Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Liminal Birds

Liminal is a nifty word that describes the border between two different things, be they cultures or environments. The liminal space is where elements of both overlap and interact, sometimes harmonizing and sometimes coming into conflict.

Many birds seem to prefer the liminal spaces of nature. I certainly gravitate towards these areas as a birdwatcher, probably because it's easier to see and target places that have lots of distinction. It's much harder to make oneself survey a homogenous landscape than one with many different features on which you can easily focus. Observe the liminal spaces at the Gilbert Water Ranch, those areas where land meets water, where the chaparral meets the trees, and these are some of the species you'll likely find:

The Northern Shovelers are not very good divers, but they do like to feed off of the bottom of ponds. As such, they're limited to the shallow areas where they can go bottoms-up. Locating Shovelers in a pond is a good way to guess at the depth of the surrounding water.

 The Black-Necked Stilt is not a swimmer, but it likes to feed in the mucky muck just like the Shoveler. Consequently, it too is destined for life in a liminal space.

The Common Gallinule (formerly known as Moorhen) makes its nest in the reeds and bullrushes around the water, and is seldom seen very far away from its precious cover. I'm not really sure what they eat, but if if it's true that you are what you eat, then looking at the beak I'd say they eat candy-corn.

The water's edge draws all manner of other birds, including warblers, wrens, waterfowl, herons, kingfishers, and shorebirds ad infinitum. There are also many birds that prefer the dryer liminal spaces. The Sparrows and Finches in Arizona like to move between the higher trees, which provide more cover, and the seedy grasses that provide better but lower foraging. I found my first ever Lawrence's Goldfinches moving between the trees and grasses at the Water Ranch, and they were also accompanied by lots of Brewer's Sparrows.

My fondness for these margins sometimes inhibits my birding. I often spend too much time looking at these areas, which can attract many different species of birds, and miss the less conspicuous specialists who stay in a specific environment. But hey, whether you bird in the margins, or immerse yourself in one specific environment, it's all good. Birding is fun.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Inca Bink a Bottle of Ink

With a relatively small range (for a dove) that does not much exceed the southern parts of Arizona, California, New Mexico, and Texas, the Inca Dove has much less of an empire than its now-extinct namesake. However, they did outlast the Incas, and they have no scarcity of competition from larger doves or grackles either. 

Their feathers have a scaled look to them that encompasses their entire body, unlike other semi-scaled birds such as the California QuailTheir soft call and mild manners makes them a pleasant addition to the typical batch of Southwestern birds one might see making a ruckus about the feeders, and they're certainly my favorite dove.

I like their eyes. Unlike other, larger doves who seem to always have that vacant stare, the Inca Dove eyes seem to have a slight glimmer of kindness and gentleness behind them. With their gray dimpled plumage and endearing politeness, these are grandma birds if there is such a thing.

I found this nice pair at the Gilbert Water Ranch on Saturday. They were being very cozy-cuddly and didn't seem to mind the interlopers as they scratched and stretched away the remnants of their afternoon nap.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Lemme Teal You Something Buddy!

I've had a wonderful time finding and photographing the various wintering waterfowl here in Arizona. The Shovelers, Pintails, Ring-Necks, and Scaups are all beautiful and pretty easy to access in the city. The Teal group has been much more challenging. I've not seen any Blue-Winged Teal this winter, and the Greenwing-Teal like to stay far out in the Gilbert Water Ranch Ponds, as do their much less numerous Cinnamon cousins.

I've spent a lot of time trying to improve my Teal cache, and have found them to be both entertaining and tricky subjects. This Teal was by far the most proximal of all the Teal I photographed. However, his exposure came with a strong condition; he wasn't exposed. By this I mean the stubborn duck kept his beak and part of his face underwater with more determination than a squirrel trying to infiltrate a bird feeder.

He wasn't sitting still either. He would actually scoot along the shallow water, pacing back and forth like an adorable little vacuum sucking up all the lovely bits of filth he could.

At 30 to 35 yards, this is the closest I've managed to get to a Cinnamon Teal. I don't know much about it, but of all the wintering waterfowl that are not actually rare visitors, the Cinnamons seem to have the most limited range. They're the only duck I've seen exclusively at the Water Ranch (though the Ranch is the only place that brings all the ducks together so splendidly), which means I can't count on finding them at the other smaller urban ponds for a close up. More patience is required.

