Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Uno, Dos, Tres Rios!

It's been a whirlwind of busy these last couple weeks. With school drawing to close and evaluations due, there's been little time to tend the bird blog, which is no fair at all. Being unable to post for a while, I now have a serious backlog of photos, all of which were taken at Tres Rios. I've cooed about the biodiversity at Tres Rios many times before, and as I've been reviewing these photos, it's really been driven home that, perhaps on par with the Gilbert Water Ranch, the Tres Rios wetlands are one of the best diverse birding spots in the Phoenix metropolitan area.

Tres Rios has the normal panoply of riparian birds. Green Herons, Blue Herons, Big Herons, Small Herons, Bittern Herons, Black-Crowned Herons, and even Big White Herons, which we here in Arizona call Great Egrets, can all be found along the Tres Rios marshes.

The Great Blue Herons are definitely the most numerous. They have roosting colonies set up all throughout the 3 mile Tres Rios stretch, and often stare down, condescendingly, upon the puny mortals walking below. In fact, sometimes they resemble the American Gothic painting with their stern and serious poses. 

The water works at Tres Rios are predictably flanked by cottonwood trees. These shady bastions are very welcome perches for other large birds and raptors that stay and endure the summer heat. This Red-Tailed Hawk would not endure my presence though, and took off immediately. To be fair, I've been told time and again that it's rude to stare. With birds, it's just so darn tempting...

Bald Eagles, Peregrine Falcons, Harris's Hawks, Kestrels, and Cooper's Hawks can all turn up in the canopies, and there are often surprises too. About three weeks ago I came across this pair of Great Horned Owl chicks. They were each sitting in separate cottonwoods, neither of which had a nest nearby. They didn't move while I was around, so they still trusted in their camouflage better than their flying skills. 

This second chick weirded me out a little bit. Look hard at his face. His beak looks more like a koala bear nose, and some of the feathers on his face form a creepy little smile. He looked like he was contemplating all the different and delicious ways he would capture and eat me when he gets a little bit bigger.

I feel like I left a little piece of my soul lying somewhere, out there in the wilderness where I looked into this evil owl's eyes. We take great risks as birders, greater than any lion-tamer or shark-wrestler or active volcano-bungee jumper that I've ever met.

This past Friday I returned to Tres Rios with Pops and we saw three different Great Horned Owls flying around. At first I thought one was a Short-Eared Owl, since it's tufts were very small and it wasn't big enough to be a full-sized Great Horned. Soon we realized that these smaller Owls were the fledglings, now spreading their wings and beginning to terrorize the terrestrial population.

Like any successful restaurant, bar, or birding site, Tres Rios has its regulars, and plenty of them. However, its reputation extends pretty far, and lots of other summer residents and migratory birds come in for a visit during the spring. The regular birds are a foundation for great birding, but the excitement of migrants and other unusual visitors really keeps the birders coming back.

Let me know if I'm off here, but I'm pretty sure this super yellow nine inch bird is a Brown-Crested Flycatcher. (*Editor's note* Apparently I was way off here, and this is, in fact, also a Dusky-Capped Flycatcher) When Maria and I arrived at this spot, his perch was first being used by a Dusky-capped Flycatcher. As soon as the Dusky-capped flew off this Brown-Crsted flew in, as if he had been waiting his turn for some time. He must've been disappointed, because he only stayed for a minute and then also departed. His spot was immediately taken by a Mourning Dove, and at that point we moved on.

This spring I've also seen Tropical Kingbirds, Western Kingbirds, Willow Flycatchers, Cordilleran, Pacific-Slope, and Western Wood Pewees. It's been great to have so many different Flycatchers around, and not just because they keep the insect populations under control.

Other summer residents include Lucy's Warblers, along with Bullock's and Hooded Orioles. It is one of the less discussed phenomena of the birding world that Lucy's Warblers have the ability to make their features blurry, much like Sasquatch. Unlike Sasquatch, they can still be diagnostically identified by the grey body and little plum spots on their head and rump.

