Saturday, June 27, 2015

Thank You for Smoking: Birding Appalachia Part II (Getting High)

The foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains offer much by way of diverse flora and fauna. So much greenery and water makes one feel transported to a rainforest more so than the Tennessee/Carolina border, and yet there still is something lacking. A good birder and a good American desires more, he or she desires not only the lush, but also the hard and craggy. One must climb ever upward, to the Appalachian balds and the hardy spruce/fir forests that dwell there. It's like Caspar David Friedrich's ideal picnic. In the early mornings these primordial mountains exhale deeply, linking earth and sky with an intoxicating timeless mist and blurring everything in between.
P.S. It's super tricky to bird in said mist. 

This is the sort of place one can get lost. This is the sort of place one hopes to get lost. This is the sort of place one loses oneself. This is also the place one finds some birds.

With those who were willing and able, we went on an 9 mile hike along the Charlie's Bunion portion of the Appalachian trail, moving between 4,500 and 6,100 feet, up from the deciduous forest to the ancient evergreen peaks. Sunlight was a rare thing and dryness rarer still. From the bowels of heavy growth and pervasive mist, Veeries chimed and Black-throated Green Warblers buzzed in a perpetual homage to the smoking mountains. Once above 5,500 feet, I was reacquainted with a recent lifer and what I believe to be one of the most aesthetically successful Warblers.
There was also an actual lifer in the form of this Blue-headed Vireo, but it's best not to dwell on that.

The Black-headed Blue Warblers were still defining and defending territory, and their periodic outburts also tended to stir up other birds including Canada Warblers, Golden-crowned Kinglets, and the inevitable hordes of Dark-eyed Juncos. Black-throated Blue Warbler is so damned good-looking I want to tear my face off and put it back on upside down. Yeah, you heard me.

Rather surprising to me was the abundance of amphibians, given the altitude and temperature (but less surprising given the moisture). Apparently this area, the southern Appalachians, has more Salamander diversity than anywhere else in the world, or so sayeth wikipedia. The Southern Two-lined Salamander was about two inches long and skinnier than a pencil. The Appalachian Red was about double that, and equally shy, while the mighty and better-armored Northern Dusky Salamander adults (the most common species in mountain streams) dwarfed them both.

There were times hiking along the ridge when we'd pause and look out into straight nothing. The low-stratus clouds emanating from the mountains were so thick we could not see the range on either side of our trail, but as the morning drew on eventually the smoke gave way and shapes took form.

The termination of Charlies's Bunion was supposedly named by one surveyor in honor of his accompanying buddy's gigantic toe affliction that he revealed upon resting in that area. Given the heavy vegetation it was hard to tell exactly the to-scale dimensions of said bunion, but the tree-line birds did not pay that ambiguity much mind. 

The dour weather dampened the birding overall, but Black-throated Blues would have been compensation enough. Chestnut-sided Warbler was another potential lifer for others in our group however, and I had been puzzling at their absence all morning, since in previous experience at this altitude they were the most common behind Black-throated Green. 
All worry was put to rest on our descent, perhaps when the birds were more confident their parades would not be precipitated upon. Upon hearing their calls at long last I ran down the trail to catch up with Pops, only to hear him likewise calling back that he was, "Surrounded by singing Chestnuts and in danger." Indeed. Awesome.

Unfortunately we did not have enough time for further exploration and pursuit of Blackburnian, as well as Ruffed Grouse, but the hike was gorgeous It was like that level of totally comprehensive, soul-shaking gorgeous that sticks with you weeks later and sustains you through torrid summer working conditions...

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Thank You for Smoking: Birding Appalachia Part I

American Crows are easy birds in much of North America. They are not easy birds in central and southern Arizona, and I don't really know why their range seems to end with the Mogollon Rim in AZ. To remedy the fact that I see Crows infrequently, and also for various other reasons, I spent some time in eastern Tennessee in mid-June. Butler's Birds set up shop at a lodge on Douglas Lake as a part of the Schiffbauer family reunion, which put the B'sBs operation within striking distance of the Great Smoky Mountains subset of Appalachia. In this national park there are many birds. There are many fantastic trails. There are many waterfalls (yes, chase them). There are many bears. There is mountain honey. There is opportunity for family drama. There are one-way 11-mile loop roads full of geriatric traffic. Yes there are many potent forces coming together, and as a French commander famously said to his British counterpart as their forces approached on the eve of battle, "It will be a good day for the crows when we meet, mon ami."

But just showing Crow photos gets a bit macabre, not to mention boring. For one of our day trips I pushed the family to go hiking in the Great Smoky Mountains NP on the Abrams Falls trail. The trail terminates in a pleasant 20-foot cataract after about 2.5 miles and stays fairly level throughout, so it takes all comers and is recommendable for a large group of varying ability. 
Of course, once the party was underway I had my own plans for splitting off, or at least dawdling to pursue the various and sundry calls coming from the canopies and rhododendron thickets. 