Here's another Green-Winged Teal being all tealy. Maria observed that they combine the facial markings and colors of both Pintails and Wigeons. I agree, and in fact there's a lot in their torso that resembles the Pintail as well. They're very pretty ducks. It seems to have been an unusually warm and short winter all around the country. It's not over yet, but many of the birds here in the valley seem to be prematurely starting their breeding and nesting. I hope for a little more time with the Teal before they return to the northern climes.

Thursday, January 26, 2012


Bird-Yeah. This guy was hanging outside my classroom window after school. I like the afternoon light, even if it's the early morning light that is ideal. There's quite a lot of brown in this picture.

There's not enough of the eye visible, but I like all of the texture in the shot. It was a nice concatenation of lighting and placement. This lower photo of another mimid, the Catbird, was taken at about the same time of day in Pennsylvania (in late spring). There's a pretty noticeable difference in the color of evening light along the United States.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Wednesdays with Audubon, Chapter 9

As a matter of manners and thanks, Audubon and his men conducted some business on Magdalene island before departing. They bought over-priced, low quality animals skins (in Audubon's developed opinion), a few other provisions, and proceeded along the archipelago about 18 miles in search of nesting Mergansers and Geese. Along the way they stopped to collect Black Guillemot eggs, which turned out to be quite an undertaking. The birds lay their eggs on bare coastal/cliff rock, just above the high-water mark, and are very staunch defenders of their nurseries. It's a fun image, these heavy-laden sailors slipping and sprawling on the wet and poo-plastered rocks as the cold waves break and spray with the protesting birds.

Before they reached the waterfowl lakes on the eastern extremity of the Magdalene Archipelago, the Audubon crew caught a very favorable wind towards Labrador Island, and they changed course without much debate. Their new heading took them into line with the many trails of Gannets all heading to some unseen breeding ground. Some of them hung noticeably low in the air, no doubt gorged with fishy bits for their waiting mates and young. The birds were heading towards a large, snowy monolith that rose out of the churning water. As the men drew closer, Audubon realized with great elation that it was not snow at all which covered the rock, but Gannets. Thousands and thousands of Gannets:

"I rubbed my eyes, took my spy-glass, and in an instant the strangest picture stood before me. They were birds we saw--a mass of birds such a size as yet I never before cast my eyes on. The whole of my party stood astounded and amazed, and all came to the conclusion that such a sight was of itself sufficient to invite any one to come across the Gulf to view it as this season."

To Audubon's dismay, they were unable to bring the ship/row-boats in close enough to land on Gannet Rock. After a few dangerous and futile attempts, the mournful crew pressed on. Many of the men spent the next few days in a state of poor health, no doubt brought on by their fool-hardy pursuit of the Gannet roost in cold and stormy conditions. They sailed on through the rain and reached the island of Anticosti on June 15th. They spent the 16th recovering and fishing for cod, and at 5 am on June 17th they first sighted the shores of Labrador.

Thousands of Razor-Billed Auks and Velvet Ducks (Velvet Scoter) escorted them in towards the island, and they soon found a harbor where several Hudson Bay Company fishing boats were moored. After saying hello to a few friends, they continued on to an American harbor. When they dropped anchor around latitude 50, it was farther north that Audubon had ever been before. Despite this auspicious beginning, the initial explorations were somewhat disappointing. The island was covered in a thick, spongy moss that spread over any and all exposed earth. The trees were haggard and wiry, presenting only a single Pigeon Hawk as game for the men.

They continued to sail around the island and made anchor again at noon, where Audubon gathered specimens of Eider Ducks, and began to catch up on his neglected drawings, before his previously gathered specimens started to spoil. It has been a trip of mostly pelagic sightings so far. I'm sure that Audubon and his crew were eager to spend some time ashore, and so am I.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Warbler Envy at Rio Salado

I've had warbler envy lately. The definite focus in Arizona is the wintering waterfowl, but now I find myself yearning for those flighty tweety birds too. One can always count on the Orange-Crowned and Yellow-Rumped Warblers in Phoenix in the winter, but to diversify one's sightings beyond there requires some work.

