Thursday, November 29, 2012

Greetings Greater Yellowlegs

Bright eyes, long Yellowlegs, slim toned body, sharp-beak...sounds like the perfect woman eh, one about which many quirky Indie-rock ballads will be written and sung on college campuses across the U.S? Well, surprise surprise, these are also characteristics of the stylish Greater Yellowlegs.

These sharp looking birds are pretty common around the larger Phoenix ponds and canals during the migration months and, to a lesser extent, the winter time. Unlike some of the similarly shaped Stilts and shorebirds that also frequent these habitats, the Yellowlegs like their privacy and are harder to approach. I spotted this bird at the Fountain Hills Lake a few weeks ago, where it was feeding in the water down below a berm. Nearby joggers and onlookers by darned! I left my dignity with a change of clothes in the car and began the wet, grass-staining belly crawl along the top of the berm towards this bird, knowing that this would be one of the better photographic opportunities that'd come my way.

With the elevated berm concealing me from the bird, I focussed the camera, dialed down the exposure compensations, and prepared to fire away. One or two more adjustments, a few more feet of crawling,  and then...ATTACK!
Ugh, photo-bombed by a Coot. He jumped in front of my shot like an old pro. These guys would make excellent bodyguards if they could ever go for more than ten seconds without attacking each other.

The American Coot moved on and, luckily, the Yellowlegs was still there. The larger size, longer beak,  more upright posturing (not always), and general sense of elevated superiority help tell this bird apart from Lesser Yellowlegs, which are also less common around Phoenix. I love the black perforations along the feathers.
Yellowlegs are dainty and delicate, but they also like to fly around and belt out their rattling alarm calls when I really wish they wouldn't. There may not be any great Indie-rock songs about these birds yet, but I'm sure some enterprising birders will get on it soon.  

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Clay-colored Sparrow

I try to practice my Sparrow ID a lot. As far as the difficult ID groups go (Flycatchers, Gulls, Sparrows), I consider myself to be strongest with these little brown jobs. However, I am ashamed to admit once again that, upon further review of a photo I took last November, a little over a year ago, I made another misidentification.
Earlier this autumn I was commenting that I expected the McCormick Ponds to produce some rarity this winter, but all I had found thus far was a very early White-crowned Sparrow.

Upon reviewing this photo though I realized that what I had first written off as a Brewer's Sparrow was, in fact, a vagrant Clay-colored Sparrow. Though uncommon, these Sparrows do stray into Arizona, though I haven't heard many reports this year. This was a life bird for me, though I didn't know it at the time, and I can now add it to the list of unusual Sparrows I've seen in Phoenix, alongside Cassin's and Rufous-crowned.

So, once again I proved to myself what a novice I still am. This time it doesn't sting so badly though. Clay-colored wasn't really on my radar and now I can say McCormick has provided me with that all important rare bird to really solidify it as a grand old birding spot. This also brings my birding list for this year up to 349, only 1 away from my goal!
It's not a Brewer's Sparrow, but I still think a nice cold celebratory brew is in order.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012


November is a funny month for the bird world. Migration is mostly over, but stray birds still move around, and others start to appear with such subtlety, with such little fanfare and announcing, that one wonders if they ever left at all. One such bird is the Wilson's Snipe (yes, a Snipe is a real bird). These sneaky shorebirds turn up in Arizona and the southern half of the U.S. throughout the winter. They're secretive by nature, but towards the end of November they start appearing out of the foggy, misty mud in the Phoenix marshes. I enjoy when their pictures then start turning up over the blogosphere, and try my hand at Snipe sniping as well.

Wilson's Snipes have excellent camouflage and are generally silent. Sometimes they feed out in the open, but more often than not these birds are seen after they've flushed. The Gilbert Water Ranch is one of the best places around Phoenix to see these birds and maybe snap a few photos, as the shallow mudflats they favor are mercifully close to pedestrian paths.

