Friday, March 30, 2012

Oh Say's Can You See

I fit in (fitted in?) just a pinch of evening birding on Thursday, hoping to see some first of the season Nighthawks. No luck there, but I did get some great views of the perennially visible and beautiful Say's Phoebe. There were actually a pair of the Phoebes, and they were feeling a bit frisky in the dusky light (no photos there out of respect for their private business). The female preferred to stay low to the ground where she was surprisingly well camouflaged among the granitic rocks. This is an aspect of the Phoebe's plumage that had never occurred to me before. Contrarily, the male perched proud and tall atop this creosote bush, surveying his domain and devouring anything with more than four legs.

I've gushed about my affection for evening light before. It does make flight shots (a fun enterprise with flycatchers) very difficult, but also adds a warm soft glow to the photos, a glow that I find to be a very welcome relief from the white-washing Arizona sun.

If I may Say's so, this cinnamon species is the loveliest of Phoebes.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Stately Birds of State

I'm ashamed to say that I've run out of new material for the rest of this week. As such, I'm repurposing an old post I did for Birding Is Fun on state birds. 

Birders have an odd, or at least an unusual habit. They spend their time and money chasing and watching and listening to various flying things, often with little to show for their efforts beyond a fond memory and a check on a list. Given the semi-eccentric status with which birders are often regarded, it is also a bit odd and fun that, by 1973, every state in the union had chosen an official state bird.

State birds were selected for a myriad of reasons. Some birds were chosen because they were beautiful. Others were chosen because they're mostly unique or exclusive of one particular state, and are therefore more iconic. Many state birds are just common and pleasing sights in their respective states, which may in part be why the Northern Cardinal and Northern Mockingbird represent 12 states between them.

Some birds possess historical associations, while others have an economic importance. At first glance, it may seem unusual that the California Gull is the state bird of Utah, but to the Mormon settlers it was an invaluable ally against the grain-devouring locust swarms in the Salt Lake area. With its red, black, and yellow feathers, the Yellow Shafted Flicker sported the same colors as Alabama's militia and Civil War regiments. The Ring-Necked Pheasant of South Dakota is not even native to North America, but it brings in substantial revenue with the hunting market every year, and is a recognizable part of the rugged Dakota plains culture. 

Pick your poison 
In many cases, the state bird was debated and agreed upon by a state's legislature, and at times even decided by a gubernatorial pronouncement. For some states, there was little debate as to the appropriate mascot. Louisiana already had a pelican on their flag and state seal, and even though the emblem looks more white than brown, the Brown Pelican was installed as the state bird by unanimous decision. It took much more debate to enact the Bluebird as New York's state bird, with representatives of urban constituents lobbying hard for various species of Sparrows and even the Rock Pigeon, on the basis that those birds would be more recognizable to the majority of New Yorkers.

The Cactus Wren was elected Arizona's state bird by unanimous decision on March 16th, 1931. I've always found it to be an interesting decision, given that Arizona hosts so many unique species that are not found elsewhere in North America. There are the magnificent tropical species that make their into the southeast corner of the state, and there are also the common desert dwellers like the Gila Woodpecker, which is seldom found outside of Arizona. And yet, it was the somewhat drab and abrasive-souding Cactus Wren that won high office. 

The Cactus Wren is the largest wren in North America, and it is probably the loudest. This curious and courageous bird can be found almost anywhere in southern Arizona, New Mexico, California, and Texas, though it seldom strays into elevations above 4,000 feet. Unlike the other wrens, which also tend to be less gregarious, the Cactus Wren feels very comfortable both out in the open and near people. The fact that it is fairly common and conspicuous were likely the determining factors in its election as a state representative. 

It is also unique among the wrens in that it keeps its tail pointing downward, using it to help balance as it scurries along tree branches and under shrubs in search of food.

As one might expect, they also make ready meals out of the prickly pear and other cactus fruit that abound in their desert scrub habitat.

Cactus Wrens mate for life and are prolific nest builders. The male will often build 6 or 7 nests, mostly to serve as decoys and larders, before the female picks her favorite and lays her eggs. They like to nest in the cholla cactus and yucca plants around the Desert Botanical Gardens in Phoenix, and will use all kinds of materials in their homemaking.

