Saturday, September 24, 2011

More Dessert in the Desert

It was another beautiful morning at the Desert Botanical Gardens. Feeling empowered by my official membership, Pops and I showed up at 6 am to get in some early birding and maybe see some of the desert's more crepuscular denizens, but we were thwarted by an aged security guard informing us that early entries were only permitted on Sundays and Wednesdays.
After biding (not birding) our time, we entered and made a bee line for the wildflower garden, where a Yellow-Breasted Chat, mightiest of Warblers, was supposedly prospecting. This Chat may have been the fevered product of idle chatter, but we did see the usual suspects of Lesser Goldfinches and Rosy-Faced Lovebirds that converge on the sunflower seeds with about as much voracity as one may ever see in a herbivore.
The first interesting sighting was the uncommon Sage Thrasher, one of those fairly obscure desert birds whose rarity is belayed by their unassuming appearance. He was perched on top of some creosote bushes basking in the morning sun, although he quickly departed when he realized MAN had violated his solitude.

After completing a circuit in the wildflower garden, we proceeded to another shaded area that hosted the warblers and flycatchers seen on earlier trips. Except for the occasional Curve-Billed Thrasher, it was largely deserted--very odd. While exploring the other expositions of desert flora, we ran into the Gardens' contracted photographer, who made us privy to some Elf Owls sighted nearby! I had never seen an Elf Owl, and with it being tiny, uncommon, and predominantly nocturnal, I had never planned on it either. Pops had been hoping to see one for years, and neither of us were disappointed.
Although they were pretty far back from the trail, three Elf Owls--two adults and one chick--were indeed perched and visible out in the daylight.
I was blown away by how small they are. These birds were a bit puffed up as well, but they were less than six inches tall and totally motionless. We observed for a while and I tried to get some pictures, but the distance and adverse lighting denied me that satisfaction. It was still a great sighting though, and we continued around the Gardens already considering the day a great success.
We came across a molting Anna's Hummingbird and some bickering Broad-Tailed Hummers, who were drawn to the flowering foliage in numbers seeming to rival the bees.

The red throat is filling in as is the red crown, which is particular to the Anna's.
Even if not new, the hummingbirds are always fun to watch: the brain of a bird in the body of a bee flying around like a deflating balloon.
Soon after I was also able to get some excellent shots of the locally common Gila Woodpecker, which is seen and heard often enough but usually too skittish or high in the trees for me to get a good picture.

Before heading out for some biscuits and gravy, we decided to try the wildflower garden once more in hopes of seeing the Yellow-Breasted Chat. While we finished the day chat-less, we discovered another pair of Elf Owls in the "Hummingbird Garden". They were much closer to the trail, in decent light, and pretty comfortable with our gawking. They seemed even smaller than the earlier sightings, despite being closer to us. We shared binoculars with other passersby, and some other birding folk were very happy to get to see these remarkable little owls.
It was excellent. It seemed like all the pictures were coming out clearly today. The company was great and the birding exceptional. With two new birds on the list, some great Elf Owl pictures, and the birding only to get better with Autumn migrants, it was a very satisfactory outing. Elf Owls and Sage Thrashers are the sorts of birds you don't ever really expect too see; they're uncommon and tend to be well hidden, but today was a day for birders.

Elf Owl

At 5 and 1/2 inches, the Elf owl is the shortest owl in North America. It's range is similarly small; this uncommon owl is seen only in Arizona, New Mexico, and southwest Texas. They had recently been reported at the Desert Botanical Gardens, and were apparently in residence for a couple of days before Pops and I found them with the help of one of the Gardens' photographers. The first trio were pretty far back in the brush, and the two parents seemed to be dozing while their fluffy chick sat and contemplated little things.
You can see he still has lighter, downy feather while the adults in the background are a much darker shade. The sunlight was pouring into their little nook, but they seemed pretty content and somewhat out of reach.

