Saturday, August 31, 2013

Low Budget Birding: Part Three

Well, I'm still on the side of Low Budget Birding.  I had the money for one nice trip and that was it for awhile until the next paycheck.  Low Budget Birding isn't the greatest by any means, but the upside to the scale is that it helps me appreciate the birding locations I have close to home.  Two such locations: the Glendale Recharge Ponds and Tres Rios Wetlands, are two of the best locations to be found in Maricopa County.  Tres Rios Wetland is probably the best location actually.  Both of these locations are within 30 minutes of me, and I can visit them pretty much anytime.  And they also produce memorable highlights.  But I do take them for granted, because they are my only option when Low Budget Birding has to come into effect.  And lately, these two locations have been dynamite.

I'll start with the Glendale Recharge Ponds.  For awhile, one of the basins was filled with water out of the six.  The basin started to have deep water levels, which made shorebird diversity low with rather boring birding results.  Luckily, that basin was drained and Basins two and three have been filled with beautiful and accurate shorebird appropriate levels.  Shorebirds are everywhere and the birding is great!

Being a fan of shorebirds and loving to see a diversity of shorebirds here in late summer/early fall annually, I like to give this place multiple visits.  Over the last few years, a few Short-billed Dowitchers have made it to the ponds annually.  Last fall in 2012, I found a small flock of five Short-billed Dowitchers.  Most of the Short-billed Dowitchers that make it to Arizona in the fall are juvenile birds.  They have a very distinctive plumage when young that help separate them from the Long-billed Dowitcher at all times.  The pattern of the bird is very bright, often a buffy-orange wash on it's breast and most importantly a striking back, that appears to the eye as being "tiger-striped" overall.  By looking at the Short-billed Dowitcher's tertial feathers, the "tiger-striped" appearance continues down to those feathers as well.  This is something the Long-billed Dowitcher will never show.  Shorties also have a lot of white on their tails that contrast with the black, Longies not so much.  The birds showing adult plumage are very difficult to distinguish in the field, and it takes a lot of careful study and experience to separate them visually.  It is something I haven't really been able to practice.  Good thing for the juvenile plumaged birds.  However, both species are entirely different by voice, the best trait in identification.  When the Short-billed Dowicher says, "two-two-two", you know you've got a good Arizona shorebird!  And this week, a juvenile Short-billed Dowitcher once again found Glendale Recharge Ponds!

Short-billed Dowitcher

Dowitchers are roughly the same size of, but slightly smaller than the famous Killdeer.

The Short-billed Dowitcher also appears to have a much more flatter back when foraging than the fat Long-billed Dowitcher.

Here is a close-up of the "tiger-striped" tertials and the tail (note the high amount of white)

Another good shorebird that is fun to see at the Glendale Recharge Ponds and anywhere else is the tiny and often-overlooked Snowy Plover.  These little guys are rather rare in Arizona, but do show up annually.  The Glendale Recharge Ponds have been one of those locations where the Snowy Plovers have seemed to favor annually.  They can be very hard to detect due to their small size.  When found, they are simply fun to watch and observe.  This week, a Snowy Plover also found the Glendale Recharge Ponds!

Snowy Plover

The Western Sandpiper is one of the more common shorebirds to be seen at the Glendale Recharge Ponds during this time frame.  They are a good looking shorebird and are also fun to watch.  Unlike the Snowy Plover, they are easy to spot and are usually a lot closer to the path.

Western Sandpiper

Here is the Western flock!

The Glendale Recharge Ponds are also home to many raptors annually.  When I pulled up to the parking lot, this small raptor had it's back turned to me.

It's the American Kestrel, one of our most common raptors.  It's also one of the coolest raptors that we all don't appreciate as much as we should, myself included.  Close encounters with these guys are very awesome.  This American Kestrel male was indeed a gentleman, and he kindly let me take his picture.

Male American Kestrel

The Tres Rios Wetlands have wetlands!  Too much!  Just kidding on that, there is never a such thing as too much habitat.  The Tres Rios Overbank Wetlands is the best birding location to be found in Phoenix (yes, even better than Gilbert Water Ranch), and an overwhelming amount of birds may be found there in any visit.  It's endless ponds and riparian plantings around the ponds attract waterbirds and migrants.  I really do have it good that it's so close to home!  Here's one of those such ponds and it's surrounding habitats at Tres Rios.

It's not everyday you start your day off birding with an awesome highlight in the first few minutes.  At Tres Rios, sometimes that happens because of the bird abundance.  In the case this time, it was a Virginia Rail.  This rail was perched up in the open on the reeds, almost perching like a Least Bittern would.  I thought I was seeing this, but these photographs show that I wasn't.  I don't see Virginia Rails much, so this was a treat to observe this elusive waterbird up so close.  There is no way I can count on a Virginia Rail visual anytime soon.

