Monday, April 14, 2014

Perseverance at the PM Preserve

Birders the continent over are now reaching for their 'nocs and cameras with increasing regularity and even the chummiest of city parks teem with excitement again as the spring migrations get underway. In the central part of AZ, migration isn't quite as big a deal. Spring always brings a welcome change, for sure, but in many ways the winter birding down here is preferable for total species, especially since the breeding Orioles and Buntings don't arrive until later. Compared to the scenes in the central, east, or northwestern parts of the country, the few Warblers and Flycatchers that push through are a welcome addition to the scene, but just in general the beginning of migration time doesn't have the same full spark in the Phoenix area is in much the rest of North America.  

So, apart from roaming the rocky hillsides looking for black-tailed jackrabbit, who are in turn looking for some shade in the rocky hillsides, what is a Phoenician birder to do? As always, Sparrows hold part of the answer. Those that left for winter are returning and staking out their territory, as are the residents, which makes for some excellent visual and auditory opportunities.
I have been able to lay many the crush on Black-throats in the last month, something that never ceases to stimulate, and even amid the infamous March doldrums these birds keep the spirit high.

Spending some time with one's state bird is also a goodly dose of birder medicine, recommended by 8 out of 10 doctors and even cautiously advocated by the FDA. If they pose nicely on a namesake perch, all the better.

But Cactus Wrens can perch and sing/grunt/gargle for a while, and for those birders with itchier feet, chasing around Black-tailed Gnatcatchers is another solid outlet. Unlike rattlesnakes and rattlesnails, they're not more afraid of you than you are of it.

All of these photos were taken during a several day trial in late March, one I've now undergone for two years in a row. Racing through Phoenix rush hour traffic, which is very reminiscent of the climactic chariot race in Ben Hur, and unloading at the Phoenix Mountain Preserve by 4pm, I've got about two and a half hours of daylight to hike out into the mountains and explore the various gulches and shady hollows where the mesquite and palo verde trees spread their bows. 
The task here is not just to see the usual desert dwellers, but to pursue one of Phoenix's better and harder-to-find migrants, a bird who's accessibility in central AZ is predominantly limited to the last week or so of March and the first week or two of April. They're shy and silent during this time of year, so obviously I'm not referencing Gambel's Quail.

No, but with great perseverance (several tries last year and several more this year), prodigious sweating, burr-laced socks, thorn-impaled shoes, quiet treading, keen eyes, a pre-St. Patrick's Day Irish dosage of luck, and maybe a few whistles to the treetop Phainopeplas, one can find a real treasure of a bird in the channels of the Phoenix Mountain Preserve. 

Last year I only had quick visuals and a blurry flight silhouette shot to show after four attempts in the treacherous but beautiful landscape. After that many busts and semi-busts, even the fantastic sights and sounds of Sonora are scant consolation.
This year it took two tries, and this year I had much improved results. Josh Wallestead, who has seen himself plenty of Owls up in Minnesota this year, joined me while in town and racking up his own nice list of Sonoran lifers. We scoured the PMP gullies for a few hours, and while heading back south towards the vehicles through one of the deeper washes we finally had our break, just after the sun crested below the hills and lent everything its hazy, yellow light.
Finally, at long last, I got to stare face-to-face with a regal Long-eared Owl. It was tops.

Of course, diminishing light and the Owl's shyness, along with my own apprehensions about approaching too close, didn't allow for the crisp crushes this finely plumaged raptor deserves, but the sighting alone was enough to fully validate a March otherwise largely devoid of awesome sauce migrants in Phoenix. Really, I depreciate Phoenix birding too much. It doesn't get much better than Long-eared Owl.