Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Creepy Crawlies and Plain Posers

Things are, as one might expect, still slow in central Arizona right now. Making birds the focal point with precious weekend time can lead to disappointment, unless one is willing to do some heavy driving. But how about incorporating a bit of birding into a pleasant day of hiking and fishing around Wood's Canyon Lake as sweet violas play gently and magically in the background while butterflies land on your various appendages? Some of those things are good ideas, and even possible. 
At 7,000 feet and near a reservoir, Wood's Canyon Lake is normally birdy, though I have yet to turn up rarities there. Even so, the avian populations this time around were low. Bluebirds, Chickadees, Nuthatches, and some Woodpeckers--the annual residents--were the only feathers of which to speak. Nevertheless, there are creatures in the woods that will give one that tingly feeling, especially if they're crawling on one's face. This Desert Tarantula was strutting his stuff after the most recent rain. 

I was hoping for some later migrants or maybe an owl but was disappointed in these aspirations. Despite the promising habitat I've never had an owl species at WCL. I've always wanted to help establish this place as a good birding site since it has nostalgic value (old family camping spot, etc.), but part of the problem is I seldom go there explicitly for birding, or at least for lengthy, belaboredly-plumb-the-depths-of-the-woods-and-turn-something-good-up birding.
Sometimes life just gives you female Western Bluebirds, dull female Western Bluebirds.
By the way they make a terrible lemonade.

I don't find Bluebirds to be an oft-crushable species though, so this opportunity was welcome. The crushes come so few and far between these days. In most things, it's usually winter that is the time of scarcity, but birding around central AZ one kinda wishes it would hurry up and get here...bring some Evening Grosbeaks while it's at it.
What's that they say, "The worst part is the calm before the battle...and then the battle's not so bad." Yeah, pretty sure that's what they say.

Friday, October 17, 2014

A Re-Salute to Sparrows (Or, Salute to Sparrows Installment II)

Butler's Birds went to some fantastic places this past summer, birding all along the Rio Grande Valley, in the Piedmont and tidewater coast of North Carolina as well as the Great Smoky Mountains. Of course, Arizona factored in too, with the Santa Rita foothills giving up some choice offerings in August. The main reason for doing this, of course, was to further the Butler's Birds goal of finding, photographing, and cruelly judging all North American Sparrow species as if they were merely intricately patterned, audibly diverse chattel, or even worse still, Miss American contestants. 

Harris's Sparrow IQ = Miss Texas IQ, despite what the sparrow says. But which sounds better?

I know I know, "That's mean!" Well, Butler's Birds didn't set out this summer to make friends. Seeing in the field and representing on the webpage are two very different things, as any bird blogger will tell you. Naturally I saw more Sparrows this summer than I photographed well, and saw more than I photographed at all. Alas, Bachmann's and Seaside Sparrow eluded the lens and judgment for a little longer, but their time shall come. (Bachmann's Sparrow, particularly, is fearing that final reckoning).   

Without further adieu, here are a few more installments of the Butler's Birds Salute to Sparrows. This information has also been recorded on the main thread, which will always be updated with new additions. 

Botteri's Sparrow: Also famously known as the "dumpy plain boring flat-headed little shit sparrow" in Arizona, the Botteri's is the Bachmann's Sparrow of Southeast AZ and Texas. Little sprinkles of rufous here and there are insufficient to spicing on this dull-flavored bird. There is something to be said for a handsome platinum beak, but that's not too special for a sparrow. 
Vocalization: More creative that one might expect, with almost vireo-esque single notes preceding a crescendo trill that is clearly an homage to Black-chinned. 7/10
Appearance: Unimpressive, plain, and what is the deal with that crew cut? 5/10
Overall: 6/10

Field Sparrow: Named for the renowned plumber Gerald P. Field, the Field Sparrow is the bread and butter sparrow for much of the midwest and eastern United States. As the name coincidentally indicates, it favors grasslands and agricultural areas, especially near woods. It looks, acts, and sounds like we expect an American sparrow should. Although this Sparrow has lost much of its relevance and esteem in current discussions and appreciations of Sparrows, the FISP had a heavy hand in establishing the stereotypes of Sparrows that we birder enjoy today.
Vocalization: Bold and recognizable, as if all the roadside fields and grasslands in the east and midwest were filled with tinkling bouncing balls (as if).  7/10
Appearance: Warm toned but dull overall, reminiscent in some ways of a female House Sparrow. The pinkish-orange beak is a nice touch, but lipstick alone won't win pageants. 5/10
Overall: 6/10