I had stopped off at the Glendale Recharge ponds on Saturday in  the vain hope of seeing a reported pair of American Redstarts. While I did have a nice time looking and conversing with other birders there, we all struck out on the birds themselves.

Next I decided to check out the Rio Salado Audubon center that's in south-central Phoenix. I had visited this center in the summer and seen some Wilson's Warblers, along with some Green-Tailed Towhees, but hadn't been overly impressed. There had been recent reports on the AZ listervs though of Black-and-White Warblers, Myrtle Warblers, a Summer Tanager, and some Redhead Ducks--all new birds for me--at the center now, which was more than enough motivation for me to get outdoors instead of grading papers.

While I did not see any of the above species, I did get some good looks at Common Yellowthroat, Marsh Wrens, Kinglets, and Lincoln's Sparrows. My photographic nemesis the Common Yellowthroat continued to elude my camera. At one point I thought the curse might end, but then a large loud family passed by making as much noise as possible, and all of the birds flushed. Arrgh.

I did see a male Black-Throated Grey Warbler from far away, the first male of the species I've seen, so it was still a pretty good outing, even with the heavy clouds.

Here's the namesake black throat, which is not actually visible on the female.

Like most Warblers, he stuck around for all of 3 seconds, and then took off.

Here is a more aesthetically pleasing shot of the female Black-Throated Grey I saw this summer at the Gilbert Water Ranch. Note the non-black throat.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Survey Saturday

I'm beginning to suspect there is some sort of nebulous conspiracy here in Phoenix. All through the week there's not a cloud in the sky, and for the last 4 weekends we've had medium to heavy overcast  weather. It's downright stultifying!

Anyhow, today was the Maricopa Waterfowl Survey, which is conducted every year by the Game and Fish Department. They get bird nerds and volunteers to walk, drive, or gallop all over Maricopa County taking inventory on the water birds. I've been doing my part here in central Phoenix, and I wasn't expecting too much in way of photography anyway.

There wasn't much out of the usual. There were lots and lots of Coots, Ring-Necked Ducks, and Canada Geese. Some Wigeon and Shovelers were seen along with Pied-Billed Grebes, wild Mallards, and a few Herons. There were also 3 Harris's Hawks at Encanto Park, which do not count towards the survey, but were a welcome sight nonetheless.

And there was this shy little guy:

The duck was all white, with a short stubby bill and overall length of about 12 inches--pigeon size. Given his diminutive stature and his stubby bill, along with my assumption that this is not a juvenile, he stood apart from the other typical white mallard-sized ducks one often sees around urban ponds. I'm not sure if he's a hybrid or just another species of domestic duck that I'd never seen before.

Here he is trying to eat an eucalyptus leaf.
Doh! Look at me; I'm confusing!
 He was a cute little thing.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Some Misc. Photos

I'll be out participating in the Greater Phoenix Area Waterbird Survey on Saturday, moving around through central Phoenix and taking inventory on the waterfowl in the area. While this should both be helpful to the AZ Game and Fish Department and be a lot of fun, I'm not expecting to come away with many pictures. To keep a little color on the site, here are a couple pleasant photos of some normal residents at Encanto Park.

Wishing good birding to everyone this weekend!

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Lawrence's Goldfinch

Even though the Lawrence's Goldfinches spell their name incorrectly, there was still a special satisfaction to seeing and photographing this semi-kindred bird. The reports started circulating on the AZ listservs that there were a few Lawrences around Pond 5 at the Gilbert Water Ranch. They're not exactly rare, but they're uncommon and move somewhat erratically, so it's hard to predict when or where one might get another chance to see these handsome little birds.

It took a while to locate them at the Ranch. The Lesser Goldfinches that I see around the area like the tops of the thistle and seedy grass. I figured the Lawrence's would act similarly, but this wasn't exactly the case. It was odd enough that I didn't see a single Lesser Goldfinch, and the Lawrence's turned out to be mingling with White-Crowned and Brewer's Sparrows in the southwestern nook of Pond 5. They'd spend a minute or two up in the mesquite trees, and then return to forage fairly low in the grass, like the Sparrows, and spend 30 minutes or so in the ruff.

