Monday, March 2, 2015

Play the Hand You're Dealt...or play Tama-Gucci

This past Saturday was, like deep-sea fishing bait, cold and overcast. This was less ideal for birding, especially since it meant that whatever stuff I did see I would likely struggle to capture in any worthwhile way. I figured it was a good day, therefore, to chase some county birds for which I had not yet bothered when given sunny days and other opportunities. There has been a Brown Thrasher--annual vagrant in AZ--hanging out in Gilbert for a few months, but as this is a yard bird in Carolina, I had not bothered with the skulker. I set out resolute on Saturday morning to make the most of the day, to play the hand I was dealt. However, a breathtaking car reminded me on the way that maybe one doesn't have to play by the rules of the game...or perhaps if that game is lame, you can invent your own? I dunno, but there's a message here somewhere.

"I bet people will finally take me seriously if I paint my Trans Am 3 colors and cover it in Gucci emblems...pretty damn seriously indeed." : ::snap snap:: :
I'll name my car Guccifer

The Gilbert Water Ranch is super Gucci for high diversity and species counts. With all the waterfowl and waders around, plus a few early migrants, it took very little time to affirm and validate the decision to get out of bed. Typical Gucci scenes from the GWR: Avocets mingling with itchy Shovelers while NECOs stick their heads in various places.

Like the awesome car before, this Redhead is predominantly tri-toned. It's missing the Gucci paraphernalia though, so it's still kind of dorky. This sort of cool color/lack-of-decal dichotomy is common among the other plentiful ducks in the area. There are also lots of domesticated Mallards, Chinese Geese, and other abominations that people actively feed. This is less Gucci. 

I know it's silly of me to be bemoaning cloudy weather when most of the U.S. is six feet under (snow), but I've decided to live like a Gucci s.o.b. so I don't even care : ::snap snip snap:: : To add insalt (get it?) to injury, here are some birds that are already nesting in central Arizona. There is one saguaro, where the GIWPs were setting up nice Gucci interiors, the MODOs never nest in public without their Gucci blue eyeliner, and the CBTH was doing something too (and was too high to photograph on the nest).

Those who live the Gucci life live the good life. Contrast a dapper, Guccilicious Anna's with the world's lumpiest, most Gucci-less Inca Dove below. And who gets more cred on the street? Well, if you don't give the ANHUs respect they'll mess you up.

It took a while at the GWR but I finally got a 2 second audience with His Royal Highness the King of Skulking BRTH. I was not figuring I'd get shots of this bird, nor was it even much of a highlight compared to a few FOY warblers. At this point it's kind of embarrassing that my Maricopa list still hasn't broken 300, and this needs to be remedied with otherwise unappealing birds like Brown Thrasher. (Don't get me wrong, I love Thrashers and BRTH is a beaut, but it's not really worth the trouble other than for the tick in AZ, when they're so crushable out east).

By 9am there was intermittent, light precipitation, and I was a bit surprised to note that this seemed to increase overall bird activity. The colors on all of the birds were very saturated, but as they were still moving at normal speed and the ol' crusty Sony-cam shutter was not, we had a conflict of interest. Perhaps paradoxically, the best subject of the day was one of the smallest and fastest. Very Gucci.

Sunday showed clear skies out east in Willcox, AZ, where a vagrant Red Phalarope had been hanging out for a few days. Having this future trip decreased the pressure, barometric and otherwise, on precious Saturday. Willcox is always good for a few birds right? Well, for the preview, it's always good for speeding tickets.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Oh, just a Pokey Polkin' around kinda Post

After last weekend's excessivley eventful birding, I have little to show either in comparison or really even in its own right. With a lot of help from birding protege Caleb Strand, I finally saw a Varied Thrush this past weekend. This almost-nemesis (one can't really call a bird that's only a vagrant in your state a nemesis) was equal parts gorgeous and obscured, boldly colored and shyly behaved. Neither of us captured images of this bird in its dense Hassayampa haunt, which means I'm opening up the sock drawer now. But, slightly more interesting than looking at my socks (or not, depending on what you're into) will be looking at these birds picked up from poking around east Phoenix parks. 

