Thursday, March 28, 2013

Birding at the Phoenix Mountains Preserve

For Arizona residents, the desert is something we commonly take for granted.  I'll admit to it as well.  For Arizona residents who are birders, the common desert birds are something we commonly take for granted also.  I'll also admit to that as well.  I rarely go out just to "desert bird" and I sometimes miss out on how cool these species of "eye candies" really are.  Any out of state visitor from the eastern half of the United States dreams of seeing these birds that are everyday and ordinary sightings to me.  I've done a lot of birding in the desert lately and I've really enjoyed these cool birds more and more that call the hot desert southwest their home.

Before I get to the birds, I'll talk about the location.  This location is located in Phoenix and is called the Phoenix Mountains Preserve.  It is a very popular park for hikers and bikers.  One wildlife watcher/birder is probably found per every five-hundred folks who come into the park (who really knows, I'm just guessing?).  I've always enjoyed the Phoenix Mountains, and I've also enjoyed desert birding here more than other desert birding locations.  I started hiking in the Phoenix Mountains when I was very young, due to the fact I have relatives who live in the surrounding and bordering neighborhood.  When my family would visit our relatives, we would often hike in this popular but yet peaceful preserve.  I was just starting to bird during these times, and a lot of my first time "desert lifers" came from this preserve.

The awesome Phoenix Mountains gives good views of the surrounding city.

And now onto the birds.  In the Phoenix Mountains, the call of the Ash-throated Flycatcher is commonly heard.  It's loud voice seems to drown everything else out.  With this guy photographed below, he obviously vocalized, and I tracked him down to get a photograph.

The Ash-throated Flycatcher

The desert is also surprisingly home to three species of breeding woodpeckers.  The trio is the Gila Woodpecker, the small Ladder-backed Woodpecker, and the Gilded Flicker.  The latter mentioned is the desert counterpart of the familiar Northern Flicker who breeds in forests.  But the similar looking and sounding Gilded is found in deserts, and is most often seen sitting atop a Saguaro cactus.  

Gilded Flicker

This next bird is one of my favorite of the southwestern desert birds.  This is the tiny Black-tailed Gnatcatcher.  These birds are commonly heard giving their scolding calls, and are usually easy to find and locate despite their tiny size.  This is a male that I photographed below.  For a gray bird, I think it is actually very striking, particularly the white eye-ring contrasting with it's black cap.

Black-tailed Gnatcatcher

One of the most common birds found in the southwest is the Curve-billed Thrasher.  It's distinctive "whit-weet" call is heard throughout the day, especially in the early morning.  Take it from me, this loud call has woken me up plenty of times in morning in my time.

Curve-billed Thrasher

The Curve-billed Thrasher is usually the only thrasher that can be found in the Phoenix Mountains, except during spring and fall migration, where the Sage Thrashers pass through Maricopa County in migration.  The habitat at the Phoenix Mountains is good for this small thrasher in spots, and they may be found in decent numbers.  A recent high count for me numbered four individuals.

Sage Thrasher

The Rock Wren is also one of the cooler birds in the park, and is not just a desert bird but a rock bird.  It is also very friendly and welcoming and wants attention.

Rock Wren

Not many birds would be willing to share their singing perch with another bird, as this Rock Wren is willing to do with a much bigger Curve-billed Thrasher.  The Rock Wren is a bird of good moral and integrity.

With hummingbirds in the park, Anna's, Black-chinned, and Costa's Hummingbirds are most common and frequently seen.  The Black-chinned Hummingbirds are fun to watch, especially when they do their U-shaped courtship flight display.  That is impossible to photograph, but not perched and hovering birds, who make things much easier.

Black-chinned Hummingbird

The Loggerhead Shrike is another bird seen in the park regularly.  This is a predatory songbird, and it ruthlessly sticks it's prey on barbwire fences and Phoenix Mountain cactus needles.  Seeing one on an octotillo is pretty cool!

Loggerhead Shrike

Sparrows are fun to see in the Preserve also.  The songs of migrant Brewer's Sparrows often fill the desert.  

Brewer's Sparrow

The best sparrow to be found here is the desert-dwelling Black-throated Sparrow.  This sparrow is very striking to look at, and it is easily watchable.  Black-throated Sparrows are a favorite among Arizona birds by many.  

Black-throated Sparrow

Even in the desert, avian surprises can be found, both big and small.  In migration, anything can happen in any given habitat.  Every birder knows that.  Well out at the Phoenix Mountains Preserve, I had a case of an avian surprise.  This was the main highlight of my birding time spent out here over the course of a few days.  I won't name this bird on this line exactly, but I'll say it's an owl.  And it may be the king of camouflage in the bird world.  Look at the picture below, can you spy the owl?

