Monday, April 30, 2012

Short-Billed or just Short-Changed?

I recently photographed a small group of feeding Dowitcher. As always, I was on the look-out for a Short-Billed, having never conclusively found one before. One of the birds stood out from the pack this time. It seemed lighter and smaller than the other Dowitchers. Of course, none of those things in themselves prove it's a Short-Billed, but if anyone can venture a guess from these grainy photos I'd appreciate it.

I'm not getting my hopes up, but you never know...

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Thrushed with Orioles and Orioled with Thrushes

While out birding at the Botanical Gardens on Friday I had the pleasure of adding some new birds to my Garden list. Chief among them was a group of four Hermit Warblers foraging underneath a very large mesquite tree. 

Hermit is a good name for this skulking Thrush. Hermit Thrushes have a very pleasant, somewhat melancholy song and prefer to feed in the leaf litter underneath thick shady trees. They're soft, spotted, and polite, yet also fairly inquisitive within their small domains. I don't see them that often in Arizona, and their preference for shade can make them tricky to photograph. 
This first shot summarizes the bird well, at least in my experiences--close to the light but never fully illuminated. 

Like finches and sparrows, Thrushes have something very appealing in their simple yet unique and intricate plumage.

Here is the diagnostic rufus tail, the surest way to tell the Hermit Thrush apart from other, similar looking Thrushes.

They're compact and have good posture. They inhabit a small niche, but it's always a pleasure to enter into their world.

The Botanical Gardens were very crowded on Saturday, and it was hard to find any corner of the site with a little bit of quite and privacy. For the first hour or two I saw little of note. I was convinced there was someplace within the grounds where the birds might have retreated, some place where they were concentrated while trying to avoid all of the traffic. I don't know if there was anything to that theory, but I found a path of mesquite and palo verde trees near the herb garden tucked away from most of the other visitors, and sure enough there I found some new birds for my Garden list.

It was a near-overload of yellow and orange as a pair of Bullock's Orioles gleaned the palo verde blooms. It's safe to say that all Orioles are mouth-watering birds, and the Bullock's is a pretty classy specimen.

I've only had a few opportunities to photograph Orioles, and this was the first successful attempt, since this Oriole was thoughtful enough to do some quick preening out in the light. He gave me a great look at his diagnostic white wing pattern.

Not wanting me to have too much of a good thing, he quickly departed. Beautiful bird.

There were some small birds doing small bird stuff in a nearby mesquite tree. Upon closer inspection, most of them turned out to be Gnatcatchers and Brewer's Sparrows. My old photographic nemesis, the Wilson's Warbler, also made a quick appearance. This was my first time seeing one at the DBG, and I came very close to finally defeating this ornery yellow bird.

I even got most of the bird in focus, but of course OF COURSE there's a nice patch of shade obscuring the face. Ah well. Summer is just beginning and we'll meet again...mwuahahahaha.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Beautiful Birds, Clever and Clunky

Birds display all kinds of fascinating behaviors. Whether it's a Hummingbird trying to attract a mate or a Reddish Egret hunting in the shallows, birds seldom move without purpose, and never cease to intrigue with their antics.

When it comes to defensive parenting, Killdeer set the bar for behavior. When predators are near a Killdeer nest, the parents will often feign injury and try to draw them away. This clever bit of guile does not work on humans so well, but luckily we're seldom looking to eat Killdeer eggs. 

While I was observing some White Pelicans at Tres Rios, this Killdeer flew down and landed next to me, eager to draw my attention to its apparent vulnerability (never mind that I just watched it fly in next to me). 

I couldn't help but smirk. It was a very precious moment, and very endearing to observe, but maybe this was a first-year parent because the performance was not all that convincing. 

