Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Weeknight Screeching

It is what it is, and what it is is not much weekend birding, a proper morning of crappy fast food breakfast and day lists pushing 100. Instead it's stealing out fora  few hours on a Tuesday to see what Owls might be poking around (not Elf Owls, with the recent cold front, dammit) and how many times one might be almost-trampled by the feral horses along the Salt River.




Western Screech-Owls might not have the majesty nor the accommodating gifts of the Humboldt County Great Gray--in fact, they lose out to that bird in every department except maybe for "Best Owl to Sneak Home in One's Cargo Shorts," but hey it's only 4 weeks until school it out, and much like the shade of Voldemort ghosting through the woods feeding on unicorn's blood (is that an obscure reference yet?) the Salt River Owls will keep me alive.

My buddy Will joined me for this particular foray, and while the Owl selfie game still needs work, out teamwork did prevent us from falling victim to the unpleasant and unwashed busybody guy that followed us around for a little while, more I think out of boredom and loneliness than genuine masculine attraction (although, you know, a bit of that).


Western Screech-Owl, showing its bloomers.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Cut-throat Birding

This may be the shortest worst post featured on Butler's Birds in years, one to test true loyalty and/or boredom. That is the disclaimer. This Sunday I made the 3-hour haul out to the charming Cluff Ranch riparian area in Graham County, the recent exposé of a male Rose-throated Becard. I have done very little birding in Graham county and even though time was limited this was a great spot, with almost 60 species record in 3 hours, many of whom were very vocal.


The Becard had been seen regularly near an old cattle gate along a portion of the pedestrian trail around 8:30am. The hope was to find the bird earlier, as departing Cluff Ranch at 8:30 would allow 3 hours for arrival for an 11:30 appointment. 
I started the trail around 7:00am and by luck or judgment, the Becard was foraging high in some cottonwoods and giving occasional single-notes on the far side of the pond, a little ways away from its usual haunt. 

Alas I only got the one blurry photo for diagnostics and did not relocate the bird before 8:30; in fact I do not know if it was re-found on the day, so by luck or judgment the quick sighting proved sufficient and satisfying. Back pats and hand slaps all 'round.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Madera Whiskers: An 8 o'clock Shadow

Two blog posts in the same month? It does feel a bit excessive, a bit overkilled. Was there really an age when these came out every week? Anyhow, with no school/work this past Friday there was some extra time even if it came with extra commitments as well. A proper day's hiking and birding is still hard to come by but in a capricious and volatile landscape one must be like the Mexican Jay: adaptable and slate-blue.


Madera Canyon has not a few virtues, and in addition to those relating to is avifauna its relative proximity to Phoenix is high on the list. Considering that most of the premium Maricopa County birding spots are still 45+ minutes, two hours to Madera is quite reasonable.
Butler's Birds headed down with some associates around 12pm and arrived with plenty of daylight left for a hike and merry-making.
Groups of people often make groups of birds uncomfortable, but groups of Titmice are equal to the task. The bird below, with the unintentionally affected lighting, looks like a miniature Blue Jay.


One of the additional attractions to Madera Canyon is the night-scene, which definitely cannot be said of the Green Valley area at large. Mexican Whips had not arrived yet nor any errant Buff-collared Nightjars, but the Whiskered Screech-Owls were in fine form after sundown.
It took a little while, between when the birds started calling around the Bog Springs campground at 7:30 to 8:00pm, but the WHSOs, much like WESOs, were eventually very curious and accommodating. 


Night birding really is a pleasure. The species list will rarely break double digits, of course, but being surrounded by invisible calling owls, only catching the faintest glimpses of movement against a starlit backdrop, establishes that oneness feeling, that warm enveloping with nature that birders and naturalist so often seek.
It's also a pleasure because you do not have to get up super early or supersede other early day activities to do it, and you don't have to worry about back-lighting or white-washing.


Not only were the WHSOs accommodating, they actually were responsive to my impersonation calls. I will be quick to go on record in saying that neither my WESO nor WHSO calls are particularly good (nor any others), but these owls were good sports, coming low in their oaken milieus for some encouraging face-to-face conversations. Maybe they just wanted to check out whatever ungainly and awkward owl would be making such rude noises.

