Friday, November 11, 2011

A Weekend at the Ranch

This morning stayed overcast. The temperature held at a nice 60 degrees and the cloud cover stayed in place all day. This made for some GREAT birding, and some lousy photography. I saw three new birds today: a Northern Harrier, a Ruby-Crowned Kinglet, and a Ruddy Duck, and I've got the blurry photos to prove it!

After dropping Maria off at the airport for the weekend (that's not where she's spending her weekend, mind you), I needed to rebound. I got to the Gilbert Water Ranch nice and early, waiting for a beautiful sunrise and some avian action. The birds started to stir, but the sun just never really came up. A thick layer of clouds had rolled in during the night, and even as I write this now, they hold the valley in a dusky lighting. The birds and the birders loved the shade, and they were all over the place. The camera didn't like it so much, and anything more than ten feet away was going to be a blurry capture.

Nonetheless, the first bird of the day was a new one. This female Ruddy Duck was sitting, unescorted, at the dead center of the main pond. She seemed a bit surly, perhaps worried that the other ducks were prettier. While I assured her this was not the case, she still stayed well away and free from further scrutiny.


There were reports of a Eurasian Wigeon hidden somewhere among the dabbling ducks. Even though the Marsh Wrens kept me company in my stake-out, I didn't see any Eurasians. Soon, my attention moved on from the ducks to the local Coots, as it often does...

I've been taking lots of Coot photos lately, and this one may be my favorite so far, even though there are no Coot feet to be seen! This is the sort of pose you see Swans making in an ice sculpture, not so much Coots in a muddy pond. They're just full of surprises.

The desert shrubs that border the pond played host to the usual populations of Verdin, Abert's Towhee, and Sparrows. These chilly days have now brought the charming addition of Kinglets to the Phoenix area. With their soft yellows, bold eye-rings, and flashes of ruby and gold, they add a fluid vibrancy to the vegetation as it turns sallow in the dry autumn chill.

The Kinglets surfaced off and on throughout the morning, and at long last I had one perch just in front of me. Time seemed to slow down as the autofocus honed in. Kinglets can't hold still for more than 0.014 seconds though, and with the lighting so poor there was little chance of increasing shutter speed. As I pressed the button, the inevitable happened. The Kinglet had a spasm and then promptly flew off. See the crown? New bird number 2!

The always-handsome Lincoln's Sparrows could be seen flying in and out of the drying foliage at the water's edge. They never quite came out in the open, but I love that they have all of those autumn colors represented so well in their feathers and their choice of perches.


 The birds were moving around pretty quick this morning, but this Black Phoebe seemed a bit slow in the head. It wasn't doing very well at catching flies, and it seemed to be following and trying to imitate a group of Lesser Goldfinches. I was able to take advantage of his stupor to get close enough for some better photos of this usually skittish bird.


Space cadet

This female Northern Harrier was the third new bird of the day. Seeing this streamlined raptor flying low over the drying grass was totally unexpected. Even at a considerable distance, it was clear this was no Harris's or Red-Tailed Hawk. She didn't seem to be hunting so much as just terrorizing the Sparrows. She always kept her distance from me, but she continued to make her strafing runs throughout the morning.

The Osprey is a more common raptor at the Water Ranch and it is equally impressive. She spent a while on one of the constructed perches out in the middle of the ponds, but when she seemed to have a mind for breakfast, I began to really begrudge the gloomy weather.  She's pictured here retreating from some grackles. I always wondered why raptors let themselves get bullied by such birds. Maybe it's just not worth their energy to retaliate, but do they ever think of their reputation?

After chasing these predators around the ponds, I decided to pick a spot and sit for a while. I hid myself behind a couple granite boulders and waited to see birds came along to feed on the mesquite.

The Yellow-Rumped Warblers have to be some of the most commonly seen birds now in these late weeks of autumn. They outnumber the Mourning Doves at the Water Ranch, and would probably give the Eurasian Sparrows a run for their money. They typically like to stay hidden away in the trees and feast on insects, but every now and then they'll come down to ground level and forage.


This unfortunate Curve-Billed Thrasher was hanging out by the picnic area, and his unusual gait caught my eye. His right leg was missing just below the joint, and a large ball of scar tissue or infected tissue or maybe even a tumor had sealed it off. Despite this handicap, he was pretty mobile. He probably has one heck of a story to tell.

It's always a pleasure to see Say's Phoebes. They've got a bit of bulk to them, they're colorful, and they're pretty confident to boot. They're comfortable on the ground, in the trees, and hovering anywhere in between.


When this female cardinal flew into a nearby tree, I briefly exalted in the thought that my search for a Pyrrhuloxia had finally ended. No such luck, but the female Cardinal is still a beautiful bird, and they're increasingly uncommon this time of year.


 The Red-Wing Blackbirds seem to really congregate as the weather cools down, and I've been pursuing a good Blackbird photo in earnest now that they're plentiful in Phoenix. It's a tricky task to catch the black feathers and eye, while also showcasing the brilliant red and yellow shoulders. This picture came out a bit blurry, but I really liked the pointedness and sort of flame-like quality that the blur adds to the bird here. It was a bit of inadvertent artsiness.

There's been a funny trend to my recent birding outings in that the last bird I always see is a Snowy Egret. Solitary and composed birds, they usually make for good photographic subjects, and their methodical wading has a very calming effect on the observer. It was a lovely day of birding and a great day for the List. The Water Ranch never disappoints.