Tuesday, April 29, 2014

One Hand Empty, One Shaking Fist

The lesser weather god whose jurisdiction reigns over Phoenix has a cruel sense of humor. With temperatures in the mid 90s through the last two weeks, we sends merciful reprieve only on the weekends--the last 3 weekends in a row--with heavy clouds, slight rain and plenty of wind. It's gloriously comfortable, encouraging weather for just about everything...except for birding.

Knowing that this weekend would be another struggle, I decided to try for some late-night owling on Saturday, when the weather wouldn't matter so much, and maybe pick something up at the Papago Ponds on Friday after work. I never did find the confiding Sora I was hoping for at Papago, nor get visual (or photos) on the nocturnal targets, so both of those pursuits will carry over into next week. So, instead of cool stuff, here's some boring stuff from a local city park near you. 

Cooler than Coots but not as cool as Purple Gallinules, the widely distributed Common Gallinule occupies an existentially aggravating level of the gallinaceous waterbird hierarchy. This is, most likely, why they vocalize so often and with such angst in their voice.

I've been reaching a slow realization through my park/canal birding over the last several months. In any given Gulp (that's the real term) of Cormorants, it's now 95% Neotropic (this is a percentage I just made up). I hardly ever see Double-crested around town any more, and the big colony at Tres Rios is predominantly Neotropic too. I have no idea of these two similar species are competitive nesters, if the Double-cresteds just wander continually farther inland and the Neotropic come in their wake, like large-family farmers moving west after the pioneer mountain men. Anyway, I'd be curious for any other Phoenix-area birder's thoughts or observations on this. What's happening to the Double-crested, once the famous rebel of the Cormorant group, raider of the inland waterways, scourer of countrysides?

The longer tail, mottled brown, pale (non-yellow) lores, white border on the chin, behind the lower mandible, all indicate that this bird is yet another Neotropic. Behold the vacant, dead-eye stare of a monumental usurper.

Perhaps as a side effect of the humidity and wind in recent weeks, there are some pretty bold algal blooms in many of the city ponds right now. The prematurely warm temperatures this winter pushed most of the waterfowl north several weeks ago, but the resident birds are making the most of it.

Pied-billed Grebes do not mind Algae. Pied-billed Grebes do not mind anything.

Many American Coots, being good Americans, have lots of big fat babies roaming the ponds now too. I do enjoy when the spontaneous Coot fights break out--this species seems to have a greater propensity for violence than most other birds--and how embarrassingly long it takes them to get airborne.

Coot chicks...these flame-kissed bald headed things are somewhere between hideous and endearing, both of which are stronger reactions than often invoked by an adult Coot. Science has no know explanation for why they look the way they do. Too unappealing to eat?

Part of the American Coot's key to success is that it's a very unscrupulous eater. It's not an om-nom-nomnivore or anything, but they eat lowest common denominator stuff, such as algae and pond slime. With this recent algae bloom around town the Coots, no doubt, are feasting well. This adult was diving to bring up big swaths of the gunk for its chicks. In the photo below of the submerging birds you can see how green the disturbed water is, showing the super algae saturation in the ponds right now.

Most of the chicks waited helplessly for their meal, feigning ignorance and/or inability. But some chicks are straight up precocious, like this man-child here. 

And now I must apologize--but not too much--because I'm about to run a series of Great-tailed Grackle images. I don't feel too badly about this for a couple of reasons:
1) Great-tailed Grackles are cool birds for east-coast visitors.
2) Great-tailed Grackles are hardy, cool birds in general, as long as they're not too urbanized such that they've lost their glossy iridescent sheen.
3) Great-tailed Grackles have a glossy, iridescent sheen.

This dude was being all Green Herony near one of the run-off points where I was waiting for a Sora to reveal itself. 

Whenever one gets a chance to capture nictitating membranes in action, it's also worth sharing. I don't know what all this fellow was fishing for: garbage, algae, minnows, larvae...he probably didn't care.

Did you ever have that one friend in high school who was really shameless, dirty, irresponsible, crafty, guileful, and affecting all at once, probably an Italian? He was abrasive and obnoxious, but every once in a while you had to stand back and just admire his incredible good looks and admirable success, even despite how bothersome he was?
Yeah, I didn't have a friend like that either; I don't even think that's a sterotype. But if it were a real thing, it might fit the Great-tailed Grackle pretty well.

"I'm my own stereotype, a really cool one, way better than any you can think of because of your narrow life experience, punk."

Alright then, I solemnly swear on the little dust pile that's left of my birding and bird blogging reputation never to post Great-tailed Grackle again, even if I see one riding a tiny motorcycle through a ring of fire. Step lightly; step boldly. Drink Bulleit bourbon. This grackle does.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

We Shall Flight Them on the Beaches!

