Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Birding: The True Royal Ternout

Hey everyone.  I've been very behind in this birding blog of mine lately.  It's been getting harder and harder for me to keep up on it.  Call it laziness, maybe even say it's because I'm really busy.  Maybe it's a little bit of both.  Maybe it's because I've decided to lean towards observing other wildlife rather than just birds all the time. I have really come to love odes over the last two months.  And maybe it's because I have limitations on going far away places right now.  And maybe it's because the Phoenix area typically has three good birds at this time of year which are Least Bittern, Ridgway's Rail, and Yellow-billed Cuckoo.  And maybe that occasional vagrant.  As I've been intrigued by all wildlife lately, all it took was a text message to remind me that birds are still by far in first place.  A rare bird in Maricopa County at that..one that I thought was only remotely possible someday.

Wow, Dale, wow.  Dale Clark is a friend of mine, good birder too.  I was at work when I received his text message, and I was stuck there for the rest of the day (which would include well after dark).  There was no doubt it was a Royal Tern.  Do you all know how rare that is?  Well, in Arizona's previous birding history, one known Royal Tern in 2006 circled Willcox Lake and I don't think it ever landed.  One lucky observer was there, and the rest wish they would have been there.  On July 23rd, Dale found this bird near his home in Chandler, Arizona, and I thought it would be another repeat of the 2006 scenario.  After all, Dale found the bird in the morning, it quickly flew away, and then, it didn't come back the rest of the day.  Dale, who loves others to be able to see such rarities, kept on checking throughout the day without any additional luck.  After a storm blew through the entire Phoenix area, I thought, "Yeah, that tern is for sure gone".  I played my XBox after a long day of work and decided to forget about it.  On a better side note at the time, the Phoenix Suns are the best team in the NBA on X Box and Kawai Leonard is the star of the Suns.  

On July 24th, I heard my text message alert go off at 6:38 A.M.  I knew it was most likely something that was birding related.  I rushed to my phone after getting out of bed.  Sure enough when I looked at my phone, it was Dale.  Dale said, "The Royal Tern is back at same spot!".  Within 10 minutes, I was out the door and had a 45 minute drive ahead of me to Chandler.  The location the bird was at were at a series of ponds right outside of the Sun Lakes Community, near the intersection of Riggs and Old Price Roads.  Rain clouds filled the sky, and at times, it was raining well.  Traffic had good mercy on me, and I was able to get to the spot quicker than I thought I would get to it.  This area of Riggs and Old Price Roads can be very good for birding.  It is Dale's patch, and he visits the ponds on a regular basis.  The area has hosted 170 different bird species, and Dale has an incredible number of 165.  There are a few ponds, fields, and some trees bordering the ponds.  But this time, Dale had a mega Arizona rarity on his hands and one that every birder in Arizona wants to see.  For me and the Maricopa County birder that I am, I was thinking more of how awesome it was that it was a Maricopa County record.  

I arrived at the spot at 7:40 A.M. and found Dale.  On the west side of Old Price Road about 1/3rd of a mile north of Riggs Road, was the pond where Dale was seeing the Tern.  The bird flew off once while I was speeding up to the location, but then returned after a few minutes.  As I drove up Old Price I saw Dale, away from the pond.  He told me the bird was there at the pond, but he kept away for awhile to kindly assist others, such as me so I would be able to see it.  I looked to where Dale pointed and there was the Royal Tern, just sitting out in the open.   I drove up adjacent to the bird, who was about 100 feet away from the road.  Before returning back to where Dale was, I took some shots of Maricopa County's latest addition.

I went back and visited with Dale after getting my first good look and we eventually went back up adjacent to the Tern.  Good grief!  The rains picked up, and we started to get poured on.  I rarely say this, but I loved the rain in this time span because it was keeping the bird down.  Birds don't like to fly when the rain is pouring.  It wasn't long before birders started to pile up and chase this remarkable discovery by Dale Clark.

Prior to this outing, I have only seen Royal Tern in San Diego, California and a little north of San Diego, too.  It's a large tern that is slightly smaller than a Caspian Tern but larger than Elegant Tern.  The size of Royal Tern approaches Caspian Tern, but it is noticeably slimmer with much more slender wings and more of a slender bill.  The age of this Royal Tern is a 1st year bird.

