Sunday, February 23, 2014

Bottom of the Barrel Birding

Sitting here on a pleasant Sunday evening, I'm wondering where the weekend went. For what reason or to what purpose I cannot say, but a combination of general enervation, carry over from the work week, less than ideal weather, and some continuing car problems kept me from my cathartic weekend birding outings. By evening time I was finally able to go out for an hour or two, but there is probably no worse time to go birding in the central Phoenix area than on a Sunday afternoon with pleasant temperatures. 
I tried Papago Park, the Botanical Garden, and Tempe Town Lake, only to be repulsed from all three by the overwhelming numbers of people who beat me to it, fishing poles, strollers, and novelty flying discs in hand. Of course, it is a great thing that so many people are out enjoying all the parks, but for my purposes it was somewhat bothersome.
I should've known the short-span birding would be pretty terrible when the first non-columbid bird I found was a this floater:

Judging from the long tail, I'd say a Neotropic Cormorant. I especially like the grisly algae growths covering one of the feet. It must've taken a while for those growths, which means this fella has been floating for a while. Even the normal aquatic carrion feeders were being lazy, or else there is no fouler meet than Cormorant.

 It wasn't just that the birds themselves were being withholding--although they were--the Tempe Lake pedestrian bridge was being patrolled back and forth by a ferocious gang of segway riders, each of whom was more ferocious and intimidating than the last. The last two guys in this line don't even have to stand up straight to ride so, you know, they're pretty good.

The heavy foot and segway traffic drove me down into wash west of the floating dams, where there is little water, little soil, and little birding to be done--a somewhat disappointing circumstance seeing as the area itself is pleasant.

A Black Phoebe and some Killdeer where stretching out their vocals in the gloam, and a single Eared Grebe, perhaps equally put-off by all the people up higher, and retreated to these surprisingly shallow waters.

I'm doubly motivated to get some higher altitude Prescott birding in next weekend so, and then it'll be a push to mid-March spring break and some time, between writing evaluations, to head back down south. Hopefully that Sinaloa Wren is still around...
In the mean time, can the new work patch make it up to 30 species??? Odds are 7 to 1 against, but taking all bets!

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Cling Well Drill Well Sap Well Stay Well

It was a rip roaring Thursday afternoon at the new work patch as I added no less than five new birds to the patch list, bringing the total up to a staggering 26 species! Yes indeed, with clutch finds of Eurasian Collared Dove, House Finch, and Northern Mockingbird, I pushed solidly past two dozen. This is more than likely about as far as I'll get until some more Swallows, Nighthawks, and WW Doves show up along the canal in a month.

Too much sarcasm, or even irony, like too many Blackbirds, if off putting though; I did return to the the work patch for other reasons than pursuing a few overstated, cheap ticks. I had a small but lingering desire to give the SRP Falls and Herberger Park a quick going over for a couple of months, ever since taking an AMSP/FOAL break there with another employee before a summit meeting. 

While we were unscrupulously indulging in good ol' fashioned American vices in the afternoon, I noticed firstly that there were plenty of pine trees at the park--not a given around Phoenician parks and a favorite of some birds--and that many of the Australian bottle trees were absolutely riddled with holes.

There are only but one of a few possibilities for how a proud bottle tree such as this could become so porous, and since I didn't see any OCD kids with pellet guns hanging out in the park, I deduced that it must have, in fact, been some sort of Sapsucker. Pretty clever eh? 
Red-naped, of course, would be the only real suspect, but even with that being the only possible (and Yellow-bellied does tend to drift a lot) Sapsucker in Phoenix, it's a decent find for the central city given the small amount of woodlands. Upon returning to Herberger Park on Thursday I soon found the freshest looking sapwells, and soon after found the culprit.

Caught red-handed!...err red-naped!

There were two birds, both males, from what I observed in about thirty minutes. The conspicuous red on the napes immediately ruled out any possibility of Yellow-bellied (also known as the "for lack of any other obvious distinction" Sapsucker), but it's still a pretty gorgeous bird and certainly the most solid find thus far at my dinky little work patch. I dig how the red on the nape is very haphazard, like whoever was designing this bird just gave up towards the end and stopped coloring in the lines.

