Friday, December 27, 2013

A Hoody Home Coming

Phoenix area birders and photographer and photograbirders all eagerly await the winterfowl arrivals through December. They bring extra color and flavor to our ponds as well as the occasional rarity--most recently a Long-tailed Duck in Gendale. I was looking forward to the return of one particular bird this year, a juvenile Hooded Merganser that had wintered through his awkward adolescence at the Papago ponds last year. If he returned this year, he'd be in his sexy adult plumage. 
Of course, all the usual suspects were out in the nice sunny weather too. 

The gang of female Canvasbacks continues to swell this winter, with no males yet anywhere in sight.

Mangy Northern Shovelers have now arrived in force too; many of these birds still need to fully change out of their eclipse clothes.

The Merganser was reported several days ago, and has since attracted constant attention from the Phoenix photogs. It's a gorgeous bird and a pretty unique specimen of waterfowl. Most impressively, the Papago Ponds are tiny, and Hoodies are usually found out on the big deep lakes in Fountain Hills, where photos are much more difficult.

This tall, dark, and handsome male has now been the subject of many the photo shoot in recent days. Even when I arrived at 10am there were four other photographers positioned around the pond, and, thankfully, he didn't seem to mind at all.

He spent time preening in the shade and foraging amongst a powerful flotilla of Ring-necked Ducks.

He didn't spend that much time above water, and seemed to be playing a switcheroo game with his Ring-neck buddies. He'd dive down and then, after a ten second delay, it was not the Hoody that resurfaced, but a Ring-necked, Ring-billed proxy. 

Or sometimes a Ring-neck's coy mistress, with her snow-flaked chapeau.  

The Hooded Merganser wasn't a life bird, state bird, or year bird, or even a month bird, but an up-close encounter with this sharp-looking saw-bill carries the weight and satisfaction of a much more noteworthy sighting. I'll take him up close over a distant female Long-tailed Duck any day. Well, maybe not any day...

Sunday, December 22, 2013

The Crown-Jewel of Phoenix Winter Sparrows

Winter birding in the Phoenix area is exciting for many reasons. The ponds and waterways at last fill with more than just Coots and Mallards. The weather is finally agreeable for outings lasting past 10am. The sun doesn't rise until 7am, so you don't have to get up at 4am as in the summer months. My personal favorite aspect of winter birding in Phoenix is the sparrow-ing. Sparrows are my favorite group of birds behind flycatchers, and they descend on Arizona en masse in the cooler months. Regional specialties return and we're even treated to occasional vagrants with White-throated and Fox Sparrows turning up every year. In fact, some vagrants are more than random. For the last three years, a single Golden-crowned Sparrow has wintered around a little patch of (admittedly, well and thirstily maintained) greenery near the Desert Springs Golf Course in Sun City, 45 minutes northwest of central Phoenix. 

It was originally spotted by Dominic Sherroni, a well-established birder and photographer who also visited Phoenix in the winter months, but now since people have been looking it returns every year with an ever-increasing flock of White-crowned Sparrows. Presumably they all stick together in the spring and summer months too, but I have no idea where this merry band goes.

I saw the GCSP last winter but didn't have my camera with me. Then, on two subsequent trips with the camera, which always necessitates a terrible drive through Surprise, AZ, I couldn't relocate it. 
Third time was the charm as I again picked up this cool vagrant sparrow, but it seemed content to spend the early and overcast part of the morning up in a tree, being pretty un-sparrowlike.

Knowing I'd probably loose him but also growing impatient, I decided to poke around the golf course for any other accommodating birds. As far as golf courses go (and I have birded on a few), Desert Springs is pretty birdy. The two main ponds host Wigeon, Mergansers, and the occasional Wood Duck. Most of the expected desert residents can be found in the bordering landscape. In the liminal, manicured spaces between, nifty birds like this Green-tailed Towhee do their thing.

Of course, winter time also means the bulk shipments of Cardinals have arrived. 

Phainopeplas, Say's Phoebes, and Cactus Wrens dot the mesquite and ironwood trees on the periphery. Every good birding trip has to have a flycatcher in it somewhere.

After doing a pleasant little walkabout and giving curt 'good morning' nods to all the curt pedestrians (there is a deep mistrust of young people here, since it's a retirement community), I was also able to relocate the GCSP and improve a bit on the photo collection.

I figured it was foraging for seeds from the recently installed winter lawn--which it may have, in fact, been doing--but it also seemed perfectly happy just munching on the fresh shoots themselves. Getting some roughage and staying regular...these are important considerations for a Sparrow as well, even if it's not in breeding plumage.

These golf courses use absurd amounts of water, but I guess it does keep the migrants happy. I was very pleased to finally get some photos, and also to eliminate any foreseeable reason to ever have to drive back to Sun City in the near future. Later this week it'll be off to Rackensack Canyon in Cave Creek for Fox Sparrows. Merry Birding to all and to all a good sight(ing)!

Monday, December 16, 2013

Smartbush Sparrows and Rusty Hawks in West Maricopa.

