Monday, December 29, 2014

Empty-Handed Chasing and Swarms of Things

Over the past couple weeks I have been very bad about posting, but this is not because I fear you or hate you, dear reader. Rather, it is because I had nothing much to post. Being unable to make longer trips throughout the AZ, and not desiring to seek out non-lifer scope-view Scoters at Lake Pleasant, my birding options and motivations took a hit this December. More recently, there has been a Fulvous Whistling-Duck reported in west Phoenix, first in the Arlington area and then around the Tres Rios Wetlands. Many people have chased after this wandering bird, among the many miles of agricultural fields, canals, and run off ponds. A few have been lucky enough to find it; while I am resolved to continue after the new year, I have not been one of them. On the up side, chasing after this phantom duck has at least given Butler's Birds some post-able material, so we're back in business!

Nothing announces a return to better days like a Kestrel on a telephone pole huh? This could be classified as a "vintage" or "classic" shot. It could also be classified as "crappy" and "mediocre."

Birding the agricultural fields is always fun. You can stay in the car for the most part, and the bird views are largely unobstructed. Of course, when the birds keep low to the ground, it presents its own problems. Bald Eagles still stick out like dislocated ogre thumbs. What is that duck nearby you ask? Is that a Fulvous??? No it is not. That would have been sweet.

Winter time and smelly farm country are a winning combination for non-Oriole Icterid watching in Maricopa County. Some people spend their entire careers and lives watching Icterids but not Orioles. True enough, not all Icterids are made equal. Look at the regal pose of this Yellow-headed Blackbird, compared to the sniveling, pusillanimous Cowbird nearby. But that would go for Orioles too right?

Well, when I ask non-Oriole Icteriders why they do what they do, the response is usually, "Up yours, kid." In their defense, Orioles don't congregate like this. 

...Or this

...Or this

Everybody likes swarms of things, except perhaps for ancient Egyptians (I don't mean swarms of Ancient Egyptians, although that does sound like bad news too) and people with a fear of bees. For those fearful of you out there, here's a nice, solitary and quiet Wilson's Snipe, one of the non-swarmiest birds there is. Theirs is an anxious existence, but damn they have nice mantles.

The trouble with the Fulvous Duck is that in its foraging it moves around a lot, and it has a lot of options. I went out to Arlington where it was first seen, thinking all the while that if I were that duck I'd head east towards Tres Rios, where there are larger, protected wetlands. Sure enough, I dipped on the duck and it turned up near Tres Rios. Since then it's been seen at different watering holes. Knowing the regular spots were being monitored without success, I decided to check a few from days of yore. This was also a mistake, because most of those retention ponds, where I birded a few years ago, now look like this. This is not very good Fulvous Whistling-Duck habitat.

Another upside to patrolling canals and retention ponds along agr. fields, of course, is the Burrowing Owls. I understand that Burrowing Owls are one of the only reasons people stop by Butler's Birds, and like any grimy politician, I give the people what they want. Different Owls, different times of day, same pose and cuteness factors.

The rarity chase has thus far been unsuccessful, but some neat stuff has turned up. Check out this dark morph raptor; Red-tail would be the first bet but the eyes and beak also are reminiscent of Ferruginous to me, and dark morph Ferruginous is pretty rare (10% of population, I have read). If this bird would have flown, that would've clinched it one way or another, but of course this is the one raptor that stayed still (and Buteo Regalis should be so brave...)

Butler's Birds has migrated over to North Carolina for its annual, weekly winter sojourn, so the Fulvous Duck must wait a little while (and maybe for a TX return, alas), but in the mean time we're going for the all time Wayne County, NC eBirding record. It's 97 species before Jan. 1st or bust, 21 to go!

Sunday, December 14, 2014

A Shroud, A Veil, Covering up a Fail

My birding has been pretty minimal these last few weeks. I must admit, considering how good November and December are for vagrant/rare birds, I am a total grinch in getting with the 'chasing' spirit. I justify this surliness in that most of the vagrant birds are eclipse-plumage waterfowl on large reservoirs, and it would have to be a very rare bird indeed to make crumby scope views worth a long chase. Some vagrant Warblers have turned up, as well as a Baltimore Oriole hanging out in Tucson. There was a time I would have chased many of these birds, but having now seen most of these species in other states, I've lost a fair bit of motivation, at least as much of the motivation as is required to get over the various and sundry obstacles inimical to early-morning birding. Plus it's been rainy the last two weekends.

