Monday, August 26, 2013

Where there is a Nemesis, there must also be a Hero

When flocks of bird nerds get together, they fill the air with stories and tails, discussions of past sightings, future sightings, ornithological taxonomical distinctions and splits, migrations, and all manner of other things that involve the esoteric jargon that comes with any serious past time. One of the more common idioms, one with which even the most casual or greenhorn birders are familiar, is the dreaded "Nemesis Bird." Some of the best birding stories, even the best birding blogs, have to do with the big misses relating to a Nemesis Bird, a bird one has repeatedly tried and failed to see. In many cases birders have multiple Nemesis Birds, and they may spend many years and dollars trying to find them. The Nemesis Bird weighs heavily on a birder's mind, influencing trips and confidence, determining whether or not one has a successful outing even quite apart from any other birds that are seen.

Of course, every good story needs some sort of adversary, some sort of challenge, and the Nemesis Bird, as a concept, holds a high place in the birding lexicon and identity. Inversely, I want to posit that there is another bird, the protagonist, who may often be under-appreciated, who is less often mentioned in the stories or put on the pedestal.
Enter the Hero Bird, the stoic, tragic characters(s) in many birders' lives, who saves one birding outing after another and may never get the full credit it is due--certainly none of the attention and hype that Nemesis Bird receives.

The Hero Bird is more difficult to define. It's the bird that makes the trip when the lifers or nemeses don't show. It's not so common that it's boring or blasé, but it's still a reliable and delightful find when it judiciously reveals itself. Deciding on one's Hero Bird is tricky, because the rarity if the birds must be taken into consideration as well as the other circumstances and frequency of the sightings.

For example, Cardinals are always a pleasure to see, but I doubt many people would identify a Cardinal as their Hero Bird because in most locales where they're seen, they're so common that they don't serve as a singular, standout sighting. The Hero Bird must allow great looks, better perhaps than one might expect, or better than one has heard of other birders having. The Hero Bird makes an otherwise mediocre trip, one without lifers or super sightings, into a fulfilling adventure. The Hero Bird is not necessarily rare, nor necessarily common, but it feels like a blessing every time it's seen. Like a comic book superhero, the Hero Bird doesn't appear all the time and save the day, but it shows up often enough, or in the most desperate of circumstances.

Trying to think of my own Hero Birds, at first I speculated it may be the Le Conte's Thrasher. This is an uncommon bird, one not widely distributed, and I've been able to find it every time I've tried, including several trips with out-of-state birders who've gotten in touch specifically to find that bird.
It's not a guaranteed sighting and it's a local specialty, but I've always had luck with the Le Conte's. However, I've never seen this Thrasher anywhere but in the little Thrasher spot out in Buckeye. While it's a reliable sighting, it will never show up to save the day, or at least it never has, when I've been birding elsewhere in Arizona. Le Conte's Thrasher, you are a great bird, but you are not my Hero.

As I thought about it more, I realized that I probably don't have the greatest Hero Birds, in part because I'm not a great birder and haven't gone on lots of great birding trips. Then, on further meditation, I realized that my two probably Hero Birds are indeed great. Bird names never lie or mislead, after all.
My two Hero Birds are the Great Horned Owl, and the Greater Roadrunner.

These birds are big and badass, but that alone doesn't seal the deal. Neither the Greater Roadrunner nor the Great Horned Owl are rarities, but I don't see them every time I go birding either--it's vitally important that a Hero Bird isn't overly available, or else all the mystique is lost. But when I see them, I tend to get very close up views and good photos.
I walked under this Great Horned Owl after spending hours trying to turn up a rare reported sparrow at the DBG. I had no luck with the rare bird, nor did anyone else I talked too, but the Great Horned made the trip absolutely worth it. This isn't the only time a GHO has shown up and saved a failed chase. Owls already have a lot going for them, and a visual always has a big impact. I'd venture that many people could find the Great Horned to be one of their Hero Birds. They combine awe and availability almost perfectly.

The Greater Roadrunner also happens to be one of my favorite birds. I feel satisfied with my photo collection of it, and have had some amazingly crushing views, including when a Roadrunner ran across my feet on a trail in east Phoenix, and also massacred a Mourning Dove chick mere feet away at the DBG (pictured below). Roadrunners aren't regarded as particularly skittish, but many is the birder I've spoken too who bemoans their lack of good, prolonged Roadrunner sightings. I've got 99 bird problems, but quality time with the Greater Roadrunner ain't one of them.

