Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Long Shots and Pot Shots: A Glorious Run

Last Friday saw This Machine and Butler's Birds hit all of our targets around Phoenix, excepting the nigh-unchasable Prairie Falcon (you don't find them, they find you) and the weirdo case of the missing Flicker (ticked later in the weekend). This boded well, because an even fuller itinerary beckoned on Saturday. Though none of our Saturday birds were quite as notorious as a Le Conte's Thrasher, many of them were more difficult to find in a much larger habitat, with greater tendencies towards peregrination. When they heard all the birds we were going for, and in what time frame, even the difficult-to-impress Eagles sat up and took notice: 

Generally speaking, it is good to be humble when recounting birding tales, for myriad reasons. Humility breeds little exaggeration, and honesty as well as precision are pretty important when passing on information relating to birding. Humility tends not to piss people off, but nobody really likes braggadocio. It's also embarrassing to brag about things that aren't all that impressive to people (birders) with higher standards--it makes one look foolish. Plus, braggarts tend to get hit pretty hard with karma or birding justice and/or hepatitis C. 
Taking all of these reasons for humility and reserve into account I still have to say, WE KNOCKED IT OUT OF THE PARK. And then we took the park and knocked it out too. We also knocked on wood, and knocked on people's doors for no reason. So maybe the park wasn't that big to begin with, but we knocked it out like Mike Tyson knocked out his own career. So, indulge me a Tyson-esque earful. 

We left Phoenix around 5:30am--winter birding and late sunrises are great for this reason--to make the drive up through Sedona and Oak Creek Canyon. The first target for the day, and one of the trickier to pursue in a limited time frame, was American Dipper. These birds winter in Coconino County but not in very large numbers; they don't occur with the sort of regularity of those in the White Mountains anyway. We pulled off Hwy 89 near the West Fork trailhead to scan Oak Creek, not having particularly high hopes. 
The sun had not yet crested the mountains and the air held an exhilarating chill while traversing the rugged creek, establishing an atmosphere of slightly tense serenity. As we explored the area, silence hung in the air and there was very little bird activity. As we were also feeling the weight of time management with the many of target species for that day, the plan was to spend minimal time looking for the Dipper. Even though the area was gorgeous, I was not overly optimistic with the lack of activity. All we had was this little, slate-colored mouse to show for our troubles.    

After a bit of rugged hiking and careful sleuthing, we started to notice white-wash deposits fairly regularly along the creek. This provided a welcome morale booster, even though overall birding around the creek was still pretty dead in the early hours. From the turn off at mile marker 385, we wound our day down to the West Fork trailhead where, to our mutual surprise, we had a single American Dipper foraging along the recently over-washed bank. (The earlier photo is of this same bird). 
After so much quiet, almost sneak-birding, it was pretty crazy to have this coveted bird foraging so near us. There wasn't much light to work with, but Nate still crushed it pretty well and y'all will have to check out his blog for more satisfying views. 

AMDI isn't really rare for the area or time of year, but there aren't many reports of the bird and the little bugger can be tough to pick out. This sighting probably wasn't as difficult or unlikely as it felt then, but we had only budgeted a small amount of time for this bird, and everything paid off in that first 30 minutes. We skipped cloud 7 and 8 and continued up towards Flagstaff on cloud 9.

The next stop was at Mormon Lake Lodge, preceded by some roadside scans of waterfowl in the area as we approached along Lake Mary Road. We also stopped to salute the Eagles shown earlier. As the sun finally got to work, the birds started calling and nature did too, which is a very invigorating thing in near-freezing temperatures. 

Much like the hoped-for Prairie Falcon in Maricopa, our hoped-for Rough-legged Hawk did not materialize along the Mormon Lake grasslands, but this was always a peripheral consideration. Our main targets, in the pine forest around the lodge area, were Lewis's Woodpecker, Mountain Chickadee, Cassin's Finch, and Evening Grosbeak. All of these birds winter in the area (or live there year round), but odds are that with many targets, one will be missed. I need to insert a meta-commentary now, because at this point in the day I was almost entirely neglecting my camera in favor of ruthless, somethings to the something binocular scanning.

The LEWP were almost as numerous as they were when I visited the area back in October, and we logged MOCH as quickly if not as often. Cassin's Finches were very vocal and mobile in the pine groves near Mormon Lake Road. We figured if they were numerous here, they'd be all the more so at the lodge, and didn't stop to take pictures.
This proved to be a mistake, as birding at the lodge itself was somewhat dead, excepting for a massive and deafening flock of Red-wing Blackbirds and like 3 or 4 different subspecies of Junco. This winter has been a weird one.

