Sunday, March 22, 2015

Salt Spray and Sea Breeze: Beach Birding on Break

This Spring Break was a long time coming. Many people anticipate this holiday and prepare for it with thematic shirts or tank-tops and large volume beer purchases. I'm not saying these things didn't also factor in, but definitely an escape from work and the general Phoenix scene were on the cards for Butler's truly. After some delays due to, yes, work, and other complications/restrictions, I departed for the coast on Wednesday, the same day or maybe a day before a gorgeous and chase-able Slate-throated Redstart showed up in Arizona. Best not to dwell on that...

I wasn't able to make stops for any of the SoCal desert resident birds nor spend time at the Salton Sea going to or fro, which leaves those less pleasant trips for when I'm rocking solo later this spring. Of course, birders want to cram as much birding into our travels as possible, but such considerations do not always resonate with a crowd that's contributing gas money and advocating more beach time. Fortunately, coastal birding brings its own rewards, and I found time to explore an estuary/inlet that brought salt marsh and seashore species together with a ripe, freshly-beached fish scent. 

Whimbrel was one of the first birds I spent time with along the estuarial mudflats. These kink-billed waders are very well-manufactured birds, with all of their highly-adpated parts and soft-spoken camouflage making for an easy life even during migration. These sightings were all the sweeter because Whimbrel was an overdue (and embarrassingly lacking) lifer, a bird with high vagrancy potential that nonetheless does not occur in Arizona very often. 
These praises and plaudits being established, one can tell that the wary Whimbrel has a chip on its shoulders, and this is largely because, despite their sturdy legs, lengthy proboscis, and economically stylish wardrobe, the Long-billed Curlew outshines them in all departments.   

Ah, the sicklebird, a behemoth of the shoreline and a prober of the deep muck untouched by any other. LBCUs are not simply the largest sandpipers in North America, they're also some of the most snazzy. They bully the Whimbrels around and the Whimbrels accede to the LBCU's superiority. If you had some dude get in your face, and he had a nose that was 3 feet long, you would too. These birds were migrants and they still gave all the other shorebirds the business; they were prickly, downright erinaceous. But this must not distract from the main thing about them, which is that they are gorgeous.

Even the disheveled and travel-weary bird shown above is inspiring on-the-wing..."and we petty men walk under its huge legs, and peep about."

Small to medium flocks of Curlew migrate through central Arizona fairly regularly, but unless one smacks into your car or gets stuck being a stick in the mud, it's pretty hard to compete with the sort of looks one gets in the more coastal settings. It was super calm.

The estuary was also populated with Black-bellied Plover and lesser peeps, though ammodramus Sparrows did not seem to be in the area. After making sure I had acrid mud well under my toenails, I proceeded out to the shoreline, which was pleasantly devoid of people and pleasantly populated with, you guessed it, birds.
Of course, the feeling of appreciation was not mutual. Red-breatsed Mergansers are always flighty and skiddish (which, incidentally, are also the two stages of life of a frisbee), and these shoreline Mergs remained true to form. They were not calm.

Most of the expected Gulls were around, including handsome Heermann's and California birds (so good that Utah adopted them right out of old folklore), but I got the impression that this strip of beach was not so frequently frequented by people, as these Gulls did not display the oft-observed tendency or either ignoring or pandering to me.

It's a shame. Phoenix duck ponds have spoiled me. I like being pandered to, like some sort of attention-seeking pander-bear, except with a more evolutionarily appropriate diet. HEGUs and CAGUs I was ready for, but a few smaller Gulls did cause some consternation. From the smaller pictures of Sibley came some textbook examples of adult non-breeding Bonaparte's Gulls--another bird and form of which I cannot boast familiarity (whereas, with Verdins, I can boast hella familiarity). The black tips and white coloration on the outer primaries and secondariness of the wings are sharp though, full credit.

More intriguing was a similarly-sized bird hanging with that same group. The black wing patterning was noticeably different, and the birdrenal gland started doing its thing when I recalled that first-year Black-legged Kittiwakes have the black beak and some sort of bold black pattern on the wings!

