Saturday, March 30, 2013

Bull's Eye at Buckeye

During my spring break week I was able to visit some phenomenal and far away birding sites, with Patagonia and Madera Canyon down south and Mormon Lake up North being some of the highlight trips. During the subsequent week of work, I was of course still on a high from a week of near-nonstop birding, and given the great anticipation for a continuation of great birding, I had to plan that precious, upcoming Saturday carefully. With it being a holiday weekend and having some other responsibilities to attend, I decided to keep it fairly local and head out west to the Buckeye agricultural areas, with a stop at the Base Meridian Wildlife Refuge along the way.

The Base Meridian Refuge is essentially a little preserve where the Tres Rios water reclamation site ends and the Gila river continues to flow. It's one of the better places to try for Clapper Rail in central Arizona, and while my chances were still slim, that was the plan. Heavy overcast (for the third weekend in a row!) nixed the photography from the start, and in general the area wasn't very birdy. Some surprises came in the form of a Cattle Egret mixing it up with a few Snowies and a Barn Owl that flushed from under the northern end of the Avondale Bridge. Apart from these year birds there wasn't much to report, and I quickly moved farther west. It's the end of March and that means the birds they are a changin.' Well, some of them at least. 

Along Palo Verde and other north/south roads in Buckeye, it's now prime time to go trolling for Swainson's Hawks, the Hawk that wants to be a Falcon. These pointy-winged, long-tailed Hawks can currently be found perched on the ground in fallow fields and low farmlands as they refuel and rest up in their continued journey north. It's still on the early side of migration, so their numbers will continue to grow and a few weeks from now there will be real spectacles, with some fields hosting dozens and dozens, if not hundreds, of these grounded raptors. They come in a dark, light, or intermediate color morph, all of which were on display today but not all of which were photogenic. 

There were thirteen Swainson's Hawks in a field of Lower River Road and Palo Verde, and a bit farther south was another conspicuous raptor perched in an old cottonwood tree. When first approaching the bird I was thinking the white indicated a light-morph Swainson's, but when I had a full frontal view the predominant white and the feathered legs ID'd this bird as a juvenile Ferruginous Hawk. I hadn't taken any presentable photos of Ferruginous Hawk this winter so I was glad to have an opportunity, even if the hazy overcast made things less than ideal.
This young bird hasn't yet developed the rusty flanks of the adult Hawk, and still has the yellow gape of immaturity on its beak.  Even so, there's a burgeoning ruthlessness in those eyes...

"When I grow up, I'm going to be a mammal mass murderer..."

It's also that time of year when a new, but familiar silhouette again adorns the agrarian utility lines. The Western Kingbirds are prominent perchers and a common sight, but keep an eye out for Cassin's, and maybe even a Tropical, trying to disguise itself with these similar yellow-bellied tyrants.

When I first arrived at the Base Meridian site in the very early morning, I witnessed several hundred Ibis leaving the Tres Rios site in different flocks. They were all heading out west to graze in the Buckeye and Arlington fields. and I came across a group of sixty or so birds foraging near Palo Verde, not much farther north than where it terminates. Seldom do I get close to these birds at Tres Rios, so it was nice to run into a group out where the terrain isn't as limiting.

After finishing the raptor scanning, I headed farther west to the Arlington Wildlife Area off of Arlington School Road. This series of ponds and marshes borders some very lush farmland and is also a good spot for Rails, as well as the other expected waders and riparian birds.

Unsurprisingly for this time of year and this time of day (10am), I heard no clacking Clapper Rails. Instead, Yellow-headed Blackbirds filled the air with their tormented, metallic call as they sought to establish territory and prove their manliness.

There wasn't too much happening at the Wildlife Area, but the adjacent farmlands were very popular. A few dozen Great Egrets and Yellowlegs loped through the tall grass. The most exciting find there, even though it was not a new bird for the year, was a flock of forty-nine Long-billed Curlew. I had seen a couple of Curlew in this area before but they were distant and flying away from me--not a very satisfying way to see North America's superlative sandpiper.

This time they were contentedly grazing and gossiping in the tall grass, grass that would've frustrated and thwarted birds with lesser beaks, so I was able to spend a goodly while observing and photographing this incredibly cool species.

I took Arlington School Road back east, stopping along the way to gawk at a massive kettle of birds along one of the canal roads. When I reported thirty Black Vultures the eBird automated check was a bit incredulous, but hey there ain't no arguing with this, and if anything I under-counted.

Not that Black Vultures prefer to argue either. They'll just wait til' you're dead, and then have the last word. The cloudy weather was a bummer for photography, but I was able to have lots of close-up views to compensate for the poorer image quality. It was a super Saturday of birding, full of year birds and satisfactory sightings that made the wait for the weekend well worth the anticipation.

I'll follow up with more photos and specifics on each location and the sightings throughout this week, and hopefully that enduring focus will get me through to the next weekend!