Friday, May 31, 2013

Grab a Corkscrew and Drink It Up!

Florida is a super birdy place, like unfairly birdy. It's the only state with records of all the North American herons and egrets, it gets plenty of the east coast warbler migrations, it has its own endemics, plenty of cool raptors, vireos, solid sparrows, terrific terns, and Masked Duck. 
Located on the southern half of the gulf coast, the Naples area isn't the birdiest in Florida, but it still has some hot spots, and one of the most well known is the Corkscrew Swamp Audubon Sanctuary. 

This lovely preserve hosts several different habitats, including cedar forests--a diminishing habitat--that host breeding pairs of Wood Stork earlier in the winter. The cedar woods grow adjacent to pine woods, something that, as an Arizonan, it's weird to see when not above 5,000 feet elevation, and of course there's plenty of marshy mush all around.

The pristine foliage at this preserve was remarkable, but that didn't make it easy birding. When I arrived around 7am, the woods were echoing with calls, but many of them were unsurprisingly foreign. High canopies, adverse lighting, and continual cloud cover exacerbated the difficulties of looking for little birds in big woods, though I must admit that birding in the shade was a nice change.

The most dominant sound of all, by far, was that of the Carolina Wren. With so many of the other birds staying high in the canopies, they were also, somewhat oddly, the most visible birds and were consequently the most numerous species I counted during my time at Corkscrew. Photographing the flighty buggers was tricky in the shade, but their numbers meant the odds were in my favor and eventually one perched in a sunnier spots, and did so very nicely.

That particular Carolina Wren just happened to fly in and land only a few feet away from me. It was a welcome relief to my eyes, which were otherwise being tasked to discern the small birds in this mess. I know I must be sounding pretty meek here, but birding in the thick forest really is a different skill, and one with which I have precious little practice.

Audio birding was terrific for getting ticks, but coming to a new place is only satisfying with some solid sightings too. In the hopes of seeing Barred Owl, I was constantly scanning the mossy overhangs above me, never turning up the Owls but seeing several of the handsome and Arizona-uncommon Red-shouldered Hawks. The tales that people bring back from birding in Costa Rica or Peru are marvelous, and maybe the absurdly high amounts of absurdly colorful birds there breaks through the jungle, but honestly my confidence in birding those sorts of places is shot after struggling in the Corkscrew cedar.

The twisting boardwalk teemed with other life, as many insects (non-biting for the most part), reptiles, and amphibians all made their presence known. Scurrying anole lizards and clinging tree frogs were lovely decoration during the trip, and some larger aquatic lizards attentively loomed in the duckweed off the boardwalk. How many wee gators do you see?

While taking a break in the gatorhood, I was able to snap off the only Warbler shot I came away with during the trip (crushing disappointment!). Of course, it had to be a Warbler I've seen and photographed in Arizona already. There isn't any avoiding it; I'll just have to go to Ohio some May and do the warblering right.

One section of the Corkscrew boardwalk leads out of the dense cedar marsh and into the thinner Florida pines. Of course, this different habitat supported different birds, and here I was able to pick up some lifers with relative ease. A calling Great-crested Flycatcher was a great start. 

Chittering Pine Warblers and Brown-headed Nuthatches were great continuations, particularly because the brown-helmet pygmy completed my North American Nuthatch section.

The Red-shouldered Hawks were second only to Osprey as the most common raptor in the Naples area, and at Corkscrew Swamp they were the most numerous. Seeing some fly-over Swallow-tailed Kites was a one-off treat, but being up close to the Red-shouldereds was really enjoying the home-feild advantage that birding in Florida brings.
--Home Field Advantage: noun; seeing a bird in it's preferred/best/most usual habitat, such that one gets more and better views (and photos) than one gets seeing the same species of bird as a vagrant in other areas. Example: "Traveling to Florida gives the Arizonan a great Home Field Advantage for Red-shouldered Hawks and Northern Parula, which turn up in Arizona but are often skittish and a total pain to pursue.  

A full day's agenda necessitated a relatively short visit to Corkscrew, but on the way out there were plenty of birds to see and shoot in the parking lots spaces, where the thick palm and elm groves gave way to green lawns. Here the Black Vultures did Vulture things.

And Common Grackles did Grackle things. I know, it's in bad taste to include a Common Grackle in a bird post, but it was a lifer for me okay so, like, leave it alone!

Do you recognize these primaries?

A young Loggerhead Shrike was the last bit of icing on the swamp cake.

