Sunday, May 27, 2018

Tubac Succor: Birding Alive and Well

Southeast Arizona is regarded as one of North America's premier birding hotspots. This is known. The Catalina, Santa Rita, Huachuca, and Chiricahua ranges, as well as other "Sky Islands" offer continuous habitat for many tropical species that otherwise would not stray into the ABA area. But this year the lowlands and riparian corridors in SE AZ have been holding their own as well, turning up some nice vagrants with migration and also holding down some fantastic, long-staying ABA codes, the kind that people on Big Years spend outlandish money to go see. 

Sinaloa Wren (1+ individual) and Rose-throated Becard (1-2 pairs) are both established as nesting along the Santa Cruz river in Tubac this spring. Rufous-backed Robins have also been over-wintering (over-springing?) and are still being seen off and on in the area. Throw in breeding Gray Hawks, Kingbirds, and the possibility of an errant Green Kingfisher and one could forget all about Madera Canyon.

In these tangles...legends are made.

Also as a bonus, you can be on the ground birding in Tubac within 2 hours of leaving Phoenix, not bad by birding-commute standards. B's Bs Sr. and I headed down to try for the Becards and whatever else came with time permitting. Even the parking area off of Bridge Road was absurdly birdy. We logged between 20 and 30 species, half the day's total, in the first ten minutes while crossing the bridge. Flycatcher numbers in the early morning were especially remarkable and made it hard to keep eyes on the prize. 

Also remarkable was the tameness of the local javelina, and the size of the local bullfrogs. Neither of these things would prove to have further relevance to the day however.

This was also my first time being out and proper birding in proper habitat this spring, which meant this was a time of reacquainting with Tanagers and Chats. While I did not do much crushing on this trip (more on guide duty), it was a fillip all the same. Has anyone else noticed how good Chats are at sounding like 4 other kinds of birds? 

Thanks to some extremely detailed directions from the AZ listserv (thanks Tim Helentjaris), we located the Becard nesting spot quickly. It was a massive and messy structure, not what I was expecting at all for this type of bird (which shows what I know).

The cottonwoods in this area were among the tallest I have ever seen, and even knowing we were in the right spot, it took a long time to find anything. If I were a Becard, I would build my dream home here too...though there are a lot of peeping toms.

We finally latched on to the female, getting some pretty nice looks and structural comparisons for this tropical false flycatcher with the Brown-crested and Dusky-capped Flycatchers in the area. However, the male Becard never showed that morning. We stayed for a few hours, as did several other birders whom we ran into later in the day, and they reported that despite playing tape the female stayed silent and the male never materialized. Both birds have since been photographed so I guess we were just rusty (Ferruginous) or unlucky (Plumbeous?). To bird is to suffer, sometimes.

The female Becard was still Class-A and gave me the best looks I've yet had of this species, but we also lost a lot of time--prime time--in the waiting. When we finally capitulated and traipsed to the general area where the Sinaloa Wren and Robins had been seen, the birding activity had severely dropped inverse to the temperature, and we did not pull any more target vagrants. Thick-billed Kingbirds swopped in with consolation, however...giant, front-heavy, awesome consolation.

There was also a Swainson's Hawk doing a nice Peregrine imitation (or perhaps a Peregrine doing an even better Swainson's impression).

Damn. I really need to work on my photography--the quality has taken a nose-dive the last several posts. I am ashamed. I am not sharing this looking for platitudes, just saying that I see it to...gotta find that ol' bar and raise it up again. At least there's still one foot in the field.

Thursday, May 24, 2018

The Exotic Hotel

There are many exciting birding prospects in North Carolina, now not to far around the corner (though, alas, after migration). Some are near, many are far, and one will be as close to home as possible. In the N.C. we will have a proper yard, a yard where living creatures will want to be! NOw getting into middle age and also being a Dad, Yard Birding is the Ultimate.

Despite doing some significant landscaping here in PHX the last few months, B's Bs yard list is still hovering around 15 species, and as such I do some subsidizing for my local and organically sourced birding needs with the neighbor's plot across the street.

