Sunday, February 2, 2014

A Proper Day's Birding: Rarities, Regulars, and Revitalization

Thus far my birding in 2014 had been a few crammed chases around Maricopa after some migrants and winter visitors, resulting in tight scheduled, hurried looks, and less than satisfactory birding. That is not to say the Golden-crowned sparrow or Eurasian Wigeons northwest of Phoenix, nor the Fox Sparrows in Rackensack Canyon were a let down themselves, but I did not have time really to enjoy the birding itself, being to busy rushing around, mind always on the next target. I could not soak in the scenery or the background birds and really enjoy the time. This weekend I had one more Maricopa chase to make--into the South Mountain Preserve to settle a long-stanging grudge with Gray Vireos--but after that detour I decided I'd take in some easy, slow-paced birding and get the feel, the fulfillment back, by taking the time for all of the sights, sounds, and photos as they come. Chasing is for cheetahs, and cheetahs are terrible birders.

But that all being said, I had to settle the score with the Gray Vireo first. This Arizona resident should've been checked of the list long ago. Every year I told myself I'd pick it up eventually on Mt. Ord, and every year the Gray Vireos remained elusive. I even ventured into the Estrella Mountains a couple of times to look for wintering GRVIs around their favorite bursera bushes, but to no avail. When a Gray Vireo was found and photographed by Arizona's 2013 #1 Tommy DeBardeleben on the Telegraph Trail on South Mountain, I knew the time had come. 
The early morning chill and the mountain's sloping canyons made for an eery start to the day, heightened all the more by an occasional Screech Owl calling out from its hidden perch. I made quick time down the Telegraph Trail, beelining to the spot where Tommy reported the bird, and not long after daybreak had the Vireo call note harkening me in, and a dull little gray bird flitting away from its bursera and down the wash. In fifteen minutes I could not relocate the little bugger, and once again the, ''see it later on Mt. Ord excuse'' crept to mind.' 
Call me lazy, call me a quitter, call tired of having my heart broken by Gray Vireos. I decided not to give that bird a minute more of my time, with the initial sighting proving enough for list and conscience, and headed back to my car so I could speed recklessly to the east side of town. My only memento from this first chase was a dark scene shot of the South Mountain terrain. See you on Mt. Ord, Gray Vireos...

I was really craving an easy birding outing, and not easy in the sense that I wanted to find a target bird with minimal effort, but in the sense that I'd constantly have birds in my vision, even if I'd seen them all before and often. I didn't want to feel rushed after a certain bird in a certain place, and to be there only for that species, nor to be driving or walking back and forth without any birds amid my one coveted target. So, I headed to the nice, flat, and eminently birdy Riparian Preserve in Gilbert to see what the day provided, with expectation left on the chilly trails of South Mountain.
With its combination desert bosque and riparian habitat, this well-known site had exactly what I was needing, an easy walkabout with plenty of birds to see and photograph, to remind me of the full enjoyment and satisfaction I take from this hobby, to stop trying to anticipate the next stop or species, and how to get to it as efficaciously as possible.

White-crowned Sparrows, both immature and adult, where certainly the most numerous bird at the Ranch. Given the high numbers in which they concentrate in Phoenix in the winter, I can only wonder and imagine what their breeding grounds in Canada must resemble. It fills one with fear.

The other most predictable Sparrow, and the one most usually ignored, was the Abert's Towhee. Indeed, this fellow is shy and dull, even extremely so. Their call is grating and their behavior vacillates between understandably skittish and rudely inhospitable. And yet, I have to give some love to the Abert's Towhee, as it's about as close to a central Arizona endemic as it gets. 

It may be a shy, boring, dull ball of brownish fluff, but its our shy, boring, brownish ball of fluff.

The ABTO's much handsomer cousin, the Spotted Towhee, was a nice and singular find in the cottonwood leaves, all the more so because it actually and somewhat amazingly held still for a couple of photos. Usually they're even more flighty than the Abert's.

Spotted Towhees are on the eBird hotspot lists throughout Phoenix, but I seldom seen them below one or two thousand feet, so finding them in the valley is a treat, and makes me feel, a bit, like I've found an uncommon bird (whereas, once you get into some juniper scrub above one thousand feet, they're incredibly loud and conspicuous). Ok ok so trying to claim a Spotted Towhee as an uncommon sighting is pretty lame, but I've been out of the field and, much like this Towhee's sides, am very rusty. I've got to work my way up to real rarities again.

The main draw of the Giblert Water Ranch is not its multiplicity of Sparrows--though that attends more towards my birding proclivities--but messes like the two below:

Yes, so they're junky photos of bird butts, but the point is there are many bird butts, and bird butts belonging to many different species. Call it a conglomeration, a gallimaufry, a bricolage or even an angry mob. The marshlands here draw in big loud piles of birds that need much sorting, potentially turning up all the Arizona residents, plenty of migrants, a rarity or two, and some nice photo opportunities for even the most casual of nature observers. 
Much like a Great Blue Heron striding through the shallows, birding here and buffing up a day list is a cake walk, with plenty of icing.


