Thursday, December 31, 2015

Fire Up the...Binoculars

It has been a long time. It has been a too long time while. It has been a grossly too long probably shouldn't even talk about it time. Oddly enough, this website has become much more popular on the FB since I stopped writing and making posts, but I refuse to let that causality have its say. In a few day's Butler's Birds will be blogging from the chilly climes of Minnesota in conjunction with The Iowa Voice for another intensive and hopefully bird-filled expedition. It will not be as birdy as when these two bastions of --insert hyperbolic aggrandizement here--toured the LGRV of Texas, especially since now most of the fat-cat government contracts for such vacations have dried up (thanks Obama), but at least one of us will probably die or get frosty enough to bite off our fingers, so it should make for some good material.

Of course, going into that level of birding cold, in the cold, would be columbid-level foolish, and after so long off the wagon I, like any self-respecting pendulum, needed to get back int he swing of things. Earlier this December I met up with a couple, Harris and Fran, from Pennsylvania, for a half day of Maricopa birding. 
This winter has been a good one for rarities and vagrants in Maricopa, but of course folks coming from outside of Arizona will often have less interest in the vagrants than the Sonoran regulars. So those of you familiar with the area know where we went first.

After the Thrasher spot we cruised through the Arlington area looking for rusty raptors and whatever else was on display. The Lower River Road Ponds were recently hosting some impressive Swans. In early December there were different, almost-as-large white birds rafting about. 

Since we were birding with a photography-first priority, this negated a few spots that would have been good for overall species and sightings but lacking in photo-ops. We had decent luck at Tres Rios, considering the time of year. Sora is not a bird I am expecting to see in MN in a few days' time.

As I admitted earlier and publicly, my diligence and discipline in birding around central AZ has waned, or rather been de-prioritized this fall and winter. However, the excitement for birding MN in the winter, for the new birds and experiences that will come now is palpable--you could palpate the excitement, if you were so inclined and had permission.
Same time next week, with a bit of luck, this roadside Owl will be a Great Gray.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Dial 'M' for Mis-Identify

This was on facebook today:

___________ens to Carolina Birders
1 hr
___________ saw this bird at Kill Devil Hills. I thought Black-crowned Night-Heron but the colors aren't right. Help on ID?
Like   Comment   

It's true...the colors aren't right.
Life is a never-ending learning process!

Sunday, October 18, 2015

A Pulse, Just Enough to Keep On Beating

As you 1.4 regular readers have noticed over the past month or so, Butler's Birds has hardly been active. This is always a fallow time of year for B's Bs. The birds tend to look crappy, there's not a lot of interesting chases, work gets heavy, and most detrimental of all, it's soccer season again. The weekend warring for birds takes a big hit September through November, and I wish I could say that this will change soon but in all likelihood things will be pretty sparse until December, sparse like the new primaries on this 1st year Townsend's Solitaire.

I was able to get out and hiking with other folks recently, visiting a torrentially deluged Grand Canyon, the bowels of an extinct volcano, and some of Sedona's geological attractions.

It might be impolite to stare at such exposure, but it's not too often one can gaze at a volcanic sphincter with such a nice balance of preservation and availability.

Although I'm sure that my lack of activity has seen my rankings plummet on the GBRS--and rightly so--from the general rank of "enthusiast" all the way down to mere "hobbyist," I am of course keeping an eye out for birds on these geological trips. Alas, birds in juniper scrub in October are few and far between, and tend to be of about 5 common species. Even so, I like Townsend's Solitaire's. I like them a lot, but couldn't tell you why. Flycatchers are super cool.

So this is a check-in to say that Butler's Birds is not extinct, like the earlier pictured volcano, but rather is in a mostly dormant state. I hope to be posting again with quality and regularity (the two are so hard to come by simultaneously). But if it seems like B's Bs has fallen off the face of the earth, this terse post a bit of an explanation and apology as to why.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

What's that Scraping Sound?