The irony, or course, is that the birds and their purchase there are anything but locally sourced. Date Palms and Royal Palms are probably the most common transplants around Phoenix (other than snowbirds) and while they suck up a lot of water and contribute little shade, they do serve as havens for many avian transplants. Rock Pigeons and Eurasian Starlings nest in the niches and cavities where old fronds were cut. Within the last few weeks, a Red-eyed White Dove has taken up residence as well, after a harrowing escape, release, or mutation from primordial pet shop ooze.

The Rosy-faced Lovebirds--Phoenix's favorite and best ABA-countable exotic--also love the palms for nesting, and seem to hold their own in terms of numbers and aggression against the other larger tenants.

Lovebirds are notorious for their networking ability, and apparently this extends to others in the Psittacidae family. A liberated blue Budgerigar has now also taken up residence in the date palms, making for at least 5 species of exotic/introduced birds also nesting in the introduced palms. 
Now if I could only log some House Sparrows there we'd really be in business.

It's perverse. It's corrupt. But this exotica erotica is the most exciting birding going on in the hood these days. Fortunately I did get down to Tubac for some formal birding (we wore Tuxedos), so better stuff to come.

P.S. learned that the Australian slang for a men's Speedo swimsuit is a "Budgie smuggler."

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Here and There Birding

Sometimes you just have to eek out the birding where you can. With everything else going on this past weekend, I did not have specific birding opportunities. My eBird checklists were embarrassingly "Incidental." The 10 month-old certainly has the right sleeping habits for birding--down by 6:30pm and up at 5:30am, but his needing a first nap by 8:30, plus still being rather demanding of attention, limits how far I can take him afield. Some kids are happy for hours in the stroller or hiking pack. He is not one of them; there's too much to taste out there.

Lately I have been taking BB Jr. to Granada Park, a decent sized urban park with a couple duck ponds, some transplant pine trees, and desert scrub. It's served as a stop-off spot before for winterfowl, notably during a 5-MR challenge a couple years back. Having recently become very opinionated about small city parks, I now choose it as our family park of choice because of its comparative birding potential and water fountains that don't smell like pee.
BB Jr. likes it too but he's pretty easy to please if he can get down and move around.

  (He got un-stuck eventually)

There's an old mesquite tree near the playground/sandbox area, and last Saturday it was quite the little hot spot for migrants. The blooming mesquite attracted bees and many other insects, which in turn attracted Yellow, Black-throated Gray, Townsend's, Wilson's, and Hermit Warblers, plus the usual residents and the largest Warbling Vireo I have ever seen. Returning the next morning with my crusher, I was disappointed to observe almost no activity in the same spot--such is the caprice of migration I suppose. 

Image result for granada park playground
Photo courtesy of

However, B's Bs is made of sterner stuff and does not give in to despair, at least not for like 15 minutes or so of sustained adversity. Granada Park is also one of the best places to see Rosy-faced I have often relayed to out-of-town emailers getting in touch with amusing nervousness about when and where they'll be able to see these birds. They nest in the palms at Granada in large family groups, and they will also forage in lower bushes, sometimes even on the ground.

This was the first time I had seen them feeding in/on the fuzzy white creosote seed capsules. Tough birds eating a tough plant...there is great continuity here (though purists may point out that creosote is a hearty native and Lovebirds are a hearty invasive). Presumably the Lovebirds do the creosote a solid by way of pollination and seed distribution, and the creosote does the Lovebirds a solid by being eaten by them. This would seem a less one-sided relationship than that of gators and Egret chicks. Most of the carnage I see at Granada Park has to do with some dog-walker's poop-scooping glove malfunctioning (not pictured).

Sunday afternoon we celebrated a tri-generational Mother's Day, which was well and good, especially because perfectly cooked beef tenderloin was involved and the sides I contributed didn't suck.
Also cool was finding a Cactus Wren chick, recently out of the nest but not yet fully fledged. It was skulking and scurrying along the planters while parents supervised. They all blew a gasket when I approached the bird of course, but after I got to live out my 'bird-in-the-hand' field biologist fantasy all was quickly restored.

