Saturday, June 30, 2012

Belly of the Beast

There stands the largest Plover of North America. At eleven and a half inches, these black-bellied behemoths strut about the beach with an appropriate air of haughtiness. Why appropriate? Because they're breathing higher air than all the other Plovers and Peeps around them, and they know it!

While photographing these specimen of titanicus ploveriforms, trying to maintain the appropriate levels of awe and reverence, I overheard a plaintive shorebird enviously talking to another about the stately Plover in the distance. They too, stood in awe and envy of these birds. It went something like this:

Why, man, he doth bestride the narrow world
Like a colossus, and we pecking hens
Walk under his huge legs and Peep about
To find ourselves running from waves.
We at some times are masters of our fates:
The fault, dear Brutus (must be bird # 2's name), is not in our wingbars,
But in ourselves, for we are Sanderlings.

As one might expect of such superlative, high-class birds, the Plovers did not appreciate my company. After giving me some brief looks, they decided I had taken too much interest in them and soon departed. When they took their leave, one of the forlorn Sanderlings tried to follow the Black-bellied Plover and his platonic (non-breeding plumage) companion.

"Wait! Take me with you!!!"

Together they flew off into the sunset, or at least towards where the sun would set in several hours. So assuming they continued to fly for five more hours (which they probably did not), they flew off into the sunset. Hopefully they did not fly too close to the sun, like Icarus. Hubris is a big problem for big Plovers.

Anyway, my time with the Black-bellied Plovers was brief, but it was beautiful. They're very striking birds with a mojo quite unique from the Turnstones, Sandpipers, Gulls, and everything else that's bustling on the beach all around them. Calm, collected, aristocratic, they bring an element of high-class to the shoreline without a doubt.

Good luck to the Sanderling. Hopefully he can keep up with the Plovers and is not driven mad with an inferiority complex. As Desiderius Erasmus once said, perhaps while doing a little birding himself, "Fortune favors the audacious."

P.S. Bonus points to whoever knows the famous play and scene referenced above!

Why, man, he doth bestride the narrow world
Like a Colossus, and we petty men
Walk under his huge legs and peep about
To find ourselves dishonorable graves.
Men at some time are masters of their fates:(145)
The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves, that we are underlings.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Leave No Stone Unturned!

That is the official motto of the Ruddy Turnstone, one of America's most flamboyant shorebirds. What makes these birds particularly endearing is not just their color or recognizability, but the intricate variation in each individual's plumage. Despite their bold color scheme, it's hard to find two Ruddy Turnstones that have the same pattern. One thing is for sure: there should be an ice cream flavor inspired by this bird. It should probably involve fudge, caramel, heath bar, vanilla...and something else. Better get the Ben n' Jerry's guys on it.

I had the pleasure of observing a rowdy group of Ruddy Turnstones on the Jersey shore earlier this June. They chattered with each other and scrambled all over the wharf. At first glance they seemed to feed in a very stochastic fashion, but like many other shorebirds, they were actually very precise and deliberate with their pecking. One might say they even have a pecking order...

This shaggy gang elicited a laugh from me more than once. The way they all wanted to stay close together, and yet how they also seemed very impatient and irritated with each reminded me of the Wes Anderson dysfunctional family trope that comes up in movies so often. Hopefully this photo explains the dynamic better than I can. They have to stay close to each other, but they're all looking in different directions (and one seems to be banging it's head against the rock) as if they hate to admit how inseparable they really are. So much angst...

This fine fellow (same bird as the first photo) was the patriarch. As you can see, his mustache grows right up and connects his eyebrows. Chuck Norris, John Wayne, Bear Grylls, Robert Howard, and all the other manly paragons of our age...none of them could accomplish this feat even in a hundred years even with a swimming pool full of rogaine.

He stood stoically atop his pedestal and watched over the Turnstones with all the sternness and facial patterns of a stormtrooper. He and his group brought a certain calm to the wharf, even as the waves crashed all around them. The other birds used the Turnstones as their danger-gauge. As long as the Turnstone were happy, so was everyone else. When they became startled, everyone took flight. Together they all formed a very colorful and motley gang.

I couldn't have asked for a better look at a new bird. Thank you Ruddy Turnstones, high five!