We continued to explore the area as the sun climbed higher in the sky, but we never did get better looks at LEWP, MOCH, or CAFI than our initial sightings--how often does that happen? 95% of the time I try to force the impossible with the first bird I see, waste time, and then get way better looks with another bird of that species later in the trip.
More worryingly, we had neither sight nor sound of Evening Grosbeaks, and noon was approaching. This is the point in any mission when all those pesky, nerve-wracking questions come into play: how much longer should we linger? Should we go to a different spot? Should we cut our losses? Do we double back? Is that guy I hit with my car probably ok? Is that car I hit with my guy ok?

Knowing we needed to keep moving, we decided to dally just a moment for better Cassin's Finch photo ops on the way back to the highway, when for no particular reason a flock of 14 Grosbeaks flew into a tall pine nearby. They paused and chirped for about 5 seconds, and then flew off just as suddenly. It was literally out of the blue, like as we were looking at distant CAFI these big birds just suddenly appeared out of the sky, stopped for a sec., and then disappeared again. Just as we were getting ready to leave, the EVGRs showed. It was short, but it was another clutch play, and we decided to move on the Walnut Canyon for our next group of targets. 

**This year has been a major irruption year for both CAFI and EVGR in Maricopa County, and the photos used here were taken at Sunflower the next day, where we went to bolster our photo portfolio after finally nabbing stupid Gilded Flicker at Papago Park. This was going to be the Plan B if we missed these targets in Coconino, and in fact they showed much better at Sunflower than up north in their usual haunts. #weirdasswinter

A former ABA Bird of the Year, like a former President of the United States, never loses its importance or its prestige, even after it has retired from office.

With AMDI, CAFI, and EVGR secured, the next of our top priority targets was Williamson's Sapsucker. This is another resident but sparsely populated bird, like the Dipper, that's far from a sure sighting even within its usual range except in certain areas of the White Mountains. Little did we know, February 14th was 'Free Park Day', so the main area was packed. As we enjoyed some lunch and smokes, we couldn't help but noticing the nonexistent bird activity around us. To get away from the crowds, we trekked away from the visitor center and trailhead to the secluded woodlands behind the ranger cabins.  The bird activity picked up significantly, and once again we were up to our necks in Nuthatches, Chickadees, Robins, Jays, and Hairy Woodpeckers--which is a very good conglomerate of things to have up to one's neck. Townsend's Solitaire's were also numerous in the area, and confiding.

The birding was very good, but we were cycling through the same birds in the pine/juniper woodlands and after a while, just like when we were looking for the Grosbeaks, we began to get that feeling--you know the one--when you sense it's just not going to happen with a particular species.
And just as with the Grosbeaks, it was at that low point when we had our sighting. A medium sized Woodpecker flew in from nowhere and started doing woodpecker things on a larger pine. This bird had a lot of black on its head and back, with yellow on its belly. We had brief looks at a beautiful male Williamson's before he too departed.
Here we made a critical mistake, for the WISA did not fly the coop and we could have pursued it, but an absurdly accommodating Townsend's Solitaire demanded our attention as we were following the WISA, and by time we had crushed him enough, we could not relocate the woodpecker. Just look at his smug expression; WISA probably paid him off to be a decoy.

We ended our time in Flagstaff without Pinyon Jay, the only real miss of our targets, but I admit to having terrible luck/knowledge with this bird in Arizona and I had not been expecting that to change. Our last stop on the way back to Phoenix was at Camp Verde, Yavapai County, where someone had a Rufous-backed Robin at their house about a week before. The little neighborhood was fairly birdy, though also bursting at the seems with loud, aggressive dogs. We couldn't turn up the RBRO, so despite all of our earlier success the day's birding ended on a slightly sour note. I blame these jerks, SSHA and COHA, even if that vagrant was a long shot.

Believe it or not, the day was longer than this post, but it was one of those truly epic, full commitment days that demanded total attention and paid huge dividends. It was a much needed break from all things work and other responsibilities, and much enjoyed time in the field. Once we logged Gilded Flicker the next day, Nate ended his time in Arizona with 15 new species, bad allergies, and a good idea of how to screw me over in a future TGC.