Friday, August 31, 2012

To Catch a Flycatcher...

There are several genera of birds that are notoriously hard to identify. Here in North America, beginning and experienced bird-watchers alike (ok, mostly beginner) scratch their collective heads over Sparrows, and Gulls, Shorebirds and Flycatchers. Similar plumages and overlapping ranges make  it hard to pick apart certain species from some of these groups, and the field guides never seem to quite cover all the bases. For my money, the empid flycatchers are some of the most difficult.

Sure, Gulls are tough, especially in their intermediate/immature plumages. But once they're in their adult molt they're not so tricky, at least not for those with a bit of experience (not that I have much). The same goes for most Shorebirds when they're in their breeding plumage, so at least for part of the year they can be identified without too much headache--although it is a shame so many are up in the Arctic circle during that time. Sparrows are problematic too, and are usually the first difficult group that beginning birders have to tackle. But while their plumages are subtle and similarly colored, the Sparrows can usually be ID'd by plumage alone. This brings me back to the Flycatchers...those look-alike, act-alike flighty little buggers that don't really change their indistinct plumage throughout the year or ever take it easy on a fledgling birder. And so, more for my own review and edification than anything else, here's an inspection of some befuddling Flycatchers I've seen this year.

I first saw this bird in February around Patagonia Lake in southeast AZ and thought it was a Gray Flycatcher. Gray's and Dusky Flycatcher's look very similar, except that Grays have a slightly longer tail and the adults are a bit paler. I think I'll stick to Gray for this bird, but some nagging feeling says this could turn into a Dusky at any moment...or even something much, much more embarrassing.

Also around Patagonia I saw this Hammond's Flycatcher. Going just by general color and demeanor, a Hammond's can turn into a Dusky or Gray Flycatcher too, but luckily they have noticeable longer primary projections on their wings.

With other empids, the wings extend to the base of the tail, but the Hammond's has a longer reach relative to its body. Also, this one posed nicely for me, which makes it my favorite empid right now.

Here in Phoenix, the Pacific-Slope vs. Cordilleran war rages at the Desert Botanical Gardens every summer. Both birds can pass through the area during migration, and they're physically indistinguishable if they keep quiet, which of course they do. How many Gulls or Sparrows or Shorebirds are there that are literally indiscernible from each other unless you hear them call (Probably lots more than I am aware of huh?)?

I have seen these Flycatchers every time I've been to the Desert Botanical Gardens in the summer. Because the Cordillerans typically stay in the higher altitudes, the general opinion among the DBG regulars is that the Flycatchers at the DBG must be Pacific-Slope. However, it's pretty far inland for Pacific Slopes too, so it still doesn't seem any more likely to me that it's one or the other based just on their normal ranges. The Sibley's field guide doesn't show either coming into the Phoenix area much, but the Cordilleran's summer range, though normally at higher altitude, is nearer by. Sibley only shows the Pacific-slopes coming through central Arizona during migration. Empids like the one below can be found at the DBG throughout the whole summer, even on the same perches, which makes me think they're not just migrating through, but are actually sticking around for a few months. Given the options, it seems to me that the likelier bird is the Cordilleran, which at least is a summer resident in nearby parts of the state--even if I must contravene The #1 World Birder's 4th rule about trying to be a better birder.

After so much empid stress, it's nice to find repose with a few easier specimens. So the Olive-sided Flycatcher isn't actually an empid; it's a Pewee. I just included it here because I think they're very cool and really appreciate that they're straightforward to ID. These guys drip class, and you know they like to drink dry martinis, with a couple olives...

The bird photographed below is probably a Willow Flycatcher. I'm ashamed to admit it, but I have a hard time discerning these guys from Western Wood Pewees. The Wood Pewees like to perch up higher, whereas these Willows like the little scrub stuff near marshy water, case in point:

I'm wanted to call this guy an Acadian Flycatcher because it seemed too light all round to be Willow. When I photographed this bird in southeast Pennsylvania, it was within Acadian range. However, the Acadians are supposed to be high tree dwellers like the Pewees, and this fellow was working the low shrubs. Upon further review, I thought this might be an Alder Flycatcher, but honestly its face seems too light to match any of those birds really well. It seems to lack the darker lores of both the Alder and Willow Flycatchers, which brings me back to the lighter-faced Acadian... Suggestions?

