Saturday, July 27, 2013

Sunflower amidst clouds and rain

It's been a great monsoon this year in Arizona. Every afternoon in late July and parts of August, the heavy clouds gather, often bringing lightning storms and dusty wind. Too often they just make everything dirty without leaving any precious precipitation, but this summer we've been very fortunate in our rainfall. The clouds have been offering evening downpours and often staying through until morning, following up with a.m. showers to keep the desert temperatures comparatively low and the foliage comparatively green. Of course, this does impede birding and photography somewhat, but there's not too much high level birding to be done in Phoenix this time of year, so I won't complain.

Last Friday Pops and I made a trip to Sunflower, which is little more than a turn off from the Hwy-87 with a few houses and a tow truck company. The Sunflower turn-off leads to a section of closed off road, now called the 'Old Beeline Highway' (the 87 is the new one up to Payson). This road is now closed to vehicle access, but pedestrians can walk along and use the vantage point to observe the denizens of Sycamore Creek that runs adjacent to the eastern side of the Old Beeline.
With all of the recent rain, the creek here and at Mesquite Wash, ten miles down the Hwy-87, were flowing at a very good clip.

The well-watered riparian area and the juniper canyons on either side of the Old Beeline Highway make this stretch of Sunflower excellent nesting habitat for both Zone-tailed and Common Black Hawks, and these were our target birds, along with the optimistic hope for hearing or seeing a Yellow-billed Cuckoo on the side.
For much of the drive up to Sunflower (about fifty minutes), the percussion of raindrops and streaks of lightning gave us quite a show. It was still raining when we began birding on foot, so I initially left the camera in the car. Yellow Warblers, Bell's Vireos, Blue Grosbeaks, Ash-throated Flycatchers, and Cassin's Kingbirds were all very common and audible on the walk, even with the rainfall. Phainopeplas still dotted many of the canyon juniper bushes while Gnatcatchers flitted around in the understory.

The creek continued to swell with runoff and the cloud cover made for a very pleasant walk, enhanced by not lugging around heavy camera gear. That nicety was shattered though, when we looked up into one of the many Arizona sycamores and saw a large mass of sticks. Not only was it a nest, but there was the single silhouette of a raptor chick sitting pretty. Alas, it was mostly obscured when I later returned with the lens.
Which species was it, Zone-tailed or Common Black Hawk? This was a matter of no small discussion, a matter that has still not been fully resolved.

As we were walking along the road maybe one hundred feet up from the nest, a Common Black Hawk spooked from a sycamore and made a beeline towards the nest area. At the time, this seemed to confirm that the nest was Black Hawk property, but that wouldn't be the end of the story.
After we were treated to calling Cassin's Kingbirds, who were also prone to bouts of aerial bellicosity as they staked out their respective domains, the very loud, very recognizable shriek of Zone-tailed Hawk wafted through the canyon.

Though these Hawks seem to prefer canyon walls for perching and hunting, they also hang out and nest in riparian areas, particularly in cottonwood trees or sycamores. In addition to the two birds we saw on the rocky escarpment, there was also an individual bird calling not much farther down the road. 

The presence of these three raucous Zonies, all relatively close to the nest, made us rethink the site as that of a Blackhawk chick--it just seemed dangerous and impractical from the point of view of prospective Blackhawk parents. That being said, the Zonies never came near the nest, nor even crossed over from the opposite side of the Old Beeline Highway. Who knows...

It proved to be a very good day for raptors, and not only because we found our two target Hawks. We heard and saw multiple Cooper's Hawks, and even a single Sharp-shinned Hawk--identified in part by its distressed flight call and wingbeats--which is a pretty rare find in the area during late July.
There was a Red-tail and plenty of Turkey Vultures (of course), but the Cooper's were unusually Cooperative. The bird shown below was perched on the side of the road, between us and the car, but let us approach from a hundred feet or so until we were even with the bird, opposite the road.

After a few minutes of observation it departed, showing some pretty haggard primaries on the tail. These moments, when the bird is stretched at take off, can show how proportionally short the accipiter's wings are, relative to the length of its body.

As things started to quiet down at Sunflower, we retraced our route on the Hwy-87 and stopped off at Mesquite Wash, still hoping for a Cuckoo photo-op and anything else that would be new for the day. A young Summer Tanager fit that bill, but the wash itself was pretty flooded and muddy, making the trek somewhat perilous and uncomfortable as the sun finally forced its way through the clouds.
We spent a fair portion of time trying to get good looks and photos of the numerous Blue Grosbeaks in the area, a bird which manages to deny me with the ol' stick-in-the-face trick every single time...

Our experience with the accomodating Cooper's was one-upped at Mesquite though, as we had close encounters with another adult Cooper's Hawk and its two whiny offspring, who were perfectly capable of flying and hunting for themselves, but still seemed determined to mooch off of their parent.

They had very little fear of people, and in fact we didn't spot the first bird until we were standing right underneath it. For the next hour or so that we spent exploring the muddy wash and surrounding bosque, the distant, plaintive calling of the two demanding young was a constant.

Really, these birds were being spoiled by their parent(s) and the relative bounty of the flooded riparian woodland. It's a sign of the times, or so I've read. Kids stay living at home with their parents later and later, not wanting to wade into the tumultuous and unpromising job market, saddled with economically debilitating student debt and an inability to catch one's own songbirds.

Then again, from the parents' perspective, who could say no to this face?