Tuesday, October 22, 2013

A Chase to Louisiana, with Grasslands in between

This past Saturday Muriel Neddermeyer, Tommy DeBardeleben, and I went chasing down south for a Louisiana Waterthrush and some local specialties in the nice October weather. Our first stop was a dawn visit to the San Rafael Grasslands, where we hoped to see some early Baird's Sparrows or even a Short-eared Owl. Both of these species were a long shot only halfway into October, but we were in the area and it would've saved a much chillier trip in December--be looking out for that adventure in a couple of months. Although we dipped on our targets here, we still enjoyed the open golden expanses of the grasslands, and the many fence-line sentinels that monitored our approach through their valley.

Meadowlarks are conspicuously seen and heard just about anywhere with open fields and fences. The San Rafael Grasslands host one of the westernmost populations of Eastern Meadowlarks, and we had about a dozen perched intermittently throughout our time there. They're usually a skittish bird, but every once in a while one might stand its ground. Of course, when it does so, it won't be facing you...

The most numerous birds, by far, were Savannah Sparrows. Although they appear longer-tailed and more round-headed than our target Baird's Sparrow, from more than ten or fifteen feet each one of these birds usually merits a binocular examination, and since we saw literally hundreds of them...well...I've never been so sick of these Sparrows in all my life. It's a shame when looking for one uncommon bird kinda ruins another, even if it's only for a little while. Savannah Sparrow representatives and I have since met and reconciled our acrimony, but it will take time for the wounds to heal.

Grasshopper Sparrows were a less common but equally frustrating tease in our search for Baird's Sparrows. Since they're also of the flat-headed, short-tailed ammodramus genus, they look even more similar to the Baird's. A couple of months ago when the Grasslands were much prettier, the Grasshopper Sparrows were a target bird. Now it too was a red herring. On the other hand, seeing Savannah's or Grasshopper's doesn't mean I would've seen Baird's instead, so it's better to have these handsome birds than nothing.

A few Horned Larks joined the Meadowlarks in adding to color to the predominantly brown scene, but even their pizazz was not enough to keep us lingering in the grasslands. We walked around for a couple of hours and got many spiky grass seeds well-wedged into our socks, but it soon became apparent we'd missed the Baird's, and we moved on to our next destination.

There is a funny little birding strip off the I-19 near Tubac and Tumacacori. Turning off the interstate and driving only a couple hundred yards east, one runs into the De Anza Trail along the Santa Cruz River. The River has pretty low water levels but its close proximity to the Mexican border and temperate climates make it a great migrant and vagrant trap. In the last several weeks there have been multiple Waterthrushes, both Louisiana and Northern. The Louisiana had been in place for several weeks, indicating it quite liked the little stream and might even stay through the winter. We quite like getting an eastern Warbler in Arizona, so it was mutually agreed upon that we and the bird all meet up near the Tubac bridge.

Tommy was the first onto the bird, and we briefly saw it foraging around in tangles near the water's edge, as Waterthrushes are supposed to do. We lost sight for a little while and when we relocated the bird it was staying much higher in the cottonwoods, somewhat uncharacteristically. The darker, bolder streaking and clean throat help distinguish this bird from the Northern Waterthrush, as did its call note and the incessant, memorizing tail bobbing.

Pulling a lifer out of the tangled woody margins in Arizona is always an occasion for up thumbs.

The Tubac area provided excellent birding in general, with Western Tanagers, Nuthatches, Goldfinches, Buntings, Gray Hawks, and several species of Woodpecker, such as this Ladder-backed, all registering for our visit.

On the way back to Phoenix we swung by the Santa Cruz Flats in Eloi, about halfway between Tucson and Phoenix, to look for Caracara and Mountain Plover in the agricultural fields. We dipped again on these targets, but had some fun sightings along the corrals.

We also found a locally more rare Yellow-bellied Sapsucker at the famous Baumgartner corral, which must be carefully navigated to avoid trespassing, but has yielded other goodies such as Rufous-backed Robin in the past.

There were a lot of misses on this trip but also a lot of great sightings, and none of the misses were on vagrant birds, so at least we had the Waterthrush and can try again for everything else in a few weeks. A Saturday full of birding and beautiful skies? No complaints.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

A Tour of the Divers, Diners, and Drive-by Dwellers at Tres Rios

This Saturday was a busy one at Tres Rios, both with birds and with their birders. I arrived around 6:45am and was already late to the party, as nearly a dozen cars were already parked at this normally quite but increasingly appreciated spot. Excitement over the recently photographed Tres Rios Red-shouldered Hawk(s) drew a few birders that were otherwise new to the site, and I also ran into local birders and photographers Gordon Karre and Pam Barnhart, who were showing around some other members of the Arizona Southwest Birding group. The Tres Rios site features plenty of tall cottonwoods and desert scrub for raptors and Sonoran dweller alike, and it also hosts an impressive water feature with some of the fastest growing cattails ever. They're not even in the Guinness World Record Book, because every time it updates their record growth rate, it's already out of date.