Anyway, here's a definite Willow Flycatcher. However, it's not obvious from the photo, since the beak looks too orange and the head looks too crested/peaked--in fact he looks a lot like the ambiguous bird above. But unlike all the other empids I've seen this year, this guy let out a mighty "RITZbew" while I was observing. 

Many birders have gone half mad and half insane trying to sort these guys out. It's more crazy-making than trying to contemplate the cardinality of infinite sets that can be greater or smaller than each other despite all being infinite! When the empid finally calls, it is a sweet mercy. Now if only I could recognize their calls...

Monday, August 27, 2012

Mon-late Monsoons

We've had some fun weather these past couple of weeks in Phoenix, with the August heat punctuated by intermittent monsoon aftershocks. It's like living in Dallas again-- 100°F at 7 am and then thunderclouds by noon. Silly troposphere just can't make up it's mind. Funky weather makes for funky birding as the daylight alternates by the hour and throws off feeding times.

Whatever mayhem the funky weathers visits on the birds is magnified for reptiles like this Twin-spotted Spiny Lizard, perhaps the only critters in Phoenix this time of year who really appreciate full sunlight.

The European Starlings at the DBG like to tune their voices in the overcast evening light. Their beautiful plumage almost makes up for everything that these birds have going against their popularity. Without any larger context, this bird is an emerald and ebony gem. The luster starts to fade when one considers how common they are, that they're introduced, and that they displace other species. Oddly enough, European Starling populations are actually decreasing in Europe--isn't that a weird thought.

The funky weather really got to this Inca Dove. It just kinda froze in the middle of a gravel path and stood perfectly still, perhaps waiting for the sun to reemerge. From its gaunt physique, I'd say this is likely a first year bird, and one who does not yet have the necessary life experience to know what to do when the sun is gone by 4pm.

Other birds at the DBG have problem adjusting at all. This Great Horned Owl was plunked on up in a mesquite tree. From his concealed position, he kept tabs on all the little bunnies hopping around below him and contemplated violent things.

Just to make sure this was, in fact, a Great Horned Owl, and not some other bird in disguise, I checked off some tell-tale characteristics.

Large Eyes and ability to turn head 180°-- check 

Large, intimidating, zygodactyl talons -- check

Gruff personality and sense that this awkward biped is an affront to an owl's regal existence? -- check

While the tiger owl waited up high, this debonair Cactus Wren, strutted around down low. The largest and loudest of the North American Wrens, these towering troglodytes act like they own the place. Seeing as they are the state bird, they may have a case. I like the pose here, and feel like this Wren should have a flag waving behind him in the background.

I'm sure that by the time this post is up, the clouds will be gone. As we're still in monsoon season, they'll probably be back this evening. Here's hoping.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Bird Word: Code Rufous

Everyone loves jargon. At least, if you're a part of the group that understands it. Every group and every hobby, every lifestyle and every profession comes with its own jargon, and those who love birds are not without their special bird nerd words too. A lot of the esoteric bird verbiage has to do with abbreviations and acronyms in bird names, or identifying certain parts of a bird's anatomy. There's something both cool and risible about the specialized language employed by birders and ornithologists. For my money, people that can pull it off seem all the smarter.

Rufous-capped Warbler

Today I was struck by a simple, plebeian bird word, one is is almost use too often and with too much understanding that we may not realize its real eccentricity. 

"Rufous," from the Latin rufus (reddish), is a readily recognized bird description. There are more than 174 species of bird with "rufous" in their name, roughly  1.7% of all birds worldwide. This means that in any random assortment of 100 birds, you'll find 2 that are Rufous-something-or-other. 

Rufous-backed Robin

And then there are all of the birds that have rufous coloration on them, but not in their name. For me, it is a great relief to be able to describe anything in the red-range as "rufous" and then feel like I'm covered. 

Rufous Morph Cassin's Sparrow

It seems to be such a versatile word, or at least a very well-applied word, in the bird nerd world. There's a bit of carry-over into mammalian and invertebrate descriptions, but all in all it doesn't come up outside of biological settings. 