There is an owl somewhere in the picture below, can you pick it out?

If you spied it......well done.  It's even being "generous" with the view here.  Can you guess what kind of owl it is?  This Say's Phoebe probably knows the owl by now.  Think about the answer to this visual owl quiz and stare at the Say's Phoebe.  I command you to stare at the Phoebe!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Here is a closeup cropped up view of this owl from the picture above, a very elusive owl.  Now this is a good clue.  What owl is it?

It is a Long-eared Owl.  If you guessed it right by the closeup picture, good job.  It's worth 2 points.  If you guessed it right from the distant picture where you have to search for him, give yourself a huge wack.  That is worth an Arizona vagrant bird of your choice.  If you guessed wrong on both, sorry, better luck next time.  Look outside your house and your reward is a Say's Phoebe on your wall.  That is worth 0 points.  I decided to name this Long-eared Owl, it's name is Waldo.  Contrary to the popular fictional character who annoys all of us by his incredible hiding techniques, the Long-eared Owl is no different.  One can search for him and say "Where's Waldo".  But sometimes I'll get lucky and spy Waldo before he flies.  

Long-eared Owl

I was nervous when I took the shot above, because I knew the Long-eared Owl was nervous and wouldn't stick around long.  That's why the bird isn't in perfect focus as I wished.  They are very shy birds and DON'T like people.  A second after I took this picture, the bird did decide to take off, which I captured much better.  

Waldo the Long-eared Owl taking off

For more of a serious factoid about the Long-eared Owl:  The Long-eared Owl is a very nocturnal and widespread owl in North America.  However, it's nature and color give it the camouflage factor.  This owl is rather large and is never easy to see despite it's size.  It favors a variety of forested habitats, and in winter in migration, will roost in a variety of habitats as well.  Here at the Phoenix Mountains, this bird was found in a dense wash were it hid in large paloverde trees.  During Long-eared Owl migration, they will often stop in these desert washes with thick habitat.  Keep your eye out!  The Long-eared Owl is hard to see 99.999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999% of the time, but is easily flushed.  One can be literally right under this owl and looking right in it's general direction, only catching sight of the owl when it takes off.  Here is a shot of one that I took several years back, who admired me for once.

Tommy's first ever wink from a bird

Here are a few more scene shots with Waldo the Long-eared Owl in them.  They aren't as hard as the first one, can you spy the owl in these pictures? 

Where's Waldo (Take 3)

Did you find the bird?  These are actually pictures after I spied the owl.  Of course this means after the bird took off, and I saw the general area where it flew into.  It's not talent of me spying things by any means.  The next three shots will now show up close cropped visuals of the three pictures above.

Waldo discovered

Have time for one more Where's Waldo exercise?  I promise this is the last one.  Where's Waldo?

The picture above is just a joke.  There is no Long-eared Owl, or any bird for that matter, in the picture below. Made you look!  

To me, the Long-eared Owl is the king of camouflage in the bird world.  One would argue with me and say Flammulated, Boreal, and Northern Saw-whet Owls are better.  That may be the right case also, but the Long-eared Owl is much bigger than the small trio and does such an amazing job at hiding and being a big guy at the same time.  The Long-eared Owl has outsmarted me plenty of times, and my hat goes off to it.  If Long-eared Owls weren't so scared of people and didn't flush so easily, most of them would never be detected.  Do Flammulated, Boreal, or Saw-whet Owls flush regularly?  No.  

Because the Long-eared Owl is a very sensitive bird, I can't share where this exact location in order to protect the sensitivity of the bird.

In the days that I spent at the Phoenix Mountains Preserve, they were very fun.  Ending them on a full moon was very cool also.

Good Birding!  



  1. When I started reading your post, I thought you might have visited Pima Canyon Wash, until I came to the Owl. And believe it or not, I did find it in the first photo and really surprised that the Long-eared was the first species that came to mind. What an awesome find and some great photos of it as well!!! Maybe someday I will get mine! Loved your post!

  2. Fun stuff Tommy. I looked at your dense thickets long and hard, and for that matter, I did as you asked and stared at the Say's Phoebe for a while too, but I didn't see any Long-eared Owls in that photo.

    "The Rock Wren is a bird of good moral and integrity."
    This is one of my favorite bird quotes I've read in a long time : )

    Super shots. You paparazzi'd that Owl good, as you did so many of the handsome desert dwellers in this post.