A huge thanks goes out to Dale Clark for finding this bird, and not only for finding it, but for assisting me and many others in hopes that they would get it too.  The Royal Tern remained at the pond for most of the day on July 24th, allowing dozens of thankful birders to see it and appreciate it's vagrancy away from the coasts.  I spent an hour and 45 minutes watching this awesome discovery, and a neat bird I don't see often.  Most of the time, it sat at the farm pond west of Old Price, but a few times it flew a short distance into the Sun Lakes Community on private property.  Thankfully, it spent most of it's time at the pond where it could be viewed publicly!  I'll close this post with a series of more pictures that I took of the Royal Tern...

Royal Tern with Green Heron

Royal Tern with Great Blue Heron

Monday, July 3, 2017

Wisconsin Warblers

Recently, I just took a trip to Washburn County, Wisconsin, with my family.  We stayed just outside of the Spooner and Shell Lake area in the town of Bashaw.  The trip was mainly a trip for working on a project with my family, so I didn't have much time for birding.  But the birding that I did have, turned out to have some very epic sightings and enjoyment of eastern North America.  With as much of my life that I have lived in Arizona, it's always good to get out of the southwest and to see and learn more about eastern North America.  Washburn County, which is situated in northwestern Wisconsin, is a great place to learn about and see a variety of eastern birds.  When visiting this region, eastern warblers often catch my attention more than other birds.  Why?  Because they are awesome.  Before the trip, I jotted down a total of 9 potential lifers that I could land in the Washburn County section of Wisconsin.  With as much work as my family and I had to do, I knew that I would be lucky to make it to more than several Washburn County spots of my choice, yet alone leave the small county to bird Wisconsin elsewhere.  The 9 lifers I had a chance at were Blackburnian, Canada, Mourning, and Connecticut Warblers; Black-billed Cuckoo, Alder and Yellow-bellied Flycatchers, Blue-headed Vireo, and American Woodcock.   Before the trip, I said that 4 to 5 lifers would be solid out of the 9 possibilities.  We departed Phoenix on a Southwest Airlines flight on June 24th, and would be in Wisconsin for working until July 1st.  Before we would work, I had a few hours for birding every morning.  And sometimes, I would have times to go at different times of the day after we finished sections of work.

From the get go, the start of the trip had warblers written all over it.  Appropriately so, the epic warblers deserve their own blog post.  Right away, I heard an Ovenbird, a warbler that is fun to watch, observe, and listen too.  It took me awhile to see an Ovenbird, but I did have a spectacular view of the Yellow River from my Aunt Gretchen and Uncle Larry's cabin.

At one of our first stops to do the house work, I got to see a few "Myrtle" Yellow-rumped Warblers.  I don't see enough of these birds, and seeing them on territory for the first time revealed a neat bird.  This bird was in talks to finally be split from "Audubon's" Yellow-rumped Warbler, but the split apparently didn't go through this year.

When the mornings started, I would wake up and go birding.  Birds were everywhere around the cabin in mixed woodlands that were dominantly deciduous with some stands of pine.  After some patience, I did get some visuals on that Ovenbird.  Ovenbirds can be hard to phish in as opposed to other warblers, and sit deep in the forest.  But when one is seen, it will often stand still and sing before walking across the limb to repeat the singing process.  It is a behavior that is enjoyable to watch and despite the fact of how common Ovenbirds are in eastern North America, I don't think I could grow tired of this bird.

As I walked along the roads near the cabin, I quickly saw that there was a lot of second growth forest in front of the taller and more mature forests behind it.  Most of the second growth forest would be right along the roads in the area, which were called Hector Dam, Loop, and Greenfield Roads.  These three roads saw me almost daily during the course of our stay, and they held perfect habitat for the next warbler I'll feature, which is the Chestnut-sided Warbler.  Prior to this trip, I had never seen this species in it's breeding plumage, and Arizona has given me a handful of non-breeding CSWA's.  But for the first time, I got to see the true Chestnut-sided Warbler.  It was very common near the cabin and throughout Washburn County on the trip, and I stopped to look almost everyone of them I saw.

Golden-winged Warblers are a declining species throughout their range, largely due to hybridization with Blue-winged Warbler and having their habitat also taken away by Blue-winged Warbler.  On my trip to Wisconsin, Golden-winged Warblers were extremely common.  They prefer second-growth forests as their habitat, especially when there are small stands of aspen in the area.  I couldn't go anywhere on my trip without seeing or hearing them.  At one point, I heard their closely related Blue-winged Warbler cousin also singing nearby.  After seeing this bird in central Wisconsin last year for my life bird and then discovering a vagrant in Gila County, Arizona this year, it was great to add this one in abundance and really get a fill of them.  Wisconsin is probably the premier state to see this species in North America.

