Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Cloudy Sunset

Speaking of clouds and such, which have lately been prominent over much of the U.S., even Arizona, here are some dandies that I photographed from 35,000 feet up over Orlando Florida (a very perturbing stop in a detour my wife and I have to take to get back to Phoenix from Manchester, New Hampshire).

Yeah yeah, cloud photos are about as cheesy and commonplace as nature photography can get. Just picture yourself to be a Godwit or some other long-migrating bird. This may be their view too.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Sunflower amidst clouds and rain

It's been a great monsoon this year in Arizona. Every afternoon in late July and parts of August, the heavy clouds gather, often bringing lightning storms and dusty wind. Too often they just make everything dirty without leaving any precious precipitation, but this summer we've been very fortunate in our rainfall. The clouds have been offering evening downpours and often staying through until morning, following up with a.m. showers to keep the desert temperatures comparatively low and the foliage comparatively green. Of course, this does impede birding and photography somewhat, but there's not too much high level birding to be done in Phoenix this time of year, so I won't complain.

Last Friday Pops and I made a trip to Sunflower, which is little more than a turn off from the Hwy-87 with a few houses and a tow truck company. The Sunflower turn-off leads to a section of closed off road, now called the 'Old Beeline Highway' (the 87 is the new one up to Payson). This road is now closed to vehicle access, but pedestrians can walk along and use the vantage point to observe the denizens of Sycamore Creek that runs adjacent to the eastern side of the Old Beeline.
With all of the recent rain, the creek here and at Mesquite Wash, ten miles down the Hwy-87, were flowing at a very good clip.

The well-watered riparian area and the juniper canyons on either side of the Old Beeline Highway make this stretch of Sunflower excellent nesting habitat for both Zone-tailed and Common Black Hawks, and these were our target birds, along with the optimistic hope for hearing or seeing a Yellow-billed Cuckoo on the side.
For much of the drive up to Sunflower (about fifty minutes), the percussion of raindrops and streaks of lightning gave us quite a show. It was still raining when we began birding on foot, so I initially left the camera in the car. Yellow Warblers, Bell's Vireos, Blue Grosbeaks, Ash-throated Flycatchers, and Cassin's Kingbirds were all very common and audible on the walk, even with the rainfall. Phainopeplas still dotted many of the canyon juniper bushes while Gnatcatchers flitted around in the understory.

The creek continued to swell with runoff and the cloud cover made for a very pleasant walk, enhanced by not lugging around heavy camera gear. That nicety was shattered though, when we looked up into one of the many Arizona sycamores and saw a large mass of sticks. Not only was it a nest, but there was the single silhouette of a raptor chick sitting pretty. Alas, it was mostly obscured when I later returned with the lens.
Which species was it, Zone-tailed or Common Black Hawk? This was a matter of no small discussion, a matter that has still not been fully resolved.

As we were walking along the road maybe one hundred feet up from the nest, a Common Black Hawk spooked from a sycamore and made a beeline towards the nest area. At the time, this seemed to confirm that the nest was Black Hawk property, but that wouldn't be the end of the story.
After we were treated to calling Cassin's Kingbirds, who were also prone to bouts of aerial bellicosity as they staked out their respective domains, the very loud, very recognizable shriek of Zone-tailed Hawk wafted through the canyon.

Though these Hawks seem to prefer canyon walls for perching and hunting, they also hang out and nest in riparian areas, particularly in cottonwood trees or sycamores. In addition to the two birds we saw on the rocky escarpment, there was also an individual bird calling not much farther down the road. 

The presence of these three raucous Zonies, all relatively close to the nest, made us rethink the site as that of a Blackhawk chick--it just seemed dangerous and impractical from the point of view of prospective Blackhawk parents. That being said, the Zonies never came near the nest, nor even crossed over from the opposite side of the Old Beeline Highway. Who knows...