I'm not sure how well the Cactus Wren's strengths and virtues embody those of the average Arizonan. We don't tend to be too loud or exceptionally large for our species. Then again, Arizona did have a booming housing market, and we do tend to keep our tails pointed downwards, so maybe there is something to it after all.

Birding is fun, and it's interesting to explore all of the different ways that birds impact and express aspects of our culture, even in ways we might not expect. What are some other fun state birds and their connections to the states? How do these birds affect you? Is yours a good representative, or would you nominate another this election year, if possible?

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Nemesis No More!

Finally, after some years of working and waiting and searching and swearing (not too badly), I have seen the Yellow-Headed Blackbird. This bird was a true nemesis for Pops, and its elusiveness grew to bother me more and more as well. Always taunting were the descriptions in the bird books, "locally common." Wherever their locales were, we could not find them. I finally struck gold, so to speak, at the Tres Rios Overflow Wetlands in west Phoenix. The lush and buggy swampland there was too much for even the most aloof Blackbirds to ignore, and I saw several dozen of these beautiful hooded squawkers through a thick chain-link fence. They had finally let their guard down, gotten careless, and given me a sighting. It was fantastic, but not fully satisfying either. Having to view beautiful birds through fences's not really the right birding ethos, even if they were wild.

Fortunately, I hit the real jackpot on the drive home. I had arrived at Tres Rios in the afternoon. While driving back through the odiferous dairy farms, a spectacle of startling proportions prompted me to pull over:

As they are known to do, these Blackbirds were congregating around the dairy farms and adjacent land en masse. I had checked these farms before, but it must've been the wrong time of year. With little regard for the dim lighting, smelly surroundings, or private property of the farms, I exited my vehicle and began romping around after the massive Blackbird flocks as they bounced from field to field.

Trying to keep up with the flying birds, especially with limited sunlight, was a lost cause. There were plenty of the birds hanging around the cattle though, happy to pick through the bovine left-overs and jostle for places along the fence.

Phew! It was great to make up for lost time. I will definitely have to go back and make up for lost light too. I watched them graze with their cud-chewing chums for a little while. Some of the birds would stop their foraging and offer up a little song of thanks for their bountiful slop. At least, I'm assuming that's what they were doing, because I couldn't spot a single female in this macho throng (granted, that's easier said than done).

A yellow hood, black body, and a white shoulder patch makes this one of the easiest identifications. I'm not sure what it was they were eating with the cows. It appears to be brown sugar. It's probably brown sugar.

I felt a little bit like Indigo Montoya from The Princess Bride: "I've been in the revenge business so that it's over, I do not know what to do with the rest of my life." Unlike Montoya, I would not make a good Dread Pirate Roberts. In fact, I get motion sick just from reading in the car. Even though I found this nemesis, I shall continue to be a birder...for now.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Tres Rios Flow-Regulating Wetlands

The Salt, Gila, and Aqua Fria Rivers come together and form a fantastic birding habitat at the Tres Rios Wetlands in west Phoenix. This teeming riparian habitat is off-limits to the public, but with the right connections, suaveness, stunning good-looks, and cash-filled envelopes, one might illicit a black-market pass to park and bird in the area. Since I possess none of those things, I called the AZ Game and Fish Department and asked for a permit, which they mailed the next day.

A fair portion of this area is actually off-limits to everybody, unfortunately this is where the vast majority of the birds congregate. But within the accessible birding area there is still plenty to see. In a couple hours of evening birding I recorded sixty species, and some of the Listserv pros have reportedly seen over ninety species within the two-mile loop.

From behind the heavy-duty fence I spied into the sequestered area and saw almost all of the migratory ducks on display, as well as Cormorants, Coots, Stilts, and a half-dozen White Pelicans (not exactly something one associates with Arizona). With their size and color, the Pelicans were perhaps the most conspicuous birds at the preserve, but with every step one took along the waterfront the small and drab Song Sparrows still made their presence known.

