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?

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

What's in a Name?

...Sometimes, a lot of letters. America has a hallowed tradition of taking long names from the old world, or, worst of all, the non-American world, and shortening or anglicizing them as a part of the immigration/legalization process. While this tradition doesn't carry over into birding exactly, since European migrant birds were not as variegated as their human counterparts, I was surprised/unsurprised to find that Old World bird names far outpace those of North America.

This came up the other day when I was discussing the longest North American bird names with a friend. We came up with Northern Beardless Tyrannulet and American Three-Toed Woodpecker, both of which are 27 letters in length (a particularly impressive for one of North America's smallest flycatchers). These seemed like pretty solid numbers, but how do they compare on the global scale?

Well, coming in from Europe and the Old World, Middendorff's Grasshopper-Warbler (28), Stuhlmann's Double-collared Sunbird (31), and Southern Blue-eared Glossy Starling (31), alas, put the North American birds to shame. My question to you all though, you who know much more, is whether or not there are any representatives in South America, or maybe east Asia, that are pushing up on three dozen letters?
Sure, sunbirds are gorgeous, but we can't let the title go to something called Stulhmann's! What else is out there?

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Work Patch Birding: Day 139

Birder's Log: The quest to add waterfowl species and Belted Kingfisher failed today. There was no sign of such birds, not even a freaking manky Mallard. Grackles and Starling in abundance mocked me, as did the pigeons. Passerines and Piccaniformes were also lacking, with only a single Verdin and no woodpeckers recorded. Has God abandoned me to this place? Has my country? Why am I here? Would anyone really care if I was just swallowed up, without ever hitting 30 species for this dinky little patch? Got to hold it together. I hear the fluttering of the wings of the angel of death about my ears. This may also explain the absence of other birds in the pines.  

Birder's Log: Turns out the angle of death was a Great Horned Owl, which may explain the absence of other birds. New species recorded for the SRP AZ Falls site. This brings my list of species seen while wearing a tie up to 33, which is now well ahead of my number of species seen while micturating, though that second list has some better birds on it.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Bosque Birds and Caring-Caras

This Sunday was a slow day's birding, but hey it's Sunday, whadda ya expect? I was joined by Indiana birder and friend Alex Capaldi for some target birding in the pleasant weather, as we strove best we could to ignore the impending duties of Monday's work. Given the day and date, most of our targets for the day were long-shots, but we came away with a few solid sightings and a feeling of success, even if the photos say otherwise. 
November is a time to appreciate the residents again. The winterfowl have not all arrived nor are in their dapper suits, so it's back to the bosque birds and their never-ending quest to embody all the manifestations of brownish gray.  

Those birds that are even thornier than their perches do not have to be quite so camouflaged, more's the pleasure for the rest of us. As always, I scoped around to try and find this Shrike's larder, which should be well-stocked considering winter's approach. It was well hidden, or else this bird has a Plan B (like just treating Arizona winter as it would any other season).

Townsend's Warblers and a late Blue Grosbeak made for some of the prettier sightings. One of our target areas was the Santa Cruz flats, a great wintering ground for raptors and Mountain Plover. Despite scanning all of the sod fields we couldn't turn up the MOPLs, though Pipits and Horned Larks kept us company, along with a surprisingly small and quiet number of Killdeer, one of the birds with the most disproportionate prettiness vs. disliked-by-birders ratios (very pretty, very disliked).

The MOPLs are a fickle bunch, on top of being well-camouflagged on their barren terrain. The Caracaras in the area are more reliable, as well as conspicuous. We counted six of these Falco-Vultures in total, though most were far away behind the Baumgartner corral, protected by a very aggressive, grumpy defender of private dirt lots (whom I did not provoke this time). We did find a star-crossed pair in the fallow grasses, being all brooding and lovely.

This last photo encapsulates the feeling of many the Sunday evening for me.
This week should provide some time for patch-birding; it's time to record some ducks and get that list up to 40 species, fingers and feathers crossed! Merry birding to all, and to all...merry birding.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

What the Arboretum's Harborin'

There are many consequences--most of them social or financial--that come with the birding pastime. There are also some benefits, one of which is that one can often combine birding with other activities. As I've been oft-whining the last few weeks, now isn't the best time to be birding, in my opinion, around central Arizona. With the low promise of plentiful birds, and the promise that many of the birds one does find being in drab plumage, there isn't a lot of impetus to get up before sunrise, especially if a drive is involved. But this weekend I needed to do some scouting for a possible class field trip at the Boyce Thompson Arboretum in Superior, AZ. 
It's a neat place with lots of trees; I needed to determine if it'd be a viable site for 90 students to spend some time reinforcing natural history/science concepts. And hey, where there are trees and water, there tend to be birdies too. So Butler's Birds decided to kill two birds with one stone this weekend (sometimes the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few). 

The Boyce Thompson Arboretum hosts several different biomes, some of which are artificial transplants with botany from Australia or Africa, and some of which are continuations of the surrounding Sonoran Desert. The more intriguing, and also more difficult birding is near the exotic trees, where some good rarities have been found over the years. Someone reported some out-of-season birds such as Tyrranulet and Bell's Vireo in the area, but apart from Kinglets and White-crowned Sparrows I only turned up Northern Flickers, LOTS of Northern Flickers. They all stayed up high with their foraging, but I was not above (and, in fact, was below) peeking up at their spotted undergarments. #voyeuristbirding

The site would lend itself pretty nicely to a field trip, but truth be told I did not find a lot else of interest with the birds. Verdins were being weird and building nests, which they seem to do compulsively all year long, sometimes building multiple nest balls in the same tree. 

Phainopeplas perched in the desert ironwood. If Spiderman were a Cardinal these guys would be Venom, but with a prettier call note.

This ever-sharp and loud Cactus Wren also seemed to be gathering nesting stuffs, or else he thought this was a stick bug. Like Verdins, they build multiple nests to act both as decoys and also proof of their industriousness to prospective mates. Perhaps they get an early start on all that construction as well.

I haven't been crushing many birds lately, so allow me to indulge here with a closer crop. It's the state bird after all, and worth a second glance (though maybe not a third). Even though it's not the best state bird, maybe not even in the top ten, it's still way better than the large majority of other state birds.

When things started to heat up at BTA--which still happens, even in November--I drove into the old western town of Superior for some lunch breakfast. I do love me some cheap diner steak and eggs, served forth by a lady named Holly or Charmin who calls me darlin'. It was to be the Buckboard City Cafe, "Home of the World's Smallest Museum." The museum consisted of various odds and ends from the 1980s transferred from someone's attic. The cafe was full of politically opinionated bikers and the service was slow. Lastly, the food was terrible. I felt like this tree a couple of hours later. Nuff' said.

Next weekend I'll be heading south to the Huachucas with a birder friend from Indiana, if all goes as planned, and hopefully there'll be some diversity on this blog again. Here's to November!