Friday, March 18, 2016

It Just Won't Die

Lazarus has nothing on Butler's Birds when it comes to resurrections. A month since the last post, we are at it again, but not in the normal diurnal pursuit of birds that culminates in a pleasant morning's jaunt. With work and other obligations seeming to multiply during the day, this week B's Bs drug its zombie bones back from the dusty crypt of inactive blogs and out into preternaturally warm March ebon along the Salt River. Here one finds the seemingly oxymoronic combination of lush desert vegetation, of riparian growth amid an arid landscape.

This is prime location for breeding Elf Owls later in the spring and summer, but even before their coming it is a great spot for lycanthropic prowls, with the removal from city lights and sandy mesquite washes providing nocturnal birding via residential and early-arriving species that perpetuate their cacophonous societies only after sundown. Here is the Phoenix nightlife.   
Near the Salt River shoreline, the constant caterwauling of leopard frogs (maybe some other species) is occasionally perforated by the plaintive intonations of Common Poorwills. When the moon is out in reflective force they forage well into the night, flying with the sporadic bursts of an insect and yet with decided purpose. They hunt prodigiously both from low perches and from the ground.


Some of the other fauna, like the Arizona Toad, come directly out of the ground after long periods of inactivity--Butler's Birds can relate to this very much.

 

Prior to Elf Owl arrival (and probably even after) Western Screech-Owls have the most widespread and vocal presence along the Salt River. In more favorable mesquite groves it's not uncommon to find three or more Owls counter-calling, ordinarily hidden within the brushy foliage but exposed in their silhouettes by the pervasive moonlight.
Although they're 60% larger than Elf Owls, the WESOs can still be tricky to pick out of a mesquite thicket, even when vocalizing. Once spotted, they are often cooperative.


Western Screech-Owls pale in comparison to their tufted cousin, the Great Horned, relative to size and ferocity, but as they hunt reptiles, mammals, insects, fledgling birds, and even fish, they are in a way one of the most encompassing and successful predators in the area, and more of the Sonoran fauna have reason to fear the WESO silent wing beats and eternal watch than they do the Great Horns, Coyotes, and Bobcats. Butler's Birds does not fear though, because Butler's Birds is, obviously, undead.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Vacay Birding: Keeping It on the DL

This past weekend Butler's Birds headed west to San Diego for some R&R. This trip was not a solo effort and as such the travel routes, travel times, and social entailment precluded any serious or concerted birding. Despite the allure of Jacumba and Anza Borrego, there were no detours between PHX and SD, and not just because all the driving was done at night. 
Even so, it has been touted much and more that one of birding's strengths is that is is easily doable in some capacity in any new area (or old) and this still held true on Coronado Island. As for that more serious birding trip out west...well that will be coming later this spring I think.

The west coast is famed for its birding and rightly so, but of no lesser notoriety are the aquatic mammal populations. To my mind, Sea Lions and their pinniped ilk are fascinating living links in the mammalian evolutionary chain. To other minds like those of some ancient sailors and perhaps modern day bronies, they were no doubt a troubling point of attraction that necessitated the invention of mermaids to assuage, justify, and bridge unnatural lubricious inclinations that develop after many weeks aboard a sea-vessel. There I said it. To be fair, they bask in the sun like Milanese in a coffee shop.


We spent a chunk of Saturday out on a whale and dolphin "safari," which was actually pretty cool for all the conversational pablum that sometimes accompanied the clientele.  At one point the catamaran became surrounded by a massive pod of Common Long-Beaked Dolphin, who can do a pretty good job of 'sharking it' with their dorsal fins and also, like most Dolphins, are probably more dangerous to people and animals than most sharks.

 

Beautiful, smart, and deadly...Dolphins are the femme fatales of the bay waters. They certainly slew me anyway. Apparently this huge pod off Dana Point is one of the largest in the U.S. and is composed of different recognizable sub-groups that have conglomerated over time. They operate with a republic-style government within this autonomous collective and also eat fish.


Even with hundreds of Dolphin, one sometimes feels a lack of mass, size, or grandeur when staring out into the vastness of the Pacific. Fortunately, there were a couple Gray Whales, presumably late migrants, making their way south along the coast. WHALES. I had never seen a whale before, and to be fair in a sense still haven't, at least not the whole thing, but if you take the pieces from these photos and glue them together you'll get like 62% of a Gray Whale.

