Monday, April 14, 2014

Perseverance at the PM Preserve

Birders the continent over are now reaching for their 'nocs and cameras with increasing regularity and even the chummiest of city parks teem with excitement again as the spring migrations get underway. In the central part of AZ, migration isn't quite as big a deal. Spring always brings a welcome change, for sure, but in many ways the winter birding down here is preferable for total species, especially since the breeding Orioles and Buntings don't arrive until later. Compared to the scenes in the central, east, or northwestern parts of the country, the few Warblers and Flycatchers that push through are a welcome addition to the scene, but just in general the beginning of migration time doesn't have the same full spark in the Phoenix area is in much the rest of North America.  

So, apart from roaming the rocky hillsides looking for black-tailed jackrabbit, who are in turn looking for some shade in the rocky hillsides, what is a Phoenician birder to do? As always, Sparrows hold part of the answer. Those that left for winter are returning and staking out their territory, as are the residents, which makes for some excellent visual and auditory opportunities.
I have been able to lay many the crush on Black-throats in the last month, something that never ceases to stimulate, and even amid the infamous March doldrums these birds keep the spirit high.

Spending some time with one's state bird is also a goodly dose of birder medicine, recommended by 8 out of 10 doctors and even cautiously advocated by the FDA. If they pose nicely on a namesake perch, all the better.

But Cactus Wrens can perch and sing/grunt/gargle for a while, and for those birders with itchier feet, chasing around Black-tailed Gnatcatchers is another solid outlet. Unlike rattlesnakes and rattlesnails, they're not more afraid of you than you are of it.

All of these photos were taken during a several day trial in late March, one I've now undergone for two years in a row. Racing through Phoenix rush hour traffic, which is very reminiscent of the climactic chariot race in Ben Hur, and unloading at the Phoenix Mountain Preserve by 4pm, I've got about two and a half hours of daylight to hike out into the mountains and explore the various gulches and shady hollows where the mesquite and palo verde trees spread their bows. 
The task here is not just to see the usual desert dwellers, but to pursue one of Phoenix's better and harder-to-find migrants, a bird who's accessibility in central AZ is predominantly limited to the last week or so of March and the first week or two of April. They're shy and silent during this time of year, so obviously I'm not referencing Gambel's Quail.

No, but with great perseverance (several tries last year and several more this year), prodigious sweating, burr-laced socks, thorn-impaled shoes, quiet treading, keen eyes, a pre-St. Patrick's Day Irish dosage of luck, and maybe a few whistles to the treetop Phainopeplas, one can find a real treasure of a bird in the channels of the Phoenix Mountain Preserve. 

Last year I only had quick visuals and a blurry flight silhouette shot to show after four attempts in the treacherous but beautiful landscape. After that many busts and semi-busts, even the fantastic sights and sounds of Sonora are scant consolation.
This year it took two tries, and this year I had much improved results. Josh Wallestead, who has seen himself plenty of Owls up in Minnesota this year, joined me while in town and racking up his own nice list of Sonoran lifers. We scoured the PMP gullies for a few hours, and while heading back south towards the vehicles through one of the deeper washes we finally had our break, just after the sun crested below the hills and lent everything its hazy, yellow light.
Finally, at long last, I got to stare face-to-face with a regal Long-eared Owl. It was tops.

Of course, diminishing light and the Owl's shyness, along with my own apprehensions about approaching too close, didn't allow for the crisp crushes this finely plumaged raptor deserves, but the sighting alone was enough to fully validate a March otherwise largely devoid of awesome sauce migrants in Phoenix. Really, I depreciate Phoenix birding too much. It doesn't get much better than Long-eared Owl. 

Friday, April 11, 2014

Records Fall: Work Patch Birding

It's breaking past the 90s in early/mid April, so that's gross, but I've passed another milestone (figuratively speaking)...30 species for my near-work patch, oh yeah! 
See, I'm trying to sound all ironically jazzed by over-celebrating a minuscule accomplishment, but the truth of the matter is that I do actually fell pretty pleased with that. It's not like jumping up and down because of a lifer Rustic Bunting pleased, but like, "yeah, I'll stop for a celebratory beer on the way home" kinda pleased. 
Like this mid-launch jailbird Black Phoebe, I have broken free of the shackles that held my patch list to less than 30 species. 