I will be finishing out my last week of work and its aftermath through this weekend, finishing out a 7-year tour of duty in AZ education. Although there is plenty yet to do for the move, there will be more than incidental birding in the couple weeks to follow. There must be, or I shall explode.

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Making the Wrong Impression: A High Watermark

Birding and blogging about birding: it can cover many topics, most of which are positive and encouraging. Typically finding and appreciating birds makes up 99% of bird blogging content, and rightly so. But, especially as birding expands, there are elements of common culture that develop, emergent values that turn into characteristics that turn into traits that come to define the group. While much of this culture grows healthily, with expanding and sharing information, a culture must also be pruned and critiqued. Things must be said 'No' to, to protect cultural integrity (yes, even birding can have this too). Butler's Birds is thus wading into the iconoclastic and caustic realm of birding blogging: criticism.
Tempers will be raised. Feelings will be hurt. Enemies will be made. But it must be done for sake of the culture. Today I am saying 'NO' Watermarks.

Related image
Image copied from (In case you couldn't tell). Bilious, isn't it?

Watermarks (aka Copyright stamps)...this has been touched before on other blogs I am sure, but would like to take it upon myself to expound ad nauseam and with great redundancy (it's what I do best) about this practice. Buckle up for a rant dear readers, an internet rant!
No doubt you too have noticed this subtle, soft, but nefariously creeping phenomenon on the photo sharing groups and other social media. It is an invasive force that comes in the wake of affordable and more available digital photography, and now this blight is spreading far and wide over the interwebs, corrupting hearts and minds and ruining otherwise perfectly mediocre photos (even great photos) with a cheap commercial stamp.

While doing a little bird-group browsing on the FB this past Sunday, I noticed with great chagrin that a critical threshold had been passed in one of my local groups. More than half of all the posted photos had some sort of watermark on them. More than half.
Conceding that some watermarks were classier than others, with better fonts and icons, almost all of them still amounted to the same, "Henry Hangerman Photography" or the more ambitious titles "Nature's Bounty by Debbie." And almost all of them were images I scrolled by with only a cursory glance. Obviously I can't post them here...for fear I get sued or something.

Here's a nice picture of a Red-Headed Woodpecker. I am proud of it. It bugs me that the image quality is degraded by like 25% by blogger's upload. It does not need a watermark a la "Natural Creations by Laurence."

Keep in mind that watermarks always detract from the aesthetic and the viewing experience. Even conceding that some are less obtrusive than others, watermarks never add value or beauty to the image. Especially in the context of nature photography, it is a stamp of artificiality, an interruption of the experience. If your picture is worth a thousand words...then you do not need to cheapen it with words.

More often than not, I see watermarks malingering on relatively nice photos of relatively common birds snapped in relatively ubiquitous areas--a Great Blue Heron fishing near a pond, an Oriole perched near a glistening orange, a Meadowlark standing sentry on a fence post, etc.
It begs the question, begs it so strongly I now shout it out to the internet void: Dear photographer, what are you trying to accomplish by compromising your image???


1) Are you seeking free promotion/advertising?
Very rarely do I see watermarked photos being shared. I would conjecture that among real connoisseurs and artistes, they're shared less frequently because, you know, there's a crappy watermark on it. We're not talking about graphics and photos that are being used in mass marketing campaigns. We're talking about amateur photography, and looking at a watermark as a way to grow a personal brand is redundant as it is counter productive.

2) Are you seeking image protection?
Watermarks just do not do this. For someone intent on stealing graphic content, watermarks are just about as easy to remove as they are to put on. A watermark might make an unscrupulous blogger think twice about copying an image, but I doubt this is a very common problem. Remember also that your image is still one of many thousands of the same subject on the internet, even if it is of the highest quality, and it is now on the internet, the most public and an unregulated market available. Most of us amateurs are not having our images stolen, and when I've heard of professional images being stolen, those images were actually watermarked!
Now I am not saying you shouldn't try to protect your work or images--I have a disclaimer at the bottom of my blog too, and borrow images with permission and while citing the source. But with image protection being so rarely and so badly served by watermarking, it's not worth the collateral damage.