Golden-crowned Sparrow: A large and hardy sparrow, not as well distributed as its better known White-crowned and White-throated cousins, the Golden-crowned is nonetheless a fine specimen. The individual shown below is a vagrant that visit Sun City on northern Phoenix every year for the last three winters at least. Can he even be called a vagrant anymore?
Vocalization: A pleasant, mournful song (overly) short, sweet, and to the point. 7/10
Appearance: Very typical for zonotrichia Sparrows. Of course the black and golden crown is distinct but a fancy hat it not always enough. 7/10
Overall: 7/10

Olive Sparrow: Often found in Texas next to strip malls next to Red Lobster and Baby Kays, the Oliver Garden Sparrow is a fun and fancy take on the traditional sparrow archetype--much like Oliver Garden is a fun and fancy...well, never mind. It is the only Sparrow in North America, maybe even the world, with an olive (yellow/green) back, which also continued onto the tail. It has a brown cap hemisected with white, a faint brown eye-line, and is non-migratory--gotta admire the commitment.
Vocalization: A series of full-bodied notes of similar pitch, never reaching the crescendo of other Sparrows. 6/10
Appearance: Inventive and colorful yet still reserved enough to show a Sparrow's good sense and economy of style. 8/10
Overall: 8/10

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Pesky Sparrows and Cold Blooded Lovin'

Fall migration is stil underway in our hearts and minds, but in terms of producing some rare birds in the Phoenix area, it came and went without much adieu (it usually does). But we're well into October now which means waterfowl numbers are starting to swell and, even better, winter sparrows are returning. It has been a long time, too long of a time, since I've properly crushed some good birds. One could go to a park and crush Green Herons or Ducks easily enough, but Butler's Birds decided to do it the harder way and met up with Gordon Karre, Caleb Strand, and Tommy DeBardeleben for some sparrowing. 
Tommy had recently scouted a great location for the recently split Bell's Sparrow and came away with some great photos of this tricky-ID bird. Both Bell's and Sagebrush Sparrows are possible at the well-known Thrasher Spot in Buckeye, AZ, but the Bell's are much rarer there, preferring the thicker saltbrush habitat around Robbin's Butte where they invert the population disparity and finally outnumber the Sagebrush. 
And so, like the super studly guys were are, we set out into the saltbrush in the early morning to track down some of these early arrival, early departure sparrows. 

We had some great, diagnostic looks at a half-dozen Bell's Sparrows, one or two Sagebrush, and maybe nine or ten more that we did not see diagnostically. Alas, both of these species are very skittish on their wintering grounds and I came away with no photos whatsoever. The numbers were pretty good though and I definitely recommend Robbin's Butte for anyone chasing Bell's in central AZ.

The birding has been pretty glum lately but the herping has been excellent with our recent, heavy monsoons. This continued at Robbin's Butte, where the non-bird highlight of the day (and one of the overall highlights, for me) was a pair of Western Diamondback Rattlesnakes.

I found the couple under a tree while I was attending some nature business and they were attending the devil's business. The other snake's head is hidden in the photos, though whether from shame or circumstantial positioning is unclear. The back halves of the snakes were tightly wrapped together and moving in an undulating motion while the front halves were free to move about as they pleased. There wasn't a lot of eye contact or smooching. The whole thing was somewhat unromantic.

...or maybe not. We'll see what kind of internet traffic this post brings.

On our way back to the vehicle Caleb also found a medium sized gopher snake shading itself from sun and Red-tail Hawks. Unlike with the mating rattlesnakes, this was a hands-on opportunity. 

In the ancient greek myths, Meliampus became very wise because he helped some young snakes once and in gratitude they licked his ears so clean that he could hear/understand animals. This snake was less grateful, and we didn't even ask the rattlers, but what wisdom might the humble gopher snake be able to impart? Living life horizontally must give one all manner of different perspectives compared to us uptight uprights.

