Thursday, June 23, 2016

Pining for Some Santa Rita Rarities

So maybe you've heard, but there is a nesting Pine Flycatcher at the Aliso Springs campground on the east side of the Santa Rita mountains. With this being both a first ABA record and a nesting record, it's kind of a big deal. For better or worse (probably for better), this bird happens to be nesting at the end of a remote 9-mile road that rife with steep climbs and descents, deep washes, loose rock, and various other perils. It is very do-able in a 4wd high-clearance vehicle, this is one chase that takes care as well as back up. At least there is no shortage of good birds along the away, including Botteri's Sparrows, Pyrrhuloxia, and Northern Pygmy-Owl.

I was fortunate to get in on a 5-person mission from Phoenix to chase the bird. We went split-skies on a rental rocked the kazbah down to Aliso Springs. After the drive the bird was easy (and also surrounded by a dozen other birders).

The PIFL looks more or less like other empids. Its lower mandible seems to show more yellow-orange while the body and tail gave an impression of being slightly longer and skinnier. The single note calls were recognizably different from other empids however, but even so, mad props to Dave Stejskal and the AZ bird police for getting excellent documentation and researching the ID.
PIFL was on many the informed birder's radar as a potential ABA 1st, but I must admit that for me it was not a bird I had heard of before. Unfortunately the preponderance of people precluded some of the really good and crushy photo-ops the early birds(ers) had a week before, but one is not entitled to very much complaining when hanging out with an ABA record, is one?

The Aliso Springs campground area was very nice with the springs running. While hoping for a close PIFL perch, we were also treated to Dusky-capped Flycatchers, Western Tanagers, and Blue Grosbeaks. It was another interesting instance in which the rarest bird, the chase bird, was both the most and least remarkable.

A Red-headed Woodpecker, a pretty rare and awesome bird for Arizona in its own right, was in another canyon nearby, definitely worth a detour on the way back out, especially to flush Montezuma Quail from the surrounding grassy hills.

From east to west, we cut through the Santa Ritas to Madera Canyon, whose Carrie Nation Trail had been hosting an Aztec Thrush up to two days prior to our arrival. Apparently the bird was flushed by some over-eager beavers and did not return, though to be fair this probably was not the first time it was flushed and it might have been on its way out anyway.
As the bird had not been re-found along the trail, I followed the creek up canyon where water pools might attract Thrush species. We picked up HETH and AMRO, but no Aztec.

The birding was solid and the herping was very good. Yarrow's Spiny Lizards abounded along the creek and we found a young Ridge-nosed Rattlesnake at trail's end by the old mine shaft. The Rattler was a lifer and 4th species of its kind I've seen in AZ.

A calling male Trogon towards the base of the trail was further consolation. A day when an Elegant Trogon is like the 3rd best bird is a very good day, even when dipping on AZTH (again). 

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Scraping off the Rust

Organ Pipe National Monument...for years it has been a pristine fortress of unspoiled Sonoran Desert habitat. For years it has also stood as a hot, desolate monument to an ongoing failure of B's Bs as an Arizona operation, and a nemesis saga.
On six different occasions spanning all times of day and even part of the night, I had traipsed through the trail and canyons of OPNM waiting to see the tawny flush or hear the metronomic tooting of the highly coveted and highly difficult Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl.
It went on for years. I knew where I was. I knew where they should be. Other people found them and seemingly did so easily. And yet, disappointment and sunburn alone persisted.
My drive was recently reignited when I saw photos of the desert owl dynamo posted by AZ birder Walker Noe, who was a great sport in sharing his information, confirming that the Owls were there, albeit just a little farther from where I had been searching.

With Walker's updated and much-appreciated information, I arrived at the OPNM trails with Pops before sun-up and began the short hike to the FEPO's purlieu, having to make peace with the notion that the owl was so close to where I had spent hours and hours searching other times, and thereby had probably just barely been missing it (or else there really is a conspiracy--probably that too).
Maybe in the past my timing was always a little off. Maybe in the past the canyon really had been deserted. Maybe in the past I had beeswax over my ears and scales over my eyes. Past shortcomings not withstanding, on this momentous day and within 10 minutes of beginning, I hard the diminutive tooting of one of Arizona's more desirable little rusty-brown blobs (and AZ does have a few).
One might worry that approaching a FEPO for photos is difficult business, given the extra set of eyes they have in the back of their heads.

Truth be told, they (or, at least, this bird) are pretty accommodating. The bird was first calling down in a wash running parallel to the trail but then moved prominently to the less-tangled flatland on the opposite side.
Although the sun had not yet crested the canyon ridge, disallowing close-detail lighting, the FEPO moved from perch to perch, overseeing his arid domain. The bird seemed especially to favor ironwood perches (though it also perched on mesquite), which I had to admit was something lacking from my previous excursions--the ironwoods only seem to grow on one side of the wash, not really in it, and in times before I was usually on the opposite side or in the wash itself.

Cathartic pronouncements and the peaceful calm of closure echoed and permeated through the cool shady canyons of the OPNM. The FEPO called intermittently but consistently, vocalizing 5-7 times in about 5 minutes periods before moving to a new perch in a cyclical fashion. I stuck with the bird waiting for the sunlight to crest the eastern ridge, realizing not long before the moment of truth that I had forgotten to switch out camera batteries beforehand. 

The subsequent blinking red lights and mad dash back to the car resulted in substantial and not necessarily un-boastworthy lacerations, and thankfully the FEPO stayed local with Pops maintaining the stakeout, moving to a larger palo verde tree as the sun finally flooded the little valley.
After my many previous high intensity and high energy excursions for this bird, he just sat, super chill, and compelled me to do the same.

