Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Sonoran Saints Preserve Us!

One of Phoenix's main attractions, in addition to the excellent dining scene and cheap, plentiful alcohol, is that there are mountains right in the middle of the city. Sandwiched in between the SR 51 highway and Tatum Boulevard, the Phoenix Mountain Preserve showcases the marvelous combination of urban life and nature-scapes that Phoenix brings together so well. Just a few miles to the east, Camelback Mountain just east is one of the most hiked peaks in America. True enough, it's harder to enjoy these scenes when it's 104 °F in late April (come on!), but when I swung by the Phoenix Mountain Preserve in early April, it was an all round' gorgeous scene. 

This is a nice place for hiking and mountain biking, but it's not normally on my rotation of local birding hotspots. It features great scenery and good birding, but an average day at Papago or the Desert Botanical Gardens will yield more species of the same genre. 
However, in late March and early April, just for a few weeks, the washes in the Phoenix mountains provide temporary housing for migrating Long-eared Owls, a coveted bird anywhere in the U.S., and all the more so in the Sonoran desert. With these Owls in mind, I made several trips into the Preserve, one with fellow birders Tommy D. (who had more success than I) and Dominic Sherony, and another with  a great birder, naturalist, and field guide author Duncan Butchart, from South Africa. 

As far as the secretive Long-eared Owls go, below is my only sighting and only shot of the beasts. Yes, it's the dark, hazy shape in the lower center of the photo, ruining an otherwise lovely shot of some mesquite trees. If you came here for sweet Owl shots, you're in the wrong neighborhood!

The visuals I had on the Owl were better than the photo, enough to ID the bird by its size and flight, but it wasn't the most satisfying of sightings. The treks through the Phoenix Mountain Preserve, on the other hand, were absolutely beautiful, both for the birds and the general desert wildlife.
The Long-eared Owls prefer the dense mesquite and palo verde trees in the many jutting washes of the Phoenix Mountains, and so into these shady, rattlesnake-infested gullies the daring birder must go. The explorer must have a nerve, and socks, of steel, for the cactus spines and dry grass prickers, along with non-stop flash mob rattlesnake attacks, can leave one worse for the wear.

Luckily there are enough feathery gems, like this shady Anna's Hummingbird, to make the misses very, very palatable. I bet if I'd gone searching deliberately for Anna's, I would've found Owls instead.

In between the sandy, brushy declivities preferred by the Owls, flat expanses of scrub grass, cholla cactus, and creosote span all through the mountain range. These desert-specialist plants serve as nifty perches for late migrant Sage Thrashers, as well as Black-throated Sparrows just starting to settle in.

The very thick tangles of brush form impenetrable webs of stickers and misery for any creature that comes to close. Any creature, that is, that's not tiny. Roving clans of Brewer's Sparrows find these bristling brush piles to be irresistible, and in fact they even seem to inspire song.

In the dull color vs. great vocalization ratio, Brewer's Sparrows are tops. Their lengthy song, a combination of chips, whistles, and buzzing vibratos is both recognizable and delightful, even if their preferred habitat must be enjoyed from a distance. 

Ash-throated Flycatchers don't care for the prickly stuff so much, and they, like the numerous Say's Phoebes in the area, will take a clear perch atop a mesquite any day. This, below, may have been the exact view first enjoyed by the ornithologist who named the bird.

With their prickly perches, the Brewer's Sparrows bring some sting to the Sonoran birding flavor. Ash-throated Flycatchers, needless to say, bring some smoke, and the Say's Phoebe's, with their beautiful cinnamon wash and acrobatic, unabashed fly-catching, bring some spicy flavor. Like a nice pork chili verde, these desert birds, seen in their respective microhabitats, produce a dish that's not particularly rare or difficult, but one that is nonetheless a salivating feast, especially when one is starved of Owls!

Speaking of feasts, the Phoenix Mountain Washes did produce some interesting signs of Long-eared interest.  This Western Fence Lizard (correct me if I'm wrong) would make a nice little snack in the twilight hour, and for the main course...

How about a nice, plump ground squirrel? This was left in the middle of one of the washes, no doubt as an intentional warning, from the Owls, against any paparazzi intruders.

Though they tended to dominate the Sonoran soundtrack, the Brewer's Sparrows didn't have a total lockdown on the little brown bird symphony. Rock Wrens and Curve-billed Thrashers chimed their pretty notes too, sometimes even from the same rocky perches, though in this case the Trasher was busy with nesting material. Two's company, but I made it three and that's a crowd.

