Monday, January 21, 2013

Birding Buddies: The Colorado Connection

A few weeks ago I received a message from Larry and Linda Schmidt, lovely people and great birders who'd be coming to my part of town from Colorado. Our paths had first crossed in the Facebook Birders group, where Larry had noticed some of my posts and, knowing they were heading that a way, gotten in touch. This was my first pre-planned experience of meeting up with out-of-state birders and acting in a sort of local-guide capacity. It was all a great prospect, as sharing the birding opportunities in central Arizona and doing it with folks from outside of the area have both been driving goals behind Butler's Birds.  

So, where does one take nice people from a beautiful state full of snow-capped Rockies and alpine forests to really showcase the rustic, natural beauty of Arizona? Why, one takes them to the middle of nowhere in the arid desert of course, where the broken glass shimmers in the sunlight and you can see so far into the nothingness that you look all the way around the world and back at yourself!
 I refer, of course, to the infamous Thrasher Spot in Buckeye/West Phoenix, where the elusive Le Conte's, Bendire's, and Crissal Thrashers may all be seen in one bleak but productive trip. Although this little patch is one of the less attractive options at the Arizona birder's disposal, it holds several possible lifers that can't be easily had anywhere else. 

The first bird to greet us on this chilly Sunday morning was not a Thrasher though, but a fancy-free Gnatcatcher, followed by many dozens of White-crowned Sparrows. Although White-crowned Sparrows are not easily confused with Thrasher, their movement on the ground and in the obscuring scrub bushes combines with the distractions caused by Abert's Towhees to lead one on more than a few embarrassing goose chases (now, turning up a goose out here really would be something to brag about). 

I've always had success finding the Le Conte's and Bendire's Thrasher in the trips I've made out here, but the Crissal Thrasher has proved to be the most stubborn (seen only once in the last three tries). My hope, in taking the Schmidts out to Buckeye, was that they'd bag 3 lifers and I'd get some better photos of these cool Thrashers. We saw two of the three Thrashers, and I did not improve my photo-log of these species at all (in fact, I'm borrowing a couple images from a much older post). Still, 2 out of 4 ain't  bad if you're a professional baseball player, and birding is basically the same right?

The shorter-billed Bendire's, usually the most common and vocal of the three, were in short supply.
While we didn't get as close of views as this fellow provided last winter, we did all get good visuals and audio on at least one bird.
This shows the ethos of last year's brazen Bendire's.

This is the disposition of the current crop of 2013 Bendire's. Sulky and mostly's no opera. 

Bendire's Thrashers also turn up elsewhere in the valley, particularly out in Mesa and Chandler, so there was less of a sense of urgency with this bird. However, this site in Buckeye is about as far east as the Le Conte's Thrashers come, which makes them the most sough after Thrasher in town. Last time out I met up (at the site) with an older gentleman from Wisconsin who had flown out and rented a car specifically to see this species that would've been ABA area number 800 for him.
He even brought an old, massive, panasonic tape cassette player with scratchy Le Conte's recordings. Helping him find the bird was pretty thrilling, and I was very optimistic for my and the Schmidt's chances once again. In Fact, the Le Conte's was the first of the Thrashers we saw, and we counted at least three different individuals within a one hour period. Not bad!

And we didn't even need one of these to get the birds singing a little bit!

Heading east back into town, we decided to swing by the Tres Rios Wetlands, even though it was the middle of the day. The weather had become surprisingly warm, and the sun was unsurprisingly overbearing. We kept it to a shorter walk but still recorded some forty or more species, including Sora, Least Bittern, and all three Teal. Being hardcore, intense birders by nature, the Schimidts and I were all powering through our natural, mortal desires for lunchy sustenance. This romping chomping Common Gallinule, however, did wonders to damage our mental fortitude. 

The beating sun didn't help much either. The only thing affording us shade was the occasional White Pelican flyover.

We did run into Tommy DeBardeleben and some other birders out on the trail, but all in all the Tres Rios scene was comparatively muted. Most of the vegetation along the Gila River was desiccated and unpopular with all but the occasional Red-tailed Hawk, and the Tres Rios flow was very overgrown with reeds, which facilitated lots of Sora and Least Bittern action but obscured views of everything else.

On the way back towards the cars, I was recounting some of the cool birds we had seen with the Schmidts, and they were likewise telling tales of their visits to Spain and Finland. Just as I was commenting on how we had not seen any Wrens except for Marsh Wrens (it's an off-day indeed when that happens), this Belted Kingfisher decided to perch on a wire and give us his best impression of a Winter Wren. Preciate' it Bro.

I'd call it a successful day of birding. The Schmidts were a great birding team and, just as importantly, were really terrific company. I wish there was more time to visit some of the other Maricopa sites, but as Linda Schmidt liked to remark, "There's just more reason to come back soon." Cheers to that!
I had a marvelous time sharing the central Arizona sites and birds with the Schmidts, and hope to have another opportunity soon.