Sunday, August 30, 2015

Failed Chases and Fine Consolations

Slate-throated Redstart seems to be annual in Arizona now, at least there have been 1 or more reports in AZ for the last few years, typically with one from the Chiris and one from the Huachucas, Santa Ritas, or even Catalina mountains. At the rate they're turning up, I wouldn't be surprised if STRE is the next tropical warbler to establish small breeding populations like the Rufous-caps. But I am getting ahead of myself. STRE is still strictly a vagrant in the state, and one I have now unsuccessfully chased two times (if you don't have a lot of luck or skill, you gotta earn it with raw determination--be the Rudy of birding). The foothills of the Huachuca mountains, as well as the Sierra Vista valley, are pleasant enough but their relatively bland facade belays the richness of birding that is found within their drainages. It's all about the location.

The most recent (and documented) STRE reports have been coming out of Hunter Canyon, one of the shorter and more overgrown canyons in the Huachucas that actually links up with the more famous Miller Canyon next door. Whenever one has the time and stamina to make a chase to the Huachucas it is certainly worth doing. My rarity-chasing success record in these mountains isn't actually very good, but they're probably the best birding destination in the state. It's like going to a bourbon bar that happens to be out of whatever brown liquor you were after that day. You're still there anyway, and there are still 1000 other really good you might as well.

Dipping on the Slate-throat was a bit painful, I should add, because apparently I only missed the bird by about 30 minutes. Over the last few days it seems to have a habit of making two morning appearances any time between 7 and 10am and then disappearing. I missed its morning show, and was not treated to an encore in the time I waited. The main frustration came in knowing the bird was likely still around, but further up canyon/wash or down, in an inaccessible area. Sure enough, it was re-sighted this morning as I sat back in Phoenix (with lots of bourbon). But what else was hanging out in Hunter Canyon? Good friggin' stuff. 

On most days and in most places, Elegant Trogon would be the highlight of any hike, one that often must be earned with blood and tithing. This one almost pooped on me and you can still see the cloacal opening in the feathers--that's the kind of raw footage one gets at Butler's Birds.

Lurking (rather uncharacteristically) like 30 feet away from the Trogon was this peeking Rufous-capped Warbler, now an integrated resident in at least three different Arizona Canyons. The looks and photos did not do this bird justice this time around, but, again, normally the highlight of a any trip.

Hunter Canyon's wash was pretty dry despite recent monsoons in the area, but the surrounding vegetation was very lush and it housed an amazing number of migrant warblers, like some veritable avian hostel in south Germany. Almost all of the migrants were small, skulky, and yellow. I saw more Nashville and Wilson's Warblers in that one area than ever before, and there were Virginia's, Orange-crowned, Black-throated Gray, Yellow, and MacGillivray's as well.
Most of the birds, like the 1st year/1st winter MAWA below, were not dressed to impress, but how many of us really go the full nines when traveling?

Painted Redstarts, on the other hand, are very consistent in their plumage. The fact that every single one of these birds was a painful reminder of the Slate-throated I was not seeing did not deter much from the positives. PAREs are not only colorful. They will glean off of ponderosas like Nuthatches and rifle through leaf littler like Wrens. They do not much worry about people and they are a cornerstone of any alcohol-fueled argument that the western United States also has good Warblers. 

If this bird had a longer tail I could call it a Wrentit and save myself a southern CA trip in the future (not that such a trip should ever be avoided). Alas, it is only a Tit-o-the-Bush. Bushtit comes off as a very positive and single-minded bird in my experiences. In Hunter Canyon, as in many canyons with mid-elevation oak scrub, they were legion.

What is there to say about Arizona Woodpecker? It probably should be our state bird. It is brown-backed. They strip trees--especially burned trees--of their bark. They almost stripped me of my clothes, but that is another story.

Hunter Canyon was pretty dead by later afternoon, and there were also some mean cumulonimbus rolling over the mountains. As such, I cut my losses with the STRE and decide to fortify for the drive back to Phoenix at the Ash Canyon B&B. If one needs to sit and eat warm sandwiches prior to braving the I-10, one should do it at a feeder station. Geri-birding has it advantages, chief among them being easy photo-shoots. I have been in a bit of a slump lately with bird photography so I figured I'd benefit from the handicap-assist. Acorn Woodpecker--the Goth-loving Clown Woodpecker--agrees. 