Before that, here are a couple of pictures from the Hassayampa Preserve where we had this VATH. This is one of the best birding sites in Maricopa, respective of good riparian habitat and vagrant potential (more than potential; this place is always turning up great vagrants). Despite all of this, I still tend to have mediocre luck here, and it bugs me to no end. Hassayampa is also the only area in Maricopa that consistently hosts breeding Gray and Red-shouldered Hawks with Lawrence's Goldfinches. Here's some crumby photo evidence of the middle one.

Additionally, here's a goofy Black Phoebe with a messed up eye. The number of out-of-state birders who email me for information on where to best see this bird is...slightly cringe-worthy.

This weird winter has been good for vagrant Warblers in central Arizona, so during this past week I used the odds and ends of spare time on various afternoons to check out some of the urban sites where cottonwoods and/or pines were growing near a bit of water. Most of the better, well-known spots around Phoenix were already getting good coverage, so I decided to check out a park for which I have seen no eBird reports. There's a big clump of trees--pine and bottle mostly--across the canal from the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix. Every now and again I'd wonder what was over there, and so with a little downtime one afternoon I finally checked it out. It was pretty bland, but it hey it had more birds than my living room. Killdeer in the parking lot? Good sign. It's an increasingly known fact that ideal Killdeer nesting grounds are concrete, asphalt, or gravel plains near heavy automobile or pedestrian traffic. No doubt this bird will be plopping out eggs soon. 

The impressively-foliaged park I had often glimpsed from across the DBG/Papago Park canal is called the Pera Club, which it turns out is a private park for employees of the SRP power company conglomerate. It has free admission and is very well kept, with stands of elm, aleppo and afghan pine, and mesquite providing decent birding potential. Recently, Nate McGowan found a nesting Anna's Hummingbird in an aleppo pine in my apartment complex. I found another at Pera, and this was mid-February. Kids are growing up way too fast these days. 

Park birding is not a very pure nor very productive enterprise, but it has its appeals. For those who like listing and growing their patches, it makes common birds appealing and exciting again--like the many dozens of Quail and Brown-headed Cowbirds found at Pera. I also tend to turn up weird stuff at these parks, which attract hobos of both the homo sapien and avian world. Non-countable, abandoned or escaped birds like Budgerigar, or this Cockatiel from Encanto a few years back, can make for an interesting visit to such urban oasis. This time at Pera, it was some subspecies of Vampiric Siberian-collared Wedding Dove that made for an awkward spectacle. 


I watched this bird wander around the grassy areas and crash into a chain-link fence while flying. It may be bright in plumage, but it wasn't the sharpest knife in the drawer. Given the healthy population of Red-tail Hawks in the area, I doubt it will be around much longer. 

For an invasive/introduced species to be eaten by a native predator, at least, seems the best way to go. 
From observations past I know at least one pair of Red-tails nest at this park. As a young lad, I often watched them copulate from across the canal at the DBG, curious and ready to learn about the world the bees as well. More relevantly here, this bird seems to have the bottom half of a Round-tailed Ground Squirrel, which is the second best half of such a squirrel to have.

With Pera failing to turn up any warblers (excusing YRWA), I swung by Tempe Marsh off the Tempe Town Lake, an area always good for waterfowl and the occasional passerine-of-interest (POI) in the riparian thicket. The cottonwood/tamarisk groves did not look healthy, and some construction in the area limited access to the Salt River ("Tempe Town Lake") for persons without wings. 

So I was resigned to scanning from a distance with inadequate equipment for such a task. All the same, groups of Cormorants, waders, and Mergansers, plus the afore-shown Bald Eagle, made for an eventful winding down of the afternoon, before such pesky things and laundry and prepping for Monday returned to the fore. As a (possible) recent highlight, the birds below might run as candidates for Red-breatsed Merganser (not that such things should be voted on), with the lengthy crest and lack of contrasting white on the flanks and wings/scapulars. It's always good to have something bothersome, just a bit unsettling, to keep you frosty through the week.  