They were hard to find in the grass, and harder still to keep in focus with the camera. It was a pretty charming and fun challenge as they were not overly bothered by my proximity, and I was forced to practice my manual focussing. As undesirable as it is to have the grass obscuring the bird, I like the overall effect and texture that the spindly stalks bring to the photos.

I did want to get a clear photo though, and after a pretty long spell of waiting, the Finches finally returned to their mesquite perch. However, when a thick cloud moved in front of the sun, it made for a pretty nervy ending. I was starting to sense that the Finch's patience and my luck were running out. As you can see below, the cloud eclipsed almost all of the natural light. The Finches were sitting still for now, but how long could they last!? It was a race against time...

The cloud cleared away just in time. I got a bit of light and got a few shots off before the Finches bolted, and not just back to the field. They took off across the pond and quickly disappeared. Even if the photos aren't picture-perfect, I got to observe the Finches for a long and edifying time. It was a very fun and thorough way to add a new bird to the List, and keep the good times rolling in 2012. 

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Wednesdays with Audubon, Chapter 8

After a somewhat slow and shaky start, Audubon and his help were making their way through the Labrador Islands and towards the gulf of St. Lawrence. Some of the islands were dotted with rundown shacks and smokehouses. The boreal air held a heavy stillness that wass only occasionally broken by the call of some pelagic bird echoing through the misty sky. Apart from the occasional sighting of a fishing boat, the men were isolated. It must have been eery and unsettling at times, while wonderfully freeing at others.

On June 11th they passed through Cape George and Cape Porcupine, where the ice was still well-formed. They stopped near the Porcupine shoreline to trade with some Indians, and Audubon also came upon some Chimney Swallows and Blue Jays.

The St. Lawrence Gulf was a bit more settled than the outer islands. Little hamlets dotted the emergent green hills as they undulated into the distance, textured here and there with the recognizable rows of cultivation. Audubon and his crew put in at Jestico Island, which was speckled with wild strawberries and enhanced by the flurried activity of American Redstarts and Tawny Thrushes. About the Redstarts Audubon writes: "This is one of the most lively, as well as one of the handsomest, of our Flycatchers, and ornaments our woods during spring and summer, when it cannot fail to attract the attention of any person who may visit the interior of the shady forests."

They also observed mating pairs of Spotted Sandpipers, Guillemot, and Great Blue Heron. 
They collected black currants and the sailors killed a seal for dinner, while Audubon observed a pair of Red-Breasted Mergansers, "that had glutted themselves with fish so that they were obliged to disgorge before they could fly off."

June 12th was spent navigating from Cape Breton to the Amherst Islands in very heavy fog. Despite his father's prowess, Audubon was not much of a sailor. He spent most of his time sullenly below decks while they navigated the tricky sandbars that often linked the tiny isles. On June 13th the temperature dropped down to 40 degrees, a dip for which Audubon and his crew were poorly prepared. They went ashore Magdalene Island where they were met on the beach, much to their surprise, by a wild-looking woman who spoke about a third French, a third English, and a third of some other jargon Audubon claims neither he nor any of his crewmen could decipher. The woman nonetheless led them to a small Catholic Church, where, to their surprise, they were caught up in the middle of a La Petite Fete de Dieu (translate 'small party of God'?) festival. Despite the harsh conditions of the island and the apparent poverty of its populace, Audubon & Co. were treated to French wine and fresh herring. While the less ornithologically inclined made pleasant company inside the chapel, Audubon followed the preliminary rays of sun out into a nearby wood. He observed "Black-Capped Warblers" (I'm not sure if this would be a Black-Capped Chickadee or Black-Capped Vireo?), and Audubon gathered his first specimens of Piping Plover.

Audubon recorded: "So plaintive is the note of this interesting species that I feel great aversion to killing them. They are also the swiftest of foot of any water-birds, which I know, of their size." 
He later added in his Birds of America, "While migrating eastward, the Piping Plovers proceed in pairs; and should one of these on its way find a convenient place for breeding, and remain there, several others are often induced to take up their abode in the neighborhood."