The birds will always be of primary interest, but there are many other aspects of the Mountain Preserve to enjoy. Especially with the evening lighting, the blooming cactus are absolutely stunning. After more than twenty years of desert romping and roaming, I can (un)safely say that I've been pricked by every possible Arizona cactus in every possible place. Despite them making many tracts of landscape somewhat hostile, and making some yards totally inhospitable to soccer balls for unlucky boys, I wouldn't trade them for the world. 

They can grow for months without water and even, apparently, grow out of solid rocks walls (or out of the tiny dirt margins in between the rocks. Like a fine zinfandel or malbec, the hardship that these plants endure does nothing to vitiate their color (or flavor), and actually seems to maximize their aesthetic.

The cactus also provide homes to legions of desert fauna, and not just the Brewer's Sparrows. Curve-billed Thrashers and Cactus Wrens make their massive, messy nests in the bosom of cholla bunches, while the massive Saguaro cacti house Gila Woodpeckers and Western Screech Owls in their cavities. The hinges of saguaro arms provide solid domestic foundations as well, not only for Mourning Doves but also, as I discovered, for Roadrunners, keeping the young safe and high off the ground, until they are grown and ready to terrorize everything that's smaller than they are. 

As April has worn on, the sun set of my Long-eared Owl opportunities. They will be back again, and so will I. It is comforting that, while it will dry out and brown in the next several months, the rugged beauty of the Phoenix Mountain Preserve will stay a constant. 

P.S. I was exaggerating about the rattlesnakes, but look out for nocturnal Sonoran Ground Snakes, which may in fact be the most poisonous animal known to science. They're too polite to ever bite anybody, so that's not the worry. It's their biting sarcasm that hurts the most.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Saluting the Flag (BIF Repost)

Hello Bird Nerds, Friends, Family, and Web Vagrants,

It was a busy week and a busier weekend. I apologize for the low output of new blogging material this weekend, and hope to get caught up in the next few days. In the mean time, here's some high altitude material from earlier this week at Birding Is Fun.

--Flagstaff that is, or rather, the high elevation environments near Flagstaff that provide wonderful, unique, and existentially essential birding! Yes indeed, Arizona birders love their desert dwellers and their southeastern specialties, but sometimes one just needs chilly mountains and pines to complete the holistic birding experience. If those mountains also happen to have high elevation specialists and other cool-temperature loving birds that aren't easily found elsewhere in the state then, well, so be it.

Western Bluebirds aren't only found up in the mountains, but up in the mountains they're a guarantee.

Several weeks ago, some very intriguing reports trickled their way down from up north. A Eurasian Wigeon on Mormon Lake, twenty miles south of Flagstaff, was complimented by sightings of Red Crossbills and Evening Grosbeaks at the Mormon Lake lodge nearby. Heading up a week later, a birding buddy of mine found something even cooler.  After successfully scanning the grasslands on the other side of Mormon Lake for Rough-legged Hawk, I parked near the lodge and began scanning. Almost immediately Grosbeak sounds started emanating from the nearby ponderosas, but before getting near these trees I had to cross a drainage ditch. 

Like any 2-D video game, these ditches are often treacherous to jump across, and are usually full of dangerous critters. In this case the critters were of some interest, as Chipping Sparrow and Dark-eyed Junco emerged to get the Sparrow count up and running for the day.  

That was to be expected, but an odd sighting at ground level was this Pygmy Nuthatch, which was perhaps given the false affirmation by its parents that when it grew up, it could be anything it wanted. Alas, it was clearly not a Junco, no matter how it tried, but I was still willing to accept it for what it was, even if this bird was not being true to itself. 

There, that's more like it. 

The ground birds were obliging, but all the while I was following them around I couldn't shake the disappointment in how small their beaks were. After all, this trip was about seeing big rude birds with big rude beaks. The calls were still resonating in the ponderosas, and the sighting could be delayed no more. 

About twenty feet or so up the trees, there they were. Thirteen of ABA 2012's Bird of the Year. They perched, they flaunted, they exuded all the style and panache to be expected of a former BOY. It was a terrific shame to have missed them in 2012, and a terrific joy to find them in 2013. 

Bold and brash, these are among the most royal of finches, and with beaks like that, who's going to argue with them? Nobody, that's who.
The unibrow, the yellow, the broad chest...yes yes this truly was a mighty Bird of the Year, one of the top three there's ever been.

Like many birds, the sexual dimorphism of the Grosbeaks is less kind to the females, who have their own unique charm but are somewhat drab by comparison. For that matter, sometimes they're not too charming either. I think she was a little grumpy to have been bumped off her perch by a Nighthawk, and a Common one no less. Lady Macbeth...

