Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Rope-A-Dope Phalaropes!

The Salton Sea is a weird place, so naturally it's popular with weird birds, like gender-role reversing Phalaropes. There were hundreds of Wilson's Phalaropes along the Salton shore, and sprinkled in among them, along with other waders and shorebirds, were little clans of Red-necked Phalaropes.

They were not as close to the shore as many of the other birds, and since they were in fact among the smallest birds at the beach that weren't also Peeps, I can understand how they wanted to keep a safe distance. At any rate, they still afforded better looks than I'd ever had in Phoenix, and their non-breeding plumage combined with the high temperatures to make me hungry for cookies n' cream ice cream.

Pops and I saw many birds around the Sea and I took many photos, but I think this distant shot of the chubby little Phalarope riding the tide is my favorite. Underneath this bird, the rotting remains of 94,328,954 fish drag back and forth across the sand, pushed and pulled by the gentle tide. Luckily, none of that shows up in the photos.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Sentinels of the Salton Sea

Much like on Tatooine and the other far-flung desert planets of our universe, the area surrounding the Salton Sea is a desolate stretch that seems the spurn the very idea of wholesome life. The inhabitants out there scrape their existence off of rocks and out of the ground. Life is bleak and the very notion of 'cheer' has not penetrated that far into the ether.

This impression does not radically change as one gets nearer and nearer to the saline waters, and yet certain signs of life start to pop-up out of the ubiquitous sandy scapes.

And not just literal signs, but something even more promising. All of the dirt roads leading around the sea are closely watched by winged sentries. With their eyes never blinking and minds always thinking, nothing enters or exits the sea without the sentries' knowledge.

The Burrowing Owls are only the first line of defense, the chain of outposts and alerts that sense any intrusions well before the intruder can catch a glimpse of the fetid fens and their feathered friends. Bawling Blackbirds and blathering Black-neckled Stilts fill the air with a crossfire of obnoxious screeching. Everywhere they patrol, never granting birders or explorers a moment's peace.

Sure, they look gentle and soft. So do babies, but you don't want to sit next to either on an airplane!

So...why? Why are they so diligent in such a desolate place? What are they guarding? What precious treasure does the Salton Sea contain, what consecrated commodity that requires such constant surveillance? Pelicans, obviously...

Sweet, helpless, innocent, pure, and jejune, the Salton Sea Pelicans that must be protected at all costs, even as their numbers swell into the thousands.

Despite their large size, powerful build, and legendary durability, White Pelicans are actually tiny, delicate, and exceedingly fragile. As such, the Burrowing Owls, Black-necked Stilts, and Yellow-headed Blackbirds have taken it upon themselves to keep the Pelicans safe and secure in the Salton Sea, where they can stay insulated from the cares and troubles of the modern world.

Tragically, some ungrateful Pelicans still leave the sanitized boundaries of their salty confines every day, showing a disregard and disrespect for the Salton sentries' efforts as they risk life and limb in superfluous displays of aeronautics. Floating is safe, but when the Pelicans fly, oh...the Burrowing Owls do worry so.

But the sentinels of the Salton Sea do not need thanks or recognition for their work. even in their stubbornness, White Pelicans are a precious commodity, and the self-satisfaction the sentries find in their sacrifice is reward enough for their service. Ever vigilant, ever ready!

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Go with God, Godwit

Godwits are intrinsically elegant birds and prodigious migrators, but they have one of the more etymologically befuddling names in the North American bird world. I saw a rampaging pack of Marbled Godwits at the Salton Sea a few weeks ago, where they lent class and poise to an otherwise harsh environment. 

Arriving back in Phoenix I figured, "Hey, they fly 7,000 miles nonstop while migrating. I can spend some time trying to figure out when and/or why they picked up their unusual name." 
I'm sure that flying 7,000 miles nonstop is still the more difficult task, but Godwit etymology is no picnic either.

After trading in many of my internet tokens and credits, the earliest instance of the name I could find was in a middle english dictionary entry that's actually talking about Attagens, a Mediterranean-area species of Sand Grouse. It did not lend any real reasoning or clues to the Godwit name (which I can only guess is used in a somewhat literal sense of 'God-wit': 'God-knower'). Here's the entry, from an english dictionary written in 1552:

"Attagen and Attagena, a byrde, which is found in Ionia. Thei are deceiued that take him for a woodcocke, it is most lyke a byrde called amonge vs a godwitte."