This Night heron looks timid and embarrassed not only because he's a Night Heron and that's his job, but because he just struck at a minnow moments before and he missed badly. He missed badly and he knows it. He missed badly and he knows I know it. And he knows I know he knows it. 

The Gilbert shores had their intrigue with the normal waders and some late Dunlin, as well as the wintering peeps. Farther out in the retention ponds the winterfowl did their thing. American Coots grunted and chortled without any apparent reason, only to explode in violence upon each other with little forewarning. Green-winged Teal were numerous and distant, keeping a status quo on my overall unsatisfied attempts at photographing the Teal family.

Northern Shovelers dozed off mid sentence or stared at their belly-buttons, both of which behaviors account for them being favorite prey of Peregrines and Harriers. 

This Avocet closed its eyes and tried to concentrate on turning its head a more attractive shade of red.

The ever-active Black-necked Stilts tip-toed around the shallows, pecking and poking at only God knows what for their brunch. 
As the photos show, in Arizona, even our pond plants are thorny, and they grow right out of the water.

Here's a typical scene from the Water Ranch, one that is simple and calming for the anxious, often deprived birder such as myself. A myriad of expected species, easily visible and floating about their daily lives, much like the rest of us. There's also a more hidden, reclusive bird in this image. A sniper could find it, can you?  

Her camouflage and stillness not withstanding, if I had been hungry and/or a raptor this Wilson's Snipe would be dead, cut down in the prime of life (which, for an anxious, beady bird like the Snipe, is basically a plateau from hatching to natural death, all of which may occur in exactly the same spot).

Ok, so they're not that paralyzed by fear. This winter visitor is a welcome and enjoyable exercise in extreme scanning scrutiny, and I for one appreciate them leaving their hiding places way up north and coming down to their hiding places way down south.

Surrounding the ever-popular water features, another excellent aspect of the Ranch and the next segment of this post, could be titled, "Expected Desert Birds Perched on Spiky Things." See here, how this pugnacious Anna's hummingbird perches atop a screwbean mesquite, one of the Sonoran Desert's cooler spiky things.

See here, this wide-eyed Curve-billed Thrasher perched amid its own spiky mesquite thing, looking as if, like so many of us outdoorsy desert dwellers, he may have sat down in just the wrong place.

See here how this Song Sparrow, normally a content dweller of the soft, squishy marshlands, must acclimate itself to perching and singing from a spiky thing as well. It looks uncomfortable.

Of course, the more spikes the better, as far as most of the birds are concerned. Verdins are particular enthusiasts both of spiky trees and life in general. Not only do they nest in the spring to foster young, they also build winter nests--sometimes multiple--simply as auxiliary shelters when it gets overly brisk at night. If modern science could find a way to take the metabolism and motivation of a verdin and put it into some sort of biofuel bacteria, I do believe the alternative gasoline issue would be solved by April.

The Verdin isn't just hospitable in the sense that it likes to build homes and thus always has a spare bedroom available, you know, if you need a place to crash. It's the only thing close to a resident Warbler Arizona has (and it's not a warbler at all, but a Tit) and they're mostly impervious to people, so they make even the most impatient and despairing photographers, such as myself, keep hope. 
Verdins...ya gotta love 'em.

In the category of actual Warblers, the Yellow-rumps were out in large numbers, fly-catching in the cottonwoods and foraging in the mesquites. Most of them will leave Phoenix before they become gorgeous, but I won't knock their aesthetic too much--Arizona's chamber of commerce needs all the winter tourists it can get, or so we're told.

Overall, Arizona is a bit deprived in the Warbler department, at least compared (by number) to most other states, but we have several pretty consistent vagrants, including American Redstarts and Northern Parulas. It has also been a autumn/winter for Black-and-white Warblers. This was the second one I've seen in the last four months, and the sixth or seventh reported fairly recently in Maricopa County. 

I've never seen any of the three western Nuthatches nor Brown Creepers at the Water Ranch, so now, somewhat oddly, this Black-and-white Warbler is the closest thing to that department I've registered.
It certainly was the highlight of the day, even over the late lifer Gray Vireo. I later learned when checking the listserv and blogosphere that it's been foraging between ponds 1 and 7 at the preserve for a little while now, and may stay through winter.

There are not a lot of places where one might see Black-and-white Warblers, Abert's Towhees, Curve-billed Trashers, and Brewer's Sparrows all foraging around the same tree. The Gilbert Water Ranch is a solid spot, maybe not hugely outstanding in one way, but solid. Any birders who happen to live nearby are very lucky to have it as their local patch.

This weekend's birding was totally rejuvenating and encouraging. I shook off the unpleasant feeling that growing my lists and photo portfolio, or even getting material for posts, had become a chore. I was able to soak in and savor the sights, sounds, and scenery that a good, healthy birding outing should provide. I made one more stop in the day at Encanto Park to see an old feathered friend before getting some Thai lunch (without which no good weekend is complete), but that (the last birding stop),  is a post for another time.