Rufous-crowned Sparrow

"Rufous" was first used/recorded in 1782 (according to wikipedia), so it's a relatively new term for one based in a language over 2,000 years old. How often do you hear "rufous" come up anywhere else? Even in a 48-count box of crayolas, you'll get "scab-red" and "brick-red," "burnt orange" and "burnt sienna,"red-orange" and "outrageous orange," but no rufous. If it's not codified in crayola, is it real? Well, at least in the bird nerd world it's real. I've been able to photograph 5 different rufous named bird (4 actually, since Rufous-sided Towhee no longer exists). 

Spotted Towhee, once a part of the Rufous-sided Towhee conglomerate

What are some other instances of Rufous you have found, bird-world or otherwise? What's missing from this Rufous anthology? Share a comment; share a link.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Early Nerd Gets The Bird

Birding on Sundays is a delicate business. Sunday is the day when I have to do all of the work I put off doing on Friday and Saturday. Sunday is also my Sabbath day (a good reason not to procrastinate on Friday and Saturday). The English Premier League (soccer) has started. Also Sunday is a great day to have dinner with the family. It's a busy day, so Sunday morning belongs not just to the early birds, but to the early birders. While the initial push to get out of bed at 5 am is difficult, it does have its own rewards. The sun rises much more elegantly in the morning than I do, and it's really something to see. 

Of course, it's pretty common for birders to get up at all manner of uncivilized hours so they can gear up and hit the road for maximum birding. It's just harder to do on Sundays when you know you won't have a day after when you can catch up on your sleep. Even so, I've never had a morning of birding that would've been better spent sleeping.

This Sunday I had two stops, the first at the Desert Botanical Garden for better photo opportunities and the second at the Glendale Recharge Ponds for a vagrant Roseate Spoonbill. While the opportunities to see new or unusual birds at the DBG come few and far between, it's still one of the best places in Phoenix for nature photography, combining the desert's birds and blooms in one compact little park.

And then there are those non-indigenous interlopers like the Rosy-faced Lovebirds, everyone's favorite invasive species. They were surprisingly terse on Sunday, dare I even say laconic!? Usually they're squawking up a storm, more garrulous even than a gang of grackles.

In the morning, the Lovebirds are most often found catching the early-bird special around the Sunflowers and Mesquite trees at the DBG. They are joined, and in fact greatly outnumbered, by the humblest of finches, the Lesser Gold. Try as they might, they just don't have the brilliance of their American Goldfinch cousins.

They still catch the morning light well, and are plenty charming. But the number of times I've seen one of these yellow flashes in a tree and chased after a potential migrant Warbler is, well, embarrassing.

Considering it was still 5:30am at the DBG, the award for most vivacious and acrobatic bird goes to the Verdin. I'd submit they also deserve the overall prize for "Best in the Garden." This fella was demonstrating his Least Bittern impression. He's got the ability, but I don't know if he's got the look.

It was surprising to see young Curve-billed Thrashers, yellow gapes and all, still foraging under the large sumac trees (well, not surprising to see them foraging, just to see them at all). It seems too late in the summer for Thrashers to look this young, but if they don't mind then I won't mind. Come to think of it, it makes me rather glad.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Spooning at the Glendale Recharge Ponds

Just another day at the Everglades, or one of Florida's many phenomenal wetland preserves? Florida is bout the only state where the goofy and awesome Roseate Spoonbill doesn't look out of place. However, as you may have suspected, this distant and dismal shot was not taken in Florida, but at the smelly, hot, and ridiculously birdy Glendale Recharge Ponds in west Phoenix, which makes it more palatable eh?

Spoonbills are already crazy-looking birds, but this bird must actually be crazy. It's now been camping out in Basin 2 of the Recharge Ponds for two days, a good two thousand miles out of its usual North American range. First called in on Saturday by Melanie Herring (thanks Melanie!) this is the second Spoonbill to turn up in Glendale in the last four years.

It's a pretty nice lifer for me, one I was definitely not expecting to pick up in Phoenix, and one which I still need to see properly--in its normal habitat and up close--in Florida. But until then, I certainly appreciate this pretty pink fella coming by to spoon in Phoenix.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

The Evening Dregs

We caught some brief thunderstorms last night, but otherwise it has been silly hot this week. I spent a lot of summer doing prep work and attending seminars; now school has started. Summer break is gone, but the heat is still here. It's very nice to be back to work in a meaningful way, but it has severely cut back my time outdoors, and I can feel my birding skills already starting to rust.  