It proved to be a very good day for raptors, and not only because we found our two target Hawks. We heard and saw multiple Cooper's Hawks, and even a single Sharp-shinned Hawk--identified in part by its distressed flight call and wingbeats--which is a pretty rare find in the area during late July.
There was a Red-tail and plenty of Turkey Vultures (of course), but the Cooper's were unusually Cooperative. The bird shown below was perched on the side of the road, between us and the car, but let us approach from a hundred feet or so until we were even with the bird, opposite the road.

After a few minutes of observation it departed, showing some pretty haggard primaries on the tail. These moments, when the bird is stretched at take off, can show how proportionally short the accipiter's wings are, relative to the length of its body.

As things started to quiet down at Sunflower, we retraced our route on the Hwy-87 and stopped off at Mesquite Wash, still hoping for a Cuckoo photo-op and anything else that would be new for the day. A young Summer Tanager fit that bill, but the wash itself was pretty flooded and muddy, making the trek somewhat perilous and uncomfortable as the sun finally forced its way through the clouds.
We spent a fair portion of time trying to get good looks and photos of the numerous Blue Grosbeaks in the area, a bird which manages to deny me with the ol' stick-in-the-face trick every single time...

Our experience with the accomodating Cooper's was one-upped at Mesquite though, as we had close encounters with another adult Cooper's Hawk and its two whiny offspring, who were perfectly capable of flying and hunting for themselves, but still seemed determined to mooch off of their parent.

They had very little fear of people, and in fact we didn't spot the first bird until we were standing right underneath it. For the next hour or so that we spent exploring the muddy wash and surrounding bosque, the distant, plaintive calling of the two demanding young was a constant.

Really, these birds were being spoiled by their parent(s) and the relative bounty of the flooded riparian woodland. It's a sign of the times, or so I've read. Kids stay living at home with their parents later and later, not wanting to wade into the tumultuous and unpromising job market, saddled with economically debilitating student debt and an inability to catch one's own songbirds.

Then again, from the parents' perspective, who could say no to this face?

Sunday, July 21, 2013

The Maine Event: Conglomeration of the Commons

It's a gloomy day here in Phoenix (finally!), with monsoon rain continuing through from the night before. Rather cruelly, these are some of the most special, cherished days in Phoenix, even as they impede outdoor activities. 
We had a similarly overcast day while in Maine a few weeks ago, when we were making a day trip from my in-law's house in New Hampshire. Gloomy weather is, of course, more expected there, and given our limited time it was also no reason to hold back on birding, so we went out slipping and sliding on the wet rocks of Seapoint Beach, with the promise of lobster shack lunch soon after.

Herring Gulls and Ring-billed Gulls were the most common birds, both foraging along the shore and floating out in the inlet. Being about two and a half weeks out of surgery, I was still pretty limpy and wimpy moving around the jetties, but this Spotted Sandpiper demonstrated how it's done (with style).

A few Common Terns added to seabird scene, as well as a couple Great Black-backed Gulls. All in all the diversity wasn't great, but this was the first time I'd seen Common Terns, their name not withstanding. Dainty and somewhat swallow-tailed, they're a particularly elegant member of the Tern family.

A small raft of Common Eiders provided another new bird, though they were not as playful nor as inspiring as the Terns. The largest duck in the Northern Hemisphere, according to Cornell, these were all females and/or immatures--not exactly the most colorful bunch.

Once they became more comfortable with me spying on them though, they resumed their diving, crabbing ways. Needless to say, with the family and I being in Maine already, this helped put everyone in the mood for some crustacean gestation.

A single Common Loon floated out in the inlet too. We had seen some beautiful Common Loons in their breeding plumage and with chicks on Granite Lake, back in New Hampshire, but unfortunately I did not have a camera at the time (which was also a good thing, as I was floating in the middle of the lake on pink pool noodles and the camera might've alarmed the Loons).
For a short while I optimistically tried to turn this into a Red-throated Loon, but it just wasn't there...