 

 Even though neither crew nor captain nor chorus seemed to have an interest in pelagic birds, I was still able to snag a few species, including a lifer in the form of fly-by Black-vented Sheerwaters. It also provided a reminder that I am really bad at identifying Loons (not super a lot of practice in central AZ ya know). This bird has a stout beak and partial white collar, which would point to Common, but it also has a lot of white on the face, white speckling on the wings, and seemingly a hint of rust on the front of its throat, which could indicate Red-throated. My guess is the speckling is variable and the red is an artifact of light, but are Common Loons often miles out from shore?


Both going out and coming in, this fellow stood sentinel of the Dana Point harbor. Ever been mugged, shark-attacked, or otherwise accosted at Dana Point? Me either, and we have him to thank for this preservation.


Like the fellow above, Surf Scoters off the Tidal Park of Coronado Island provided another photo-first for Butler's Birds. I had a limited amount of time to explore this area Sunday morning and was tantalized all the more in that with it being east facing, the rising sun was back-lighting just about everything on the water. The male SUSCs were farther out from the shore/pier. A lone female was more accommodating but still...birding brings out misogynistic tendencies in all of us.

 
 

"Suddenly...Bushtits!!!" These loudly foraging birds were pretty common at the Coronado park. Their ability loudly and quickly to show up out of nowhere always impresses. They typically live around 4,000 feet in AZ so seeing them next to the ocean was a bit odd. A Belted Kingfisher also made for a pleasant and necessary sight at the so and so yacht club nearby.


The exposed rock along the muddy shore was largely devoid of peeps, no long-shot Wandering Tattler wandering or tattling through here. An accommodating Marbled Godwit did make for pretties, and reminded that two-tone beaks are often better than one, and even scavenging can be done with grace and poise. 


Alas, since I do not live in nor have visited the upper midwest or central Canada in the summer, I have never seen MAGOs sporting their coldstone marblery in full breeding force. Latin word on the street, of course, is that it is very imago dei.


There was another interesting Loon doing Loon stuff off the Tidal Park shore. He was accompanied off and on by a few Greater Scaup, one of which is included below entirely because I just now realized I have not posted any photos of that species before, and this causes me shame. Of course, one of the best ways to distinguish between Greater/Lesser Scaup is to view the birds in a blurry, out-of-focus way, such as to focus on the silhouette and not be distracted by other stuff.

 

The intriguing Loon was sporting much white on the neck and face, including in front of the eye. The beak is also very dainty and slightly upturned. It seems to be a good candidate for Red-throated, though I would be grumpily open to other suggestions.

 

I am led to believe that the bird below is a Black Phoebe based on plumage, behavior, range, and raw gut instinct. As GBRS #7 mentioned in a recent post and other have as well, this bird really drives the east-coast visitors wild. It makes for birding around urban water features in the southwest that much more exciting anyway.


More exciting, though less photogenic, were some Red-crowned Parrots that would streak overhead from time to time. No I am not proud of the documentation shot, nor am I super proud of listing established exotics. But I will do what is necessary to survive. We all have skeletons in our closets and dirty ticks on our lists or even elsewhere. When did you last do a tick check???


A little more clean to behold and clean of plumage and clean to list was a small flock of Brant feeding a little ways offshore. What was not clean was the murky oyster beds in which they were foraging for eel grass and other delectable slimes. Still, all in all, it was a pretty formal gala.


"Stubby Little Tuxedo Gooses" as Audubon once called them, the Brant are simple and striated creatures who enjoy pinacoladas, even if they won't admit it (this describes most people in part or whole) and long walks/waddles near the beach. Seeing Geese in the ocean was similarly odd to seeing Bushtits near the ocean. On the one hand, well, why shouldn't they be there? Of course they should. On the other hand it's like, Geese anywhere else hang out in freshwater ponds and lakes and are generally unscrupulous. Not these Brant; they were a very respectable bunch.
As for all those southern California endemics, exotics, and isolated Tri-colored Blackbirds, well, this weekend in San Diego was a passive warm-out. Those birds will be birded in a birdacious way sooner or later or somewhere in the middle.