So there aren't really beaches in Phoenix and it's not too much of a fight, except to get photos at the Glendale Recharge Ponds, but at any rate there's some decent migration type stuff happening around the sewage basins these days, plenty of year birds and sexy breeding plumage birds and some awkward in-between birds. Since Sunday afternoon was still holding the blessed effects of a rainy Saturday (I barely got sweaty!) it was the perfect time to see who was passing through and what all was going on where my waste, and others', ended up.

This Western Sandpiper above is in-between boring and sexy pluamge. Not terrible, but not as good looking as some of the other Westerns around, like Flashdance Western Sandpiper below. 

Most of the Long-billed Dowitchers are well into their breeding plumage. They would be better appreciated for their intricate, subtle good looks if they weren't common and always occurring in groups of 6 or more. The LBDO is not an ambitious bird. It keeps its nose to the grindstone.

Of course, the Killdeer population has once again doubled in size, and now there are these disgusting adolescents running around only 2/3 the size of an adult Killdeer and half as vividly colored, so from a distance they give the excitement of something bigger than a Least or Western Sandpiper that's not a Killdeer or Dowitcher...but actually is. Little turds.

The center of the basins are still holding enough water to retain some of the Phoenix winterfowl. All three species of Teal were still present, as well as some Wigeons, and they were joined by two transient Franklin's Gulls, a gorgeous gull that I still always wish was something else.

Both species of Yellowlegs were present in small numbers, as well as a solitary Solitary Sandpiper. Some were feeding actively, while others stood to watch the sun set.

Perhaps the most exemplary displays of breeding plumage are exhibited by the numerous American Avocets right now. Not only are they big and conspicuous with their rusty heads, but they lumber awkwardly through the air squeaking and squawking with left over pent up sexual frustration. Nice.

Avocets look pretty out of their element in flight, at least most of the time. They're pretty specifically adapted for a life of picking through mud and reed flats, but every once in a while they turn on the dazzle and simply walk through the air like the secret badasses they really are.

Many of the birds still have some ripening to do, but that hasn't stopped a lot of them from going at it already, or at least just practicing their balance.

The main draw at the Glendale Basins, at least for this trip, was not the Avocets or other common migrants, but a pair of Dunlin that had been over-wintering. I had forgotten that these birds were around, or rather had assumed they moved on at some point. A recent listserv post mentioned they were still at the ponds, which meant that by now they'd be well into their breeding molt.

Such is the paucity of shore birding in Phoenix that I've never actually seen Dunlin in breeding plumage, only as larger droopy-nose Western Sandpipers in late autumn, so there was some special intrigue and excitement here. Of course, the Glendale Basins didn't really afford great photo opportunities, but I could appreciate the colors through a scope, and the continual strafing runs of Killdeer with my ears.

Alright well they're not the the most color birds, even in breeding plumage, plus they're the most common shorebird in North America (even over Least Sandpiper?) and they're named after the color gray (Dun), but all in all I appreciated this new look: Magnum.

The Glendale listserv posts mentioned Forster's Terns and a Least. In addition to these sleek sternidae, there were Caspian Terns circling and eventually plunge-diving in the deepest (southeast) basin.

It's funny how the landscape changes food-chain dynamics. In the absence of Osprey, the Caspian Terns were the largest, meanest, most intimidating birds around the ponds, but near the coasts, where they'd more be in their element, they would be very mediocre. That being the case, I don't blame them for coming inland and strutting their stuff to the shock and awe of Phoenix's awedience.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Donny, You're Out of Your Element! The Yellowlegs is not the Issue Here!

Lately it seems like there's been some good gossip and bust-ups of the listservs and other birding-related media (you Texbirds people need to stop hogging all that ornery goodness too yourselves). For those of us that frequent the different email or facebook-based birding forums, of course there's a certain cringe, but also guilty pleasure in seeing things blow up. birders are generally mild-mannered people, but the anonymity and distance of internet correspondence allows for some unfettered tirades and arguments to metastasize with great effect.
Our AZ listserv is pretty quiet in this regard, at least lately. Most of the contributors are well-established, have their own surveillance areas, and tend to keep whatever grumbles they may have off-list, except for some added grumpiness on April Fool's Day. This is all to say I feel like I'm being deprived of an essential aspect of my 21st century birding experience: no big bust-ups.

Sometimes there can be really perplexing stuff on the bird forums too, perplexing because a species or specimen is hard to identify. Other times the perplexity can come from a person's penchant for misidentification and their resistance to correction, especially in the case of urban-dwelling Goshawks in Tucson.
I bring this to attention knowing fully well that I'm no ace of ID, that I've been stubbornly on the losing end of many the ID argument, and know first hand that a little self-deprication and humility, even in the face of embarrassing mistakes, is a must for progressing beginners like myself. Without much further adieu then, and without intentional meanness or derision, but merely general amusement, here's a fun little exchange from last week. Most of the people here are being good sports amid a perplexing case:


{Here's a photo of a} Rail:
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