It's not one of my favorite illustrations, but he gives a pretty charming account of the birds. I wonder what sorts of joy Audubon would have found with a digital camera on these expeditions, the greatest advantage of which is that it would spare the birds? Of course, one could argue that Audubon would be able to paint from photographs and memory, but what if that were not an option? I wonder, if he were forced for some reason to choose between photographs and his painting, which would he pick? As I've said before, there's something irreplaceably more personal in these painted renditions of the birds, even if they're only second-hand likenesses.  

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Birds at the Ranch

The good birding and open spaces at the Glendale Recharge ponds only increased my avian appetite in this long weekend, and I decided to revisit the Gilbert Water Ranch to search for some reported Lawrence's Goldfinches on Monday. I'll relate that adventure with more detail later in the week. 

As usual, the Water Ranch was teeming with activity and with all manner of species, from Herons and Kinglets to Teals, Stilts, and Sparrows. One of the best sightings came early on in the day, and coincided with a nice break in the clouds. I was circling around Pond 5, on of the larger and southern basins that is actually now full of nice, seedy grass (perfect for finches), when this female Northern Harrier touched down.

At about 25 yards, this was the best look I'd yet been afforded by a Harrier, although I see them flying around often enough in these winter months. This same female has been at the Water Ranch since at least October, and was actually the first of the species I ever saw. I continued around the southern bend in Pond 5 and was greeted by the unmistakable trilling of a Belted Kingfisher. He was as skittish as ever, but looked marvelous out in the sun. Magnificent bird.

I continued to peruse the grassy areas and shoreline scrub in search of the Lawrence's goldfinches, and was surprised to find not even a single Lesser Goldfinch, usually a guaranteed sighting at the Ranch. At least the herons were out in force. The Black-Crowned Night herons were in exactly the same place where I saw them a over a month ago. It is entirely possible they haven't even left the tree since then.

There were some Snowy Egrets in the trees as well as a Great Blue Heron. I like the protruding feathers here and the dexterous position of the Snowy's feet on the branches.

There are usually some warblers to be found in this swampy corner too, and I was hoping for the Common Yellowthroat I saw last time. Unfortunately this Yellow-Rumped was the only Warbler on duty, but even with them being a dime-a-dozen in the winter, they're still always a pleasure to see.

Slightly more muted was this sulking Brewer's Sparrow. If he was hoping someone would come and perch with him, he certainly didn't pick the most comfortable spot.

There were lots of Brewer's Sparrows along with a few Lincoln's and tons of White-Crowned foraging in the tall grass along Pond 5, and it was here that I began to vigilant wait for the Lawrence's Goldfinches. Since tomorrow is Wednesday with Audubon, I'll have to wait until later in the week to share that adventure. 

It was great birding at the Ranch, as always, and a very nice cap to the long weekend.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Recharging the Birding Fun at the Glendale Recharge Ponds

I don't know what it is this winter, but the clouds seem determined to congregate only on the weekends.  It was a fairly mild Saturday morning birding in Tempe, so today I decided to check out the Glendale Recharge ponds on the west side of town despite the weather. The Glendale ponds are operated by the SRP electric/water company and have varying water levels throughout the year. Their wider diameter and relative seclusion from the city noise makes them an ideal location for wintering waterfowl, including Goldeneye and Buffleheads, two ducks I've yet to see.

The recharge ponds are sandwiched in the no-man's land between the Glendale municipal airport and the new NFL stadium. There's a lot of big and important air traffic going in and out of Glendale, lots of messages to send...

Alas, this was the only Cardinal that I saw today.

When I arrived, I was a bit discouraged to see that the water levels were in fact very, very low. This meant I wouldn't be seeing many ducks, but it was also a boon in that I could now traverse much closer to where the birds were feeding out in the muck. With high water, you obviously have to keep to the banks, which reduces one to scope/binocular views only. Although it was very overcast, I probably would not have gotten good pictures with high water levels and good sunlight either, since everything would've been so far away. Given that the cloudy skies seemed to really encourage the birds, I was happy enough with the circumstances. But be forewarned, dear reader, this will be a very brown and muddy post.

