Saturday, February 23, 2013

A piece of gold found in Sun City Grand!

Gold is gold.  It doesn't matter what form it comes in, gold is gold.  Whether it comes shooting out of a dynamite-blown-up mining claim, is found on a necklace or ring that is a pricey chunk of cash coming out of a billfold, a king or queen's headgear, or if it's a small patch of feathers found on a bird's head, gold is gold.  In this case, even though it sounds strange, it comes from a bird's small patch of feathers on it's head.  It's name even sounds cool.  Let me introduce you to a Golden-crowned Sparrow.

The Golden-crowned Sparrow is one of the largest species of sparrows in North America.  This sparrow is rather plain overall, but it does have a black head with a sharply contrasting patch of bright yellow "gold" on it's head.  Given the golden feature, this bird is actually very striking as the conclusion in it's breeding plumage.  Non-breeding birds, such as the one photographed above, are very plain.  The Golden-crowned Sparrow breeds from the western half of Alaska south to northwestern Washington, and then it winters in the westernmost United States that are along the Pacific Coast.  Breeding habitat consists of high and beautiful alpine meadows and clearings in the middle of coniferous forests.  This sparrow will feed on the ground in pursuit of it's favorite insects and seeds.  What is really golden about the Golden-crowned Sparrow is the song it sings.  Hearing this bird sing it's song of serenity is comparable to finding a pot of gold itself.  Think about it.  Back in the day when gold seekers searched for gold by blowing up mountains in Alaska, a good percentage of the driven men had to come home empty handed by striking out.  This situation had to have been depressing.  The Golden-crowned Sparrows made sure to give them some sort of a consolation.  Despite the depressed gold diggers, their moods were changed on their way home by hearing the song of the Golden-crowned Sparrow, and probably most of them were unaware of what a Golden-crowned Sparrow was.  When the Golden-crowned Sparrow heads south from it's breeding grounds, it typically winters in chaparral and brushy habitats along the states of the Pacific west.  This bird also wanders out of it's normal range annually but is rare west in winter of these Pacific states.  In Arizona, Golden-crowned Sparrows are found annually but are rare.  They are best found by scanning large flocks of the abundant and closely related White-crowned Sparrow.  To find the gold, one has to scan these large flocks with patience in order to get lucky.  In this case of the bird photographed below, Dominic Sherony found the gold.

Dominic stays in Arizona for a few months every year in Sun City Grand.  Dominic is a very good birder, and he often finds rare birds.  He has a few good locations he birds at within Sun City Grand, and at one of them he found this winter-plumaged Golden-crowned Sparrow.  Ironically, when he first found this bird, there were only two other White-crowned Sparrows around!  When Dominic showed me the Golden-crowned Sparrow when we went back to look at it a few days later (February 23rd, 2013), there were a lot more White-crowned Sparrows around.  This sparrow was found at the Lakeside Pavilion at Sun City Grand, at the western most end of Remington Drive.  There are also ponds at the Pavilion that attract numbers of wintering waterfowl and other good birds.  Ironically again, Dominic found a different Golden-crowned Sparrow at the same location last winter.  Many birders go out panning for gold on their field trips for certain rarities.  As with real gold, you have to get lucky to find it.  Birding is no different, you have to pan at the right place at the right time.  Dominic obviously pans for birding gold in the right places!

More pictures of the Golden-crowned Sparrow:

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

An epic trip to bird Southeastern Arizona's San Rafael Grasslands

Hi everyone,

Dominic Sherony, Jay Miller, Jim Kopitzke, and I spent a good amount of time starting yesterday afternoon and most of today (2/19/13) birding in several awesome places in pursuit of several awesome birds in southeastern Arizona and Tucson.  Our main birding destination was the San Rafael Grasslands where we spent a good amount of our time.  It was a great trip for the four of us, as we were after life birds, state birds, and birds to photograph.

For Dominic and I, the trip started off on a good note on the afternoon of 2/18/13.  Before we picked up Jim and Jay, we headed over to the Pebble Beach Recreation Site at the Salt River where we were both treated to excellent views of the RED-BREASTED SAPSUCKER.  Even though I've seen this bird several times prior to this visit, it was still just as exciting to observe.  It was a real treat for Dominic, as he hasn't seen much of this species and he also got to get his first ever photographs of this species, which turned out very good.

The four of us then headed down for epic Southeastern Arizona.  The Southeastern Arizona birding experience got even better as we stayed in an amazing cabin between Patagonia and Sonoita.  Under the clear skies the star showing was incredible, where we spent some time owling.  We didn't see any owls, but we heard both GREAT HORNED and WESTERN SCREECH-OWLS.  A Western Screech did lead us around for a good amount of time before we couldn't follow it anymore.  A HUGE thanks to Carol Hippenmeyer for her hospitality and generosity, it really made our trip extra special and enjoyable!  Carol you are beyond awesome!