I had not paid a visit to the long-favored Tres Rios site since last May and a return at the first opportunity beckoned me, even in an enervated state and on a school night. after all, birding in the evening is very relaxing; everything is calm and getting clamer. Time and light are against you, but there's a sort of cozy quality to everything you see and hear in the evening stupor. 

Alas, when I reached the Tres Rios site, it was closed! Not just regular closed to the public, but closed to everyone. They even took the time to move large boulders in front of certain access points, and the boulders refused to acknowledge my nifty orange permit to ingress. Digging a tunnel underneath the boulders was out of the questions, and I left all of my dynamite at home. Ugh. Evening birding opportunities come few and far between now, so after shaking a fist at fate, I decided to explore the adjacent farmland and see who was left in the dregs around Tres Rios, the muddy farmland around the beautiful preserve that sinks into the landscape like the gritty gunk at the bottom of a wine bottle.

Of course, before I fully exited the Tres Rios site, I paid a quick visit to Burrower's Row and greeted its quaint residents. The soy crops and alfalfa along Burrower's Row were recently harvested and the Owl numbers seemed to be down. They were also staying much farther away from the road than normal. It was sad to see the Row in a state of relative disarray, but if the owls have lived here for more than a year then they're probably used to it. They seemed to be enjoying the sunset just fine. 

"Dude...I'm totally dilating right now!"

It was very disappointing to make the drive out to Tres Rios and find it closed, but birding in the surrounding area did allow for some safari-style (that is, in-the-car) birding, which is pretty rad when it works. From the relative shade and concealment of my vehicle, I got to steal looks at all the evening diners of Farmington Glen. Red-winged Blackbirds crouched low and munched away. With the chores of singing, mating, and rearing young seemingly past them, they were all unusually quiet.

In the back of my mind, I was secretly hoping for a gem shorebird, something rare and conspicuous like the Upland Sandpipers that turned up in southeast Arizona today. No such luck in the rare shorebird department, so it fell to the White-faced Ibis and Lesser Yellowlegs to represent, and all-in-all they did the waders proud.

These Ibis were having a little preen-n'-gossip session, no doubt making quips about who would be too fat to fly south for winter (or too not fat? I guess it's kinda the other way around with birds).

The Yellowlegs were a bit more conspicuous, or at least they tried to be. They didn't blend in very well but that was fine with me. Usually I only see Yellowlegs in Arizona around nasty sewage ponds, so it was nice to find them within a greener, healthier-looking environment.

A single Black-bellied Whistling Duck was the highlight of the evening. He flew in from the now off-limits Tres Rios preserve with his Red-winged Blackbird sidekick.

After making their grand entrance, this dapper duo paused only for a minute before they realized that Tres Rios was, in fact, a much better spot than this slough, and they soon departed. Oh, to have flown after them...

Bird activity wasn't restricted just to the semi-flooded farmland. The telephone wires and fences were covered with Eurasian Collared Doves--probably the largest concentrations I've seen in Phoenix--and they certainly were acting like they owned the place.

"The Sun is setting on the White-winged Dove empire...mwuahahaha."

Across the street a forlorn American Kestrel cast heavy glances towards some shrubs, perhaps mourning the field mouse that got away.

I was surprised by how quickly the sun set, but, I am proud to say, unsurprised by its beauty. It may just be empty boasting, but the Arizona sun really knows how to make an exit. A gorgeous sunset is probably the best way to deliver the news that birding time is over. 

A few more trips around the valley can hopefully tide me over to Labor Day weekend, and a trip to the Salton Sea. The sun never sets on the Birding Empire.

Friday, August 10, 2012


These past few weeks have been very busy with school about to restart. With the exception of one brief, photo-less trip to Glendale to see a Tri-colored Heron (nice!), my birding has come to a standstill. This won't hold forever, but maybe until next weekend. So, just to keep something new(ish) on the site, here's a repost of my monthly entry from Birding Is Fun. Apologies to those who have read and cringed
at it already.

For years now, my Pops and I would make trips down to southeastern Arizona, always enjoying the beautiful birds and scenery, but also leaving a bit unfulfilled. We weren't always there at the right time of year, and we didn't always try really hard, but the fact remained that despite a long residence in Arizona and not-infrequent trips down south, we never saw an Elegant Trogon. At first it was a palatable failure. We weren't too serious and Trogons are not common birds. But over time, we began to sense a great emptiness in our lives, a void in our existence that could only be filled by avian elegance, and so the need to view the Trogon grew and grew.