3) Are you seeking to look more professional or high-end?
Most professional level photos I see cite the photographer, settings, etc. outside of the image, not as an overlayed graphic. Almost all watermarks I see look amateurish to me, and I also am an amateur! I shouldn't even notice with my untrained eye right!? Watermarks unavoidably insert a commercial element into the picture, which necessarily detracts from the idea of nature photography. While this is sometimes a necessary evil for professional photogs doing some advertising, this is never the case in photo-sharing groups, where your profile is next to the image anyway. Is anybody cashing in on their facebook bird photos?? If so, please share and I will sell out immediately and recant all of this.

**I will insert the caveat here for professional photographers, people who take primary income from the collection, marketing, and sale of their image rights. These are not the people I see filling birding groups with 'watered down' images.

Nice Varied Bunting right? It's a great photo of a great bird, not one that pops up much in North America nor on the blogosphere. Now do a google image search for Varied Bunting, and behold roughly 500,000 other equally good or better photos (and plenty of Indigo Buntings to boot). I am glad mine is not impinged by a watermark. 

Reemerging from the weeds of why/why not to watermark, let's look at the principles behind capturing and sharing nature photos. Realize this, dear fellow amateur photographer: even if your picture is awesome, it is still likely a dime-a-dozen within the larger context of the internet.
However, it is also a unique capture that was special to you and you wanted to share it. Do not forget this core intention Even if it's not a crush, even if it wouldn't make Ansel Adams take up birding, it is something you created from a place of goodness.
When an image is branded with "David Davidson Nature Captures" or "© BJ Kowalski" you have watered down your image and actually made it less special, less effective in sharing an experience of cool nature stuff. The image becomes about self-promotion instead of nature-promotion, and is that really why you're posting?
If you are simply looking for likes and praise, then save it. That drives people away. It amounts to attention-seeking spam and will also make people less likely to engage with anything there-related. They will disengage from you and from the forum. That is selfish.
Keep your image as you keep the memory and the experience of its making in your heart. Keep it special and share it with integrity.

I understand the element of attention. Obviously anyone who keeps a blog or shares photos with a group is hoping to get reactions, feedback, etc. They are hoping they're not only talking to themselves about why not to put watermarks on images...
When the sharing is done well, with good quality and intent, the recognition comes naturally. It does not come because of a stamp on the picture, but because of how the picture or story behind the picture made the audience feel, maybe even how it connected them with the author. The Varied Bunting image was exciting for me because VABUs are gorgeous, that male was singing very close to me, it was a powerful experience, and I wanted to share all of that as best as I could with other people who might appreciate it. The VABU shots did not get me money and it did not get me laid. The memory of that VABU experience is still vivid.

Watermarks do not grow connection; they create a barrier. The watermark inserts an awkward self-awareness, a distracting, passive-aggressive cry of, "Please notice me and remember my name!"
Respect the audience as you respect what you're sharing. Recognize that the audience is there for content, and if the content is good, if it resonates with the audience, then they will want to see what else you have to share. They may even give you a 'Like'.

Image take from The Photography Blog

Sunday, May 6, 2018

Slate Creek Divide: Hearing is Believing

With full relocation to North Carolina now imminent (29 days to departure), there are many lists of things to be attended. Most of this pertains to property management--cleaning, fixing, renting, selling, and fondly reminiscing before trashing, etc.
But there is also unfinished business with the AZ birding scene, a bucket list of birding to-dos before getting trans-continental.

