Saturday, April 28, 2018

Last Chances in the Choke Chiris

Before Great Black Hawk stole the national scene at South Padre Island, AZ boasted probably the biggest ABA rarity buzz with an absurdly confiding Fan-tailed Warbler and (likely returning) Slate-throated Redstart in the Chiricahuas. I have a proud, or at least prominent, history of dipping on Slate-throated, but the Fan-tailed was gorgeous and seemed like an easy tick. 
Curious to see how Butler's Bird Jr. would fare with longer car rides, since we will be doing some significant road-tripping this summer, the whole family headed for an overnight exploration of the Chiris.

By time we departed, the Fan-tail had not been seen for two days. This was known. What was known later on was that Butler's Birds Jr. does not like riding for more than two hours, and does not like hiking for more than about 30min. in a row, in large part due to being a little big for his carrier and, mostly, because he wants to taste all the rocks. I'll push birding on him but it may be geology that suits his fancy down the road. Pretty cute at any rate.

So, in line with expectations, we did not get to add our names to the list of people of have crushed the Fan-tailed Warbler. Also in line with expectations, we got to spend time with cool Hummingbirds. 

The Fan-tailed was actually being seen on a private residence in the area (what a yard bird!), and with its continued absence we soon relocated to South Fork, which afforded scenery and shade even if it was late in the afternoon for the better birding. The hikers below almost got t-boned by some Coule's Deer crossing the wash. Apparently deer do not habitually look both ways when startled.

The next morning I snuck out early to try for the Pinery Canyon Slate-throated Redstart. This location has hosted one or more nesting birds for the last three years, making Pinery Canyon to Slate-throats what Florida Canyon was to Rufous-capped Warblers 8 years ago--the beachhead for a northern invasion (one hopes). 
Finding the bird still takes some doing, and unfortunately I only had a couple of hours to scan and scour before rendezvousing with the Fam. The bird was eventually re-found that day around noon, but during my time in the area it was windy and the high temp was 37 F! 
This is the 4th time I have dipped on a Slate-throat. 

Oh! this bird get your hopes up!? Yeah, me too, but just another Painted. Who even cares about those anymore...

Why am I sharing this failure on the blog? Seeking absolution I guess. Maybe dipping on birds should just be the new theme. How's this for a new name idea--The Big Dipper: Not-So-Stellar Birding. Marketably clever eh?
Consolation was at least there on the mountain, although it needed to be substantial considering the amount of driving it takes to get up, over, and then down to Pinery Canyon. Some of the morning's first birds were hawk buddies up at 6800 feet and a Tom displaying to a hen off the side of the road.

Yellow-eyed Juncos were typically welcoming and kept the understory pretty teeming with movement, joined by roving rampaging hordes of Bushtits and Kinglets. House Wrens supplied steady background ambiance. 

This time of year, There Will Be Empids. There Will Be Consternation. There Will (probably) Be Blood (because I fall a lot when hiking and birding simultaneously).

I could not really justify dragging the Fam back to Pinery Canyon, up and down the nauseating road and dust to bird where there would not be clear trails, so we flipped ol' Slate-throat the bird and instead headed to the Chiricahua National Monument, because who doesn't love monoliths? 
Turns out rock watching is actually way easier than bird watching. There is much less potential for vagrancy.

Other than the expected Towhees and Bewick's Wrens ever-present in mid-elevation oak scrub, the birding was pretty muted at the CNM Park. However, there were many Mexican Jays, and they were very tame. If you want to crush MEJA and see awesome rock formations, go to this place.

Floored by the grandeur!

Friday, April 20, 2018

A Salt River, A Granite Reef, A Big Move

The Salt River, a bastion of waterfowl in the winter and back-floating beer-toting tubers in the summer, is probably the most well-known aquatic attraction in east Phoenix/Mesa, except maybe for Big Surf. the river drains from the Mogollon Rim and White Mountains up north, running 300+ miles with its tributaries through the heart of Maricopa County. The river's size make it a great attraction for waterfowl, especially species that prefer deeper or moving water and won't be found on smaller city ponds. Of course, it also sustains healthy riparian channels that grow out to the surrounding mesquite bosque and other Sonoran habitats in the valley.

There are several points of access in Mesa. Coon Bluff is probably my favorite, given its propensity for Vermilion Flycatchers and excellent nocturnal birding, but Granite Reef is another, well-reputed for its passerine pull-downs, including some regional rarities like Rusty Blackbird.
With the Ides of April passed, it's a good spot to look for migrants, early breeders, and the not-so-elusive Salt River Horses.