After Robbin's Butte we swung by the Arlington Widlife area, scanning for shore-bird friendly flooded fields and any migrants of interest. Again, be forewarned that I'm in a photo-slump here, but the birding at Arlington is always pretty good. The combination of tamarisk groves, cottonwoods, marsh areas, and agr. fields maintain a variety of wildlife, and our two highlights were a Lewis's Woodpecker and Common Black Hawk, both rare for this date and location.
Cassin's Kingbirds outnumbered the Westerns, and all of these guys are technically dawdling; they should've moved on a couple of weeks ago.

Birding agricultural expanses is always nice because it's predominantly done from the comfort of the car and there's a better chance of getting closer to the birds. This wasn't exactly the case on Saturday, but we did have some of the typical roadside highlights to round out a day with near 50 species.

Winter birding will bring its own intrigues, and I'm already looking forward to chilly trips into the San Rafael grasslands for Baird's Sparrow and Short-eared Owl, or up to Mormon Lake for Grosbills and Grosbeaks. In the mean time, it's a matter of damage control, birding when and where one can make the most of this interim. And in that mean time, watch your step! 

Monday, October 6, 2014

Splinters and Bits of Wood: Bottom of the Barrel Birding

I am in a sorry state. I did not make it out for birding this past weekend. Poor weather, busy schedules, and very unimpressive migration counts have not helped the Phoenix birding scene, nor have prodigious provacateurs such as this wary Peregrine Falcon. Apart from our annual immature Short-billed Dowitcher, things have been very mellow in Phoenix the last few weeks. Wiser and more committed birders have been finding good stuff up in the mountains, but some of us languish in the valley even so, waiting, even hoping, to get picked off by a pair of passing talons. 

Some of the best finds this week were not bird-related at all. I have a hobbyist's perverted weakness for old desk fans and ambitious metal signs, and here are a few recent goodies of the second type. Beware, you fabulous gate dancers and ambivalent wearers of headphones.

So, with little to report from the weekend and littler still looming in the distant future, and end-of-quarter evaluations must be written and such, it was back to the ol' work patch to grow the list. Within those dramatically lowered expectations there was some success. Inca Dove, Yellow-rumped Warbler, Red-winged Blackbird, and Curve-billed Thrasher were all new additions for the site, as well as a fly-over Northern Pintail. Hey, bird the same place enough and something objectively cool or rare will turn up right? Well, not necessarily, but hey I can drink beer out of a brown paper bag here too, so Herbegrer Park serves its purposes.

Like the White-crowned Sparrows, Red-winged Blackbirds are moving into the valley in very large numbers. Although many of the males are still lacking luster in their epaulets, I dig the nifty black/brown tiger striping on their mantles right now. Yes, this is the feature bird for this post. I will not apologize, but I will do better as well.

Here's to you other weekend warriors, may we all hold down our forts with great gusto, and may we be visited by good birds in the mean time.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Spurred On in a Slow Day's Birding

There has been a lot of talk in the news about California's on going drought and water-related problems. Perhaps surprisingly, we're having the opposite experience in Arizona, where this summer's monsoons have brought record rainfall to the valley (including the most in a single day and also overall). There have been flooding problems in many of the lower areas around town and even on the interstate. There was a heavy microburst Friday night and another this evening on Saturday. Even though the timing for birds (late September) isn't great, and Pops and I tried for some west Phoenix birding just in case something of particular interest had been grounded during the storms. 
Water levels were predictably high in all but Basin 1 at the Glendale Recharge Ponds, and we did not have any surprising Peeps or Gulls/Terns except for the lone, immature, and annual Short-billed Dowitcher (It seems we get one at this location every year in almost identical circumstances). 

The best birding highlight of the day was a single Greater White-fronted Goose in Basin 6 and some distant but nonchalant Rails.

In addition to the Goose, all three Teal species were represented as well as Shovelers, which seems pretty early for all involved. The anticipated waders were in good numbers as well. Somewhere in this picture is an American Avocet, adopted and raised by the Stilts with their milk and culture, truly believing it is a BNST. Can you spot it?