Having only 50 minutes or so after work, it was a productive bit of birding this past Tuesday that resulted in several new species for the little site. Northern Rough-winged Swallow (expected), Black-chinned Hummingbird (expected) and White-winged Dove (expectedly early) combined with a single Cassin's Vireo in the few ornamental pines (unexpected) for a tidy little haul, like the tidy little haul of gnats this Black Phoebe routinely snatches up from its various perches.

I'm still waiting and hoping for Kingbirds and Lesser Nighthawks along the canal portion of the patch. Usually I don't stay late enough for there to be much nighthawk activity, but in a few weeks they'll be so active along the canal during twilight that I'm hoping to find some perched/roosting birds in the daylight. Then I can see and enjoy them in greater detail, detail like that which shows up in this Black Phoebe's feathers when it finally turns towards the light. 

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

The Thing with Feathers--A Bird Book Review and Recommendation

Only last month a very intriguing book hit the market. The Thing with Feathers, enjoyably written by renowned ABA contributor, birding guru, and ecology expert Noah Strycker, hit the market (Amazon retail $20) with relatively little fanfare (what bird-centerred book doesn't, except To Kill a Mockingbird? We birders are a quiet lot.) but with a bold, even discomforting mission: to examine, "The surprising lives of birds and what they reveal about being human."

I found the overall structure of the book to be delightful, both easy to read while simultaneously stimulating and intellectually provocative. It is neither field guide, biology manual, nor simply a birding memoir or novella, and as such it occupies a more unique niche within the world of bird literature. It is, as one might guess, centered on the birdies, but it is also very accessible to muggles (non-birders) and many of the superlative bird characteristics will impress the neutral reader in their own right. They might even prompt him or her to start scanning the tree tops.
Mr. Strycker skillfully blends aspects of statistics, philosophy, the fine arts, and plenty of fascinating bird behaviors with his own personal anecdotes. The compilation of essays examine different remarkable, one might even say extreme behaviors of birds and their similarities to human behaviors, even behaviors once thought unique to people. These examinations run the gamut between existential wondering, love, dancing, and social hierarchies. They in turn prompt questions about natural selection and the development of these behaviors in the various respective species. I should mention right away though that this is no apologia for birds as being equals of human in sentience or emotion.
It is not a series of stances, but intriguing observations and postulations backed up with well-managed data and enjoyably communicated reasoning.

The first sense Mr. Strycker addresses is navigation, or homing, examining Pigeons and Shearwaters as some of the foremost and well known demonstrators of this uncanny skill. Even when removed thousands of miles form their homes, the birds can use magnetism, landmarks, the stars, polarized light, and even smell--physical senses that are not really accessible, or even relatable, to humans (for that matter, so is self-propelled flight) to find their way home.
In conjunction with these impressive navigational abilities, Strycker also examines the wanderlust of Snowy Owls, progenitors of a peregrinating complex much more complicated than a simple economic relationship to the population of arctic lemmings. Snowies have been all the rage these last two winters, but revealing data has shown that most of the vagrant birds captured are in very good health and have expanded their normal diet to include fish, birds, and other mammals (and whatever that bird in Hawaii was eating), and may be moving more so to find new territory and space farther south than to simply forage. This certainly is encouraging news to one such as myself, who has not been able to enjoy the Snowy irruptions yet.
Resilient people have their reasons for moving from place to place, and in the case of Snowies, this may be an essential trait developed in a capricious and merciless arctic environment.

Female Snowy Owl, courtesy of Wikipedia

While the rugged and relatable individualism of the wandering Snowy Owls has a clear 'wow' factor, Strycker also elaborates on some fascinating group dynamics seen in the bird world. And as much as we humans like to think of ourselves as unique, independent individuals, we must also conceded that a major portion of our existence is spent both seeking and trying to cooperate with human communities.

