Thursday, October 13, 2011

Another Tour at the Ranch

I made another trip to the Gilbert Water Ranch today, hoping for better birding and photos than the last couple days had provided close to home (although, overall, this week off has been filled with some excellent birding adventures). The Water Ranch brings in so much, it would be a rare day indeed for even the most unlucky birder to not come away with some spectacular sighting, and today was another great experience.
There is that certain phenomenon birders have--the closest one word I've found to describe it is synchronicity--when you'll go for years without seeing a bird, or have never seen a bird before, and then after that first watershed sighting, you'll see a whole bunch more soon after. I had such a sort of serendipitous time at the Water Ranch. Earlier this week I had seen Common Yellow Throats, Marsh Wrens, Yellow-Rumped Warblers, and a Loggerhead Shrike, which were all unexpected sightings. I saw all of these species again, within 2 hours, at the Gilbert Water Ranch, and fortunately this time I was slightly more prepared.
I started off by the central entrance with the largest and deepest pond (the one that's always full). As soon as I crossed the bridge, I heard the now familiar calls of two Marsh Wrens, and after a few minutes of patience, I was rewarded with an uncommonly good glimpse of the wary birds in the dull morning light.

I had seen a couple of Marsh Wrens at the McCormick ponds on Tuesday, but had been unable to get a picture that clearly identified them. Now, with great fanfare, the Marsh Wrens were clearly blessing my excursion--deeming me worthy--and I continued on with a tempest of confidence and heavy stomping, which was unappreciated by a few nearby Ring-Necked Ducks.

I didn't see any Avocets today, but the ponds still had large numbers of Black-Necked Stilts as well as Canada Geese and Mallards.

The Red-Wing Blackbirds had arrived in full force, as had the White-Crowned Sparrows. Their immediate visual appeal, as well as their charming calls and lively behavior will keep any birder charmed, so it was very nice to have them bouncing all over the trails and never allowing for a dull moment.

Pond 5 had a particularly large concentration of Northern Pintails, although unfortunately they weren't in their full breeding regalia. I hadn't actually ever written the Pintails down on my List, so I guess this makes them a new bird. There were maybe two dozen around one pond, and I really look forward to seeing them in spring as I think they're one of the prettiest ducks when done up right.

There was also an abundance of the stately American Coots, which are rather curiously listed as 'uncommon' in my Peterson Field Guide. I'm pretty sure I've seen the Coots in or around every single pond, lake, and golf course in Phoenix, although that over exposure doesn't make them any less pleasant.

As I was observing the Pintails, I noticed a pair of Pied-Billed Grebes frolicking in the shade on the opposite side of the pond. The ideal photo spot was already occupied by a transfixed gentleman with an impressive 500mm lens tripod weather-controlling time-freezing setup, so I slowly infiltrated my way around to the Grebes' side of the pond and sat amidst the brush, waiting for my chance.
While I was waiting in photographic ambuscade, I was briefly visited by my burgeoning nemesis the Common Yellowthroat.

I managed a quick hip-shot, just to prove I'm not crazy and keep this ethereal bird from joining the ranks of Bigfoot, El Chupacabra, and the Wilson's Warbler as mysterious creatures only ever seen in shady, out-of-focus areas. Maybe this would be a good photo to submit for one of those tricky online bird identification quizzes?
I was also visited by a passing group of Yellow-Rumped Warblers (fall plumage), another bird I had seen only recently and was now seeing repeatedly at the Water Ranch.

By this time the Grebes had slowly made their way into my photographic line of sight, and it was the delight of the day to finally be close to these charming birds, to watch them swim and fish while the other envious waterfowl looked on and watched.

I had never noticed how the eye-ring continues onto the top of the beak. Very cool.
After observing the Grebes for a while, I left them to their lunch and proceeded to the mudflats. Many of the Stilts and Geese had vacated to more aqueous areas as the sun climbed higher in the sky, but one stubborn Wilson's Snipe had decided to stick it out.

She was pretty far out in the pond--too far for my autofocus to even work--so with manual focus and an increased f-stop I did what I could. The Snipes will start to congregate in large and confidence-boosting numbers later this winter (I remember seeing dozens last December), so I'm looking forward to another opportunity then.
As I started back towards the parking lot, I noticed an odd bird flying in from the west. It was about the size and coloration of a Mockingbird (and there were plenty of those around), but the white patches seemed out of place. 
I was delighted to have the mystery bird land not too far away, and realize it was the second Loggerhead Shrike I had seen now in the last three days. 