Even though Stilts can be kind of a gossipy, snooty bunch, the Avocet would insist it is one of them. It's a touching thing in this cruel cruel world, but biology can only be denied so much, and Avocets can't bank as well as Stilts...revealed!

Oddly enough, the day's highlight came away from the water, in one of the run-off canals that was littered with masses of vegetation and silt from recent flooding.

The tortoise was making a break away for the shaded, muddy mouth of the wash, moving with incredible speed and a battle-hardened determination that comes with carrying one's own house on one's back everywhere (Snails know what I'm talking about). He was mobile-homing like a beast; we caught up to him in about 10 seconds.

Pretty impressive forearms. This tortoise was a large tortoise, probably close to 40 pounds and bristling with spurs. He had a bit of camouflage on his face, though it did not leave much to the imagination.

Obviously, one doesn't get the opportunity to consort with such ancient and slowly-metabolizing creatures every day, and I had many pressing questions, the foremost being, of course, what to do to stop The Nothing from destroying everything. As one might expect, I was sneezed on several times. What I did not expect was how super creepy tortoises look when they blink.

Pops brought some fruit down from the car to see if we could entice the ol' terrapin. It responded immediately, as if it had interactions with people before...

This is not a species of Arizona Desert Tortoise, but I believe an African Spurred Tortoise. This species grows to be the third largest tortoise in the world and the largest that is not island-bound. African Spurred Tortoise, and you have guessed, are not native to North America. I didn't know the species until doing some research at home later, but this animal's ready response to our offerings already had us believing it to be a release or escapee.

We were musing as to how this fellow could have survived the heavy flooding that the area experienced, an indeed its possible he was only recently abandoned. I'm tempted to swing by again tomorrow, both to quickly scan the basins and reclaim Brandon Marla, as I now name it, for a rescue shelter. 
It's introduced, and while I have no doubt it could find subsistence and is probably too big to worry about predation, flood waters are something it might be unprepared to deal with. On the other hand, post-monsoon and early spring are the only two times in the year when tortoises are active, apart from that they mostly hang out in semi-subterranean haunts.
About an hour after first finding Brandon Marla, we followed its tracks just for funsies and found it had moved all of 10 feet, some prospects for relocating are good, will update.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

I Pelage Allegiance...

It has been two weeks now, two weeks since my maiden pelagic birding expedition out of Half Moon Bay. It has been two weeks since the hard lifering and substantial sunburn, the (mildly) choppy seas and foggy horizon. 
"Life will never be the same," some folks like to say. Well, that's not entirely true. My time and experience of birding in Phoenix in the past couple of weeks has been nothing to speak of, so there is some consistency. At any rate, I've waited long enough since this first Pelagic Date. I can post now without seeming desperate. I can play it cool and act like it's not really a foregone conclusion, my greatest dream and desire, to do it again. Even doing it again, it wouldn't be the same. It could be better and it could be worse. In fact, by most standards the Sept. 7th HMB Pelagic was mediocre. Even so, it's not every day one gets to see one gigantic lifer framing another with its 8 foot wing span.  

Rewinding a bit, this date was not a solo date--further reason why I can't get too clingy too quickly. With the incomparable Seagull Steve leading and chief lieutenants Party Don't Stop Jen and Nate "McGowan's Longspur" McGowan also on board alongside the expected slew of a dozen other birders, this boat was dorkier than a pod of titillated Sperm Whales.  Turns out, birders are way easier to photograph than birds on a Pelagic (also, always). Since many of the birds we saw were in unappealing mid-molt plumages, the birders were sometimes prettier. 

My pre-Pelagic poemy prayer had been answered. Although I arrived days behind and late to the party, Steve and Nate were good enough to take me birding Saturday afternoon at the Sutro Baths. There I was able to log Western Gull, Elegant Tern, and Surfbird, in that order, which meant ABA #500 was not the dreaded WEGU. That was but a taste of the tip of the sweet sweet lifeburg to come. We were joined later that afternoon by Jen in an ill-fated romp after a Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher, because the birding gods are not without a strong sense of irony. 
Sunday morning came both too early and too late. We were full of grogginess but not of grogg, and forgot to sacrifice to the necessary deities prior to departure. As you have no doubt read on other more punctual and better-decorted blogs, this trip was pretty muted by HMB standards. But luckily everything was new to me, much like the Common Murre chick first heading out to sea. 