My three buddies enjoying the cabin:

When this morning (2/19/13) hit, we headed out for the San Rafael Grasslands rather early.  We somehow got a later start than we wanted, and arrived at the grasslands at 6:50 A.M.  Our reason for wanting to get here early was for Short-eared Owl.  We feared we had got there a little late as it was pretty light outside.  But just minutes into pulling onto Forest Road 58 of the Grasslands, I spied a SHORT-EARED OWL sitting right on top of a fenceline roadside as we were approaching.  Our looks of the bird were somewhat distant but we could still make out the bird perfectly.  It quickly resumed it's hunting and flew through the grasslands back and fourth on the north side of the road.  We had decent views of it while it hunted over the grasslands.  Jim watched the bird drop down and catch something, and we were never able to see it again.  This bird was great for the four of us:  a lifer for me, and a state bird for Jim, Jay, and Dominic.  It was also Jim's 400th Arizona bird-congrats Jim!

Picture:  This is a poor but diagnostic picture of the Short-eared Owl.  A wonderful memory!

We than headed over to the Vaca Corral, and Dominic spied one of the continuing ROUGH-LEGGED HAWKS perched in at a distance but in decent scope range.  The hawk entertained us for a few minutes before flying off.  About an hour later in the morning when we were on the north/south road heading in the direction of Mexico (forgot the rd's name?), the Rough-legged Hawk somehow "re found" us!  It flew over the vehicle and then perched on a fence roadside at tame close distances.  This was my first ever Rough-legged Hawk, and it gave me looks that I couldn't have ever asked better for a lifer.  It was also a state bird for Jim (#401!!!) and Jay, and it was Dominic's 3rd Arizona RLHA.

This is the start of a selection of photo captures I was able to obtain when we observed the Rough-legged Hawk.  These first few shots came when the Rough-legged Hawk found us.  Jim spied the bird flying over one of the hills and it flew over us at close and wonderful distances.

The Rough-legged Hawk then landed on a fence at a rather close distance away.  These shots show the bird with the beauty of the surrounding grasslands..

As we drove a little closer to the hawk, it took flight again.  But ironically, it landed at a very close distance along the side of the road along a fence line.  We managed to get extremely close to this bird, and it was super cooperative and almost tame-acting.  In the Rough-legged Hawks that Dominic has observed, they are usually a very shy raptor that don't allow close approach.  This one seemed to know it was my lifebird, and it gave me everything possible that I could've wished for in seeing my first Rough-legged Hawk.  There were tall weeds in the way in some of our views, which may have contributed to the hawk perching super close in obstructing it's view of us.

After seeing this hawk for about ten minutes at this crazy close distance that had to have been less than 50 feet away, it flew off to another perch that was still very close to the road.  Here is another shot with the hawk and the epic Grasslands in the background...
For our final looks, we were able to enjoy more views for a few more minutes.  The hawk still pleased everyone and ceased to fly off far.  Once again, a great way for me to get a lifer!

Prior to this day, the Rough-legged Hawk has been a species that I have been dying to see.  Can you blame me?  After seeing a big hawk out in Buckeye hovering like a kestrel with all the right jizz before I was about to get an identification on it, I was almost 99 percent and change sure that it was a Rough-legged Hawk.  It was always one I wanted badly.  Here is a brief factual overview on the Rough-legged Hawk, who's scientific name is Buteo Lagopus:  It gets it's name "Rough-legged" Hawk referring to it's feathered legs, which are feathered all the way down to it's talons.  They breed in the far north, which includes Alaska and far northern Canada.  The species preferred habitat is open tundra, plains, and marshes.  Rough-legged Hawks typically winter in southern Canada and the northern United States in high numbers.  They are annual further south in the United States but in much lower numbers.  Some years harbor many more hawks than others.  In Arizona, the Rough legged Hawk is rare but annual throughout the state in winter, in fields and grasslands.  They are more regular in the northern half of the state than the southern half.  The Rough-legged Hawk is also known for it's hovering behavior in one place (similar to a kestrel), which is one of it's key behavioral traits.  Rough-legged Hawks are a very variable hawk.  There are both light and dark morphs and  male and females look very different.  This individual is an adult female.  For this bird to be down in the San Rafael Grasslands, it traveled a VERY far distance from it's breeding grounds and has a very far distance to head back.  When these photos were taken of this special bird, we were only a few miles north of Mexico.  

