Sunday, October 9, 2011

Urban Slog: Seeking Avian Treasures Within City Limits

For today's excursion I decided to explore the drainage channels, canals, run-offs, and various other shallow water networks in the Scottsdale area. With all of the golf courses, parks, and hotels, there is a pretty extensive water-supply network, and I didn't really know what I was getting into.
In the 4 hour trip I'm estimating I covered maybe 5 miles of switch-backs, alleys, canals, waterways, and golf courses, and got to explore the behind-the-scenes lifelines of the Scottsdale greenery.
The trip was not a break-through photographically, but I did get to add a few birds to my List and have an adventure along the way.
I first encountered some Brewer's Sparrows as I descended into the basin of drainage ponds on the south side of the McCormick Ranch golf course.

They provided a better look than I had last week when I saw my first Brewer's Sparrows, and had actually and mistakenly used juvenile Chipping Sparrow pictures in their place.
While tromping around the marshes I saw the normal regimen of fall-feathered warblers (warblers in their ubiquitous yellow that I can't really identify, so I just say they're all Yellow Warblers) but was stunned to flush a Common Yellowthroat. This was only the third time I've seen a Common Yellowthroat, despite their name, and since I again failed to get a picture, I've now struck-out with the Yellowthroat and the Wilson's Warblers.

Here is another Yellow Warbler

I followed the water through an overpass and onto the McCormick golf course, where I was met with rather hostile looks from both the golfers and the resident waterfowl.
As one might expect, I saw both Great Blue Herons and Great Egrets pacing around the ponds, and also spotted an un-spotted Spotted Sandpiper busily running back and forth, as though it couldn't decide which bit of mud it wanted to examine first.

The spots only fill in as a part of the Sandpiper's breeding plumage.

I found a nice shady spot next to a weeping willow tree, which worked both for shade and as a bit of a shield against the wary ducks that stayed well out of camera range. I'm pretty sure there were Teals mixed in with the Mallards and Coots, and I did manage to photograph what may be a pair of female Pintails, since few other female ducks have the solidly gray beaks.

From the hidden vantage point, I also managed to get a good shot of a Chipping Sparrow, which I had 
thus far been unable to photograph before they scampered.

I followed the golf course pods out through another underpass into a sort of shallow irrigation system that seemed to run behind lots of the nicer housing projects, and passed a couple of Flycatchers before entering into a more wooded area--the larger trees sinking their roots into the continuos water supply without fear of golf-course horticulture.

 Black Phoebes and Say's Phoebes were the flycatchers of the day.

The McCormick Ranch waterways linked up to the Chaparral Park and golf courses waterways on a north/south route in between Scottsdale road and Hayden. Since the water syphons off to various communities along the way, the wildlife was much less present here, although I did come across a corn snake (?) and a Green Heron.

Look at him dipping his dainty toes in the water.

By time I hit Indian School Road, a good 3 miles or so south of where I started, it was time to turn around. The pond supply line also seemed ready to loop back, and it created a quaint little island that hosted a singular, massive cottonwood tree that must have entertained over a dozen Gila and Ladder-Backed Woodpeckers.

This neat water feature was running in between two neighborhoods. I don't know who put in the bridge, but it's an ideal picnic getaway now.
Unfortunately, I did not have my lunch with me, so I took the quickest route back to the McCormick Ranch spillway where I had parked. 
I decided to double-check the drainage swamps near my car in case the Common Yellowthroat had returned. While there were no warblers to be found, I did stumble upon a ruffled Greater Roadrunner that was contentedly eating bees. He didn't seem to want to move at all, and I had to proceed through the weeds since he had squatter's rights.

 As any spider will tell you, a most intense focus is required to catch a bee.
Click on the image to enlarge and see the bee-in-mouth action!.

This continued my good record of photographing Roadrunners eating things, but the best was yet to come.
While circling the last pond before my car, I saw some subdues movement among the water weeds. A dark shape, maybe 7 inches long, was stirring about in the tulles. I was expecting a cowbird or a blackbird, but when I approached some sort of Rail flushed and flew across the pond. 
I managed to circumnavigate and position myself behind the bird, and with some semi-satisfactory photos I managed to identify it as a Sora, another new bird!

It was a fun trip with some good moments. I can't say I'll do it again, since all in all I didn't see more birds than I would at some other designated birding area. However I was very happy to see the Sora and get a good picture of the Chipping Sparrow. It's nice to see the birds thriving among the city scapes. Wherever you go, there birds will be around you.


I assume that, like the Virginia Rail, American Redstart, Magnificent Frigatebird, and Prothonotary Warbler, the Sora is another North American bird that has retained the name given it by the indigenous Americans.
This was a Life-list bird for me, and I found it while slogging around one of the drainage ponds off of the McCormick Ranch golf courses. I first spotted the slight movements and dark coloration in the water weeds and stood by, waiting for a cowbird or blackbird to emerge. To my surprise, it was some sort of Rail that eventually flushed, and then disappeared into some cattails on the other side of the pond. After several more minutes of tedious positioning, I managed to maneuver behind the Sora and get some photos to help with identification. Since it's a life bird and I'm rather proud of myself for finding it, I've presented them here as well.
I don't know if I'll see another Sora since they're pretty secretive and I try not to get my shoes wet, so maybe I'll have to make my peace with these photos in the long run too. Trying to shoot through reeds is never ideal, and I was also in a hurry since I expected the Sora to take off any second. There are many things I'd do differently if given another chance.
 The white-ish face and underbelly indicate that this Sora is just a bit immature. The striping on the sides isn't visible yet, but the brown and black back with speckled white, along with the yellow beak and red eye, all confirm the species.
 Since there is black on the top of the head and a bit in front of the eyes, but little filling in on the throat, I'm thinking this is a female.
 Here the yellow beak is clearly visible, which eliminated any possibility that this was a Black Rail, the only other possibility for this region, given the size.
You can just see the ventral stripes coming in.

Chipping Sparrow

This sharply defined Sparrow can be found in Arizona year-round, throughout most of North America in the Summer. I think of chipping Sparrows as bring the quintessential Sparrow because they seem to combine many elements of the different Sparrows into a sort of general template.

The rufous cap is found on many different Sparrows, and you'll often find the white supercilium on others, and a dark eye-stripe on still more. But only the Chipping Sparrow brings it all together, making it a straightforward and handsome bird to identify.

Say's Phoebe

The Say's Phoebe is a fairly common, rusty-bellied flycatcher found throughout the western half of North America. They have a unique personality and are pretty unmistakable. With some many similar looking flycatchers, I really appreciate the unique, straightforward, and yet subtle coloring on the Phoebe. It's beautiful.