So, do you have a Hero Bird. What bird has given you almost undue, face-melting looks, on multiple occasions? What bird has shown up, time and again, when it seemed the morning was  over, the afternoon doldrums were setting in, and the birding trip was a bust?
For many birders, finding and conquering our Nemeses Birds are some of the most defining and memorable moments. Let us also recognize the Heroes.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

To the Highlands: Sunrise Campground and Greens Peak

We secured the Dipper pretty early into our day, and so with everything going according to plan on Mt. Baldy, we then moved locations--stopping to bird whenever possible--so that we could chase Gray Jays, Clark's Nutcrackers, and Dusky Grouse. These species can also be seen higher up Mt. Baldy, but with so many good birding spots close together and the different sites having high probabilities, we added some variation. 

The next stop was Sunrise Lake Campground and Gray Jays were the primary target. Gray Jays are very hardy birds, having annual populations and even raising broods in the middle of winter in the far northern reaches of Canada. They also live comfortably near people, being opportunists, and as such a high elevation campground is just about the perfect habitat for them. That being said, this area around the White Mountains is about the only place in Arizona where Gray Jays will turn up, so we were still counting on our luck.

There were squirrels and chipmunks maintaining a constant buzz around Sunrise, but the birding was also good, though bird calls were more difficult to differentiate for me. Tommy spotted a Downy Woodpecker--always a solid find in Arizona, even in the higher elevations--, and it was soon joined by a buddy. Although this wasn't a state or even a year bird, it was still one of the rarer finds for the day.

The Downies foraged quite contentedly, not really minding our proximity but not being particularly photogenic either. One of the birds discovered some sort of fungus or something up in this aspen tree, which kept it occupied for a goodly while.

The Downy Woodpecker sighting transitioned into further luck as we followed the foraging birds away from the main road.  We waited and watched the woodpeckers, and while we were so occupied a mixed flock formed up around us. Soon Golden-crowned Kinglets, Mountain Chickadees, and Nuthatches were all contributing to the scene.

Mountain Chickadees, like just about every other Chickadee (except for Mexican) are pretty common in their locale, but I hadn't had a nice photo stomp with them before. I was very pleased to remedy my paucity of Chickadee photos, because I don't know when next I'll be able to get up into the mountains, nor when next a Chickadee will hold still.

The itinerant echoes of squirrel chatter were very frustrating at times. A squirrel or chipmunk trill doesn't really sound like a Jay or Nutcracker, but when there are enough other distortions and distractions, it's just enough to give one continual false hope about what's ahead, or what's behind. Too often it's just one of these smug little rodents sitting on its little throne.

The Gray Jays were not a guaranteed or even common sighting by any means, but I still felt a bit unlucky to miss them entirely, much less come away without any photos. Still, some of the views around the Sunrise grounds were worth the trip, as were the other birds.

We didn't leave empty-handed either, though we weren't holding a lot. This lone, calling Clark's Nutcracker provided a state bird for the site. Of course he picked the tallest, most backlit tree he could find. Maybe he could sense I was unlucky, and didn't want to get too close.

From the campground we travelled up to Greens Peak, which provided outstanding views of the surrounding countryside and also the impending thunderstorm that was coming to cut our birding short.

The main attraction on Greens Peak was the possibility of seeing Dusky Grouse, a secretive but confiding bird if one is lucky. To this day, I have not seen a single member of the Grouse/Ptarmigan family, which is almost too embarrassing to admit in public.
We hiked up and down Greens peak, getting some serious exercise and enjoying the scenery. We had butterflies and frogs, as well as my best American three-toed Woodpecker sighting of the trip.

We also had Kinglets and the occasional Robin, but all in all the encroaching weather and later afternoon timeframe seemed to be keeping the bird activity muted. To take a rest from our hiking, Tommy played a Red-breasted Nuthatch call, knowing they respond well and we'd then at least get some photos for our trouble.
It took a couple of minutes for any response, but soon we were swarmed, with near a dozen of the ruddy little buggers chittering all around us. Plenty of the birds showed signs of immaturity, both in their sense of humor and behavior as well as their patchy breasts. It's not a Dusky Grouse, but it's got feathers.