There are about 6 ponds in total, and although they were all similarly drained, there was still an abundance of waders, peeps, and shorebirds out in the gunk.
The first bird of the day was a Greater Yellowlegs, and he was spending his Sunday savoring the last puddles of swamp. Although he was alone, there were maybe 16 Yellowlegs seen in total, and for the most part they were the largest waders around the ponds.

The Least Sandpipers were definitely the most numerous. I stopped counting after I passed 150; they were all over the place. I'm not sure if this little guy was looking for food or just admiring his reflection. It made me think though, how curious it must be to see one's reflection every time one goes to take a bite of food, to have to peck through one's own countenance for every tasty morsel.

At the opposite end of the size spectrum, there were probably a dozen Great Blue Herons perched on fences and in the trees around the complex. I didn't see a single one down in the ponds, probably because the lack of water meant there was a lack of fish.

With the water levels being so low and the ponds so wide, I decided to start cutting straight through instead of walking around the basins. The idea was both to save on time and to get some better looks at whatever was in the middle of the ponds, where the little bit of water still remained. This plan also had the advantage of keeping what little sunlight there was concentrated behind me, though it had the disadvantage of covering my shoes in smelly mud. It worked out pretty well, and I was able to add two more birds to my Life List that I would have likely otherwise missed.

That is not to say I came away with dynamite photos or anything. Believe it or not, there are 5 Horned Larks hanging out in there, and believe it or not they were quite beautiful. I had been expecting to see some Horned Larks this winter, but was not really expecting to find them in the middle of a drying lake bed, so even despite their skittishness it was a very pleasant surprise. It seems like a new bird sighting and good photos seldom go hand-in-hand anyway, so there were no hard feeling as the Larks kept their distance.

There were a lot of American Pipits running around the pond interiors as well, and they too were a new bird for me. Though they stayed in constant motion, they were more self-confident than the nearby Larks and Sandpipers. Pipits seem kind of unremarkable, like a cross between a Song Sparrow and a Yellow-Rumped Warbler instead of being a clear and unique species. Their tendency to flick and wag their tails, and their longer thumb/rear toe sets them apart.

Even though I wasn't anticipating any Pipits, they're pretty common in the right habitats, and they gave me frequent sightings throughout the morning. As with many of those little brown birds, there's still a lot to appreciate in their muted plumage.

While I was ambling around the northern-most ponds, a single Sandhill Crane flew overhead. At least, that's what I thought it was. The long legs hung out behind the lanky bird and it had a much stubbier beak than a Great Blue Heron. I couldn't make out any color on the bird though, and I still don't feel confident enough to write it down. As I set out in pursuit of the possible Crane, hoping it'd settle in the nearby farmland for some grazing (it didn't), I almost stepped on this Rock Wren.

He flew away and then stood very erect and very indignantly with his back towards me, letting me know that we were no longer friends.

At this point I had surveyed most of the ponds and the nearby farmland, which was inhabited entirely by Blackbirds and Mourning Doves. Perhaps the largest overall attraction of the day was the selection of Raptors that were hanging out on the outskirts of area. In addition to the basins, there's an adjoining (and unfortunately off-limits) flood/overflow-zone with a small stream and lots of higher trees and shrubs that were very popular with the bigger birds.

I followed this riparian area south while heading back to the car, and that last 30 minutes of birding yielded 6 Red-Tailed Hawks, 2 Cooper's Hawks, 1 Sharp-Shinned, 2 Osprey, and 1 Loggerhead Shrike.There were also abundances of Chipping Sparrows, Song Sparrows, Yellow-Rumped Warblers, Abert's Towhees, House Finches, and Gnatcatchers along the stream, and I could hear Kingfishers calling even though they stayed out of sight.

The last bird of the day was this smaller raptor (maybe 14 inches), who was perched on the telephone pole where I had parked. She took off right as I raised the camera and the resulting photo is just blurry and dark enough to end the day with a question mark. My original guess was a juvenile Sharp-Shinned Hawk, but I think it may actually be a Merlin.

The cloudy weather is supposed to hold through midday tomorrow--when I was planning on exploring the Gilbert Water Ranch for some rumored Lawrence's Goldfinches. Let's hope those clouds have a bust up and decide to part ways!