Sunday, June 24, 2012

A Good Take at Woods Canyon Lake

Arizona is a large state and there's lots of empty space. At first glance, it seems like much of it is hot, uninhabitable stretches of desert. This may actually be the case, but Arizona is also flush with birding hotspots. The southeast corner is known worldwide for drawing a great variety of rare birds. The northwest corner of the state also has some great locations such as the Bill Williams Wildlife Refuge, one of the few places in the U.S. where one can find Nutting's Flycatchers. The White Mountains provide some excellent spots to the east, and Boyce Thompson Arboretum is a great spot down south.

The north central portion of the state also has some good birding, but it's not nearly as publicized as the top-notch locations. A lot of the birds in north central Arizona, around Payson, Strawberry, and Sedona, can be found elsewhere in the state, but these birding sites along the Mogollon Rim (pronounced muggy-own) do have an appeal. They offer cool temperatures, great scenery, and unlike the White Mountains or the Chiricahuas, they're within a two-hour drive of Phoenix.

And there's lots of other neat stuff too, like this Swallow Tail.

Maria and I recently spent some time with my family up at a cabin in Strawberry, AZ. From Strawberry we could easily reach other spots along the Mogollon Rim, such as Kehl Springs, Blue Ridge Reservoir, and Woods Canyon Lake. Woods Canyon Lake is about 30 miles east of Payson, off the SR 260 highway. It's an old favorite of the Butler brood. Many summers we'd camp and fish along its rocky shores, but this was my first time returning to focus on the birds.

Woods Canyon Lake offers the best birding in the area and is the most accessible of the reservoir lakes along the rim. It has been the preferred spot for a pair of nesting Bald Eagles the last 5 years, and is also a popular roosting spot for Osprey and Great Blue Herons.

There's a 3 mile loop trail around the lake, parts of which is paved for the less mobile folks. The loop trail is definitely the best way to explore the surrounding pine forest for its feathered residents, and it provides some excellent views of the lake as well. Of course, with a pair of eager eyes one can find lots of other critters too. The Bald Eagle nesting site is protected from the public, and hikers have to take a detour to give the area its proper clearance. Along the way, we got some very distant views of the Eagle couple and their chick, as well as a very close view of this Horny Toad on an old fence post. His pink skin, though pretty, inhibited his camouflage.

 "Ugh! Foiled Again!"

Luckily for the Horny Toad we weren't hungry, having previously filled up on turkey sandwiches and strawberries (score!). It was lunchtime though for some of the more conspicuous critters. Woods Canyon Lake groundsquirrels are very tame. Having conducted a thorough study of the human camping habits, they often conduct daring daylight raids into campgrounds and picnic areas, taking chips and leaving no prisoners.

The best birding is on the north side of the lake. If one feels like hauling a scope that far, the north shore provides some clear views of the Eagle nest, and seems to have higher concentrations of songbirds too.

One of the target birds of this WCL expedition was the Red-faced Warbler. These little dynamos are definitely high-elevation highlights in Arizona. Even though they're not overly common, they can be found pretty regularly, if sporadically, in the Mogollon pine forests. Unfortunately, the little bugger below eluded my manual focus, leaving me with some in-focus pine needles at the center and a blurry bird off to the side. Argh, I've been warbled!

Though they're the most striking, the RFWA is not the only pretty face around the woods. Western Tanagers have a much larger range than their red-faced companions, and are more common, but I've still never heard anyone complain when a Tanager flies into view. They can be found all along the Mogollon Rim in the summer months, and provide an unmistakable flash of color as they dart through the trees.

Like the Red-faced, the Grace's Warbler is another specialist of the high altitude pine forests. Like the Summer Tanager, they turn up in the summer months and fill the woods with their warbling songs and flashes of yellow. This particular bird had been singing with much gusto until a cloud briefly blocked out the sun. With his spotlight gone, the warbler became very shy, one might say red-faced. Here he is anxiously awaiting its return.

Warblers and Tanagers supply the color around Woods Canyon Lake, while the Eagles and Osprey supply a little majesty. Mountain Chickadees and Dark-eyed Juncos play the role of filler-bird. They're a common sight all along the lake, with the Chickadees occupying the tree canopies and the Juncos foraging along the needle-laden floor. 

Since they're unusual at the lower elevations, the Juncos and Chickadees are a welcome sight. Their fluttering feeding frenzies often rope in other birds too, such as this Plumbeous Vireo. The Vireo was having a hard time keeping up with the Chickadees, but still tried its best. It paused only a moment to catch it's breath, and I paused to catch a photo. 

Kinda like a tiny Mockingbird with glasses.

