Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Alas 2014, I knew Thee Well.

Ha! A ha ha! A ha! ha! ha!
You thought you were finished. You thought you had seen the last of the end of the year birdosphere posts until the end of next December, but you were wrong! Butler's Birds has been biding it's time 100% of the time all the time forever the time, and waiting for just such a moment of let-down guards to bust out its own 2014 Wrap Up! Much like nitrogen, water, carbon, rocks, and an environmentally conscious pre-disgraced Lance Armstrong, Butler's Birds is recycling! Without much further adieu, here's an insufferable look at some of the superlatives from 2014, mostly to remind 2015 to get its act together.

Best Birding Experience:

On the whole, 2014 was probably the best birding year I've weathered. I made trips to Texas, Carolina, and the San Francisco Bay area in addition to the far flung corners of Arizona after birds. North Carolina offered such fantastic birds as Red-cockaded Woodpecker, Prothonotary Warbler, and a nemesis Barred Owl (never mind on that backstory). The Half Moon Bay Pelagic out of San Francisco likewise offered lifer upon lifer, and I also met up with and learned from major dorks Steve, Nate, and Jen (no, we did not see actual whales nor whale accessories on the trip).

Even so, the award for best birding experience goes to my central/south Texas trip. It was every ounce an analgesic dose of near-unreality, a surreal escape coming after a grueling year of work and personal hardship to boot. The Texas trip was also one I had to postpone from the previous summer when I had reconstructive knee and shoulder surgery, so there was all the additional expectation and anticipation going into it; it did not disappoint at all. 
I lived in a car for several days, "showered" at a public restroom that had no showers, ate at a Cracker Barrel that had no food, tried to bird at sites that no longer exist, split crumby HoJo motels with Iowa's Voice, lifered like crazy, crushed a lot of birds, got drunk most nights, got sunburnt most mornings, and had every ounce the birding trip I was hoping for. There'll be more specifics on some of those TX birds later. For now, make unwavering eye contact with this flamboyant Texan swamp chicken. 

Worst Birding Experience:

There were plenty of outings in 2014 that resulted in nothing of consequence, no great finds or photographs, or even great looks at much at all. But most of these forays were unambitious and less than energetic; I kinda new they'd be busts from early on. The most disappointing trip award goes to my September weekend in the White Mountains. I went with some friends for a couple days' camping and hiking, planning to scour the Mt. Baldy wilderness for Dusky Grouse and Pine Grosbeak among other things. The day we left, the highway was shut down for a wreck, delaying us for about 3 hours so we got to the campsite super late. Everybody was way too tired to hike the following day and some people got sick, so we ended up calling the trip early by mutual consent (myself included). I was very lucky to get a lifer Gray Jay on the brief, unascendant hike we did make, but relative to the potential and expectation I had for this trip, plus the costs of gas, campsite reservations, and a weekend, it was a pretty big bust bird-wise. Next summer it shall be done right. I even have a highly portable hammock now, cruise to snooze! 

Coolest Non-Birding Find:

Definitely the two rattlesnakes making the beast with several backs at Robbins Butte in west Maricopa County. It's not often one sees rattlers, and it's even less often one sees rattlers making more rattlers.

Best Bird Seen While Going to the Bathroom in Nature:

I know of three birders at least who keep track of birds they've seen defecating. This is right on, a thing most worth doing. For a slightly different take, I invert those roles and keep a list of birds that have seen me doing the business in one way or another. Granted, this sort of list is sketchy because whenever one sees a cool bird one can just drop trou and add it, but hey so much else in birding is on the honor system, and this list is legit. 2013 set the bar pretty high with Spotted Owl and Flame-colored x Western Tanager. The best bird added this year to the BBMD: Western Tanager.