Ahh yes, it is the sound coming from the bottom of the barrel, resultant of my concurrent actions upon it. This sound can also be heard when one is accessing the 'old sock drawer' and various other derelict depositories or euphemisms indicative of a paucity of thematic material. 
You see, I didn't come up with much good stuff from this weekend's birding. I was hoping for some up-close shore-birding in Gilbert, but the conditions for shorebirds were very poor and it's still too early for much waterfowl presence, so the overall birding numbers and photo-ops were disappointing. Anyway, here's a very light and slightly ruddy Collared-Dove, African sp. escapee or descendant maybe?

The best place for shore-birding in central Arizona is probably the Glendale Recharge ponds, but seldom do I come away from that unpleasant basin with decent photos. The Riparian Preserve in Gilbert does not have as much shorebird habitat, but whatever is there will be very accessible, and last year there were some nice Pectoral Sandpipers and Dunlin. Alas, there has been very little water in the Gilbert basins for a while. Most were completely dry and overgrown with grass; the other few had only the expected waders and peeps.

Woe and pity to the soul who finds an American Coot to be the most interesting species in an area. Teenage humans are some of the worst things ever, but teenage Coots are decent company, lacking in the sophomoric snark and painfully forced facial hair one finds in  transitional hominids.

In other news, I recently got a new flash attachment for the camera, seeing as I'm spending more time (or will be, hopefully) chasing birds at night or in very shady places. I readily admit to being novice with the use of such equipment, but it does make stationary Hummingbirds that are 4 feet away look mighty emeraldy. Any guesses on the species?

Costa's is correct, although it's a pretty weird stage right? Maybe even with some Anna's mixed in?

In my experiences Say's Phoebes really do not mind being crushed; they are just super chill birds. There is mutual appreciation; it is a nice bird. They should be crushed.

One always wonders, why doesn't one ever hear about psychics winning the lottery? Apparently psychic powers do not extend their ethereal tendrils into the realm of money, banking, and finance. They didn't see this one coming either. Best of luck, Jean.

Monday, September 7, 2015

Mt. Baldy Birding: Feelin' the Forest and the Fungi

Arizona is know, justly, for its desert landscapes. It has a lot of them, they are interesting, and they are relatively unique in North America. Arizona also has mountains. It has a lot of mountains, 210 ranges in fact, and some of the prettiest, tallest, and most ecologically inviting are the White Mountains in Apache County of northeastern Arizona. The fittingly titled Mt. Baldy is the tallest peak/mountain in the range, and it hosts a wilderness loop trail that ranges between 14 and 20 miles--depending on one's route--that cuts through several different biomes and offers plenty by way of scenery and wildlife. I had hiked and birded portions of this area in years previous, but on this holiday weekend crammed down our throats by fat-cat union gangsters (Labor Day) I endeavored to walk the whole loop (success!) and crush some birds in the process (semi-success). 

The Mt. Baldy west fork/east fork trails take one through healthy and not-so-healthy spruce, fir, and pine forests, as well as alpine meadow that hosts truly tremendous numbers of elk feeding before dawn. The landscape is also dotted with small lakes and reservoirs, most of which are fed by snowmelt and the Little Colorado River. As such, Ospreys do very well here.

Animals that live in these high and harsh temperate zones must be very tough and adaptive to survive. It is a fascinating place. It is a hard place. It is an odd place. It is a place where tiny populations of Spotted Sandpipers and Magnificent Hummingbirds come to breed, both above 9,000 feet. It is a place where one things...but things not best left unseen:

It is also a place where one sees many good things, like American Three-toed Woodpeckers exfoliating conifers with their slash-and-burn-style 'flaking' technique. Just look at the reddish, exposed portion of these trees vs. the grayer, older, weathered bark. This may be America's most industrial Woodpecker.

What is the evolutionary advantage of having three toes you ask? There is no definitive answer yet. Some say it allows better leverage for their style of feeding, at the expense of climbing speed. Some say the style of feeding came because of the lack of toe. In order to find out the advantage or disadvantage, we'll just have to ask them after the apocalypse. 

