Sunday, April 20, 2014

Gray Day Heyday

For the second weekend in a row we had lousy weather around Phoenix, though lousy only in how it related to birding. Under any other circumstances I'd welcome the heavy clouds and cool ocean breeze, but Saturday needed to be the day of Vireo hunting, the day I turned previously fleeting sightings of the infamous Gray Vireo into well-documented put-to-bed peace-of-mind no-doubt-about-it tucked-in-with-a-warm-glass-of-milk-(gross) sightings. Despite the weather gods' caprice I headed out to Bushnell Tanks on the Hwy 87 for another date with destiny, another chance to get lucky. This time destiny was going to pay, and to hell with "complimentary" valet parking!

With the cool temperatures and saturated colors the Bushnell site was absolutely gorgeous. It offers some fine riparian habitat, replete with porous old sycamores and cottonwillows. On either side, the rocky hills of the lower Mazatzal Mountains ambled off into the horizon. The juniper scrub dotting their granitic flanks, just now starting to fruit, is perfect for Gray Vireos, and offers fine birding in general.

While walking through the riparian area and heading for the juniper trails, I recorded FOY Hooded Oriole, Olive-sided Flycatcher, Lazuli Bunting, Summer Tanager, and several species of Warbler, as well as Ash-throated Flycatchers and Black-throated Sparrows in the liminal chaparral. Bell's Vireos, as expected, were totally out of control while still being predominantly invisible. A large flock of Lark Sparrows, containing around 30 birds altogether, was an awesome sight as well.

Since the clouds diminished the sun's effects (apart from its propensity to quickly burn my pasty Irish skin), the morning chorus and activity seemed to last much longer than usual. Birds were vocalizing from every bush and canopy, lizards were scuttling around doing lizard things, and bees were going face-deep into the blooming thistle. 'Twas a great morning to be out in the nature.

After enjoying some Cardinals and a Black-headed Grosbeak in the riparian wash, I finally made the commitment to the higher juniper slopes. As expected, the bird sights and sounds diminished. Blue-gray and Black-tailed Gnatcatchers added some beeps, whirrs, and whistles every once and again. Turkey Vultures soaring overhead required constant scanning to pick out the Zone-tailed Hawks I'd heard screeching earlier in the sycamores. At last, I heard the few call notes I'd been waiting for and filled the great soul-sucking void in my life.

I gained some elevation until coming to a stretch of trail, about 1/3 mile up from the divergent riparian wash, which featured several large fruiting junipers and plenty of intermittent scrub in between. First I had one, and then another Gray Vireo singing out its territory from atop their redolent perches.

"Heeey you got me!"
This photo gives a good idea of the Bushnell Tanks habitat. The riparian isn't as extensive as that on the other side of the highway at Sunflower, where the Black Hawks nest, but Bushnell mingles the riparian with the desert scrub stuff nicely, and between those two habitats there are quite a few birds to see.

I continued to follow the Gray Vireo calls on the southeast side of the Bushnell trail for a little while, getting solid looks and great audio of the birds, if not really satisfying photographs. High up on the hills, Black-chinned and Rufous-crowned Sparrows added their voices to the choir, and a low-flying Zone-tailed Hawk put a face to the raucous calling I had heard from the sycamores below.

With a bit of pishing I turned up a third bird, one I new to be separate because the other two were bickering in the same juniper nearby. At long last I had put this semi-nemesis, a seminem, to rest.

Gray Vireo was a bird I neglected for far too long, given that I lived in Phoenix. I only recorded it on my life list last year, noting the call and a quick, flushed glimpse of a bird spending the winter on telegraph trail on South Mountain. The sighting was in no way satisfactory but I had a very tight schedule to keep that day. It continued to bug me. I figured I'd see more around Mt. Ord, and then even went to some juniper scrub sites, such as Oak Flats, where I knew they would be, always coming away with great sightings but now Gray sightings. Now that I wanted this scrub-dweller specifically, I turned up everything else instead, for many weeks in a row.
Finally their increasing sprin-timg numbers pushed the odds enough in my greenhorn favor and I managed to chase this bugger down, getting the soul-satisfying views, some decent shots, and making peace with round-beaked little dope.