The waterways are bordered by thick brush and tall reeds, which provide shelter for the Sparrows along with Coots, Herons, Red-Winged Blackbirds. They also re-acquinated me with my two main photographic nemeses, the Wilson's Warbler and Common Yellowthroat. Needless to say, I took no decent photos of these cowardly critters, nothing new there.

One of the most notable sightings of the evening was my first Least Bittern. It called and took off before I had the camera ready, and I was similarly greeted by some American Bitterns a little later. This Bittern experience got me thinking that birders really need to invent a Bittern-inspired mixed drink. It'd have to have bitters in it, obviously, maybe mixed with some rye whiskey and Creme de Menthe? If some brave soul wants to give that a try and let me know how it works, I'd appreciate it.

White Crowned Sparrow: one of the few birds willing to stand its ground in the face of photography.
The White-Faced Ibis (which I think should just be called the Western Ibis) was another eminently cool bird on display. My sightings of this other-worldly wader have been few and far between, and they're usually along these lines:

I was lucky to have this individual land within camera range, but a bit unlucky to have some stray dogs scare it off a minute later. The dogs and I then had a growling contest and I, having a better, angrier motivation, won.

The footpath moves along with the water, and on the south side there is a nice margin of chaparral and occasional tree clumps. House Finches, Vesper Sparrows, Cardinals, and Yellow-Rumped Warblers constantly alight from shrub to shrub. There is constant movement, and neither the birds nor the lizards stay still and exposed for long. That's just as well. With Kestrels and Shrikes lurking nearby, it's better safe than sorry.

With so many species and habitats condensed into a small area, the Tres Rios refuge really is an incredible birding patch. My photos don't nearly do it justice, but my excuse is that I was just casing the joint here on this first visit. I'm hoping to follow up very soon, as this seems to be as much of an urban birding Mecca as the Gilbert Water Ranch in east Phoenix. It's great excitement to add another site to one's birding repetoire, a new land to explore.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Sole Food

My usual Saturday birding was cut short before I got any bird photos. Hopefully I can fit some compensatory birding in this week. In the mean time, here are a couple photos of a Round-Tailed Ground Squirrel chewing on its foot.

Feet are a good source of minerals and protein. The food pyramid recommends 3-5 servings of foot per day.

Some of the more gossipy Ground Squirrels are known for foot-in-mouth disease.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Time Tested Double Crested

This proudly plumed Cormorant was looking for some attention, or at least some other Cormorant attention (it didn't hang around me for very long). When one is a lonely Cormorant and is looking for companionship, the best and most time-tested method for finding a mate is to grow spindly white plumes on the back and sides of one's head.

This makes one look distinguished, wise, and spunky--the perfect candidate for a pater familias. It might be a widely believed fact that the European gentlemen of the late 1700s used the Double Crested Cormorant as an inspiration for their powdered wigs.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Getting Super Saturated on Evening Light

By and large, the best birding and photography is done in the morning. The birds are active, the lighting is good, there are less other people in the way, and one has the comfort of knowing that at least things will only get brighter. That all being said, I really enjoy birding in the evening. It's harder to get crisp, well exposed shots, and time is wholly against you, but there's just something about that evening feel that I find irreplaceable.

There was a strong breeze on this Cardinal as he basked in the evening glow. On Cardinals the orange lighting seems especially noticeable. All of their feathers seem to melt together into one regal red cloak.

At times the effect is almost too much. Here the feather definition near the face is mostly lost (granted some of that was my error), but I find the bright illumination to be very refreshing. Perhaps it's that the high and bright Arizona sun so often bleaches out colors. It's nice to have natural lighting bring a new color to the fore.

I photographed this Verdin last year, also at the Desert Botanical Garden. It was using the last minutes of daylight to fill up on lantana berries, and made for a wonderful color palette with the yellow face, green foliage, and cobalt blue berries.

This insectivorous female Red-Shafted Flicker was also feeding, though her antipasti (hehe get it?) was less photogenic. There's not much yellow or orange natural light here, but the overall dimness maintains that evening feel. The sun is below the horizon and finally things are cooling down.

