Saturday, March 2, 2013

On the Boundaries of Civilization...

Last weekend saw another trip out west, not as far as Havasu and the whole different panoply of awesome birding that is to be had there, but to the barren, desolate intersection of the Salome Highway and Baseline Road out in Buckeye, also known as the Thrasher Spot (and, apparently, a great place to ditch old couches and other household items, despite the seeming inconvenience of driving them out and dumping them in the middle of nowhere).
This is one of my favorite 'within-an-hour-of-home' spots in Maricopa County, as it features some special birds not commonly found elsewhere in the state, it's a relatively small area, and it doesn't require that I look up into big trees. 

As this point in the year, the creosote and sage scrub hosts inordinate numbers of migrating Sage Thrashers, along with Sage Sparrows and the more elusive, more sought after Le Conte's and Crissal Thrasher. There are Bendire's Thrashers out there too, but oddly enough the region is too arid for the more common Curve-billed Thrashers found just about everywhere else. 

From behind, the Sage Thrasher can be easily confused with a Mockingbird, but once visible, the speckled breast is unmistakable, even at a distance. Plus, Phoenix-area Mockingbirds are too smart and spoiled to live out here in the boonies. 

Along with Sage, Bendire's are the most visible Thrashers at the site, as they're more comfortable and more inclined to perch high and sing even with the attention of people, and on this day there were even a few Audubon groups moseying out and about in the chaparral.

Crissal and Le Conte's usually stay low the the ground, but even so I've had excellent luck finding Le Conte's lately. About fifty or sixty yards west of the parking area along the Salmoe highway there is an old wash running north/south. Following this wash north to where it intersects with a line of old rotten fence posts yields an area that is frequented by the ghostly, vampiric-looking Le Conte's Thrasher.

Unfortunately I was unable to keep a bead on these crafty birds long enough to share them with a family trio of birders nearby, but soon after we all linked up with fellow birder, photographer, and tall person Gordon Karre, with whom we enjoyed the other birds in the area, including Gnatcatchers, Verdins, and the beautiful Sage Sparrows. As things started to simmer down at the Thrasher Spot we all made a caravan and checked out some of the Arlington area attractions, including a single Long-billed Curlew and some tardy Sandhill Cranes still lingering in the fields. 

As the Sandhill Cranes flew off and we parted ways, I decided to trade one extreme for another, and on the way back from the desiccated Thrasher spot and the bucolic Arlington pastures, I swung by the Crystal Gardens community on 107th avenue and the I-10. 
This master-planned community has a series of scenic ponds and pathways connecting the manicured neighborhoods, and these water features have hosted a number of attractive (and, for that matter, un- attractive) Geese this winter. Arizona birder and blogger extraordinaire Tommy DeBardeleben had recorded Greater White-fronted, Ross's, Snow, and Cackling (also, of course, Canada) all at these ponds, along with a single Tundra Swan, in early February. In mid-February I was able to find most of the birds but did not get satisfactory photos, in large part due to the limited amount of time I had to spend at the site. 

Returning now with new grit and determination, some of the dispersed Geese afforded very close and comparative views, like the Lesser and Greater subspecies of Canada Geese above. There were plenty of ornamented Canada in the cozy lakes, but finding a small and cackling goose proved difficult.

Diminutive individuals like this lesser Canada Goose exacerbated the problem, and ultimately I resigned myself to the probability that the Cackling Goose, which had gone missing from eBird reports for the last week, was likely moved out of the suburbs. Though charmingly smaller and quieter than the normal Canada Goose, the Lesser subspecies is still poor consolation.

The Cackling Goose thus remained a photo-nemesis, but the Ross's Geese seemed to have increased in number since my last visit. Even as I parked there were five flying overhead, and there were several more floating in some of the centrally located Crystal Garden Ponds. 

This is a species I'm used to picking out of dozens and dozens (at least) of Snow Geese. It was peculiar and pleasing to find this cute little Goose in groups of its own, with the hideously grinning and grating Snow Geese nowhere to be seen. 

Seagull Steve over in California argues that Ross's are the cutest Geese around town. After getting to spend some more time with these mild-mannered snowhites, I think he may be right.

Going from arid scrub desert to lush city parks was a nice, yin-yang kinda circle to the day. It combined uncommon resident birds with uncommon vagrants, and of course plenty of cool and common birds in between. It's hard to wander in any direction around Maricopa County and not to stumble across a great birding spot or two.