Apart from the presence (or not) of red on the nape, the black malar border on the RNSA is thinner and doesn't extend all along the red throat to keep it from meeting the white face paint. That black malar border is much more distinct on a Yellow-bellied, which I'll still hold out hope to see here some day.

It was a quick jaunt before I had to be back at work, but on the way to the car I snagged another tick for the patch list as it patrolled the canal. It's up to Prescott this weekend to see who's hanging out where there's some decently cool whether.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Working Out a Work Patch

Working a 7am-4pm job can be hard on a fellow's birding, especially when the sun sets early and there's still prep work to be done for the following day's grind. It's often a tight, sweaty squeeze--like to many suits on an elevator--but the weekend outlet isn't always enough, and sometimes you've got to fit in some weekday birding, even if it's just a quick fix, a supplementary high. It doesn't matter if they're mostly trash birds; they've got feathers and they move, so it's still birding. 

Black Phoebe by the parking lot irrigation gate? Hell yeah!!!
Many people have the benefit of yard birding of course, but for us apartment dwellers that doesn't amount to much, so the next option is finding a local patch around home or work, usually a park or something similar. Phoenix has some decent birding parks, like Encanto downtown or Grenada Park more central, but these require a bit too much rush hour driving for me to hit up on a weekday evening. The campus where I work has actually turned up a couple of decent birds for me--American Robin and Peregrine Falcon, and Lark Sparrow, which are uncommon in central Phoenix--but I can't well use my place of work as my work patch; that'd be distracting for me and everyone else there who knows me and sees me walking the grounds with all the gear, plus there's not much water. 

So, I decided to head a few blocks northeast to the SRP Arizona Falls canal spillway, a nice little attempt at a canal filtration/regulation gate with some walking paths and water works. It's very small--easily covered in 10 minutes--and also adjacent to Herberger park, which has some grass and a few pine trees, as well as tamarisks, that have already produced Red-naped Sapsuckers and maybe some migrants in a month.

The spillway itself is a nice little construction, and its various channels provided a nice break up of the monotonous brown trench canal scene. The higher concentration of birds here, like these Mallards seconds that motion.
It's funny how starting a new patch list, especially one for a small patch with little going for it other than location, readjusts expectations. Once again I'm really looking forward to a Kestrel Sighting. Red-naped Sapsuckers were a treat and I haven't even recorded House Finches yet in two tries! Yes indeed, I'm only at 21 species for the lil' place, and the proudest sighting of all is a skittish Spotted Sandpiper, along with an unseasonably early Cliff Swallow (it's also unseasonably warm, friggin' 88 today!).

Like the other park birding scenes in Phoenix, the lessened variety compared to proper nature preserves or refuges is made up for, in small part, by much closer looks at those species that will still abide the heat and noise, and now peeping tom birders, of the city.

At any preserve in Maricopa County, Wigeon are pretty near the bottom of the totem pole in terms of commonality and appearance among waterfowl, but along a canal, man, they're hot commodities!

A Neotropic Cormorant is a bird I will not stop to observe at during my weekend treks at Tres Rios, where they numbers in the 100s as can the site species count on a good day, but it's another solid find for a little patch in central Phoenix.

So, finding the little birding patch by work helps not only to satisfy that birding addiction--and really, satisfy is a generous word--it helps to numb expectations and encourage an appreciation of what would be considered lesser or duller birds in more grandiose birding settings. And hey, who knows when something rare will turn up? In the mean time, for even 20 minutes on a Tuesday, being a few feet from a feeding Anna's will do just fine.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Birding: Bits and Pieces

There was neither method nor madness to this weekend's birding nor this post. With few wintering shorebirds or gulls at which to gaze and limited sparrow access in the central Arizona area, winter birding can be slim pickings once one's gullet is full of the admittedly beautiful winterfowl. Just ask this annoyingly plumaged Red-tail (annoying in that it made me initially hope it was something more).  