There was also a male Lucifer Hummingbird at the B&B, outstanding consolation number 3 of the day. The B&B feeders were pretty hotly contested by Anna's, Broad-bills, and Mags, but I happened to spy the LUHU hanging out mercifully away from the red plastic perches. I also turned two German birders onto it and I'm pretty sure one of them farted from excitement, which is appropriate.

I had been planning the Huachuca run for a few days prior, and in the mean time a 4th cycle Sabine's Gull had shown up at the Glendale Recharge Ponds. The handsome bird persisted for a couple of days and was a very nice bird for Maricopa County, especially in such swanky plumage. It wasn't enticing enough to override a trip to down south, but upon arriving back in Phoenix I made the local chase. Apparently the bird had departed Saturday morning and was not seen since (including through Sunday), so once again the birding day ended with a dip. Once again, there was also some consolation in the form of these blurry peeps. 

The bigger, whiter bird is a Sanderling--nothing to sneeze at in Maricopa--flanked by two Baird's Sandpiper bodyguards. Seeing a solitary Sanderling was odd. Sanderlings always come in packs or gangs. What this bird did back on the west coast, whatever caused him to become a Pariah must have been truly heinous. Even the Baird's Sandpipers split off from him pretty soon, and everyone agrees Baird's is a tolerant peep. 

Embarrassing fact: this post is the first time that Baird's Sandpiper and MacGillivray's Warbler have been photo-featured at all (to say nothing of 'well'). I need to get out more. 

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Elevation Addiction: It's the Birding that Suffers

Butler's Birds has been just limping along for the last month or so, but let me tell you it's not correlative with a lack of walking. Given the oppressive heat and general dearth of stimulating variety in way of avifauna right now, my weekend birding time has been largely abrogated by weekend hiking time. Of course, ideally a lovely hike and lovely birds go hand-in-hand, but recent destinations and paces have had the unfortunate side-effect of limited birding. The most recent target was Humphrey's peak, about 20 miles north of Flagstaff in the San Francisco Peaks of the Kachina Wilderness. 

With a summit at 12,633 feet, Humphrey's is the tallest peak in Arizona. Humphrey's and the neighboring Agassiz Peak, 300 feet shorter, are the southernmost mountains in the contiguous U.S. above 12,000 feet, and estimates put them at 16,000 feet before their stratovolcano base blew up about 200,000 years ago. The hike from the Snowbowl trailhead totals a bit over 10 miles roundtrip and gains about of 3,000 feet in elevation. It makes for a pretty grueling and enjoyable trek passing through several ecozones, but even if one is willing to haul all the photography gear that is no guarantee of birds--at least, not half-way through August. 

As one might expect, a fair portion of the hike climbs through thick spruce, pine, and fir forest. Jays, Nuthatches, Chickadees, and Creepers maintain a constant chorus, and the occasional caterwauling of a Clark's Nutcracker belting by overhead adds excitement, but for the most part the birds are sooner heard than seen.

One of the most exciting ecological attractions on Humphrey's Peak is the bristlecone pines, some of nature's hardiest and longevous organisms. Up the volcanic slopes, where the spruce and fir evergreens dare not go, the scattered bristlecones still cling to the mountainside. 

In some areas, nearer 12,000 feet, there seem to be more skeletons than living trees. Mountains of this size are capricious masters, seemingly creating their own weather and always engaging in sweet and violent love with the forces of erosion. 

The bristlecones in this area are not nearly as old, massive, nor majestic as some of those farther north on the Colorado Plateau, but they'll have the last laugh a few thousands years from now when the little bits and pieces of us contemporaries are blowing in the air around them.

Although they're the most dominant life form at that altitude, to the extent any life form can be dominant at that altitude, the bristlecones are not alone. In addition to soaring Ravens, Hawks, and Eagles, American Pipits frequent these rocky slopes in summer time, where conspicuously young birds cut their teeth on the igneous slopes of Humphrey before descending to the warmer Sonoran plain in a few months' time.

There were even some leps up there doing...something. They're probably sipping sweet nectar out of the very rocks themselves. You've got to be hardcore to live up there. 

Even though it's about 190 miles away, the north rim of the Grand Canyon is also just barely visible in the great blue yonder from Humphrey's summit. It's not postcard pretty, but I will say that standing atop AZ's highest point and gazing into AZ's biggest crack is...a very superlative experience. 