Strycker also discusses the fascinating studies behind massive and mesmerizing flocks of European Starling, the emergent, spontaneous order (or, as he concludes, not quite so spontaneous) that allows millions of birds to fly in such close proximity without colliding amid constant changes of direction and velocity. The Starlings, like Pigeons examined before and people too, are able to comprehend and orient themselves in relation to seven other bodies. Doing this while abiding by the other physical rules of their self-propulsion is something that is mathematically replicable, as it turns out, but no less beautiful. A big, floating, natural, free market or something...

Strycker's examination of chicken coup pecking-orders, a brutish reality of a social structure that's still better than all of its alternatives, and the much more amiable, cooperative nesting of Australian Fairy Wrens are equally well-researched and fascinating reads, be it from the statistician, naturalist, or trivial pursuit sort of perspective. 
The Fairy Wren section featured a very enjoyable discussion of the infamous economic "prisoner's dilemma" and the social merits of being abusive vs. charitable as a method for long term species survival. In the end, charity and cooperation seem to win out, especially if one can find somebody else to help take care of one's kids.

At the other end of the social spectrum, life is nasty, brutish, and often short for Hummingbirds, in large part because they live life on the edge, and not just in a catchy, take a long weekend and don't wear sunscreen kind of living life on the edge. No, their heart rates and metabolisms, when active, just as when sleeping, leave them so continually near death's doorstep such that if they stopped moving for more than a few minutes, they might just disappear altogether.

There are plenty of other enjoyable essays as well. The examination of fear in penguins, both learned and instinctual, will no doubt be a favorite of many readers, as may the investigation of resonating music with dancing parrots and other birds--a realm of boogying long thought reserved for only the most dignified of primates and bipeds. 
My personal favorite section involved the examination of self-consciousness (in the simple, literal sense of the word) with Magpies and their many other proofs of cleverness, including vocal mimicry as a seeming prerequisite in animals for self-realization and luring cats into oncoming traffic.  

A criminal mastermind, courtesy of wikipedia

Some of the essays, especially towards the end of the book, do not really follow through with the "what they reveal about being human" angle of the title. This does not make them any less fascinating to read, but the conclusions or applications of the exceedingly interesting studies are sometimes, by comparison, a bit mild or obvious. 
Consistently applying a myriad of different birds behaviors to human behaviors would always be the biggest challenge, especially because while not every reader has informed opinions about bird behaviors and their implications, we certainly all have opinions about our own. 
It must also be said that Strycker is very careful and considerate in his reasonings, trying to include as many possibilities or causes with behaviors, especially regarding natural selection, as can be manageably discussed.

With so many different topics addressed, it's almost inevitable that readers will take umbrage with some conclusion or evaluation at some point in the book, especially because birders, sociologists, scientists, and others who may be most interested in this read tend to be an eccentrically informed and opinionated bunch. In my opinion is all the more reason to give it a go since Strycker's arguments, even if contrary, are still informative and, at the very least, educational. 
My personal quibble came during his examination of the industrious Bowerbirds and the similarities between their creations, which are orchestrated for finding mates, and human fine art...which may well often be orchestrated for finding mates. 
To...err hem...illustrate the point, Strycker muses, "...then who are we to judge what is art and what isn't? It's just too hard, and probably hypocritical, to limit art to people...If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, then art, by definition, is in the intention of its maker."
I'd quibble that the pleasure we get when enjoying a work of art comes from it being, by some general estimation, beautiful, but there is more to a work of art than that. We can call many things beautiful, like a car or a table or a pair of binoculars can be beautiful because they are well and skillfully made. This craftsmanship is one factor that enters into the estimation of a thing's beauty. We derive pleasure from recognizing the craft, and also purely from beholding it, from its aesthetic. However, a poorly made car, table, or pair of binoculars would not register with us as beautiful, both because it lacks craft and because we may additionally find it aesthetically unappealing. There should be a certain accounting for taste, of course, but also a recognition of the know-how, the skill and complexity involved in a work of art. The more we know about the difficulty and complexity of an art, the more we can judge it and appreciate it, it has an expanded capacity to be beautiful to be great, to be fine, and we judge it by its fulfillment of this capacity. As such, I'd say people can actually and with a fair amount of objectivity judge what is art and what is good art.
Intending something to be art does not make it art; it makes it an attempt at art.

