Monday, March 24, 2014

Superior Birding: Oak Flats

What's that they say, without ups and downs in life, you're dead? Well, sometimes FLat or Flats is good, especially if the Flats are covered in oak scrub. 
Superior, AZ, located about an hour east of Phoenix on the Hwy 60, is well known for its gorgeous, oaken canyons and the Boyce Thompson Arboretum, the site of many an exciting avian and botanical find. A little farther east the mountains are broken down into boulder and oak-strewn foothills where campers, off-road vehicle enthusiasts, and naturalists can all find plenty to do, if not necessarily all at the same time...

In many ways this habitat is similar to that recently visited near Prescott and also leading up to Mt. Ord in east Maricopa. As far as AZ habitats go, it's a favorite of mine for several reasons. It's relatively lush (not as hot/desiccated as Sonoran Desert stuff), it's cooler in temperature, and the scrub oak and manzanita, which make up the bulk of the vegetation, don't get to be very tall, so this allows for much better looks at and photos of birds that might otherwise be high canopy dwellers.
Case in point, I was unable to get a good photo of this skittish Scrub Jay not because it was high in a ponderosa or something, but because it was just too wise to let me get near. Oak Flats...err hem...levels the playing field.

Jays are a funny bird. Generally speaking they're pretty wary of people and always have sentries on the look out, but in certain areas where they're used to us hominids they're incredibly resourceful and comfortable (the head-perching Florida Scrub Jays coming quickly to mind).
Ash-throated Flycatchers, on the other hand, are loud, lovely, conspicuous, and usually pretty accomodating. They're common, but I like these birds quite a bit, and miss them during the winter.

My target bird for the Oak Flats, one seen and photographed very well only a couple of weeks before by Gordon "Wizard Staff" Karre. This little butt of a bird has been a photo-nemesis for me for some time now. It's still early in the year and their numbers will grow in these areas, but there will also be bigger game to chase in later April and May, so taking care of business here in relatively slower March would have been most efficacious to efficient birding. It's tougher to make the early morning call to spend one's Saturday chasing GRVIs in May, when they're easier, when there's better all-round birding to be had elsewhere.
It's not glamorous, but going Gray Vireo hunting does have a positive externality in that they inhabit the same scrubby stuff as many the beloved emberizid, so the backdrop to this search would be continued sparrow-crushing., black-and-blue after such crushing...These birds have a great call too, one that rings through the scrubby hillsides this time of year.

The scrub oak habitat is not just a favorite of mine and the Black-chins; it's also populated with many other vocal species. Early morning in March is a truly symphonic time, or maybe cacophonous...anyway it's great practice for audio birding, a serious weakness of my birding repertoire.

Bewick's Wrens are among the loudest and most persistent chatterbugs. They also have a myriad of calls, both those immediately recognizable to the species and all kinds of other half-assed chips and chirps and even some imitations of other birds. They're terrible gossips. 

Townsend's Soliatire's, by contrast, are not very vocal, but are not above messianic posing atop their perches. Townsend's Redeemer wouldn't be a bad sobriquet for this fellow. Another couple of weeks and the Solitaire's will be clearing out of the oak/juniper scrub and heading back to higher elevations.


Naturally, scraggily perches and their panoramic vantage points attract more than Solitaires and ASFLs. Vermilion Flycatchers (in this case, female) and the tragically bland (when perched near VEFLs) Say's Phoebe's meticulously watch from the surrounding scraggily stuff.

Male Vermilions are staking out territory now and pairing up. I was able to witness and snap a couple blurry shots of this guy's distended belly territorial/impress-the-ladies display. It was pretty good.

After a couple hours' searching and listening, and even helping some campers find their lost kid, the birding gods still withheld the Gray Vireo photo op from me. As the sun rose higher in the sky while simultaneously chased by ever-encroaching clouds, I had the option of continuing the thus far fruitless pursuit or pushing out into other habitat that would hold new birds for the day but no GRVIs. 

The enchanting calls of Black-throated Sparrows and their face-melting handsomeness, as always, was far too much for me to resist. Have I gushed enough about how good-looking this bird is in recent weeks? It's the Derek Zoolander of Sparrows.
Old Legend has it that one of the Medici Popes commissioned Michelangelo to try and paint this bird and he refused, saying he could not complete the task satisfactorily and it would be sacrilege even to try (lucky we have cameras now and mustn't resort to impression).

I want to consume them...take their gorgeousness into me. Don't pretend like you other weirdos out there haven't thought this way too about handsome birds, people, etc...

You know that feeling you get about two and a half hours into a chase when your morale drops to thinking that your sighting just isn't gonna happen? We've all hit that nadir, when things start to get more quiet, when birds aren't calling much any more. 
It's that time when one has to bring in the contingency plan, which in this case was another little gray bird, one I'd seen only a few weeks before but also never photographed. 

Of course, I didn't see or hear any Juniper Titmice when patrolling the juniper bushes for Vireos and Solitaires. No no, I found the shy little bugger in an oak tree. See, Plain Titmouse, this is why people just don't know what to do with you! If you're named for a tree, you better stick to that tree, and not the one your otherwise identical cousin is named for!
Without knowledge of where this bird was seen, could it be anything other than Oak Titmouse? Life is confusing, and full of disappointment, and exaggeration, and lists, and run-on sentences.

The Titmouse was happily inhabiting the understory of the oak tree while other little gray birds chittered up top. Bushtits are another new species to grace the pages of Butler's Birds, a common enough sight and sound once you gain a couple thousands feet, but not so commonly photogenic. 

Oak Flats is popular not just for its oaks but for its flats, making it a great camping and go-karting spot. A bit further away from this heavily foot-printed site the landscape gets very bizarre and equally cool.  The heavily weathered rock piles look almost otherworldly, an aesthetic enhanced by the near-silence broken only by one's echoing footsteps. 

A bit southwest from the Oak Flats site is a little pond--I'll call it Magma Shaft Pond, after the nearby road. The water feature was itself unimpressive though a pleasant discovery, but it allowed me to add Redhead, Ring-necked Duck, American Coot, and Wilson's Snipe to my Pinal County list.

The Gray Vireo still needs crushing, but Oak Flats is a fabulous spot, one of my favorites within an hour or so of Phoenix, and it's definitely one I'd recommend to anyone in the area, especially if looking for scrub species. Combining a trip back here in a month for GRVIs and then spending time at the Boyce Thompson would be the way to go. Stay tuned!