Thursday, April 17, 2014

A Rookie Mistake: Dial Plan B (For Birding)

Last weekend it was all planned out...kind sorta somewhat perhaps. It wasn't going to be a full-on epic bird day, but it was supposed to be pretty good. I was going to scour the Sierra Vista hillsides, chasing down leads on Montezuma Quail, and then spend a few hours in Ramsey and Huachuca Canyon. It was going to be crisp, efficient, and potentially a 3-Quail day. But I have a serious short coming as a birder (several, I am sure). Being from Phoenix, I grew up with a nasty, nasty habit. No no it's not smoking, which is of course scientifically proven to strengthen respiration as the tar helps oxygen stick to one's lungs. No it is because in Phoenix we have about 358 days of sunshine each year, so when we're making weekend plans, weekday plans...any kind of plans, there's never need to check the weather. 
Of course with birding, weather is key, and I totally dropped the ball on checking the Sierra Vista weather before heading out from under Phoenix's clear skies at 3:30am. 
It was heavily overcast, rainy in some places, and exceedingly windy. The first couple of hours in the area were almost devoid of bird activity, except for a few sympathetic Lark Sparrows, and so I sulked (snoozed) in the car instead of seeing glorious Quail, who were all wisely keeping their heads down.

By 10am or so the weather still hadn't cleared. I spent some time in Ramsey Canyon, trying to get away from the wind, where I was very pleased to find all three species of Goldfinch in the sycamores around the AZ Folklore compound. Apart from the finches and some FOY Scott's Orioles it was pretty dead.
By 11am the sun had risen high enough that it occasionally broke through the heavy cloud cover, though the terminally heavy wind kept most of the birds down low.

Rufous-crowned Sparrows were good sports about it all, still vocalizing when they had the chance and giving some life to the Sierra Vista grasslands. I would prefer Five-striped, naturally, but to each their proper time and place.

A pair of Pyrrhuloxias in Ramsey canyon also made for a nice sighting. This is a bird I don't see or photograph nearly enough, given their relative rarity in Maricopa County, and this is especially distressing as they're way more rad than Northern Cardinals.

Although there were a few nice sightings, for all the driving and time killed it was a pretty disastrous start to the morning. I decided to head farther north back toward the Tucson area to pursue some birds where the elements were more cooperative. I learned a lesson, learned it well and good. The question was if Plan B could redeem something of my Saturday. 

The next site was Christopher Columbus Park, a pre-fabricated suburban watering hole with uncomfortably blue-colored water that, nonetheless, has highly visible Wood Ducks.
It doesn't even have great habitat for them, but whatever the reason a Wood Duck drake has been here all winter, and this was a species I had not been able to photograph up close, having formerly flushed them at Tres Rios or seen them at a distance in Prescott. It's not a rare Quail, but it's a gorgeous thing.

Wood Ducks weren't the only offerings at the park. Though not as cool as the Thick-billed Kingbirds for which I'll be traveling through Patagonia in a month, or even the taller, darker, handsomer Cassin's, I also had some really nice sightings of Western Kingbird around the park's grassland. They're common and conspicuous, and also pretty cool. But usually they're up on the telephone wires and what not, and although their bellies are a lovely yellow, it doesn't make for great repeated viewing. Seeing them at eye level was tops.

By 1pm or so, the sun was out over Tucson, which is a bit over an hour northwest of Sierra Vista, enough so that birds were taking shelter from its midday wrath. It was too late to head southeast again, where the weather was likely still inclement anyway, but the few birds at Christopher Columbus offered some great sightings as a consolation.

In addition to the earlier mentioned Wood Duck sightings/dynamics, I've also seen them, distantly in Pennsylvania, but this unwholesome pond in Tucson, by far, offered the best looks I've had in the last few years, and hey even a nifty Wood Duck vs. Mallard size comparison (the Mallard looks like a giant). 

Chasing the waterfowl at city parks almost feels like cheating. That's not to detract from the tick or the photos or any of that. In a sense, these ducks are still more wild/less baited than the feeder-fed Hummingbirds in Madera or Miller Canyon, or at the Paton House, but it just feels very removed from nature, from the proper context of when and where one should be seeing these cool species.
That being said, the when and where for Wood Ducks in Arizona isn't exactly easy access, so I can't complain. I can only berate myself, and check the weather.