, and in some areas they're certainly more common than others (Coon Bluff being a common area), but in my experiences they are an extremely adaptable, hardy woodpecker with a very diversified lifestyle portfolio. I have seen them in mesquite bosque, cottonwood riparian, montane oak and pine, sagebrush, and even urban habitats. I suppose it's easy to move upward in the world when one comes equipped with one's own ladder.

I am mostly including this photo because I had not previously registered Brown Creeper at Coon Bluff. While we're at it though, check out the massive hallux on that guy.

Kingfisher activity is very good along the Salt River, which is also reliable for Mergansers and many species of duck nearer the Granite Reef dam. There was a Bald Eagle perched on the far shore, but these NECOs did not seem intimidated.

Coon Bluff has a few well known attractions. I was heading there to look for a Harris's Sparrow in the overgrown clearings amidst the bosque. This bird was discovered a week or so ago in a mixed flock. They're almost annual and this would only be a year bird, but I had no photos to date, plus it's a sweet sparrow.
This is not the attraction for everyone. Most hikers and naturalists in the area come for the semi-famous Coon Bluff "wild" horses (there's a heated, ongoing 'feral' vs' 'wild' debate). They like to graze in the area and, uh, hang out in the shade.

People in the area will often stop and ask if one has seen the horses--which are relatively easy compared to skulking sparrows. It coincided on Sunday that several of the creatures were lazing around the area where the HASP was last seen, which contributed a fair amount of extra vehicular and pedestrian traffic. Fair enough; they are pretty cool.

The HASP had fallen in with a group of White-crowned Sparrows and was being seen somewhat regularly, but this still meant sorting through a lot of different mixed flocks. You know that annoying thing when you're counting in your head and then someone interrupts you and you lose the number? It's kinda like that every time the different WCSP flocks kick up, mix around, settle down, and leave you scanning again from square one. 

Rummaging around in the morning yielded all of the nifty birds above and some other FOYs, but no rare sparrows. As the day wore on, I figured the HASP might have retreated farther from its usual haunt, given the extra commotion relating to the horses. As I headed further away, I ran into birder friend Gordon, who had seen the sparrow a bit earlier. With that bit of encouragement I continued away from the road, redirecting two more lost hikers who were hoping to find horses on the way.
As with the Sprague's Pipit the week before, it was crunch time with an 11:30am departure. I spotted a small flock of WCSP, mostly immature, and in their midst was the comparative demigod Harris's Sparrow. Another buzzer-beater!

Yes, there is horse scat in the foreground of all of these and many other photos. I'm pretty sure these horses fertilize most of the eastern Salt River valley, and now also my shoes and my left knee.

The HASP also continued the SPPI trend of leaving it late and providing poor looks at a great bird. These photos are not meritorious enough to enter the HASP fairly into the Butler's Birds Sparrow Judging contest, but some day perhaps he will make do what his WCSP companions never could, and take the crown.