Saturday, August 3, 2013

Summer Epilogues and Existential Affirmations

It was the end of July and those last precious days of summer were ticking away. Having been laid up for about two months with pre-surgery and then post-surgery physical limitations (face-lifts don't come without their own baggage, people), it had been a low key summer. There was much watching of movies and much reading of books, in addition to much playing of cards and drinking of...drinks.
While I was very content with the summer, there was also a whole inside this Butler, a void of certain sights and sounds that continued to enlarge its emptiness in the bearer until that the most heinous of thoughts--that the summer would soon be over and had been wasted--began to flicker on and off in my mind, like a patchy fluorescent light destroying any possibility of sleep or peace.

Female Selasphorous Hummingbird in Butler Canyon, Greer, AZ

I had to go birding, and I had to bird hard! There had been enjoyable walks and light birding in New Hampshire, as well as Maine and Pennsylvania during the summer. I had also gone out a few times and hobbled along the spillway of Tres Rios to ogle the Least Bitterns. But these were short, easy affairs. I was missing the gritty, all day birding, the burning hikes and the scratchy bushes, the thrill of a growing day-list and the pain of poor eating habits. I would have to face my family, my friends, my coworkers, and admit that I did no hardcore birding this summer, none at all. I'd become soft, even insipid.

Luckily I was saved from this pending existential crisis when a bird buddy started posting his wonderful photos and write ups from his week-long birding adventures in the White Mountains of Arizona. With a week left before returning to work, I expressed my interest in seeing some of the wonderful alpine birds, and the invitation was on. Thank you Tommy.

I arrived in Greer Tuesday afternoon, and although the northern AZ skies were even more permanently and thickly clouded than Phoenix's, we still had a couple of hours to bird, to prologue the all-day bonanza that was to come. We went to nearby Butler Canyon, a fine place to go for Butler's Birds, pining for some Woodpeckers. Tommy has already written up a fantastic post on the Williamson's Sapsuckers he was studying all week long, and we quickly found several different specimens on the pine trees around the lower canyon, while Olive-sided Flycatchers and Steller's Jays made their noises in the background. Here, a young female Williamson's scampers up a tree.

The Williamson's Sapsucker was a very overdue lifer, one I had never chased when they showed up at Boyce Thompson Arboretum or other areas closer to Phoenix. I wanted to see them up in the pines and knew that eventually I would. As it turns out, not only would I get to see them, I'd get to see all of their (very) variable plumages. Here a young male, yet pale in the belly and awkward in attitude, surveys a possible reservoir for some sap wells.

In the high-elevation pines there were many first year birds, and in fact it wasn't until our fourth or fifth specimen that we saw a fully fledged male. Alas I didn't get any photos of the handsome bird, neither while it foraged nor when it flew away and fully revealed its striking blacks and whites. Here instead, for your viewing pleasure, is another immature male looking rather like a beetle.

Seeing this lifer first thing in Greer was greatly satisfying and a good indication for the rest of my brief birding trip. We would see them occasionally at our other birding spots on Wednesday, but never in such high concentrations as at Butler Canyon. To do the birds more justice, I'm going to cheat and use a photo here of another young male that wasn't taken in Butler Canyon, but is a more fitting view for this groovy sapsucker.

The Williamson's were a part of a one-two Woodpecker punch (why is no one producing a birder themed drink, with one such flavor being Woodpecker Punch???), and the other half was even more particular to the White Mountains area. Odds were I'd eventually see a Williamson's closer to Phoenix in the next couple of years, but certainly not it's White Mountain counterpart.
Yes, this is a woodpecker that seldom strays below 8,000 feet and stays masked in shadow.

Evidence of this specialist Woodpecker is most often seen in recently burned forest, the type of charred trees now tragically surrounding parts of Greer from a large fire several years ago. The brittle bark on the burned pines allows for the unique flaking feeding habits of this Woodpecker, that is, chipping and flaking off the bark instead of drilling holes into it. It also makes for some interesting textural and color combinations in the spooky woods.

I speak of course, of the American Three-toed Woodpecker, one of the longest named birds in North America. Often difficult to distinguish from the unscrupulous Hairy Woodpeckers that are also found in the area, their unique feeding style is one quick ID tool, and since most views of this bird are going to be of it foraging high in a pine tree, that's a good place to start.

We actually found this female on the side of Greenspeak, but again I'm going to take the photos and include them there, out of a deep concern with justice for the birds, that they be better represented than the shadowy, hazy junk I took on Tuesday. The heavy black and white barring on the sides, visible on this female, is also a good way to tell the bird apart.
Needless to say, if one somehow gets a good look at the feet, counting toes will also help in an ID.

The Three-toed and the Williamson's made for two lifers during our preliminary birding, giving us a great start and alleviating some of the pressure going into Wednesday's epic bird day, the story of which must be told and illustrated next week. Tuesday night ended with a burger and a beer at the Greer lodge and a semi-pleasant night spent in the car, as rain and thunder made for a very natural orchestra, accompanied by its own natural light show.