Monday, January 20, 2014

Stalking Creepers in Cave Creek

This weekend I went up to Cave Creek and the Mt. Humboldt area with a couple of specific targets. I needed to add Fox Sparrow, somewhat embarrassingly, to my AZ state list, and I wanted to try for better photos of Townsend's Solitaire and Cedar Waxwing than the pitiful stuff I have so far. Fortuitously enough, Rackensack Canyon, near Mt. Humboldt in Cave Creek, and the Seven Springs Recreation Area some 8 miles further down Cave Creek road, cater to all of these needs.

I spent the first hour or so of daylight scrounging around the scrub wash of Rackensack Canyon, getting brief glimpses and audibles of two slaty Fox Sparrows, in addition to a million billion Spotted Towhees, White-crowns, Scrub Jays, and a surprising couple of Stellars Jays and Rufous-crowned Sparrows. Early cloud cover and the high canyon ridge, plus a general lack of cooperation prohibited any photography, so I moved on to the next objective impatient and grumpy but also pressed for time. 

I had some of the morning's best birding while stopping along the Cave Creek/Seven Springs Road and surveying the juniper bushes. Excellent looks at Juncos, Sparrows, Bluebirds, and a couple of Solitaires justified the trip and the dusty car, even if they were mostly skittish when I'd pull over for better observations. Still, a little pishing near the ever-popular junipers never hurts. Here, a white-crowned Sparrow pops up to eyeball the interloper, while some Western Bluebird coloration is visible through the tangle.

Western Bluebirds were the most numerous species in the juniper hills, outnumbering even the bouncing brainless Kinglets. Given the relative commonness of this bird and their average tolerance of people, I've had a hard time capturing them very well on camera and actually doing justice to their pretty exquisite colors. The struggle continues.

The Seven Springs Recreation Area brings some cottonwood/sycamore riparian habitat into the juniper scrub mix, which makes for a fantastic diversity of habitats and some of the better winter birding in the greater Phoenix area. The Townsend's Solitaries were joined by more deciduous species and plenty of prowling accipiters. 

It's a cluttered mess of an area--great for the birds and tricky to get clear observations.

Perhaps the most unsettling thing about Seven Springs is the significant and terrifying infestation of the riparian trails with Creepers. Skulking, unscrupulous, Brown, and sometimes near-invisible, these Creepers crept all along the woods, devouring insects and peep peep peeping with impunity.

Such discomfort and neck-tingles one feels in these woods, knowing they're around. On the other hand, who am I, or we, to judge the Creeper? I spend my weekends indulging in voyeuristic hobbies of sneaking, spying and, collecting pictures (I'm still talking about birding). Perhaps we are not so different, you and I.

In another life, on another tree, I might have called you friend and ally, Mr. Creeper. Good luck to you, your creepiness. For my money, these are some of the least bird-like birds in the kingdom. They seldom fly, and not sing-songy, and act more like lizards as they scurry up and down in their brown camouflage. At any rate, it's always nice to see them.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Returning to the "Field"

2013 snuck away quietly into that goodnight, and for the first week of 2014 I was similarly unable to do much birding. Now, two weeks into the new year, I am still not satisfied with my time out in the field, but life is busy and it tends to sweep one along in its current unless you grab onto something and buy yourself some time. This past weekend I was finally able to get back out after the birdies, accompanied by a British birdingpal named Christopher, who was in town for a conference on Renewable Phosphorous, but really just for the Sonoran specialties.

Our first stop, a long-time favorite of mine, was the thrasher spot out in west Phoenix. Our time there was not overly productive though we did hit some targets. For the first hour or two after sunrise there was a lot of vain searching, and semi-vain listening. Wafting out among the creosote bushes and sage, the stuttering song of a Le Conte's Thrasher called to us. 

Say's Phoebes, Sage Sparrows, White-crowns, Verdins and Gnatcatchers all went about their daily business, but the birding was pretty slow at the Thrasher Spot. Admittedly and expectedly, I'm also terribly out of practice by now. The birds could tell too that I hadn't been putting in the requisite hours. They fled in disgust, even those that usually sit still.

Eventually we got a bead on a singing Le Conte's Thrasher and enjoyed some really nice scope views, courtesy of Christopher. The Thrasher seemed to be singing out its territorial claims, and no others dared sing a response, but an Anna's Hummingbird got involved at one point to insist on its own suzerainty.
As my British associate pointed out, it was one of very few birds in Arizona to actually boast a pretty, involved song, even if they're not exactly eye candy. Thrasher have many appeals for me, and their vocalizations certainly are a strong one.

Although Le Conte's is a rarer/more specialized/generally more desired bird, the best sighting at the Thrasher Spot was a Great Horned Owl conspicuously perched in a mesquite tree. I've never seen these large predators out here before, figuring they fancied higher concentrations of larger trees, the large population of meek cottontails not withstanding.

From the Thrasher spot we drove west through Arlington, picking up Ferrugionuous and Red-tailed Hawks, a dozen Kestrels, Meadowlarks, and other expected species of the agricultural land.

A quick stop at Tres Rios, cut short by my obligations elsewhere, helped bolster our species list for the day, adding many riparian and aquatic birds to our raptor and desert-heavy list of species.

It was a little weird to see this bird in January, but not because of its species. Any guesses?

The cattle pens a mile northeast of Tres Rios were also a nice attraction. It's such a large, expensive operation to feed so many birds...and the cows occasionally get food too.

Next weekend I hope to hit up the Seven Springs recreation area and Rackensack Creek for Fox Sparrows, Waxwings, and Solitaires. It's time to get this birding year back on track!