Sunday, October 26, 2014

Mountain Birds and a Conspiracy of Crow-like Woodpeckers

Late October is a tricky treaty sort of time. There is so much pumpkin flavoring floating around, creeping its way into beers and confections, into ciders and even lotion. Feet become dry and cracked. Small disguised strangers come to one's home and demand sugary benefactions without providing any compensatory services. Plus it's starting to get cold, as the gaping chasm of winter, with it's icy teeth and abysmally dark, frozen gullet, begins to close its jaws. 
Yet there is opportunity here as well. Some pumpkin stuff isn't disgusting. Pumpkin lotion and dry feet can compliment each other nicely. Kids in costumes can be cute. Best of all, one can start to get cold-weather winter bird species without having to fully endure the winter itself. Of course, the hardcore tundra dwellers will not be in Arizona for another few weeks, but some of those other frost-biters have now arrived in the state, or if they are resident, are now more visible. Butler's Birds teamed with Tommy DeBardeleben, Gordon Karre, and Mark Ochs this weekend for some preemptive birding around the Flagstaff area, home of a college, good birding, and a terrific red ale (Lumberyard).

Our first stop was the Rio de Flag nature walk behind the Northern Arizona Museum. Although the walk itself is pretty small and borders a suburban neighborhood, the birding here was very productive. We had Cassin's Finches, Merlin, Bluebirds, Siskins, and all the expected AZ conifer-lovers for that area, as well as our target bird, Evening Grosbeak. Alas, the Grosbeaks and Cassin's Finches stayed pretty high, but winter's chill will force then lower in a few months and perhaps I shall return for better crushing then, if not camera frying bigger bird fish.

The finches and nuthatches were loving them some ponderosa pines, while the equally numerous American Crows were loving them some warmth-accumulating asphalt shingles--to each their own.

The next stop, south of Flagstaff along lovely Lake Mary Road, was at Ashurst Lake to scan for waterfowl. There were some prescribed burns and a lot of smoke in the area, but by time we reached the water it was not a deterrent. The waterfowl numbers were high and diversified, though lacking rarities, but it was scope-views only so I did not bother with waterfowl photography.
Instead, here is a Mountain Bluebird trying to blend into its surroundings. Not bad blending eh?

The MOBL is a mucho gorgeouso bird. Unfortunately they are mostly cowards unless you find them actively feeding or, even better, drinking/bathing, so they often require heavy cropping.

While my better trained and better disciplined birder accomplices were scanning the lake, I continued to explore the surrounding juniper scrub. Kinglets, Nuthatches, and a few Titmice abounded, but the dominant species was the Mountain Chickadee. By Chickadee standards these birds are pretty good-looking and creative with their plumage. By regular standards they're pleasant and professional. This bird is sporting just a hint of yellow on the end of the bill. It is possible this is just lighting. It could also be Sandwich Tern hybridization. More research is required.

Like other species of Chickadee and many other smaller, fluffy birds, the MOCHs are considered by many birders to be 'cute'. 'Energetic', 'sweet', and 'darling' are also used to describe them. This is well and good; often these adjectives apply quite nicely.

But get too near their space, their juniper heart tree, and there will be blood, blood and bellowing.

Better known for bellowing and blood-letting, a few Bald Eagles also terrorized the lakes, seeming to delight greatly in trying to kill their American Coot prey via cardiac arrest instead of direct assault. They would ride the strong winds right over the water, dipping every once in a while to cause the Coots much consternation and belabored flushing (y'all know how Coots struggle to take off). Big, strong, mean, often getting involved with other groups of birds when it needn't, and sporting too much jewelry...a fitting national symbol??

My final stop for the day was Mormon Lake. We first swung by the elevated lookout area just in case any Unshaven-legged Hawks or, much rarer, Northern Shrikes, had arrived early (they hadn't). The Mormon Lake basin was empty, and likely will remain so until the early spring run off, but the many different grasses, shrubs, molds, and shadows of the valley made for an impressive sight nonetheless.