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Citadel of the Gods, Afterthought of the Birds

This past weekend took Butler's Birds up to Utah for a friend's wedding. There was not really time nor was it the place to go chasing for Chukars, alas, but it was the time and place to view one of America's natural wonders: Zion National Park. The steep, jutting red rocks make for pretty impressive, scenic fews, but not so much for good birding--at least not the Angel's Landing area Apologies for the light dose of birds here. 

With the added effects of some heavy cloud cover and light rain, the whole place had a pretty groovy, Jurassic Park feel to it. The dinosaurs were pretty small though:

The Angel's Landing hike is a pretty steep trek up one of the Zion pinnacles. Wildlife was pretty minimal, but given the harsh conditions that was to be expected. Speaking of dinosaurs, the remains of some ancient trees made for interesting viewing. Did the trunk twist and warp from several hundred, even thousands of year of high winds? Did it just have scoliosis? 

Most of the canyon erosion in Zion is attributable to the Virgin River, a 162-mile tributary of the CO River that is untouched by dams (although the name comes from one of its American discoverers, Thomas Virgin, infamous for his poor social skills when chatting up the ladies).

Supposedly 270 bird species have been recorded at Zion, (215 according to ebird), most of which are found, no doubt, in the riparian corridor. The steep rock faces leave little soil and hold little water. As such there is little vegetation and even less room and resources for birds to fine purchase. Even so, Zion National Park is essentially a series of gorges and canyons, and some birds are unscrupulous skanks for that kinda stuff.

As This Machine pointed out a little while ago, July is not really the best time to be birding in most of the U.S. Migrations and vagration are mostly non-factors, and breeding activity typically has died down. Furthermore, lots of the birds are no longer as dapper as they were earlier in the spring. This Steller's Jay, while still a tasty piece of eye candy, had some weird neck-molt going on, a trademark of Jays and Cardinals.

It won't be too long now until the shorebirds start their trans-hemispherical odysseys, and the pelagic birding boats are already throwing back port on their starboard. This summer's birding had a couple of fantastic personal highlights but was bittersweet in that it did not get the full time and commitment commensurate to my anticipation back in May. Even so, it's a big and beautiful country and I got to see a little bit more of it.
10/10 would recommend.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Birding Loveland Pass: A World on Top of the World

Sorry to disappoint you, but Butler's Birds is NOT dead and buried. Buried maybe, under piles of work and the charred hopes and dreams of a full summer vacation that just could never be...but not dead. It has been far too long since last I launched my own tawdry offerings into the blogosphere. Fortunately this summer has not been totally bereft of birding, nor was my time in Carolina the last means of a salvo. Without much further adieu, we blast off and up to 12,000 feet, to Loveland Pass, CO, where breathing comes hard and the trees do not go.

I had been yearning for some high alpine hiking during most of June and July. I was not able to take the full week off to camp in the White Mountains of AZ, so a weekend scurry to Denver and back was instead on the cards. From Phoenix to Loveland pass is an 11,000 foot elevation change. Considering I had been up late tossing back margaritas, plus, you know, Denver, I did not arrive in the best state (of being).
And yet, for whatever reason, the birding gods were pleased with me. Maybe it was karma for holding down the fort and plugging away at an otherwise empty school office all summer. Most likely it was a just a bit of luck. As soon as I looked down the slopes, to one of the little islands of spruce scrub still growing above the predominant tree line, there sat a Pine Grosbeak.
YEEAAHH. The whole point of this hike was to get up above the tree line, a height to which I had never been before in the Rockies, and literally the first bird was a lifer--a really good lifer--with a tree in its name.

The Grosbeak took off and flew too far to be chased. In fact, simply climbing back up the hill afterwards took some doing. Exploring the little patch that it vacated, I found several other species of birds all crammed into the tiny spruce tenement. Wilson's Warbler, Rufous Hummingbird, Robin, White-crowned and Lincoln's sparrow were all chattering and positioning in the half-dead little trees. It was very interesting to see that many birds crammed into such a small space--like maybe 20 cubic feet. Looking at the surrounding landscape it made sense. The slopes leading up to the Continental Divide were barren except for very low-growing weeds and wildflowers, and in many areas snow patches still clung to the mountainsides.

And yet even where the green became sparse, at the dying edges of the mountain where erosion was master, animal life thrived. Of course, in areas with no tree cover and bitter cold in the winter, most animals have to be supremely and specifically adapted to survive. The grumpy rock sitting on top of the other mild-mannered rocks is a Yellow-Bellied Marmot. Males of this fat uber ground squirrel species spend like 3/4 of the year hibernating and the rest being serviced by a harem of females. Occasionally they have to post as sentries near their burrows and bark at intruders, or at least look surly.

