Sunday, October 30, 2011

American Wigeon

This solitary American Wigeon was among the gang of dabbling ducks at Papago Park this Saturday. This is the first Wigeon I've seen since leaving Texas, and he presented an interesting and difficult photo opportunity. This male is in his 'eclipse', or non-breeding plumage (he'll develop a nice green and white stripe along his head in the Spring), and like all Wigeons he has what I'll call a sunken eye. The Wigeon head is unusually streaked/mottled, and while the eye is a nice almond brown, even red at certain angles, I discovered it is pretty difficult to get the eye to stand out from the rest of the head.

The Wigeon mingled with the Mallards and the Coots at the Papago ponds. There wasn't another Wigeon in sight, which is a little bit unusual. I seldom see single ducks, excluding Gary over at Grenada Park, but he seemed pretty comfortable with himself.

Except at the right angles, the almond eye gets caught in the contour shadow of the Wigeon's head. Usually with birds that have distinct contrasts, you can enhance or dim certain areas with the exposure compensation on the camera. I couldn't draw the eye out on my own, but had to rather wait for the Wigeon to turn its head favorably. However, the shadow over the eye does show the interesting cranial shape of the Wigeon. The upper head and jawline bulges in a kind of hourglass figure. Pretty neat! 

I like this 'eclipse' plumage a lot. It seems very autumn appropriate. The male's eclipse plumage is actually pretty similar to the female's normal coloration, but the richer chestnut sides set this masculine specimen apart. He's a very well put together duck--sturdy looking, with his feathers nicely composed. Just add an iridescent green cap above the eye, with a white streak right over the top, and he'll be making the lady wigeon hearts flutter come Spring time.  

I saw this male on 11/04/2011. Hopefully he'll hang around and I can get some closer images.

American Kestrel

The smallest, most colorful, most vivacious, and most common of American falcons, the Kestrel is many superlative things. I see them pretty often in Phoenix, but it's been difficult to get a close up picture since they prefer to perch in the palm trees and higher vantage points.
This falcon picked a particularly nasty lamp post for his perch, which unfortunately covered his lower half from the camera. It's still always a treat to see these tidy birds of prey.

Common Moorhen

The Moorhen is the most widely distributed Rail in North America, but this is the first I've ever seen of them in the wild. They resemble American Coots with their general anatomy and forehead shields. The Moorhens are much more comfortable walking atop reeds and pond growth, and conversely is much poorer swimmer than the Coot. Their facial shield is also a candy corn yellow and red, which makes the bird easy to spot and identify when it's in the open.

Here is a juvenile

Thursday, October 27, 2011

The Conservationist Divorce: Conservatives and Environmentalists

Being Green is difficult. These days, the average American is assailed on all sides by his government, his neighbors, his children’s school, his workplace, the media, and the United Federation of Planets to eat green, think green, sleep green, drive green, shop green, breathe green, love green, fund green, LIVE GREEN!  Especially these last several years, there has been significant and hyperbolic discussion of being green or, to draw it out a bit, being environmentally friendly. The big talk was Global Warming, and while the intensity of that debate has diminished as Americans look to more immediate concerns, the overall questions regarding environmental stewardship remain.

All in all, I think most Americans like the idea of some small environmental protection, as long as they don’t have to go too far out of their way to do it. People don’t mind buying those mercurial light bulbs, because they also save money. Recycling is another easy one. It keeps things clean and orderly, and is no great personal cost to us. When the question comes up of drilling for oil in Alaska though, or drilling for oil offshore, or installing carbon emission taxes, things get much more difficult. There is a more powerful Green that dominates the American psyche right now, and for many people the first and foremost concern with environmental regulation and preservation is how hard it will hit the average American in his pocketbook. As with many social and governmental programs, there are local efforts and there are national efforts. A lot of the time, Americans don’t mind if their city council establishes rigorous recycling laws or limits on trash pick-up, because the fruits of these programs are much more visible, are closer to home, and lend to the sense of community. Impositions at a larger, federal level often feel impersonal and inefficient. People have to deal with the inconvenience, but seldom see or feel the rewards. To use the Alaskan example, most Americans don’t see or appreciate the pristine Alaskan tundra, nor do they find caribou migration to be especially compelling. As such, that is a much harder sell than fishing limits on the local lake or diverting the new highway around the park instead of through it.