Worst Miss/Worst Bird of 2014:

Trying for the Fulvous Whistling-Duck three times in December and coming up empty probably takes the cake, though that is also the most recent in memory. I was also pretty missed at logging Costa's Hummingbird at 5:37pm, 37 minutes after the 5:00pm deadline for my TGC in December.
But this sort of award, generally speaking is similar to the "Worst Experience," so I'm going to tweak it now to the "worst" bird, a bird I did see but at which I am still pissed off until I get a formal apology. I've already caught flak for blaspheming the admittedly great and valuable Chiricahua Mountains, but apart from my cheery little campsite, the hiking and birding there was freaking terrible. Nonetheless, I flushed a Short-tailed Hawk and found the much-vexing Mexican Chickadee. It took two days of hotter than expected hiking, less than expected water, a beaten up car, and various other blood prices. So glad I did it, so glad it's over (I'll definitely be back in the Chiris, but it will be so much less stressful now).   

Best Birds of 2014:

Enough pessimism huh!? In 2014, my face was melted so much I felt one of the Nazis from an Indiana Jones movie. For being such good sports and bearing with all my bitching, not just in this post but throughout the year, here are my 10 favorite birds from 2014 for which I also have decent photos (Buff-colored Nightjar would otherwise, certainly, be on this list):

10: Sabine's Gull: This bird trailed behind us on the HMB Pelagic in an unusual show of friendliness. It was a truly foreign bird for an Arizonan, and it was also in super sexy plumage, unlike many other birds we saw that day.

9: Chestnut-sided Warbler: This bird is rare but annual in Arizona winters, so the vagrants are always in non-breeding plumage. This situation is one of the greater tragedies in many western birders' lives. I saved myself for this looker of a bird. It was worth it, when we came together on the Appalachian Trail in North Carolina. 

8: Canada Warbler: This bird, another Carolina lifer, is not annual in Arizona. Vireos ogle its goggles with great envy and prissy princesses do the same for it's ebony carcanet. Jaw dropper. Game changer. Jaw changer? Yes.

7: Red-headed/Red-cockaded Woodpecker: I'm a sucker for Woodpeckers, and I saw some great ones this summer. They are so equally great, in fact, that I'm putting both of them as a conjoined #7. Red-headed Woodpecker is probably one of the most gorgeous birds in North America, and Red-cockaded is a rare, threatened, and declining species, while also being a lot of fun in their very specific habitat. Red-headed was an NC lifer in 2014 while Red-cockaded graduated from the heard-only list. #headbangers

6: Golden-cheeked Warbler: Endangered and protected, these Texas specialties can be hard to come by. I went after these early breeders somewhat late in the season. Nonetheless, at the Kerr WMA (which also had public showers--thank you Kerr WMA) I found a foraging family of three with one juvenile bird. The parents stayed near the canopy but the young guy came down for close views, making this relatively rare and range-restricted Warbler species also one of my best viewed Warbler species. 

5: Yellow-green Vireo: I saw a lot of incredibly cool birds in Texas and Carolina last summer, but the YGVI was probably the rarest of the bunch. It didn't show extremely well for me, but the circumstances of the sighting were compensatory. I was at Blucher Park in Corpus Christi looking for any super late Chuck-Wills-Widows (no dice) and stumbled across this bird. Not having read a TX listserv since beginning my trip it felt pretty great, and looked even better. To boot, it vocalized often and well. **This bird had been discovered weeks before.

4: Prothonotary Warbler: They said, "No PRWA, you've got too much yellow on already," but he kept putting on more. "Please stop, PRWA, you're becoming overloaded." He continued to up the ante. "For sake of all that is holy, PRWA, you're like a singing ball of sulphur!" Yes, yes he is. This bird provided the best looks and best audio of any warbler I saw in 2014--what a champ. 