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Long Shots and Pot Shots: A Glorious Run

Last Friday saw This Machine and Butler's Birds hit all of our targets around Phoenix, excepting the nigh-unchasable Prairie Falcon (you don't find them, they find you) and the weirdo case of the missing Flicker (ticked later in the weekend). This boded well, because an even fuller itinerary beckoned on Saturday. Though none of our Saturday birds were quite as notorious as a Le Conte's Thrasher, many of them were more difficult to find in a much larger habitat, with greater tendencies towards peregrination. When they heard all the birds we were going for, and in what time frame, even the difficult-to-impress Eagles sat up and took notice: 

Generally speaking, it is good to be humble when recounting birding tales, for myriad reasons. Humility breeds little exaggeration, and honesty as well as precision are pretty important when passing on information relating to birding. Humility tends not to piss people off, but nobody really likes braggadocio. It's also embarrassing to brag about things that aren't all that impressive to people (birders) with higher standards--it makes one look foolish. Plus, braggarts tend to get hit pretty hard with karma or birding justice and/or hepatitis C. 
Taking all of these reasons for humility and reserve into account I still have to say, WE KNOCKED IT OUT OF THE PARK. And then we took the park and knocked it out too. We also knocked on wood, and knocked on people's doors for no reason. So maybe the park wasn't that big to begin with, but we knocked it out like Mike Tyson knocked out his own career. So, indulge me a Tyson-esque earful. 

We left Phoenix around 5:30am--winter birding and late sunrises are great for this reason--to make the drive up through Sedona and Oak Creek Canyon. The first target for the day, and one of the trickier to pursue in a limited time frame, was American Dipper. These birds winter in Coconino County but not in very large numbers; they don't occur with the sort of regularity of those in the White Mountains anyway. We pulled off Hwy 89 near the West Fork trailhead to scan Oak Creek, not having particularly high hopes. 
The sun had not yet crested the mountains and the air held an exhilarating chill while traversing the rugged creek, establishing an atmosphere of slightly tense serenity. As we explored the area, silence hung in the air and there was very little bird activity. As we were also feeling the weight of time management with the many of target species for that day, the plan was to spend minimal time looking for the Dipper. Even though the area was gorgeous, I was not overly optimistic with the lack of activity. All we had was this little, slate-colored mouse to show for our troubles.    

After a bit of rugged hiking and careful sleuthing, we started to notice white-wash deposits fairly regularly along the creek. This provided a welcome morale booster, even though overall birding around the creek was still pretty dead in the early hours. From the turn off at mile marker 385, we wound our day down to the West Fork trailhead where, to our mutual surprise, we had a single American Dipper foraging along the recently over-washed bank. (The earlier photo is of this same bird). 
After so much quiet, almost sneak-birding, it was pretty crazy to have this coveted bird foraging so near us. There wasn't much light to work with, but Nate still crushed it pretty well and y'all will have to check out his blog for more satisfying views. 

AMDI isn't really rare for the area or time of year, but there aren't many reports of the bird and the little bugger can be tough to pick out. This sighting probably wasn't as difficult or unlikely as it felt then, but we had only budgeted a small amount of time for this bird, and everything paid off in that first 30 minutes. We skipped cloud 7 and 8 and continued up towards Flagstaff on cloud 9.

The next stop was at Mormon Lake Lodge, preceded by some roadside scans of waterfowl in the area as we approached along Lake Mary Road. We also stopped to salute the Eagles shown earlier. As the sun finally got to work, the birds started calling and nature did too, which is a very invigorating thing in near-freezing temperatures. 