The Plumbeous Vireo was pretty sweet, but the sighting of the day was definitely a pair of Townsend's Solitaires. This was a new bird for me, one I should've seen by now and one I was very glad to put to rest. They're by no means unusual for the area, but they're not exactly common or easy to find either. In this case, there was one adult bringing food to a recent fledgling, and since both were pretty distracted by this endeavor they paid me little mind. 

The Solitaire isn't the most colorful bird around, but there's something extra satisfying about finding a bird that occupies its own group in North America, like the Phainopeplas or Verdins--something that's totally unique. It's hard to pinpoint, but there's something very impressive about these birds in person. At any rate, it's the only bird of which I am aware that has inspired a famous card game.

Alas, there were no Three-toed Woodpeckers or Northern Pygmy Owls to report, but they're also possibilities for the area. While recording my sightings, I noticed there are very few eBird submissions for the area. In my experiences, it's a rich but under-appreciated birding spot, with Grosbeaks, Titmice, and lots of migrants also common to the area. Woods Canyon Lake doesn't have the name recognition or established credentials of the other big hotspots--and it probably never will--but it's a great relief from the hot city, and at only an hour and a half away, it's a a great day trip, especially if one wants to fit in a little kayaking or fishing on the side. 

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Out of the Woods and Back in Town

Well, you all have been great sports while I've done post after post about birding up in Pennsylvania. Here we are finally. We're out of the woods, so to speak, with these last two birds from my wonderful Pennsylvania vacation. In a certain sense I saved the best birds for last, not photographically speaking, but in terms of the experience I had in finding them.

This Ovenbird was the only new Warbler I saw in Pennsylvania. I find myself rather pleased and surprised to say that I'm not disappointed in how few wood Warblers I found. I wasn't overly optimistic to begin with, and in fact wasn't even really expecting an Ovenbird. I found this quirky character hopping around in the undergrowth at Ridley Creek State Park during an afternoon thunderstorm. The temporary downpour had driven all of the other birds into hiding, but this lowlife (in the sense that he lives low to the ground) had plenty of cover and seemed unperturbed. Watching him hope around in cadence with the pitter-patter of the rain was a very cool experience, one I seldom have back in Arizona.

Ovenbirds are named for the shape of their nests, and perhaps also for their prowess in the confectionary arts. I didn't see any nests around, and in fact this bird didn't stick around for very long either. That's the way with Warblers, and even though the Ovenbird looks more like a compact Thrush than a Warbler, it's a handsome bird in any setting.

The White-eyed Vireo was the last bird I added to my Pennsylvania/New Jersey list, new bird number twenty-two for the trip. I had been wanting to see one of these Vireos for a long time. They are much more frequently heard than seen, and it was on my last day of birding that one began chiming out from some marginal woods at Stroud Preserve. I was birding with some folks from the West Chester Birding Club,  for whom this must have been a common occurrence, as they quickly ambled on after a possible Lincoln's Sparrow (a common bird out west, but a rare sighting in Pennsylvania). Well, my priorities were much different, so I plunked down and waited to see if the Vireo would come into view. The Lincoln's Sparrow never materialized, but after about ten minutes the White-Eyed Vireo popped up and gave me a great look at those namesake peepers.

Looking in books and online, I never really appreciated all the different yellows on this bird until I saw it in person. Of course, the white eye, situated in the bird's unusually bulbous head, is the most striking feature, but all together the White-eyed Vireo is a beautiful little thing. Since it was shady and overcast, the autofocus on my camera was having trouble. I had to shoot with manual focus, and mercifully a couple shots came out half-decent--never something for me to take for granted with a new bird.

Back in Phoenix, I visited the Gilbert Water Ranch in the evening, and was shocked at the low levels of bird activity. I've been there in the summer before and still never recorded less than thirty species. The place was about as dead as it can be, and there was even some water in the basins. Needless to say it made me miss the Pennsylvania woods.

There were lots of juveniles around, so the local bird populations seem to be doing pretty well. Even so, that sweltering heat really, ironically, puts a damper on things. This little duckling couldn't stand to have his fuzzy face out of the water.

Though his black and white coat was coming in nicely, this young Gila Woodpecker was also pretty frazzled. Unlike the cactus of which they are so fond, these birds can't go for months without water.

The juvenile Abert's Towhees definitely seemed to be coping the best, and this was to be expected. Towhees seem to be one of the few species here in Arizona that can be found outside feeding and bouncing around regardless of the time. Morning is just as good as noon for these scrappy birds, but that may be in large part because they're never far away from the shade.