Other raptors were also abundant through the San Rafael Valley.  This included a WHITE-TAILED KITE, abundant NORTHERN HARRIERS, several RED-TAILED HAWKS, plenty of AMERICAN KESTRELS, a MERLIN, and a PRAIRIE FALCON.  Another big target we had at the Grasslands was Baird's Sparrow, in which we struck out on.  Sparrow activity was surprisingly down today at San Rafael, with not much else other than VESPER and SAVANNAH SPARROWS.  Despite a big effort and patient attempt at searching for the Baird's along dense grass among fencelines, we came up empty.  CHESTNUT-COLLARED LONGSPURS were abundant near the Vaca Corral, constantly flying back-and-fourth.  It's almost like they are wasting their own time by flying around the way they fly around.  A few times we caught good glimpses of them, which included looks at several stunning males who have come into breeding plumage.  There were probably anywhere between 200-300 CC LO'S in this area.  The San Rafael Grasslands is a beautiful and stunning place.  In some ways I'm almost glad I missed Baird's Sparrow.  It gives me an excuse to go back.

Before I forget, these guys were also abundant.  The Horned Lark!

Here are also a few pictures from the San Rafael Grasslands:

After the Grasslands, high winds that had picked up made the Paton's Yard tough to get on anything, so we headed up to Tucson.

Our final stop of the day came at the Roger Road WTF at 1:10 P.M., where we were after our last target of the trip, the YELLOW-THROATED WARBLER.  It was windy here too, with strong gusts blowing through at times.  But the bird activity was high despite the wind, which calmed down towards the end.  We all walked around in search of the warbler, and Dominic found the bird well over an hour later.  We were all able to get on it and it was a great way to end the day.  The Yellow-throated Warbler was on the east side of the east pond and then worked it's way to the north side of the pond.  It flew up into a palm tree and never came back out.  Dominic spied it foraging at mid-level at a close distance.  The warbler was a treat for all of us, being a state bird for the four of us as well as a lifer for both Jay and me.

Poor but diagnostic photos of the Yellow-throated Warbler:

We all had three great highlights apiece on the trip, and it was a memorable one to Southeastern Arizona.  As always!

Good Birding,

Tommy DeBardeleben (Glendale, Arizona)

Friday, February 15, 2013

A trek to a snowy Mount Ord..

Hi everyone,

Yesterday on February 15th, 2013, I ventured out to the northeast part of Maricopa County primarily to explore Mount Ord.  On the way back I made stops at Sunflower and the Lower Salt River Recreation Area.  It turned out to be another good day of birding.

As I was approaching Mount Ord, I noticed there was a good amount of snow, even in the lower elevations when I was passing through Sunflower.  I figured I'd be in for an interesting outing.  Once I got on the road up to Mount Ord I realized the higher elevations were completely covered in high snow.  Luckily, the first three miles of the main road up the mountain were snow free.  Once I hit where side road 1688 is adjacent to the main road, the snow increased on the road and I didn't go any further.  Because I usually spend most of my time on Road 1688 anyways, this wasn't a problem.  I got out to rather windy conditions and the birds were rather hard to hear much of the time.  Most of 6-6200' Road 1688 was covered in snow and slippery ice, and I had to carefully stay on the soft snow to avoid an injury during the two mile duration of the road.  Despite the windy conditions, I was able to hear and see a few good birds on the mountain.  Shortly into starting on the walk, I got lucky and heard WHITE-BREASTED, a single RED-BREASTED, and a single PYGMY NUTHATCH.  The latter is pretty rare in Maricopa County but can usually be found throughout the year in the higher transition zones of the Mazatzal Mountains.  One HAIRY WOODPECKER was heard, and surprisingly I wasn't able to find any Acorn Woodpeckers which are usually seen along this road.  3 different OLIVE WARBLERS were heard giving their distinct and high pitched call note.  Olive Warblers have been very reliable on this mountain for the last three winters in solid numbers.  The best find of the hike came when I heard a few RED CROSSBILLS calling in different spots of the mountain.  If it hadn't been so windy, I'm sure more could've been heard.  A few years ago on Mount Ord, there were very high numbers of Red Crossbills, in which they were even breeding on this mountain.  Other good birds included JUNIPER and BRIDLED TITMICE, a flock of BUSHTITS, numerous DARK-EYED JUNCOS, 2 TOWNSEND'S SOLITAIRES, a small flock of WESTERN BLUEBIRDS, and a pair of CRISSAL THRASHERS at an elevation of over 6000'.  If anyone decides to come up to Mount Ord right now, remember the road is in good condition up to F.R. 1688, but do please be extremely careful if you walk on Road 1688.

Scenes from Mount Ord:

After Ord I stopped at Sunflower which was pretty quiet and an off-time for good bird activity.  I did get extremely lucky and I relocated Magill's WHITE-THROATED SPARROW just south of where I parked.  This bird was just sitting out in the open and ironically I didn't see any White-crowned Sparrows.  A BROWN CREEPER was also present nearby.