The horses are regarded as wild, local treasures by some, feral intrigues by others, and introduced nuisances by yet more. Given they have their own management lobby, I don't know how wild they can really be considered, but their ecological impact is indisputable, and not in a "making the world a better place" kind of way.
The Granite Reef area provides a path through mesquite bosque and then tamarisk and cottonwood, plus views of the river itself. Pretty cool to pick up a late female Goldeneye (nice pic huh??)...

...and then turn to the other shoulder and tick LUWA and YRWA. I guess Lucy's Warbler is like the western counterpart to Prothonotary, as Grace's is to Yellow-throated and Mesquite Bosque is to cedar swamps. They are the only two cavity-nesting Warblers, at least hat I'm aware of in North America, and are extremely vocal. I don't know...still feels like we got short-changed on this one though. Maybe it's just because I haven't crushed them properly.

There are multiple nesting Balds along the river too, in fact one nest we observed had a mature adult, fledged young, and new chick all in view. Alas that all I have to show from recent Baldies are these typical distant fly-by shots, seems to be the new thing for this blog.

If you follow the Granite Reed path west, eventually it runs up to the access-restricted dam, but you can continue around to a canal path, without trespassing, and proceed down to the dry spillway and finally back to the river. This portion of the trail moves through chaparral grass that is good for Buntings later in the year, and the canals sustained impressive numbers and variety of Swallows.

Northern Rough-wings were unsurprisingly numerous, while Violet-greens were surprisingly numerous. We also picked up single digits of Bank, Barn, and Tree, along with the expected Cliff colonies by the dam overpass, making for a 6-Swallow day. Pretty damn special!
Below is a not great, diagnostic photo of Violet-green Swallow. Will I derive praise or satisfaction upon it? No. Will I use it as evidence of a first state record for VGSW at a later point in time? Also no.

We spent most of the day looking up for FOY Warblers, Orioles, and fly-bys on the river, but one of the closest encournters came from getting down (and being super patient) with a Green-tailed Towhee that was equal parts confiding and retiring. No Canyon (unlikely) or Spotted (fair shot) to make for a Towhee quadfecta (w/ Abert's) complimenting the Swallow sextet. From this I conclude that birding gods aren't really into numerology.

Diminutive in stature (smallest Towhee) as it is in behavior, Green-tailed is nonetheless a subtle looker, with notes of Olive and Five-striped Sparrow woven into its grumpy fluff. Perhaps because I see them in chaparral tangles, they strikes me as a bird of the rough and arid west: hardy, understated, and yet beautiful in their specialization. They are one of many birds I shall miss seeing often, as of course I will miss seeing many of the other western and AZ specialties.

Butler's Birds will be moving to North Carolina (look out, Wayne County!) at May's end. It shall be a tumultuous time for birding and blogging. I will be trading out western Wren, Warbler, and Sparrow groups for those of the east, trading mesquite and chaparral for woodlands and salt marshes, not to mention trading out careers and boring stuff like that, but thankfully I will have ol' reliable Mourning Doves, plus friends and family, to steady the ship. Such a move brings much excitement as it does apprehension and, of course, mourning for what is being left behind. At some point there will be Northern Gannets, so that's awesome.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Weekday Snapshots

For those modern anomalies, the non-retired birder,s it may often feel like we're just trying to survive from weekend to weekend, parallel to living paycheck to paycheck. Truly, is there anything more precious than time spent doing what one loves? I doubt it.
But in that mean time (in all senses of the word 'mean'), we do what we can to get by. Here are a couple odds and ends:

If you're feeling bold, brash, and hungry for wild honey...I know a place. 

An observation first, hummingbird feeding from a wild perch. They feed stationary at feeders of course, but I admire the ingenuity here. A very convenient ocotillo.

Most flycatchers are not sexually dimorphic. Most flycatchers are not as cool as Phainopeplas. Most Phainopeplas aren't as confiding as this female. Even she is bashful to the camera.

Burrowing Owls sure are leggy sons of the earth. Apparently they pursue prey on foot, like top-heavy Roadrunners, when not ambushing from the wing. I have never seen this, but would like to.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Caught in the Infinite Space Between

No, there are no ABA 1st Red Warbler photos or sagas here--not yet anyway. Although an amazing find and a beautiful bird no matter what, recent photos and analysis of this bird, showing it likely to be the white-cheeked subspecies and to have overly worn tail feathers are raising increasingly problematic provenance questions. Even more problematically, the bird has not been re-found since Day 1. Perhaps it returned home.