The average birder though, is not the average American. Birders have a bit of a different disposition. In the birding community, one is wont to find all manner of eccentric, enjoyable, enthusiastic, and/or polemical people. There is often a strong undercurrent of preservationist/conservationist philosophies with many birders, as with birding organizations such as the Audubon Society. If you visit the Maricopa Audubon website, the largest link on the home page is to see “Graphic Impact of Cattle Grazing on Riparian Ecosystems.”

However, in my experiences many birders also lean towards the Republican/conservative parties. Even though their hobby is largely dependent on the preservation of bird habitats, many birders are not overly concerned with conservation. They are often suspicious of the suggestion. The economic costs and other political philosophies and agendas that are often lumped in with environmentalism, or rather the environmentalist political parties, can be off-putting. I’ve noticed this is often the case with retirees who had already formed their political allegiances before they picked up birding. There are also many birders who prefer to avoid political conflict; indeed they find part of the birding attraction to be its removal from politics. Keeping in mind the American preference for self-reliance and minimum interference, I imagine the often overt and heated rhetoric of extreme environmentalists is alienating for these birders, who prefer to see the birds and check their lists without having to be reminded that their lack of support has doomed the lesser prairie chicken population. In the birding community, as in America, there are the liberals and the conservatives, and the external pressure of environmental protection often weighs on the relationships between liberal and conservative birders, as it does on the relationship between birders and their birds.

With the intense political rhetoric and upheaval of today, the bridge between liberals and conservatives seems especially impossible to cross. Debates over the national deficit, economic stimulus health care, and foreign policy have left few non-partisans, and the lines between Republicans and Democrats are pretty firmly drawn. Despite the vast and seemingly irreconcilable differences in the political sphere, I believe that it is actually in nature, at least as it pertains to birding, that liberals and conservatives can find their common ground. It was during a recent discussion (found towards the bottom of the comments, here) with the ABA’s conservationist firebrand Ted Eubanks that it occurred to me: conservatives and conservationists have a lot in common.

Although it is the political liberal who is typically associated with the wacko environmentalist, and the conservative who is viewed as the deer-hating tree gobbler, the conservationist philosophy is at play with both ideologies. Conservatives want to preserve their culture and heritage. Even at the risk of stubbornness and intransigence, they will chain themselves to the tree that is historic America and withstand the bulldozers of modernity and globalization. The environmentalists are also conservatives. They do not focus on social conservatism, but are instead preoccupied with conserving what they see as America’s greatest heritage, its for spacious skies, its purple mountains, its fruited plains, etc. Political conservatives prioritize differently, but the motivation is pretty similar. Both groups see something(s) great and essential being potentially lost in America, and that has come to dominate their political action.As something of a conservative myself, it seems to me that the social/political conservatives have more to worry about. When I was younger and more intemperate, I was content to let environmental conservation take a back seat to more pressing social issues. While those issues may still be more pressing, I’ve reconciled my conservatism with a conservation of the environment, both as a home to my beloved birds, and as an essential part of my beloved America. This doesn’t mean I think Cap and Trade was a good idea, or that I am against drilling in Alaska, but I don’t find the overt environmentalist racket so unbearable anymore, because there is a common value to be shared there. I wish the Audubon Society would spend more time actually developing birding program and less time lobbying to set aside yet more swampland, but I’m glad that, on different levels, the conservative mentality is alive in America. 

Monday, October 24, 2011

A Time for Reflection

I'll be working on a sort of self-exploratory essay these next couple days about birding, be it a hobby or a lifestyle, and its socio-political ramifications. In the mean time, I have been reviewing all of my photographic work to date, and have reposted here some of my most successful or fondest photographic experiences from this summer and fall.

This American Robin was the first bird I photographed with my nifty new camera. Knowing absolutely nothing, I went outside and starting snapping away in my then fiance's backyard. I still think the bird's pose and the rough fence make for a well-composed picture, even if there are things I'd try to change now.