They feed the most openly in the mornings and evenings, like many birds, but in my personal experiences I've found them to be more crepuscular, and see them the most often at dusk. Naturally, this makes photographing them tricky.
At least there'll be Dowitchers nearby no matter what when where how or why.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Female Buffle all in a Ruffle

Buffleheads are perhaps the most uncommon wintering duck in the Phoenix area that is still widely expected throughout Maricopa Country, meaning they're not rare, but they're readily visible either. They're small birds themselves of course, and they're numbers are small compared to all of the other larger ducks species. They tend to prefer larger, deeper bodies of water, which makes them more unusual to spot and photograph without a scope. Like lots of other diving duck species, they're also more skittish, and make photo-documentation tricky.

While looking for Mergansers out at Fountain Hills Lake, I could see the white and iridescent fontanel of a male Bufflehead out in the center of the water. He had a female friend with him, and while he always stayed situated pretty centrally in the big body of water and out of range, she'd periodically fly around in a state of considerable distress, as if she's just woken up and realized she was in the middle of a desert or something. Anyway, this is a photo-first for Butler's Birds.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Eared Grebe

While on a trip to Fountain Hills a few weeks ago I obtained my first presentable photos of Eared Grebes. We do fairly well with Grebe species in Phoenix, and there are usually four of five species present, if in small numbers, throughout the area. Arizona itself can host all seven North American species, and last year I managed to see all seven within a month of each other. 

Behind the Pied-billed Grebe, which can be found in small quantities on just about every gold course pond, city park pond, and water treatment/reclamation area in Maricopa, the Eared Grebe is the second most common. But like the Western Grebe, these birds seem to stay in very specific areas throughout autumn and winter, earning them the very nebulous and dreaded notation of "locally common."

They can be found at the Tempe Town Lake, Fountain Hills, and some other areas in west and east Phoenix, such as the Glendale and Avondale Recharge Ponds and Granite Reef Salt River sites. But there are other areas, seemingly just as large and deep, when I never see them nor have seen them reported. As such. they're not an uncommon bird, but it's always a treat to see them, even though they seldom come close enough to shore for photos.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Early Birds

Here are some of the Arizona backyard desert scrub essentials, photographed din early morning light. These birds are part of the staple base for good desert birding. The boost daily birding lists and provide the foundation for less frequent but more exciting findings. They're the staples that hold everything together, and even though staples are, let's be honest, one of the less-fun office supplies both to shop for an to use, these staple birds are still pretty important. And they still look pretty good too.

Gamble's Quail are about as handsome as they come, and their chicks are some of the cutest too. They nest in oleander hedges and other concentrations of vegetation all around town, and their anxious clucking fills the evening air.

 Northern Mockingbirds need no introduction. They're sharp birds, both in their aesthetic and in their attitude. They're pretty big jerks actually, and seem to prefer making enemies to making friends or allies, but hey they're successful, so much so that they're the official state bird for Florida, Arkansas, Tennessee, Mississippi, and Texas.

I probably post too many Verdin photos here, if that's possible, but they're basically the only little pretty desert Warbler-esque (they're not actually Warblers of course) birds that are found year round and are pretty cooperative photo subjects. Interestingly enough, the name 'Verdin' translates to 'yellowhammer' in french. The Yellowhammer is also another (antiquated) name for the Northern Flicker here in the U.S., and there's a whole different species of bird called Yellowhammer in Europe. Curious.

Curve-billed Thrashers are expected anywhere around Phoenix except, oddly enough, at the famous 'Thrasher Spot' west of the valley which is the only place to see Le Conte's, Bendire's, and Crissal Thrashers--all the rare ones. Though they reside the less wild/more boring areas of the state, they're big fans of dramatic posing, so it evens out in the end.

Mourning Doves are common everywhere, and I do get sick of seeing them or flushing them from a bush when trying to track some other less usual species. They're pretty in their own right though, and sometimes they can be downright delightful, which I guess goes for just about anything in the natural world. Hope y'all saw some good birds this weekend!

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Monday, November 12, 2012

I'm So Full Of Egret...

