Sunday, September 29, 2013

Keeping it Local

It has been unusually nice in Phoenix these last several days. People are kinder and more cordial. The dogs bark less; the cats purr more. The raging cold fronts that are turning up Blue-footed Boobies all over California haven't been quite so generous farther inland, but they have at least dropped the temperature in the valley about ten or fifteen degrees lower than expected. 
Birds, beasts, beetles, and birders alike have been loving it, even if the end-of-summer rarities are starting to drop off now.

This past weekend I did some local birding in the valley, getting some photos of the usual suspects in early mornin' light and loving the lack of 7am perspiration.

The late August/early September time frame brings lots of great chases. Errant pelagic birds, wayward warblers, and peregrinating passerines pull birders with the requisite time and gas money to all the corners of their states. In the southwestern U.S., this also often demands an endurance of the states' most unpleasant weather.
After participating during that high-paced, high intensity interval, it was very nice to tour around some of the regular spots and reacquaint with the Sonoran staples. The Greater Roadrunner and the Cactus Wren, luckily, are not jealous birds. They will still be visible and vociferous when one comes back from the Santa Ritas or from Lake Havasu, and just want a nice birding jaunt around the park.

Gnatcatchers are not jealous either. In fact, they're one of the more oblivious species around town, which is perhaps in part why they dress so very indistinguishably. Find a clump of creosote bushes and you will find a clump of Gnatcatchers, probably with a few Black-throated Sparrows too.

Inca Doves are pretty accommodating as well, even grandmotherly. However, they tend to be more suspicious around the nest (who isn't?). What exactly is going on here?

"None of your business..."

Gila Woodpeckers are the great housing contractors of the American southwest. Though they sometimes nest in mesquite and palo verde trees, just about all of the holes one observes in saguaro cacti are Gila handiwork. All the Elf Owls, Starlings, Lovebirds, House Sparrows, Screech Owls, Jones, Smiths, Rabinowitzes, and Johnsons of the neighborhood have Gila Woodpeckers to thank for their domiciles.

Much like an angsty Kingfisher, September has flown by pretty quickly. A few more weeks and it'll be time to start scanning the big lakes for Gulls. Before that next great stage of annual chasing takes off, I'll be enjoying the Phoenix locals for a little while.
I don't even remember the last time I stopped and photographed a Lesser Goldfinch--I think it's been close to two years. On any given Saturday, they're out and about when I leave, and they'll be there when I return. Thanks Lesser Goldfinch, you're Greater in my book.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

End of Summer Recharging: Beach Boy Fantasy

August and September make for a funny, exciting time of year. Students return to school with mixed emotions from their summer, all the television networks start winding up their football programming, monsoon clouds bring their (often false) promises and, most importantly, large portions of North America experience a surge in migratory birds. When people travel, they tend to prefer visiting or at least stopping at nice pretty places throughout our trip. For Arizonans especially, that's anywhere with some water. It's the same with birds, which is why the Glendale Sewage and Recharge Ponds are the premier shore-birding habitat in Phoenix and why so many birders spend their mornings near that which they're otherwise so eager to flush away. It is a plush post-flush ocean front property, and now is the time to make one last summer beach trip! 
So take a whiff of saltwater, hold some seashells to your ears, close your eyes, and pretend you're now at the beach (don't really close your eyes; then you wouldn't be able to read the post). We're going to do some Arizona shore birding!

Here we are at the beach. The sun is beating down upon us and the warm breeze stings our toes ever so slightly as it whips along the sand. It must be low tide, for there are no waves and the water is rather shallow. Thinking little of the low water level in the ocean or the faint smell of distant sewage, we unfold our rickety beach chairs, stick an umbrella in the ground, and soak in the scenery.

Upon closer inspection, we see that the shoreline is dotted with Semi-palmated Plovers. This is an annual yet uncommon bird in Arizona, but a predictable sighting for us here on the Pacific coast, even though the sand seems to have a weird, gross green algae growing over it.

In the background, Killdeer, Yellowlegs, and Stilts are maintaining a high-pitched cacophony, but the shoreline seems pretty busy so we decide to set up the scope and do some scanning their first. Soon we pick out the tiny but plump frame of a Snowy Plover. This would be a pretty solid find in Arizona, but since we're on the Pacific Coast instead, we don't think too much of it.