Much like the hoped-for Prairie Falcon in Maricopa, our hoped-for Rough-legged Hawk did not materialize along the Mormon Lake grasslands, but this was always a peripheral consideration. Our main targets, in the pine forest around the lodge area, were Lewis's Woodpecker, Mountain Chickadee, Cassin's Finch, and Evening Grosbeak. All of these birds winter in the area (or live there year round), but odds are that with many targets, one will be missed. I need to insert a meta-commentary now, because at this point in the day I was almost entirely neglecting my camera in favor of ruthless, somethings to the something binocular scanning.

The LEWP were almost as numerous as they were when I visited the area back in October, and we logged MOCH as quickly if not as often. Cassin's Finches were very vocal and mobile in the pine groves near Mormon Lake Road. We figured if they were numerous here, they'd be all the more so at the lodge, and didn't stop to take pictures.
This proved to be a mistake, as birding at the lodge itself was somewhat dead, excepting for a massive and deafening flock of Red-wing Blackbirds and like 3 or 4 different subspecies of Junco. This winter has been a weird one.

We continued to explore the area as the sun climbed higher in the sky, but we never did get better looks at LEWP, MOCH, or CAFI than our initial sightings--how often does that happen? 95% of the time I try to force the impossible with the first bird I see, waste time, and then get way better looks with another bird of that species later in the trip.
More worryingly, we had neither sight nor sound of Evening Grosbeaks, and noon was approaching. This is the point in any mission when all those pesky, nerve-wracking questions come into play: how much longer should we linger? Should we go to a different spot? Should we cut our losses? Do we double back? Is that guy I hit with my car probably ok? Is that car I hit with my guy ok?

Knowing we needed to keep moving, we decided to dally just a moment for better Cassin's Finch photo ops on the way back to the highway, when for no particular reason a flock of 14 Grosbeaks flew into a tall pine nearby. They paused and chirped for about 5 seconds, and then flew off just as suddenly. It was literally out of the blue, like as we were looking at distant CAFI these big birds just suddenly appeared out of the sky, stopped for a sec., and then disappeared again. Just as we were getting ready to leave, the EVGRs showed. It was short, but it was another clutch play, and we decided to move on the Walnut Canyon for our next group of targets. 

**This year has been a major irruption year for both CAFI and EVGR in Maricopa County, and the photos used here were taken at Sunflower the next day, where we went to bolster our photo portfolio after finally nabbing stupid Gilded Flicker at Papago Park. This was going to be the Plan B if we missed these targets in Coconino, and in fact they showed much better at Sunflower than up north in their usual haunts. #weirdasswinter

A former ABA Bird of the Year, like a former President of the United States, never loses its importance or its prestige, even after it has retired from office.

With AMDI, CAFI, and EVGR secured, the next of our top priority targets was Williamson's Sapsucker. This is another resident but sparsely populated bird, like the Dipper, that's far from a sure sighting even within its usual range except in certain areas of the White Mountains. Little did we know, February 14th was 'Free Park Day', so the main area was packed. As we enjoyed some lunch and smokes, we couldn't help but noticing the nonexistent bird activity around us. To get away from the crowds, we trekked away from the visitor center and trailhead to the secluded woodlands behind the ranger cabins.  The bird activity picked up significantly, and once again we were up to our necks in Nuthatches, Chickadees, Robins, Jays, and Hairy Woodpeckers--which is a very good conglomerate of things to have up to one's neck. Townsend's Solitaire's were also numerous in the area, and confiding.

The birding was very good, but we were cycling through the same birds in the pine/juniper woodlands and after a while, just like when we were looking for the Grosbeaks, we began to get that feeling--you know the one--when you sense it's just not going to happen with a particular species.
And just as with the Grosbeaks, it was at that low point when we had our sighting. A medium sized Woodpecker flew in from nowhere and started doing woodpecker things on a larger pine. This bird had a lot of black on its head and back, with yellow on its belly. We had brief looks at a beautiful male Williamson's before he too departed.
Here we made a critical mistake, for the WISA did not fly the coop and we could have pursued it, but an absurdly accommodating Townsend's Solitaire demanded our attention as we were following the WISA, and by time we had crushed him enough, we could not relocate the woodpecker. Just look at his smug expression; WISA probably paid him off to be a decoy.