We saw multiple Black Bears driving to the trailhead, and the trail itself had additional non-avian wildlife. The deer didn't seem to care too much about people, or else they just thought they were much better at hiding than they actually were.

Dragonflies and Butterflies, such as the Diana Fritillary below, were enjoying quite the carefree summer day. This seemed a bit cavalier, as there was a simultaneous massacre going on around them, butchery of an emotionless and efficient level matched only by piranha swarms and anteaters on a hill.

I was first alerted to this bird's presence by the chirps, croaks, and gurgles of its expiring victims, and then the buzzing war-call emanating from its carcass-clogged maw. 

I first became acquainted with Worm-eating Warblers last summer in a similar and nearby area. In that previous experience it was cloudy, they were skulky, I was nervous, and we all went home feeling disappointed, like a lame date for which you had such high hopes because, you know, their profile picture looked really cute. 
Anyway, that was not the case this time around. Maybe because it was earlier in the summer, these birds were super active and super vocal, buzzing out their hatred for worm-kind and all things associated with the vermiculated arts. 

Black-throated Green Warblers maintained a chorus throughout most of the hike, and Indigo Buntings were always vocal in clearings along the trail. We also had several Vireo species and hiccuping Summer Tanagers. This was all to be expected, and also to be expected was the ever-presence of Northern Parulas, probably the most common eastern Warbler. 
Everything was so damn green it kinda washed out the Parula colors when they did finally come low, but I guess this bird is nothing new at this point eh? They're hot stuff. They know it. We know it. We all know we know it.

They say that no one could beat the Yankees because they were distracted by their pinstripes. This was only partially true in baseball, but also applies to Worm-eating Warblers. The pinstripe helmet serves both a diversionary and illusory function, distracting insects with the handsome pattern while also distorting depth perception as to how far away the bird's lunging moth really is. It worked on this inch worm, which then became half an inch worm, and then a quarter, and so on and so forth to infinity.

There were a pair of WEWAs gathering food, and since they were not consuming it they were most likely bringing it to a cup-shaped homestead up the trail slope. The key to surviving in this world is to find a specialty, find a niche, and fill it well. WEWAs are very good at what they do.

Being an inconsiderate dork and all, I did not actually take pictures of the trail-terminus waterfall. The hike was scenic and enjoyable, but a bit too low and flat, too open, to have that thick and primordial Appalachian feel. Before this hike had ended I was already planning another to higher climes and thicker trees, and to the birds that might be there.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

A Bit Red in the Face

Earlier this June I made a somewhat unsuccessful trip to the Bradshaw Mountains south of Prescott, AZ. This relatively accessible range offers excellent pine, spruce, and oak habitats favored by some pretty magnificent montane species. I arrived around 6pm, hoping to find a few promising spots in the daylight that might produce Mexican Whips and Flammulated Owls a few hours later. With this primary objective I was semi-successful. I found an area that offered great audible and visual access to Whips, (this didn't pay dividends with photographs), but busted on the tiny and timorous Flamms. The saving grace was that the Bradshaws are infested with Red-faced Warblers. 

And I really mean infested. Most ranges in Arizona above 5,500 feet have populations of RFWA, but in my experiences I'll see between 1 and 5 birds in a given 4 hours hike. At one spot in the Bradshaws I had 5 RFWAs in the same tree. They were singing, gathering nesting material, and foraging all low to the ground. Did you know RFWAs make cup nests on the ground? I did not, but I had to be grateful to the cloudy skies and onset sunset for diminishing the light, lest everything I owned become melted. 

Luckily most things became only half-melted, and once the sun was down the Warblers dissipated, things cooled, down, and things reformed Terminator 2 style. I had some of the best looks I've yet managed at Whips up in the Bradshaws, and hopefully can find some time to try again for the Flamms before end of June, by which time they tend to stop vocalizing. I'm getting more and more into the nocturnal birding in Arizona, especially this time of year, but there is a reason why diurnal birding is still the third most popular sport in the world, behind bowling and hornussen
Logically, it's best when both worlds can collide, which means getting up even earlier and staying out even later by birding standards. It is worth it. Just make sure you get enough rest so that you're up for a rollicking game of hornussen midday. 

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Ramsey Canyon Seizure-Inducing Rarities

Also known as another installment of that the most bittersweet (mostly sweet) series: "Awful Photos of Amazing Birds; Not Brought to You by National Geographic."
As you may or may not have heard, there's been some crazy stuff happening in Ramsey Canyon of the Huachucas Mountains. Now the Huachucas are probably the best birding destination in the whole state, but usually it's Miller Canyon stealing the show with its panoply of Hummingbirds and Owls, or Huachuca Canyon itself with wayward tropical Wrens and Redstarts. This spring/summer it seems to be Ramsey Canyon's turn to shine, as some very impressive vagrants were not only seen well in the canyon, but confirmed to be nesting. Of course, when one rarity is found, that draws in more birders, who find more birds. The Patagonia Picnic Table Effect, as it's been called, has been rocking the SE AZ birding scene (again).  