While crouched beneath the ponderosa pines, I was visited by another prominently beaked bird. This was the only Red Crossbill on which I laid eyes throughout the day. It flew into the tree and landed only ten feet away. It was a surprisingly abrupt approach, and in fact I think the bird did not see me, for as soon as it turned its head it was off, leaving my with but a single photo and a lovely memory. What a heartbreaker. That Crossbill has to be one of the coolest example of micro-evolution in North America.

The Grosbeaks, Nuthatches, and Bluebirds, along with the obligatory Pine Siskins, were the vociferous and highly visible denizens of the lower crown on the tree.

Higher in the ponderosas there was a different group of birds. Woodpeckers lead a life that only other Woodpeckers understand, and perhaps also heavy metal rockers, and hammers--ok anybody who has to smash their face against something for a living. 
Some Northern Flickers fed on the ground, but the higher reaches of the Trees belonged to the melanerpes and the picoides. Acorn and Hairy Woodpeckers were the most common, but a few Lewis's Woodpeckers added their peculiar mix of color and attitude to the upper canopies as well. 

Someday, I hope to get a Lewis's Woodpecker and Clark's Nutcracker together in a single shot. If someone else has managed that, please come forward for your Lewis and Clark appreciation medal and a $100,000 prize from the government.

Also in the area, rather annoyingly, were several Eurasian Collared Doves. These large and chalky doves normally do not bother me, even though they're and invasive and quickly expanding species. In city limits, they provide a nice diversity with the other common doves and feeder birds.
However, seeing them out in the relative pristine of the Mormon Lake woods felt like a violation of sorts. Surely, not here? Is not place safe from these city-slickers? You're in the wrong context Dove!

Having seen the Doves and now feeling a bit unclean, I left Mormon Lake and headed north to Walnut Canyon, in the hopes of finding Pinyon Jays and Mountain Chickadees. Walnut Canyon is a real beauty, with a small visitor center and some tables making for a nice picnic area.

The Pinyon Jays were elusive to the camera, but Steller's Jays were more than numerous. Bushtits were also abundant, as were Bridled and Juniper Titmouse.

With time starting to run out, I finally got a visual on some Mountain Chickadees as well--of course they were positioned perfectly to have the lighting against them. They were a bit of a hassle but come on, what trip to the mountains is complete without a bird that has Mountain in its name? 

This stately Mountain Bluebird on a cattle guard was a lovely punctuation mark to a great day of birding. Riparian habitats, desert scrub, salt marshes, and grasslands all make for beautiful, teeming birding sites, but there is something particularly invigorating, particularly satisfying about birding in montane forests, and for that I salute the Flagstaff. 

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Little Birds around the Big Mountain

Peak just a little higher than 7,000 feet, Mt. Ord is highest point in Maricopa County. It's tall and cool enough to host ponderosa pines along with scrub oak; as such it provides some welcome elevation and the different birds that elevation brings, within an hour drive of Phoenix. 
This mountain has some real gems too, not just with Common Black and Zone-tailed Hawk, but also Band-tailed Pigeon, Northern Pygmy Owl, Scott's Oriole, and even the occasional Evening Grosbeak. One of my good birding buddies (good buddy, great birder) knows the mountain backwards and forwards, and has found all of these goodies. I'm a greenhorn with these slopes, but hope to remedy that by the end of the summer which has, by the way, totally started. 98 degrees in Phoenix today...  

A few weeks ago I made a trip up to Ord, hoping to see what migrants were passing through and what breeders were starting to settle into their territory. In some ways it was a disappointing trip. I did not find any lifers nor any particularly difficult year birds, and it was also during this time I first discovered that my camera's autofocus was broken (all these images were manual). Many of the birds I found were also common at lower elevations, and thus in a sense not worth the longer trip, but all that complaining aside, the numbers of birds, the magnitude of their songs, and the beautiful weather made the excursion a satisfying success.

Driving up the winding slopes of Ord to Forest Road 1688, the hilly chaparral was buzzing with the sounds of Black-chinned Sparrows and Spotted Towhees. With no shoulders on the rough dirt road, stopping to observe and photograph was tricky, but racking up the birds before one is even at the primary destination is a pretty great feeling.

On the Maricopa side of Mt. Ord, the two main birding options are hiking up Forest Road 1688 or driving to the summit and having a shorter hike there. The FR 1688 allows for a better bird-to-travel- distance ratio and is the route I elected to take, though the summit can be very birdy at the right time.
The two most dominant birds at this mid-level of Ord were the Blue-gray Gnatcatchers and Black-throated Gray Warblers.

