Friday, March 16, 2012

Thrasher Dasher: A Journey To West Phoenix

There is an infamous intersection out west of Phoenix. No, it's not some old ghost town or copper mine or the site of a wild western shoot out. Take Baseline Road from the I-10 interstate, and follow it down to the old Highway 85. When you've run into the Salome Highway intersection, a rather bleak 3-way stop occupied by only a single, shot-gunned stop sign, you'll be about 40 miles west of the city. Near this desolate intersection, out in the scrubby desert, skulking along the hot cracked dirt, is mankind's best hope of seeing Bendire's, Crissal, and Le Conte's Thrashers all in the same outing, or so the legend has it...
Truth be told this intersection is probably no better than any other little strip of desert along the Salome Highway, but this little patch is the easiest to pick out on a map, and it does tend to deliver.

I first visited the Thrasher spot in early January. Pops and I got fleeting looks at all of the big 3 Thrashers, along with Sage Sparrows. It was a great morning of birding but I didn't come away with any good photos. The Thrashers are very sensitive outside of the city and do not tolerate any sort of approach. After all, this is supposed to be their oasis, their stronghold from the flesh-eating Curve-Billed Thrashers that are all over Phoenix, but curiously absent out in the desert proper.

The Curve-Billed Thrasher is not a bird you want to encounter in an ally late at night.
I returned to the Thrasher spot, now intent on coming away with some better photos. Although the Sage Sparrows were gone, it was a beautiful morning of birding and I had great looks at both the Le Conte's and Bendire's Thrashers singing to the sky. That being said, they were as skittish as ever, and I'm still not satisfied with the photos. The lone exception was this stalwart Bendire's, who sang loud and hard from his tree top for a good five without faltering.

Note the stubbier and less curved mandibles on the Bendire's Thrasher, probably the best way to tell it apart from the Curve-Billed.

There was a couple from Wisconsin also searching for the Le Conte's Thrasher, and an hour later I ran into two more people searching for the very same chalky-white nemesis. It's funny how the Le Conte's seems to be the last Thrasher on so many peoples' lists. I had lucked out in seeing one Le Conte's earlier in the morning, and knew more or less where they could be found from my previous trip. It was with great pleasure and satisfaction then that I was able to guide both groups to a pair of Le Conte's, even if the birds were camera shy.

Not to get ahead of myself or speak too grandly, but with this being my first time ever leading a little birding trip in some capacity, it was fabulous fun! I'm looking forward to sharing and finding more of these opportunities as I better learn the Arizona species and spots.

This first shot of the elusive Le Conte's characterizes the bird's attitude pretty well. Perched atop his little deadwood atoll, this male hid his face behind his foot as we raised our binoculars.

It made me feel like I was a part of avian paparazzi.
As far as bird families go, the Thrashers all look relatively similar (Ha! pun point!). That being said, there's no mistaking the Le Conte's. It's a long, slender, eleven inch bird, and its chalky, grey/white wash is very unique, as is the dark amber eye.

With 4 people doing the new bird dance, the trip was well worth it. At times, it seems the Le Conte's can be a ghost in the desert. We were lucky to find the phantom and hear its haunting call before it vanished into the scrubby sands.  

Great Birding!