3. Groove-billed Ani: Pretty high mark for this shabby, zygodactylic goth cuckoo eh? We found two birds early in the morning at Resaca de la Palma, and another at Sabal Palms the same day. It was a trip to hear them vocalize, and my mostly blurry photos were entirely the result of early morning overcast and not these birds' shyness. The Ani was one of my most anticipated species, one I had looked at and thought about in guide books for many years. It's such a peculiar bird, especially to be seen in North America, that the importance and fulfillment I attached to its sighting outweighed that of more colorful competitors. Also, have I mentioned before that a group of Anis is called a cooch?

2: Black-capped Vireo: The heartbreak of not crushing these properly was still far overshadowed by the satisfaction in finding them. Like the Ani, the special, peculiar aesthetic of these birds stuck in my mind for many years. Throw in the fact that they're a threatened species and this was the first really good (and not easy, like PABU or STFL) bird I saw on my Texas trip, the bird that got things rolling, and it's one of the best memories of 2014 birding. That head is so shocking.

1: Common Paraque: I could stare at this bird's intricate patterns for days on end. Hell, I have stared at this bird's plumage for days on end--but always secondarily, from photos and other renditions. This species is found very reliably at Estero Llano Grande during the right time of year, and many people have obtained crushing photos of them from their well-known haunt. When I arrived at the park, the docents told me nobody had seen any for a while. I then ran into a very snooty birdwalk leader who scoffed at the very idea when I inquired if his group had seen any: "Psht, no. Good luck finding one now. They're all moved back into the dense vegetation (a.k.a "don't point out my failing in front of my tour group buddy; I'm trying to score here").
It took some hours of desultory searching, random wandering and accrued sunburn. And then all of the sudden, by chance looking at that exact spot, THERE IT WAS. No doubt, in retrospect, this was not the rare or incredible find it felt like, but that adrenaline rush had me going for hours. Of course, I quietly photographed the bird and marked the spot (simultaneously adding it to my BBMD List haha kidding/not kidding) so I could go find my birder buddy. But never, never when birding by myself (and y'all know what I'm talking about; it's different when birding with people who can high five you back) have I celebrated such a find before--running, jumping, shouting, making an ass of myself, the whole nine yards. This was one of the main birds for which I came to Texas. Adversity was overcome. My face melted even more than the celebratory ice cream I'd been carrying in my pocket all day. Far and away my favorite bird and individual sighting of 2014.

What misadventures will 2015 hold? Well, hopefully karma is looking the other way. 

Sunday, January 25, 2015

The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

The Sprague's Pipit is all of those things. Usually when bird and birding-related conversations come up in birding circles, I tend to keep my mouth shut. I have not been birding long enough to have accrued substantial personal experience, nor am I enough well studied to have educated opinions or even a lot of information about things relating to behaviors, distribution, migrations etc. on micro or macro level. But where I do opine is when the aesthetics discussion comes up, and when that discussion doesn't come up, I bring it up, because I'm bad at being quiet. One can't be proven wrong when arguing about a bird's appearance and subjective coolness any more than arguing about how many stars shine down on one night or another. 

Sprague's Pipit is a bird for which I have searched in varying Arizonan grasslands longer than it is prudent to admit. Having spent so many hours walking and driving around Sprague's habitat, I have obviously had a lot of time to brood about this bird. This Sunday I was finally able to end that search and see how the bird compared to the various machinations of a depraved and mediocre birder's mind.  

The Good: Sprague's Pipits attract a mate and declare territory by singing a descending call from high in the sky. This is reported to be the longest in-flight display of any bird in north America, including that commune of Canadian Skylarks. They begin their breeding cycle in April, relatively early, which  means their impressive displays are some of the first to be witnessed in early spring--full points for punctuality. They're insectivorous; one always has to appreciate any bird or other animal that eats some percentage of its own body weight in insects and spiders.  