When the Killdeer wants to get a predators attention away from their nest area, they'll lay low to the ground and spread out their wings and/or tail, appearing to have a broken bone:

Once the predator takes the bait and moves toward the adult, the Killdeer will magically recover just enough to run a few more feet away, while still appearing injured. Ah, the bird has moved but it's still vulnerable, and so the predator follows after it, and the Killdeer repeats its deceptive pattern. It flies a bit and then lies back down again, looking hurt and weak and oh so delicious. Soon, the predator forgets all about those tasty eggs (hopefully) while pursuing the stricken bird. Eventually the Killdeer takes to wing again and leaves the predator feeling glum, knowing it was played for a sap. 

When the danger has been drawn sufficiently away from the nest or young...exit stage right for the Killdeer. Hopefully the predator doesn't remember his original plan.

Maria mentioned that this Killdeer with its fanned tail reminded her of a matador luring on the bull, goading it and using the bull's own instincts against it. I think that fits pretty well.

I must admit, Killdeer calls grate on my ears, but they're still handsome birds and are fairly clever. Alas, the same cannot be said for these White-Winged Doves that descend on the Phoenix area as the temperatures start to rise.

Like Mourning Doves, these White-Wings seem to have a look of unintelligence about them. Of course, the Killdeer teaches us that looks can be deceiving, but with these bullish Doves, there's not much sophistication in their behavior. Though common, they're nice to look at, and I like to see them mixing it up with the Mourning Doves. All the same, they're unsettlingly dumb. I've had to divert lawn mowers around the thoughtless birds as they sit in the yard. Once, I saw a pair mating in the middle of a 4-lane road. I guess I can't critique their methods too much though. After all, it's a successful species.

I took advantage of this Dove's characteristic space-out to snap some close-up photos at the DBG.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Sudden, Solar-Induced Lassitude!!

This cool looking dude is a Desert Spiny Lizard, so named because he lives in the desert and is spiny. Like all other reptiles, this modest dragon is cold-blodded, so he feels at his best when the sun is shining and his body is heating up!

I guess we all feel that way, to an extent. However, I must insert a strong caveat. I do not feel like that when it hits 104 °F and we're only half-way through April. Granted, it'll get much hotter in Phoenix as summer gets underway. Oddly enough, the 118 °F temps of August are more bearable, because they're expected. 
It is not often that I am compared to an Avocet, or that I make the comparison myself (though now that you mention it, we are both rather gangly...), but usually when I get out and birding, I start romping around and feel like a million bucks, much like this guy: 

However, when it hits triple digit temperatures in mid April, it can really dampen one's spirit (how that's for irony?). When that happens, I feel more like this guy, baked and bewildered:

All that complaining aside, I still enjoyed some nice birding this past weekend, even if my neck is now more crimson than the Red-Necked Phalarope so recently seen at the Glendale Recharge Ponds. The little pretty bird had taken the scorching heat as his cue to move on. Who took his place? Everybody's favorite Turkey of course!

"Hey guys, what's goin' on?"

For some reason, there were vultures everywhere. I counted 18 circling in the sky, and they were also feeling free to come in and land somewhat nearby, which in my experience is less common than one might expect. Vultures are well known for urinating on their legs. It serves the dual purpose of keeping them cool and killing bacteria. To answer your question, no, no I didn't try it myself.

These odiferous undertakers were not the only bird on display. There were some nice Cinnamon Teal out on the ponds as well as one Western Grebe and three Eared Grebes in full regalia. There were small groups of Dowitchers trying to find shade along the banks, and a few Cliff Swallows flying their erratic rounds with the usual vivacity, as if they were solar powered.

One of the upsides to the extreme brightness is you can get plenty of shutter speed. Of course, aiming and focussing quickly are still areas wherein my human error can exert itself : )
There goes a Long-Billed Dowitcher (someone please tell me if it might be Short-Billed), searching for a more private shady spot. 

This Cliff Swallow photo was actually taken near Tempe Town Lake, but the setting looks nearly the same and the picture is nothing special, so I'll shove it in here. I feel like in-flight Swallow photography must be the apex of photographic skill. This is perhaps the first time I've gotten a Swallow in frame and been able to tell its species. Progress!