A high pitched trilling song up at the summit of pine trees reveals the rather plain-colored Pine Warbler.  This species is well named, as it is almost always tied to pine trees.  Vagrants and wintering birds are the same way, as they seek out parks or cemeteries with such planted evergreens.  In Wisconsin, I constantly had a few Pine Warblers around the family cabin.  And a few times on the trip, I got to see them despite their life high up in pines.

On June 25th, 2017, it was our first full day of the trip.  I had a few hours to walk around the cabin and bird before our workload began for the day.  A harsh chipping callnote that I was wanting to hear came from the dense habitat nearby, and it was that of a Mourning Warbler.  After some phishing, it didn't take very long for a female Mourning Warbler to pop up.  She was shortly joined by the male, who then burst into song shortly after.  Mourning Warblers are set apart from very similar MacGillivray's and Connecticut Warblers by their lack of eyerings and black-breasted males.  Female Mournings do show white eye arcs above the eye, while any sort of white around the males eye is rare.  Well, my lifer Mourning Warblers here both seemed to have an above average amount of white around their eyes, which was interesting.

Mourning Warbler was my first life bird of the trip, and it was great to get them early.  They prefer dense undergrowth within forests and like their MacGillivray's Warbler cousin, they are quite skulky and can require patience in order to get great views.  I will say though, throughout the rest of the trip, the Mourning Warbler continued to be good to me.  There were many more of them who I crossed paths with.

Black-and-white Warblers have an obviously appropriate name.  They also are distinctive for a warbler, not only for their color, but for their nuthatch-like foraging behavior.  Big tree trunks in mixed forests in the east are what these warblers need, as they pursue prey in nuthatch fashion.  As I walked through the woods throughout Washburn County, Wisconsin, the high pitched song of the male Black-and-white Warbler was everywhere.  It was the first time I got to see this warbler on it's territories, and it often came into view for me.

Redstarts are crowd pleasers with their acrobatic foraging motions and their constant behavior of fanning their tails.  Last year in Minnesota, I got to see many American Redstarts on territory for the first time after seeing a handful of birds in Arizona, most of which were dull-colored females or first year males.  This year in Wisconsin, I got to enjoy many American Redstarts to follow up Minnesota.  Almost all of the American Redstarts I found on this trip were adult males with the exception of one female, who were all most likely away nest tending.  American Redstarts often forage at mid to low-levels beneath tall forest canopies.  While the observers of these epic birds often think they fan their tails for show, it is really used to flush insects.

Warblers were commonly carrying food in their mouths during the course of many of my observations.  They had young ones and mates to feed.  Another common warbler around was the Nashville Warbler.  This is another first time I've seen of a warbler on territory.  This is one that I often see in fall migration in Arizona.  Nashville Warblers were very common during my birding in Wisconsin, but were difficult to photograph.  However, one of them gave me a decent shot.

The Yellow Warbler is a common warbler in a variety of habitats throughout North America, and is one that is commonly an eye catcher by those who aren't into birding.  After all, they commonly show up in backyards and gardens.  Because I see this warbler a lot, I didn't try to photograph it very much.  And then something interesting happened.  While I was near the Yellow River, I noticed two Yellow Warblers feeding in the road, and one of them wouldn't move and was seemingly tied to the ground.  Even when I tapped it, it still wouldn't move.  I decided to pick the warbler up and search for a safe place to put it where it wouldn't get flattened by traffic.  As I was searching for a spot, my family came down the road.  Intrigued by the warbler, they took many pictures of the bird in my hand.  After the family fun, I tossed the warbler in the air and it flew to a nearby perch.  It seemed healthy but a bit stunned by something, hopefully it continued to live.  The picture of the bird in my hands was taken by my cousin Dylan.

Other warblers seen or heard that I couldn't and didn't photograph were Common Yellowthroat, Blue-winged Warbler, and Northern Waterthrush.  The Common Yellowthroat was the most common warbler in Wisconsin during my time here.  It's common here too, which is why I didn't spend time trying to get photographs with all the sexy eastern warblers around that I rarely see.  Blue-winged Warbler was heard once on private property and Northern Waterthrush was heard singing three times on different spots along the Yellow River.  Blue-winged Warbler and Northern Waterthrush I would have loved photographs of.