These unassuming alcids proved to be one of the most common birds of the day, predominantly in their father-son dance pairs and often filling the air with grunts and croaks. All of the adult males I saw were well into their winter plumage (or rather, were well out of their breeding plumage). COMUs spend 1-2 months flightless as a part of their molting process too, but for the most part they prefer to dive anyway, sometimes past 550 feet!

The HMB harbor was littered with Brown Pelicans, Double-crested, Brandt's and a few Pelagic Cormorants, and Elegant Terns, as well as Western and California Gulls. Especially in the early morning and throughout most of the day, heavy cloud cover prevented sharp photography so we had to pass painstakingly close by these infrequent sights (for an Arizonan) and head for deeper water. The COMUs were waiting just as the harbor opened into the bay, and not long after that the tubenoses came, filling a void  in the soul that had been yawning open since nigh the days of puberty. 
**Since it was preponderantly overcast throughout the morning, I'm borrowing some photos from later in the afternoon to show birds seen first early in the day. 

Brand'ts Cormorants were one of few birds seen from the boat that were not a recently accrued lifer. They weren't even sporting their snazzy sapphire throats for the sex-making, but after so many, many years of Double-crested and Neotropic, any change of Cormorant is a good change. 

Of the truer pelagic birds, species one seldom sees close to shore, Sooty Shearwaters are the first to emerge. Their rapid wingbeats and no-nonsense drab plumage speak of the harsh life many birds endure out in the salted, alien world.  

Although Sooties are not especially unique as far as tubenoses or other recognizable pelagic birds go, the first one of these birds I saw made an immediate impression as it darted across the water. There are no birds I have seen over land with proportions or movement like this bird. It was at once drab and dazzling in comparison to so many more terrestrial species. 
Of course, as anyone who's weather a pelagic or two knows, the differences between these exclusive seabirds and those favored by us land-lubbers only grows more pronounced the far one creeps from shore.  

We only had two species of Shearwater on the day, missing out on both Flesh-footed and Buller's--probably the best looking bird found off HMB--but the Pink-footed stepped up their game. We encountered many rafts of these polymorphic tubenoses throughout the trip in addition to the singles and pairs that would fly strafing runs past the boat and drift into the gull-filled chum line every once and again. Though calmer in demeanor than the Sooties, the Pink-feet kept busy throughout the day, and likewise kept their observers busy and bustling around the boat. Whereas the Sooties were immediately recognizable even from distance, the greater similarity of Pink--feet to other Shearwaters made every distant bird worth an examination. Never long did the binoculars rest, nor the eyes that used them.

The night before our voyage we had sat and brooded (and brewded) over our most desired and possible species for the next morning. Northern Fulmar was one of my answers, a stocky, variable, and recognizable bird with perhaps the most pronounced naricorn of them all. This was one of those birds in the guide books to which I was drawn for no particular reason, maybe just because it stood out from most of the other shearwaters and gulls that all lumped together in my mind.
When Seagull Steve called out this dark individual floating twenty yards from the boat I felt great excitement...and to be honest a bit of disappointment too, for I had been looking at the thing rather blankly without realizing what it was.

That bill gave ol' Freddy Hitchcock nightmares as well as inspiration for sure. Like most of their pelagic ilk, Fulmars are more comfortable in the air than on water or land, and this bird soon attempted to get airborne...which it did with great difficulty. This molt = nasty.
Also nasty but cooler is the tendency of Fulmars to projectile vomit a triglyceride stomach oil at other predatory birds, matting their plumage and causing immobility. It is also as a food-source for young, used in the same manner as many humans use Prego sauce.

Less bilious than the Northern Fulmar, South Polar Skua was the other bird I put atop my most wanted list. There were three or four individuals on the day, none of which were very close nor quite as scrutable as the Fulmar. But hey, stocky, macho bird with blaring white at the base of the primaries...tis' only one thing it could be.