There were Black-Necked Stilts and American Avocets doing their thing in the mudflats too. This particular Avocet seemed to be so proud of his breeding plumage that he'd show it off to anyone who cared to look. We can all relate.

He waded over near a Black-Necked Stilt, eager to showboat his rusty neck and remind the black and white Stilt that television and photography have been in color for years and years now, that the Stilt was behind the times.

He was looking pretty good, but the other birds didn't seem to be giving him due recognition. Soon, he decided he was too cool for that pool, and he moved on to a more suave watering hole. Can't blame him there.  

After seeing off the Avocet, I called it an early day and went to find a potable watering hole of my own. 

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Picking a Spot and Getting the Shot

I fit a pleasant hour of birding in at the DBG after work on Wednesday. The wildflower garden there is bursting with color, and as such is one of the few places where there is still substantial bird activity, even when it's 94 degrees outside.

Overbearing sunlight and a bit of laziness compelled me to just pick a spot and plop down for my time at the DBG. It worked out pretty well though. The birds soon felt comfortable and were pretty close. There was a lot of stuff in the way, but I had obscured views of Green-Tailed Towhees, Gilded Flickers, and a lovely MacGillivray's Warbler. I also had some nice, clear views of many birds, and the added bonus of pleasing scener made it a very nice session of photography.

This Curve-Billed Thrasher was foraging underneath an ironwood tree (my beloved source of shade). The dry, yellow leaf littler all around reminds me of cornflakes...wouldn't he love to be standing on a big pile of those!

I've often thought that Cruve-Billed Thrasher beaks are superfluously insidious-looking. They're very functional, of course, and help the birds dig into top soil and pry under the leaf littler in search of food. But lots of other birds accomplish this too, and without looking so dangerous. I bet the Thrashers are hiding something, like they are, in fact, raptors in disguise.

The Gardens are still buzzing (quite literally) with Hummingbird activity. There are Anna's Hummingbirds at all different stages of molt and maturity, constantly bickering and chasing each other away from the flowers, never having enough time to actually enjoy the prize themselves.

This young male was a bit more subdued. He had a nice shady perch and was content to let the other hummers fight to the death, perhaps planning to claim the whole Gardens as his domain once the competition had eliminated itself. Whatever his plan, part of it seemed to entail sitting right next to me. I actually had to zoom out to fit him in the frame. How often does someone get to say that about a hummingbird? I would've liked a tiny bit more light, but I was still  very pleased.

The Thrasher was on the ground, and the Anna's sat near the top of the shrubs. This female Phainopepla seemed to like life right in the middle. She was often obscured from view, and didn't seem to be too comfortable squirming in between the brush. I suspect she had a nest nearby, but I could not find it.

She lowered her crest and she is about to take flight--always good to maximize aerodynamics.

I returned to the same spot in the Gardens on Friday evening, this time with Maria and my family, as we all set out to enjoy the blooming gardens in the cooler evening temperatures. We toured the whole facility, and also made a specific stop in the same place, and again I was rewarded with some nice photographic settings. The sun was on the wrong-side of this House Finch, but his red body surrounded by yellow palo verde blooms still made for a nice composition:

He made it look pretty good. I wish I could eat flowers.

This grumpy Curve-Billed thrasher was one of the few birds tolerating the direct sunlight. He seemed to be guarding this net-covered yucca plant, and was determined that it remain concealed until its grand unveiling, whenever that may be.

But even the most stalwart sentries still need to blink, and this Thrasher was no exception. In this photo, the nictitating membrane is still visible, as only half of the eye is fully exposed.

It's nice to just sit and bird in one spot. I'm often too impatient and end up roving all over a site. I know I probably see less birds that way, and definitely get less photos, but it has the psychological bonus of making me feel like I'm doing something, like the number of birds I may see is actively within my control, even if that's not the case. Nonetheless, every time I just pick a place and wait, it's just as rewarding.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Trek Rios

I've been thinking lately that it would be fun for someone do to a birding blog from the perspective of an other-worldly observer, you know, like the Star Trek people. So, with little forethought and even less qualification, here's my one-time attempt. Try to imagine this being dictated in William Shatner's inimitable voice. If it seems to work well, maybe this sort of transcript can be presented as podcasts later on, once I figure out what a podcast is.