The Grouse stayed hidden during our tour on Greens Peak, and to be honest I was pretty bummed to miss them and the Gray Jays. In the moment, the misses felt heavier than the hits (Dipper, Williamson's Sapsucker, Three-toed Woodpecker), but in retrospect it certainly was time well spent, and the trip was outstandingly productive overall.

We're not as spoiled in the west as they are in the east with their Thrushes, but hearing a Hermit Thrush singing in the woods is still a very soothing sound, one that was very needed and welcome as the rain started to fall, and the Grouse dream began to dissipate. 

With the time for my departure back to Phoenix approaching, we decided to head back into Greer for some concentrated photo sessions. It was hard to leave the mountain, but it was also a felicitous decision with a full downpour in effect and the need to photograph high-altitude Hummingbirds still nagging at me. 

Friday, August 16, 2013

Taking a Dip on Mt. Baldy

A couple of weeks ago I joined my expert birding buddy Tommy D up in the White Mountains for a couple days' end-of-summer bonanza. I've made many trips to the southeast corner of Arizona in the last several years, chasing after migrants and regional specialties there. The higher elevation climes of Arizona also hold some gems, birds that can't be found much elsewhere in the state, and are also a habitat I really haven't visited enough with birds in mind. It helps that the White Mountains have some of the prettiest territory in AZ, and are also a fair bit cooler in late July than Phoenix. One of my main targets for the trip was the American Dipper, one of the best named, best all round' birds in North America. 

Check out the squishy pads on this guy's feet in the above photo. America's only aquatic songbird, they spend their time foraging in mountain streams and being adorable with their stubby build, white blinky eyelids, bobbing nervousness, and peeping calls.
I first saw Dippers several years ago in Oregon, and since that delightful experience it had been one of the most coveted state birds I had yet to view and photograph.

In addition to their sticky, lobed feet, the Dippers also possess a nictitating membrane, or transparent eyelids, and they can close their nostrils while foraging for larvae on the underside of river rocks.
We watched and photographed this fella at close range in the Little Colorado River, near the base of Mt. Baldy. My favorite aspect of these birds is their direct feeding. There are many aquatic birds that bob or dive for their food, but the Dippers just walk right along the bottom of a stream, sometimes fully submerging themselves and even becoming vulnerable to salmon and other large fish.

We scrounged up and down a stretch of the Little Colorado, with light rain and soggy shore plants soaking us pretty thoroughly. Since the Dipper was one of my main photographic targets, I came prepared with water shoes, so I wouldn't be restricted to obscured shoreline views. It worked well in a sense, but good grief was that water cold!
The Dipper soon acclimated to our presence and went about its daily business--foraging, preening, and doing it's little bobbing dance.

Some people train their dogs to balance bones and treats on their nose, showing great self-control against their instincts as tasty food is suspended so near their maw.
We trained our Dipper to do it too. Pretty good trick huh?

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Roadside Birding in Greer--Something is Not Right

As I mentioned in a previous post, I've got quite a bit of material coming from a recent two-day birding jaunt in the White Mountains. Most of the sightings and photos came from a day-long excursion, during which Tommy D and I explored many different birding hotspots in the White Mountains area, crossing between Apache and Gila County, over mountain streams, between meadows and forests and, somewhat less excitingly, over streets. It was overcast and rainy all day, but we still came away with lots of great stuff, both in terms of sightings and photographs. In the first category, here's one of several hundred elk we drove past in the predawn. I've never seen so many. There were literally hundreds in the first fifteen minutes.  

The pristine and lovely north shore of Crescent Lake gives one an idea of the White Mountain's allure.

Osprey were numerous around the mountain lakes. They were some of the first birds active in the morning, followed closely by a few Bald Eagles eager to steal their breakfast. My bird buddy Tommy was telling me he read a report that found Osprey have an 85% success rate when they fish. That absolutely astounds me--I've never heard of any species with such a successful hunting rate.
This fellow posed nicely in front of the multicolored Greer woodlands just after daybreak. 