Away to the east, some movement above the water catches our attention. A Black Tern is foraging over the pacified waters, looking somewhat mottled in its intermediate plumage, but still graceful nonetheless. We enjoy the sighting and the bird's antics, pondering all the while how unusual it must be to see Black Terns and tumbleweeds at the same time. We know Terns migrate great distances, and apparently tumbleweeds do too.

A flock of Black-necked Stilts fly by, hiding a few Avocets in their ranks and adding more formality to the scene with their black, white, and pink ensembles. We feel a little underdressed for the occasion, and so turn our attention elsewhere.

A single Short-billed Dowitcher, differentiated by its tiger-striped tertials, is foraging with some Western Sandpipers. Like the Snowy Plover, this would be a very solid sighting if we were inland, but here on the pristine Arizona coast we think little of it.

In fact, the multitude of Long-billed Dowitchers, much more common inland, is the far greater surprise.

To really strain our eyes, we start scrutinizing the many flocks of Western Sandpipers to turn out a Semi-palmated, looking for shorter beaks and slightly varying plumages. 

It's a painstaking task, and we can't get photos of the Semi-palmateds when they do stand out. At least the Western Sandpipers are pleasant to look at in the mean time.

Looking at tiny peeps can be an arduous thing, so we walk further down the shoreline to the salt marshes, hoping to see Pectoral Sandpipers or Saltmarsh Sparrows. Calling Soras and jittery Egrets add to the boggy atmosphere here, but the Pectorals don't come into view.

There are worse consolation prizes than a Greater Yellowlegs foraging up close. At this point, having watched so many different animals feeding, we start to feel peckish as well. It's time to head back to the beach buggy and grab the cooler, time to take a lesson from the birds knowing how to enjoy their summer beach day. 

As we make the short walk down the beach, a startling cry echos from the right. Of course! It is a Killdeer, the common and noisy Plover near and dear to our hearts. He's standing along a rocky outcropping and blending in very nicely. Since this is the Pacific beach and not an Arizona sewage pond, we marvel at this unusual and refreshing sighting!

Ahh...a quick dip, some picnic lunching, some more cold beverages and it's time to pass out. What a lovely trip. If only the world, or even the universe, wouldn't mind holding still for a day or two and letting us preserve this experience. But the wind is moving, the birds are moving, and so too must we.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Make it a Pair! The other Arizona Booby

A Booby on a a way, it's a cliche pose. If one is lucky enough to see one of these birds inland, this will likely be the situation, but of course seeing one at all is not a likely situation. Seeing a Code 4 Blue-footed Booby in Patagonia one weekend and then heading west for a Code 3 Brown Booby in Havasu the next weekend is very most totally probably extremely unlikely, and yet it happened. 

After a fantastic trip down to southeastern Arizona for the Blue-footed, birding friends Tommy DeBardeleben and Magill Weber and I headed west last Saturday to make it a pair for the state. The tropical storms in the Gulf of California have made for some incredible finds these last several weeks, and knowing it may be another five years or so before we'd have an opportunity to get two Boobies in Arizona, the 2:30am departure time and the pessimistic weather forecast were no sort of deterrent.

We were also buoyed with confidence, knowing that the David Van Der Pluym and Lauren Harter, original discoverers of the Brown Booby and many other incredible finds in west Arizona, were able and willing to meet up and relocate the bird.
After an initially unsuccessful scan from Pittsburgh point at Lake Havasu, we were joined by David and Lauren. With their spotting scopes also trained across the lake, the Booby was soon located, and we were then able to relocate to Windsor Beach for the looks and photos shown here.

The overcast weather meant that photography was pretty limited, but it also kept the Havasu temperatures blessedly low. Since we were still treated to a great show of plunge-diving by the Booby, I was glad to have the cloud cover.
Without the wider context of this post, I'm not sure a lot of people could tell what they're looking at here. Obviously, it's a Brown Booby hitting the water face first, or maybe it's the Loch Ness Monster.

