Sunday, February 5, 2012

Finding Some Pep at the Rio Verde

This morning I went out to the Box Bar wildlife-and-walkin'-around area at the Rio Verde, a nice little river running down the east side of Phoenix. The drive out through Pima was pretty nice too. It's that time of year when the rustic desert foliage is also joined by the green grass and wildflowers to create a very impressive collage of color. I met up with the family near the river, and we enjoyed each other's company as well as a quiet and cool mid-morning of birding.

We saw some Western Bluebirds, plenty of Yellow-Rumped Warblers, plenty of Black Phoebes, some Herons, some Red-Tails, and a possible pair of Hooded Mergansers (which took off immediately).

The main goal was to see a Phainopepla, a peculiar dark species of flycatcher that prefers the arid Southwest and can be found in pockets throughout the southern half  of Arizona. In rather unceremonious fashion, my first sighting came off of a telephone wire while I was still several miles from the hiking area. As I got nearer to the Rio Verde turn-off the sightings began to increase, and eventually I pulled over and began some highway-side photography because the desert just seemed to be bursting with Phainopepla activity, and you've gotta take what you can get. It was awesome!

This was the fourth Phainopepla I saw, and the first I was able to photograph. They're in their own group of silky flycatchers (I suspect they have some tropical cousins that also share the group), which must in part refer to their glossy shine and elongated anatomy. I love how slap-dash the crests are on these birds. It's clearly a crest, but it looks like it's losing the war with bed-head.

It was difficult to catch the male's ruby-red eye at times, but boy when it got some sun that thing could really radiate!

While I was calling and whistling to this male (for no good reason really, it's just fun to imitate), this lovely female came by to investigate. It was probably not my calling that brought her in... in fact I'm sure it wasn't. What is apparent from this first picture is that she felt nature calling, and she discretely deposited her morning meal before flying over to her beaux.

I was geeking out pretty badly at this point, you know with the whole talking to yourself and exclaiming "Woah! No Way!" inhaling only to realize you haven't taken a breath for like the last 3 minutes. It was only a half-hope to see them in the first place, and now I had multiple Phainopeplas within camera-shot. With her solid grey, white wingbars, and striking eye, the female is a visual feast just as well as the male.

That being said, some angles flatter the birds more than others. From straight on the Phainopepla crest gives the bird a very rectangular head shape, one that reminded me a little bit of Frankenstein's monster.

After a little bit of flirting and playing hard-to-get, the female joined the obsidian male in his tree, where he continued to serenade and impress her with his silky-smooth moves.

I like to think that I brought them together. In all likelihood though, my presence was keeping them apart. I left them to their romance, myself feeling very satisfied and simply in awe. As I continued the drive down to Box Bar I saw some 7 or 8 more Peplas living it up in the morning sun. What a great way to start the birding day!