For whom did the Bell's toll? Not too long ago, it tolled for the Sage Sparrow. That once noble and singular species was callously and scientifically split into two equally noble species with slight differentiation and range overlaps. Such splits are usually welcomed by birders, as it means another potential tick for the ol' Life List, and maybe even a 'buy one, get one free' if both species were seen before being divided. Arizonans came off particularly well with the split too, because both species can be found co-habitating in the central area of the state (and elsewhere), though it takes some serious scrutiny to tell them apart.  

The Thrasher spot in Buckeye, some thirty miles west of Phoenix, is already a famous and well-visited site. It's perhaps the best site in Arizona to turn up Le Conte's Thrashers, and often provides Crissal as well as Bendire's and Sage in the right months. Since it also plays host to both species of the former conglomerate Sage Sparrow, it's equity has only increased with recent appraisals. Never mind that it's next to a nuclear plant!!!

Last week I undertook a mission to find and photograph both of the new species, plus anything else that was up and about in the cold scrub. I succeeded in half of the endeavor--finding both species--but failed in photographing the Bell's Sparrow, which is also the less common of the two in central AZ. With this spot already being so high on many birdingpal's lists, I'm sure I'll get another chance.

The Sagebrush Sparrow tends to have a more distinctly gray head and heavier streaking on the back and mantle. The particular specimen shown both above and below had darker streaking, though it stopped a little shorter than expected, but the gray of the head shown pretty distinctly against the browner back, and as such I'll call this a Sagebrush.

The malar stripe is one of the better distinguishing features. Sagebrush Sparrows feature a malar stripe that is the same color as (thus, not in contrast with) the head and it tends to be of a thinner width. Honestly, this particular specimen troubled me a bit because the malar strip seemed thicker than I expected, having looked and many pictures of Sagebrush vs. Bell's comparisons on the interwebs. The lack of contrast still points to Sagebrush for me. That being said, it's maybe a tiny bit darker, and could this even be a younger, less apparent bird??? I dunno, I hate this hobby...

Before heading out west I met up with New Mexico birdingpal Mark, who was in town for several days and wanted to have some photo opportunities with the Arizona annuals. After we scoured the scrub for a bit, also getting quick looks and Bendire's and Crissal Thrasher, we took the scenic drive down Salome Hwy to Arlington, stopping for many the raptor along the way, including a handsome Ferruginous Hawk named Rusty Venture.

In the (sadly) few photo-ops I've had with this species, both of mature adults and immature birds (which can be told apart by their juvenile sense of humor and pimply faces), I have noticed a consistent, serial-killer stare when in direct eye-contact. Look at that gleam...he's got murder on the mind.

The Thrasher Spot and Arlington drive offers some great looks at some particular, esoteric species, but doesn't offer a surfeit of species overall. Thus, any trip to the west side of Maricopa is best capped off with an hour at Tres Rios to bump the day list into the seventy or eighty species tally where it belongs. I don't exactly hang my head in shame when I say this is perhaps the best photo of a Belted Kingfisher that I've managed--they're a skittish bird--but I kinda do.

For the first time ever, Burrower's Row just north of Tres Rios was deserted. We did drive by a fellow who was rather brazenly discharging his shotgun at blackbirds on the telephone wires nearby, so this was perhaps keeping the wise Owls underground. The detour wasn't entirely for naught though, as this American Kestrel stayed perched alongside the road long enough for some nice shots. Apart from Red-tailed Hawks, this is the most common raptor in Arizona, but it's pretty rare for me to see them at eye level--a nicer sighting, in fact, than the Burrowing Owls on which I am already spoiled.

An American Pipit was also pipiting along the berm. They're kinda dull birds but they make me happy.

The cattle farm on Broadway was not quite as productive as on my last visit, when I delightedly watched a family of Black-bellied Whistling Ducks frolic in the bovine excrement ponds, but any beer enthusiast appreciates this blackbird.

And Yellow-headed Blackbirds are just objectively pretty no matter what sort of enthusiast you are.

I'll try again for the Bell's Sparrow in a few weeks. On a related note...if you have any thoughts on the above Sparrow contrary to it being Sagebrush, let me know. Hope to see y'all in the field some time.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Floating Feathers and Easy Pickins' at Papago

It's that dreaded final month...people in curious clothes are rushing all over at absurd times of day to fill out their lists before it's too late. No no, it's not holiday shopping season (ok, that too). It's December, and all the Year listers are scrambling to boost their numbers before 2013 is expired. Whether it's another surprise chase or finally catching that elusive annual, birders are kicking it into high gear as the weather cools down and the sun hesitates more and more to rise. With so much going on at work and elsewhere, I'm afraid I've thrown in the towel for big chases in 2013 or trying to actively grow a bigger Year list. There have been plenty of great sightings this year and I have no complaints. In fact, just birding the local dives around Phoenix the other evening was all the more rewarding. It was calm; there was no requisite consideration of time or gas money. It's always good to get back to some seasonal basics every once in a while, especially before a new birding year begins...