Stardate: 04/16/2012

It was a harsh and unforgiving heat. The cruel sun sat high in the sky, baking and desiccating its poor subjects. I disembarked at the Tres Rios biological observation area, hoping to make a quick survey of the avifauna without any local, homo sapien confrontation. Alas, this was not to be. At the beginning of the trail I was forced to remonstrate with two adolescent earthlings who were engaging in a ritual display of manly grit as they drove their all-terrain vehicles in a continually circular fashion. I persuaded them to relocate so they did not taint my species sampling. They were begrudgingly obliging.

The Tres Rios Wetlands combine several different microcosms of common earth habitats, principally riparians swamp and semi-arid woodlands. In one of the first large cottonwood trees there is a noisy conglomerate of roosting Great Blue Herons. I asked them to take me to their leader, but they all flew in different, even opposite directions. Realizing this obvious ruse, I instead continued westward, into the interior of the site.

In these Heron colonies, the young intermingle with the old, learning their wisdom and hearing repeated stories about the "good ol' days."

Although the Heron colonies have a lethargic feeling to them in the afternoon, there are always vigilant sentries on the lookout. With its coiled, powerful neck and spear-like beak, the Great Blue Heron is an elegant killing machine.

Though they boast an impressive wing-span, the Herons are terrestrial predators. Similarly, the large Black Vultures, often seen gliding overhead, must also come to the ground to feed. I cannot help suspecting that as it carelessly sailed above, doing its best to seem nonchalant, this vulture was in fact waiting for me to show a sign of weakness. With its effortless flight and bacteria-proof, calloused head, the Black Vulture is an elegant killing machine.

After the initial, wide entrance area to Tres Rios, the dirt path narrows and follows right along the waterfront. There are many different species to be found in the reeds, and other birds feeding in the shallows.

Along with Snowy Egrets and Green Herons, I was able to spot a few Solitary Sandpipers in the muddy perimeter. These birds do not rank that highly on the inter-galactic beauty scales, but they're not overly common in the area, and they are also elegant killing machines.

There were a few Dowitchers around too, feeding with the motion and speed of a sewing-machine (the kind which I use on my velour uniforms). I tried very hard to turn this into a Short-Billed Dowitcher, but I never could see much of the bill, and have resigned myself to the reality that, despite my many lightyears of travel, all I have yet come away with from my time on earth is the Long-Billed. Long or Short-Billed, they both appear to be elegant killing machines.

As the Tres Rios water-flow widens and deepens, the shorebirds desist and are replaced by flotillas of waterfowl, including Teal, Ruddy Ducks, and American Coots. The Ruddy Ducks and Blue-Winged Teals both have some nice blue accentuations in their coloration. I cannot confirm, but my professional suspicion is that they use these bits of blue to distract their prey before attacking in a manner most befitting elegant killing machines.

With danger lurking around every corner, my phaser was never far from reach. The beautiful but deadly birds were not the only threat. While chasing after a mysterious flycatcher, I came upon a large beehive. These flower-loving insects form massive groups controlled by some sort of whimsical hive-mind. They might well have conquered the earth by now if the individuals did not have such short lifespans, and if their only means of self defense or offense were not also fatal. Though their nectar is sweet, these Bees are not elegant killing machines.

Atop the bee tree there rested this debonaire Western Kingbird. Handsome, cocky, reminded me of myself as a young lad. As the bird's name, posture, and exuding confidence all indicate, it is an apex predator of insects, a truly elegant killing machine.

But my sightings were not limited to just the large and powerful birds in the Tres Rios area. True enough, I did see White Pelicans, Harris' Hawks, and a Bald Eagle at different points, but the small and dainty birds, the Sparrows, if you will, provided equal intrigue. 

