Monday, April 27, 2015

Everyone's Favorite Highly-Adapted Micro Predator

It's been increasingly difficult to find good quality birding time in recent weekends. It's quite cruel that this always happens in late April and May, and to a much worse extent this year, because this time is also some of the best to be birding in Arizona. To make matters worse, I also tried to be sociable this weekend. It was always the plan to head down to Madera Canyon pre-dawn for some owling and then bird through the morning, and since I stayed up late (social moth instead of social butterfly?) it meant I pulled an all-nighter, something that hasn't happened since college. 
It was also overcast and rainy this weekend, something that causes birders and kite-enthusiasts to look towards the heavens in despair. 

It didn't seem like this would affect nocturnal birding, but it did limit the extent to which birds were calling and the extent to which I could hear them. The precipitation cleared by 4:45am or so, but that left only about 45 minutes in which to try and get visuals on the birds. Common Poorwill, Whiskered Screech Owl, and Mexican Whip-poor-will all registered, but I could not get visuals on any of them. 
That element was a disappointment, but for consolation here is a crushy Elf Owl to rub on one's face instead. I photographed this bird near its nesting cavity along the Salt River last Wednesday, and so it will now fall to the smallest owl in the world to compensate for the lack of all the other nocturnal birds. 

Here are a bunch of facts about Elf Owls. Some of them are true. Elf Owls are tied for the shortest Owl in the world, and are also the lightest, which makes them superlatively small. Elf Owls do not believe in Santa Claus. Elf Owls are super cute, but they are also voracious predators, with highly adaptive, highly sensitive vision and hearing that allows them to pinpoint prey in near pitch-black conditions. Elf Owls are known to enjoy the taste of human as well as horse flesh when it is seasonally available; thus the closure of Food City markets in Phoenix is a habitat loss concern. Elf Owls are in the minority that do not have ear tufts. Elf Owls think ear tufts are silly, and a clear compensation for something...err hem...Great-horned. 
Coincidentally or not, Elf Owls all ascribe to the adage, "It's not the size; it's how..."

Even though the nocturnal birding was less than fruitful this past weekend, there is still plenty to see and heard in the Santa Rita Mountains in the day, believe it or not. There'll be more from that trip coming later this week. Stay alive in the mean time; watch your back.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Ordinarily Good Birding

Maricopa County has its various birdy attractions throughout the year. Certain thrashers and sparrows come to mind in winter, while Cuckoos, Bitterns, and Rails tend to captivate the later summer interest. But as April runs into May, there's only one place to be in Maricopa: the tender, elevated, loving slopes  of Mt. Ord. After taking last weekend off from birding, due largely to hangover fall-out and from quite possibly the worst week of work ever, the trek up Mt. Ord was an overdue return. This was the case because many of the elevation breeders have now returned as well. The scrub lowlands were teeming with Sparrows as well as smaller numbers of the coveted Gray Vireo. 

Blue-gray Gnatcatchers and Black-throated Gray Warblers are by far the most common birds this time on year on Ord. Between those two names it sounds rather dour, but even if these birds are not bursting with color, they are bursting with song, or at least bursting with song-esque sorts of noises.

The juniper/pine/oak habitat hosts many other breeders, including WEBL, LEGO, WBNU, RBNU, JUTI, HETA, and VGSW. I was even fortunate enough to hear a Northern Pygmy-Owl tooting from somewhere out in this mess. The bird quieted down as I approached closer and I could not locate it, despite waiting in the area fro another 30 minutes. I don't even know why I am mentioning this failure. 

There were some vocal Grace's Warbler's mixed up in the canopy, jostling for position and prominence with Redstart and Hutton's Vireos. Yellow-throated or Grace's? Who wins in a beauty contest? Who wins in a fight? Who wins at bingo?

The old corral and water tank off FR 1688 was typically birdy, but otherwise the greatest concentrations of species were off from the main road nearer the summit of Ord, around 7,000 feet. Here I got more than an earful and less of an eyeful of the skulky Virginia's Warblers. It's ok; an eyeful of warbler sounds unpleasant anyway, makes one's eyes all black-throated blue.

There were also some holdover Cassin's Finches near the summit, and one weird-o finch hanging out on its own. It was bulkier and had more olive-green on its breast and supercilium. It looked pretty good for female Purple Finch is all I'm saying...but that would be very rare and I have no documentation, so I'm not actually saying anything.
Watching Violet-green Swallows streak through the blue sky atop Ord's summits never gets old. Trying to photograph them in flight does.

In other news, no one has re-found the Eared Quetzal since its original discovery on Friday, which is why I am writing this blog post, instead of affably losing myself in the Santa Rita Mountains. Things are getting pretty flavorful down there though, with Trogons moving onto territory and Sinaloa Wrens still ratcheting to such an extent that a desperate one-day weekend trip may be next on the cards. 

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Nullifying a Nocturnal Near-Nemesis

That's it below; that is my lifer Western Screech-Owl from ages past. I've run into so many people over the years that have seen this bird when out walking their dogs at night, perched in a citrus tree, a yard-bound cactus, or even on a street sign. Surely I too will have such an opportunity, I thought. As was often the case through grade school, high school, college, and various relationships...I thought wrong.

I'd hear WESOs plenty often, but never did I have that golden opportunity that seemed to present itself unwittingly to non-birders and birders alike. I'd seen it once, but never again. WESo was turning into a kinda Mobius Dick. 