The West Fork trail is longer than the East Fork portion of the loop, but of the two was the site of more recent Dusky Grouse sightings and thus my trailhead. With this now being the 5th time I've unsuccessfully sought the bird in proper habitat in AZ, it's becoming a bit of a nemesis. It feels more of a nemesis because DUGR is also one of those secretive, sparse species that's also seen easily by people who aren't even trying.
Every time I've hiked in the White Mountains area I'll run into a non-birder, usually a plump lady with a purple sweater and a small white dog, excitedly sharing how she had "3 funny little turkey chicken birds with yellow eye feathers run up to me from the woods!" So that is frustrating, but there's plenty else to distract the mind on a Grouse-less hike, questions that are probably very answerable and yet, to my uninformed mind, provocative.
Why are there so many various and cool types of fungi? What are their competitive advantages? Why does that one look likes pecans? Why does that one look like Dip-n-Dots? It is the fungi of the future?

Why do trees grow so particularly in some places, seeming to form a huge, cascading flow of conifers and aspens and then--STOP--no more trees. Or there will be meadow and then a few trees just giving a big rude middle timber to the rule-following masses pressed up against the invisible boundary. It must be a cultural thing.

And in other areas the woods are severely skeletal, and not apparently from fire. This is below the timberline, where young fir trees are sprouting but all the spruce seem to be dying either from bark beetles or maybe even just a natural progression of their life cycles, being similarly aged.

The West Fork trail passes through all these habitats but, apart from the constant chatter of Mountain Chickadees and Golden-crowned Kinglets joined occasionally by other expected mix-flock members of their ilk, the trail-birding is pretty bland. As mentioned previously, the Grouse failed to materialize again and I was neither lucky nor skilled enough to find more breeding records of Pine Grosbeak. Since I was hiking with others and on a timeframe I was reticent to go much off trail or explore detour patches. Everything comes with a cost in this world it seems, though also plenty of reward.

After 8 miles of West Baldy we reached the gentile's false peak. The actual Baldy summit is off-limits to non-tribal members without permits. The East Baldy trail is actually a bit shorter and proved to have more interesting rock formations, as well as better birding on the day--so I'd recommend it the more highly of the two, although doing a loop hike whenever possible is man's God-given exhortation. 

There are three birds in the photo below, which composed 3/5 of two different family groups near the top of the West Fork Trail. I mention these uninteresting numbers only to point out that Townsend's Solitaire's are not nearly as solitary as their namesake might suggest, although I have experienced this to be the case, predominantly, with Solitary Sandpipers (none of which were seen atop Mt. Baldy).


Immature Townsend's Solitaire's one members of a very small group of birds that might actually look better, or at least more interesting, than their mature/adult counterparts. 8 out of 10 Solitaire's I saw were of the young scaly variety, which is probably expected in early September. TOSOs learned long ago that being too solitary is a bad strategy for passing on the genome.

The East Baldy trail was also the site of a well-executed ambuscade. With hope of extra-cool birds beginning to fade, I was very pleased to see the shining white cap of a Gray Jay later in the afternoon, another species only found in AZ in these mountains and that seemed to materialize out of the encroaching gray mass of clouds and thunder.

While distracted by this distant bird the attack came not from the front, but from the sides. The other Jays I didn't even know were there. They flew in and landed with total silence on owl-quiet wingbeats and without any vocalizations, something very unusual considering the day's lengthy exposure to antithetically behaving Stellar's Jays. Clever Girls...

Since the Grouse and Grosbeaks felt like long-shots in September anyway and were also no-shows, the target Gray Jays had a redemptive quality to them. While "redemptive" may not be a quality often associated with Jays of any kind, it is not the only quality that GRJAs boast. They reside year-round in coniferous forests near the timberline, storing caches of food only where it is cold enough and the trees are scaly enough to harbor such stockpiles. They also utilize cooperative breeding, and have very good manners for being in the corvidae family. 

The greatest lesson learned from the long day's excursion? Little mountain towns that claim to have "The World's Best Thai Food" are dirty rotten liars.