Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Lemmons to Lemonade

Earlier this month I posted at Birding is Fun about a bust of a trip I made up to the lovely Mt. Lemmon in Tucson. The plan was to see and photograph some Red Crossbills, but I came away only with one sketchy sighting of the target bird and no Crossbill photos at all. 

There was plenty of time on the mountain though to acquaint myself with some of the other high altitude residents, chiefly the Yellow-eyed Juncos, which can be found anywhere and everywhere above 7,000 feet or so,

and the Pygmy Nuthatches, which are loud and gregarious but nonetheless considerably harder to pick our from the tall ponderosa pines. 

While traipsing back and forth, up and down and all around the mountain, I found the Yellow-eyed Juncos to be everywhere: on the ground, on rails along the street (see above), up in trees casting condescending glares (see below), and all the mediums in between.

One of the Junco chieftains was particularly sociable, and this was evidenced not only by its brazenly close approach to a big gangly human, but also the proud jewelry it wore to show it had a history of such interactions. With both legs decked out in colorful bands, this bird really must've been the toast of the mountain.

I sent the banded bird's information into the USGS banded bird site, already satisfied with my Lemmon of a trip mostly do to the Juncos I saw along the way. It was all the sweeter then to quickly hear back from the banding lab and get this certificate with information on the particular bird. It's also warm and fuzzy to know that the USGS officially, and in writing, appreciates lil' ol' me.

I found it particularly satisfying and delightful to learn that this bird, with the green and yellow on one leg and silver and white on the other, was at least four years old.
Cheers to you 2030-27116, my favorite Junco in the world!

Monday, January 28, 2013

Floored with birds at Florida Canyon

It's not really a secret anymore, but nestled just a little bit away from the world-renowned Madera Canyon in the Santa Rita Mountains is one of the must-see winter destinations in the Arizona birder's travel log. Florida Canyon doesn't pull in quite as many spring and summer attractions as Madera Canyon or those old guard canyons in the Huachuca Mountains, but for the last two winters now it's hosted Rufous-capped Warbler, an exceedingly rare and beautiful vagrant from Mexico that does as much to give the canyon its namesake (meaning, 'flowered' in Spanish) as any of the flora. And there are lots of other great birds hanging out too.

I was fortunate to see Florida Canyon's main event last February while on tour with Birding Is Fun's Robert Mortensen and Jeremy Medina, but I was forever nagged by my unsatisfactory photos, and Pops still had to log this jaw-dropping bird to his ABA list. What more of an excuse is needed?
Truth be told though, I was feeling anything but confident when we arrived at the base of Florida Canyon. It was bitterly cold outside (in the 20s) and in from 7:30am to 9:30am we saw maybe seven actual birds and only four or five different species. With the canyon slopes keeping out the early morning sun, it was simply too cold and dark. The birds were much wiser than we were.

We ambled up and down the lower canyon, staying within a half mile or so of the old dam that used as a checkpoint for the Warbler location. The sun would occasionally burst through the clouds and we'd get small doses of activity, but with snow all over the ground and the weather so uninviting, I had a hard time imagining what would keep tropical Mexican warblers in this far north of their normal range.  
For a while we had to content ourselves with some of the braver local birds, and sightings of the chromatically opposed Pyrrhuloxias and Mexican Jays, along with the sweet serenades of Canyon Wrens, kept our morale high enough. 


By 10am the sun finally got its act together and the birds started to make up for lost time. The canyon started to echo with more and more chatter. Rogue groups of Lesser Goldfinches and Kinglets began their daring daylights raids and then, all at once we felt as though we were being swept off our feet! A massive mixed flock made it's way down the canyon, gathering birds and noise like a tropical storm. Dozens of Black-chinned Sparrows joined with Bridled Titmice and the Finches to form a feathery gallimaufry that conglomerated with Lincoln's and Song Sparrows along the creek to obliterate every exposed seed and insect in their path. 