Some of the items are general: birding hard in the Huachucas and/or Santa Ritas again--while some are more specific. I have not yet made attempt at Five-striped Sparrow in AZ, the only resident/breeder lifer yet to pick up here. Most recently I tried to check off the 3rd and last item: get visuals (and a photo) of Flammulated Owl. This little western owl has manifested as 'heard only' for me several times, but always alluded the visual confirmation. Especially considering this species will not be in NC (unlike the similarly evasive Saw-whet), this makes it a near-lifer search while AZ time remains.

Finding Poorwills on the road is not a bucket list item, but always welcome nonetheless, even if they won't make eye contact.

The Flamms can be pretty common above the Mogollon rim and near Flagstaff, but being ever impatient and short-sighted (very bad traits for a birder, btw), I made an attempt for the local, sparse, but potential glorious Maricopa population in the Mazatzal mountains near Slate Creek Divide. The elevation and water drainage here allows multiple species of pine to mingle with Douglas Fir, creating a special mini habitat not found anywhere else in the county, nor anywhere closer to home.

You access SCD via 10 miles of rugged road opposite the Mt. Ord exit from Hwy 87, gaining elevation up through oak scrub to fir and pines. Birder buddy Three Sticks Will and I logged great Sparrows as we ascended the washed out road--Lark to Rufus-crowned to Black-chinned, along with FOY breeders like BH Grosbeak and Cassin's Kingbird. Being behind the wheel amidst treacherous grades and gravel, the camera stayed firmly tucked away.
The habitat around the FR 201 terminus at Mt. Peeley trailhead area also hosts the only known populations of Mexican Jay and Dusky-capped Flycatcher, as well as Red-faced Warbler, in the county, though all was pretty quiet by time we reached the top. With our remaining daylight we headed back downhill to explore some of the washes, always good for turning up cool dead stuff if not birds. In this regard, they did not disappoint.

My guess is the stag broke a leg and/or got stuck in the wash and then drowned. Or a cougar got it and the carcass was washed into the main gully. Or it was brought there as part of a druidic ritual. Or it is the totemic marking of mystic burial ground. Or the deer just nestled down upon its fetlocks and passed on. One of those things. Gnarly.

The wash descent made for a pretty rugged, somewhat bush-crashing hike, and by time we got down to the flatter spillway area it was dark. Although this was not an area we were anticipating our little Owls, we figured it'd be better to poke around here instead of twiddling our thumbs up along the ridge. This proved to be a fortuitous decision, as we soon heard the alarm call of a female Spotted Owl. Not wanting to spook her, we consolidated under on of the larger pines just up the banks of the wash, and almost immediately heard a male SPOW contact call. The call was close...very was coming from inside the house!
The male SPOW was directly above us. Behold, endangered Spotted Owl butt.

The owls proceeded to cavort all around the wash, giving us great visuals at times though I did not get any further photos. I did almost lose my binoculars while trying to balance camera and flashlight on the loose rock in the dark.

After the quality SPOW time we spent the next few hours patrolling the ridge along FR 201 and some of its scion game trails. Near the Mt. Peeley trailhead we had clear audio of Northern Saw-whet Owl, and a few miles down the road logged steady Flammulated calls, but we could never get visuals on either species. The best bird of the night was another heard-only, a Mexican Whip-poor-will calling for a couple of minutes down one of the ravines about half a mile east of the Mt. Peeley trailhead. Although this is good habitat for them, last I heard (years ago) this species had not been recorded in Maricopa County before.

So a bulk of our best birds were heard only, which is bittersweet--much more bitter than sweet really--but by the numbers it was a tremendously successful nocturnal foray, and we were still home by midnight. The most numerous bird after sundown was Common Poorwill, with one bird kind enough to perch on a burned stump instead of the dusty road or out of sight in the manzanita scrub.

I feel like people, myself included, do not spend enough time thinking about how fantastic nightjars are. They are gigantic camouflaged flying mouths, nocturnal avian pac-men and ghosts as well...which actually doesn't make them sound as awesome and hyper-specialized as they really are. With fair flair, it's all about the Warblers and shore birding out east, but I am disproportionately looking forward to getting acquainted with new Nightjars in NC.