The Bad: If it weren't counterintuitive for there to be a king or queen of skulk, then Sprague's Pipit would be such a monarch. They were actually going to name it Skulk's Pipit back in the early 1800s, but the Skunk Lobby in Washington, very powerful at the time, argued it was too close to trademark infringement, so they decided to throw a bone to the Czech rebels as part of an anti-Hapsburg statement.
These birds are small, dainty, duly and dully camouflaged, and walk through the grass very horizontally like a mouse. They lack all of the confidence and posture of their American counterparts. Unless they're crossing a dirt road or flushing, this makes them very, very difficult to spot. I recorded all of 6 other species in the 5 hours I was stalking around after this bird, shown below. On top of that, they tend to prefer areas with low activity overall, and apart from when they are mating they are solitary, which means one can't really pinpoint their location by following roving bands of Horned Larks (this might work, but it would be coincidental).    

The Ugly: American Pipits are good looking birds. Hell, Sparrows and other such ground-lovers are some of my favorites. SPPI is not a good looking bird. Its face, breast, and mantle patterning are very lackluster by both GLANA (Ground Loving Avians of North America) and Sparrow Cartel standards. The big bug-eye is somewhat peculiar and endearing, but it can't be described as pretty or elegant. When one of a bird's most-discussed features is its mildly pink legs (see top photo) then it's a sign the bird doesn't have much going on.
Also, crawling around in the Pipit's dry and dusty hang out for so long has condensed about 3 years of regular allergies into the remainder of my afternoon.

All that being said, it was so good--SO GOOD--to see this bird in the Santa Cruz grasslands. It is more impressive than overdue, and one I had to work pretty hard prior to enjoying the reward. It took five hours of ambling through grassy fields before the movement finally caught my eye, and it was literally at 11:50am, ten minutes before I told myself I would turn back for home.
It may not be the only individual in the area, and this or another bird has been found off and on for the last couple of weeks in this heavily birded area. That being said, two other birders who joined me in the morning tried to ID two different Savannah Sparrows as the SPPI and might well have claimed it had I not disagreed (they eventually left empty-handed). Picking up 27 Mountain Plover and a fly over Caracara for years birds nearby was also nice. It had been a while since Butler's Birds has lifered, but a good birder always brings extra pants.

This passive-agressive note on my windshield was also quaint:

Two birdermobiles pulled up by my car while I was out in the grass and convened for a few minutes. I actually had the bird in my sights at the time and waved to them, but apparently they were just policing the area (which, by the way, is not restricted like the adjacent sod farm--I spoke with employees directly about it instead of leaving them little sticky notes. It is a massive series of vacant grass fields deliberately left fallow and they do not care). Bummer; folks missed a good/bad/ugly/good bird.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Animorph Hawks (Hawks! Hawks! Hawks!)

You remember those Animorph books? Yeah, I don't really either. I don't think I read any of them, in fact few people did; they just had compelling covers what with the transitional morphing illustration and all. I think they were offered up as prizes for good behavior in 2nd grade (definitely never read them then). The hawk kid was named Tobias as I recall, the name of a champion. 

Anyway, what's actually much cooler, and also real, are variegated hawk morphs. These guys are worth more than a quick 10 minute read at the dentist office. Y'all may remember this dark morph Ferruginous Hawk from a few weeks past, one of the more stoic and brooding morphs into which one might run out amongst the alfalfa fields. 

Now I'd like to introduce an ambitious morph on the other side of the Ferruginous spectrum, from the other side of the force, as it were. Whereas bird number 1 was born unto the dark side, our bold and brash protagonist below belongs to the "light."

Not that one can tell from these photos, but this fellow was a bit  under-grown for the 23'' one expects of a Ferruginous Hawk. It's ok though; he's a prime example of Sibley's immature 'light morph' and still has some bulking up (and some oxidizing) to do.

Taking crisp, unobstructed views of birds lifting off is so mainstream and reinforces unrealistic standards of beauty and skill both for birds and bird photographers--much like Barbie dolls and He-Man do for doe-eyed young people. Yeah, let's cut off the wings and get some high voltage wires running perpendicular to unnatural looking beams in the shot. Andy Warwho?