We ended our time in Flagstaff without Pinyon Jay, the only real miss of our targets, but I admit to having terrible luck/knowledge with this bird in Arizona and I had not been expecting that to change. Our last stop on the way back to Phoenix was at Camp Verde, Yavapai County, where someone had a Rufous-backed Robin at their house about a week before. The little neighborhood was fairly birdy, though also bursting at the seems with loud, aggressive dogs. We couldn't turn up the RBRO, so despite all of our earlier success the day's birding ended on a slightly sour note. I blame these jerks, SSHA and COHA, even if that vagrant was a long shot.

Believe it or not, the day was longer than this post, but it was one of those truly epic, full commitment days that demanded total attention and paid huge dividends. It was a much needed break from all things work and other responsibilities, and much enjoyed time in the field. Once we logged Gilded Flicker the next day, Nate ended his time in Arizona with 15 new species, bad allergies, and a good idea of how to screw me over in a future TGC.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Target Birding: Maricopa Bull's-Eyes

A dangerous thing happened this weekend. Bird bloggers met up, face to face, without their electronic screens and safeguards and anonymity, and then went birding. Such endeavors have all the beautiful and terrifying potential of hybridized online dating combined with an antique fan-collector's convention, except in this case the unifying esoteric interest is birds, and birds provide plenty of their own heartbreak. No longer content with crushing it in Austin, Nate McGowan decided to come and crush it in central Arizona for a few days. First on the docket was a visit to the Thrasher spot in Buckeye, west Maricopa County.

With clear skies and cool temps we got the business done, logging some cooperative Bendire's Thrashers first thing, who provided a near-continual soundtrack throughout the morning. We also had individual Le Conte's and Crissal Thrasher, with which Butler'd Birds continued its hallowed tradition of not getting good photos.

The Thrasher Spot has a reputation throughout North America as one of the best areas for Le Conte's Thrasher, and as an added enticement it also plays host to the short-staying Sage Sparrow complex, both Sagebrush and Bell's. We did not see these birds until near the end of our excursion. While the Sagebrush eventually showed well, we could not pick out any Bell's Sparrows, which leaves them for a separate trip--if they're still in town. Both birds tend to be the first to depart for their breeding grounds.

As is also the case with astronauts, sailors, and bees, our trip out into west Maricopa needed to be followed by a trip back home. When returning from the Thrasher Spot, it is most advisable to swing through the nearby agricultural fields (and Arlington WMA, if there's time) for raptors. We were sadly bereft of Ferruginous Hawks, but Nate happily reminded me to appreciate the darker, western morph of Red-Tail that we commonly enjoy.

With the morning targets mostly secured (Bell's Sparrow withstanding), we then bolted to the far east side of town and the Salt River. Coon Bluff treated us to typical looks of Phainopepla and Gray Flycatcher, though photo ops yielded diminishing returns in the high noon dynamic. The Granite Reef site provided some distant but compelling views of Common Merganser, Bufflehead, and Common Goldeneye. Speaking of compelling, the Goldeneye drake was making time with his special hen. How's this for solicitation?

The Gray Flycatcher was one of very few remaining empid lifers for Nate, but at multiple points along the river we failed to come up with Gilded Flicker, which Nate was also seeking the day before. It was a peculiar shortfall for us, since the Flicker was, relatively, the easiest of our targets. There was this peeping tom at Granite Reef to add some welcome distraction.

With the Gilded Flicker failing to materialize along the Salt River and the day before around Papago, I played one last desperate, domestic card. I tried to get Mom and Dad to solve my problems. With dusty, tear-streaked face I swung by the folks' place, as they also host Flickers around their property. Although the shady seating and cold beer was consoling, GIFL still eluded us. 
Psht. Costa's Hummingbird is cooler anyway. 