Anyhow, even I had to get into gear when someone reported a Long-tailed Duck (not quite annual in AZ) at Saguaro Lake, a mere 35 minute drive without traffic. This would be both a lifer and a pretty great bird for Arizona, and it was close. But of course, all of those earlier grinch factors were still in play. The Saguaro Lake reservoir had a nice, primordial fog going as the sun labored to crest its bluffs. 

I set to work scanning the near-shore waterfowl, not expecting to find a Long-tailed so close to land, but more for a lack of anything else to do until the light improved and the stratus lifted.

I feel like every bird blogger and his cousin have all had one or more experiences in which a Sora walks out into plain view and just loiters, allowing for fantastic crushing. Soras, for the most part, have been mean to me in denying such an opportunity. One fellow was pretty accommodating this morning, but this was in large part due to the soporific lighting. The Hi-Res crush must wait.

The Saguaro Lake reservoir is a nice area, great for logging all of the expected waterfowl and some semi-rarities like Surf Scoter. The surrounding mesquite scrub is pretty good for the Sonoran species--woodpeckers, sparrows, thrashers, and wrens.

Out of the mist materialized many such birds, including some spiffy Buffleheads, but Long-tailed Duck was not one of them. I did have to make note of how quick it was to register all of the waterfowl in the area though, including 4 Grebe species. This might be quite the essential spot in a Big Day challenge come spring...


Eared Grebes are nice, though scant consolation for a Long-tailed Duck. If only the cheeks were whiter, the head less peaked.

Since the bird was first reported on Friday, there has been no further mention of it on the listerv, which was very curious considering how centrally located Saguaro Lake is. Perhaps the Long-tailed Duck was simply a long tale. Well, it was still nice to be out. White-crowns and Cardinals are expectedly everywhere. This is like the AZ equivalent of the Cardinal-eating-sunflower-seeds-in-snow that we'll all being from the east in the next few weeks:

So, even the close-to-home chase was bust this time around, doomed from the start perhaps. At any rate, I have one more week of work before winter break, and then there will be some serious chasing. Until then, I shall remain an existentially troubled Coot, wanting much, yet seeking little.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Cruisin' the Flats

We're pushing into December, which means when one isn't participating in a TGC Challenge Challenge Challenge Challenge, one is likely chasing down some remaining Year Birds, if not vagrant-hunting, and making sure such lists are respectable enough that any other voyeuristic birders snooping on eBird won't look at one's paltry numbers and laugh. Magill Weber, Chris Rohrer, and I teamed up on the Santa Cruz Flats in Pinal County (annoying close to Maricopa County) for such list buffering and generally good birding on Black Friday. At this terribly dusty and rewardingly birdy expanse of agricultural land, the lines are short but there are still some bargains for Year Birders. Our morning started with roadside Meadowlarks and checking tamarisk groves for owls or other vagrants. 

One of the Santa Cruz specialty birds, for reasons I don't quite understand other than habit and learned behavior in a small population, is Mountain Plover. This declining species doesn't turn up reliably in much else of the state, except for Yuma. They're a fickle bunch and often skittish (as was the case yesterday), but still a damn fine bird.

While making our rounds though the agr. land and sod farms beloved of the Mountain Plovers and many raptors, we also recorded many of the expected liminal grassland species, some of which were belated Year Birds for Magill and myself.

There were also Burrowing Owls, which I see probably every month out of the year and of which I shall never tire, nor will anyone else who's heart is not as black as coal (from smoking or something).

The other main attraction of the Santa Cruz flats is its resident and wintering population of Crested Caracaras. This bird turns up sometimes in the agr. land of western Maricopa County, and also in southeast Arizona, but nowhere as reliably or in as large of numbers as in this dusty valley. Three weeks ago I passed through this area with an out-of-state birder and we recorded 5 Caracaras and no Plovers. This time around we had 6 Plovers and a whopping 26+ Caracaras.

Fun fact: Caracaras are often thought of as Vultures, but they're actually more closely related to Tanagers than Vultures. This is science. Vulture or Falcon or Parrot or whatever, they are cool birds. This cannot be denied, even if they don't have talons.