As things slow down in winter (and, since it's been in the 80s lately, I use that term loosely), one is forced to confront the troublesome questions of life and birding, questions that can be ignored in spring when the Tanagers arrive and the Warblers start to move, when colorful distractions abound. In the mean time, the universe seems to abandon its usual insouciance and bombard one with just enough concerns to create real difficulties, difficulties and inquiries that are persistent, but never too great as to allow one the eminent, unavoidable, and more relaxing option of good-conscience giving up.
Why is gas so expensive? Why are cars so finicky and prone to breaking? Why do mechanics charge as much as doctors? Why won't doctors also fix my car? Why do we insist that children wear seat belts, unless we put 60 of them all crammed in together on a school bus? 

These are pressing questions for the parsimonious birder, but much less so for a juvenile White-crowned Sparrow who does not yet know the weight of the crown of adulthood. For the young Sparrow, life does not much extend beyond the next seedy clump of grass. Lucky bastard...

Black Phoebes are perhaps more contemplative, or at least that anthropomorphism comes across more so from their perching habits. Even their relatively deep thoughts, probing though they are on these chilly winter mornings when there isn't much else to stimulate, must be interrupted by the the occurrence of nearby damsel flies. What is the Formal Cause of the desire to eat flies? What is the Final Cause? The Black Phoebe is, perhaps, closer to answering these questions of life and motivation than White-crowns, and maybe even (insectivorous) people, but probably not all the way there.

Lofty perching birds, like Say's Phoebes, may thusly entertain likewise thoughts, although their more limited forms of communication may indicate otherwise. Still, they're stately birds.

This Vermillion Flycatcher was too young to think of such things. And let's face it, when he's an adult he'll be like a ferrari among oldsmobiles, so he won't be bothered with questions of essence of existential determinism. He'll be way too busy being gorgeous and picking up/making chicks.

If any species of bird has big answers to big questions, has erudition oozing from its talons, it's got to be an Owl. But even such seemingly eternal and omniscient creatures cannot exist freely of their corporal and temporal needs. In fact, they thrive because they tend to them very well and they do not suffer any intolerable lightness to their being. Case in point, this happy, smug-looking fellow is clearly contemplating such things as evisceration if I were but a bit smaller.

Nothing puts all the other nagging and niggling questions to rest like a flight-or-fight response. Look at those talons, just sneaking out from under his belly.

This, this is called a "murder face." I never knew what high school sports coaches were talking about until now.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Rousseau Farms--Parsing through Pipit Parts

Before this weekend, I had predetermined to undertake a most grueling task, one which could well prove unfulfilling and, more than likely, unsuccessful. For 2014, I set more limited birding parameters for myself. I decided to make some trips to wrap up my state list, picking up those tricky southeastern species (still need Baird's Sparrow, Short-eared Owl, White-eared Hummer, Short-tailed Hawk, Mexican Chickadee, Sinaloa Wren) but otherwise spend most of my weekends birding around Maricopa and maybe turning up some good finds closer to home. I've been feeling rather guilty lately about my very meager contribution to the birding listservs and general ornithological culture. Granted, unlike many of the retirees, I'm only getting out to bird once a week, at most, but it still has been too long since I turned up some good discoveries, found my own rare birds, etc.

Somewhere in this dilapidated mess of bok-choy there may, in fact, be a good bird.

So, that rambling anecdote amounts to a half-assed explanation of why, this weekend, the Butler's Birds machine (which is currently sporting quite a bit of duct tape on its fender) rumbled out east onto the Rousseau Sod and Agricultural Farms. I had not seen a single listserv report for this site since the beginning of autumn, and I have a perverse weakness for sleuthing through the little brown birds that can be found in these imitation prairies. The targets were Longspurs, a genus of which I have absolutely no photos, and, foremost, a Sprague's Pipit.

No, of course this isn't a Sprague's Pipit perched on the bok-choy. This is an American Pipit, one of many hundreds of near-identical birds that would be subject to heavy and heavy-breathing scrutiny.