Tommy DeBardeleben, Magill Weber, and Lauren Harter are great birding buddies to have. Not only do they possess an encyclopedic knowledge of Arizona's avifauna (and most of North America's as well), but they all have nice spotting scopes, and they're nice enough to share, which meant the amount of extra equipment I had to drag around was pretty minimal.

The views of the Booby were pretty close if not crystal clear, and the lake itself looked very nice from our vantage point. You know it's a good day when you start off with an ABA Code 3 lifer and still have the rest of the day to explore the surrounding area.

Here's what a bunch of dorks look like while staring at a rare Booby, dorks with impressive Year lists that is!

I think we ended on 95 or 96 species for the day, of which this Year Bird Common Tern was another highlight. California and Ring-billed Gulls crowded along the Havasu shore, while the crack team of scoper snipers also picked out Common and Pacific Loons as well as a Year Bird Red-necked Grebe.

A fledgling Clark's Grebe was preening near the Windsor Beach shoreline too, apparently abandoned or maybe just trying to run away from its parents to teach them a lesson. We've all been there. 

We swung by Rotary Park in Havasu and the Bill Williams Lookout on our way back towards Phoenix, picking up some waterfowl and many other migrant songbirds, while always holding out hope for a Yellow-billed Loon (which was, of course, pretty loony of us).
Driving back through Parker, a small town southeast of Havasu, Tommy, Magill, and I also swung by the Ahakhav Tribal Preserve. With its adjoining rows of cottonwoods and willows, this park was an absolute blow out for Flycatchers, which meant I was in paradise.

I've tried time and again to articulate why I feel this burning love for Flycatchers, why this fairly dull Willow Flycatcher on a stick hold such fascination and allure. Words fall short, but the Ahakhav Preserve did not and we had seemingly dozens of Willows, Pacific-slopes, Phoebes, Vermilions, Pewees, and Gray Flycatchers. 

The clouds finally put their money where their mouth had been all day and precipitated, but that did not deter us anymore than it did the birds, evidenced here by this boldly colored and boldly perching Vermilion.

We're halfway through September now, and even though it's still plenty hot outside, I can't pretend it's still summer. I had some massive, grandiose birding plans at the start, most of which were scuppered by some unexpected health setbacks, but having picked up many year birds and some fantastic lifers, including two Boobies, I can say it was still a great summer's birding.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Hold the Door! A Late Summer Rarity Chase in Patagonia and the Santa Ritas

These last few weeks have brought some crazy birding in Arizona. The end of August saw a dead Hawaiian Petrel in Yuma--only the third record for the lower forty-eight states--a Brown Booby in Havasu, a Blue-footed Booby in Patagonia, Berylline, White-eared, Plain-capped Starthroat, and Lucifer Hummingbirds, Buff-collared Nightjars, Black-capped Gnatcatchers, Painted Buntings, and now, most recently, a Sinaloa Wren in the Huachucas. There are so many hotspots in Arizona already, and the end of August is prime time for migrants and vagrants. I was having a nice enough time shore birding in Phoenix (yes, it is possible!), but the allure of some of these rarities was too much. 

Several of my birding acquaintances were able to get down to Patagonia for the Booby, and they also picked up some great Hummingbirds, along with the August seasonal sparrows, Buntings, and so much other good stuff. Check out their tales and photos here and here.
I missed the first trip but was aching to get down there for the seasonal birds and any lingering vagrants. I was fortunate to get the time then last weekend and also fortunate to have some company from a co-worker who wanted to explore the beautiful terrain of southeast AZ. I knew I wouldn't get anywhere near the fabulous haul of birds and photos that my predecessors had, but it could be another ten years before a Blue-footed Booby shows up in Arizona!

The plan was to hit Patagonia Lake early--which meant leaving really early--and then the surrounding countryside, including the San Rafael Grasslands, before stopping by Madera Canyon and doing some feeder-watching before heading north back towards Phoenix.

Upon arriving at Patagonia Lake around 6am, we had singing Cassin's and Botteri's Sparrows in the grasslands, but the first birds we really saw were Vultures, prodigious amounts of Vultures. Perhaps because of their disgusting behaviors, repugnant appearance, and unscrupulous feeding habits Vultures are regarded as ill omens in many cultures and literature. Was our trip doomed from the beginning? Would this effort be the death of us?
Eh, probably not, and admiring the Vultures from a distance wasn't too bad either.