What is perhaps the most strange of all is that Grouses really don't look much like Godwits. 

These 'God-knower' birds don't look especially theological to me, at least not compared to Monk Parakeets, Northern Cardinals, or Orange Bishops. True enough, there is something heavenly, even angelic, in a 7,000 mile sustained flight, and these birds do have stunning plumage. However, I doubt the chroniclers and namers of the mid-1500s would likely have known about their migratory habits, or found them so awe-inspiring compared to Eurasian Bee-eaters or Hoopoes. Wit,' or 'witte,' could be taken to mean 'white' in old Dutch, but that doesn't really apply more than anything else.

 Despite their mysterious moniker, Godwits are great birds to observe, as I wish them well as they depart on their long journeys this fall. Go with God, Godwits.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Staying Alive with Irish Ponds

Hello Humans! And anyone else who might be visiting from beyond the stars...

It's been super busy these last few weeks. The opportunities for birding have been scattered few and far between other work and social obligations. Alas, I am not made of the sterner stuff required to endure a perpetual birding weekend. At least the residual glow and satisfaction from my early September Salton Sea trip has kept me alive, aided by some occasional forays to local urban sites.

Last Friday I made it out to the McCormick Ponds in east Phoenix/Scottsdale, hoping to maybe see some early waterfowl or an unusual migrant. The waterfowl have not yet arrived in Phoenix en masse, but the drab fall-plumage warblers are trickling through. I had some decent looks at MacGillivray's and Orange-crowned Warblers around the ponds, and was also happy to see Sparrow activity picking up as well. The McCormick ponds are a great place to see Lincoln's, Brewers, Song, and White-crowned Sparrows in winter. I'm hoping that later this year they'll pull in a vagrant White-throated or Golden-crowned to really put McCormick on the birding map.

There were no range rarities, but a perpetually blurry and intrinsically early White-crowned Sparrow was a noteworthy sighting. I don't know that I've ever seen White-crowneds in Phoenix as early as September 14th before. Even eBird scoffed at my sighting, until I provided a photo that would make Bigfoot proud.

A pair of early Northern Flickers also added to the sense of prematurity around the ponds. I have to keep their images blurred too because they wouldn't sign a legal release for me to use their photos publicly. Bummer.

With lots of overhanging vegetation near water, the McCormick ponds are a pretty good spot for Flycatchers. They pull in summer Kingbirds and are a reliable location for Say's Phoebe, Black Phoebe, and Vermillion Flycatcher year round. It is too bad the top of this Phoebe's nasty pipe isn't brown. It could've matched the bird perfectly.

A Western Wood Pewee produced on my recent trip was a first for the location. He seemed to be gearing up for some flycatching just while the sun was gearing down. This may be one of those rare, purely nocturnal subspecies that hunts with echo-location and night vision goggles.

There is a large population of Great Egret and Herons in the McCormick area, and often times they try to disguise themselves as lawn ornaments on the golf course, you know, like those wire-legged flamingo decorations. They stand for a while and then evacuate their bowels in a very torrid fashion (If you've seen it, you know what I'm talking about!). This must drive the golfers nuts. The thought of them stepping in Egret discharge makes me chuckle every time.

As I was safely disguised as/behind a palm tree, this Egret felt comfortable enough to indulge in a little scruffy fluffy shakin' down.

As mentioned before, one of my goals this winter is to find a nice rarity at the McCormick Ponds. In part this is just to vindicate my trips to the area, as I've never encountered another birder there and do not know that anyone visits these sites anymore. I also feel like, in part for that reason, they're overdue. Even if I dip on the rarity this year, it will not be time poorly spent.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Pool Skimmers

A few of weeks ago Pops and I drove out to an infamous, festering hole of satan sweat in southeastern California also know as the Salton Sea. It was a great trip jam-packed with new and interesting smells as well as sunburn and, oh yes, some fabulous birding. We saw several new species throughout the day, and among the most impressive and memorable of our sightings was a colony of Black Skimmers at the Wister Waterfowl Management Area. The Wister area was our first birding hotspot of the morning. We saw close to forty species just in that locality, and it was the Skimmers that really got things started in grand style.