I was particularly jazzed to get so many nice views of the Black-chinned Sparrows, an uncommon emberizid I'd seen only once, and fleetingly, before. Of course, being camouflaged Sparrows with an affinity for low-lying scrub brush and an constant motion, they weren't the best photo subjects, but I wasn't complaining. These birds alone made me feel the trip was worth it, and there weren't even any Warblers (including Yellow-rumped!) in sight.  

We followed the big mixed flocks down the Canyon, with great delight. After the first two hours of frigid birding we had scarcely logged a dozen species, but in the span of fifteen minutes it shot up near forty, as the Bridled Titmice and Bushtits met with the other foragers and caused a sensory overload. In all the madness we even managed to see (and hear) fives Wren species. The Canyon, Rock, Cactus, Bewick's, and House Wrens all made appearances--my first and only five-Wren day, and this was, again, all within a very short span of time. Thinking back on it now, the Wrennaissance was perhaps the most remarkable experience of the trip... obviously I didn't get any photos to prove it.

After half and hour or so of mixing with the mixed flock, Pops and I felt like we were finally starting to get a lid on everything. Ladder-backed and Acorn Woodpeckers were starting to pop in at points along the canyon, and jealous Jays were always squawking in the background. Some larger, pointy-headed Finches caught our attention as they made their way down the grassy canyon slope (west side), with their noises and coloration seeming very good for Cassin's. While trying to snatch a photo of these fleeting Finches, a different flash of color cut across the west-side path and stopped me dead in my tracks. I had almost forgotten we were after this bird!

From the grassy cover on the west side of the trail, a single Rufous-capped Warbler darted to the base of a scrub oak. After much shivering and scheming, it had finally worked out! Though the bird only stayed close for a minute, Pops and I both got beautiful up-close looks of this well-traveled bird--for all I know the exact same one I saw last year. We watched it forage down on the ground, mostly obscured from any clear shots. I was happy enough just seeing it again and knowing that Pops could add this incredible critter to his list. But the Rufous-capped Warbler did me one better. With no apparent aim other than to check us out and let us know that he was made of sterner stuff, he ascended the tree and perched right at eye level, first showing his fuzzy fanny...

 Behold! One of the rarer butts in North America

 ...and then about-facing for just a moment of eye contact, before bolting farther up the canyon.

We were on cloud-nine (one of the few clouds I like while out birding) as we descended the Canyon, picking up Spotted and Canyon Towhees on the way, along with Arizona Woodpeckers and a Roadrunner. It's been three weeks and I still feel buzzed thinking about this sighting. The remarkable turn-around from six species to forty in about thirty minutes, is thus far one of my best birding experiences. I've dipped on Mt. Lemmon and the Estrella Mountains this winter, but Florida Canyon has too much good stuff to dip, and this worked out to be one of those days when we just about hit it all (ok, to be fair, we didn't see any Montezuma Quail, but most scientists now believe those birds died out with the Aztecs two hundred years ago). 

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Star-less Mountain and a Shrike

Last weekend Maria (she is my wife) and I went for a lovely morning hike in the Estrella Mountains of southwest Phoenix. Neither of us had been to that mountain range before so it engendered that bubbling sense of excitement in seeing a new place. Additionally, this is one of the few areas in the state where over-wintering Gray Vireos hang out, provided they can find enough bursera microphylla to sustain them through the chilly months. So, a lovely morning hike in pretty mountains with prettier wife and the (very small) possibility of seeing a new (and pretty uncommon) bird was the excellent prospect for our Monday off.

It was indeed a lovely hike, but Maria and I agreed that in all honesty the closer and more mainstream South Mountain Park offers better hiking, and alas we didn't press far enough south into the mountain range to really tap into the potential Gray Vireo territory. We saw only one scrawny bursera and it was in the process of being suffocated by mesquite.
At any rate, I was too dense to take any good scenery shots, and the bird activity was very low. Oddly enough, it was a Loggerhead Shrike--a bird not widely known for its gregariousness or tenderheartedness--that took pity and gave me my only close ups with a bird for the day.

