Thursday, August 28, 2014

A Diamond (or some other Jewel) in the Rough

Late August is, at best, an interesting time to go birding in Arizona. In many ways, it is not ideal. Most of the summer breeders have concluded their business. Some have already left, and the majority of the remainder are coy and clandestine in their behavior. The allure of large-scale shorebird movement in a few weeks further contributes to the end of August seeming rather plain by regular birding standards. 
As is often the case, good birding is a question of knowing where to look, and then looking there for long enough (and also being a bit lucky). While most of Arizona's breeders have concluded by now there are a few species that are just gearing up, perfecting their beach bodies, their vocalizations, and their most enticing pheromones.
Magill Weber, an under-40 female ABA birding phenom with 730+ species, joined Butler's Birds for a foray into the Santa Rita grasslands to collect some nocturnal Year Birds and observe these better-late-than-never breeders in their brushy habitat, at their brushy best.  

Before the sun was up, driving Whitehouse Canyon and Proctor Road yielded Common Poorwill and Mexican Whip, as well as Elf Owls, though the Whiskered Screech near Kubo Lodge had vacated the premises. But the nocturne critters were only the appetizer. We had come to feast on passerines, little, loud, dull passerines.
Cassin's and Botteri's Sparrows both breed comparatively late in the year, waiting for the post-monsoon vegetative boom to start their mating songs. Once they start, these otherwise inconspicuous birds don't stop. We heard both at 5am, before sun up, and heard them all on the way out of the canyon again at high noon. Both birds score pretty solid points for their vocalizations, Cassin's all the more so for its flight displays. But my goodness is this Botteri's a crappy looking sparrow or what?

Truly, this bird was hit on the head--repeatedly--with the ugly stick. But hey they've found their niche and they fill it very well...or at least they will until the grasslands in the Santa Rita foothills are claimed by the ravenous mesquite. Despite my denigrations, these birds are still Sparrows and thus we must love them. It was a pleasure to see and hear so many, even if they were kinda turdy for photos.
Grassland birding is always a pleasure despite the species diversity being pretty low. This is largely because it's done half from the car, and because some of the other birds rubbing shoulders with the drab Sparrows are really, really ridiculously good looking, even if they avoid the camera more than Zoolander. How many Blue Grosbeaks do you see modeling?


After our early morning success with the sparrows, we returned to the famous Proctor Road turn off from the mouth of Madera Canyon. We had heard some of our Nightjars here earlier in the morning, but now were looking for Varied Buntings in the bosque and whatever else might be recuperating along the creek. The Buntings were not home but an interesting hummingbird added some intrigue to the little expedition.
The bird was entirely dark green on the breast and belly, which combined with the long bill to suggest Broad-billed was present. There was also some buffy, rufous tones on the tail primaries when this bird briefly hovered, which were also outlined in white. The tail characteristics combined with the gorget size and shape--which did not continue onto the forehead--to suggest Broad-tailed as the other piece of this puzzle. So, in the interest of science and labeling things, here is a possible Broad-Broad Hummingbird, also known as the General Hummingbird and the Side-to-Side Semi-Selasphorus.
Further input on this apparent hybrid's ID is appreciated. We named it Prius.

After trailing up and down Whitehouse Canyon Road and pretty much maximizing the Maderan lowlands, we decided next to head down along the dusty road towards Florida Canyon. We were not intending to gain altitude here nor to scrounge and scour for the resident Rufous-capped Warblers, but again were targeting the liminal grasslands and mesquite bosque, this time for a pair of Black-capped Gnatcatchers and Rufous-winged Sparrows.
The Gnatcatchers eluded us--no surprise at midday--but Rufous-winged sparrows, as always in this area, showed and sang very nicely. I was on the wrong side of the car/sun/bird/hemisphere to capture the birds this time around, so this shot is borrowed from an older post.

Magill called it early in the morning, and her premonitions were correct: Rufous-wings and Varied Buntings go wing-in-wing, err... hand in hand...really it's more like shrub-in-shrub. We had a few sightings of the VABUs throughout the morning but nothing great, nothing that did this plum pudding of a bird justice. There are not enough green birds in north america and there are also not enough purple birds in North America. Thank you, VABU, for bringing some royal colors to the continent (Purple Sandpiper and Purple Martin do their best).
This face-melting male was first perched high in a mesquite, quite near the road. When we came to a stop he ducked down lower into the tree, but in doing so actually offered better looks. For a moment he seemed crouched and poised for take off, ready to disappear into the drab, thorny wilderness and take his eximious colors with him.  

It's like a tye-dye Bobolink

Painted Bunting gets a lot of praise for its color palette, and with full justification. The boldness and the strength of its color-combo really is unrivaled in North America. And I'm not one to push against the conventional wisdom, not too much in birding, anyway, but man, a spiffy VABU can give the PABUs a run for their money. It still comes in second, I suppose, but there's an allure here in how the VABU tries to get every cents-worth from its single purple color spectrum, while the PABU just shamelessly raids several.
At any rate, there really isn't a species of bunting in North America that won't require maxillofacial surgery if gazed upon for more than ten seconds continuously. This post was written from a hospital recovery room. Scroll through the next few images quickly, or join me at St. Joe's.

After spending much of the morning chasing little drab birds through the thorny scrub and abrasive, chigger-infested grass, getting a full frontal flash of VABU was a cathartic experience. Not only did the bird show well, but it gave a little concert of its varied vocal talents too after getting comfortable with the audience. These birds do not have rainfall-contingent breeding like the Sparrows, so it was surprising to see this bird singing out its territory a good 3 or 4 weeks after the normal breeding timeframe. Life may never be the same. To anyone in Arizona or Texas trying to escape the late summer doldrums, I highly recommend a heavy dose of this bird.
Only in birding is bunting really knocking it out of the park. YeAh I sAiD It!