The lodge area and campgrounds around Mormon Lake are one of my favorite northern Arizona birding spots. It was here two years ago that I had a very good day--teenagers might even say epic--in picking up lifer EVGRs and RECRs, even getting some decent photos.
The high elevation pine and oak forests around Mormon Lake and Flagstaff, in general, are great habitat for Lewis's Woodpecker. We had seen two birds prior to our arrival at this final site, and pulled to the side of a dirt access road to excitedly observe three or four more as we approached. We were amazed to see so many birds so close to each other, plus this bird is just crazy, like almost tropical in its plumage. Little did we know the Mormon Lake area was, in fact, infested with Lewis's Woodpeckers.

They were distracting. They made it hard to find any other birds. My conservative estimation is that we had over three dozen individuals in the handful of acres we covered.
Something was going one, some great conspiracy of these Crow-ish Woodpeckers. It was like a movie where a character suddenly realizes he is under surveillance and people are watching him from all the corners, all the shadows, all the nut-stashing spots in the woods. There were clandestine LEWPs on the ponderosas.

They were hiding along oaken limbs, relaying information back to base.

They were perched with the sun behind them, backlit and blending into the dark tree trunks...plotting.

They perched and starring sunward, surveying their domain and contemplating conquest while pretending not to be following us through the woods, waiting for use to stray too far from the cabin sites and any other witnesses.

There was constant activity as they flew across the trails, sometimes right over us, sometimes just beyond focus in the lower shadows of trees. The woods echoed with their raucous calls, and even the Stellar's Jays trembled before them.

If Butler's Birds does indeed return for better finch photos in a couple of months, I fully expect to find the Mormon Lake lodge area abandoned, with the porous ruins of acorn-stuffed buildings badly shading the corpses of so many flanel-clad humans, sprinkled with a thousand tiny holes.
Meriwether Lewis himself went mad and committed suicide not long after discovering this bird.
Beware. They are out there. They are coming. The Others

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Creepy Crawlies and Plain Posers

Things are, as one might expect, still slow in central Arizona right now. Making birds the focal point with precious weekend time can lead to disappointment, unless one is willing to do some heavy driving. But how about incorporating a bit of birding into a pleasant day of hiking and fishing around Wood's Canyon Lake as sweet violas play gently and magically in the background while butterflies land on your various appendages? Some of those things are good ideas, and even possible. 
At 7,000 feet and near a reservoir, Wood's Canyon Lake is normally birdy, though I have yet to turn up rarities there. Even so, the avian populations this time around were low. Bluebirds, Chickadees, Nuthatches, and some Woodpeckers--the annual residents--were the only feathers of which to speak. Nevertheless, there are creatures in the woods that will give one that tingly feeling, especially if they're crawling on one's face. This Desert Tarantula was strutting his stuff after the most recent rain. 

I was hoping for some later migrants or maybe an owl but was disappointed in these aspirations. Despite the promising habitat I've never had an owl species at WCL. I've always wanted to help establish this place as a good birding site since it has nostalgic value (old family camping spot, etc.), but part of the problem is I seldom go there explicitly for birding, or at least for lengthy, belaboredly-plumb-the-depths-of-the-woods-and-turn-something-good-up birding.
Sometimes life just gives you female Western Bluebirds, dull female Western Bluebirds.
By the way they make a terrible lemonade.

I don't find Bluebirds to be an oft-crushable species though, so this opportunity was welcome. The crushes come so few and far between these days. In most things, it's usually winter that is the time of scarcity, but birding around central AZ one kinda wishes it would hurry up and get here...bring some Evening Grosbeaks while it's at it.
What's that they say, "The worst part is the calm before the battle...and then the battle's not so bad." Yeah, pretty sure that's what they say.

Friday, October 17, 2014

A Re-Salute to Sparrows (Or, Salute to Sparrows Installment II)

Butler's Birds went to some fantastic places this past summer, birding all along the Rio Grande Valley, in the Piedmont and tidewater coast of North Carolina as well as the Great Smoky Mountains. Of course, Arizona factored in too, with the Santa Rita foothills giving up some choice offerings in August. The main reason for doing this, of course, was to further the Butler's Birds goal of finding, photographing, and cruelly judging all North American Sparrow species as if they were merely intricately patterned, audibly diverse chattel, or even worse still, Miss American contestants. 

Harris's Sparrow IQ = Miss Texas IQ, despite what the sparrow says. But which sounds better?