So, neither the goal nor the result of our day trip was great birding, but seeing a Shrike up close is always a treat, and knowing that alone would happen, even if I also knew I'd dip on the Vireos (and yeah, I kinda knew that was coming anyway), would've been motivation enough for the drive out west.  It's funny to think that I'm here photographing Shrikes in 70 degree Phoenix while Mia McPherson is up in Utah is photographing the same species in thoroughly frigid conditions.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Birding Buddies: The Colorado Connection

A few weeks ago I received a message from Larry and Linda Schmidt, lovely people and great birders who'd be coming to my part of town from Colorado. Our paths had first crossed in the Facebook Birders group, where Larry had noticed some of my posts and, knowing they were heading that a way, gotten in touch. This was my first pre-planned experience of meeting up with out-of-state birders and acting in a sort of local-guide capacity. It was all a great prospect, as sharing the birding opportunities in central Arizona and doing it with folks from outside of the area have both been driving goals behind Butler's Birds.  

So, where does one take nice people from a beautiful state full of snow-capped Rockies and alpine forests to really showcase the rustic, natural beauty of Arizona? Why, one takes them to the middle of nowhere in the arid desert of course, where the broken glass shimmers in the sunlight and you can see so far into the nothingness that you look all the way around the world and back at yourself!
 I refer, of course, to the infamous Thrasher Spot in Buckeye/West Phoenix, where the elusive Le Conte's, Bendire's, and Crissal Thrashers may all be seen in one bleak but productive trip. Although this little patch is one of the less attractive options at the Arizona birder's disposal, it holds several possible lifers that can't be easily had anywhere else. 

The first bird to greet us on this chilly Sunday morning was not a Thrasher though, but a fancy-free Gnatcatcher, followed by many dozens of White-crowned Sparrows. Although White-crowned Sparrows are not easily confused with Thrasher, their movement on the ground and in the obscuring scrub bushes combines with the distractions caused by Abert's Towhees to lead one on more than a few embarrassing goose chases (now, turning up a goose out here really would be something to brag about). 

I've always had success finding the Le Conte's and Bendire's Thrasher in the trips I've made out here, but the Crissal Thrasher has proved to be the most stubborn (seen only once in the last three tries). My hope, in taking the Schmidts out to Buckeye, was that they'd bag 3 lifers and I'd get some better photos of these cool Thrashers. We saw two of the three Thrashers, and I did not improve my photo-log of these species at all (in fact, I'm borrowing a couple images from a much older post). Still, 2 out of 4 ain't  bad if you're a professional baseball player, and birding is basically the same right?

The shorter-billed Bendire's, usually the most common and vocal of the three, were in short supply.
While we didn't get as close of views as this fellow provided last winter, we did all get good visuals and audio on at least one bird.
This shows the ethos of last year's brazen Bendire's.

This is the disposition of the current crop of 2013 Bendire's. Sulky and mostly's no opera. 

Bendire's Thrashers also turn up elsewhere in the valley, particularly out in Mesa and Chandler, so there was less of a sense of urgency with this bird. However, this site in Buckeye is about as far east as the Le Conte's Thrashers come, which makes them the most sough after Thrasher in town. Last time out I met up (at the site) with an older gentleman from Wisconsin who had flown out and rented a car specifically to see this species that would've been ABA area number 800 for him.
He even brought an old, massive, panasonic tape cassette player with scratchy Le Conte's recordings. Helping him find the bird was pretty thrilling, and I was very optimistic for my and the Schmidt's chances once again. In Fact, the Le Conte's was the first of the Thrashers we saw, and we counted at least three different individuals within a one hour period. Not bad!

And we didn't even need one of these to get the birds singing a little bit!

Heading east back into town, we decided to swing by the Tres Rios Wetlands, even though it was the middle of the day. The weather had become surprisingly warm, and the sun was unsurprisingly overbearing. We kept it to a shorter walk but still recorded some forty or more species, including Sora, Least Bittern, and all three Teal. Being hardcore, intense birders by nature, the Schimidts and I were all powering through our natural, mortal desires for lunchy sustenance. This romping chomping Common Gallinule, however, did wonders to damage our mental fortitude. 

The beating sun didn't help much either. The only thing affording us shade was the occasional White Pelican flyover.

We did run into Tommy DeBardeleben and some other birders out on the trail, but all in all the Tres Rios scene was comparatively muted. Most of the vegetation along the Gila River was desiccated and unpopular with all but the occasional Red-tailed Hawk, and the Tres Rios flow was very overgrown with reeds, which facilitated lots of Sora and Least Bittern action but obscured views of everything else.

On the way back towards the cars, I was recounting some of the cool birds we had seen with the Schmidts, and they were likewise telling tales of their visits to Spain and Finland. Just as I was commenting on how we had not seen any Wrens except for Marsh Wrens (it's an off-day indeed when that happens), this Belted Kingfisher decided to perch on a wire and give us his best impression of a Winter Wren. Preciate' it Bro.

I'd call it a successful day of birding. The Schmidts were a great birding team and, just as importantly, were really terrific company. I wish there was more time to visit some of the other Maricopa sites, but as Linda Schmidt liked to remark, "There's just more reason to come back soon." Cheers to that!
I had a marvelous time sharing the central Arizona sites and birds with the Schmidts, and hope to have another opportunity soon.

Friday, January 18, 2013

But which Winter Bird is Best???

There are people in this world, people who spend lots of time preparing and fussing over their outfits and their hair. They walk, talk, and flaunt a certain way. Why do people do this? So that the rest of us can give them our attention, judge them, compare them, talk about them, etc. It's a time-hallowed tradition now done most notably and prodigiously at shopping malls and outside of movie theaters. Although their appearance is less in their control, birds have a propensity for these displays too, especially when potential mates are around. They want to be the loudest, the most magnificent, or the most established.  

As our feeders and fields, along with the blogosphere, are flooded with those essential regional winter birds, it is only appropriate then, even necessary, to host a discussion exploring which of the iconic winter wanderers is the BEST winter bird. Not all of the birds hosted here have a full range across the nation, but they're all recognizable and form a good basis. While spending a week of my winter break in Pennsylvania, a state with great birding diversity, I was able to see these winter staples and weigh their characteristics with the cynical judgment that can only be honed over years of people-watching at awkward social scenes. 
To be fair, there's a heavy eastern bias here, but also to be fair, the east coast hosts the traditional winter tropes more than we do in the west. So, White-crowned Sparrows, you won't make the list...

It seems fair to first address not only one of the most conspicuous winter birds, but one of the most well-known and loved throughout the country throughout the year. Also known as the Red Bandit and the Prayerful Passerine, ladies and gentlemen...The Northern Cardinal.


No winter is complete without at least one Christmas card showing one of these birds perched on a  snowy branch, and no feeder is properly christened until the Cardinal has visited. Their stunning, rich red captivates the eyes and burns itself into the memory. With good reason, the Northern Cardinal has a reputation as one of the most beautiful birds in North America. However, they also suffer from over-exposure, as they have their brand bandied about on logos and decorations and greeting cards such that we're so saturated in Cardinals, they lose their luster sometimes. Even so, what a great bird.

Opposite the Cardinal in its red is the Eastern Bluebird in its vibrant blue. True enough, this bird is not as widespread as the Cardinal, and their counterpart Western Bluebirds do not have the same winter feel to them. But Eastern Bluebirds pose so nicely and often for their pictures in hallmark winter settings. Their rusty sides and rusty chin, along with the white belly, also makes for a more complex color palette, and there aren't many birds much cuter... 

Though the Black-capped Chickadee is probably one such cutey. These gregarious, garrulous go-getters are maybe the only birds that can compete with the Cardinal's popularity and recognition even outside of the birder circles. Although they have handsome plumage, they must make up for the shortfall in color with their rambunctious behavior, which they do quite well. 
In a lot of ways thought, the Chickadee suffers from the same over-saturation as the Cardinal. Namely, they're great birds, but choosing them as the BEST winter bird seems cheap, when their are other cool birds whose lower profile makes them more interesting.

Golden-crowned Kinglets benefit from being Kinglets, which is a great thing to be. Additionally and unlike their Ruby-crowned counterparts, they've always got some sort of crown on display, even if it's not the full monty. Overall, I guess there's not enough to really consider them for BEST winter bird, but I do enjoy seeing them and it wouldn't quite be the winter birding experience without them bouncing around, as if no one told them its cold outside. 