So the seascape had some fun birds but was a bit bleary. The crescent beach had plenty of seaside vegetation and shrubbery on the opposite side of the sand though, and while the Seaside Sparrows never sounded off nor came into view, there were plenty of Song Sparrows and Red-winged Blackbirds.
Exploring the paths through this overgrowth was an interesting experience. In some places the vegetation was high and thick enough such that none of the ocean breeze came through. It was thus quite sweltering and buggy in these tangles, rather unpleasant for people but perfect for other critters.

As I've mentioned before, birding in lush places like Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, or Maine, affords much better looks at birds like the Yellowthroat, in addition to the regional specialties. I never get nearly as close up, clear, or prolonged views of this otherwise common bird in Arizona, and it was very nice to finally get a satisfactory image, even with the overcast blur.

It was only recounting the birds and photos after the trip that I realized everything I photographed, including two new birds, had 'Common' in their name. Sometimes common can still be pretty cool, although I also might've picked up a common cold out there...

Monday, July 15, 2013

Barn Raising at Stroud Preserve

The Florida feel has worn off, but I'm not quite circulated back into Arizona birding yet. Last week my wife and I, as well as some of my other family members, travelled to West Chester, PA, to attend my sister-in-law's wedding. The wedding was beautiful, as expected, but we Butlers like to overload in all things, so before the afternoon ceremony I took some of the family to a favorite little local nature spot.

It was pretty hot and pretty humid, with all of the grass holding more dew than one would think possible. It took three days for my shoes to dry out, but that's a necessary sacrifice. The rolling, grassy hills at Stroud Preserve are good for Bobolinks, and I was also able to finally see a semi-nemesis bird, the Brown Thrasher, to get an unexpected lifer out of the walk.
Eastern Bluebirds and American Goldfinches added their unusual panache to the morning, but some of the most concentrated, and also variegated colors came not from the birds, but from Stroud's carefully protected wildflowers.

The whole week was pretty overcast, and with the heavy humidity and my gamy leg I wasn't an overly enthusiastic photographer. However, one of Stroud Preserve's best features is an old stone bridge running over a charming brook near the entrance. After out loop walk, we loitered on the bridge, watching Carolina Wrens building a nest in a blackberry bush and Catbirds squabble about anything and everything. 

The bridge also allowed for some nice views of the Proud Stroud Swallows. Barn Swallows and Tree Swallows are both fairly common in Arizona, but I seldom see them or photograph them well. The higher concentrations in Pennsylvania improve the odds, and also the likeliness that one will find a few sedentary Swallows. The Barn Swallow below was practicing patient parentage above the bridge.

Its progeny seemed anything but precocious. It did not respond to the adult's enticements towards movement, neither in way of feeding itself nor attempted flight. With that wide, pale rubbery gape, young Swallows are some of the goofiest looking juveniles. It was delightful.

After a while, the parent took a seat too, perhaps a bit frustrated but undoubtedly still committed to its task in raising the little Barn. And to be fair, neither I nor many humans can say they'd know how to do a better job. 

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Lake's Park: Stand-out Birds

Lake's Park provided good birding from the boardwalk and some decent birding in the pine palm forest. The best sightings, in terms of proximity and clarity, came from the otherwise undesirable mud banks of the Lake's Park shoreline. 
The white and red of these preening Ibis stood in stark contrast to the murky water and muddy shores. 

It was interesting to witness these birds finish their lunchtime probing in the mud and immediately switch over to post-lunch grooming, with their beaks still caked in jet black gunk. Despite my misgivings, there didn't seem to be any dirty residue on the pristine white feathers.

This bird in the forefront was a bit behind in the times. Its face was not nearly as red, nor was its gular pouch as distended as others (check out the stud in the background).
In native folklores, the White Ibis was reputed to be the last bird to seek shelter from an approaching hurricane, and the first to emerge afterwards. Dodging hurricanes and preening white feathers with muddy beaks...this is a bird that lives life on the edge.

One of the less edgy birds at Lake's Park was this breeding plumage Tri-colored Heron, which preferred to stay in the reeds and in the shadows. They live in a constant fear of hurricanes.