This was already a great experience, with the Elf Owl being a new addition for both of our life lists. Before departing, Pops and I decided to retry the wildflower garden in hopes of seeing a rumored Yellow Breasted Chat that was supposed to be hanging around. While surveying a large mesquite tree, we saw what seemed to be a large-headed sparrow standing oddly upright in the tree. It really is hard to take in how small these owls are. Picture the large, Great-Horned Owls we've all seen, only without the ears. The same sort of strong claws, same sharp beak and large eyes, except everything is proportionately shrunken down so it could fit in the palm of your hand. It was simply amazing to see something so small and simultaneously realize that it was an owl.
This pair of adults was also dozing in the early morning light, and provided a much better photo opportunity than the earlier family. To date, this is probably one of the rarest and, by happy coincidence, better documented birds I've seen. They're pretty uncommon, and incredibly difficult to see. Our luck was in full force today as we happened upon them without even trying. Great Day!
Click on the images for a larger view.
I love the bristly feet here. This branch is maybe the width of a pencil, to help put their size onto a scale.  
The white eyebrows are pretty impressive. They match the stoic demeanor well.
There they are. Those big eyes looking past me and back into yesterday.

All of these blurry tentacles are criss-crossing mesquite twigs and branches. These owls were still a good 12 feet back in the canopy, and there was not a clear opening for a picture, but such circumstances come with the bird.

Hummingbirds in Action

The Desert Botanical Gardens are always buzzing with Hummingbirds. This time of year, there aren't many distinct males, and many females look similar. While identification is problematic, their antics are still fun to watch. I believe this is a male Broad-Tailed Hummingbird with a female although the female seems a bit small (relative to hummingbird standards).
Since Pops and I were originally looking for a reported Yellow-Breasted Chat (not seen) in the area, my camera was on the aperture setting, which allows for a better, concentrated focus. The hummingbird activity was thus shot at a low shutter speed, though in decent focus--hence the blurry wings. It didn't turn out too badly, but it shows the trade off between focus/lighting and shutter speed.
I'm not sure if they were arguing or flirting, but it was pretty dynamic either way.

Anna's Hummingbird

Many North American Hummingbirds sport the red throat-ware, but the Anna's is the only such Hummingbird to also have a red crown. They're definitely the most common Hummingbird around the Phoenix area, and in the spring-time their numbers really skyrocket. From grocery store parking lots to the top of Camelback Mountain, they're everywhere.

While wandering around Encanto Park, I spotted the flash of red atop a bottle tree and snapped this first picture was taken probably 15 yards from the base of the trunk, with the treetop being another 20 feet high. I'm including this initial picture just to give an idea of how incredibly eye-catching his ruby helmet was in the morning light. 

This precocious Anna's started to fly rounds between a couple of the nearby trees and bushes, stopping briefly to sound his trilling call, take a breath, and then quickly move on to his next checkpoint. I was very fortunate to have him stop close by and give me a great look at his broadside. It's amazing to me, given the previous coloration, the total lack of visible red when he was perpendicular to the sun. Looking at this picture alone, I'd never otherwise assume this Hummer had anything but dark grayish/greenish feathers on his face.

I was unlucky that he did not turn fully into the sun (just as well, it probably would have been blinding). Even this slight turn of his head, maybe 20 degrees, filled his face with color. I love that even the little side patch behind the eye lights up. The scaly green back and fluffy leggings alone would make this a beautiful bird, but with that scarlet headgear it's almost an overload!

Here is a juvenile photographed at the Desert Botanical Gardens:

This male Anna's was behaving very brazenly at the Gilbert Water Ranch. He would chase from perch to perch, pursuing any would-be interlopers and keeping himself very busy.

Here are a couple shots of the beautiful and delicate Anna's females.

Sage Thrasher

This was an unexpected find at the Desert Botanical Gardens in this limbo month of September. Their northern, summer range extends from the Pacific Northwest to the very top of Arizona, while their winter range comes up from Mexico through Southern Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas. There's an odd gap between the two, like the Sage Thrasher will actually go anywhere west of the semi-aridity line except for central Arizona, which is exactly where Pops and I saw it.
With their dull, brownish-gray backs and white wing bars, they're often mistaken for Juvenile Mockingbirds. The strong streaking/speckling on the breast, along with the stubbier bill and shorter size (8 1/2 inches to the mockingbird's 10) does set the Sage aside both from the Mockingbird and other Thrashers.
The Sage Thrasher is uncommon, and given its rather drab appearance I'm glad we saw one when we did, because I don't know if I'll otherwise notice and take the time to tell it apart as a new bird. This Thrasher was a new one for the List.
Note the grayish back and wing-bars, very similar to a young Northern Mockingbird
The streaked flanks and breast, along with the yellow eye and white rump are visible as this Sage Thrasher makes his escape past the creosote bushes.