Now perhaps what I enjoyed most about Strycker's book was it made me revisit and ponder many different enjoyable things--game theory, behavioralism, Aristotle, art--and while I did not always agree with his premises when the conversation turned farther away from birds, they still provoked a response, which is a high testament to the quality and interest in the stories. This is a book that, at times, may be disagreeable--though it is predominantly fascinating and a joy to read--but that is no way deters the reader from continuing. 
For its exciting story telling, careful and continually intriguing philosophical musings, and thorough attachment to the amazing and under-publicized abilities of birds, I highly recommend Noah Strycker's
The Thing with Feathers as a work of behavioral and social studies, as well as fun bird stories.  

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Chirps and Trills and Mountain Top Thrills

The early spring Gray Vireo photo hunt goes on, and may at this point just be postponed for a couple of weeks. But in contrast to this apparently defeatist admission, this weekend saw some fantastic birding with plenty of migrants and early-arriving spring/summer breeders moving through Mt. Ord. 
This is no ordinary site, after all, being the highest point in Maricopa County. The mid-level scrub and chaparral hosts plenty of Sparrows and what not, (and will soon host the GRVI in numbers even I can find), while the higher pines and oak entertain plenty of warblers, thrushes, and woodpeckers, lending a fantastic splash of color after a somewhat dreary March. 
I set out to Ord this weekend with Pops, planning on a quick look for any GRVIs and then a more thorough exploration of Forest Road 1688 and the summit. Of course, there were no GRVIs on the corral trail halfway up the mountain, but the Black-chinned Sparrows were singing in force.

We took the corral trail laterally along the mountain for about a mile, waiting both with dim hope for a Vireo call and also for the morning overcast to burn off. Chipping, White-crowned, Black-throated, Black-Chinned, Brewers, Rufous-crowned and Vesper Sparrows all made appearances or vocalizations at different points on this hike, and of course this sum total of emberizids was outnumbered by the all-conquering Spotted Towhees. The oddest sighting at this stage, though not exactly the most exciting, was a young Mockingbird that Pops picked out from its little perch just on the ridge. I'm not sure of the elevation here, maybe 3,000 feet or a bit under. At any rate, this is the highest point at which I've seen a Mockingbird. I don't know if that makes me weird or the bird weird. It certainly looked out of place, but then again I probably did too.

With the sun was still taking its sweet time to clear the Mazatzal ridge, we parked near the FR 1688 trail and were immediately greeted by the calls of Black-throated Gray Warblers as they staked out territory. Some of them were very determined, even menacing, with their sentry-duty.

The lower oaks were also inhabited by Kinglets and Scrub Jays, and of course Towhees, but the BTGRs were the most vocal bird as we started the gradual climb up FR 1688.

After a quarter mile or so and the first bout of ponderosa pine, FR 1688 opens up to a view of the west valley and also a steep slope covered in desert holly, scrub oak, and all kinds of other un-cuddly plants. Although we could still heard the BTGRs calling behind us, the dominant noise and motions now came from Blue-gray Gnatcatchers.

These birds were absurdly loud and active on the open, sunny stretches of FR 1688, and we actually continued to see them throughout the rest of the hike, even as we gained another 1,000 feet. No exaggeration, we even had them in the ponderosa occasionally, nearer the false peak where FR 1688 terminates. Gnatcatchers in pines...that's only supposed to happen in Florida. Even the boisterous Scrub Jays seemed taken aback by the Gnatcatcher industriousness.

Our forest road meander turned up Hairy Woodpeckers and Hutton's Vireos, along with a couple fly-by Rufous Hummingbirds and a plethora of Bewick's Wrens. We had no luck in the long-shot Pygmy Owls, but as we neared the end of the FR, where the trail terminated into stickery thorny things and a slope up to more oaks and a few mulberry-type trees we picked up renewed activity.
Fly-over Zone-tailed Hawk and Golden Eagle always give one a little rush, and the adrenaline continued as we picked up our first Redstart of the day, a preposterously good-looking bird. After continuing to scan through the mixed flocks and canopy movement--which turned up handsome Mountain Chickadees and Bridled Titmice--we saw something even more exciting.