Then there are birds like this Indigo Bunting. This was my first confirmed sighting of these magnificent birds, and it was quite a surprise. Lazuli Buntings are a fairly common site at the preserve. Like some of the warblers, they're mostly moving up north. I have no idea what this Indigo Bunting is planning. The bird books don't show them as migrating through or residing in much of Arizona, but that's not a lot to go on these days. The Cornell website shows them as summer residents, but I haven't seen them anywhere else in central Arizona nor heard any other reports--and this bird is a real head-turner. Whatever he decides to do, it doesn't matter to me. When you look this good, you do whatever you want.

Unusual birds like the Indigo Bunting still make for an easy identification, but Pops and I have had a few mystery sightings at Tres Rios too. The swampy scrub grass draws in a lot of the little brown jobs. Song Sparrows are always in concert, and Lark, Lincoln, Vesper, and Brewer's Sparrows often join the cacophony. Soon after seeing the owl fledglings on Friday, Pops and I heard the distinct song of a Cassin's Sparrow somewhere in the ruff. We couldn't get a clear visual, but there were a few other Sparrows around--not necessarily the ones singing--that weren't easily identifiable either.

Here is the ambiguous culprit of the Cassin's song. This is a rare, rufous-morph of Cassin's Sparrow, which is already an unusual bird to find in the Phoenix area. It's a drab bird but still a pretty exciting find.

I'm pretty set on the ID of this last bird. It's a Pygmy Ostrich yes?

To visit Tres Rios is to treat oneself to a bricolage of birds, a feathered frenzy, a glamourous gallimaufry, a singing smorgasbord, a musical mélange. I highly recommend it. 

Friday, May 25, 2012

Burrower's Row

The Phoenix Metropolitan area is a curious concoction. Phoenix itself is a large city, both in terms of area and population. Surrounding the state capital are ten more small cities: Mesa, Glendale, Scottsdale, Tempe, Avondale, Goodyear, Sun City, Gilbert, Surprise, and Peoria. Stretching out from these locales, neighborhoods and master-planned communities seem to stretch on in all directions. One of my favorite birding sites, the Tres Rios Wetlands, sits near the border between west Phoenix and Avondale. While driving to Tres Rios, you'll pass through the cookie-cutter houses of the master-planned communities, neighborhoods where the pursuit of maximized square-footage was once the highest good (priorities and fashions have since changed). You'll also pass through lots of open, odiferous farmland. If you turn and head west just before you reach the Tres Rios site, and follow a dirt road along the farmland canal, you'll find another little planned community. Between the northern borders of the Tres Rios preserve and Farmington Glen sits Burrower's Row.

There are no signs announcing that, "You have now entered Burrower's Row," but there are still markers, of sorts, so you know when you're in the right spot:

Despite the somewhat slovenly appearance of this particular Owl, the residents of Burrower's Row are a very strict bunch. There is always a sentinel at the eastern-most point of entry, perched high on the telephone lines and supervising the little town's security.

The houses (burrows) are arranged in neat rows along the farmland. At the moment, there appears to be no more than 2 Owls living in each Burrow, though there are at least 4 different pairs of Owls. They have a strict home-owner's association, and they keep their domiciles very tidy. It's a pretty homogenous group. Crime rates and taxes are all very low, but sometimes they react to outsiders with astonishment and suspicion, even from afar.

In the morning and during the day, the residents of Burrower's Row like to stay down in the fields, away from the elevated dirt road and its dusty heat. During the evening, the descending sun holds everything in a warm embrace, saying goodbye with its last rays of yellow light, and promising to rise again soon. The Owls like to perch along the frontage road during this time. They preen, gossip, and replay the day in their heads--much like the rest of us. It is best to visit Burrower's Row during these quiet, well-lit moments.