While birding at the much-vaunted J.N. Darling Refuge on Sanibel Island, I saw a couple of Little Blue Herons stalking through the mangrove forests. It felt very appropriate and was a satisfying sighting at the time, but there were no photos or prolonged views to be had. At Lake's Park, this bird was out in the open, feeding around the grassy shore of a small island in one of the lake that supported a large bronze statue of children playing ring-around-the-rosie.

It didn't feel quite as genuine as seeing them in the mangroves, but I sure appreciated the improved viewing. Little Blue Herons closely resemble Snowy Egrets when they're young, except for their legs and beak. This allows them to mingle with Snowy flocks, and thus better avoid predation, and their hunting success rates, according to at least one study, actually increase.
Eventually they give it all up though to become the handsome devil here:

I have no stats to back this up, but it seems like the Tricolored Heron has the most proportionately long beak of the heron/egret group. Add to that the striking speed of an annoyed cobra and the dead-eye red eye, and this bird is a fearsome hunter. Like just about every other heron, they're also stunning, and are another bird that, while seen all over Florida, afforded the best looks at the unassuming urban park.

After Lake's Park it was time to clean up--showering, peeling off my sunburnt skin, dying my hair, doing my nails--and go to a wedding. It was a somewhat unorthodox, but ultimately very satisfying conclusion to my Florida birding days. 

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Lake's Park: Into the Pines and Palms

The most bizarre and perplexing Florida habitat, for me, is the combination pine and palm forests. I don't know if these habitats are transplants, offspring from transplants/terraforming or just natural to the area, but seeing the two trees growing side by side is very strange. In Arizona, you don't really find pines naturally below 5,000 feet, and since palms don't grow here naturally, they're only ever in residential areas.
Anyway, there was a swathe of this interesting pine and palm mixture at the afore mentioned Lake's Park. While they didn't have roosting herons or Gallinules, I was still hurting from the fact that, after three days of birding, I had only found three warbler species. Where better for Pine and Palm Warblers to be that in a pine palm forest?

The dense foliage was perforated with dirt trails, most of which were overgrown/underused. There was plenty of nature noise, always an encouraging sign, but not a lot of visibility. One call was particularly repetitive. It was familiar, and yet unlike any call I could recognize. At this point in the trip, I had been surrounded by serenading Wrens and Cardinals enough to know their sounds, and this was different, though similar to the latter. Most excitingly, it was clearly coming from lower in the brush, so I might actually have a chance to see and photograph a non heron/egret bird on the trip. I still needed Brown Thrasher, and maybe it'd be a migrating Thrush or something else super cool!

With beads of sweat reaching critical mass and trailing down my face, I stalked and creeped with great skill (don't ask me how I became a skilled stalker/creeper) until I zeroed in on the vocalizing bird. I pushed down a palm frond, peered through an opening and...

FOILED! This doe-eyed immature Cardinal was practicing/butchering the Cardinal song. He'd thrown me for a loop. I'll admit, he's pretty darn cute, but Cardinal was not atop my list of Florida Must See birds. I couldn't spend too long sulking. A racket broke out in the canopy of nearby Slash Pine (?) trees, with three bellicose Blue Jays mobbing a raptor and robbing it of its perch.
You can see the raptor's tail feathers in the photo below. Any guesses???

After an hours of humid hiking I had little to show for my efforts, but the foray into the pines did allow for a brief photo shoot with a Blue Jay--perhaps one of the aggravated assault offenders from before--when it perched on a hand rail (many on the trails in Florida seem to be constructed with the pre-conceieved notion that everyone hiking them will fall and drown in the mud if there aren't handrails).

I must ashamedly admit, this is the first time I've photographed a Blue Jay. True enough, you won't see them in Arizona, but between Pennsylvania and four years in Dallas, well...there's no excuse, only recompense. It was a fun little detour, but at this point I had resigned myself to the reality that all the best birding and photography was to be done at the water's edge. That's where we'll head next.