The frustrations and failures continued over the years, with the taunting of this psychedelic bird eliciting outbreaks of psychosis every summer. The Trogon changed from just an avian jewel to a full-blown nemesis, a very stylish nemesis, which is the most dangerous nemesis of all. Instances of missing the birds in Madera Canyon or the Chiricahua Mountains by a day or even hours turned the pursuit into something more than just a leisurely birding expedition. It became an existential imperative that we see the Trogon. It became...mortal combat!!!

The intensity and passion is always palpable when birders squeeze into a small sedan and head off into the mountains, and on July 19th the little red corolla must've been glowing as the Butlers Birds Team embarked on an epic quest down to the Santa Ritas once more. As per the usual, our main goal was to see a Trogon. But this time things were different. This time the phrase, "or die trying" was thrown around a lot. This time we had all the necessary ninja gear. This time we were ready. 

We didn't get up into Madera Canyon until the afternoon, having first made some great stops at Montosa Canyon and the Kent Springs Trail for Plain-capped Starthroat, Scarlet Tanager, and Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher. Seeing these other birds was awesome, and it was all part of a perfect and ridiculously circuitous plan. By going after other specialties and rare birds first, the Trogons would not be suspicious that we were coming for them. 

Loud and flashy, the Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher is a great decoy when one is going after a nemesis.

We ran into some other birders on the Kent Springs trail who were seeking the Scarlet Tanager (a rare bird for Arizona), and they informed us that they had heard some Trogons calling on the Madera Canyon Super Trail earlier that day. We made a mental note and then continued to search out this enigmatic Tanager. We eventually located the ruby-red bird and helped our earlier helpers to some great views as well, before heading over towards the Super Trail, an appropriately hyperbolic name for a nemesis showdown. 

Heading down Kent Springs and then further up the canyon was grueling. The heat was hot, as heat is known to be, and the humidity kept things humid, as humidity is wont to do. But no amount of adverse meteorology, not even meteors, could deter our meeting with the Trogons. Even when an adorable bricolage of bubbly birds--Bushtits and Bridled Titmouse and Bell's Vireos--came bumbling through, we stopped only for a minute. House Wrens and Canyon Wrens called to us as we hiked up the Super Trail wash, "Go back! It's too dangerous!" but soon they sat quietly on the sidelines, eager to see how it all would go down. 

The Wrens were not the only bystanders; other Madera residents, like this Yarrow's Spiny-tailed Lizard, peeked up to witness the reckoning. 

After hiking maybe a half-mile up the Super Trail, we began to hear the famous croaking calls of the Elegant Trogon. In fact, it seemed like there were two birds talking to each other. We scoured the trees for their bulky, long-tailed silhouettes. Beads of sweat began to form and run for the ground while the air held still, broken only occasionally by the koa koa koa that faintly echoed around us. After an eternal-seeming fifteen minutes, the calls came discernibly closer. I turned to face Pops and just as I did, a whooosing sound shot past my head. Reacting just on instinct and training, I tucked into a somersault, rolled forward in an action-hero kinda way (not really), and drew my Sony Sharpshooter. I looked up to see Pops' gaze transfixed ahead of me. There perched our elegant nemesis, resplendent and radiating with a show-stopping beauty nearly unparalleled in North America. Rather appropriately, the light was behind him, shining down in regal fashion.

The Elegant Trogon did not stay for very long, but even this brief sighting was enough to appease the aggravation of those fruitless years. The bird was incredible in the literal sense of the word; I couldn't believe I was looking at it then and there. The Trogon didn't exactly seem to fit in that sycamore and scrub-oak canyon. It didn't seem like his natural environment. Nonetheless, every year these tropical visitors bring the hard-earned reward of jaw-dropping beauty to the southeast Arizona birders, and this year we were finally among the lucky number.  

Seeing an Elegant Trogon was top priority this summer, and it came as one of our last sightings on the last real birding adventure of the summer. By golly, these birds know showmanship! And so, a tale of nemeses and hardship ends in happiness. So far, we've all lived happily ever after.

Posted by Laurence Butler
Clip Art courtesy of Maria Butler