This is only the third Shrike I've seen, and the second sighting came rather surprisingly a few evenings ago while I was out walking with Maria. I'm not overly satisfied with the pictures, which don't do justice to such a cool bird, but he was not in any mood to hang around. He had some small critters to torment somewhere, and he was soon on his way.
It was another great day at the Ranch with plenty of the usual and plenty of the unexpected. It capped off this rigorous week of birding in a most satisfactory way, and reiterated the fun and surprise that is near-gauranteed with every bird-related outing.

I thought it would be fun to invert some of the Stilt photos, but in fact it mostly just makes my head hurt.

Pied-Billed Grebe

The Pied-Billed is the second smallest Grebe in North America, but is probably the most widely seen due to its trans-constinental range. They are modest and pretty shy birds, though they are also excellent divers and hunters as far as waterfowl go.

Pied-Billed Grebes are named for the black band that develops on their beaks during mating season. Apart from this signature marking they're pretty dull looking adults, but their chicks look like real firecrackers.

Grebes have a certain reputation for eating feathers, which supposedly helps aid them in digestion (why don't other birds do this then?). While I was not lucky enough to see the couple of Grebes at the Gilbert Water Ranch eating feathers, I did see them devouring minnows with unexpected ease. It was very cool to see them submerge and swim around in the shallow ponds, while the envious Mallards floated above.

Marsh Wren

Marsh Wrens are one of the more complicatedly colored Wrens. Although they don't have the size or complex markings off the Cactus Wrens, they compliment the white eye stripe found on many Wrens with nice striations on their backs.
Since they prefer the bullrushes and reeds next to water, they're more often heard than seen, but every once in a while they'll venture to the top of their marshy kingdoms and have a look around.

Wilson's Snipe

This Snipe belongs to Wilson. He saw it first and it belongs to him. If you look at a Wilson's Snipe, as with Wilson's Warbler, you have to pay a royalty.
These shorebirds are common enough throughout the U.S., though I would go so far as to add that they're only locally common. I spend lots of my birding time in marshy and riparian areas, but the only place I've seen Wilson's Snipes is that the Gilbert Water Ranch, where they are known to hang out in large numbers by mid-winter.

They have a very pleasing coloration. They have the white bellies and grey sides like many Sandpipers, but have the ruddy and brown coloration on their backs and heads that makes them look more like Curlews and Woodcocks. Their large beaks also make them especially stand out for a bird their size (about 10 inches). This is the first Wilson's I've seen this year and it was pretty far out on the mudflats. I expect to see more and up close in these next couple months.

Loggerhead Shrike

A rather infamous and undoubtedly cool bird, the Shrikes (there are 2 species) are the only predatory songbirds. To make sure other birds and raptors don't take them lightly because of their slim build or lack of talons, Shrikes often impale their prey--which varies from small insects to mice and little birds--on thorns or barbed wire, and then consume it at a more leisurely pace.
At a quick glance they look a lot like Mockingbirds with their whites and grays, as well as their tendency to perch high in trees and branches for a good vantage point. However, the bold black eyestripe is a dead giveaway. The Loggerhead is a bit smaller than its Northern counterpart, but its range extends through most of the U.S. (except New England). Neither species is common, but between the two,  it is much more likely to see the Loggerhead throughout the U.S.

This Shrike seemed to be experimenting with a more vegetarian diet.

Northern Pintail

Northern Pintails are very handsome ducks. They're not too gaudily colored, but are very sleek and elegant looking when they're dressed to impress.  The male's heads are darkened with a rich chestnut brown. Their bills have diagnostic blue and black striping to add just a splash of color with the fine gray and black ensemble. And of course, their tales are elongated to show virility.

Not one, not two, but three different shades of brown on the head. With the nice white breast and stunningly fine gray sides, these ducks all always in their gentlemanly morning suits, coattails and all.
That being said, it can get tricky to keep the very intricate details of the birds feathers in good focus without losing the pintail.

At the right angle, there's even a bit of rouge on the back of the head. A duck and a gentleman for all seasons.