The owl shown below may well be the sheriff of Burrower's Row. While all the other Burrowers were enjoying the fading light, he seemed determined to maintain his stern and serious face. I would vote to re-elect this Owl for sheriff if it were up to me, but alas I wouldn't even qualify for citizenship in Burrower's Row (which is probably a good thing for all parties involved).

These next three pictures were taken by Maria, and the last one is my favorite. Burrowing Owls are very expressive and, as you have previously endured, I like to personify and fit captions to every Burrowing Owl photo I see.

:: :sniff: :: "Hmm, what's that smell?"

"Drat! I knew I stepped in something..."

For this third and last photo, I couldn't settle on a caption. I'd like to leave this last photo open to suggestions. Is the Owl solemnly swearing revenge? Is it doing some sort of fist pump celebration? Is it seeing if it's possible to walk with one's eyes closed? You tell me, and try to stop by and visit the wonderful residents of Burrower's Run some time soon.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

A Wash Before Lunch

This past Saturday my family and I decided to do some morning birding and a picnic lunch at Mesquite Wash, a great little birding spot just northeast of Phoenix. The Mesquite Wash is fed by Sycamore Creek, and while there wasn't a lot of water, there was enough to keep things green and cool.

Mesquite Wash is accessible between miles 207 and 208 off the AZ-87 (beeline) highway. There is a parking area to the west of the AZ-87, which didn't give me a great first impression. There was lots of dust and litter, but even as we pulled in we could hear birds singing from the nearby trees, and we caught glimpses of Western Tanagers and Yellow Warblers while still getting stuff out of the car!

From the parking lot, we made the short walk down towards the creek. Along the way we had good looks at some of the desert chaparral birds, including Black-Throated Sparrows, Lucy's Warblers, and Cardinals (which can also be found everywhere else).

Although it was a short walk to the stream, it was also pretty hot, and the discomfort was exacerbated by dust-stirring motorbikes passing nearby. The sound of trickling water was very welcome, and the sight of running water was a little piece of heaven.

The water at Mesquite Wash sustains the cottonwood and willow trees, which reflected their green off its glassy surface and shaded the bathing Lesser Goldfinches.

The birding was good and the environment was very enjoyable--everything was going according to plan. The big surprise came when we spotted this fatty Gila Monster slinking its way up from the water, trying to make a daring 0.024 mph escape back into the bordering grass.

This is the first Gila Monster I've seen in the wild. I must admit, the lizard's comical proportions and plodding pace largely offset its infamous reputation (it is one of only two venomous lizard species). It was very tempting to try and pet his bumpy hide, but getting bitten would've ruined our outing...prudence can be such a difficult thing.

After about half a mile the wash starts to narrow, and the desert canyons become more prominent. This provided a welcome diversity in habitat and birds. We were able to alternate between viewing Yellow Warblers, Warbling Vireos, Wilson's Warblers in the canopies and the Phainopeplas and Lucy's Warblers in the chaparral.

I will not apologize for this photo because it's my first and only Lucy's picture.

I will not apologize for this picture because Phainopeplas are awesome and should be viewed in any way, in any quality, as often as possible.

We also spent some time checking out this flycatcher. Unfortunately, I couldn't get very close for a better photo, and the bird stayed stubbornly still. It did have a notched tail (so no Western Kingbird, it was also too small and slender) but not enough yellow on the breast to be a Tropical Kingbird. My vote is Dusky-Capped Flycatcher, but I am very open to suggestions.

After checking out the desert scene, we stopped to observe a little holding pond. The stagnant water here was very popular with Red-Winged Blackbirds and lots of insects, including this nifty dragonfly which I will not attempt to identify.

We continued down the wash, knowing that soon it would be time to turn back for lunch, but also wanting to explore the liminal space where the water thinned out and the tall trees transitioned into tall grass. The last few trees played host to some Bronzed Cowbirds, one of the cooler kinds of Cowbirds and a species I do not see very often.