I know I know, "That's mean!" Well, Butler's Birds didn't set out this summer to make friends. Seeing in the field and representing on the webpage are two very different things, as any bird blogger will tell you. Naturally I saw more Sparrows this summer than I photographed well, and saw more than I photographed at all. Alas, Bachmann's and Seaside Sparrow eluded the lens and judgment for a little longer, but their time shall come. (Bachmann's Sparrow, particularly, is fearing that final reckoning).   

Without further adieu, here are a few more installments of the Butler's Birds Salute to Sparrows. This information has also been recorded on the main thread, which will always be updated with new additions. 

Botteri's Sparrow: Also famously known as the "dumpy plain boring flat-headed little shit sparrow" in Arizona, the Botteri's is the Bachmann's Sparrow of Southeast AZ and Texas. Little sprinkles of rufous here and there are insufficient to spicing on this dull-flavored bird. There is something to be said for a handsome platinum beak, but that's not too special for a sparrow. 
Vocalization: More creative that one might expect, with almost vireo-esque single notes preceding a crescendo trill that is clearly an homage to Black-chinned. 7/10
Appearance: Unimpressive, plain, and what is the deal with that crew cut? 5/10
Overall: 6/10

Field Sparrow: Named for the renowned plumber Gerald P. Field, the Field Sparrow is the bread and butter sparrow for much of the midwest and eastern United States. As the name coincidentally indicates, it favors grasslands and agricultural areas, especially near woods. It looks, acts, and sounds like we expect an American sparrow should. Although this Sparrow has lost much of its relevance and esteem in current discussions and appreciations of Sparrows, the FISP had a heavy hand in establishing the stereotypes of Sparrows that we birder enjoy today.
Vocalization: Bold and recognizable, as if all the roadside fields and grasslands in the east and midwest were filled with tinkling bouncing balls (as if).  7/10
Appearance: Warm toned but dull overall, reminiscent in some ways of a female House Sparrow. The pinkish-orange beak is a nice touch, but lipstick alone won't win pageants. 5/10
Overall: 6/10

Golden-crowned Sparrow: A large and hardy sparrow, not as well distributed as its better known White-crowned and White-throated cousins, the Golden-crowned is nonetheless a fine specimen. The individual shown below is a vagrant that visit Sun City on northern Phoenix every year for the last three winters at least. Can he even be called a vagrant anymore?
Vocalization: A pleasant, mournful song (overly) short, sweet, and to the point. 7/10
Appearance: Very typical for zonotrichia Sparrows. Of course the black and golden crown is distinct but a fancy hat it not always enough. 7/10
Overall: 7/10

Olive Sparrow: Often found in Texas next to strip malls next to Red Lobster and Baby Kays, the Oliver Garden Sparrow is a fun and fancy take on the traditional sparrow archetype--much like Oliver Garden is a fun and fancy...well, never mind. It is the only Sparrow in North America, maybe even the world, with an olive (yellow/green) back, which also continued onto the tail. It has a brown cap hemisected with white, a faint brown eye-line, and is non-migratory--gotta admire the commitment.
Vocalization: A series of full-bodied notes of similar pitch, never reaching the crescendo of other Sparrows. 6/10
Appearance: Inventive and colorful yet still reserved enough to show a Sparrow's good sense and economy of style. 8/10
Overall: 8/10

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Pesky Sparrows and Cold Blooded Lovin'

Fall migration is stil underway in our hearts and minds, but in terms of producing some rare birds in the Phoenix area, it came and went without much adieu (it usually does). But we're well into October now which means waterfowl numbers are starting to swell and, even better, winter sparrows are returning. It has been a long time, too long of a time, since I've properly crushed some good birds. One could go to a park and crush Green Herons or Ducks easily enough, but Butler's Birds decided to do it the harder way and met up with Gordon Karre, Caleb Strand, and Tommy DeBardeleben for some sparrowing. 
Tommy had recently scouted a great location for the recently split Bell's Sparrow and came away with some great photos of this tricky-ID bird. Both Bell's and Sagebrush Sparrows are possible at the well-known Thrasher Spot in Buckeye, AZ, but the Bell's are much rarer there, preferring the thicker saltbrush habitat around Robbin's Butte where they invert the population disparity and finally outnumber the Sagebrush. 
And so, like the super studly guys were are, we set out into the saltbrush in the early morning to track down some of these early arrival, early departure sparrows. 