This past weekend I made a series of stops at some sweet waterfowl areas around Phoenix. The objective for the day was to see some male Hooded Mergansers, but that is a story for later this week. I've often found that when I set out with a specific goal in mind, I usually get lots of good stuff, even better stuff, on the side.

The partly cloudy, mostly chilly Saturday started off with an elegant Snowy Egret hunting before the sunrise at Papago Park, the first of several Egret encounters I had throughout the day.

This is not the first time I've been able to photograph a Snowy pretty close in the pre-dawn light. Of course, with little light there is little color and little feather detail to pickup in the photos, but as far as dark blue photography goes, I must say that the Snowy Egret is an excellent subject, especially because I always blow the whites with too much exposure in the full sunlight anyway.

I like how the curvature of the bird matches the outline of the rocks behind its head and neck here. Patience paid off for this silent assassin. Every minute or two it'd snap and swallow a little minnow. Alas, high shutter speeds and good light are essential for photographing those moments. Regardless, it's not too hard to appreciate the bird's aesthetic.

Snowies are exquisite birds, but they're not the biggest Egret on the block. My quest for Mergansers took me out to the lovely Fountain Hills Park in northeast Phoenix, and there, where everything is on a magnified scale, there are plenty of superlative Egrets on display.

"Great? Me?"

Like their smaller, snowier cousins, the Great Egrets sometimes prefer the shade too, especially when they need to get their...umm...affairs in order.

The Kayan people of Burma revere those who have very long necks. The women wear neck rings in increasing increments as they grow up, elongating their necks to the point where they can't support the weight of their heads without them. I bring all of this up only to wonder aloud, what might they think about Great Egrets? They've got it goin' on.

These lanky stalkers will stand poised and patient for minutes on end with their heads cocked back, ready to strike. While watching them at times, I even began to wonder if they were really hunting anything at all, or if they were just having a staring contest with their own reflection, and then SNAP!

Torsion, power, speed, and pinpoint precision...I wonder if that little fish's life flashed before its eyes? I suppose, if it did, one day would look much like any other. Egrets are of course not the only animal, bird, or even wader to feed with this quick-fire strike. But as delicate and dainty as these birds seem at times, all of the impressive muscle movements in their lunges are impossible to see with the naked eye, at least for someone with naked eyes like mine.

I enjoyed watching the Egrets hunt, and they enjoyed eating, so it was a win-win at Fountain Hills Park. They're not the biggest type of Heron nor the prettiest, but they're still pretty Great.

I came away with a lot of material on Saturday and I'll be trying to publish every three or four days. There will also be a longer compilation of the day's expedition over at Birding Is Fun on Thursday. Cheers!

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Scootin' Coots and Sinister Cowbirds

The weather is finally behaving now in Phoenix, and Sunday evening I walked around Steele Indian Park just to enjoy the temperate outdoors...and to see what'd arrived at the local pond. Unlike some of the other Phoenix parks such as Grenada and Papago, I've never seen anything unusual or uncommon and Steele Indian. There are usually a half-dozen Wigeon and Ring-necked Ducks, along with about a dozen Mallards and two dozen Coots throughout the winter. Unlike the other parks though, Steele Indian often hosts a flock (swarm) of Brown-headed Cowbirds.

This doesn't seem noteworthy on the face of it, but I must admit that I don't actually see Brown-headed Cowbirds that often. They're certainly not uncommon, but compared to the Grackles and Blackbirds their urban presence is relatively light. But like other icterids they can be sinister. They're brood parasites, meaning they lay their eggs in other bird's nests sometimes, and they have a mean streak in em' even within the flock. This plain and pleasant female here is about to be ambushed by the jealous neighbor rising up in the background, while a male looks on complacently.

But the real action of the day, the BIG action, came when a quartet of clumsy Coots decided to enter the pond in as ponderous a way as possible--much to my delight. It might be a mean streak in me, but I find great pleasure and chortling satisfaction in observing the awkward machinations of American Coots. They have the shape of Guinea Fowl, which is to say, like a football, with big clown shoes and plodding personalities. And every once in a while they'll build of a head of steam running across a pond just to attack some other Coot that seemed to be minding its own business.