This past week I met up with some prodigious bird-bloggers along the Salt River for some seasonal owling. We heard plenty of WESOs, had looks at Elf and Great-horned, and a Common Poorwill almost took my head off flying by. Eventually I had to get home and wouldn't ya know, they soon after found an absurdly accommodating WESO. Crushing occurred, selfies were posed, and as was often the case through grade school, high school, college, and various relationships...I was not a part of the party. 

So I returned several days later, and this time I convinced more people to come with me, including people that aren't normally into the birds. Pretty clever eh? With a full-moon lending its light, we managed to hear but not see Elf and Great-horned Owls, likewise with the Poorwill, but this time we heard, and then got killer looks at, Western friggin' Screech-Owl. 

It took some trudging through thick mesquite and abrasive, sock-destroying fox-tail grass, but eventually we found some nice spots and waited (instead of chasing after those calling owls, the mistake I often impatiently make). They came in to investigate our calls. There were intense stare-offs.

Frodo didn't feel so good when he finally ditched the Ring of Power (to be fair, he did lose a finger in the exchange) nor did Luke Skywalker when he sunk his proton torpedos down the Death Star's scandalously exposed exhaust shaft. Captain Ahab didn't feel so good when he finally found his oblivion, nor  Hercules when he completed his 12th labor. Catharsis, you are mine.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Crappy Birding is Good Birding

Dumps and landfills, reclamation sites and sewage ponds, treatment facilities and New Jersey...yes indeed putrescence and productivity seem to go hand-in-hand when it comes to birding. While some of my fondest birding memories come from the beautiful mountains in Arizona and Carolina, or from the Rio Grande Valley of Texas and the coasts, I have picked up just as many lifers and birds-of-interest around otherwise unsavory sludge basins, and it's safe to say that many other birders have too. 

The latest such expedition was for an immature American Golden-Plover discovered in west Phoenix--very near the Tres Rios hotspot--in a run-off basin for a nearby cattle farm. It didn't exactly smell like coffee in the morning (although there were trace elements...) but it was equally enlivening, a much more multi-sensory experience! After scouting along the pond for a few minutes I quickly picked out the plump Plover with a few vociferous Stilts.
The AGPL was somewhat wary and flew farther down the slough, which left me taking nearby inventory before continuing the pursuit.

Burrowing Owls, much wiser and unimpressed by all that, looked on with typical blasé dispositions. Some birds are tough to see but really attractive, and others are easy to see but unattractive. BUOWs are easy to see and super attractive, and we should thank them for this.

I don't know how they compare to all other Owls, but BUOWs seem to be very fecund. Everyone has seen those adorable images of 3-10 BUOW chicks all gregarious and bug-eyed around their burrow. How many other birds are there that lay (much less hatch and raise) that many eggs in a clutch? Outside of waterfowl, I struggle to think of any.

The AGPL has been around for a few days now and given pretty clear, accessible looks to most everyone who has chased it, though the bird seems to disappear later in the day. This immature bird was more brown overall than BBPL, with a longer primary extension and browner cap contrasting with the broad white supercilium.

Another telltale identification sign, which you may have noticed from the photos, is that American Golden-Plovers always face to their left. ALWAYS. If you see a similar plover that is facing to its right, it's either an immature Black-bellied or an adult European Golden (in which case, congratulations).

The marshy theme continued at the nearby B & M WMA, where I was hoping to hear Ridgeway's Rails (to no avail). Vocalizing Sora are always a treat, though they continued to deny me that perfect bird blogger moment when they step totally into the open and in good light. 

Likewise Common Yellowthroats continue to be a species I have not properly crushed, which is additionally embarrassing considering their numerical presence.  When I get the camera on these birds I just...lose...focus. They've been singing on territory for a couple weeks now.  

So the chasing was productive, not to mention easy, and the rest of the birding was nicely complementary. Saturday night I returned to the Salt River mesquite bosques in search of a Western Screech Owl photo, since I had failed there where everyone else succeeded earlier in the week, and brought some reinforcements, plus a tripod and junk.  

Thursday, April 2, 2015

A Most Unusual Outing

I did not accumulate much material for a blogpost this past weekend, other than this ever-lovely Painted Redstart, but the paucity of weekend photos did not damage my calm, for an exciting an unorthodox WEEKDAY birding adventure beckoned.

I met up with Tommy Debardeleben and Josh Wallestad--who just couldn't resist the Phoenix bird scene as advertised by our blogs any more--on Wednesday evening at Coon Bluff for some seasonal owling. As temperatures warm, this mesquite-bosque and saguaro habitat becomes excellent for Elf, Western Screech, and Great-horned Owls, as well as Common Poorwill and Lesser Nighthawk.

When the sun goes down, the cacophony begins. Before 8pm we had multiple vocalizing Poorwills and WESO, although I unluckily had to leave before the super-crushy chance on WESO came later in the evening. Nocturnal birding, as one might expect, is a different beast from day birding. Vocalizations are not just important, they are essential, especially when one is trying to find tiny 6-inch Owls in dense mesquite scrub.

The calling WESOs led us on a goose chase for a while (which is not the right sort of chase to be on after dark) before we eventually moved to an area better for Elves. Nocturnal birding is also aided by numbers of people, which we had, and good lighting equipment, which I do not have. Even so we eventually earned some nice looks at Elf Owls and the other fellas crushed WESO later in the evening, which came nicely after crushing hard on Whiskered Screech the day before.

There was also this mouse.

With Conn Bluff being a 25 minute drive from home, the weather being so mild, and the the Owls being so sweet, this might have to become a regular thing. Next time I'm coming with flash grenades.