Alas, it was not to be. A quick consultation of The Tome confirmed that this bird, though in my opinion handsomer than its older brethren, is a first-winter Bonaparte's. Blarg. Well, if lifer Gull-forms count for anything, then I got a little piece of something. Eh, that bird has a weird lumpy double forehead anyway.

But Terns are pretty sweet, as this recent anthology by Seagull Steve reminded the blogosphere. Elegant Tern was a lifer for me last September, and even though their numbers around Half Moon Bay were significant, there was not a lot of quality time. This exiguous experience of the past was put to rest  by a more eximious Spring Break party time further south.

As anyone who has one or more eyes and isn't obstinate on principle can tell you, Terns are good flyers. They are good at it, and they look good while they're doing it. In fact, they're so good they don't even have to follow the usual convention of comfort and aerodynamics.
Nah, this Tern was probably just checking out a dead pile below it, which I in turn checked out as well, getting my only Pacific Loon photo of the trip. 

By happy coincidence another lifer from September, lucky #500 as it turned out, reacquainted itself on the young sand. At first I did not know what this Surfbird was doing. It looked agitated or uncomfortable but did not take flight. It seems like it's sitting on eggs right, but it's about 3,000 miles too far south to be doing such things.

The bird spread its wings and did some sort of half-push ups. As it seemed to be injured, I sat and observed without further approach for a couple of minutes, which affected nothing, and then approached directly to see if I could help the bird. At this point it took off immediately, seemingly without issue except for a dangling leg. Best of luck with the remaining journey Surfbird.

In case you're wondering, the Slate-throated Redstart disappeared before I returned, so the sunburn- having-been-avoided only soothed so much. On the upswing, there should be some nice-looking Warblers arriving in the higher climes of Maricopa County now, and many birders are starting to pitch tents even earlier in the morning in anticipation of That Great Spring Movement.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Birding the Bush: It's that Time of Year Somewhere

March 8th and a projected high of 83 degrees? Yeah, and it's moving to 88° on Thursday. At any rate, such conditions mean it's time to  get out to the riparian channels and beat the bushes for early migrants and breeders, birds or otherwise. There are several good spots for such behavior along Highway 87, where sycamore riparian habitat and juniper/oak scrub coalesce beneath unambitious granite canyons. In the foothills of the Mazatzal Mountains, Mesquite Wash, Bushnell Tanks, and Sunflower make for fantastic sites, with excellent overall diversity as well as notable breeders like Common Black and Zone-tailed Hawk, Gray Vireo, and Violet-green Swallow. These sites are grouped close together and i in the shadow of Mt. Ord, Maricopa County's highest elevation and one of its best birding locations. 

I'm waiting on the Mt. Ord and/or Slate Creek Divide (another hot spot for tough-on-county birds) trips for a few more weeks, but the more easily accessed Bushnell Tanks felt like an overdue stop, and I was not disappointed. This is a bit cruel, because everyone else will be disappointed. the riparian corridor and liminal juniper scrub was super birdy, with several FOY birds and a county-first Greater Pewee, but with the bird activity being of a high octane, I was pretty lazy with the camera. Plus, the CBHA and  ZTHA had not yet arrived, so we all must still content ourselves with immature RTHAs, which is not contenting at all as it turns out.  

Of course, hawks are the best thing ever, the superlative thing to watch, and all the more so when they start getting their breed on. There was a whole political conglomerate in the early 1800s who wanted to go to war on their behalf against the British ("Red-tails over Redcoats!!"). But it's also just about time for the Black-throated Sparrows, Black-chinned Sparrows, Chin-throated black Sparrows, and Sparrow-chinned Blackthroats to start their breeding bonanzas--almost

This dude perched right next to the trail like he was ready to start his vocalizing and then, as if remembering what day it was and that he was now rudely early, the ugly cousin of fashionably late, he just kinda froze. It probably took him a while to work up the guts too.