The tall grasses below the trees formed a charming little prairie, and it was there that we found the birding highlights of the day. You need a big beak and a big head to eat these mighty grains. This was Grosbeak territory. This male Blue Grosbeak was a lifer for me, one that I have been hoping to see for a long time.

It was only while reviewing photos later on that I discovered he had a female friend, whom you can see in the background. Birds feeding in tall grass make for great binocular looks but less than great pictures. I cared not a lick; the Blue Grosbeak is "epic," to use the buzzword of these last few years.

This azure all-star ascended to the treetops for a brief surveillance before departing. My jaw hurt from hanging open for so long. While crawling along the wash, trying to keep low and small, I had collected quite a few scrapes and scratches, as well as a lovely collection of gravel and pebbles in my pants.  Birding can be dirty, dusty, even painful business. I often feel like those stingy scrapes and after effects make a first-time sighting all the better. Getting a good look at the bird and having a bit of lingering's like a good stiff drink right afterwards (obviously, having a few scrapes and a stiff drink right after is best). It makes me feel like I've earned it. Anyone agree? 

The Blue Grosbeak was probably the most beautiful bird in the grass, but coming close is second was the male Black-Headed Grosbeak. He too was enjoying the unlimited buffet, and it was at this point that our grumbling stomachs and satisfactory sightings prompted a return to the cars.

On the way back we found lots and lots of tiny frogs in the wash gravel. They were not there when we first proceeded, so we developed the theory that some of the dirt bikes that had earlier gone roaring through had upturned the gravel and disturbed these tiny amphibians. I must admit, I was pretty irked at the dirt bikers for interrupting the serenity of the Mesquite Wash setting, especially because there was plenty of space for them to ride around that was within their limits. That being said, these frogs were pretty cute, and I'm glad I got to see them. This guy was maybe the size of a dime.

We decided to take out picnic lunch to the nearby Saguaro Lake, where we could eat on ridiculously undersized picnic tables (for me anyway) and enjoy some shade that wasn't in the water. In addition to providing a comfortable setting that went very well with our avocado, turkey, and munster cheese sandwiches (score!), Saguaro Lake had a few cool birds too, including a late Yellow-Rumped Warbler, Wilson's Warblers, and Vermillion Flycatchers:

This teasing jelly-belly wouldn't give me a look at his front, but seeing a Vermillion is undoubtedly a great way to end a birding trip, even if it's playing hard-to-get. I'm planning a return to Mesquite Wash later this summer. It was a great birding site by all accounts, and is supposed to be a good location to find Yellow-Billed Cuckoos, another one of my 2012 target birds. The summer is just starting to heat up!

Monday, May 21, 2012

Edward Scissortail

No doubt one of the coolest Flycatchers in our galaxy, the Scissor-Tailed took Tim Burton's bleak plot device (Edward Scissorhands) and said, "You know what, I'll do that with my tail, and I'll make it look good." Let it be not said that the Scissor-Tailed is not a Flycatcher of its word, for it does indeed have scissor-tail, and it does indeed look very, very good.

Scissor-Tails were my favorite birds when I lived in Dallas, and one of my main goals while visiting last weekend was to get some suitable pictures of these daredevil flycatchers. The rainy conditions made photography difficult at first, but with a bit of luck and perseverance my birding buddy Taylor Butler Posey and I found a cooperative pair of Scissor-Tails at Cedar Hill Lake.

This male, told by his exceedingly long plumes (which, with some straining, you can see extend all the way to the left border of this photograph), took a break from his hunting to stare out at the lake.

We pulled into some parking spaces behind him. While the car helped to shield us from the bird and prevented a total retreat, he did relocate to a bush further down the rail. Unfortunately the tail is obscured, but this did give us the opportunity to see the ruby-red armpits, something few adventurers glimpse and live to tell the tale.

Safe and secure atop his new perch, the male struck a few poses, scratched his shoulders, and just generally enjoyed being the most awesome bird in town.