We walked around the Patagonia Lake visitor center, listening to Ash-throated Flycatchers and Sparrows going about their morning business. Some fly-by Cormorants gave us palpitations as we staked out the Patagonia shore, before we finally saw a large, brown and white bird over the tree line.

Yes!!! ABA Code 4 Blue-footed Booby.
It's a juvenile; its feet aren't even that blue, and it's tail primaries look like they're in terrible shape, but none of that diminished the sighting. We watched the young and hopelessly lost Booby plunge-dive several times, while I tried to snap photos as it made determined passes along the lake.
We arrived none too soon either, as it seems the Booby reports have dried up since last Sunday. The jokes to be made with this bird's name are legion, so I won't indulge, but suffice it to say this was one of the breast sightings I've had in Arizona this year.

After ogling the Booby, we spent some time exploring the mesquite bosque around Patagonia Lake. We had several calling Northern Beardless Tyrannulets in the mesquite, North America's smallest Flycatcher and one of the longest-named. They weren't exactly cooperative, but any Flycatcher will hold my attention and fascination as long as it's in view.

With all the recent, above average rainfall, much of the Patagonia lowlands and riparian area was flooded and inaccessible to tennis shoe-wearing dorks such as myself. We walked the ever-lovely Sycamore Creek trail a little ways, enjoying Vermillion Flycatcher and Bridled Titmice, along with a couple of Sora and Wilson's Warblers, but soon we ran out of dry ground.

As the sun climbed higher in the sky, we next headed to Harshaw Canyon and the San Rafael Grasslands, stopping at the famous Patagonia rest stop along the way for Thick-billed Kingbirds, and collecting Cassin's, Western, and Tropical on telephone wires in between. A female Painted Bunting in the creek behind the Paton House was also a treat. Unfortunately, I was having some camera issues and couldn't get my focus operating for the Kingbirds, but knowing they'd be around next year, I checked my list and headed on to the next larger target for the day.

Although the drive through Harshaw Canyon can be pretty treacherous after inclement weather, our trek to the San Rafael Grasslands was very pleasant, as were the handful of Eastern Bluebirds--another state bird, like the Painted Bunting--that we spied along the way.
Google Maps directions underestimate the distance of the Harshaw Canyon drive, and things aren't exactly clearly signed. But just as the tiniest hint of worry started to set in, Harshaw Canyon finally opened to this:

There are so many fabulous, diverse habitats in Arizona, but one of my favorites is grassland. It's not the most productive birding territory, nor even the most grand (like, say, the Grand Canyon), but the sheer expanses of grass and hills totally transport you, taking you to a tremendously quiet, gentle place, and leaving all anxieties behind. Walking around the grasslands, listening to the occasional trill of Grasshopper Sparrows and seeing nothing, other than mountains, in every direction, was incredibly peaceful. I felt like Julia Roberts in the Sound of Music, or a horse with a lot of cool grass in front of it.

Conveniently enough, Grasshoppers Sparrows were also one of my primary targets for the trip, a species I've been wanting to photograph for a while. The adults weren't overly accommodating, given my pains in getting there, but the ratty, juvenile bird below fortunately forgot how to 'sparrow' for a moment, and stayed perched in the open while I fired away.

After visiting the beautiful expanses of San Rafael, it was time to go see more beautiful birds. Madera Canyon, in the Santa Rita Mountains, is about as good a place for that as any in the nation. Feeders outside the Santa Rita Lodge and Chuparosa Inn have been especially productive with Hummingbird this year, and I was both optimistic and anxious to get a lifer Lucifer's or Berylline Hummingbird.

It's funny how jaded one can become with the riches of Hummingbirds in southeast AZ. We didn't have to wait too long for the Lucifer's Hummingbird to show, but in the meantime I pensively sat and took for granted the Broad-billed, Broad-tailed, Black-chinned, Magnificent, and Rufous Hummers that were warming around the Lodge. They are all great bird too, of course, but they can't hold a candle to the Lucifer's Hummingbird (pun points!).

