Thursday, June 21, 2012

Out of the Woods and Back in Town

Well, you all have been great sports while I've done post after post about birding up in Pennsylvania. Here we are finally. We're out of the woods, so to speak, with these last two birds from my wonderful Pennsylvania vacation. In a certain sense I saved the best birds for last, not photographically speaking, but in terms of the experience I had in finding them.

This Ovenbird was the only new Warbler I saw in Pennsylvania. I find myself rather pleased and surprised to say that I'm not disappointed in how few wood Warblers I found. I wasn't overly optimistic to begin with, and in fact wasn't even really expecting an Ovenbird. I found this quirky character hopping around in the undergrowth at Ridley Creek State Park during an afternoon thunderstorm. The temporary downpour had driven all of the other birds into hiding, but this lowlife (in the sense that he lives low to the ground) had plenty of cover and seemed unperturbed. Watching him hope around in cadence with the pitter-patter of the rain was a very cool experience, one I seldom have back in Arizona.

Ovenbirds are named for the shape of their nests, and perhaps also for their prowess in the confectionary arts. I didn't see any nests around, and in fact this bird didn't stick around for very long either. That's the way with Warblers, and even though the Ovenbird looks more like a compact Thrush than a Warbler, it's a handsome bird in any setting.

The White-eyed Vireo was the last bird I added to my Pennsylvania/New Jersey list, new bird number twenty-two for the trip. I had been wanting to see one of these Vireos for a long time. They are much more frequently heard than seen, and it was on my last day of birding that one began chiming out from some marginal woods at Stroud Preserve. I was birding with some folks from the West Chester Birding Club,  for whom this must have been a common occurrence, as they quickly ambled on after a possible Lincoln's Sparrow (a common bird out west, but a rare sighting in Pennsylvania). Well, my priorities were much different, so I plunked down and waited to see if the Vireo would come into view. The Lincoln's Sparrow never materialized, but after about ten minutes the White-Eyed Vireo popped up and gave me a great look at those namesake peepers.

Looking in books and online, I never really appreciated all the different yellows on this bird until I saw it in person. Of course, the white eye, situated in the bird's unusually bulbous head, is the most striking feature, but all together the White-eyed Vireo is a beautiful little thing. Since it was shady and overcast, the autofocus on my camera was having trouble. I had to shoot with manual focus, and mercifully a couple shots came out half-decent--never something for me to take for granted with a new bird.

Back in Phoenix, I visited the Gilbert Water Ranch in the evening, and was shocked at the low levels of bird activity. I've been there in the summer before and still never recorded less than thirty species. The place was about as dead as it can be, and there was even some water in the basins. Needless to say it made me miss the Pennsylvania woods.

There were lots of juveniles around, so the local bird populations seem to be doing pretty well. Even so, that sweltering heat really, ironically, puts a damper on things. This little duckling couldn't stand to have his fuzzy face out of the water.

Though his black and white coat was coming in nicely, this young Gila Woodpecker was also pretty frazzled. Unlike the cactus of which they are so fond, these birds can't go for months without water.

The juvenile Abert's Towhees definitely seemed to be coping the best, and this was to be expected. Towhees seem to be one of the few species here in Arizona that can be found outside feeding and bouncing around regardless of the time. Morning is just as good as noon for these scrappy birds, but that may be in large part because they're never far away from the shade.

I also checked the Glendale Recharge Ponds which, like the Water Ranch, were surprisingly full of water and vegetation. Unlike the Water Ranch, Glendale was also full of waterfowl. Hundreds of Black-necked Stilts fill the basins, accompanied by almost as many Avocets and Killdeer. Several American Wigeons and a pair of Northern Pintails provided some puzzlement, and a low flying Peregrine Falcon gave everyone a buzz.

With some selective cropping, one can make these basins appear as though they're part of some wonderful waterworks, instead of an improvised oasis in the middle of desert suburbia.

Despite all my complaining, in a way I am actually looking forward to the temperature increase in Phoenix. Most of the good birding must be done at higher elevations now anyway, so taking it as a given that I won't see a lot in the valley, it'll fun to say I've been birding in 120° F heat, maybe even start a separate list for that extreme!