The juniper scrub of the Mazatzal foothills has hosted some unusual vagrants/migrants this winter, especially considering the relatively mild winter we've experience west of the Rockies. Evening Grosbeaks and Cassin's Finches have been present in these channels throughout the winter, and while their numbers were much lower than on my visit to the area a month ago, they still had a very audible presence. Unfortunately, all the males were attending a stag party or something, or they're sick of juniper and ready to get back into the pines. 

So not a whole lot to show from the weekend. Saturday was a recovery day from Friday, which was one of those rare and unholy events where work and personal life come together for an entire evening, and this always requires heavy imbibing. No doubt listservs and eBird alerts will be lit up with FOY/Early reports in the ensuing weeks. Birders will be on call. For those of you out east who are begrudging my constant prattling about our weather, I shall get just desserts when it starts breaking 100° in April. Then the sweaty shoe shall be on the other foot. Enjoy.  

Friday, March 6, 2015

Roger Wilco Foxtrot Willcox: More Chasing (...and a bit too fast)

One of my only and best streaks was broken on Sunday. A Red Phalarope was phalaroping in Willcox, about three hours east and south of Phoenix, and this would be both a lifer and a pretty sweet bird to pick up in the middle of not-the-coast land. Alas, I also had some time constraints, which meant this had to be a quick chase, leaving Phoenix at 5:00am and returning at 11:30am. The streak was that despite 9 different warnings in 7 different states in the last 10 years, I had not received a speeding ticket directly from a police officer (those unconstitutional cheating speed cameras in AZ were another story). That ended a bit south of Tucson on Sunday, where the speed quickly dips from 75 to 65 and yours truly was still cruise controllin' at 80mph, just minding his own business, which in this case was seeing good birds. So, that was a bit of a spoiler, as will the weekend traffic school likewise be. Anyhow, the trip was worth it. 

The first bird of the morning--after the obligatory highway birds--was a shady female Pyrrhuloxia who was demonstrating the truly bizarre mandible shape and configuration of this species. Great bird though, great bird...way better than Cardinal. 

Lake Cochise in Willcox is a modest body of water but it's one of very few in a pretty busy flyway, so it has had its share of rarities over the year, and is about the only place in Arizona to get White-rumped Sandpipers in spring. It also has more than its fair share of the common and expected birds.

Coming soon, to a parking lot near you...

Lake Cochise is a small drainage basin from the nearby Twin Lakes golf course, and it is surrounded by the otherwise natural desert grasslands, punctuated here and there by sprouts of wiry mesquite. The habitat and geographic location make it one of the best spots in Arizona to pick up Eastern Meadowlark, and several species of Sparrow, as well as some Longspurs, winter here with great success. There are also Lark Buntings, a bird I hope to see some day in sexy plumage--maybe this summer in Montana or North Dakota.

The golf course area itself provides some foreign habitat in the form of pine and willow trees, along with rushy reedy stuff on its derivative golf course ponds. The pond cover suits Teal species and maybe even an American Bittern if one is very lucky, while the ornamental pines make appreciated perches for   talon-less birds of prey. 
P.S. Why is no gang or sports team given the collective name "The Shrike." It sounds totally badass. 

"My favorite car is the Chevy Impala."

I know what you're thinking: "Quit stalling and just show the damn Phalarope or admit that you busted again and quit wasting my time you mook. Also, your casserole sucks and the only reason your mother hasn't publicly admitted that you were her least favorite child is because she knows she'll have to rely on you for drawn-out hospice care in 30 years." 
Well geez man, that was pretty harsh and personal, but I take your point. Here's the rub though, not only was the REPH in its expected non-breeding plumage, it was also pretty far away, so enjoy this for all of your impatient degradation!

Yeah, not great looks or really much else, but a great tick for Arizona. I should be thankful that this bird was so reliable and easy to spot with only binoculars (and I am; thank you, hopelessly lost Red Phalarope). Also of interest in the area were a pair of corvids that look pretty good for Chihuahuan Raven. They were smaller/more delicate than what I'd expect for CORA, and the nictal bristles on this bird seem to extend all the way to the downward curve of the culmen. The tail is also pretty flat across the edge of the primaries, less 'wedged' than I'd expect on CORA.