The Papago Park ponds are now well-stocked with their predictable winterfowl, as are the other bodies of water around Phoenix. The birds are fairly acclimated to people and they're right out in the open. After many chases and photo-attempts on rare and skittish birds in hard-to-reach places, birding around town feels shockingly and sinfully easy. Of course, it doesn't award one many points on the Global Birder Ranking System, not like turning up a gorgeous Fork-tailed Flycatcher in Connecticut does, but these simple stops come with their own reward.

Instead of stopping to smell the roses, stop to wink at the Wigeons (don't bother smelling the Wigeons, it's uncomfortable for all involved). Pause and ponder their nice nose-whistling sounds and their awkwardly wide proportions.

Seriously, look at how wide and stable of a platform this duck is. You could play jenga on its back no problem. It's like the aircraft carrier of waterfowl.

It's been said a thousand times before, but the Ring-necked Duck, a very decent duck, is probably the worst-named bird in North America. Yeah yeah there's a ring on the neck, but it sure isn't a Ring-necked Pheasant. If we're going with the ring motif, maybe mention that it's the only North American duck with a (very prominent) ring on its beak? I mean, Mallards have ring-necks too...
Anyway, it's always a treat when these guys return en masse. I never get tired of photographing them. They're the perfect combination of accommodating but also difficult to properly and angularly expose. I think I nailed this gentleman though, if I do say so myself.

The females are a'ight, but even less noticeably ring-necked (still ring-billed though, er hem...).

And of course the backbone of every avian painter, except for Painted Redstarts, is the Canvasback. Last year there was a cooperative male at Papago. At first he was very skittish, but after a few weeks at the ponds he became more accustomed to the foot-traffic and I was able to get satisfactory shots. I'm hoping he returns this year to find a pretty, demure lady a-waiting for him.

Green Herons are one of those very cool, common birds that I never stop to appreciate anymore unless I'm otherwise making myself stop and appreciate such stuff--like wintering ducks. As soon as I see one hunting again, up close and without also wondering how much time I have to get to the next site, I'm reminded, "Wow, what a gorgeous bird. Where in the world do they put that neck!?"

Even with the purdy ducks now arriving, the Green Heron will likely stay the most colorful overall bird at the Papago Ponds, or if not then at least the coolest. 

And sometimes the most goofy.

I'll be getting back out into the desert this weekend after some Sagebrush and Bell's Sparrows, as well as any Thrashers that have arrived. Hoo knows, maybe even a Snowy Owl will turn up (ok, probably substantially farther north). 

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

High and Empty-handed with the Birds

There has too much inactivity on this site, or rather, not enough activity. At any rate, there certainly hasn't been enough rambling with some birds and junk thrown in the mix. I spent this past weekend up in the Denver area with some friends, enjoying a brief respite from work and trying to fit in some high-elevation birding on the side. Pine Grosbeaks, White-tailed Ptarmigan, Gray Jays, and maybe a Redpoll all taunted me in my sleep preceding the trip, but when I arrived at the mile-high city there proved to be little time and little cooperative weather for much actual, hard-nose birding. There are just so many micro breweries and other neat spots, plus we scored free tickets to a Denver Nuggets game...

Sloan Lake, right next to where we stayed for a couple of days, was awash with the many common varieties of brown, black, and white geese. The Canadas were to be expected--after all, it was a big park with a lake and nicely manicured grass--but I was surprised at the high number of Cackling Geese, who outnumbered the Canadas in many areas of the lake.

We have a few Cacklers turn up in Phoenix every winter, but I have not had the opportunity to photograph them before and Sloan Lake provided a welcome, easy opportunity. They didn't cackle really, but then it was a fairly quiet morning with little to cause a row.

There were some Flickers and Kestrels around the park, but other than these and the geese the only birds were Ring-billed Gulls who settled down into the grass like they were nesting on some remote arctic island instead of in suburban Denver.

Rather than driving directly back to Phoenix, we detoured for a day in Las Vegas to visit some other friends, which allowed for a bit of car-birding and, much more impressively, amazing views of the Rocky Mountains on a gorgeous drive through Colorado and Utah.

As we snaked across the Colorado River, I was able to pick out some Goldeneye in the run-off lagoons. We also had some nice looks at the ever colorful and entertaining Black-billed Magpies, but these specimens would not tolerate any sort of approach for photography. I probably set the trip back an hour trying to snap shots of these frustrating birds.

I was hoping to make some stops to scan for Ptarmigans or any birds that could be found in montane forests as we gained altitude, but the fog rolled in so thick and reduced visibility so much (not to mention the temperature) that seeing birds of any sort became a pipe dream.

The birds were taking cover, but this eerie, frigid landscape certainly held its own allure...just not one the human body could tolerate for very long outside of the car.

Even having seen more birds or gotten some satisfactory Magpie shots, I think the scenic drive would have still been the highlight of the trip, at least as far as nature-ventures go. The descent into Utah was equally gorgeous, and I spent the next day recovering from a severely strained jaw that had been hanging open for entirely too long.