As things start to heat up again in Phoenix, evening birding will have a more prominent role. With a little luck, evening birders will get see Nighthawks and Owls going out to feed, before heading in for some dinner of their own.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Sudden Sedona Syndrome

If you live in the Phoenix area, you'll get it eventually. Maybe it's the rush-hour traffic. Maybe it's the absurdly hot March afternoons. Maybe it's just driving past the same billboard one time too many. For one reason or another, you'll be struck with Sudden Sedona Syndrome, the overpowering desire to escape from the city and lose yourself up north in the mysterious red rocks.

Only an hour and a half away, Sedona is one of the most lauded day-trip destinations in the state, and for good reason. The scenery and hiking trails are among the most beautiful in the country. There is an abundance of wildlife and the crisp cold air stings your nose with a forgotten purity. No wonder then that extraterrestrials often make Sedona one of their favorite destinations, or so some of the locals believe.

Maria and I got our Sudden Sedona Syndrome this past Saturday (ok, we had actually been planning the trip a bit ahead of time). We enjoyed the lovely four mile hike into the Oak Creek west fork trail, seeing nearly two dozen bird species and soaking in the gorgeous red canyon. The steep, rocky walls and tall pine trees keep much of the canyon shaded throughout the day, and lingering snow can be found at points along the creek throughout much of the year. Birds like the American Robin and Dark-Eyed Juncos love to forage right along the melting line of snow, where they can dig into the moist earth.

In addition to Robins and Juncos, we also saw some lovely Nuthatches, Mountain Chickadees, Acorn Woodpeckers, and Steller's Jays. Adequate lighting for photography was a rare thing, but this was nice in a way as it forced me to pay more attention to those common birds that weren't afraid of the spotlight.  This pair of Robins flew tirelessly back and forth between the muddy creek bed and their nest, no doubt working within a tight timeframe.

Only the finest ingredients go into a Robin's nest...oh the things parents do for their young.
 Although the Robins stole the show, there was no shortage of side acts. It seemed like Oak Creek was swarming with chattery House Wrens all determined to bluff and bluster their neighbors into quiet submission.

With so many bossy House Wrens sounding off, this tiny Pacific Wren was quite content to keep silent.
It ran along its log and took delicate sips of water, trying to attract as little attention to itself as possible. With the Pacific Wren only recently being split from the Winter Wren, this was a new bird for me! We were fortunate to eventually hear it sing, which helped confirm the tricky identification.

The Brown Creeper is another shy denizen of the scrub oak forests. We saw several throughout our hike and they largely paid us no mind as they went about their business of gleaning insects off the tree trunks. It can be very easy to overlook these camouflaged creepers, but sit in any wooded, well watered area and they turn up pretty soon. They're the surreptitious spies of the forest, the sneaky sentries watching you from the woods...

Our little Sedona trip was a great escape from the city. Just as we were heading back to Phoenix the storm clouds moved in, dumping a foot of snow on the red plateaus and following us south to bring a little rain into the desert. There is no known cure for Sudden Sedona Syndrome, but a trip up to the big red rocks once or twice a year is enough to keep us city dwellers going, at least for a little while.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

I See A Redstart And I Want To Paint It Black

When I was an angst-y junior high student, Paint It Black by the Rolling Stones was one of my favorite songs. The song is still cool...I dunno if I can say the same for yours truly.

At any rate, the Painted Redstart was always one of my favorite warblers, even before I saw them in the wild. When I was very young and would skim through my dad's bird books, I always stopped and stared at the Painted Redstart for a while. Of course, I'd spend lots of time staring at the exotic hummingbirds and cool raptors too, but for some reason the Redstart caught my attention. Honestly, I'm not quite sure where the attraction came from. It's not the only striking black and red bird (Vermillion Flycatcher, Scarlet Tanager). I wouldn't argue it's the liveliest or even the most beautiful Warbler, although it is pretty stunning. I guess people just have different affinities for different birds. Sometimes they are easily explained, and sometimes not.

I saw my first ever Painted Redstart around age 12, and it was a truly amazing experience. I was exploring the creek bed around the Tonto Natural Bridge, an incredible landmark worth visiting if ever you get the chance. The creek is lined with large, porous boulders that have broken away from the igneous rock face, and many of the fist-sized holes in the rocks are covered over with moss, making homes for all kinds of bugs, frogs, and other nifty critters.