We had some great, diagnostic looks at a half-dozen Bell's Sparrows, one or two Sagebrush, and maybe nine or ten more that we did not see diagnostically. Alas, both of these species are very skittish on their wintering grounds and I came away with no photos whatsoever. The numbers were pretty good though and I definitely recommend Robbin's Butte for anyone chasing Bell's in central AZ.

The birding has been pretty glum lately but the herping has been excellent with our recent, heavy monsoons. This continued at Robbin's Butte, where the non-bird highlight of the day (and one of the overall highlights, for me) was a pair of Western Diamondback Rattlesnakes.

I found the couple under a tree while I was attending some nature business and they were attending the devil's business. The other snake's head is hidden in the photos, though whether from shame or circumstantial positioning is unclear. The back halves of the snakes were tightly wrapped together and moving in an undulating motion while the front halves were free to move about as they pleased. There wasn't a lot of eye contact or smooching. The whole thing was somewhat unromantic.

...or maybe not. We'll see what kind of internet traffic this post brings.

On our way back to the vehicle Caleb also found a medium sized gopher snake shading itself from sun and Red-tail Hawks. Unlike with the mating rattlesnakes, this was a hands-on opportunity. 

In the ancient greek myths, Meliampus became very wise because he helped some young snakes once and in gratitude they licked his ears so clean that he could hear/understand animals. This snake was less grateful, and we didn't even ask the rattlers, but what wisdom might the humble gopher snake be able to impart? Living life horizontally must give one all manner of different perspectives compared to us uptight uprights.

After Robbin's Butte we swung by the Arlington Widlife area, scanning for shore-bird friendly flooded fields and any migrants of interest. Again, be forewarned that I'm in a photo-slump here, but the birding at Arlington is always pretty good. The combination of tamarisk groves, cottonwoods, marsh areas, and agr. fields maintain a variety of wildlife, and our two highlights were a Lewis's Woodpecker and Common Black Hawk, both rare for this date and location.
Cassin's Kingbirds outnumbered the Westerns, and all of these guys are technically dawdling; they should've moved on a couple of weeks ago.

Birding agricultural expanses is always nice because it's predominantly done from the comfort of the car and there's a better chance of getting closer to the birds. This wasn't exactly the case on Saturday, but we did have some of the typical roadside highlights to round out a day with near 50 species.

Winter birding will bring its own intrigues, and I'm already looking forward to chilly trips into the San Rafael grasslands for Baird's Sparrow and Short-eared Owl, or up to Mormon Lake for Grosbills and Grosbeaks. In the mean time, it's a matter of damage control, birding when and where one can make the most of this interim. And in that mean time, watch your step! 

Monday, October 6, 2014

Splinters and Bits of Wood: Bottom of the Barrel Birding

I am in a sorry state. I did not make it out for birding this past weekend. Poor weather, busy schedules, and very unimpressive migration counts have not helped the Phoenix birding scene, nor have prodigious provacateurs such as this wary Peregrine Falcon. Apart from our annual immature Short-billed Dowitcher, things have been very mellow in Phoenix the last few weeks. Wiser and more committed birders have been finding good stuff up in the mountains, but some of us languish in the valley even so, waiting, even hoping, to get picked off by a pair of passing talons. 

Some of the best finds this week were not bird-related at all. I have a hobbyist's perverted weakness for old desk fans and ambitious metal signs, and here are a few recent goodies of the second type. Beware, you fabulous gate dancers and ambivalent wearers of headphones.

So, with little to report from the weekend and littler still looming in the distant future, and end-of-quarter evaluations must be written and such, it was back to the ol' work patch to grow the list. Within those dramatically lowered expectations there was some success. Inca Dove, Yellow-rumped Warbler, Red-winged Blackbird, and Curve-billed Thrasher were all new additions for the site, as well as a fly-over Northern Pintail. Hey, bird the same place enough and something objectively cool or rare will turn up right? Well, not necessarily, but hey I can drink beer out of a brown paper bag here too, so Herbegrer Park serves its purposes.

Like the White-crowned Sparrows, Red-winged Blackbirds are moving into the valley in very large numbers. Although many of the males are still lacking luster in their epaulets, I dig the nifty black/brown tiger striping on their mantles right now. Yes, this is the feature bird for this post. I will not apologize, but I will do better as well.

Here's to you other weekend warriors, may we all hold down our forts with great gusto, and may we be visited by good birds in the mean time.