Over the course of the day, I experienced a peculiar inversion of the normal natural ordering of bird photography. We drove through many different habitats, stopping at every opportunity to photograph any proximal birds along the way. As in southeastern Arizona and other concentrated birding hotspot sites, one usually has to park and hike to find the specialist species, but there's also cool stuff to see in the mean time and in-transit.
Usually, roadside/car birding/safari-style birding is one of the most reliable ways to attain nice photos. In general, birds tend to tolerate the approach of a vehicle more so than people, especially when they inhabit roadside meadows and the like, thus acclimating themselves to vehicular traffic. 
But for whatever reason, I started to have serious issues getting any crisp shots from the car. 

Sure, sometimes the birds were distant (and Meadowlarks are always a pain for me to shoot anyway) and the cloudy weather was an impediment, but we actually had excellent photographic success during our hikes. After rocking it at Mt. Baldy (post to come later) we drove by an entire family of American Kestrels. Two adults and successfully fledged at least two chicks, and all four birds were active in a little roadside aspen grove. This little bugger was just camping out and I took about 50 shots, none of which were better than the below photo.

I'm not looking for a pity party, saying it's the worst photo ever, or plaintively trying to get more attention. I know I'm spoiled for sunlight, living in Arizona, and am being whiny, but this Kestrel should have been NAILED. In fact, it was only thumb-tacked, at best. Some days, you get the bear, and some days...the bear eats you after you take a blurry picture of it. The usually reliable safari-birding threw me a curveball, as I took junk shot after junk shot.

A little roadside pull-off proved to be very birdy, with Western and Mountain Bluebirds popping up from the grass while Vesper and Savannah Sparrows imitated grasshoppers nearby. Again, distant-looking, hazy, unjust to the bird...yuck.
The Vesper Sparrow I'm actually somewhat pleased with, though mostly because my only other Vesper shots are more so no bueno.

Again, I took hundreds of photos, and it was one blurry trash bin shot after another, regardless of setting changes, breath-holding, or using flash grenades. After a couple minutes, all of the grassland songbirds hit the deck. A Swainson's Hawk (very nice find in the area), one of two in the vicinity, had brought his terrifying presence to the little pull-off. Gorgeous to look at? Absolutely. Successfully photographed? I would say not. This guy was like thirty feet away from the car. I curse my name, and you should too! You, dear reader, could've had beautiful Swainson's photos, and I let you down...

Again, it wasn't heartbreaking or anything--most of these birds I've photographed more successfully at other times (except for stupid Meadowlarks), it was just weird, because in retrospect we were totally killing it elsewhere. 
The safari-birding gods took the day off, or else Greer is outside their jurisdiction. So, what is the remedy when nice bird sightings won't translate to nice photos? Why, a nice, big, steady, cooperative landscape!

Nothing restores a photog's confidence more than a beautiful lake--in this case Lee Valley Lake, perhaps the highest lake in Arizona. It won't fidget, fly away, or in any way defy your desires. Come hell or high water, this lake will always be beautiful, and it'll patiently let you fill your memory card until you get something nice. On a fun side note, this 9,000 foot lake is also a favored little locale for breeding Spotted Sandpipers, of which we saw (but didn't photograph) a couple.

Now that my musings, moanings, and groanings have been heard, I can move on and share the other cool stuff from the a couple days. My wife and I are moving this weekend so there'll be a blogging hiatus for a bit. Here's one last poignant statement about how the roadside birding went in Greer (and again, the trip was great, just not the roadside photography). A Western Bluebird, forlorn and lacking in detail, getting soggy in the rain.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Summer Epilogues and Existential Affirmations

It was the end of July and those last precious days of summer were ticking away. Having been laid up for about two months with pre-surgery and then post-surgery physical limitations (face-lifts don't come without their own baggage, people), it had been a low key summer. There was much watching of movies and much reading of books, in addition to much playing of cards and drinking of...drinks.
While I was very content with the summer, there was also a whole inside this Butler, a void of certain sights and sounds that continued to enlarge its emptiness in the bearer until that the most heinous of thoughts--that the summer would soon be over and had been wasted--began to flicker on and off in my mind, like a patchy fluorescent light destroying any possibility of sleep or peace.