What's more exciting than a Painted Redstart? Well, an FOY little gray bird with a yellow butt. We heard a Virginia's Warbler call once and had to do quite a bit of chasing and triangulating amid the steep terrain, loose rocks, and abrasive, shin-slashing vegetation, but finally we were able to pin this pesky little bird down, a photo-first for myself and a lifer for Pops.
Got the call, got the sighting, got the shot. Who needs eastern wood warblers (me actually, please)?

About half-way up the FR 1688 trail there's a turn off into the ponderosa, marked by a semi-permanent campfire circle. There's a game trail here that runs more or less parallel to the forest road but takes the birder through thicker pines and better birding, if one has already maxed out on the mountain side scrub-dwellers, which we had, or wants to escape the chronic, debilitating chattering of Bewick's Wrens, which we did. There were no Hermit Warblers but Hermit Thrushes and Western Bluebirds, along with Red and White-breasted Nuthatches continued the list-pumping.

After 400 yards or so the game trail dumps out around some water basins and an old cattle fence, and here a couple of sycamores, oaks, and other greenery provide exceptionally drawing habitat for the mountain birdies. We had two or three more Redstarts that were happily vocalizing when not busy naval-gazing...

...and an equally vocal Grace's Warbler, which we first picked out by its song and then picked out from its ponderous perch. This was another target warbler for our trek and a solid lifer for Pops. The Grace's is basically a slightly less cool Yellow-throated Warbler, but it's birds like these that will keep us Maricopians from unhealthily envying our eastern birder counterparts too much in the next couple of months.

This Grace's contributed to the overall Call of the Wild and its timing was impeccable, coincidental, or maybe even causal. Many people keep a list of bird's they've seen exercising their excretory systems. I keep the inverse, and if I may list boast for a moment I've got Vermilion Flycatcher, Gray Hawk, Elegant Trogon, Northern-beardless Tyrannulet, and now Grace's Warbler on mine (and in case your wondering, wetting one's pants at the sight of an awesome bird does not count, that'd be too easy!).
After attending our own respective calls, Pops and I made our way back to the car and finished the increasingly bumpy, treacherous drive to the summit of the Mt. Ord. 

The accessible road terminates maybe 3/4 of a mile from the ranger station and radio towers at the top, but while the gated road prevents vehicular progress, birders can happily progress continue along the road and without fear of hairpin traffic. Mt. Ord's summit provides lodging to hundreds of Violet-green Swallows, which are both beautiful and unusually prone to landing/perching as far as Swallows go. Later in the year this area is also fantastic for Hepatic and Western Tanager, and also for getting mutations from being too close to illegally high radio wave emissions.

Props to the Violet-green Swallow for being the only Swallow, other than Purple Martin, named for its physical characteristics and not where it typically lives (how would we like it if we were all named Home Body or Suburb So-and-So?).

While I was messing around with the Swallows and Dark-eyed Juncos along the road, Pops called out my favorite sighting of the day. Grayish body with some dull yellow on the wings, olivey-orange head...I think...I think...oh yeah!

Olive Warbler!!! This is just a fantastic bird, and one that we Arizonans must cherish. East of the Mississippi right now, there are probably dozens of face-melted birders recording 30+ warbler days, but none of them can also lay claim to this beauty. Alright so maybe I'm over-playing it and this bird isn't even in full plumage yet, plus it was shaded, but I still was pretty stoked. It had been far too long since laying eyes on this Peucedramid.

We were also treated to better looks at Grace's Warbler along the service road, which provides somewhat eye-level views of the ponderosa canopies growing adjacently downhill. The Amazing Grace's was joined by plenty for Black-throated Grays and some Bushtits.

As we beheld distant Roosevelt Lake from our 7,000 foot pedestal, we felt the warm fuzzy feeling that can only be kindled with a fantastic morning's birding. Such a glowing sense of accomplishment and success can only be improved upon with cold beer. And it was.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Birds and Blooms and Birds on Blooms

Even though we had no winter this year (temps in the 80s through February), it's clearly spring time. This is not something I can tell from the position of the sun in the sky nor exclusively from the fact that now driving to work is no longer done in the dark, with with the sun directly in my eyes (not sure which is better). Everything is starting to bloom now, and even in a place not necessarily known for its colorful fauna, that indicator holds true in Phoenix just as well as anywhere else. The mesquites and palo verde are bursting with their dainty yellow flowers, while all the century plant and aloe groups are shooting up stalks (those that flower annually) with a quaint resemblance to tiny bananas. 