As we later found out from a ranger, several hundred Black Skimmers had been using the sandbar islands as a breeding around for the last few years. In doing some research for the trip (like any good bird nerd), I had not read about this breeding colony, so it was with great surprise and enjoyment that we heard about this curious colony of coastal birds who had set up shop some two and a half hours from the Pacific shores. 

While not quite as adept in the air as Terns, Skimmers are still excellent aviators, and they were much more comfortable in the air than walking or standing on their narrow islands with those highly specialized and highly cumbersome mandibles. 

Sporting black backs and solid white bellies, these birds are some of the most formally dressed fisherman one will see around the Salton Sea. Despite their pomp and circumstance, getting close and observing these birds was not without difficulties. Pops and I arrived in the Salton Sea area on September 1st, the first day of dove hinting season. While we walked and drove around the Wister riparian area, the surrounding scrub continually echoed with errant shotgun blasts and bustled with potbellied men in camouflage constantly relocating with their camping stools. Being the only birders in the area and having a desire to get closer to our quarry, we had to keep our heads low as we drove along the Wister dikes, parallel to the Skimmer islands.

The Skimmers were not bothered by the proximal hunters, and the hunters for their part did stay in the shrub and away from the waterfowl. Pops and I sat in the car along the Wister dikes while the curious Skimmers flew around us, squawking to each other and trying to decide when it'd be best to fly down south like their recently departed neighbors, the Gull-billed Terns.

Pops and I had eaten our pre-birding sandwiches on the way over, but some of the Skimmers still had to catch their Saturday brunch. This was awesome. They skimmed the pools with such casualness and comfort. Seldom in the animal kingdom does such a dexterous form of feeding look like such a leisurely enterprise. The Skimmers turned fishing into an art. With hundreds of these birds swooping and skimming around us, it was truly a sight to behold. 

Although they were by far the most common, the Skimmers were not the only birds in the sky above the Wister area, and for that matter they were not the most boisterous either. Caspian Terns maintained a constant ruckus as they flew in between the Wister ponds and the Salton seashore to the southeast.

The Caspian Terns were joined by Ring-billed Gulls and a few other miscellaneous Terns. While on the look-out for any late Gull-billed, we also saw Forster's and a couple Black Terns (I believe that's what's pictured below). We hadn't even arrived at the Salton Sea proper yet, but already it was turning into a great day at the beach.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Red Herring or a Reddish Egret?

The end of August and early September is a strange time of year for birding in Phoenix. The usual birding patches are often under-populated, but there's and increased possibility to find vagrants at any little golf course pond or park around the city. After seeing a Roseate Spoonbill in Glendale a few weeks ago, I made other trips to the Desert Botanical Gardens, Tres Rios Wetlands, and Recharge Ponds, seeing little of note. Last week I dipped on a juvenile Purple Gallinule in Gilbert, but found myself back in the same area this week looking for a wayward Reddish Egret. After the Gallinule bust I was hesitant to chase another bird out there. It would be in the evening again, it would be buggy, it was overcast, and I didn't want to be late for dinner. Birding under the pressure of a time constraint is always lamentable, especially in the evening, when every wasted minute could cost you dearly, but nonetheless I saddled up and rode out to Gilbert on a red herring for a Reddish Egret.

The Reddish Egret was seen at some office complex ponds a mile east of the Gilbert Water Ranch--funny to see an uncommon vagrant so close to this famous vagrant trap, but not in it. I got an idea of the area thanks to a great, informative post from Peggy Thomas. At first look, the signs were not promising. the cul-de-sac of the pond where the Egret was last seen was deserted but for some manky mallards and a few Coots. Sinking into the mud with every step, I wandered along the western bank of the pond with a lingering pessimism, shooing away flies and looking without any real expectation. Before too long the waterway opened up  the willow trees thinned out. I was standing on the edge of a golf course. Exploring this liminal riparian are took me out of the mosquitos, and the wildlife sightings started to increase as well. A glimmer of Reddish hope was restored, and I switched into Hardcore Peripatetic Birding Mode (oh yeah, we've all been there huh?), using super sleuth skills and the scientific method to find the Reddish Egret.