And wait, we aren't done yet.  I saved the best for last!

On June 27th, it was more of a laid back day at Gretchen and Larry's cabin.  At a point where much wasn't going on in the afternoon, I was around the cabin and I said to my Aunt Tracy how much I wished there was a vehicle for me to rent so I could run around where I wanted to.  She told Gretchen and Larry about it, and with their generosity, they lent me their vehicle for the remainder of the day.  I headed straight for the northeastern part of Washburn County, just north of a small town called Stanberry.  There were many birds I was targeting here.  Three of them were life warblers:  Connecticut, Canada, and Blackburnian Warblers.  This side of Washburn had more solid coniferous forest than the rest of where I had birded on the trip.  I started searching for Blackburnian Warbler at a bog area where a guy had them last year.  Due to wind and time of day, there weren't very many birds that were active.  I stepped a few feet into the spruce bog, and I will say I won't do that again without rubber boots.  While I didn't have luck at this bog, I went back to a bog that was roadside on County Road M just north on Stanberry.  I still didn't officially enter this bog, but I was sure glad it was so close to the road.  And birds were everywhere, warblers included.

Once walking along the bog, it wasn't long before I succeeded and landed one of my highly wanted targets, my lifer Canada Warbler!!  It was a female Canada Warbler, and they aren't as awesome as the males, but are still awesome.  Canada Warbler is extremely rare as a vagrant in Arizona, and is one I've always had in mind as a warbler favorite.  They are quite a skulky species, and they like low and thick understory within mature forests.  This female gave me a few great looks, as well as photo opportunities.  She remained skulky much of the time though.  After wanting to see this species for so long, it felt great to finally land it as a lifer, and my second lifer of the trip.

After the fun with the female Canada Warbler, I felt a little greedy and wanted to see a male Canada Warbler, who is striking with a bold black necklace in comparison to the females faint necklace.  More than that male Canada Warbler, the warbler I wanted to see most, the Blackburnian Warbler, was now dominating my mind.  I walked further south along the road at the edge of the bog along County Road M.  When I came upon the end of the bog, there were some wetland areas that held many dragonflies.  I photographed some of the odes until I heard the freaking awesome song of the Blackburnian Warbler himself.  It was back in the bog a bit.  The song is a trill that gets higher and higher in pitch with a very high pitched notes to close out the song, very distinctive.  Excitement was at it's high.  And after a few minutes, the male Blackburnian Warbler emerged from the conifer-filled bog!

The Blackburnian Warbler may just be my favorite warbler.  It reminds me somewhat of our Red-faced Warblers here in Arizona, except is has a fiery orange head and throat.  The striking features are similar with those two birds.  I looked up and the bright orange stood out like no other.  A fire had been lit!  Blackburnian Warblers are much of a northeastern warbler, and prefer mature coniferous forests as their main habitat choice.  A spruce bog, such as where I was birding, is perfect habitat for them.  As I drove down County Road M, I immediately thought it looked good for my targets.  And an hour after I first drove through it, I was sure glad I returned and had locked up Canada and Blackburnian Warblers.  The Blackburnian is one that is often thought of as a tree topping warbler.  Thankfully, this one was much lower than the tree top and it put on a show for me!

After the male Blackburnian flew back off into the bog after a few minutes of my cloud nine observation, I went birding for a short distance on Sugar Bush Road, which branched off from County Road M.  When I came upon a turn on the road, I could see and hear a lot of warblers.  It was freaking awesome.  I started pishing away and I quickly attracted 9 different warbler species.  It was simply incredible.  Warblers that flew in were Ovenbird, Golden-winged Warbler, Black-and-white Warbler, Nashville Warbler, Mourning Warbler, Chestnut-sided Warbler, Pine Warbler, Yellow-rumped Warbler, and that adult male Canada Warbler that I was greedily wanting to see, and photograph....

My North American warbler list is at 44 species now.  These birds are one of my favorite families and commonly steal the show.  The warbler target I missed on this trip was Connecticut Warbler.  I hope to return soon to Wisconsin or Minnesota to try for that and also, Cape May Warbler too.  But Blackburnian Warbler and Canada Warbler seen in the same hour as life birds, that feat may be very hard to beat.  Thanks to Uncle Larry and Aunt Gretchen for making this happen, and thanks to Aunt Tracy for telling them how much I wanted a vehicle to drive.

Stay tuned for more Wisconsin birding posts.  There were other birds outside of warblers, lots of them actually..