This past weekend, attempting to make good on resolutions not to be a total wash-out birder and blogger, I met up with a friend at Tres Rios, hoping to post some big numbers for the day. But birding for sake of vanity and bravado seldom ends well.
It has been unusually warm in Phoenix the last week or two, hitting the upper 90s, and this combined with the timing to make for a pretty lackluster showing. Most waterfowl had departed, but migrants and breeders were sparsely present. Cliff Swallows were typically industrious, foraging and homemaking before sun up.

Upon closer examination I discovered the supposed Swallows were actually flocks of miniature Bald Eagles. Or maybe not; the Eagle might've come later. I don't know. It was a slow morning.
The resident Burrowing Owls at Tres Rios are always a highlight, though Red-Winged Blackbirds were by far the most numerous and cacophonous bird of the day. There were good numbers of superiors Yellow-headed Blackbirds around as well, but they are much more secretive at this location, and the advanced warmth also meant the riparian channels were already well overgrown and nigh-invisible from cattails. 

It was interesting to bird this site again after probably two years. I think of these familiar haunts as being fixed and reliable--and on a macro scale they are--but a channel like Tres Rios is also a dynamic environment. There had clearly been some large floods and rapid growth since my last visit, and some of the nooks, paths, and trails I used to stake out were almost unrecognizable.
Heraclitus observed change as a constant, quipping, "A Man never steps into the same river twice." One can extend this observation as well to, "A Man never squats and squints at birds in the same spot twice." Black-crowned Night Herons prove ever-adaptable.

eBird flagged a late Sage Thrasher, which I didn't bother to record at the time given the poor photo-op it offered, but perhaps the most interesting find, one even non-birders can appreciate, was a a friendly George Washington.

Feeling unsatisfied with the lack of crushing, I slunk out again Sunday morning to some local spots. The Tres Rios experience was too late for winter birds and too early for spring/summer birds. The DBG, like 10 minutes away from home, is a tidy little migrant rap in its own right, and always offers close views of something. In this case, it was close views of many, many nature photographers, birds, bugs, flowers and otherwise. The place was overrun by Geri Photog, though I managed to sneak up on some water chickens all the same.

At the DBG, Cactus Wren--probably North America's best Wren--is almost a trash bird. I have seen them steal from purses, be baited into eating out of people's hands, etc. It's rather undignified for a State signatory. Great great bird though.

LEGOS and Verdin showed typically well. Of course, LEGOs show well just about anywhere in their range, especially if thistle is involved. Verdin are pretty accepting of people as well, though curiously I have never seen them around feeder stations. Do they not have a diversified diet that includes seeds and such? I always thought of them as opportunistic feeders and have seen them noshing on mesquite blooms and buds, but why never seeds at feeders? Are Verdins actually purist snobs?

The day had its pleasant surprises too, not on a monumental scale so much as the, "Huh, well I guess it was worth it to get out this morning" scale (it always is, by the way). Tres Rios is always a good time, but the disappointment was that we picked up almost no migrants or breeders during the Saturday foray. 
It was thus unexpected that the little self-contained, high-traffic DBG held several FOY migrants.

BTYW actually breed prodigiously in the higher elevations of Maricopa, but Orange County Warbler and Nashville--a photo first for the site, woot woot--consider this fly-over country, or fly-through at least. But migration and mesquite are great equalizers.
We've all been there, a long road trip when, scratchy of eye, tired of limb, and grumbly of stomach. Scruples fall away. Golden Corral, or a little roadside diner with 'eats' and gift shop attached gives welcome relief to the weary. We eat, gratefully. We buy a trinket, perhaps. And we go on our way.

In addition to warblers there were migrant empids being all shady and ambiguous. Given my severely atrophied birding skills, I probably should not even try, but this seems like a Dusky Flycatcher to me--though the bill is on the smaller side the primary projection doesn't seem to measure up to Hammond's standards.

It's a case of the candle that burned twice, maybe ten times as bright, with the one-day wonder Red Warbler in Pima County. In many ways though things are just heating up; the birding will only get better and better the next several weeks, unless you're only into ducks.. Stay hungry.