Saturday, October 6, 2012

Better Go to Papago

I'm still on a high from this morning's birding. Waking up at 6 am, this morning did not feel any more glorious than Saturdays past, and with my intended destinations being the Desert Botanical Gardens and Papago Ponds--two areas I had birded very often and with few surprises--there was little reason to expect anything but the usual. I'd been on some great birding trips recently, but my photography is always lacking when I visit knew areas. The plan today was to focus on some local spots and get some better shots of common Phoenix birds. The temperature had dropped a little bit, winterfowl were starting to arrive, and there's always the off-chance for a vagrant.

American Coots are not rare vagrants, and in fact descend on Phoenix by the thousand each autumn.

Since the DBG does not open until 8am, I had Maria drop me off at the Papago Ponds. The Papago Park has some nice rock formations, but the three little ponds are not very scenic. Even so, they are one of my favorite places to view waterfowl in the Phoenix area as they're fairly narrow and allow for closer looks without spooking the birds. This was my first trip out in several months, and I was immediately greeted by some Northern Pintails, Coots, and three Ring-necked Ducks. The Ring-necked Ducks were already in their breeding plumage but the Pintails were still being all solar-eclipse.

Floating out with the Ring-necks was a different, curiously shaped specimen. It had a spiky, erect tail, and since its head was tucked away I wondered if it might be some weird Ruddy Duck. As the bird turned around though and revealed its slender beak, revealed itself to be some sort of Merganser.

This was exciting! I'd never seen a Merganser in Phoenix before, although it's not a super uncommon sighting I'm sure. I knew that Common Mergansers turn up in the fall and winter--I'd just never seen them--and Red-breasted sometimes migrate through. But this bird was smaller than those other possibilities. At maybe eighteen inches, with a dark grey and yellow beak (as oppose to the pinkish-orange Common Merganser) and white showing on the primaries...this was a female Hooded Merganser. Hey, it's not a jaw-dropper, but it's uncommon enough that I knew eBird would flag it, and don't that sort of thing just make a birder feel like a million bucks?

After observing the Merganser for some time, watching her dive, bathe, and preen like some sort of creepy person, I headed down the canal to the DBG. I still consider the Botanical Gardens to be one of the best desert birding areas in Phoenix, but today they were a total bust. I saw eight species inside the grounds. Eight! Not a single Lesser Goldfinch, Cactus Wren, or even a Mourning Dove!!! It was very weird. There were lots of people there already, in part due to the late opening time and there seemed to be some sort of upcoming feature event. Whatever the reasons, the birds were nowhere to be found. Despite the DBG being largely deserted, I did see a Yellow-breasted Chat in the Wildflower Garden, which was a very pleasant surprise, especially given the otherwise low turn out.

The birding was much better at Papago so I decided to walk the desert trail out of the DBG and back to the ponds, thinking maybe I'd find a Rock Wren or Roadrunner along the way. About a quarter mile in I flushed a long-winged gray bird--clearly some sort of goatsucker. Without too much hope, I watched it fly away, expecting it to disappear into the distant hills. To my surprise, it only flew a short distance before landing in a creosote bush.

I had not seen distinct white flashes when the bird flew, and it seemed a bit small to be Lesser Nighthawk. However, the bird clearly had a long tail, too long for Common Poorwill. Regardless of the final ID, I was very giddy. I'd been wanting one of these sightings all summer, to be able to finally study a stationary goatsucker in the daylight.

I'd always loved watching these birds hunt in the twilight hours, appreciating their physique and dexterity even before I was an obsessive birder. But only with better light could I finally see the incredible feather detail and all the subtle coloration. Totally stunning.

Eventually the Nighthawk noticed that I'd noticed, and it took off. I felt bad to flush the bird a second time, but at least no one else would be passing through for a while, so it'd get some peace and quiet for the rest of the day.

Back at Papago the Merganser was still cruising around (in fact, the earlier photos were taken on this second visit). The Finches, Towhees, and Thrashers that should've been partying at the DBG were all crowding around the ponds too, while skulking Green Herons stood watch in the trees.

A few dozen White-throated Swifts flew overhead and spent a few minutes snatching invisible bugs out of the invisible air. It was neat to see them in action so (relatively) close and I was able to snap a few distant shots of these fast flyers.

I left Papago feeling totally rejuvenated. It had been a few weekends since I had a really good bout of birding and photogrpahy, and the aftershock of this morning will keep me going for a while. Picking up Hooded Merganser, Lesser Nighthawk, and White-throated Swift puts me at 253 species identifiably photographed, passing the 250 goal I set for this year. Good birding!