On the way out of Madera Canyon, the last stop for the day was the Proctor Road loop. Chittering Sparrows and Buntings, along with Orioles and empids, made for nice winding down before the drive back to Phoenix. I was also surprised to see a pair of Yellow-billed Cuckoos in the Mesquite bosque, both because it seemed kind of late in the year (which, it turns out, isn't really the case), and because I almost never see them.

Spending a day down in southeast AZ is always fulfilling, and even while I feel the urge to chase birds less than I did a year ago, the pursuits in Patagonia and Madera were very rewarding.The Brown Booby is still over at Lake Havasu too, so there might just be one more late summer chase. Or two, or three...

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Humdinger--A Fond Farewell

Spending time in the White Mountains in July turned up some great hits and misses. I was able to add some much-coveted Life and State birds to my list, and also come away with some satisfying photos. On my second and last day in the White Mountains, the afternoon thunderstorms forced us down from the mountain trails of the Grouse and Gray Jays, back towards Greer, where we decided to spend our last hour or two chasing and photographing some of the less reclusive high elevation species. Tommy had already turned up Northern Pygmy Owls and we had heard Gray Catbirds--a very solid find in Arizona--in the Greer area. Just walking down the middle of Greer, we had Cordilleran Flycatcher, Band-tailed Pigeon, Swallows, and Williamson's Sapsuckers. The last target group, one which I was aching for and one we were saving for last, was the high altitude Hummingbird gang.

Broad-tailed Hummingbirds were the most numerous up in the White Mountains, filling the role that Anna's Hummingbirds play in the lower valleys of Arizona, but they were only the tip of the...uhh...Hummingbird iceberg.
Many of the lodges and restaurants in Greer have well-attended hummingbird feeders hanging out for the mutual enjoyment of bird and person alike. Hoping to get looks and shots of Calliope and Rufous Hummingbirds, we had a stake out at the Molly Butler Lodge for our temperamental quarry. 

We were able to find males and females of every expected Hummingbird species in the area, though photographing them was another challenge altogether, and since we were up in the rustic mountains, it didn't feel quite right to only plunder lots of shots of perched hummingbirds on feeders, which meant the above photo was as good as I could do with the intriguing and majestic Calliope.

Around the Molly Butler Lodge, we also had the pleasure of observing some nesting Cordilleran Flycatchers, a pesky member of the dreaded empidomax mafia. IDing these empids was no problem in the White Mountains though, as their vocalizing and high altitude presence ruled out the look-alike Pacific-slope Flycatcher from any empid-related ambiguities.

Even with all the gorgeous Hummingbirds buzzing around at arm's length, I spent a fair amount of time watching this Cordilleran catch insects and bring them to a nest in the underside of an eave on the back of the Lodge. I don't have a favorite species, but the Flycatchers are certainly, overall, my favorite group of birds.

Somewhat embarrassingly, the Calliope was a Life bird for me, but seeing and photographing that special, streak-necked Hummingbird was not my main goal for our photo stomp. 
With its fiery coloration and personality, the Rufous Hummingbird, along with the American Dipper (totally opposite personality and coloration) was the main photographic target for my trip. These feisty, irascible little buggers are immensely entertaining, unless of course one is a mild-mannered Hummingbird just trying to get a drink in Rufous territory.

Perhaps you've had the experience with a college friend, or going out to a bar or having a night on the town, or even at a family reunion, where there's just some jerk who seems to want to pick a fight or start an argument with every single person that makes eye contact with him. There's no pressing reason, he's just a territorial turd who can't relate to anybody except by being competitive or pugnacious.

Now picture that jerk being only half the size and weight or everybody else around the bar or wherever, and picture the jerk with an absolutely fabulous, flamboyant orange beard, over a white corsage and an orange suit. That's the Rufous Hummingbird. He's totally obnoxious, and totally gorgeous.

I left the White Mountains feeling tremendously satisfied with my photos and sightings. The scenery and weather alone was worth the trip, and with so many specialties up there too, I will have to add it to a yearly birding repertoire in the summer months.