Here you can see the four primaries on the tail, as well as the red epaulet. These features are much less exaggerated on the female, and the male seemed willing to show off.

The female Scissor-Tailed Flycatcher was very comfortable swinging back and forth on her willow perch. Her tail is not as long as the males, neither in overall length nor relative to her body length, and her epaulets are less red. That being the case, she picked a prettier perch than the male and one with more light. I contend that she is thus the photographically superior specimen!

These were the only two Scissor-Tails I saw in Dallas, so I consider myself lucky to have come away with some photos. We got the soul-satisfying view and I am so glad. It would've felt like a failure to leave Dallas without revisiting these graceful birds.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

King of the West: Western Kingbird

Western Kingbirds are big, yellow, and ornery, much like Big Bird from Sesame Street. Unlike Big Bird from Sesame Street, they're aesthetically pleasing and can fly really well. What's not to like?

Western Kingbirds can be found throughout most of the western half of the U.S. in the spring and summer months, but they seem to be especially populous in Texas. While on a trip to Dallas last weekend, I had the pleasure of observing these feisty flycatchers once more.

Though I saw lots of them during my morning birding trip to Cedar Hill State Park, I hadn't gotten good pictures yet. Maria and I were being driven into downtown Dallas by Clare Daly and Lauren Legasse, two excellent and accommodating friends, when we spied a Kingbird perched atop a sign. Upon hearing my panicked cries, Clare swung the car around and we all transitioned perfectly into safari birding mode--it was marvelous. The Kingbird flew across the street to a new perch, but using great teamwork we all got in the right position to get some shots. Well done team!

He adopted a rusted iron cable for as his perch of terror. From this lofty throne, his majesty would descend to terrorize the fire ant minions living on the ground below, claiming the sacrifices one at a time.

Another reason to love Kingbirds: They massacre fire ants--truly, a King worthy of adulation and praise.

Friday, May 18, 2012

A Dilly-Dally in Dallas

I spent this past weekend in Dallas, Texas. While the express purpose of Maria's and my trip there was not birding, I was certainly hoping to fit some in on Saturday. I had all my gear together and my routes planned out and my extra pair of socks and then...I remembered to check the weather. Dallas weather has a love-hate relationship with me, in that it loves to make me hate it. I was pretty dismayed to check the weather and see that Dallas would be getting it's Thor on, with thunderstorms predicted for most of Saturday. Even so, I grabbed an old buddy from college, Taylor Butler (how appropriate) Posey, and made him drive me out to Cedar Hill State Park for some overcast observing.

I logged seven new bird species for my life list, though to be fair most of the species were birds I had previously observed--Common Grackles, Chimney Swifts, American Crows, Ruby-Throated Hummingbirds--stuff that, statistically, I must've seen, but wasn't recording at the time. These common birds were just the tip of the iceberg, and even though we were forced back into the car during a typical twenty-minute Dallas downpour, we had a lot of other great sightings.

The trip down to Cedar Hill State Park is a nifty drive, and along the Hwy 408 roadside we encountered one of the first signs that we weren't in Arizona anymore (other than the gratuitous rain). There were three cattle grazing in an adjacent field, and three Cattle Egrets grazing next to them. I'd seen Cattle Egrets in Texas before, but never next to cattle. It's great when a bird lives up to its namesake. I was hoping one would perch on the cow, but that would've been too much.

We didn't prepare much of a bird list for this trip, but Painted Buntings were definitely at the forefront. That being said, I wasn't very optimistic about our chances. I was mostly hoping just to get some good looks at the old Dallas regulars, but the Buntings were always at the back of my mind. Before heading into the state park, we parked at the Cedar Hill Audubon Center and walked the quick loop outside the building. The very first bird we saw, singing atop a soggy tree, was this lovely male.