The light morph Ferruginous may have been an immature bird, but he still exerted enough dominance to see off this dark morph Red-Tail. So much morphing...I cannot wait until all the multifarious Swainson's Hawks start cycling through.

Why are raptors so variable? Are the variations just that much more visible on bigger birds? There are plenty of passerines and other birds with subspecies and plumage variation by region, but it's like almost all hawks have alternate morphs. And even though there are many morphs, the morph types are predominantly consistent (like light morph Ferruginous Hawks all still look very similar).

It's ok to geek out about it. You're not alone, and might not even be the extreme:
Video courtesy of Tommy DeBardeleben

Err hem...well then, interesting stuff. Below the morphing hawks in the troposphere, as well as the food chain, were some of the more variable waterfowl--Snow and Canada Geese with a couple of Ross's mixed in (not really visible in this photo).

These photos were all taken while I was out searching for Sprague's Pipit. The site where one such bird was found three weeks ago had been recently plowed, which meant I was out of luck some more again and always. Screw that bird. Hawks only. 

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Duck! It's a New Year of Birding

Oh, hello there dear readers, critics, and lost orphans of the internet. It has been too long. I could list some excuses here, including blogger deleting some photos and a post at one point as well as the increasing pleasure I have been taking from birding exclusively with binoculars, the west Phoenix Fulvous Whistler continuing to elude me (and everyone else) over the past few weeks, and rainy weekends. Instead of elaborating and whining on those things though we'll try to get back on track here with BB's first post of 2015.

However, we're starting with a Song Sparrow that many would recognize as not being the "sandstone" subspecies of Song Sparrow we have in Arizona, but the buffier east-coast variety. This bird was one of several other county birds I picked up in Wayne, NC, at the end of December, 2014. I fell (6) short of claiming the All-Time eBird #1 spot in Wayne County before heading back to Phoenix (although being the only person to submit a list there in 2015, I'm sitting pretty right now), and am currently riding in 2nd with 90. Someday...  

In contrast, this weekend I made it back to west Phoenix to resume searching for the lifer Fulvous Whistling-Duck that disappeared from the radar a couple of weeks back. It may well be gone now, but searching around the Tres Rios riparian and agricultural areas where it was last seen was also a great way to kickstart the 2015 birding year, and I put up 95 species in about 4 and 1/2 hours. The diversity is pretty impressive, even if some birds prefer their solitude. It ain't easy being great.

"I am a rock. I am a island" --Paul 'Egret' Simon

The Tres Rios area mixes riparian with desert habitat beautifully, but a fair portion of the complex is permanently fenced off-limits. While leaning against the Bird-lin Wall at different points searching out the Fulvous Duck, I recorded such solid-for-Maricopa-birds as Wood Duck, Hooded Merganser, Brown Pelican and Storm Wigeon. A Western Screech Owl calling from within the pre-dawn hours rubbed salt in the wound. This is all to say, I really wish they'd open up that prime real estate. It's a friggin' treasure trove, and I bet if they let people in for a fee, they'd come out well ahead vs. the liability. Work what you got Maricopa Gov.!

Massive flocks of Ibis and Blackbirds also made the morning hours pretty eventful while scanning the small retaining ponds for Fulvous-type birds. It is a veritable Eden there, where lions lay down with lambs, eagles nest with pigeons, and Pelicans swim peacefully with Wigeon as Carp swim below and gobble up everybody's shit.

Even such blissful scenes as this were not without orneriness. Some White Pelicans were partaking in a game of "Wigeon-Dwarfing," wherein they'd swim up behind AMWIs and make them look very, very small. I have also seen Canada Geese participating in this sort of bullying throughout Phoenix golf courses. The natural world is a cruel mistress indeed.

But she's seductive though ain't she? Don't take my perverted word for it, ogle this Cinnamon Teal for a little while and then go apologize to your significant other.