Our count exceeded two dozen individuals, conservatively, which was the highest number I'd ever encountered in a single trip. A majority of those birds we counted were also immature/1st year birds, seemingly eager to strut their stuff at the Caracara wintering grounds.

We didn't have Texas-style good looks, but some of the immature birds stayed far closer to the road than I had the pleasure of observing here before, and this proximity made for the day's highlights.

The glorious long weekend is still progressing on its merry course, and there is time enough for more birding. As the year winds down one has to make some tough decisions with that scarcity of time, to go for more year birds? vagrants? sparrows? Probably sparrows. Always choose sparrows.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

"Taken For Granted Challenge:" Allen vs. Maricopa; Cold vs. Hot; Light vs. Dark

Last year, birdwatching machine Nate McGowan and notorious reformed bird-hater Jen Sanford hatched a brilliant birding initiative, the "Taken for Granted" challenge. To add some spice and spectacle to their birding, each sent the other 5 species for their respective home counties, which they had to find and photograph in a given amount of time. The birds couldn't be rare by general understanding, but could be tricky to find due to transient or sneaky proclivities, restricted range, etc. They drew up battle lines, Texas vs. Oregon, and went to it while the rest of us watched from the sidelines. There were guts and glory and foul words--all essential for a good blog post. Since then, other less ambitious birders have been biding their time, thinking of such things with intrigue and arousal. Butler's Bird's own Butler, as well as Greg and Bird's own Greg, were two such up-and-comers. And as any serial killer can tell you, fantasizing only works for so long before you just have to do it. Greg threw down the gauntlet; I picked it up and handed it back to him politely, with appropriate eye contact. IT WAS ON! 
We had 12 hours, from 5am to 5pm on Saturday the 22nd. All birds, selected from corresponding eBird  county occurrence charts, required an accompanying photo to count. 

In a TGC, birds like Song Sparrow regain their relevancy...well not actually, since every state has its song sparrow or just about, but you get the idea.

In Allen County, Indiana, I challenged Greg to find Tundra Swan (swapped for Greater White-fronted Goose), Snow Bunting, Wilson's Snipe, Brown Creeper, and Pileated Woodpecker. 
In Maricopa County, Arizona, Greg challenged me to find Cinnamon Teal, Ladder-backed Woodpecker, Western Scrub Jay, Gambel's Quail, and Costa's Hummingbird, with black-tailed Gnatcatcher as the alternate bird. 
*I did not check my email in the morning to realize the BCGN as an alternate.

Greg and I both sent each other lists that would require traipsing through different habitats, and in my case elevations. Needless to say (since this is bird blogging and thus, is fundamentally needless), we both got an early start. Teeth were brushed, petals were pushed to metal, scarves were carefully braided, binoculars were charged and camera batteries were cleaned. 
My first destination was the Riparian Preserve, located in Gilbert, a suburb of Gerry-central. The multitudes of joggers, cyclists, and dog-walkers have diminished this site's popularity with lots of birders, but it still turns up vagrants from time to time, has a proud history, could provide me with a few of my birds, and, most importantly, was also on the east side of town, near the Hwy 87 that I would need to take to higher elevation to get Scrub Jay. No self-respecting riparian area is bereft of Green Herons, America's most underrated heron.

I was pretty confident I could get Cinnamon Teal in Gilbert. Its mesquite scrub, as well as cottonwoods, provided good potential habitat for Ladderbacks too. Costa's would be here later in the year, so maybe one of them would be over wintering too. After carving my way through the thick masses of Grackles and House Sparrows, while pausing to appreciate the foggy Green Heron above, the first engaged bird was a young male Anna's Hummingbird, reminding me that Costa's is a way cooler Hummingbird. 