Coincidentally enough, there were a few Woodstorks feeding in one of the many road-side drainage canals while driving to Corkscrew Swamp, but it was too late in the year to expect any in their roosts. Despite the sore neck and lack of Storks, it was a solid tally for Corkscrew Swamp (unsurprisingly) and a great lesson in practice and adaptation for an outsider like myself.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Burned But Never Burnt Out

Ah, the joys and pains of the beach...
Perhaps for an Arizonan or desert dweller, it holds a special allure. We experience the heat and the sun, unrelenting and beating in their power, but do not enjoy the cool salty breezes or the undulating reprieve of the tides, nor for that matter do we get particularly good seafood. Despite the Florida beaches fulfilling everything one needs is a nice beach, except maybe for seclusion, I was horribly cut on the double-edged sword that is beaching and beach birding.

Despite the plethora of great birding that beaches provide, they also have an enervating effect. After a few hours of chasing peeps along the shoreline and making all manner of muscular poses, the soporific effect of sun and sea cannot be denied. But on the beach too much of this:

Leaves one with this (serious erythema solera):

Which prompts days of this:

Followed by a humiliating week of this: (his feathers are molting/peeling off)

Such was the case on the second day into our Florida trip, when I sustained massive sunburn of the torso from a combination of photographing Sanderlings, Gulls, and White Ibis, and then injudiciously mooching off a reclining beach chair form the nearby Ritz Carlton resort and falling asleep without any protection.
Oh, the crippling pain, and then oh, the crippling peeling. Everywhere I walked afterwards, my skin left behind a lovely trail of snowy dermis. Anyway, the sunburn faded, but the bird sightings and photos remain, so it was a long term victory.

Despite their very variable stages of molt, Sanderlings are one of the most recognizable and beloved sights of a proper beach, even by non-birders. Their anxious antics provide endless angst and amusement to passersby. While all of the other creatures come to the beach and indulge in the water, Sanderlings will never fully commit.
Surely, no bird feels as though it walks the narrow line between life and death as the Sanderling.

Though many of the Sanderlings had left for their high tundra breeding grounds, We still saw dozens at all of the different beaches we visited in early May. I suspect many of these birds won't even bother to make the trip this year. It's much work, and after all you're supposed to go to Florida to retire.

What do you think? Does this look like a bird that's about to leave of a 6,000 mile migration? Nah, they'll just nap it out. Breeding can wait.

One of the top Florida Goal Birds was the White Ibis. It sounds like a superhero or something, and they are a pretty spectacular bird even without any super powers. A curious creature, it's a pretty big deal when they turn up outside of the Gulf coast/Florida area, but within that locale they turn up in parking lots, golf courses, backyard irrigation ditches, and any marshy areas in between. They really live up to the designation of 'locally' common.'

As such, they're not always in the most photogenic places, but they can be found on the beaches as well, inspiring the Sanderlings with their stalwart immersion in the ravenous tide.

Although I saw several dozen White Ibis around the Naples area, none were so accommodating as this bird. We spent significant time together, during which it foraged quite contentedly and I received a strong blasting of ultraviolet light. When we began the shoot, my complexion matched the White Ibis's alabaster body, but by the end I more closely matched to hue of its face and legs.

It was a very meticulous forager, wielding that large beak with great precision, even as waves broke all around it, showing the Sanderlings how it's done:

Salty spray, it's invigorating!

Did you know that White Ibises have a matching white eyelid? I did not.

To be fair, the White Ibis wasn't the only bird bravely foraging within the water's break line.
With the sand being so fine, the few Ruddy Turnstones had a hard time finding ruddy stones to turn, but they gulped down the many tiny bivalves that were exposed with every wave.

Before my wife and I headed out to the Pelican Beach area, I spent several hours at the famous Corkscrew Swamp observatory. Look forward to that post later this week.
Happy Memorial Weekend.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Royalty Gets a Tern

We get more Terns in Arizona than one might expect, or at least when I was first starting to pay attention to birds, I was surprised by the number of different species. In the spring and early summer months, Caspian and Forster's Terns are a fairly common site at some of the larger Maricopa County water features. Least Terns are annual as well, though uncommon, and have even established a few breeding pairs in Phoenix in the last couple of years.
So, with my wife and I visiting the Tern-rich Florida Gulf Coast in May, I wasn't dumbstruck at the prospect of seeing many of these elegant birds, but I was still looking forward to terning over a new leaf. Brown Pelicans turn up in Phoenix as well and don't have quite the same aerial ethos as the Terns, but there's no more quintessential sight at the beach than the Pelican patrol.

As expected, I saw Caspian, Common, and Least Terns flying off-shore along the gulf beaches. I was bummed to miss Sandwich Terns while in the area, but very pleased to find some nice Royal Tern repositories, even if the specimens were all suffering from May-pattern baldness.

Fairly large, fairly rude, and rarely found away from the oceanic coasts--no records in Arizona in the last ten years--these Terns live up to their names, even when they're not in breeding plumage.

Their aerial acrobatics were predictably (though not boringly) impressive, but the best place to study and photograph these birds was near the 5th street peer in Naples. With the constant presence of fisherman on the peer, these birds had lost their fear of man, or at least would swallow their anxiety if it also included the possibility of swallowing discarded fish pieces.