Apart from a Sprague's Pipit being found here years ago, the generally favorable, habitat, and the preponderance of American Pipits around, there was no particular reason to expect such a bird, but one has to start somewhere, and at least the Rousseau Farms have been under-birded of late. Sprague's would be a life bird for me and one I'd like to get in AZ, and their habitat cross-over with wintering Longspurs was killing two birds with one stone, so to speak. There was no plan of attack for the Longspurs. I figured there was a one in ten chance that I'd happen upon some in the open, or, much more likely (and which did happen), hear the call note and see a group vanish into some alfalfa.

This fellow was the first candidate for Sprague's Pipit, given the brightly colored legs.  However, on actual inspection (meaning, looking beyond the first, quick, pre-binocular/photo inspection) the legs aren't pink, and even if the face is pretty plain, the breast and flanks are too heavily blotched, relative to Sprague's. Plus there's not much streaking on the head. Only a simpering fool would really have even given this bird a second glance. Or not, I dunno.

I must confess to another motivation in this excursion, one which will no doubt baffle any normal person, or any person whose nerdy proclivities (and I think we all have them) don't incline him or her towards birds. For that matter, this confession may even confound many the birder in the audience. 
I really like Pipits. I salivate at the prospect of peeping on Pipits. I kreen and kroon, and slam on the brakes. I will crawl through the dust, and even eat the dust if need be, or by accident, or just to try it, if it will get me good looks at Pipits.
To expand on this minor obsession a bit, this applies to any Wagtail, but the American Pipit is the only one we in AZ have got. Combine their infectious tail-bobbing with their subtle, intricate, and infinitely diverse plumage, their prodigious hallux, and the fact that they're pretty fearless compared to most other LBJs, and you've got a real champion of the economy of style.

This Pipit, of course, was in no way a candidate for Sprague's, for all of the same reasons mentioned with the bird above, plus it has obviously dark legs. 

In addition to pandering towards my perverse and painful Pipit proclivity, the Rousseau Farms also afford some easy safari style birding. Birding from the car doesn't always provide better photos ops, but it's always more comfortable in those winter mornings.
Savannah Sparrows are a very appropriate bird to photograph while safari-style birding, all the more so because they usually would not tolerate an approach on foot.

 "To hide a tree, use a forest," as the old proverb goes. In a field full of broccoli, there is no better protected perch than broccoli. RWBBs are repositories of ancient wisdom.

 I don't relish time with Horned Larks as much as with Pipits, which may indeed be a sign of serious mental debilitation since Horned Larks are way sexier birds. I still do enjoy getting to crush them though, when those uncommon opportunities present themselves.

Most prairie type birds, raptors excepted, lead a pretty humble, unassuming existence. But the comparably ostentatious Horned Lark conveys a clear sense of superiority. Its perches, its struts, its call notes...they are all saturated with the highfalutin self-assurance that it is, on any given day, the prettiest bird on the Arizona prairie. Some day, I pray, a Red-throated Pipit will show up and rain on their parade. On that day I will ride over in an ambulance, preempting death by subsequent cardiac arrest.
In the mean time:

The Pipits, the Larks, the Sparrows, the Longspurs...they're the party going on down below, raving in the tall grass, but of course there's another level to the hierarchy, a hegemony of hawks and falcons dourly perching overhead.

Here is a very normal looking Red-tailed Hawk, which is unusual only because there doesn't seem to be much unusual about him. Big, grungy, and successful all over north American...the Red-tailed Hawk is what so many death metal bands never could be. 

Red-tailed Hawks and American Kestrels littered the utility lines with expected frequency. A couple Prairie Falcons, by far the most skittish of Maricopa Raptors in my experience, also made appearances.
An intermediate Red-tailed Hawk made for a refreshing sight. Of course, we can't rule out that this bird is the production of some Swainson's x Harris's x Red-tail hybirdizing eh?

"You speak nonsense and heresy sir! Good day!"

Floating weirdly close to this Red-tail, in a weirdly otherwise uninhabited canal, weirdly without spooking and flying off like all the other canal-dwelling Mallards and Coots did during the day, was this weirdly lone Canvasback drake. He was just chillin', cold as ice and cool as a cucumber.