This Catbird was the second bird I photographed. It was at almost the same location as the Robin, though I was at a different angle. Again, I was very lucky to have good lighting and a close subject, because this was still in the old days of simple point and click. I still think this is actually one of the best pictures I've taken. At this point, I might've started thinking photography was easy. File that thought away under "cringe-ably wrong". 

Towards the end of August I had a very surreal encounter with this Red-Tail Hawk at the Indian Steele Park in central Phoenix. I was just wandering around when he swooped in and decided to stop for a drink at the little drainage ditch running through the park. He had a powerful stare.

This Green Heron also provided for one of those "can't-believe-my-luck" moments. I wasn't expecting much in way of good birding at the barren little Grenada Park, and then this Heron came into my world (or I into his more likely). This is probably the first (and to date one of the only)  in-flight shots I've gotten of a bird. I really like how the feathers on his back trail out like hair. It was neat to see the Green Heron at full stretch too; usually they're so compact and humble.

This Greater Roadrunner provided me with the sort of photographic opportunity I'd never otherwise hope for. Why he decided to just hop up on this tree and show me his lunch I do not know, but I certainly appreciated it.

This female Black-Throated Gray Warbler was a Life Bird for me, and was also the first good photographic experience I had with a Warbler. If I could do it over, I'd put in some negative exposure compensation, but this was still a great and confidence building encounter.

It's the way things go with birding. Once you see a new bird, you see it all over. That wasn't exactly the case here, but only a few days after seeing the Black-Throated, I saw my first and second Townsend's Warblers as they were passing through to Mexico.

The Gila Woodpecker is an iconic bird of Arizona, in many ways even more prominent than the Cactus Wren. I had been frustrated for a while trying to photograph them, and then one day while I was sitting and reviewing the day's earlier photos, this gentleman came and sat on the one sunny spot next to me in a mesquite tree. His red was showing and he hadn't a care in the world. Magical!

This Elf Owl was a totally unexpected and outstanding find at the Desert Botanical Gardens one  Saturday morning. The Elf Owl is one of the birds I'd never really ever expected or hoped to see; with it being small, uncommon, still, and crepuscular, it just wasn't on my horizon. And yet here it was, taking a sunny snooze and paying me no mind as I gawked and gawked. I was incredulous when I first saw it. There's no good way to see the scale in the picture other than my mentioning that the bird's perch was maybe the width of a drumstick. It couldn't have been more than 6 inches tall. So cool!

Watching this Verdin eat her dinner has been one of my favorite photo-ops so far. The lighting was great, and she brought such a medley of colors together. The different shades of gray, the yellow, the slightly visible red on the shoulders, the green and the cobalt blue all made for a great photo shoot.

It's pretty easy to find the resident Cactus Wrens at the Desert Botanical Gardens, and given their acclimation to people, it's not much more difficult to take their picture. It was really nice to get one in a nice setting though--not on the sidewalk or a trash can--and have some color to match its dauntless attitude.

I see more Harris's Hawks in Phoenix than any other bird of prey. I still find them to be pretty visually impressive, with their dark bodies, ruddy shoulders, and the white at the base and tip of their tails. I've taken lots of Harris's pictures, but the sort of distant, powerful, and thoughtful expression captured here is pretty neat and I haven't had it replicated yet elsewhere. It's like he's looking over his shoulder to keep an eye on me, but doesn't want to actually make eye contact or focus on me too much, because he's thinking about higher things (like eating small animals).

It's always funny to see bird tongues. Do you think that Sparrow tongue can taste anything?

The Pied-Billed Grebe photos were satisfying not so much for the photographic quality, but because they vindicated a long and determined stakeout I made to get close enough in the first place. I haven't had much luck approaching Grebes, so here I sat and waited for them to slowly make their way all around the pond while I sat in ambush, and was able to share in their minnow-massacring world for a few exciting minutes.

This Willet was another Life Bird I saw on the San Diego shore. It was  pretty dull gray over its body, but when it spread its wings and ran along the shallows, it presented me with a very cool spread of symmetrical black and white. From time to time I'm reminded of how truly marvelous the bird wing is. So much power and grace of motion is folded so delicately into such a relatively small space, ready to burst forth at any moment and take the bird wherever it wants to go. Bird wings are folded freedom--much better than origami.