This Song Sparrow was chief among the gregarious little birds. After flitting about in the dry reeds, it put on a display of cuteness for which I was not properly prepared. Just as I started to let my guard down, I realized it was a trap. While this lead Sparrow distracted me, its hunting partners had moved in to attack from the sides, ready to slash me into velour ribbons with their elegant, killing-machine claws.

From the sound of the Song Sparrows and the Red-Winged Blackbirds nearby, I knew I was surrounded. I hit the panic button and was quickly beamed aboard to safety. Although it was a narrow escape, I shall return soon to continue my ornithological survey of the planet called Earth.

Transmission Over,
Butler Out

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

3 Kinds of Blackbirds Baked in a Pie

Nah, not really. I suspect that pie would be gross. Anyhow, while out exploring the west Phoenix farmland I came across a little area where three of the five North American Blackbirds were living it up in the evening light. I really enjoy seeing family/groups all together (that doesn't just go for birds). Alas, there was no Rusty Blackbird around, and the Tri-Coloreds never seem to stray from the California coast. Even so, three Blackbirds is a good number of Blackbirds, especially when they're so pretty.

Here, listen to the Beatle's Blackbird song too. It seems only appropriate.

First up was the Red-Winged Blackbird, harbinger of spring and soon-to-be relentless loud-mouth of riparian lands all across America. This stud was calling from some marshy plants near a dairy farm where one can also find lots of Yellow-Headed Blackbirds.

The Yellow-Headed BBs can be consistently found at the farm, but their exact location is contingent on which section of cows are being fed. Unfortunately, this schedule often places them on the wrong side of the sun in the evening. Oh, the injustices with which we must put up as birders...

There were also some small flocks of Brewer's Blackbirds in the area. I really like these birds, but they're unlucky in having such attractive cousins. Though beautiful in their own right, they're the relatively ugly ones of the bunch.

The male Blackbirds all have stunning visual appeal, but it was this rather drab female, eager for some attention too, who gave me the best view. I really like the symmetrical feather detail that came out in her portrait. Durable, warm, beautiful...though they look as thin as tissue paper, these feathers will carry the Blackbird hundreds and hundreds of miles.

Here, just to round things off, is the Rusty Blackbird seen in Anthem (N. Phoenix) autumn of 2011.

Only one more Blackbird to go. Hopefully I'll get a chance to try for the Tri-Colored soon.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Room for Two?

This week is AIMS week, the week in which my students take lots of standardized tests to tell us and them how they compare to other students and schools across the state and country. These tests are woefully inadequate and fraught with analytical problems, but I'm still not complaining because this means I have very little work to do this week in terms of lesson preparation. That dull anecdote was necessary only to say: I had some time to go birding Sunday afternoon.

I decided to try for a rare double-whammy, first stopping by the Glendale recharge ponds to chase a few unusual birds before quickly heading south to the Tres Rios site. The recharge ponds were a total flop last week, but in the twenty minutes I spent circumventing and surveying the first basin, they more than made up for their previous vacancies. The miniature lake was mostly populated with Black-Necked Stilts and Mallards, while Least Sandpipers lined the shoreline. Amidst these larger and darker birds, it was pretty easy to pick out the Red-Necked Phalarope and Bonaparte's Gull.

While scanning the wide, reflective water basin, the Gull was the first unusual sighting. As is always the case at the GRP, the bird was very far out on the water. Not too far away from the Gull there floated a much smaller bird with just a hint of red on the neck. 

Even at a distance, seeing a new bird is always greatly satisfying, and in this case it was a pretty rare bird too! It wasn't the soul-satisfying view that comes from a close encounter, but I'll take it! The Phalarope seemed to be buddies with this Black-Necked Stilt. It is also possible that the Phalarope was just using the taller bird as a mobile shade.

The Bonaparte's Gull took off pretty soon and, for once, I got my best look of the bird while it was passing overhead. There was a Franklin's Gull also reported in the area, but this bird seems much too light on the wings and there was no discernible red on the beak.

Two new birds is not bad for the first stop on a two-part birding adventure!