Saturday, February 7, 2015

Cheetahs Sometimes Prosper: Rare Looks at non-Rare Birds and yet more Chasing

It was another weekend of frenetic chasing for Butler's Birds. My recent weekend endeavors have been restricted to half-days, or part time birding, which doesn't even qualify me for birding health insurance. Without having as much time for the regular, inefficient ambling I so normally enjoy, this means maximizing the 7am-12pm slot with the surer bet in terms of good birds. In other words, I've totally been poaching other people's discoveries. First it was the Sprague's Pipit and then a Harris's Sparrow, both of which showed up as buzzer-beaters just before high noon. This weekend I was back at the Santa Cruz Flats, not too far from the SPPI patch, searching out some birds for which I did not have time to look during previous outings. Trying to balance birding with other things that aren't birding is the worst.  

In one of the remote corners of the Flats is an abandoned property, a chained-off house surrounded by elm and pecan trees as well as sycamore, cyprus, and pomegranate. The space is unoccupied by humans, but its water supply seems to be steady and this surprisingly lush little patch serves as a fantastic migrant trap that has turned up Rufous-backed Robin, Ruddy Ground-Dove, and Spotted Owl in years past. More recently, it has been hosting Black-throated Blue Warbler, American Redstart, and Summer Tanager (early).  

Verdins really want attention, and in a sparse desert landscape I'd recommend giving it to them, but one must keep one's eyes on the prize and ignore their overtures in dense vegetation where vagrants abound.

The BTBW was found end of last December, with the other two birds of note being found by ensuing recovery operations. BTBW is a rare bird for AZ, in that it's not annual, but the truly astounding circumstance was that this warbler, along with his wayward buddies, has stayed happily plopped in this same area for a month and a half, plus he seemed to have left his change of clothes in Michigan or wherever. The worryingly mild winter we've experienced so far has some silver lining I suppose--southern migrants and vagrants lose their urgency to move on.
The BTBW spot is private property and that bird likes it some thick cover in most circumstances, which meant getting clean looks and photos was always going to be a challenge even when the bird did appear. Luckily there was plenty else to observe in the area. Western Meadowlarks serenaded sweetly from cover in the alfalfa fields across the street, and a male Vermilion Flycatcher was displaying and boasting his territory around the yard.


VEFL would have to be considered an expected bird in this area, even common, but this fellow granted me some uncommonly good looks while I was waiting for the BTBW, at one point perching very near and doing some calisthenics. Winter never really settled into Arizona this year--even the higher elevations areas are mostly devoid of snow--and what normally starts in March or April for resident birds seems to be starting now.

People had been reporting the birds in different trees at different areas throughout different times of day, most of which were later than when I was looking. A row of smaller elm trees seemed the likeliest early morning stomping grounds for a 'throated' Warbler. Sure enough, specific scrutiny of these trees yielded the BTBW pretty quickly. Check out this action!

Yes, even with a facemelter like ol' Black-throated Blue, these sorts of taunting looks grew stale after a while. The Warbler was just being himself, but those intrinsic proclivities combined with the property restrictions to keep him more or less concealed. 
To liven things up, the female American Redstart made her appearance soon after. She was more apt to forage in an adjacent sycamore or mulberry trees, which were predominantly leafless. However, this also afforded her a higher range and was even further from the road. All this is to say, having crumby looks at great birds is a bittersweet symphony. Later this weekend I was also afforded an equally good bird in AZ with equally poor looks, in the form of the Chestnut-sided Warbler below.

Over the next hour or so, both birds offered brief looks, with the BTBW making the almost fatal (for me) mistake of showing his whole self at one point, which caused me to have a stroke in half of myself. If time were on my side, I would've sat there all day waiting for that perfect moment--such a bird as this is worth it. But there was also a Greater Pewee on the other side of town to try for, and time is seldom on my side...

Ah well, BTBW will be in Tennessee and Carolina this summer, as will I. What will not be there? Vermilion Flycatchers. Crush 'em while you got 'em.