The cactus are all getting their bloom on as well, much to the delight of everything that eats them.

The ground has finally thawed enough that rodents are exiting their winter hibernation and shedding their thick winter coats, changing from their white robes into more appropriate desert brown.

Another strong indicator is that all the Phoenix residents are nesting. Hummingbirds are courting, Mourning Doves, Curve-billed Thrashers, and Cactus Wrens all have raucous chicks in their prickly fortresses, and Abert's Towhee juveniles are already bumbling around, bad at everything.
Despite all that change and twitterpation, some species re carrying on much the same as they always have. Verdin are constantly foraging and building nests, which they seems to do through winter, spring, summer, and sometimes fall just to be sure. There is no big they won't chase and no position too awkward for them to hold in their pursuit.

While the eastern half of the nation mobilizes with its 'nocs and Bengay for some outrageous Warbler migrations, Phoenicians will have to content themselves with Verdin antics and the occasional Townsend's or Hermit interloper. Yeah there are Orange-crowns too but who cares, and has anyone ever actually seen a MacGillivray's?

Anyway, it's a good time to be in the valley, even if we're relatively less spoiled for the birdies right now. Besides, I'm still on Gray Vireo detail this weekend. Warblers can wait.

P.S. Check, out how many bugs are on this plant. In addition to the Verdin's overflowing maw, there are ants and gnats all over the upper stems. Tis' bountiful.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Looking for Cliffs under the AZ Falls

It had been a few weeks since visiting my cozy little work patch, so this past week I returned with a specific goal in mind. Having scoped out most of the likely species for this little site, last time here I made specific and successful efforts for Red-naped Sapsucker. This time around I was pursuing a more mobile quarry. I had a single Cliff Swallow back in February, flying around where the canal falls drop down several dozen feet to continue on their westward course. This was a very early sighting for Swallows, and I didn't see that bird upon further visits but it keyed me in to the possibility that in a month or two, they might take up nesting under the Arizona Falls Bridge. Cliff Swallows nest colonially under bridges near water, and are in that sense predictable to find. However, these elevated colonies and the subsequent shade that comes with them means that photographing these birds satisfactorily is a challenge.
Best of all, trying to find the Cliff Swallows at AZ Falls would let me revisit my favorite sign/water fountain placement situation maybe ever.

All of the winterfowl, even the Ring-necked Ducks, in this strip of water are gone, but Cormorant numbers were up. They're mostly Neotropics, but Rhinoceros Cormorant (front) and Headless Cormorant (back) also turn up this time of year. 

The main advantage vis-a-vis Swallowing is that the AZ Falls has a walkway and adjacent slope right next to the elevated plane at which the Swallows are building their muddy manors. This means that without rope ladders or cherry-picker trucks, eye-level viewing is somewhat possible.

With a small amount of trepidation and a certain amount of balance and control, positioning oneself on the dirt and cement slope seen on the left of the picture above allows for fantastic, eye-level views of the busy birds, even if the problem of photographing in the shade can't entirely be avoided.

And as for the Swallows themselves...they couldn't care less. Joggers and cyclists are often passing by on the walkway above their nesting site, and my increased attention did not deter them in any way. Clinging to vertical walls and building a house entirely out of mud and spit requires plenty of concentration, and worrying about the clearly out-of-its-element biped nearby is not high on their priority list.

It was a real treat to watch them working up close. One Swallow would often stay in the nest, molding  the inside no doubt and handling the decoration.  It would then emerge, apparently, to give direction to its partner, who would make the frequent trips down to collect more mud. Have we not all experienced this dynamic, in some sense or another, on a moving day?

And as a further point of relating and sympathizing, Swallows seem to lose patience too during these onerous exercises. Or maybe Cliffs just have a grumpier disposition than cavity-nesting Violet Greens, who find most of their domestic organizing done for them.  