When I approached one particularly large and shaded boulder, I heard the worried calling of some small songbird. A pair of Redstarts flew into a nearby tree, and from out of one of the mossy holes came the responding chirps of 4 Redstart chicks. Without intending it, I had stumbled upon (not literally) a Redstart nest, and found myself only a couple feet away from a whole family of these beautiful birds.

I've only seen the Redstarts a few times since then, but I was fortunate to get some pretty close looks at this handsome individual while exploring Florida Canyon in southeast Arizona. They're still one of my favorite Warblers, one of the real spring/summer gems to be found in the American southwest.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Which Came First, The Kinglet or The Vireo?

But for its slightly larger size and duller whites, the Hutton's Vireo seems to resemble the Ruby Crowned Kinglet in every way. The Kinglet ranges over much of North America, including the western oak forests favored by the Hutton's Vireo, and it can be very easy to confuse the two. As is often the case with similar looking birds, the key distinguishing feature is the call.

The Kinglet has a series of short, wren-like chats. The Vireo has a higher pitched zu-weep.
I was lucky to have the two species inhabiting the same oak tree down at Madera canyon, where they were both calling and making for an easy comparison.

Meet Jabba, the Hutton's Vireo.  

Sunday, March 18, 2012

The Call Of The Wild no longer very strong in these Turkeys. Calling these Turkeys wild is probably too generous. This rafter of about a dozen birds maintains a permanent camp near the feeders at the Madera Canyon Lodge in southeast Arizona. Madera Canyon is a wonderful birding hotspot, and all of the lodges, hotels, and B&Bs in the area keep plenty of stocked feeders, catering (does that count as a pun?) to the birders as much as the birds.

The steady supply of food and the perpetual adoration must have been too much for these Turkeys. They now lounge near the feeders and have a Thanksgiving feast every day, doomed never to roam the rocky foothills of the Santa Rita Mountains again. Looking at them now, one might not guess that these birds are capable of running 65 miles per hour.

They do have pretty impressive plumage. I like the semi-indescernable pile of turkeys in the background too. It sums up their cushy lifestyle pretty well.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Thrasher Dasher: A Journey To West Phoenix

There is an infamous intersection out west of Phoenix. No, it's not some old ghost town or copper mine or the site of a wild western shoot out. Take Baseline Road from the I-10 interstate, and follow it down to the old Highway 85. When you've run into the Salome Highway intersection, a rather bleak 3-way stop occupied by only a single, shot-gunned stop sign, you'll be about 40 miles west of the city. Near this desolate intersection, out in the scrubby desert, skulking along the hot cracked dirt, is mankind's best hope of seeing Bendire's, Crissal, and Le Conte's Thrashers all in the same outing, or so the legend has it...
Truth be told this intersection is probably no better than any other little strip of desert along the Salome Highway, but this little patch is the easiest to pick out on a map, and it does tend to deliver.

I first visited the Thrasher spot in early January. Pops and I got fleeting looks at all of the big 3 Thrashers, along with Sage Sparrows. It was a great morning of birding but I didn't come away with any good photos. The Thrashers are very sensitive outside of the city and do not tolerate any sort of approach. After all, this is supposed to be their oasis, their stronghold from the flesh-eating Curve-Billed Thrashers that are all over Phoenix, but curiously absent out in the desert proper.

The Curve-Billed Thrasher is not a bird you want to encounter in an ally late at night.
I returned to the Thrasher spot, now intent on coming away with some better photos. Although the Sage Sparrows were gone, it was a beautiful morning of birding and I had great looks at both the Le Conte's and Bendire's Thrashers singing to the sky. That being said, they were as skittish as ever, and I'm still not satisfied with the photos. The lone exception was this stalwart Bendire's, who sang loud and hard from his tree top for a good five without faltering.

Note the stubbier and less curved mandibles on the Bendire's Thrasher, probably the best way to tell it apart from the Curve-Billed.

