Sunday, October 12, 2014

Pesky Sparrows and Cold Blooded Lovin'

Fall migration is stil underway in our hearts and minds, but in terms of producing some rare birds in the Phoenix area, it came and went without much adieu (it usually does). But we're well into October now which means waterfowl numbers are starting to swell and, even better, winter sparrows are returning. It has been a long time, too long of a time, since I've properly crushed some good birds. One could go to a park and crush Green Herons or Ducks easily enough, but Butler's Birds decided to do it the harder way and met up with Gordon Karre, Caleb Strand, and Tommy DeBardeleben for some sparrowing. 
Tommy had recently scouted a great location for the recently split Bell's Sparrow and came away with some great photos of this tricky-ID bird. Both Bell's and Sagebrush Sparrows are possible at the well-known Thrasher Spot in Buckeye, AZ, but the Bell's are much rarer there, preferring the thicker saltbrush habitat around Robbin's Butte where they invert the population disparity and finally outnumber the Sagebrush. 
And so, like the super studly guys were are, we set out into the saltbrush in the early morning to track down some of these early arrival, early departure sparrows. 

We had some great, diagnostic looks at a half-dozen Bell's Sparrows, one or two Sagebrush, and maybe nine or ten more that we did not see diagnostically. Alas, both of these species are very skittish on their wintering grounds and I came away with no photos whatsoever. The numbers were pretty good though and I definitely recommend Robbin's Butte for anyone chasing Bell's in central AZ.

The birding has been pretty glum lately but the herping has been excellent with our recent, heavy monsoons. This continued at Robbin's Butte, where the non-bird highlight of the day (and one of the overall highlights, for me) was a pair of Western Diamondback Rattlesnakes.

I found the couple under a tree while I was attending some nature business and they were attending the devil's business. The other snake's head is hidden in the photos, though whether from shame or circumstantial positioning is unclear. The back halves of the snakes were tightly wrapped together and moving in an undulating motion while the front halves were free to move about as they pleased. There wasn't a lot of eye contact or smooching. The whole thing was somewhat unromantic.

...or maybe not. We'll see what kind of internet traffic this post brings.

On our way back to the vehicle Caleb also found a medium sized gopher snake shading itself from sun and Red-tail Hawks. Unlike with the mating rattlesnakes, this was a hands-on opportunity. 

In the ancient greek myths, Meliampus became very wise because he helped some young snakes once and in gratitude they licked his ears so clean that he could hear/understand animals. This snake was less grateful, and we didn't even ask the rattlers, but what wisdom might the humble gopher snake be able to impart? Living life horizontally must give one all manner of different perspectives compared to us uptight uprights.

After Robbin's Butte we swung by the Arlington Widlife area, scanning for shore-bird friendly flooded fields and any migrants of interest. Again, be forewarned that I'm in a photo-slump here, but the birding at Arlington is always pretty good. The combination of tamarisk groves, cottonwoods, marsh areas, and agr. fields maintain a variety of wildlife, and our two highlights were a Lewis's Woodpecker and Common Black Hawk, both rare for this date and location.
Cassin's Kingbirds outnumbered the Westerns, and all of these guys are technically dawdling; they should've moved on a couple of weeks ago.

Birding agricultural expanses is always nice because it's predominantly done from the comfort of the car and there's a better chance of getting closer to the birds. This wasn't exactly the case on Saturday, but we did have some of the typical roadside highlights to round out a day with near 50 species.

Winter birding will bring its own intrigues, and I'm already looking forward to chilly trips into the San Rafael grasslands for Baird's Sparrow and Short-eared Owl, or up to Mormon Lake for Grosbills and Grosbeaks. In the mean time, it's a matter of damage control, birding when and where one can make the most of this interim. And in that mean time, watch your step!