It was pretty cloudy in the evening when Maria and I visited the peer, so I didn't come away with nifty Tern flight shots. This photo of a bug-eyed beauty is plenty nice though, even regal.
One can sense the haughtiness in this bird's demeanor. "Bow to me, and bring gifts of fish!"

And for some real eye candy, here's my wifey at the docks. 

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Foul Tidings with Good Feelins in the Evenins

Salutations Bird Friends. 
I first have to preface this post with some unfortunate news. Last weekend, whilst pursuing my latent dreams of becoming a professional soccer player vis-a-vis Friday night rec. league soccer, I injured my knee pretty seriously. The kneecap on the left looks more or less normal--not the world's most attractive knee, to be sure, but not the least. The knee on the right is swollen, misshapen, gross, and...lost.

 Here is some photo-documentation of the cumulative effects of the injury: strained veins and massive bruising. At this point, the swelling is pretty bad and the leg is more or less useless.

The intent here is not to facilitate a pity party, though PARTY ON as needed, but to explain the paucity of birding posts that will be coming in the next few weeks or more. I have photos from a recent trip to Florida, the intention of which was to attend a friend's wedding, but any contemporary hiking and birding is at a standstill. Hopefully I can avoid surgery and a longer lay-up.

So, moving on to nicer, more pretty things, I'll start with some of the first scenes from my wife's and my Florida trip in early May. We landed in Ft. Meyers and drove to Naples first thing, hoping to catch the sunset and some beach time during our first evening. Of course, there were birds on the beach too...

I didn't know it at the time, but this Black-bellied Plover was the only one of the species I'd see for the whole trip, so my minor guilt at interrupting a romantic beach walk to take its picture certainly has not lasted. The soft evening lighting, cool breezes, and powdery sand of the Florida beaches are the most welcome of refuges for desiccated Arizonans.

Of course, the main objective of the Florida trip was to attend a wedding, but with that objective well-established and not under threat, there would be plenty of birding to fit in as well!

P.S. Apologies for the rather revealing shots. It's all for...SCIENCE.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Miller: The Champagne of Canyons

Miller Canyon...with its perfect location, beautiful habitats, and relative accessibility, it is so often the object of birders' hopes and dreams, and so often the subject of many heartbreaks. The attractive qualities of Miller Canyon are superlative. The Beatty Guest Ranch in Miller Canyon is world-renowned for its variation in hummingbirds, with a North American record 14 species seen there in a single day. Additionally, it hosts an annual pair of breeding Spotted Owls, a majestic and endangered species that is not reliably found anywhere else in the state.
Despite the Owls being largely sedentary, I've made the drive down south and missed the Owls on three separate occasions, and once while joining forces with an outstanding birder ally. 
There enters the heartbreak, the spiraling depressions and benders, the broken commitments, the total total nadir of an Arizona birder's soul...a binge in Miller Canyon and leave one reeling for days. 

Heading into the belly of the beast. So naive

After the most recent miss on the Owls, I was back in the Canyon within a month. I knew that this time I would find the Owls, in addition to a great many great birds, and I knew that because this time they were not the main reason for the trip back to Miller Canyon. I returned with my birding buddy Tommy, at the expense even of doing a Maricopa County east side Big Day, because there was an almighty concatenation of birds in that Huachuca Mountain pass the weekend of April 27th.   

When Western Tanagers and Magnificent Hummingbirds are some of the less remarkable bids seen on a's a good birding day.

Not only was Miller Canyon still hosting the Spotted Owls, and not only was it now receiving its normal influx of Blue-throated and Magnificent Hummingbirds, along with Dusky-capped and Buff-breasted Flycatchers, but the Canyon also had two reported Crescent-chested Warblers, a Flame-colored Tanager, Pygmy Owls, Goshawks...add in a Lucifer Hummingbird next door at Ash Canyon, and it was a feathered paradise.
A young Scott's Oriole perched on ocotillo? Not even a big deal...

Just to avoid any later disappointment, the Crescent-chested Warblers did not show that day, though we did hear some suspicious, Parula-like trilling on the trail. Thundering up and down Miller Canyon, even with dozens of other eager birders from around the southwest, including California, New Mexico, and Nevada, the odds were always heavily against finding those little birds, and we will likely hav eto wait a few more years to try again. 
But searching for Crescent-chested Warblers in Miller Canyon is like trying to find the perfect diamond in a jewelry store: there are plenty of other gems around. Also, you shouldn't eat the merchandise, nor put it in your pocket and try to leave. 

The stationary Hummingbird feeders are great attractions at the Beatty Ranch in Miller Canyon, but finding and photographing some of the Hummers away from the feeders, like this female Blue-throated below, presents an enjoyable challenge, especially when warblers are being all anti-social. 