I also checked the Glendale Recharge Ponds which, like the Water Ranch, were surprisingly full of water and vegetation. Unlike the Water Ranch, Glendale was also full of waterfowl. Hundreds of Black-necked Stilts fill the basins, accompanied by almost as many Avocets and Killdeer. Several American Wigeons and a pair of Northern Pintails provided some puzzlement, and a low flying Peregrine Falcon gave everyone a buzz.

With some selective cropping, one can make these basins appear as though they're part of some wonderful waterworks, instead of an improvised oasis in the middle of desert suburbia.

Despite all my complaining, in a way I am actually looking forward to the temperature increase in Phoenix. Most of the good birding must be done at higher elevations now anyway, so taking it as a given that I won't see a lot in the valley, it'll fun to say I've been birding in 120° F heat, maybe even start a separate list for that extreme!

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Gull-ible at Barnegat Bay

As a part of our Pennsylvania trip earlier this June, Maria and I made a rare visit to the east coast. The prospect of doing some birding along  the New Jersey shore was very exciting, even if we weren't heading to Cape May or some of those other famous sites. We set our sights on lovely Barnegat Bay, a strip of beach with beautiful scenery and, as it turned out, a few birding treasures of its own. Since I had only been to the Atlantic coast a few times, the prospects of seeing some new and cool birds were great. The Jersey shore did not disappoint, and in fact it exceeded my expectations. Even before Maria and I arrived at the beach, we started to see new birds, with sentinels such as this handsome Laughing Gull dotting utility poles along the road.

We saw Gulls high atop the famous old Barnegat Lighthouse and soaring along the coastal thermals. We also saw them along the lowest points of the Barnegat wharf and shoreline, sometimes in very compromising positions. Gulls can live high and they can live low. You don't become one of the most successful avian groups without making a few compromises.

The Seagull is often used as a symbol for freedom and versatility in literature. Most appropriately for birders, it can represent the unattainable ideal, something you want but can never possess. Keeping in mind the different plumages and vast ranges many Gulls have, as well as the propensity for many Gulls to turn up in unexpected places, I think Gulls embody the frustration and excitement of an unattainable ideal very well.  Especially for a non-coastal person like me, almost every Gull is a potential new bird, but they're so often ambiguous and identifying them is seldom a certain thing. Here, to make the point, are some mid-cycle Ring-billed Gulls. Or at least I think. Maybe Herring Gulls? Maybe not. They could also be space aliens.

Maria and I counted four different species of Gull along the Barnegat shore. The Laughing Gulls were by far the most visually striking and the most graceful of the bunch. Seagulls are pretty talented aviators, but the way that the Laughing Gulls rose and cut and dove almost put them in the Tern and Kite class of flyers. They had serious skills.

The Laughing Gulls were most comfortable in the air, and unlike the other Gulls, I never saw them on the ground. Conversely this third/fourth year Herring Gull seemed to abhor the very idea of flight. Even as I approached it, the bird started to walk out into the ocean instead of taking to its wings. I've seen some impressive flight displays from Herring Gulls and Ring-bills before, so this one must've just been pretty tuckered, or else it was just really wanted to soak its feet.

The Herring Gulls were the most numerous on our stretch of the Jersey beach, and they were visible in the air on the ground, floating atop the water, and popping into trash cans along the peer. Bulky, large, noisy, common, versatile, and semi-indestructible...surely this is the quintessential 'Seagull'.

It is often said that cockroaches and rodents would be the sole survivors of a nuclear holocaust. I'm putting my money on the Herring Gull. This is the cold calculating stare of a bird that can be caught at the epicenter of an atomic explosion and fly away wondering what's for dinner.

The most impressive Gull on the beach was, by far, the Great Black-backed. Their range in North America may be only a tiny fraction of the Herring or Ring-billed Gulls' range, but with a wingspan well over five feet, this bird more than compensates.

The Great Black-backed is the largest Gull in the world. The few that we saw at Barnegat Bay cruised low and slow along the beach, confident in their size and the proper awe they inspired in all whom they passed.

Folding in those wings must be a bit of a chore (I can sympathize too). This Gull held its pose for a little while, so maybe they were just telling me that they were tired of being spied on, and were pointing me in the direction of other cool stuff to see. 

"Go bother those Oystercatchers over there"

As I moved beyond the shoreline and out onto the rocky wharf around the bay, I realized that the awesome birding was just beginning. I already related the story of the Purple Sandpipers, and there are still many cool birds to come! 

Monday, June 18, 2012

Quiz Closure

Thanks to Chris, Jen, Mia, and Dan for submitting answers--You all are champs!