I'm not exactly sure why I like this picture so much. In its fall plumage this Yellow Warbler is not near its colorful potential, and it's just giving the sort of standard bird-on-a-stick pose to the viewer. I guess it's the roundness and softness of the bird, which goes so well with the muted yellow. By all rights this is still a beautiful bird, and I'm trying to make myself appreciate fall warblers more. Between the two of us, I'm probably the more insecure.

No photo collage of Phoenix birds would be complete without that noisy and invasive species the Rosy-Faced Lovebird. They're seen and heard all over the valley, but they're just so durned cute and fluffy they never get tiring (nor do they get tired). The Arizona desert has more than its fair share of drab birds. I think it's great that the Lovebirds are bringing more and more color to the valley of the sun.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Weekly Birding Intake

This Saturday was another trip between the Desert Botanical Gardens and the McCormick Ponds. The DBG had its usual residents on display, and I again saw the Vermillion Flycatchers and Sora at the Ponds. Though I did not actually get to add any new birds to my List, it was a very pleasant morning with 60 degree weather and some nice photographic opportunities, even if they were only the usual suspects.

Blue-Gray Gnatcatchers were the first birds of the day. It's hard to encapsulate their cuteness in a far away photograph, but I'll have many more chances at the DBG.

This fall plumage Yellow Warbler, still identified by the white eye-ring with the faint black stripe and yellow supercillium (streak above the eye), was the first to greet me at the Desert Wildflower Garden, although for the most part I saw only Lesser Goldfinches today (several dozen too, they were swarming).

I had a great look at a female Red-Shafted Flicker in the Gardens as well, and in addition to getting a good look at her red undersides, I got to see my first ever Woodpecker tongue!

With the speed of a frog and the daintiness of a hummingbird, the Flicker's tongue quickly steals breakfast out of every nook and cranny.

I also got to see some more Lincoln's Sparrows at the McCormick Ponds. This specimen seemed to have unusually large feet.

I met up with Mr. and Mrs. Butler Sr. at the McCormick Ponds. In addition to the Vermillion Flycatchers, Sparrows, and other commonalities, Mrs. Butler saw an American Kestrel while Mr. Butler also spotted some Spotted Sandpipers and the always lovely Say's Phoebe. As we decided to retreat from the rising sun and heat, we had a parting look at a juvenile Cooper's Hawk. I only saw my first Cooper's Hawk maybe 10 days ago, so this is the third one I've seen now in two weeks. Location Location Location!

Some courteous Killdeer stood guard by the parking lot. This is maybe the closest Killdeer have ever let me get, so naturally it was at a very beautiful area...

It was a lovely day of birding, a restorative jaunt in the natural world to refuel me through to next weekend.

Blue-Gray Gnatcatcher

A small and spunky bird found over much of the U.S., the Blue-Gray Gnatcatcher has become a bit of a nemesis bird for me to photograph. Maria and I first saw the Blue-Gray at the top of Camelback Mountain. We came upon a very cute little couple going about their morning routine (preening, stretching, foraging, pooping) in the shade of a young palo verde tree. They were either very tame or very preoccupied, and we were able to get within a few feet of the charming birds, particularly the beautiful slate-blue male. Needless to say I did not have the camera with me at the time.
We have since returned to Camelback, camera-in-hand, but have been unable to recapture that great first experience (or see them there at all). I see the Blue-Grays around at the Desert Botanical Gardens a lot, but they fancy the larger, more dense trees there and also seem to prefer staying well behind the "Staff Only" gates. I guess we used up our quota of Gnatcatcher luck that wonderful day on the mountain, so for now I must be patient.
*Update* I got some good shots on 11/12/2011, which are posted below.

White feathers on the underside of the tale are diagnostic of a Blue-Gray Gnatcatcher, even if the rest of the body seems just black (like the Black-Tailed Gnatcatcher).

I absolutely love this chalky blue coloring. Its soft, a bit muted, and totally unique.

Early Gnatcatcher Photos