Are you a Reddish Egret?

No, you are not a Reddish Egret...

Are you a Reddish Egret?

No, you are not a Reddish Egret...

Are you a Reddish Egret?

No, you are not a Reddish Egret...

Are you a Reddish Egret?

No, you are not a Reddish Egret...

Are any of you guys Reddish Egrets?

No, you are not Reddish Egrets...

I had not found the bird but with more sightings I was feeling better about the trip. The narrow, muddy causeway started to widen and the water started to pick up speed. I continued on the back excess of the golf green, moving farther away from the office buildings and the stagnant ponds behind them. Sightings of waders and waterfowl continued, and some distant silhouettes looked very promising.

Are any of you Reddish Egrets?
Yes! One of you is a Reddish Egret!


Like the Roseate Spoonbill, this was another new Life-list bird, and one I was not planning on seeing in Arizona. I watched this magnificently graceful bird wade in and out of the shade, careful not to encroach too closely as it plucked fish and frogs from the water features with seemingly little care for how disrespectful he was being of Field Guide range maps.

This Egret, like so many young Egrets before him, was banded in Sonora Mexico on June 11th. It'll be fun to see where else this intrepid traveler turns up this year, and if he decides to hang around the Phoenix area for a while, well, that's fine too.

On the muddy slog back to the car, I was treated to fly-by views of an American Kestrel, Turkey Vultures, Belted Kingfisher (a species of which I do not believe I will ever get a decent photograph), and this Great Horned Owl. The swampy little nook turned out to be a pretty great birding patch, one that I will incorporate into future visits to the area.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Sunset Birds and Song Sparrows

Last week I made the rash decision to dash and see a vagrant Purple Gallinule at the Gilbert Water Ranch on Sunday evening. This immature bird had been spotted off and on at one of the GWR ponds for the last few days and would've been another sweet lifer after the Glendale Spoonbill. So, putting off work and other responsibilities I drove out to Gilbert, with my optimism fading alongside the sun. This was one of those, "I know this is a dumb idea, but I'm doing it anyway. Why am I doing it anyway? I don't know, but you're here now so stop talking to yourself and look for the Gallinule! You're a jerk. No, you're a jerk!" moments. The Gallinule didn't show that evening, for me or the other few birders around. To add insult to injury, there were mosquitos EVERYWHERE. I hadn't really thought about that being a problem, but with all the standing water at the was bad.

Anyway, while dipping on the Gallinule I did get to enjoy another Arizona sunset and photograph some of the usual suspects in their shallow basins. The reflective water and technicolored light seemed to turn everything upside down. I may also have been in a state of mild delirium due to severe blood loss.

These Long-billed Dowitchers were tucking in for the night, caring not a wit about any nearby Gallinules or Nihilist Mosquitos (as in, they might've been carrying West Nile virus).

No Gallinules here...

This White-faced Ibis, an ancient and learned creature, was probably the highlight of the evening. They're just cool birds. With his timeless wisdom, he probably definitely knew where the Gallinule was, but would not say.

In order to see the Gallinule, I'd have to find a good spot and wait. This is easier said than done in general, and with the bugs around, I wasn't feeling very sanguine--though I do enjoy a good double entendre.

While sitting in my squalid state, a Song Sparrow hopped by very close, like close enough that I could've touched him. He kept me company for a few minutes before passing on. It was too dark out to take any reasonable photos, but it was a nice gesture from the Song Sparrow ambassador. It reminded me also that I had seen the different regional subspecies of Song Sparrows too, except for Pacific-Northwest, which was a neat realization. Below are three photos. One Song Sparrow is from the Pacific Coast, one is from the Southwest, and one is Eastern-race. Can you place all three?

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

A Birder Went To Sea Sea Sea

Hello Readers,

For the 11th month in a row, the future has arrived, and now since it is the 4th of the month again, my monthly contribution is up over at Birding is Fun

It's a brief description of the Salton Sea and some of the birds I recently saw there. I'll be following up with much more details and photos in the next weeks here at Butler's Birds, but in the appetizer it up now: