Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Back to Basics

The last several posts have featured either the frozen tundra that is Iowa in winter or some of the singular vagrants that have turned up around Phoenix this winter. Given the combination feelings of  cold and strange that those themes can bring, it's been nice lately to indulge in some of the warmer, more familiar places and faces around Phoenix. 
The Papago Ponds between Phoenix and Tempe host plenty of winterfowl, along with the year's first Swallows. The ponds aren't deep or wide enough to attract Goldeneye and Buffleheads, but for photographing Pintails, Wigeons, Ring-neckes, and even Canvasbacks, there's no place better. 

As far as waterfowl goes, these ducks are all pretty plebian. That doesn't mean they're not gorgeous.

I admit, on my weekend birding expeditions now I often skip over the waterfowl if I've seen them before. Time is precious and the winter months bring so many other attractions to in Arizona. Every now and again it is very nice to make a specific point simply of visiting again with these docile and beautiful birds, in no small thanks to the fact that, compared to vagrant Warblers ethereal Kites, they're really accommodating subjects for observation and photography.

In addition to the predictable and silly palm trees, there are lots of low-lying, now leafless scrub trees around the ponds, and these provide excellent viewing points for the expected desert birds. Some are boring, common, and even slightly deformed.

Some are still pretty common, like this Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, but are much more fun. These birds are already operating in couple throughout the Papago creosote patches. They don't mind people getting up close and personal, but they don't sit still either, so it's a fair trade. 

The short vegetation also provides welcome perches for Northern-rough Wing Swallows. While these Swallows won't win the 'Most Colorful Swallow' award, they do win the punctuality award in Phoenix for being the first Swallows back in town, usually by mid-February. 
The Papago mesquites are some of the best places to see these guys perch and preen. The namesake rough out coverts/shoulder on the bird's wings are even somewhat visible here.

 It's not often that a Swallow stops to take a break, but when the bugs are abundant and the weather is mild, there's no hurry. Sometimes I feel exhausted just watching them dip and dive all day (in fact, it's so exhausting, I've never even watched a Swallow all day); it must be nice for them to have a breather.

As one might expect of such ebullient aviators, they're also prodigious eaters. It's hard for scientists to estimate how many things these acrobatic Swallows kill and eat in their lifetime--far more than any Raptor or Tern--but at least from the small, flying insect perspective, this round fluffy head, with its vacant expression and stubby bill, is neither cute nor endearing, but is in fact the head of a mass murderer..bum...Bum...BUM!

Monday, February 25, 2013

Ivy League Birding: Princeton W.A.

It is a lesser known and celebrated fact that the prestigious Princeton College in New Jersey actually is named after a wildlife refuge in eastern Iowa. Of course, most things in the northeast are actually named after obscure midwestern wildlife refuges. This refuge, like the college, has some prestigious and fancy to-do birds. Also like Princeton (honestly, I have no idea) the atmosphere here was bitterly and bitingly cold. The riparian woodlands and the adjacent, off-shooting fingers of the Mississippi provided some flowing water and habitat for those brave wintering waterfowl and other perennial birds. Fanciest of all out sightings was this pair of Trumpeter Swans.

Equally conspicuous, though not due to its size or elegance, was this single Ross's Goose, who was doing its best to stay alive in the rough and tumble world of a Canada Goose Gang.

It is curious to ponder how this single Ross's ended up in this secluded area, without any other Geese of its type. We didn't even see any Snow Geese around. Was he trying to be clever in joining up with this gang, thinking they were one of the groups that would take him to the warm, lush golf courses of Arizona? Did he just get lost or left behind and fall in with the the biggest, loudest, most protecting flock he could find? Are all of the Canada Geese actually his adopted children? Any of these are possibilities.  


The woodlands arounds the Princeton water features did well in hosting the expected winter fare for the area. White-throated and American Tree Sparrows were abundant, despite the frigid wind. In fact, what came across as a frigid wind was probably a simple, cool breeze to the tough-as-nails Tree Sparrows.

Red-bellied Woodpeckers were also numerous, and we even got a lifer Red-headed for me, though it took off before it was possible to take any photos. Still, Red-bellied is a pretty good Woodpecker. It's like the finished version of the similarly but more conservatively capped Gila Woodpecker in the southwest.

We picked up a few Downy Woodpeckers as well, though this male was actually photographed at a different site. From this angle, the bird's head reminds me of a Star Wars stormtrooper, which reminds me that I reference Star Wars really often.

The Swans and Ross's Goose were nice finds and unusual for the area. We picked up some Horned Larks on the way out just to add some yellow to the day's color palette, and saw plenty of Kestrels and Red-tails perched along the drive home. So yes, no big deal but now I've birded my way through Princeton. I'll be expecting big grants and offers from the Cornell Ornithology School any day now...

Friday, February 22, 2013

New Birds in Old Places

These last few weeks I've been forcibly trying to bird more on workdays. After school, I usually have about an hour and a half of good daylight, and even though rush hour (it's not just an hour...) traffic is always a bother, I've been able to fit in some brief but good birding throughout these last few weeks. Often times I leave the camera in the car, in part because I often run out of the necessary time and light needed to pursue photos, and also because there's something refreshing about not having any of the anxieties that come with missing a good shot or making sure to come away with some good photos for one's trouble. 
As such, I've been able to get a lot more birding in this 2013 year and see a lot more birds sooner than I have before. I'd be lying if I said that seeing my name so low in the eBird species lists after January wasn't a substantial motivating factor, but of course the satisfaction and refreshment of birding is reward and motivation in and of itself. One of my recent destinations, which is fortunately nearby, was the Rio Salado/Salt River Audubon Center on Central Ave. 

For being only ten or fifteen minutes south of the downtown (Phoenix is weird like that), this Audubon center is very nice and sits on a pretty piece of property overlooking the Salt River. This site hosts the monthly Birds and Beer get-together and, equally fun, has also hosted a Pacific Wren and Eastern Phoebe this winter. The birds themselves hang out about a half-mile away from the center, down near the trickling water. I used to go birding here quite often before I moved farther away, as it was one of the best places to see Black-throated Grey Warblers and Green-tailed Towhees in Phoenix. 

In addition to the lessened proximity, another one of the reasons I had stopped birding near this center/along this portion of the Salt River was that it's totally trashed. I've had some unpleasant run-ins with vagrants down in the Salt River wash, and the riverbed is strewn with garbage. 

Traipsing through this materialist quagmire, I was constantly looking over my shoulder for a large, one-eyed squid monster to pop out and grab me. You know, like the one living in the garbage compactor in the Star Wars movie? The accumulated trash stretches for miles along the river. It's bad in part because there are seldom any organized cleanups  here and this is where the Salt River dumps everything out, from old frisbees to plastic bottles, car parts, and 1990s-style sneakers (which is also why there's less demand to clean here than where people actually go fishing and tubing farther east).

The area wasn't exceptionally birdy--I only had the usual Herons, along with Orange-crowned and Yellow-rumped Warblers and Black Phoebes for company--but the whole trek paid off when I spotted a conspicuously white-breasted Phoebe in the willows about half a mile west of the central avenue overpass (in the river bed). 

The Eastern Phoebe, a rare but regular vagrant to Arizona in the winter months, only stayed visible for a few minutes before it flew farther west. I had a hard time following the bird as I was looking into the sun, which was also reflecting off the water to form a dual-effect solar blind. I felt like I had to thread the needle, shooting manually through all the willow twigs, but given how short a time I had with the bird it was a very satisfying sighting. It wasn't a lifer, but it was my first Eastern Phoebe in Arizona.

Heading back towards the Audubon center I heard the Pacific Wren vocalizing a Kinglet-like buzz call and saw the bird very briefly, but being low down in the wash and with the sun falling from the sky, and also this Wren's typical behavior, further photos weren't an option. A handsome Cooper's Hawk served as a great consolation sighting at the end of the walk, and I left the Rio Salado area feeling very glad to have revisited this quintessential desert riparian birding site. 

The Birds and Beer event is hosted every third Thursday of the month. I haven't been yet, but I had a celebratory Sierra Nevada Torpedo IPA at home after this trip, and will try to make it for some hobnobbing next month.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Oh So Gullible

I wasn't specifically in Iowa for the birds last weekend, but as any other addict can attest...one manages to fit in some time all the same. Eastern Iowa isn't the birdiest of places in winter. It doesn't benefit (consistently) from the boreal winter species, the Crossbills, Redpolls, Northern Shrikes or Gallinaceous birds. It also loses most of its spring and summer residents, and this ultimately results in a fairly depauperated bird population until later March. 
With the terrestrial bird scene so desolate, the Mississippi River provides one large artery--a life line, if you will--for desperate winter birders. If one is willing to brave the cold and icy wind, there are plenty of Gulls and Waterfowl, along with scores of Bald Eagles, wherever there's still some flowing water. Herring and Ring-billed Gulls make up the vast majority of the Gull population, but Thayer's, Black-backed, and Iceland are also known to mingle in these big noisy groups. When our other birding leads grew cold, the Iowa Voice and I spent time trying to pick some rare individuals out. I do not think we saw any Iceland but we got at least one mature/adult Thayer's, of which I did not get any presentable photos. The shots below feature only Ring-billed and Herring Gulls, but do show some of the multifarious plumage messes with which unfortunate birders must deal. I know that with anything larus, I am very gullible...(that's right, I went there!)

My best bet at photographing a Thayer's Gull came with this immature bird. Adult Herring and Thayer's Gulls look very similar, and the immatures do too. Since I had very little experience to draw upon with Gulls, I had to defer to my Sibley's guide. The guide shows young Thayer's having mottled markings all up the base of the tail, like this bird, but also lighter secondaries and primaries on the wings.  The rump on this bird looked good for Thayer's, but that's a more variable characteristic and the wings indicated a Herring Gull, as was confirmed when I later conferred with some Gull Guys.

The immature Herring Gull below had the standard white rump shown in the Sibley's, and while I never held out hope that it was anything but a Herring, the synchronized pursuit of an opportunistic Ring-billed Gull made for an interesting encounter. 

As the rookie Herring Gull tried to get away with its catch, the Ring-billed matched it wing beat for wing beat, stroke for stroke, pressuring and harrying this greenhorn Gull to drop its lunch. These birds had pretty impressive, if also antagonistic, high-speed synchronization. It would make the Russian and Chinese Olympians envious for sure, and here they were showcasing along the frigid Mississippi. This scene could definitely have used some slow-motion video and a classical music soundtrack.

Above the Mississippi River and the nearby dam there was a massive, swirling cloud of screeching Gulls. Like a large, aggressive school of fish, they'd turn and fluctuate together, riding the currents and looking for any opportunity to feed. Soon after this Herring Gulls made its catch, both it and its pursuer disappeared back into the amorphous larus mass above and, so the extent of my knowledge, were never seen nor heard from again.

So I didn't come away with any conclusive Thayer's or Iceland photos to share, but there was some excitement on the river, more in fact than I was expecting in the inclement conditions. 

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Breaking the Duck

To break one's duck...I've always liked that British-ism, an idiom meaning someone has done something for the first time. It's awkward; it's nonsensical, and it's also kind of scandalous to use in a conversation about birding. But, as far as the British are concerned, every time we birders see a new bird we're 'breaking that duck'.
Within recording a lifer bird there is another phenomenon, a type of synchronicity many birders have experienced, especially if they see a new bird in the first few years of rookie birding. The phenomenon is that once a bird is finally seen, all the sudden one will see it fairly frequently, or at least unusually frequently given how, up until a point, you had never seen it before. This could simply be because the birder wasn't aware of the bird before or capable of recognizing it, or because they only recently started seeking out the sort of habitats that would support such a bird. Sometimes there isn't much of an explanation.

Last week I saw my first Greater White-fronted Goose, an uncommon migrant, at an old birding haunt in west Phoenix. I birded the heck out of that place but never saw a White-fronted. Finally everything lined up and I got my first, not from lack of effort or knowledge but just from lack of circumstance and luck. While spending the weekend in Iowa, my cousin Mike and I then found another Greater White-fronted Goose in west Davenport, another rare find for the time and place. While scanning hundreds of Canada Geese out on a frozen lake, Mike heard a different vocalization and was able to pick our the conspicuous impostor.

So, I broke my duck last week, and now there's a watershed of White-fronted Geese. I predict I will now see them everywhere always forever.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Front and Center!

On the way home from the Arlington/Palo Verde agricultural fields last weekend I swung by Encanto Park. With several large duck ponds and an adjacent golf green, Encanto isn't bad for an urban park for urban birding. It was a regular weekend patch for me when I lived closer to it, and I even picked up a few lifers there. Nonetheless, it's one of those places with pretty limited bird diversity, and as can happen with the smaller venues, I eventually outgrew it.

Someday, this pretty Gadwall will outgrow it too.

But a recent listerv report caught my attention and drew me back to the paddle boat ponds and its rafts of waterfowl. Someone reported a Greater white-fronted Goose at Encanto, a somewhat common vagrant but one I had not yet seen. I had always figured that eventually I'd stumble across a White-fronted goose at one point or another, and never made much of a point of chasing this species. This particular bird wasn't my discovery, but now there finally was such a goose in the area!

I was happy to swing by my old stomping grounds and survey the ponds once more, especially since I hadn't picked up my target birds in Arlington, but in honesty I also wasn't overly optimistic about the Goose. I didn't recognize the name of the person (sorry!) who posted to the list, and I knew there were also lots of somewhat similarly colored Chinese Geese at the park. The Chinese Geese normally have a bulbous forehead like Mute Swans, but some specimens, like the fellow below, lack the bulge, and can also have varying white bordering their mandibles. 

When I arrived at the ponds the first birds I saw (after that Gadwall) were some Mallards and then the Chinese Geese, but I only had to wait for a few moments before a conspicuous, smaller goose rounded the pond corner and headed my way. The Greater-white Fronted Goose is much more petite than the Chinese Geese, and of course it lacks the bulging forehead and has much more prominent white on its face, in addition to the softer pink bill. Next to the obnoxious Chinese Geese, the White-fronted was a real charmer. 

Geese certainly aren't known for their shyness, especially around urban parks, and this Goose's close approach made me think that it's probably caught onto the handout system for the park, and has likely been there through the winter, living on welfare.

This bird seemed much smaller than the described twenty-eight inch length in Sibley's. The western and southwestern Alaska subspecies of this goose do tend to be smaller though, and while they usually winter in the Mexican highlands, they do pass over Arizona in their routes, and this fellow might've just decided he'd gone far enough by time he hit Phoenix. He swam back and forth between sun and shade, seemingly very content with his little park and the abundance of easy food and little competition that it brings.

It never exited the pond, unfortunately, and I couldn't see any leg bands through the water. Nonetheless this handsome Goose made for a very pleasant return to Encanto and provided me with an unexpected lifer in the middle of Phoenix and in February. Greater-white Fronted Goose, I salute you!

Friday, February 15, 2013

Follow the link!

I'll play the part of a snooty birding aristocrat this month, and tell tales of wining and winging in southeast AZ, now over at Birding Is Fun.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Soaring Over Arlington

Last weekend I drove out west to Arlington and its agriculture fields in search of Kites, Ferruginous Hawks, and Long-billed Curlew. I didn't get any photos of the Ferruginous Hawks and didn't even see the other two targets, but it was still a nice spot for some safari (from-the-car) birding. I also ran into a fellow who tipped me off on a place to observe nesting Common Black Hawks and Zone-tailed Hawks in later March, so I'll just look at this trip as a long-term investment for future good birding. The Arlington fields were not without their own birds either. It seemed like Kestrels dotted every telephone pole, and there were various raptors constantly flying overhead. 

I ran into this same Bald Eagle multiple times throughout the day. He liked to perch on the telephone polls (who doesn't!?), but would also always spook every time a car drove by. His must be a life full of angst. The Arlington fields also afforded some nice Harrier views, including the less common, or at least less conspicuous, silver-backed male.

This immature Red-tailed Hawk was about the only bird that stayed perched while I drove by it. He's no silvery Northern Harrier, but I appreciate the good-faith gesture on his part nonetheless.

But watching birds take flight from posts was definitely the theme of the day. Adding in Belted Kingfisher, Great Egret, Great Blue Heron, Snowy Egret along the canals, and Meadowlarks on all the fences...I must've seen a good dozen species at least take off of fence posts or poles. It was remarkable thematic coordination on behalf of the avian world. Even the Red-tail didn't stay still for long.

It never feels good to flush birds. It makes one feel clumsy and unpopular...high school all over again. But these birds would all perch by the roadside and then spook as soon as anybody drove by, often flushing from other traffic before I'd get anywhere near. So, in short, they weren't making it easy for themselves either. 

Little did we know that, when we'd make 'V' or 'M' shapes to signify birds in our little kid drawings, we were actually always drawing Osprey. 

To be fair, not all of the birds were chickens. When you could pick the Horned Larks out along the gravel embankments (which was easy when they were facing you), they were pretty accommodating. It's funny to have these birds down here in Phoenix, enjoying the 55 degree weather, and also seeing pictures of them foraging in below-freezing weather in the Midwest. Hey, with mustaches like that, is there any doubt they're tough?

While trolling for Kites and Curlews--an ultimately futile task--I did see some other unlikely farmhands.
Six large white figures foraged with the Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station in the background. Maybe they were spying for the Russians.

Despite their namesake, these Swans must have been sick of eating hard, frozen Tundra grass. They've been hanging out in Arlington for several weeks at least, and seem very content in the plentiful alfalfa fields. Tundra Swans turn up in the chillier northern parts of Arizona, but west Phoenix is not a place I figured I would ever see wild Swans. This is what must have used up my Curlew luck.

As was pointed out by Seagull Steve in the comments below, and also pondered upon by others, second Swan from the right seems large and bigger-billed than the others. Not to blow the Trumpet too soon, but here are a few more heavily cropped shots.

It wasn't a resounding success, but it was a good bout of birding, and next time I go out to the Le Conte's Thrasher spot, about ten miles farther west, I can comfortably detour through Arlington to photograph some big birds and telephone poles on the way home. It's always good to add another site to one's repertoire.

Friday, February 8, 2013

From West to East, to Most from Least

As mentioned in a previous post, I spent last Saturday morning at Tres Rios with Pops chasing after a vagrant Northern Parula and Chestnut-sided Warbler. Of course, we also had an eye out for the other birds around Tres Rios--and there are always plenty--but having dipped on the vagrant warblers and not come away with much in way of photos, it was a somewhat disappointing trip. It felt like the morning had been wasted a bit. So after leaving Tres Rios and indulging in some fortifying lunch, I traded this western extremity of the Phoenix area for far east Mesa, exploring some sites along the Salt River where a Red-breasted Sapsucker has been residing since December.

Since our vagrant warbler quarry at Tres Rios was supposed to be in a single large clump of eucalytpus, we spent most of our time there around those few tress, and as such our species diversity was low.
There were plenty of Lincoln's Sparrows hanging out in the brush piles around the big trees, and some bedraggled Abert's Towhees filled the brisk morning air with their shrieking.

Seeing this Abert's Towhee, and hearing them singing/calling so much, reminded me of how few Thrashers I see at Tres Rios. There could potentially be Bendire's, Sage, and Curve-billed, even Crissal, but I do not believe I have ever seen a Thrasher there. What a dreadful dearth!
Tres Rios does have lots of Cinnamon Teal in the spillways right now, so at least there's that.

We did see lots of raptors during our eucalyptus steak out, with Harris's Hawk, Red-tailed, Cooper's, Sharp-shinned, Osprey, Kestrels, and a Bald Eagle all making for a very carnivorous morning. We didn't pick up Peregrines or Ferruginous Hawks, nor the single Red-shouldered in the area, so factoring these in too, Tres Rios can really bring in the big birds.

Eventually our focus and interest waned at Tres Rios, plus pops had some cool, important mechanic-type stuff to do back at home. Feeling a bit defeated, especially with this being my only birding thus far in the the week and weekend, I decided to head over to the Pebble Beach site, about eight miles east from the Salt River dam, to investigate a lost and stubborn woodpecker.

This reclusive, yet very chromatically conspicuous Red-breasted Sapsucker was first found during a December CBC (Christmas Bird Count) in the area, and it's been seen off and on since then. The Pebble Beach site is much like any of the other picnic/hiking areas along the Salt River--some concrete tables, dusty trails, and scattered clumps of chaparral. Honestly, it's not my favorite habitat in which to go birding, but hey if beautiful birds like it, I can like it too.

I arrived at the Pebble Beach site around 3pm--not an ideal birding time--and first just sort of wandered around, curious to see what would turn up. The first half hour produced lots of Phainopeplas and Gila Woodpeckers, but no Sapsuckers. I eventually noticed some mesquite trees with lots of fresh-looking sap wells in them, and figured that maybe with some patience (the worst!) somebody would visit.

Frustratingly enough, the first birds to come by the sap wells during my vigil were Yellow-rumped Warblers and House Finches. Assumedly they weren't eating the sap, as Sapsuckers sometimes do, but were just enjoying some of the insects the sweet sticky stuff attracts (which Sapsuckers also do). But after another ten minutes I saw a flash of black, white, and red entering my peripheral vision. 

What a stunner! I saw one of these birds several years ago in Northern California, but the sighting was brief and distant. Seeing it again, fairly close, and against such a comparatively dull and dreary background...it rocked my socks off.

After ogling this splendid specimen for a little while and watching him move on to other wells, I located and re-applied my socks, before heading back to the car and west towards the Granite Reef Dam. The Granite Reef site is the western most site along the Salt River, and is also, overall, the birdiest. The guest parking area hosts lots of different Sparrows and Flycatchers while the adjacent river walk gives one the opportunity to view lots of waterfowl, including Mergansers and Goldeneye.

While observing this slinking female Ladder-backed Woodpecker, I ran into fellow Arizona birder, blogger, and photographer Gordon Karre, who was showing the sites to another birder from New Jersey. It's always nice to run into other birders and bloggers. Earlier that day I had bumped into Jeff Ritz and some of his crew out at Tres Rios, and I met another very knowledgable birding couple while looking at the Sapsucker.

There wasn't actually a lot going on at the Granite Reef site, though the fellow from New Jersey, having apparently not birded Arizona or much of the southwest before, was racking up lifers like crazy, including the Ladder-backed Woodpecker pictured above.
So I found some good birds and good birders. Tres Rios let me down a bit, but I saw a gorgeous Sapsucker so the day didn't...err hem...'suck' after all.

Plus, I went back and got the Parula on Monday, so Tres Rios and I can still be friends too.