Though only found in the eastern half of the U.S., and also found year round, The Carolina Wren still feels like a quintessential winter bird to me. Maybe it's because there are fewer other birds around and their high-power songs stand out all the clearer. Like the Golden-crowned Kinglet, it couldn't be BEST winter bird, but it resonates with me as another essential to any good day of winter birding.

Like the Carolina Wren, the Downy Woodpecker really comes to the fore in winter due in part to the absence of other birds in the area. They're dexterous, tough little buggers and are some of the few birds one will see on the suet feeders through January and February. Plus, this bird has nice winter coloration. But BEST winter bird? Probably not.

Until someone convinces me otherwise, I'm throwing my vote for BEST winter bird to the White-throated Sparrow. Not content to just be White-crowned, they also sport the white, Santa Claus winter beards and some of the yellowest lores you'll see in North America. 

They descend on a fair portion of North America and in great numbers, but only for half of the year (give or take). As such, they're not over exposed, but they're not so overbearing as to be cheapened (at least, not for a visiting westerner like me). Plus, they're just Fabulous!

What do you think? Have I misrepresented all of these wintery birds? Am I missing some (absolutely!)? Who would you nominate for BEST winter bird?

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

The Guardian of St. James' Bridge

Bashful Pelican really wanted attention though.

Condescending Junco looks down his nose at you and disparages your species!...

...unless you head over to Birding Is Fun and read my monthly post. In that case, he thinks you are the best thing ever.

Friday, January 11, 2013

A Lake Named Havasu

A long time ago, Arizonans dug a large moat on their western border to protect against their Californian neighbors, always eager as the Californians were to flee the verdant valleys and stunning Pacific coastline in favor of the spacious, arid, dusty lands to the east. This "Colorado River," as the moat came to be known, is also used for many other things, including hydroelectric power. The Parker Dam, built in the mid 1930s, subsequently created the Lake Havasu reservoir.  It is not the largest man-made lake in the world, but it is the largest reservoir named Havasu, and it helps to keep California and Arizona separate. The lake and its various estuaries, including the Bill Williams River, is also home to all manner of waterfowl, and is one of the few places in the state where deep-water ducks, such as Scoters and Goldeneyes, can be found.

After successfully chasing the Nutting's Flycatcher a few miles to the east, I spent the early afternoon around Lake Havasu looking for some of the winterfowl that seldom strays into the Phoenix area.
A single, distant, but unmistakable female White-winged Scoter provided instant vindication for a stop by the lake. Many Western Grebes and Canvasbacks also added to the pretty scenery, but the White-winged Scoter, though comparatively dull, was a new bird for me in Arizona and a certain highlight. 

There is about a 1/2 mile finger jutting out into the southeast corner of the reservoir, not far from the turn off to Planet Ranch Rd (which leads to the Nutting's), and it provides excellent views of the waterfowl on both sides, particularly near the marina and I-95 bridge. Although the Havasu finger gives a lovely panoramic perspective, the winterfowl still flush very easily, giving me far too much credit for being able to run, jump, and swim after them in a fast and predatory fashion.
Common Goldeneye were one of my target Ducks, and while they were not very hospitable, they were still stunning through the binoculars.

Given the size of the reservoir and the skittishness of the birds, digiscoping will likely yield better photos than the ol' telephoto lens, but I was low on options, having not yet procured  kayak, and had to make peace with photographing the Goldeneye rafts from the nosebleed seats.  

Driving southwest from the lake, I made a stop atop Parker dam, where the secluded inlets and man-made covers allowed some closer views of the smaller waterfowl pockets that didn't mind the shallower water. Lesser Scaup were among the species paling around up there, and of course the American Coots had to make a perfunctory appearance as well.

The sort of crew-cut look to the Scaup points towards Lesser (as I recently was reminded by Alex Lamoreaux), versus the more gradually rounding head one would find in Greater. The reservoir can also pull in Long-tailed Ducks and a variety of Gulls, but alas some time constraints prohibited me from further exploring this charming area.