Like the other southeastern Arizona mountain ranges, Miller Canyon and the Huachucas host the brown-backed Arizona Woodpecker. The Cactus Wren is a mighty mascot for state bird, but this fellow would've done well too, even if it is esoteric in its location. With an ability to climb, eat, and fight crime while upside down, these Woodpeckers, like Nuthatches, make Spiderman seem blasé. 

Every birding trip of 3+ hours driving needs to produce a rarity of some sort, and that rarity must have a grainy, backlit portrait taken. Miller Canyon is peculiar in that is hosts so many great birds, and so many birds that are not found much elsewhere in the country, but within the mountain range they're locally common. Luckily, or perhaps unluckily, this Flame-colored x Western Tanager applied for a job in the 'rarity' department. With the yellowish wingbar and weaker orange coloration (seems like a crime to say, doesn't it) disqualifying this bird as being a pure Flame-colored, it is in the odd position of being rarer than either a Western or regular Flame-colored, and yet, as far as the lister is concerned, more or less useless. This is the plight of the hybrid bird, but a plight that does not at all extend into the realm of aesthetic enjoyment.

On the drive down from Phoenix, Tommy and I stopped to do some owling on Mt. Lemmon in Tucson the night before. It cost a good night's sleep, but we heard Flammulated, Western-Screech, Mexican Whip-poor-will, Great-horned, and N. Saw-whet Owl (nice!) all on the mountain. This fortunate prelude of owling could've been interpreted two ways. Either it was going to be a very owl-y weekend, or we used up our Owl luck in Tucson.
It was the first possibility that proved true, and we made sure right away. Before hours of hiking up and down Miller Canyon, scouring every bush and analyzing every trilll for the CCWA, we spotted the Spotted nemesis sitting in a choke-cherry tree.

Knowing he could thwart us no longer, that we had his number, that his ticket was up, the Owl still did its best to frustrate, ducking away and pretending to scratch an itch on its back. I could just be bitter, since I too get itches on my back and cannot scratch them in this fashion, thus begging the question, what the heck good is our spinal chord anyway?

When the perch has been found, the hard part is done. though the morning light was behind the bird, we eventually had some great, overdue face-time, and I should also stress that the Owl was not stressed or harassed in any way beyond our unavoidable proximity, perched as it was fairly near the trail. For better or worse, we gawking birders were business as usual for this freckled hooter.

Forgive my indulgence here, but I've dipped on this bird consistently for two years of trying, so I took a lot of photos at long last. At one point the Owl started preening and chewing on its feet--something I often see Burrowing Owl do too, but in some photos it looks like he's got twigs, leaves, or even maybe the remain of a critter stuck in there.

With the Spotted Owl secured, it was time to thunder up and down the mountain in the hopes of seeing some rarer and much more energetic birds. We scoured the lower washes, turning up many warblers, tanagers, and sparrows. We trekked up higher, turning up Greater Pewee, woodpeckers, Siskins, and Buff-breasted Flycatchers.

In our Warbler search, which did turn up just about every other possible warbler in the area, including Red-faced and Virginia's, we did a fair amount of exploring around a bend in the wash where another birder reported seeing a Northern Pygmy Owl being mobbed the day before. Exploring the pine trees around the trail, I found whitewash deposits but all the elevated staring in the world couldn't produce that little eight inch poof ball I was looking for, only dozens of Wilson's Warblers.

Later in the afternoon, while quintouple-checking that same area for the elusive Warblers, we met up with fellow Arizonan and fantastic birder Kurt Radamaker, who spotted a small but well-worn hole in a nearby scrub oak. A little patience...and there it was.

"Who dares to disturb my slumber!?"
Our sixth owl species in 12 hours, this was a super find and one of the highlights of the day. On one hand, the bird's limited visibility kept it from being a perfect sighting, but on the other hand, actually getting the Owl-in-a-hole experience isn't as normal a treat as common consensus and Halloween decorations would have us believe.

This is another Owl species I'd been trying and hoping to see for some time, with them occurring regularly but elusively on Mt. Ord in Maricopa County. It just goes to show that, like with the Spotted Owls, one of the best ways to find a really cool bird is to look for something else entirely (but also really, really cool). What's that really cheesy expression, 'shoot for the stars and land on the moon' or something? Yeah, it's kinda like that.

With Ash Canyon and Sierra Vista grasslands beckoning after Miller Canyon, there was no time nor desire to crack open a few of the High Life when we finally called it quits on the Warbler (nor time and desire for smokes after Ash Canyon, nor Sierra Nevadas after Sierra Vista, etc). No no, there were birds to see. We saved all the prodigious drinking for the drive home.
Drinking water that is! Ha ha..ha...

Smiles all round'