With the heavy cloud cover, the bird's shyness, and their preference for staying high and singing or hiding in the thick hedges, the photographic opportunities were poor, but we did see near a dozen Buntings throughout the day. Success! What a preposterously colored bird! Who do they think they are, bringing tropical style colorations into the Texas plains!? The binocular looks were much better than the photos indicate. These birds are stunning.

After checking out the Audubon center we drove down to the nearby Cedar Hill Lake. The recent rain had really filled out the foliage. There were Cardinals all over, and we also had good looks at Carolina Wrens, Carolina Chickadees, Blue Jays, and Titmice. There were more Painted Buntings too, and we chased after these bodacious beauties with reckless abandon. Alas, the viscous Dallas clay was really starting to accumulate on our shoes, and as the rain came down with gusto.

Trying to walk with this thick, congealing mud is like walking in scuba flippers: comical but ineffective. We scraped off as best we could and headed back to the car.

Even my birding buddy Taylor, a rugged mountain man by all accounts, was in awe of the energetic earth.

Luckily for us, Cedar Hill Park has a paved road running a loop around the trails and the lake. We were able to clean off our shoes, grab some Sonic lunch, and then go into safari mode, getting some excellent birding done from the car. Birds weren't the only thing on display either. This Texas Brown Tarantula (?? let me know if not) was taking its time to cross the street.

Getting out of the car to take its picture, I faced certain death from ol' shelob. Luckily, I had a little crystal bottle full of illuminating elf water that kept the spider at bay. That's good photography fundamentals 101: always have mythical creature repellent available on your person. 

As we continued our loop, stopping to observe some Spotted Sandpipers and Red-Winged Blackbirds, a single Ring-Billed Gull showing off its fishings skills.

There were lots of Franklin's Gulls and Mallards floating on the lake, but only this Ring-Billed Gull dared to fly in the adverse conditions. It was rewarded for its bravery, as were we. From afar, we watched it catch fish after fish. It didn't have quite the grace or power of an Eagle or Osprey, but hey ya can't argue with the results.

To put some icing on this seagull fish cake (eww!) this was a new bird for me. They turn up in Arizona from time to time, but it was great to add another new bird in Dallas. From the small and colorful Painted Buntings in their bramble bushes to the large and dull Ring-Billed Gull out over the water, we saw both ends of the birding spectrum.

The most iconic Texas bird for me, and one of my all-time favorites, is the Scissor-Tailed Flycatcher. This was the bird I longed to see the most. This was the bird that holds the fondest memories of Texas birding for me. Though not as numerous as the Kingbirds, they're still a fairly common sight in Dallas during spring. One of my main goals from this birding escapade was to come away with some good photos that did these awesome birds justice. I was bummed about the overcast conditions and then by the birds' initial shyness. Any sort of approach seemed to startle them away. : ::sniffle:: : it was like they didn't even recognize me. Calls of, "Hey guys! It's me, Laurence!!" didn't help at all.

But perseverance is the name of the game. While birding in 'safari mode' (from the car), we spotted a mated pair of Flycatchers near one of the fenced pull-outs by the lake's south shore. The grey weather put these usually-vivacious birds in a melancholy mood, but they were mercifully accommodating as we pulled in for a photo shoot.

Yep, his tail is pretty long. I snuck this male's picture while he stared forlornly out into the lake, perhaps with a wistful wish that his tail could actually slice things. This is just the beginning of my Scissor-Tail shots, most of which I'll save for a further post.

Logging new birds is always exciting, but the best part of this birding trip was reacquainting myself with old Texas regulars. Western Kingbirds can be commonly found anywhere west of the Mississippi, and Phoenix is no exception. In Dallas, I became very familiar with these birds in the spring time. They would adorn the trees and posts around soccer fields, parks--any open space with a bit of green--and were much more brazen than the Kingbirds in Arizona. I have more shots of the Kingbirds that I'm saving for a separate post. These regal ravagers-of-the-bugs share posts with no one...