There was a couple from Wisconsin also searching for the Le Conte's Thrasher, and an hour later I ran into two more people searching for the very same chalky-white nemesis. It's funny how the Le Conte's seems to be the last Thrasher on so many peoples' lists. I had lucked out in seeing one Le Conte's earlier in the morning, and knew more or less where they could be found from my previous trip. It was with great pleasure and satisfaction then that I was able to guide both groups to a pair of Le Conte's, even if the birds were camera shy.

Not to get ahead of myself or speak too grandly, but with this being my first time ever leading a little birding trip in some capacity, it was fabulous fun! I'm looking forward to sharing and finding more of these opportunities as I better learn the Arizona species and spots.

This first shot of the elusive Le Conte's characterizes the bird's attitude pretty well. Perched atop his little deadwood atoll, this male hid his face behind his foot as we raised our binoculars.

It made me feel like I was a part of avian paparazzi.
As far as bird families go, the Thrashers all look relatively similar (Ha! pun point!). That being said, there's no mistaking the Le Conte's. It's a long, slender, eleven inch bird, and its chalky, grey/white wash is very unique, as is the dark amber eye.

With 4 people doing the new bird dance, the trip was well worth it. At times, it seems the Le Conte's can be a ghost in the desert. We were lucky to find the phantom and hear its haunting call before it vanished into the scrubby sands.  

Great Birding!

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Birds On Top Of Other Things

For some reason The Society for Putting Things on top of Other Things was always one of my favorite Monty Python sketches:

Often times when I see some songbird or raptor perched on top of a bush, tree, or telephone pole, I am reminded of the smug satisfaction in putting things on top of other things. My previous post was about birds in the shade. While shady birds can have their own charm, it's very nice when birds put themselves on top of other things, and thus put themselves in the open and out in the light.

This mighty Starling made it all the way to the top of a saguaro, the world's tallest free-standing cactus! Unfortunately these invasive birds are a common sight around Arizona, but that does nothing to detract from this Starling's satisfied bravado.

On the other hand, this Green Heron seemed quite unused to the idea of being on top of other things. I don't think he knew quit what to do next. Perhaps to him the whole thing "seemed a bit silly..."

The epitome of confidence, this Northern Mockingbird has no qualms at all about being on top of other things. This audacious bird clearly puts itself up on a pedestal, which is in part why they are so entertaining to watch.

Here's to putting things on top of other things! As far as bird photography goes, I only wish there could be more.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Shady Characters...

Part of the joy of birding is that birds come in all kinds of different sizes, colors, shapes, and shades. The avian kingdom seems to possess every color in the spectrum, and when you catch any bird in good light it can be absolutely resplendent!

Of course, the birds don't always make it easy. Many times they'll stay undercover or keep in the shade, frustrating the birder's desire for a glorious look. If you're photographing birds, shade and shadows can be even more problematic as they detract from the proper exposure and color of the subject. However, shade can also lend a certain calm, cool effect to a photo. It can provide a different appeal and perspective that can be very refreshing, especially if you find yourself photographing the same species over and over.

The Mourning Dove is one of the most recognizable birds in North America. Its call, its silhouette, its flight--they are all easy to pick out, and the bird's staggering numbers assure that even the most casual birder is more than familiar with these somber songsters.

This Dove is perched on an organ-pipe cactus, and the morning sun is filtering through the other cactus arms in warm streaks of light. The dark undersides of the ruffled feathers and the obscured face help describe the rough, dry, chilly mornings of the desert, or maybe that's just how I felt at the time...

This Green Heron is going for the two-face look, and truly his multi-colored plumage is always worth a double take. Like the dark side of the moon, the Green Heron's shaded half is something only a few humans in peak physical and mental condition ever get to see (and it is a well known fact that birders are the apotheosis of human conditioning). I totally dig the great red beard too. This guy would give any viking a run for his money.

The Ruby-Crowned Kinglet is small enough to shade itself under just a few leaves. The improvised parasols catch the sun and illuminate nicely, while just enough light gets through to reveal the strong wing bars and eye-ring of the Kinglet.

So bird in the shade. Bird in the sun. Whatever the lighting, birding is fun.