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Cheetahs Sometimes Prosper: Rare Looks at non-Rare Birds and yet more Chasing

It was another weekend of frenetic chasing for Butler's Birds. My recent weekend endeavors have been restricted to half-days, or part time birding, which doesn't even qualify me for birding health insurance. Without having as much time for the regular, inefficient ambling I so normally enjoy, this means maximizing the 7am-12pm slot with the surer bet in terms of good birds. In other words, I've totally been poaching other people's discoveries. First it was the Sprague's Pipit and then a Harris's Sparrow, both of which showed up as buzzer-beaters just before high noon. This weekend I was back at the Santa Cruz Flats, not too far from the SPPI patch, searching out some birds for which I did not have time to look during previous outings. Trying to balance birding with other things that aren't birding is the worst.  

In one of the remote corners of the Flats is an abandoned property, a chained-off house surrounded by elm and pecan trees as well as sycamore, cyprus, and pomegranate. The space is unoccupied by humans, but its water supply seems to be steady and this surprisingly lush little patch serves as a fantastic migrant trap that has turned up Rufous-backed Robin, Ruddy Ground-Dove, and Spotted Owl in years past. More recently, it has been hosting Black-throated Blue Warbler, American Redstart, and Summer Tanager (early).  

Verdins really want attention, and in a sparse desert landscape I'd recommend giving it to them, but one must keep one's eyes on the prize and ignore their overtures in dense vegetation where vagrants abound.

The BTBW was found end of last December, with the other two birds of note being found by ensuing recovery operations. BTBW is a rare bird for AZ, in that it's not annual, but the truly astounding circumstance was that this warbler, along with his wayward buddies, has stayed happily plopped in this same area for a month and a half, plus he seemed to have left his change of clothes in Michigan or wherever. The worryingly mild winter we've experienced so far has some silver lining I suppose--southern migrants and vagrants lose their urgency to move on.
The BTBW spot is private property and that bird likes it some thick cover in most circumstances, which meant getting clean looks and photos was always going to be a challenge even when the bird did appear. Luckily there was plenty else to observe in the area. Western Meadowlarks serenaded sweetly from cover in the alfalfa fields across the street, and a male Vermilion Flycatcher was displaying and boasting his territory around the yard.

VEFL would have to be considered an expected bird in this area, even common, but this fellow granted me some uncommonly good looks while I was waiting for the BTBW, at one point perching very near and doing some calisthenics. Winter never really settled into Arizona this year--even the higher elevations areas are mostly devoid of snow--and what normally starts in March or April for resident birds seems to be starting now.

People had been reporting the birds in different trees at different areas throughout different times of day, most of which were later than when I was looking. A row of smaller elm trees seemed the likeliest early morning stomping grounds for a 'throated' Warbler. Sure enough, specific scrutiny of these trees yielded the BTBW pretty quickly. Check out this action!

Yes, even with a facemelter like ol' Black-throated Blue, these sorts of taunting looks grew stale after a while. The Warbler was just being himself, but those intrinsic proclivities combined with the property restrictions to keep him more or less concealed. 
To liven things up, the female American Redstart made her appearance soon after. She was more apt to forage in an adjacent sycamore or mulberry trees, which were predominantly leafless. However, this also afforded her a higher range and was even further from the road. All this is to say, having crumby looks at great birds is a bittersweet symphony. Later this weekend I was also afforded an equally good bird in AZ with equally poor looks, in the form of the Chestnut-sided Warbler below.

Over the next hour or so, both birds offered brief looks, with the BTBW making the almost fatal (for me) mistake of showing his whole self at one point, which caused me to have a stroke in half of myself. If time were on my side, I would've sat there all day waiting for that perfect moment--such a bird as this is worth it. But there was also a Greater Pewee on the other side of town to try for, and time is seldom on my side...

Ah well, BTBW will be in Tennessee and Carolina this summer, as will I. What will not be there? Vermilion Flycatchers. Crush 'em while you got 'em.