It's funny how the competitive mindset changes, even corrupts the normal birding jive. Almost every time I've come to Gilbert in autumn/winter, I have the Teal species at one of the more secluded and overgrown ponds away from the other larger rafts of Pintails, Mallards, Coots, and Wigeons. Now, having not visited for several months, the scenery had changed. Water in the basins was different, some of the observation areas were overgrown or inaccessible. After about an hour without Teal, I started thinking of back up plans B, C, and D. What are some other parks near here with ponds? Where else might Teal be? Should I bail now and try to find something else on the way to my next site? How can I make an excuse for this? It gets nerve-wracking, but that intensity is also kinda fun. Especially when I remind myself the Teal are totally here, and the only reason their seemingly prolonged absence is noticeable is because this time I am looking for them specifically. It probably was an hour before I found them every other time too, but those other times it didn't matter, it was just another bird. 
Anyhow, the early-onset panic was averted and the Teal were located. I still have yet to crush this species with justice. 

A disgruntled Osprey and his buddy were also surveying the ponds, though they were less interested in ducks and more interested in pooping and what not.

Even with the waterfowl secured, Gilbert was comparably dead and I decided to move on to Sunflower. This site combines sycamore riparian habitat with higher elevation juniper scrub--great for nesting raptors in the spring--and could also yield most of my birds, excepting the Teal (done) and Quail. The first bird at Sunflower was a Ruby-crowned Kinglet showing off its red rocket. Kinglets in winter = super super super common. Kinglets actually being ruby-crowned = uncommon.

Poof! It's gone--same bird, about 2 seconds later.

The main target at Sunflower was Western Scrub Jay. I could get this bird guaranteed if I went up higher to Mt. Ord, but that drive is time consuming and tough on the car. I figured Sunflower had adequate habitat, and better possibilities for other species on the list. I walked for a few miles down the old Beeline Highway, counting good numbers and variety of passerines. The Scrub Jays eluded me, though a few Ladder-backed Woodpeckers in the sycamore creek cottonwoods maintained momentum.

After passing the 4th barricade on the old Beeline Highway (birding Sunflower is basically walking along this stretch of old two lane highway that's now overgrown since traffic between Phoenix and Payson was diverted onto the Hwy 87--it's pretty neat), I found a game trail leading up into the juniper scrub. The Jays had to be around, in fact, I had heard their harsh calls a few times, but photos were required and I needed to get closer. I had never explored this uphill trail before, since the main attraction of Sunflower, usually, is the raptors in the lowland riparian area.
It was a godsend. One of the first birds I encountered among the juniper trees was a male Williamson's Sapsucker, a solid bird for Maricopa County. It flushed too quickly for photos, but not too quickly as to be mistaken for anything but a good omen. As soon as you hear Canyon Wrens calling and see them scurrying among the boulders, you know you're in a good spot. Canyon Wrens are the best wren, hands down. In fact, if you disagree, get your hands up; them is fighting words.

Birding in juniper and low pine is tops. The trees don't keep the birds high, they're not too obscuring, and most of their denizens are pretty cool around people. In fact, this Kinglet almost landed on my camera. The cuteness is strong with this one.

The little birds work the lower and middle levels of the trees while the bigger fellows perch on the pedestals. I finally got visuals on the Western Scrub Jays, as well as some of the numerous but skittish Flickers. #toptobottombirding

With the Scrub Jays and Ladderbacks accounted for, Quail and Costa's remained, but both of these birds I would have to chase in the lowland desert nearer central Phoenix. That is to say, it left me, for the moment, without anything else to do but indulge in some conifer birds.

I had not realized how long it had been since I had a Red-breasted Nuthatch make faces at me from four feet away. A void was filled with tiny red breasts and beady eyes...that's not weird.

A full day of competitive and/or hardcore birding requires some good planning (also luck, vision and hearing, etc.). The next stage of the Butler's Birds plan was to go hang out with my folks, not to call it quits, but to get a brew and scope out the Gambel's Quail that live in the desert near their house. 

They also have a Costa's Hummingbird come to their feeders throughout the winter, a last resort if I couldn't turn one up elsewhere. Alas this bird did not make an appearance until 5:37pm and was scared off by a running dog (which was super frustrating). The Costa's got away from the requisite photo, but a respectable 4/5 left Butler's Birds in a strong position to finish the day. Damn, that bird looked good--I need to go back with some actual daylight and stake it out.
The TGC ended with Maricopa edging Allen County this time around, but this might well be just the beginning of a full and heady season of TGC competitions. It was a great time--thanks to Greg for initiating it, especially since birding early in Indiana might well be a bit more harsh than Phoenix in late November. Any other counties want to throw down?