There were plenty of dull periods on the trip too. We had a constant stream of Gulls lured behind the boat with popcorn and beef grease, the idea being that baiting these birds would bait in other, more specialized birds to investigate the Gull party. Sometimes no one else would show, and other times there would be a flurry of activity, like when a gorgeous Sabine's Gull cruised directly behind the boat for a minute while lifer Black-footed Albatross cut past the wake.

...and then nothing again, just the cool breeze nipping at the neck. If patience is a virtue then I left mine stuck somewhere in a vice. Pelagic birds can be patient. Pelagic birders--at least, greenhorns--are an excitable and jittery bunch. 

There are multiple ways to deal with the highs and lows, the triumphant feeling of a sharp observation and the crushing blow of a miss (diving Cassin's Auklet) as well as the lulls in between. Likewise there are different ways to deal with the chilly weather and the possibility of seasickness. Most people bird as much as they can, snack, socialize, and sometimes fall into a snoozy state of being at the aft of the boat. Some people also choose to play solitaire on their iPad for, like, the entire friggin' trip, even when sweet birds are being called out. They then put their email address on the list at the end of the day to share in all the eBird sightings of the group...Well birders often imitate their quarry (except for really sociable birds), and many the bird poaches without shame, as a South Polar Skua would readily admit.

Speaking of poachers, a brazen Pomarine Jaegar cutting right across the chum line probably won the 'best sighting of the day' accolade from Butler's Birds (though no doubt the Sabine's Gull was pretty sweet). Where exactly these slender, aggressive Skuas came from is still open to debate, with some sort of extensive hybridizing between Arctic and Great Skuas eventually resulting in a separate species being one of the leading theories.

By ancestry this bird may be a bit of a bastards, and by attitude it certainly is, but the Pomarine Jaegar is also a tough customer, a commander of respect, a dropper of jaws. The sighting lasted all of ten seconds, typical for a pelagic bird. Alas that our chum line held nothing of promise for the bird and he cruised on to pillage elsewhere. 

The passing of the Jaegar and distance of other predatory birds was better news for this Wilson's Storm Petrel, one of only two species and two total procellariiformes seen on the day. How these dainty little birds survive out on the open ocean is beyond me. I need to see more, lots more, and further ponder, but mostly appreciate. They look like they belong on a placid pond in suburbia, and yet flocks in the thousands have been seen on these trips before.

We had our fair share of non-avian lifeforms too. Common Dolphin, Elephant and Fur Seals, as well as Sealions were all recorded. Though we went without whales, the mola molas were abundant. These giant, stony, prehistoric, even extraterrestrial creatures would suspend themselves near the surface for Gulls to come and preen them of parasites, before they would seemingly release ballast and sink back into the deep. (I know that's the opposite of how ballast works, but with these fish all the usual physics seem inverted. They're so heavy and bony, the water is their floating atmosphere).

Additionally impressive to me, among the many other things we saw on this trip if not a large overall number of birds, was how tirelessly the baited gulls stuck with our boat. Of course I wouldn't swear to it, but some of the individuals were pretty recognizable and they seemed to stay with us from dock to dock, a good eleven hours or so, only landing to scoop up the occasional popcorn kernel. 

Photo courtesy of Jen Sanford

Obviously flying vast distances is part of the daily routine for most pelagic birds. banding and geolocators and nesting sites and myriad other tools, as well as data, amaze us with the feats of travel they record or deduce from pelagic birds. But reading and thinking about it is one thing. Seeing a bird exerting itself for that long, with so little respite (especially a bird like a Western Gull, which isn't built for the same sort of flying as a Tern or Albatross) is another.

At any rate, after all my whining and worrying about Western Gull being my 500th ABA bird, it seems only fitting to make peace and end on a conciliatory note. This fellow was handsome--in far nicer, fresher plumage than almost every other bird we saw--and he might well have stayed with the boat all day, patiently waiting while we sought the looks and attention of other, more specialized or rarer birds, and happily drawing our attention back when he was all we were left with. 

Where next and when and how?? Any coast, ASAP, by any means necessary--take a page out of the larus handbook.