It is interesting also to observe these groups of swallows and compare them to other colony birds. European Starling flocks and Blackbirds fly together and seem similarly sociable, but with the impressive Starling flocks, a sort of a common collective mind seems to pervade the group's movements (even though this likely isn't the case, they just operate, necessarily, under stricter rules that come with being in a larger group). With the gregarious Cliff Swallows, the community is central to everything the birds do--there are seldom any outliers or loners, any separate nests or pariahs. These Swallows are even known to move their eggs from one nest to another if a clutch fails or its own nest is deemed inadequate. 

Swallow crushing is not the easiest of pursuits, but if you can't bring Mohammed to the mountain...then find a way to get up the side of the mountain, lean over some railing, get a bit dusty, and take a few pictures. Everybody's happy.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Some Crazy and Some Classic: Silly Good Birding in Tubac and Madera

These past several weeks have seen some great birding among the familiar haunts and with the more familiar species of central Arizona. But as with any family or high school buddies reunion, one can only tolerate the familiarity, the repetition, the redundant stories for so long before needing to break free and explore new places and relationships again. 
Luckily, exploring is pretty easy now with Federal and State highways. Even more luckily, simply taking the I-10 to the I-19 south, by the Santa Rita Mountains and Tubac, will lead to some absurdly good birding. 
I met up with Phoenix and ABA birding guru Magill Weber before driving down to join forces with perhaps Canada's most accomplished inked naturalist, Paul Riss, to scrutinize some fantastic spots off the I-19 in southeastern AZ. As March has gone the way of February and the Arizona winter that never was, we had our hopes set on some precocious migrants and one home-steading vagrant.

After rendezvousing at a shady Fry's Grocery store, at 5:00am to buy supplies, drugs, etc. and consolidate vehicles, we quickly made the drive farther south and arrived near Ron Morrison Park in Tubac just after sunrise. Our first bird contact, apart from the obligatory roadside RTHA and CORA, was a vocal Cassin's Kingbird and some Vermilion Flycatchers (you know you're in a great spot when these are you first birds) and soon after an obliging male Broad-billed. 
Somewhat unexpectedly, this turned out to be the most prominent bird throughout the day. While walking through the mesquite bosque portion of the De Anza Trail, and even after in Madera Canyon, we were positively swamped with Broad-bills. We had three dozen of them recorded within two hours, and pretty much stopped counting after that. They were everywhere and it was scary, scary cool and scary regular scary like you're in danger scary. I've never seen so many Hummingbirds of a single species, or even mixed together.  

As we started our early walk along the De Anza trail--a picturesque riparian channel accompanying the Santa Cruz "river"--we kept ears and eyes and potatoes peeled for some of our early migrant targets. Gray Hawks, Common Black, and Zone-tailed were all moving along the corridor. Gray Hawks were vocal very early on but it was the Common Black that we first saw rise above the tree line, followed not long after by a Zone-tailed blending into a Vulture kettle. The Gray Hawks called continuously and in pairs throughout the morning, but frustrated our attempts to locate them through the canopy.

We continued to marvel at the masses and movement of the Broad-billed Hummingbirds along the bosque and finally arrived at a cut away in the dense undergrowth near the creek. Here, past a barbed wire fence and nestled into some intimidatingly thick riparian hedges, we began a stake out for the 'crazy' portion of our trip.
An ABA Code 5 Sinaloa Wren had been seen and heard in this area for several months now, one of TWO such birds to be nesting in southeast Arizona this year. The other bird, which is actually more readily visible, is by Fort Huachuca farther east.

While we waited, Bell's Vireos maintained a steady chorus in the background and we also picked up Cassin's and Warbling in the overhead foliage. Kinglets caused constant distraction with their clicks and movements while rustling Song Sparrows further complicated our task. After about fifteen minutes we caught a flash of something promising.
A small Wren, with bold white supercilium and chestnut brown tail, made a quick foray from the brush but disappeared without very diagnostic views. We were all pretty confident in the ID--the white supercilium and long tail ruling out House Wren, and the darker brown on the tail ruling out Bewick's, but one doesn't scan a Code 5 so quickly and walk away.