Female Selasphorous Hummingbird in Butler Canyon, Greer, AZ

I had to go birding, and I had to bird hard! There had been enjoyable walks and light birding in New Hampshire, as well as Maine and Pennsylvania during the summer. I had also gone out a few times and hobbled along the spillway of Tres Rios to ogle the Least Bitterns. But these were short, easy affairs. I was missing the gritty, all day birding, the burning hikes and the scratchy bushes, the thrill of a growing day-list and the pain of poor eating habits. I would have to face my family, my friends, my coworkers, and admit that I did no hardcore birding this summer, none at all. I'd become soft, even insipid.

Luckily I was saved from this pending existential crisis when a bird buddy started posting his wonderful photos and write ups from his week-long birding adventures in the White Mountains of Arizona. With a week left before returning to work, I expressed my interest in seeing some of the wonderful alpine birds, and the invitation was on. Thank you Tommy.

I arrived in Greer Tuesday afternoon, and although the northern AZ skies were even more permanently and thickly clouded than Phoenix's, we still had a couple of hours to bird, to prologue the all-day bonanza that was to come. We went to nearby Butler Canyon, a fine place to go for Butler's Birds, pining for some Woodpeckers. Tommy has already written up a fantastic post on the Williamson's Sapsuckers he was studying all week long, and we quickly found several different specimens on the pine trees around the lower canyon, while Olive-sided Flycatchers and Steller's Jays made their noises in the background. Here, a young female Williamson's scampers up a tree.

The Williamson's Sapsucker was a very overdue lifer, one I had never chased when they showed up at Boyce Thompson Arboretum or other areas closer to Phoenix. I wanted to see them up in the pines and knew that eventually I would. As it turns out, not only would I get to see them, I'd get to see all of their (very) variable plumages. Here a young male, yet pale in the belly and awkward in attitude, surveys a possible reservoir for some sap wells.

In the high-elevation pines there were many first year birds, and in fact it wasn't until our fourth or fifth specimen that we saw a fully fledged male. Alas I didn't get any photos of the handsome bird, neither while it foraged nor when it flew away and fully revealed its striking blacks and whites. Here instead, for your viewing pleasure, is another immature male looking rather like a beetle.

Seeing this lifer first thing in Greer was greatly satisfying and a good indication for the rest of my brief birding trip. We would see them occasionally at our other birding spots on Wednesday, but never in such high concentrations as at Butler Canyon. To do the birds more justice, I'm going to cheat and use a photo here of another young male that wasn't taken in Butler Canyon, but is a more fitting view for this groovy sapsucker.

The Williamson's were a part of a one-two Woodpecker punch (why is no one producing a birder themed drink, with one such flavor being Woodpecker Punch???), and the other half was even more particular to the White Mountains area. Odds were I'd eventually see a Williamson's closer to Phoenix in the next couple of years, but certainly not it's White Mountain counterpart.
Yes, this is a woodpecker that seldom strays below 8,000 feet and stays masked in shadow.

Evidence of this specialist Woodpecker is most often seen in recently burned forest, the type of charred trees now tragically surrounding parts of Greer from a large fire several years ago. The brittle bark on the burned pines allows for the unique flaking feeding habits of this Woodpecker, that is, chipping and flaking off the bark instead of drilling holes into it. It also makes for some interesting textural and color combinations in the spooky woods.

I speak of course, of the American Three-toed Woodpecker, one of the longest named birds in North America. Often difficult to distinguish from the unscrupulous Hairy Woodpeckers that are also found in the area, their unique feeding style is one quick ID tool, and since most views of this bird are going to be of it foraging high in a pine tree, that's a good place to start.

We actually found this female on the side of Greenspeak, but again I'm going to take the photos and include them there, out of a deep concern with justice for the birds, that they be better represented than the shadowy, hazy junk I took on Tuesday. The heavy black and white barring on the sides, visible on this female, is also a good way to tell the bird apart.
Needless to say, if one somehow gets a good look at the feet, counting toes will also help in an ID.

The Three-toed and the Williamson's made for two lifers during our preliminary birding, giving us a great start and alleviating some of the pressure going into Wednesday's epic bird day, the story of which must be told and illustrated next week. Tuesday night ended with a burger and a beer at the Greer lodge and a semi-pleasant night spent in the car, as rain and thunder made for a very natural orchestra, accompanied by its own natural light show.