Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Little Birds around the Big Mountain

Peak just a little higher than 7,000 feet, Mt. Ord is highest point in Maricopa County. It's tall and cool enough to host ponderosa pines along with scrub oak; as such it provides some welcome elevation and the different birds that elevation brings, within an hour drive of Phoenix. 
This mountain has some real gems too, not just with Common Black and Zone-tailed Hawk, but also Band-tailed Pigeon, Northern Pygmy Owl, Scott's Oriole, and even the occasional Evening Grosbeak. One of my good birding buddies (good buddy, great birder) knows the mountain backwards and forwards, and has found all of these goodies. I'm a greenhorn with these slopes, but hope to remedy that by the end of the summer which has, by the way, totally started. 98 degrees in Phoenix today...  

A few weeks ago I made a trip up to Ord, hoping to see what migrants were passing through and what breeders were starting to settle into their territory. In some ways it was a disappointing trip. I did not find any lifers nor any particularly difficult year birds, and it was also during this time I first discovered that my camera's autofocus was broken (all these images were manual). Many of the birds I found were also common at lower elevations, and thus in a sense not worth the longer trip, but all that complaining aside, the numbers of birds, the magnitude of their songs, and the beautiful weather made the excursion a satisfying success.

Driving up the winding slopes of Ord to Forest Road 1688, the hilly chaparral was buzzing with the sounds of Black-chinned Sparrows and Spotted Towhees. With no shoulders on the rough dirt road, stopping to observe and photograph was tricky, but racking up the birds before one is even at the primary destination is a pretty great feeling.

On the Maricopa side of Mt. Ord, the two main birding options are hiking up Forest Road 1688 or driving to the summit and having a shorter hike there. The FR 1688 allows for a better bird-to-travel- distance ratio and is the route I elected to take, though the summit can be very birdy at the right time.
The two most dominant birds at this mid-level of Ord were the Blue-gray Gnatcatchers and Black-throated Gray Warblers.

Fluttering in the agave and scrub oak along the FR 1688 trail, the Gnatcatchers were by far the most numerous, and the BTG Warblers out-vocalized even the Spotted Towhees from their elevated ponderosa perches. The cost of their elevated vantage point came photographically, but they were joined by the occasional Grace's and Virginia's Warbler higher up the mountain.

It had to be a shorter day from some non-birding reasons, and the time constraints precluded a visit to the normal, follow-up stop near Sunflower, which central Arizona birders rightfully pair with the Mountain. Sunflower is one of the best spots for Common Black and Zone-tailed Hawk in central Arizona, but on this particular day I had other targets. 

Despite them being small and rather drab, I woke up that morning determined to get some nice shots of Bell's and Warbling Vireo. In fact, any photos at all of the Bell's would be an improvement. To maximize my chances, these targets necessitated a stop at Mesquite Wash, a sometimes aqueous creek bed about twenty miles southwest of Ord off the Highway 87, just within the mountain's shadow. This riparian habitat is great for the Vireos, as well as Grosbeaks and even Cuckoos later in the summer. 
The entrance and parking area at this site are unsettling, as they're populated by ATV/Motocross enthusiasts tearing around, but they stay out of the actual wash area, for the most part, and I picked up a foraging Lucy's Warbler while leaving the car.  

Being small and rather nondescriptly marked, Bell's Vireos are more quickly heard than seen. Their cheedle chee chee cheedle chew  call is very recognizable, but getting clear shots of these dense-brush denizens ain't no cake walk in the tea park. With the autofocus on the fritz, I was not overly optimistic either, but they say God favors the drunk, the insane, and the Irish, and since I'm at least two out of those three things at any point in time, the odds were maybe in my favor after all.

Not too far from the wash and not too far down its channel, I heard the familiar, heralding screech of a Bell's Vireo, and more than one. Their activity was concentrated in a surprisingly small area, and after picking out the globular mass in the branches it became clear why.
The pair of Bell's Vireos was building a nest along the wash. Rock on! This was a godsend. With a bit of patience and perseverance, I knew exactly where these flighty birds would come and be still, at least for several seconds. Who needs autofocus!?

I had time to dial in the manual focus, take some practice shots for my untrained eye (which cannot often recognize, through my viewfinder, when an image is 100% in focus or not), and then ready myself for a short, ferocious flurry of bursting camera fire.

"Do you like..?"
One of the Bell's Vireo's came in with nesting material, pausing only for a few seconds to stick it in a nook, look up and around, and then fly back several yards into the brush to gather more.

When the smoke settled I came away with some satisfactory shots and was ready to move on, leaving the domestic Bell's Vireos in peace while I pursued the Warbling Vireos sounding off in the distance.
Unfortunately, given their preference for foliage and my lack of time, I did not get much in way of visuals on the WAVI, part from some quick glimpses. A distant Solitary Vireo caught my attention though, as a Solitary consolation.

With Blue-headed by and large out of the question, and the yellow sides ruling out Plumbeous, it had to be a Cassin's Vireo up above, hardly a bad trade off for Warbling (in fact, I'll take that any day). 

Mt. Ord still beckons, but I was very satisfied with Mesquite Wash, and look forward to a Yellow-billed Cuckoo hunt there in July. 
Despite Zone-tailed Hawk and Pacific-slope Flycatcher up on Mt. Ord, the nesting Vireos took the cake, both for the coolness of the sighting and the manner in which I was able to photograph it. The nest looked pretty comfy too--wouldn't mind them making one for me as well...