Here are the answers for the birding pop quiz:

1) Willow Flycatcher. The coloration on the beak is a bit misleading here (due to lighting), but the call (supplied in the hint) is diagnostic. Mia and Jen, nice work!

2) There's not too much to go on with this photo. The olive green back and white belly help narrow it down, but the slight, blurry hint of red on the eye, along with the broken eye-ring, point to Red-Eyed Vireo--Nice work Jen!

3) I cringe at this sign every time I visit the Gilbert Water Ranch...oh the shame it brings upon Arizona birding. As you all mentioned, it's an Abert's Towhee, and the White-throated Sparrow was pictured in place of the proper White-crowned Sparrow. Every state has a few skeletons in the closet I guess...

4) There are only two wood Thrushes (so, excluding Robins and Bluebirds) one can expect to see in north central Arizona in the summer. This bird is unusual in that is seems to lack the eye ring found both on Swainson's and Hermit Thrushes. The lack of any rusty coloration on the tail, and the overall gray coloration, point towards Swainson's, but to be honest I'm not 100% on this bird.

Thanks to all for playing!

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Quiz Time!

Last time I tried one of these nobody responded...but here for the brave or bored (or both) are a few ambiguous birds to try and identify. Feel free to post any responses in the comments below : )

1) Taken at Stroud Preserve, southeast Pennsylvania, in June:

Hint: fitz bew!

2) Taken at Ridley Creek State Park, southeast Pennsylvania, in June: 

 Hint: Seeing Red

 3) Taken at the Riparian Preserve in Gilbert, Arizona. Can you spot the two mistakes on this sign?

4) Taken at Kehl Springs, north central Arizona, in June.

 Hint: "Don't rush if it's a Thrush"

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Thinking of Bobolinking

There were lots of yellow birds and blue birds, brown birds and clown birds in Pennsylvania. It was a great trip and, all tallies in, I saw twenty-two new bird species. It is difficult to pick one bird-related highpoint from Maria's and my trip to the northeast, but few birds provided as satisfying a sighting as the mythical Bobolinks.

An enigmatic, backwards-seeming creature, the Bobolink was only confirmed to exist a few years ago. Until recently, most people reporting these birds were dismissed as madmen, hoaxsters, or visually impaired. Even when photographs and recordings of these birds started to surface, they were dismissed as grainy shots of leucistic, balding Red-winged Blackbirds:

But birders are a determined people. Despite forcible government suppression and a media black-out (notice how there hasn't been a single mainstream news story about this species!) they kept hope alive. When a Bobolink finally crashed into one of the White House windows, the bird's existence could be publicly denied no more.

But why? Why was there such resistance to confirming this species? As it turns out, Bobolinks aren't all that uncommon or hard to find. They can be found happily bobolinking in fields and flatlands throughout much of the eastern United States at points throughout the spring and summer.

 Rural Pennsylvania is not exactly off-the-map

Perhaps it's because the Bobolink is such a dumbfounding creature. There is something inexplicably backwards about the male Bobolinks. Their whole front is black. Is there any other bird like that, that isn't also entirely black? And what's with these weird haircuts, all the blond in the back? These may seem like trivial reasons to deny the legitimate existence of a species, but hey the only reason scientists won't recognize Bigfoot is because he doesn't wear shoes.

I've read that the reversed counter-shading on Bobolinks (normal counter-shading means birds tend to be dark on their backs and paler on their fronts) helps the males stand out in their grassy habitats, in essence helping the females find them. 

It's possible that my whole anecdote is erroneous, but whatever the true case may be with the Bobolink, they're established now (though they are, unfortunately, declining in some areas). I found about a dozen of these interesting birds at a Bobolink meet n' greet hosted at Stroud Preserve in West Chester, PA. It seemed like the first time our socializing for some of the males, and they were too busy with their nervous eating to work up the guts and actually talk to any of the shy females. 

A real charmer, isn't he?

Then again, some of the females seemed preoccupied with the vittles too. It is ostensibly possible that the large gawking biped made them uncomfortable, but I was wearing a tuxedo and I had shaved the back of my head, so I should've blended right in...

Like so many proms and socials, this one may have been a let down for the Bobolinks. I'm sure they've since hit it off, and I can say I certainly left the first get-together very happy.

Bobolinks are great migrators, moving between Brazil and the the American northeast every year. This year I migrated to meet them too. These curious critters provided one of the birding highlights of the 2012 year!