After making a few stops at the Salt River, my first good highlight came from the area came from Pebble Beach as I got good looks at the continuing RED-BREASTED SAPSUCKER.

Coon Bluff Recreation Site was next, where I heard a WINTER WREN calling from an "island" adjacent north from the parking lot.  This location can't be reached unless swimming across the Salt River.  Also present at Coon Bluff were a few NEOTROPIC CORMORANTS, CRISSAL THRASHER, WESTERN BLUEBIRD, and GRAY FLYCATCHER.

Granite Reef was my last stop.  Watching a pair of BALD EAGLES was thrilling, and a GREEN-TAILED TOWHEE came out of the thick brush and gave me a good look.  Granite Reef also had good numbers of COMMON MERGANSERS.  It was a full day of birding and a fun one!

Good Birding,

Tommy DeBardeleben (Glendale, Arizona)

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Birding in Southwestern Maricopa County-A day full of Thrashers and Kites!

Hi everyone,

Dominic Sherony and I spent Tuesday, February 12th, 2013, covering the areas in the southwest part of Maricopa County.  We birded the "Thrasher Spot" at the intersection of Baseline Rd./Salome Highway, various locations along the Old US 80, and also drove through the Buckeye area.  It turned out to be a great day of birding.

Our first stop was at the Thrasher Spot, where we also birded with Phil Jeffrey from New Jersey (who helped us find some of our target birds!).  We got out of the vehicle at 7:20 A.M. to cold conditions at 32 degrees.  Our first target bird came shortly when we arrived on spot, as we observed and heard in song, numerous SAGE SPARROWS.  These sparrows are one of my favorites, and are fun to watch as they run on the ground just like a thrasher will.  Dominic and I then quickly found a pair of BENDIRE'S THRASHERS with open and close views, and soon after heard a third individual singing in the distance.  Working our way out further into the habitat, we had no problem finding at least 4 SAGE THRASHERS.  We then ran into Phil, who had been birding here for a few days.  He found a location where Le Conte's Thrashers were reliably coming to, and he was able to get Dominic and I on a pair of LE CONTE'S THRASHERS.  These thrashers were observed at very close range and we were quite happy with the sighting.  We then went on the north side of the intersection after crossing the roads, which I find to be more reliable for CRISSAL THRASHER.  Phil helped out big once again, and spied a Crissal Thasher perched up in the open before it went down to the ground.  Once it went down, we were still able to observe it well.  In less than two hours spent at the Thrasher Spot, Dominic and I found all five of our targets.

Next we drove and birded around the beginning stretch of the Old U.S. 80 for the following three hours (9:30-12:30).  Birds were numerous around this route, as we covered Palo Verde west and east, the Arlington Valley, and Gillespie Dam.  In the ponds along Lower River Road, highlights included a CANVASBACK and 5 LESSER SCAUP.  In the Arlington Valley, a flock of ~200 WHITE-FACED IBIS flew directly overhead.  Raptors were of course numerous!  Our highlight of the day came from a pair of WHITE-TAILED KITES.  Where one kite has been observed at the east side of Arlington Canal Road regularly, it has now been joined by a second kite.  These graceful raptors gave us both the best observation we ever had of this species up close.  They perched on powerwires roadside at close distance, as well as consistently flying over the vehicle constantly over the course of ~15 minutes.  Interestingly, they would even land for short periods of time on the edge of two palm trees.  There was also a large kettle of at least 40 BLACK VULTURES, a single OSPREY, numerous NORTHERN HARRIERS, a plethora of different RED-TAILED HAWKS of different morphs, two FERRUGINOUS HAWKS, plenty of AMERICAN KESTRELS, and a very nice highlight of two MERLINS up close who were both sitting on the ground in the fields.  2 BURROWING OWLS were also seen along the east side of the Old U.S. 80.  SANDHILL CRANES were seen throughout this area, including two up very close.  There weren't any stong places of flooded fields, so we only came up with two LONG-BILLED CURLEWS.  3 VERMILION FLYCATCHERS were also noted.  WESTERN MEADOWLARKS were numerous, and we picked out an EASTERN MEADOWLARK in the midst.  We weren't able to find the swans despite checking the area several times.

After the Old US 80, we decided to drive through the Buckeye area and check on the farmfield at Tuthill and Pecos Road where Kurt Radamaker found his fantastic Smith's Longspur last year.  We were hoping to find a few longspurs and Lark Buntings, but the field wasn't very active as it was at this time last year.  We didn't have much on the field besides numerous SAVANNAH and VESPER SPARROWS, but a pair of soaring PRAIRIE FALCONS was a pleasure to see.  It was a good way to close out the day!


Good Birding,

Tommy DeBardeleben (Glendale, Arizona)