The Red-tailed Hawks were the biggest bullies on the block, but they weren't the most numerous raptor, especially away from their precious utility lines. I counted 13 Northern Harriers, 6 more than I counted RTHA, and of these 13 there were 8 males, which seems a very high distribution.

If the Red-tail rules the power lines, this Silver-backed Harrier, undoubtedly, rules his green onion field with an iron talon. He played a game of thrones with the other Harriers, and eventually expanded his territory into the neighboring, peaceful alfalfa with ruthless wingbeats.

Many Harriers were, predictably, harrying above the open fields. Some also stayed closer to the irrigation venules and often flew down the channels, perhaps concealing their movements from potential prey or rivals. Their target was only two meters wide, at the end of the trench, so they had to use proton torpedos...

None the hunting Harriers were successful, from what I saw, and even though I must wait and bide time until I get that much-coveted Harrier close-up (or go to Antelope Island in Utah), I enjoyed taking some scene shots of the prowling birds with purple mountains majesty in the background.

Yes yes, I know, raptors are great, but it's time to get back to business, back to the reason we're all here, the reason birders get up in the morning. The little brown birds and their onerous identification separates the men from the boys, the women from the boys, the boys from the babies, and the cafeteria birders from the hardcore nitty-gritty put-that-Pipit-in-your-mouth-to-analyze-by-taste birders.

Taste is not required to parse out that this a clear, even handsome, specimen of American Pipit

Many of the Pipits were busy foraging, keeping low, but not invisibly low, to their sod fields or other preferred pastures. Some were also busy preening, or just smelling to see if a shower was in order. 

He knows that one of the 573 Pipits out on the sod fields is kinda bug-eyed and doesn't quite fit in. He know's it's one of those weird Sprague's, the ignored, awkward distant cousin at the family reunion. But he will not say where.

This is not the first time I've put some heavy crush on American Pipits, and it will not be the last. To those of you who are being good sports and and just enduring these boring brown bird photos, thanks for hanging in there, we're almost done.

Actually, that's not true. There are several more Pipit specimens to examine, but you can take an intermission here with this brazen Say's "I perch where I want" Phoebe. 

Although I started my tour of the Rousseau farm landscape on the Alma School/McDonald road, the best pipitting was on the south side of the drier sod fields a mile or two from McDonald, past the little refinery and a couple of residences. The numbers were highest here and I had some of my most promising, if inconclusive, sightings.

This guy is an Am. Pipit, for sure, but I just want to point out that he has a gigantic, bulbous head.

The Pipit below, also an American, was a bit of a puzzler for a little while, until I was able to get closer looks. He seemed to be feeding differently from the other Pipits, darting forward and backwards in a hectic fashion, and his tail bobbed not-a-once. While his back exhibits some very light streaking, its nowhere near the darker scaling one would expect on a Sprague's Pipit. Bummer.

Here is another Say's Phoebe, because they're bodacious birds, even if common, and because he landed like three feet away from me, just begging to be made famous (chose the wrong blogger/photographer for that).

So, finally, here's my best candidate for Sprague's Pipit, and of course it's a power line bird, so many of the distinguishing features are obscured. I should say right off that the spotting on the breast looks too large and dark for Sprague's, and the white malar stripe is probably too pronounced for Sprague's as well, so not exactly off to a great start. Additionally, the back, top of head, and legs are all blocked.

And yet, something still seems kinda...Spraguey about this bird. It wasn't perching like the other Pipits and its lower breast and belly were very clean. Its eye seemed larger and more bug-eyed than American (a good sign) and the supercilium was wider and blends with the orbital ring more than on the other Americans I saw. The beak also seemed thinner and pointier. That all being said, it's not enough for a clean ID, not even close. I did not report this bird to eBird nor on my list, and so the Sprague's search continues. Readers may thus consider this time in the field, much like time spent reading this post, to have been poorly spent, but I'll contend it was a lovely morning with plenty of enjoyable, if predominantly beige birding. Lacking a solid ID on the Sprague's wasn't the greatest possible ending to the day, but it was the most likely, and, most bestest of all, I have reason to go back pipiting again.