It was an exceedingly comfortable 49°F when I started down the trail. I missed the pre-dawn Ibis flocks,  but there were still hundreds of Yellow-headed Blackbirds flitting along the spillway. Osprey were one of the most dominant birds of the day, something I did not anticipate initially but perhaps should have, with this sentinel being one of the first stationary birds I saw.  

An Osprey, or even several, is not an unexpected sight atop the Tres Rios treeline. Red-tails, Cooper's, Bald Eagles, and even the occasional Red-shouldered Hawk also dot the canopies, but perhaps the most common and conspicuous of these large perchers is the Great Blue Heron, a distant relative of the Great White Blue Shark. Great Blue Herons are finicky, insecure birds, despite their stature, and in an attempt to maintain their individuality, these three birds agreed to perch in separate trees. But clearly, given their identical elevations, they only have so much of a capacity for differentiating themselves. It's ok though. Coyotes, Eagles, and birders don't pick favorites either; we love them equally.

Quite opposite the Great Blue Heron is almost every way, this little Black-throated Gray Warbler was a delightful, up close sighting near the south-bound spillway. The BTGWs aren't uncommon birds during migration, but I see them far less often than Orange-crowned, Wilson's, or even Townsend's Warblers. Something about their very professional whites and grays, accentuated with just a dash of yellow on the lores, makes this a very appealing bird, even if it registers rather drably on the Warbler spectrum.

Of course, being Warblers, they're very fidgety and compulsive birds, but the Black-throated Grays, much like Orange-crowned Warblers, are more prone to foraging in scrub bushes and lower levels the canopies. This allows for better photo ops than many of their peers, even though the problem of interfering twigs is ever-present.

Now I'm not saying it's any Yellow-throated Warbler, but that beak would give em' a run for their money huh? Well done BTGW.

Most birds possess the power of flight. Black-throated Grays also possess the power of simple levitation, which is an even higher form of aeronautics.

Just about about every annual species of heron/egret/ibis is represented at Tres Rios, and the Black-crowned Night Herons can always be found in the larger tamarisk clumps near the south bound spillway, about 3/4 of a mile west of the parking lot. 

Why take nice, crisp focussed shots of these secretive birds, when their name and behavior begs them to be shown in grainy, film noir, Area 51 style photos?

A stinky pond, a mud hill, and dried sticks...the perfect perch for a southwestern sp. Song Sparrow.

Tres Rios is a prized site not only for its gluttony of birds, but also for its evolutionary biology case studies. See here what was almost a great moment in evolution. We do what we can; we feel driven by something deeper inside ourselves than we'll ever really uncover. Sometimes it drives us to glory. It can also drive us to our destruction. It's also possible this guy was just picked up by a Heron or something.

Osprey are a common sight in Arizona around any substantial or well-stocked water feature. These daring, diving piscivores are absurdly good at what they do, with a catch rate nearing 85% and a cool racing stripe on their face. It can be very difficult to capture the dive on camera, but watching the spectacle is all too easy.

Because of their excellent combination of coolness and commonality, Osprey seem to be a hook bird for lots of people, one of the first birds that really got them interested in bird watching. Osprey are one of the most conspicuous raptors, are easy to identify, and are also seen hunting/doing awesome stuff more often and consistently than just about any other raptor, or even any predatory animal in general.

The Osprey were the most dominant of the bigger birds, but in sheer mass, noise, and visual appeal, the Yellow-headed Blackbirds stole the show. They were constantly alighting, gliding, fighting, and squawking amidst the substantial cattaisl that line the Tres Rios spillway. In addition to the striking yellow head, they show Phainopepla-esque white patches in flight, though anticipating their erratic and quick flight routes, and then photographing them, is a pursuit in which I have had no success. They're fairly shy at Tres Rios, but every once in a while the reeds part just right and allow for some peeking.

Before heading back into Phoenix, it's always a good idea to do a quick drive by of the agricultural fields just north of the Tres Rios site. There's good sparrowing to be done in the scrub piles along the drive, and various avian predators, both raptors above and Roadrunners below, stalk the flat landscape.

But the most important reason of all is that no trip to Tres Rios is complete without a quick visit to Burrower's Row and its perennially grumpy, cute inhabitants.

Even in the ebb between migration times, Tres Rios still provides some of the best birding in central Arizona. Use care in visiting it though, for now that the weather is also nice, it can be difficult to find a reason to leave. The listless, binocular-holding zombie of many a once-eager birder now wanders the Tres Rios trails. You may end up joining them, but it's worth the risk.