Fluttering in the agave and scrub oak along the FR 1688 trail, the Gnatcatchers were by far the most numerous, and the BTG Warblers out-vocalized even the Spotted Towhees from their elevated ponderosa perches. The cost of their elevated vantage point came photographically, but they were joined by the occasional Grace's and Virginia's Warbler higher up the mountain.

It had to be a shorter day from some non-birding reasons, and the time constraints precluded a visit to the normal, follow-up stop near Sunflower, which central Arizona birders rightfully pair with the Mountain. Sunflower is one of the best spots for Common Black and Zone-tailed Hawk in central Arizona, but on this particular day I had other targets. 

Despite them being small and rather drab, I woke up that morning determined to get some nice shots of Bell's and Warbling Vireo. In fact, any photos at all of the Bell's would be an improvement. To maximize my chances, these targets necessitated a stop at Mesquite Wash, a sometimes aqueous creek bed about twenty miles southwest of Ord off the Highway 87, just within the mountain's shadow. This riparian habitat is great for the Vireos, as well as Grosbeaks and even Cuckoos later in the summer. 
The entrance and parking area at this site are unsettling, as they're populated by ATV/Motocross enthusiasts tearing around, but they stay out of the actual wash area, for the most part, and I picked up a foraging Lucy's Warbler while leaving the car.  

Being small and rather nondescriptly marked, Bell's Vireos are more quickly heard than seen. Their cheedle chee chee cheedle chew  call is very recognizable, but getting clear shots of these dense-brush denizens ain't no cake walk in the tea park. With the autofocus on the fritz, I was not overly optimistic either, but they say God favors the drunk, the insane, and the Irish, and since I'm at least two out of those three things at any point in time, the odds were maybe in my favor after all.

Not too far from the wash and not too far down its channel, I heard the familiar, heralding screech of a Bell's Vireo, and more than one. Their activity was concentrated in a surprisingly small area, and after picking out the globular mass in the branches it became clear why.
The pair of Bell's Vireos was building a nest along the wash. Rock on! This was a godsend. With a bit of patience and perseverance, I knew exactly where these flighty birds would come and be still, at least for several seconds. Who needs autofocus!?

I had time to dial in the manual focus, take some practice shots for my untrained eye (which cannot often recognize, through my viewfinder, when an image is 100% in focus or not), and then ready myself for a short, ferocious flurry of bursting camera fire.

"Do you like..?"
One of the Bell's Vireo's came in with nesting material, pausing only for a few seconds to stick it in a nook, look up and around, and then fly back several yards into the brush to gather more.

When the smoke settled I came away with some satisfactory shots and was ready to move on, leaving the domestic Bell's Vireos in peace while I pursued the Warbling Vireos sounding off in the distance.
Unfortunately, given their preference for foliage and my lack of time, I did not get much in way of visuals on the WAVI, part from some quick glimpses. A distant Solitary Vireo caught my attention though, as a Solitary consolation.

With Blue-headed by and large out of the question, and the yellow sides ruling out Plumbeous, it had to be a Cassin's Vireo up above, hardly a bad trade off for Warbling (in fact, I'll take that any day). 

Mt. Ord still beckons, but I was very satisfied with Mesquite Wash, and look forward to a Yellow-billed Cuckoo hunt there in July. 
Despite Zone-tailed Hawk and Pacific-slope Flycatcher up on Mt. Ord, the nesting Vireos took the cake, both for the coolness of the sighting and the manner in which I was able to photograph it. The nest looked pretty comfy too--wouldn't mind them making one for me as well...

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Love and Heartbreak in Glendale

I have a terrific love/hate relationship with the Glendale Recharge Ponds. They bring in more waterfowl and shorebirds than just about any other site in Maricopa County, including rarities and vagrants, but are forever frustrating photographically, due to the distances and adverse lighting that is often involved. 

About thirty minutes away from the apartment, it's a doable stop after work, and one that has produced many FOY birds in the last several weeks. It has been during these weekday explorations, however, that I discovered my camera lens is malfunctioning. With no autofocus, it has made many aspects of photography difficult, difficult and very frustrating.

Stationary shorebirds aren't too problematic, but my weekend trips elsewhere have been hurting, particularly in trying to photograph the smaller, quicker birds. I sent the lens into Sony for repairs--hopefully it will get back by Friday of this week--so here are a few of the ol' 55mm photos from this past week. To offset the tragedy of the lens, here are some risque, PG-13 photos of beautiful birds making more beautiful birds.

Avocet Amore