Why am I saying all of this out loud? Because CHRA is usually a bird I only count when I've got other people backing me up in the field. This prudence stems not only from my generally conservative birding nature and lack of ID skill, but also from a deeply ingrained belief that the less of anything 'chihuahua' in the world, outside perhaps that region in actual Mexico, the better.
(I kid I kid, CHRA is a cool bird, but I surely do dislike those little rat dogs).

Monday, March 2, 2015

Play the Hand You're Dealt...or play Tama-Gucci

This past Saturday was, like deep-sea fishing bait, cold and overcast. This was less ideal for birding, especially since it meant that whatever stuff I did see I would likely struggle to capture in any worthwhile way. I figured it was a good day, therefore, to chase some county birds for which I had not yet bothered when given sunny days and other opportunities. There has been a Brown Thrasher--annual vagrant in AZ--hanging out in Gilbert for a few months, but as this is a yard bird in Carolina, I had not bothered with the skulker. I set out resolute on Saturday morning to make the most of the day, to play the hand I was dealt. However, a breathtaking car reminded me on the way that maybe one doesn't have to play by the rules of the game...or perhaps if that game is lame, you can invent your own? I dunno, but there's a message here somewhere.

"I bet people will finally take me seriously if I paint my Trans Am 3 colors and cover it in Gucci emblems...pretty damn seriously indeed." : ::snap snap:: :
I'll name my car Guccifer

The Gilbert Water Ranch is super Gucci for high diversity and species counts. With all the waterfowl and waders around, plus a few early migrants, it took very little time to affirm and validate the decision to get out of bed. Typical Gucci scenes from the GWR: Avocets mingling with itchy Shovelers while NECOs stick their heads in various places.

Like the awesome car before, this Redhead is predominantly tri-toned. It's missing the Gucci paraphernalia though, so it's still kind of dorky. This sort of cool color/lack-of-decal dichotomy is common among the other plentiful ducks in the area. There are also lots of domesticated Mallards, Chinese Geese, and other abominations that people actively feed. This is less Gucci. 

I know it's silly of me to be bemoaning cloudy weather when most of the U.S. is six feet under (snow), but I've decided to live like a Gucci s.o.b. so I don't even care : ::snap snip snap:: : To add insalt (get it?) to injury, here are some birds that are already nesting in central Arizona. There is one saguaro, where the GIWPs were setting up nice Gucci interiors, the MODOs never nest in public without their Gucci blue eyeliner, and the CBTH was doing something too (and was too high to photograph on the nest).

Those who live the Gucci life live the good life. Contrast a dapper, Guccilicious Anna's with the world's lumpiest, most Gucci-less Inca Dove below. And who gets more cred on the street? Well, if you don't give the ANHUs respect they'll mess you up.

It took a while at the GWR but I finally got a 2 second audience with His Royal Highness the King of Skulking BRTH. I was not figuring I'd get shots of this bird, nor was it even much of a highlight compared to a few FOY warblers. At this point it's kind of embarrassing that my Maricopa list still hasn't broken 300, and this needs to be remedied with otherwise unappealing birds like Brown Thrasher. (Don't get me wrong, I love Thrashers and BRTH is a beaut, but it's not really worth the trouble other than for the tick in AZ, when they're so crushable out east).

By 9am there was intermittent, light precipitation, and I was a bit surprised to note that this seemed to increase overall bird activity. The colors on all of the birds were very saturated, but as they were still moving at normal speed and the ol' crusty Sony-cam shutter was not, we had a conflict of interest. Perhaps paradoxically, the best subject of the day was one of the smallest and fastest. Very Gucci.

Sunday showed clear skies out east in Willcox, AZ, where a vagrant Red Phalarope had been hanging out for a few days. Having this future trip decreased the pressure, barometric and otherwise, on precious Saturday. Willcox is always good for a few birds right? Well, for the preview, it's always good for speeding tickets.