The first pair of Coots cleared the ledge with confidence, even panache.

The second team were a bit more hesitant, and they kinda flubbed it.

So yeah, pretty exciting stuff. They may be grumpy ol' Coots by nature, but every once in a while they can still be spry.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Tricks and Treats at Tres Rios

I did absolutely nothing for Halloween this year, and ya know what? It was great. That being said, I don't have kids or friends or good costume ideas, so the potential was never great. Anyway, my trick for good birding this weekend was getting some on-loan Swarovski binoculars in the mail, and the treat would be Tres Rios, one of my all time favorite Phoenix birding spots. A friend and fellow teacher Joe Swope also joined me on this chilly and birdy morning. We saw at least sixty-eight species of birds--an excellent count for November--and I even pulled an unexpected lifer.

Like a champ, Joe biked over to Tres Rios (91st ave and Broadway) from 24th street and Indian School. That's about two hours and over twenty miles. My bike had a flat tire and, not being one to let adversity overcome me, I drove :) Before the sun was fully risen, I drove down the old canal road that's about a quarter mile north of the Tres Rios site. This strip of shrub opens into farmland and is a very reliable place to see Burrowing Owls, along with Raptors and other telephone wire birds.

While Joe was still en route, I started driving along the mesquite and sage strands searching through the Sparrows. As one would imagine in November, it was ninety-five percent White-crowned Sparrows with a few Vesper and House Sparrows mixed in too. Now, I really like my Bushnell binoculars. They've served me well for years, and like those old Nokia cell phones, they're pretty much indestructible. But when it comes to picking out fine details and distinctions with mixed flocks of Sparrows...they can't hold a candle to the Swarovskis. The resolution and clarity with the Swarovski glass is incredible, and even at the same magnification as other binoculars, I was able to pick things out much more quickly and definably. With Swarovskis in hand, I noticed this skulking White-throated Sparrow, an uncommon bird for Phoenix and a new one for the ol' life list.

I don't want to go too head-over-heels, but I don't know if I would've picked this bird out of the pile without the new nocs'. The bold white throat is a giveaway with the golden lores, but when you've also got twenty White-crowned Sparrows tearing around and everything is thirty yards away, it's hard to tell.
I had been hoping to see a White-throated Sparrow in Arizona this winter, but the odds of finding one at the massive Tres Rios site were low, so I'd relegated it from the realm of possibility. I guess that's the Tres Rios trick, and my treat.

Speaking of tricky, here is a Great Egret scratching its own back.

The Tres Rios site combines lots of different habitats and, at its best, can supply an energetic birder with nearly one hundred species in a day. The trade off is that with the thick brush along the rivers and wide open spaces in between, it's terrible for photography. The birds are plentiful but very unused to people. They're extra skittish and likewise the photographer has few places to hide. I am continually frustrated with my photographic attempts there, but that frustration, in part, keeps me coming back to try again. Now having some swanky Swarovski specs helped with the distant birding, but unfortunately most images from today are of the 'little bird on a fence/twig variety'.

This shouldn't mislead from how excellent the birding really was. There were more Great Blue Herons and Great Egrets and Night Herons than we could track. We had five or six Osprey, Red-tailed Hawk, Kestrels, Pelicans, and plenty of Waterfowl. Common Yellowthroats, Yellow-rumps, and Orange-crowned Warblers were out in force, and three Belted Kingfishers always make for a good day. Here's Joe, first-time-birder-extraordinaire, checking out a Green Heron.

The solution to the photography problem is, of course, picking a nice spot and staying put. But with so much space and many different habitats around, it's hard to stay in one area, especially if you're going for variety. The one surprising dearth for the day was in the Waterfowl department--we didn't see that many ducks. However, we did see evidence of an intricate Heron/Egret dance number in some of the muck, which was pretty cool. 

It was great to get back out into the Arizona birding scene this weekend, and there are few places better to do so than at Tres Rio. The scale and scope of the site are huge. In fact, I really need a scope to make the most of it, especially because there might've been some Longspurs in the nearby agricultural fields.