Some birds are poorly named, and some birds are poorly colored. This is not one of those birds.

Party Don't Stop Jen has been doing some beastly good owling up in the Northwest of late. I can't hang with it, not even close, but this weekend did bring the small consolation of turning up another Burrowing Owl haunt. I don't mean to brag (actually I do a bit), but I've got quite the portfolio of very crushable BUOW spots in West Phoenix so...all you millionaire owl enthusiasts out there who are also lazy...hit me up. 

It's been over a month now, and I'm daring to admit that this Fulvous Whistling-Duck might well be gone. What is one to do when one has been stood up repeatedly by a rare duck? Psht, score another one on the rebound of course, one that's sexy and easy. 
Cue the a Eurasian Wigeon drake that's been at the Dos Lagos park in Phoenix for a couple of weeks now--wintering here--and like most ducks hanging out at small urban parks, this fellow is tame. He has learned well from his AMWI accomplices how to eat the fresh winter-lawn tips, and just as eagerly approach pedestrians in case they have hand-outs. 

Of course, this sort of plebeian behavior denotes that the EUWI has sold out a little bit. I know, and when left to his own recognizances he clearly feels a little bit guilty about it too.

One or two EUWIs seem to turn up in Maricopa every winter, but this one has by far been the most accommodating of the birds I've seen. Also of interest on this little pond was a lone Muscovy Duck, rocking 'the ugly' loud and proud. Now, I know what everyone is thinking, "THAT'S A DOMESTIC!!! THAT'S NOT COUNTABLE YOU GIANT BAKED PIE OF IGNORAMUS!!!"
Well, I cannot refute your accusation, but all I'm saying is this: as far as domestic Muscovy Ducks go, this fellow looks pretty good. The facial growths I've seen on pictures of wild birds show predominantly blackish, so obviously that's a giveaway here, but the otherwise dark body and iridescent wings are much cleaner than on other specimens I've seen.

It even had the white localized to its wing patches. So, don't worry, I'm not ticking it, but drop this duck off somewhere in the Rio Grande Valley or south Florida, and I bet it would be spurring a much larger discussion, and a few more people might be won over eh?

Anyhow, back to what we know. American Wigeon drakes fulfill a look that many 1970s shag carpets sought, but of which they often fell far short. I know AMWIs are a golf course duck, which puts them just about on the bottom of the pile in the winterfowl hierarchy, above only domestics, Mallards, and Coots, but they reproduce fructuously for a reason y'all.

Seagull Steve recently got very crushy with the EUWIs in California, and so once again aspects of this post seem mere after-shocks of the various quakes that left the bird blogosphere rocking, but why not indulge some more? Why not have seconds of that 3-layer carrot cake?

Aww yisss...flash that speculum baby.

I left the Wigeons all strutting their stuff, but the waterfowling was not to end. In fact, there was some fowl play going on right next to my car. Two Mallard drakes were fighting for the affection of a hen standing off to the side, apparently used to if not bemused, by this sort of occurrence. Notice how the drake on the right is more handsome than patch-eye on the left. Furthermore, he is much more photogenic; it's like the fight doesn't bother him at all and he wants to maintain eye contact with the camera--pretty studly. Naturally, we're all rooting for him.

The manky, domestic drake tore at his chest but the handsome drake simply flexed the ol' pectorals and advanced, without seeming to break much of a sweat.

With some conservative positioning, the handsome drake gained the better position and basically subdued the other drake without using much more than his chest. Name one other action hero character who's won duels in such a way. He squished the other male and then walked away with his lady, while I went to get lunch.
*It is also possible the handsome drake didn't want to fight at all, but was making advances on the the other male of a different sort.

The waterfowl are great right now, but it is also that dreaded time of year when I go in search of a Sprague's Pipit. If you don't hear from me in a while again, it's because I've thrown any and all gear into a ditch somewhere in frustration.