Except that is actually what we did. Figuring the bird would pop up again later in the morning and feeling a pressing need to better explore the riparian corridor. We were vindicated in our judgment, as it was during the second portion of the trek that we got visuals on our migrant hawks and even the elusive Grays, which were mostly likely not migrating through so much as staking out territory.

We had a few other nice sightings along the second portion of the De Anza trail as well. First of Year Pac-Slope Flycatcher, Chihuahuan Raven, and, of course, 9,743 Broad-billed Hummingbirds added to the ensemble. The Bewick's Wrens, often a source of audio birding frustration, were also in fine form.

After securing our Hawks and satisfying the birder's need to walk and spy, we returned to the Sinaloa Wren stake out, where three gentlemen who were occupying the post with us earlier proudly proclaimed we had missed the bird by mere minutes--perhaps vindicating their own resilience in not being hot-tempered, impatient birders. Whatever the case, we settled in again and weathered seom birder small talk until, mercifully soon, Paul Riss spotted the bird reemerging from its tangle.

Maybe we got super lucky...or maybe we played our hand just right, balancing the odds of this bird's reappearance with our other Tubac targets. At any rate, we got solid looks at the Sinaloa Wren this time around and were also treated to its diagnostic ratchet-call.

Of course, for super chill birders, finding a Code 5 in twenty total minutes of looking, after racking up a bunch of other stuff, is pretty blasé. We played it cool, cool like an arctic-dwelling paulriss...

Since Magill and I had to be back in Phoenix by evening, we could only bird until 2pm or so. Since Paul had not birded in the area before, we figured that Madera Canyon, farther north up the I-19, would be a great spot to continue racking up the lifers and put us all closer to our return destinations.

Heading up Whitehouse Canyon Road, the perfunctory stop at Proctor was initially disappointing. We added Hutton's Vireo and Phainopepla, as well as Mexican Jay and Black-tailed Gnatcatcher to the list, but found the area to be somewhat dead overall. In smart response to the rising sun and temperatures, many of the birds were restricting their movements and visibility.

While giving a few noisy Jays our attention, a colorful surprise (given the elevation) flew into the white oak, giving Paul another gorgeous lifer for the trip. Painted Redstarts really are breathtaking birds, face-melters on a high level of the face-melting hierarchy.

We continued to gain elevation, overwhelmed at times with the many picnickers and hikers moving up and down the canyon. We stopped by the Santa Rita Lodge and Madera Kubo to scan the feeders, picking up some really ratty-looking immature Magnificent Hummingbirds and nest-building Acorn Woodpeckers before heading further up to the Carrie Nation Trail in search of AZ Woodpecker and Olive Warbler. 


At this point the time had ticked well-past high noon and overall activity was dying down, but a very unexpected sighting quickly galvanized the group. While discussing the interesting peculiarities of a large sycamore tree, we observed a young but fully plumed male Elegant Trogon perched in a large alligator juniper tree nearby. This sighting occurred about a 1/2 mile up the Carrie Nation Trail, near the first stream/wash crossing. Both parties stared back and forth, the bird no doubt less gobsmacked with us than we were with it, and after a couple of minutes it departed further down the trail.

Any Trogon sighting will make one's day, and this bird is pretty early for Madera, so with it being a totally unexpected sighting, a Year Bird for Magill and myself and a stunning lifer for Paul, it was a highlight almost equal to the comparably drab Sinaloa Wren.
Understandably for anyone seeing their first Madera Trogon, the Madera Canyon classic, a single, perfect tear rolled down Paul's cheek. We've all been there, or at least wanted to be.

We never did turn up Olive Warbler or AZ Woodpecker, but another stop by the Madera Kubo and a scan of its surrounding sycamore trees produced no less than seven Townsend's Warblers, and we were able to pick up a few more species for the day list, such as an oddly lacking House Wren and Rufous-crowned Sparrow. Can you find him below?

Phoenix birding has been largely successful and very enjoyable this winter, but even so it can't really compare to the density of fantastic birding down south. As we walked back to the car and continued chatting up different hotspots for Paul to visit while staying in the area, I was struck with regret at having to depart after so brief a foray. So many sites with so many sights...birding down there is just silly good.

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