Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Never Bored on Mount Ord; Never Sick of McCormick

I finally made it out to Mount Ord this Sunday. For one reason or another (work, social obligations, laziness, and standardized testing) I'd been postponing this trip for too long. At long last, I was able to head uphill and see what lurked at the higher altitudes or Maricopa County. Only about an hour outside of Phoenix, Mount Ord combines desert scrub with oak and pine forests at elevations up to 7,500 feet. It's a big, winding, rocky, dusty mountain, and the birding there can be hit or miss, but it does pull in lots of migrants and hosts some species that cannot be found anywhere else in the central part of the state. I dipped on some of Mount Ord's signature species, like the Gray Vireo, Pygmy Owls, and Band-tailed Pigeons, but still came away with some new lifers and, thanks to the hiking, total inhibition for pigging out at dinner.

Leaving the house at 4:30 am, I arrived at the base of Mount Ord well before sunrise and had to snooze in the car for a little while until I had some light. The drive up to the top of the mountain passes through some winding sage brush, the perfect habitat for Gray Vireos and Black-chinned Sparrows. The gamble paid off in that I did glimpse a few distant Black-chins, but the Vireos eluded me. Always eager to provide an omen, this Turkey Vulture circled overhead while I scoured the scrub for little gray birds.

After a fairly unproductive exploration of the summit, I spent the rest of the morning and early afternoon exploring Forest Road 1688, which runs around the side of the mountain at about mid-altitude and has more of the shady, birdier pine growth. Spotted Towhees and White-breasted Nuthatches were the most common birds of the day, but one of my favorite sightings of the morning was a pair of purple-eyed Red-breatsed Nuthatches.

Mixed flocks of Nuthatches, Juniper Titmice, Kinglets, Vireos, and Juncos provided little bursts of excitement throughout the hike, but there were also long dry spells. The downside of mountain birding is that you move at half-speed while the birds still move just as quickly, and they have such a massive area in which to move...it can be a photographic quagmire. This Hermit Thrush was about the only other bird that came out to have its picture taken, content as he was to rustle around in low-lying juniper while everyone else cavorted up high.

There was a lot of down time (birdless time) on the mountain, but always still plenty to see. The mountain views are stunning, but I seldom remember to take pictures of them, in part because the photos don't do them justice. There are little things to appreciate on Mount Ord too.

One doesn't have to be a hard core lepidopterist to enjoy the Painted Lady Butterflies, nor an arachniholic to appreciate the Desert Tarantulas. I ended the Mount Ord excursion with about thirty species of birds and enough dust in my shoes to make a whole new person.

On the way back from Mount Ord, I decided to swing by the McCormick Ponds to supplement my very shallow avian photo pool. I didn't find the big rarity I'm waiting for there, but did get to practice some action photography. As the evening started to set in, hungry birds started to move out.

Large and slow, Great Blue Herons are accommodating subjects for in-flight photography.

Timid and fast, Kingfishers are generally a photographic nightmare. This doesn't make birders or photographers or birdographers love them any less.

Killdeer aren't super fast or super shy, but they are really loud and annoying. Up to this point, I did not have any passable in-flight photos of these raucous birds, so it was very nice to have this curious cuss cruise by with unusual poise and serenity for the perennially anxious species.

Like so many of the Phoenix area waterways, the McCormick features are tied to a well-watered and well-maintained golf course. Unfortunately, golf courses don't have the same appeal for shorebirds as sod farms, but they do provide a decent setting for some other avifauna. The McCormick Ranch course, for example, is covered with Say's Phoebes.

They're pretty skilled aviators. Catching bugs in the air is like bobbing for apples while flapping your arms really fast. Ok--I've never actually bobbed for apples in that manner, but I bet it's a challenge.

No Common Cuckoos or Northern Lapwings turned in Phoenix this weekend, but the birding was great as ever.