After several tense non-birding days, brought on by the necessities of moving and continued work, I was at last able to chase after the Ramsey Canyon rarities. The birds were good enough that even Pops Butler had to get in on the action. This necessitated stopping first, of course, at Ft. Huachuca to check in on the Sinaloa Wren. The Wren was a no-show, as it has been for the last week or so, but there were lots of Montezuma Quail in the surrounding grassy slopes, and plenty else as well. *Remember the description of this post; here is one such Quail. Probably four or five times, one or two would take off from mere feet away, scaring the expletives out of me and making me look and feel the fool.

The dally in Huachuca Canyon was also a stalling tactic, since the Ramsey Canyon preserve doesn't open until 8am. This gateway can be circumvented by hiking Carr Canyon next door and then looping down into Ramsey Canyon, allowing for an earlier start but a longer hike. There are many options, and all of them are good. This time of year, the oak, pine, and sycamore canyon slopes are bursting at the seems with Tanagers and Flycatchers, as well as croaking Trogons. Those are the normal breeders. 

After hanging in the mild and birdy Huachuca Canyon until 8am, the steep and scree-ridden trail up Ramsey was a comparative challenge. One of the Ramsey rarities can be seen on the Bledsoe Loop fairly near the visitor center, but we elected to bypass it in pursuit of the rarer bird up canyon. 

In addition to a Scarlet Kingsnake (also less cooly called a Milk Snake), we enjoyed nifty birds up the trail. Red-faced Warblers were buddy-buddy with Painted Redstarts. Three species of Vireo chimed with two species of Nuthatch (it was a definite cacophony). Cordilleran Flycatchers were gathering nesting material and they weren't the only ones, but more on that later.

Along the way we came across an intriguing Hummingbird. Black-chinned would be the statistical bet in Ramsey, but this bird has some dark cheek patches and some buffy flanks, as well as the elongated and decurved bill. Kinda maybe sorta good for female Lucifer's eh? Like the number of licks required to get to the center of a tootsie pop, we may never know (although apparently it's 364).

After hiking 2 miles and gaining 1000 feet we came upon a group of excited nerds patting backs and shaking heads, gaping and chirping like hungry Robin chicks. It was a big enough deal that even Neil Hayward of recent Big Year fame was hanging out with the bunch. Rightly so:

Indeed, the small cinnamon-flavored thing is a code 5 Tufted Flycatcher, only the 7th or 8th confirmed member of the species to visit North America. The odd turtle-shell thing on the branch below? Yes indeed, that is the Tufted Flycatcher's stately nest, quite possibly the first ever recorded in North America.

The hike up the mountain was a satisfactory travail and the birds along the way were hella splendid, but it all just sort of melted away when we saw this little buggar, rarest of buggars, quite possibly the rarest buggar currently in the ABA area right now, setting up his homestead.

 For the hour or so we lingered the TUFL stayed pretty high in its pine or gathered lichen from the nearby oak trees. It didn't allow for much by way of photos but it was pretty dynamic stuff. We figured with the group of birders being the size it was, the bird wasn't going to come much closer and this proved true for the afternoon.

It would have been a good time to dawdle with the TUFl. A male Trogon even flew up the canyon and overhead head as we watched, but the desire to remain could not countermand the desire to see another vagrant, half as rare (which is still pretty damn rare) and twice as gorgeous (which is very doubly damn gorgeous). Also, it stayed even doubly higher, which was very aggravatingly damn high.

A pair of Flame-colored Tanagers has been nesting in the Bledsoe Loop for the last 3 or so weeks. The male, at least, is a clean specimen with none of that icky, quotidian Western Tanager mixed in. These lovebirds were the original draw to Ramsey Canyon, and by coincidence or causality someone hiking casually farther up canyon soon afterwards found the nesting TUFL. 

It was then revealed, though 10 days after the fact, that someone also found and photographed a friggin' Blue Mockingbird at the Ramsey Canyon Folklore Center just farther down the canyon. Yeah yeah with a bird like that provenance comes into questions, but just consider all those rarities and be at peace. 

Normally a crazy or not-crazy person would make a trip down to the Huachucas just for Sulphur-bellied Flycatchers and Trogons. On a trip when those are only the 4th or 5th coolest birds, something is egregiously unbalanced in the universe. Somewhere in tropical Mexico there is a 2 mile patch without any cool birds at all.

No one in the entire world knows that a SBFL nest looks like, though this is not so much due to great secrecy on their part but more so their exclusive proclivity for nesting in cavities. It's the only place that's safe from marauding, dive-bombing Black-chinned Hummingbirds.

It isn't Tufted or Flame-colored, but its belly is noxious and its call is one of the best to echo in the canyons. There will not be any of these birds in the mountains of Tennessee and North Carolina to which I soon depart, nor will there be Black-headed and Little Gulls nor Spruce Grouse. We who are the rest of the bird blogosphere do the best we can, dammit!