Perhaps there was a lesson here. Be cool. Relax. Take in the surroundings and abide. Well the FEPO didn't have to worry about time, heat, and gas prices in the same way, even if he is also keeping a list of birds he has seen and/or eaten, so don't get too lecture-y there FEPO, but the point is taken.
Sweet, sweet release.

With a little extra time to kill, I also stopped by the Avondale/PIR bridge for Barn Owl, where there were also hundreds of Cliff Swallows building nests and foraging with impressive coordination.


Neighborhood Great Horned Owls and a briefly calling WESO made for a four-owl day, which is a very good day by various and sundry standards. With FEPO falling, that leaves Five-striped as the only AZ resident species I have yet to see. So look out California Gulch; I am feeling sassy.

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Oregon Rambling and Easy Summer Promises

Below is a picture of a Burrowing Owl shot in early May, which marks the last time I did any real birding. I am ashamed, full of apologies, etc., but you've heard this all before. After so long away what I can promise is this: there will be more and better birding in the future. Southeast Arizona is off-chart with vagrants right now and the weekend draws near.

Birding had to take a backseat this year, but it has not all been grindstone and drudgery. Recently I took a trip to Oregon for some much needed 'Away from Arizona' time. Despite all the best information and encouragement from Online Oregon Hubs Hipsters Birders and Reformed Bird-hater Jen, I could not make this into much of a birding expedition, but Oregon is still Oregon, which is one of the most beautiful states there is.

The first portion of the trip was on the east side of the Cascades in Bend. Geologically recent volcanic eruptions scarred this landscape in impressive ways and for once, finally, it's not considered rude to stare at or even touch a cool scar.
Ragged basalt was strewn like lithified ocean waves, with warped vegetation clinging on to life in between, or standing monolithic and twisted in death. It was gnarly.

We have much to be thankful to volcanoes for, including good soil, significant landmarks, and giving us reason to get interested in science as 5-year-olds. Among all these things, perhaps one of the greatest testaments to the destructive and creative power of volcanoes is Crater Lake an hour south of Bend. This caldera was created when 12,000ft. Mt. Mazama lost its temper like 15,000 years ago and blew off its last 4,000 feet. The resulting crater filled with rain water and receives only the most minimal snow melt run-off, thus maintaining its azure complexion that out-blues the sky itself.

The birding options east of the Cascades are tremendous, but alas I was touring with non-birders, and while chasing Greater Sage Grouse or White-headed Woodpeckers sounded great to me, spending more time in the Bend brewery scene appealed to everyone else. The tough part was I also do well in a brewery habitat, so really I didn't put up much protest.
The second portion of Oregon time was spent in Portland, which is also within reach of broad-reaching attractions where the birds cannot help but be included. Case in point, mighty Haystack Rock at Cannon Beach has dozens and dozens of pelagic species nesting on it and its neighboring rocks.

It's time for another edition now, alas, of terrible photos of cool birds, lifers and otherwise. Common Murres, Gulls, a few Guillemots, and Pelagic Cormorants clung (or in the case of the Gulls, nested comfortably) to the rocky facades, displaying determination and stoicism otherwise belayed by their cute (Murres and Guillemots) or awkward (all the non-gulls) movement.

There were even six Harlequin Ducks hanging out by the breakers. I would love to see these birds near nesting habitat on a rough mountain stream some day, but in the meantime this will have to do.

Best of all, there were Puffins! Puffin of any variety--in this case Tufted--are probably second only to Owls in terms of broad appeal to humans. We picked out 4 individuals on Haystack and enjoyed watching them bullet around the rock in the evening. Small confession, I actually super like the second photo of the dynamos against the large blurry backdrop, but I can't really explain why.

Beach time is always exciting. It guarantees good birding and, even if Oregon beaches in late May are too chilly to host all the scantily clad beautiful people we usually go to the beaches to see, they do host lots of dead jellyfish, which are also good.
Apparently this was a banner year for velella sail jellies getting beached what with the el nino winds and all. We also found another large jellyfish, which remarkably I resisted the urge to wear as a hat.

The hiking in Oregon is crazy good. In Arizona, if one wants to walk among the spruce and fir trees, one must get above 8,000 feet. In Oregon hemlock grows in the neighborhoods, and the hikes themselves are like treks through the rain forest (but much piny-er).

Wilson's Warblers were a common sound and uncommon sight around the lower Mt. Hood trails. They continue to be a sort of photo-nemesis for me, but it was pretty cool to have them vocalizing so much.

Pacific Wrens were also very commonly heard and, weirdly, commonly seen. when they are in a singing mood they can be pretty accommodating.

With all due respect to TLC (is that very much, by the way?), when in Oregon I WILL go chasing waterfalls. Mild apologies for the photo dump here, but these cataracts are all from one 7 mile hike on Larch Mountain.

Other notable wildlife included lots of banana slugs, both cow-speckled (means they're ripened) and regular un-speckled (means they're going to taste bitter and grassy).

By trip's end the lack of crushes and clear looks was getting bothersome so I snuck out early, hoping at least to get some Chestnut-Backed Chickadee shots at the Audubon Center. Alas, it did not open until 9am, at which point I needed to mosey to the airport, and they took in all of their feeders (yes, I was getting desperate). So, pelagics aside, I think my favorite bird was this Swainson's thrush that was calling before sun-up.

Was the lack of birds in this post frustrating for you too dear reader? Worry and war not much longer, because the Santa Rita Mountains are blowing up right now with Pine Flycatcher, Aztec thrush, and Golden-winged Warbler (also, you know, like Trogons and stuff). For sake of you all, you two readers who still bear with me, I will try to go see these birds on Sunday. Proust!