Apparently there's a lot of variation in this species, because there is only one marmot species in the Rockies and this means these ruddy buggers below are the same as the heather-looking fellow above. At that elevation and in that environment, Marmots are probably the largest and heaviest critters around. P.S. Yes I did say the appropriate Big Lebowski line every time I looked at one.

On the other end of the size and industriousness spectrum of the rodent scale is the humble Pika. They're about the size of a plum and twice as delicious--according to local Golden Eagles. They do not hibernate like Marmots, perhaps due to a lack of relative fatness, and so instead spend all of their spring and summer time stocking up their larders with seeds and grass and what not for the coming winter. Apparently they have to accrue a mass of food reserves equivalent to an economy-sized sedan in volume. They make Marmots look like lazy sacks of sacks. As you may note, they also have an extra butt-pouch of fur, which allows them to sit comfortably in cold places.

Pika are pretty damn cute, but before you get wooed by them too much keep in mind that they habitually ruminate on their own feces two or three there is that. Don't get too kissy.

Forget-me-nots are the state flower of Alaska. They are to other wildflowers what the tiny, sweet Pika are to Marmots, except without the proclivity for feces pieces. I need to start carrying around a short lens.

Another aspect of this summertime trip to the Rockies was reacquainting with birds that I usually see only in fall or winter--though some Horned Larks over-summer too--and in much different habitats. HOLAs principally hang out in dry agg. fields and empty ponds basins around Maricopa. They also do not have as prominent of horns.

Sage Thrashers hang out in sage brush desert areas, in case you were wondering. I'll be honest, I was not expecting to see this bird up so high. I need to pay closer attention to range maps.

Of course, the main reason for this trek was not to reacquaint with old birds nor breathe the fresh mountain air. It was not the supreme satisfaction of standing on a peak and knowing one is literally the closest thing to the heavens as far as the eye can see (sorry other hikers who are not as tall). The main reason any unreasonable person goes to such altitudes and clambers about on the scree, getting embarrassingly out of breath in the process, is White-tailed Ptarmigan.

WTPT are perhaps the pinnacle example of seasonal camouflage in North America. They morph all white in winter, seemingly melting away into their snow banks. Then as the snow melts away so does their alabaster; they become as mottled as any of the granite stones in which they find purchase. When sitting still, they are very hard to discern. Even after they've been found...they are still really hard to discern.

Especially considering they make very little noise (compare to the totally nutso sounds of Willow Ptarmigan) and are reticent to flush, pulling these birds out of the rubble can take some doing, but it is not without sweet, sweet reward.

Once they're singled out and established, once you are locked in and have them in the ol' heat-vision goggles, they really do not care about you or what you are doing or why you are changing your pants--yet again. I gotta say, seeing these birds and spending time with them totally floored me. They were far calmer than I was.

The initial sighting was outstanding. Even more amazing was taking a step forward as the first Ptarmigan shuffled on its way and realizing I almost stepped on another. Luckily she gave me a courtesy ruffle to differentiate herself from rocks. 

I wish I could say that she is bellowing here, as I would love to know what WTPT sound like, but in reality she was pecking and gargling stones--also pretty cool, and tough.

I was not sure I would see WTPT on this hike. I was not sure that if I did see them I would get particularly good looks. I had never seen any upland game birds before, excluding Ring-necked Pheasant. So, indulge me here, because it turns out WTPT will let you get pretty crushy.

If you have not participated in a Ptarmigan photo shoot before, I highly recommend it. They don't have the braggadocio eye comb of Spruce Grouse, but even their feet still look good, good and impressive.

WTPTs are not the most diverse birds when it comes to shape. They can be oblong, and they can also be blobular. Daedalus himself would get lost trying to navigate the labyrinthine patterns of this bird's plumage. This bird's's like a thousand tiny moths or skippers all came home to roost.

It's amazing to look at a creature like this and study the vast intricacies of its appearance, how each feather seems to be both unique and uniform at the same time. Focussing on that micro level makes it all the more intriguing that they can seemingly disappear into the rocks, even as one is still looking at them. How can something be that unique and yet blend into a part of everything else? 

There were also White-crowned Sparrows adorning the little spruce clumps, but who cares about that? Ptarmigans win.