Virginia Rail (Are you kidding me!!)

Another fun thing that is fun about Tres Rios is that you may see two totally different species perched side-by-side to each other.  It really represents the diversity of this location.  In this case, check out this Great Blue Heron and Peregrine Falcon.

The Peregrine Falcon is quite the sight-anytime, and anywhere.  It's been recorded as the fastest bird in the world.  I've witnessed it make diving kills on several occasions, and I'm a believer.  Tres Rios is a very reliable place to find this species.

Peregrine Falcon

I then got really lucky as I saw this Barn Owl flying around.  It eventually looped around and flew right past me.  With owls, most have to settle on perched shots, there aren't many opportunities to get flight shots.  It's been awhile since I've gotten to photograph a Barn Owl, and this was a really cool treat for me.

Barn Owl

I then stumbled across this young Sora.  This was the second rail I was able to photograph during the day!


And here's a few more species before I get to the discovery of the day........

White-faced Ibis

 American Coots

 Belted Kingfisher

 Common Ground-Dove

 Yellow-headed Blackbird

As I looked on the dirt road in front of me, there was the Greater Roadrunner.  The Roadrunner was shy and hard to approach, as usual, but seeing them is always cool!

Greater Roadrunner

My sighting of the day came when I saw a familiar shape in a cottonwood.  It was a Red-shouldered Hawk that I discovered here in the winter.  It was a young bird when I found it last year, and apparently, it never left the area.  It is a nice looking adult now.  This is the picture I was able to get of it.  Poor, but still evident.

Red-shouldered Hawk

After the Tres Rios outing, I went to a neighboring pond nearby, at the southeast corner of Broadway and 107th Avenue.  This pond is small, but small ponds are known for turning up some cool highlights like these....

Burrowing Owls (my second photographed owl of the day!)

 Greater Yellowlegs and Wilson's Phalarope

 White-faced Ibis

And this marks the end of Low Budget Birding: Part Three.  Despite the financial circumstances, I have had some awesome highlights.  As I finish up this post, I'm asking myself:  "Is Low Budget Birding that bad after all?"  The answer is no, especially with awesome highlights in birds like this, and so close to home.  There will likely be a few more posts in this series...stay tuned!

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Birding the Canyons In and Around the Santa Ritas

August 25th, 2013 came rolling in in Patagonia.  Gordon, Muriel, and I officially started our second birding day of our weekend trip at McDonald's after we woke up.  A Cassin's Kingbird called in the distance somewhere, not bad for a McDonald's "parking lot" bird.  We soon left and headed north for the canyons in and around the Santa Rita Mountains.  There were three different canyons to cover:  Montosa Canyon, Florida Canyon, and the famous Madera Canyon.  A rare bird lurked in each, and we were hoping we would hit the bird sweepstakes.

Once heading north towards Green Valley and Tucson, our first stop was in Montosa Canyon.  This location has become famous for birding in recent years in southeastern Arizona, and it is also scenic and beautiful.  Black-capped Gnatcatchers breed here, Five-striped Sparrow has become annual, and it is a great location for viewing southeastern Arizona specialties such as Varied Bunting.  Rarities often show up here, such as our main target for the outing, a Yellow-green Vireo.  The vireo has never been reliable and is seen on and off during searches by many birders.  Our party wasn't counting on adding this bird to our life lists.  It seemed to be a needle in a huge haystack.  Birders who were searching for this bird found other cool things.  One example came from Andrew Core, who found a Buff-collared Nightjar in broad daylight while searching for the Vireo!  In my opinion, that is a better find than the Yellow-green Vireo itself.  Definitely one of the best consolation finds in Arizona birding history.  When we arrived at Montosa and started birding, we got the feeling the bird was indeed a needle, and the idea of waiting around for bored us to death.  The Northern Cardinals here seemed to be begging for attention.  This male cardinal was cooperative and fun to see.

Northern Cardinal

Soon, the songs of birds started to fill the canyon.  I soon picked up on the sound of a calling Black-capped Gnatcatcher.  Gordon, Muriel, and I chased it down the wash for a good distance only to have it be a skulker right in front of us before we eventually lost it.  We saw the shape and heard it's key vocal features, which was still cool.  While keeping an eye out for the vireo, we heard what distracted us for the majority of our Montosa Canyon visit.  It was the song of the Varied Bunting.  We found ourselves enjoying and photographing this spectacular and beautiful bird.  Varied Buntings are usually shy, and the first few males gave us limited views and photograph difficulties.  I managed to sneak close to a poorly lit male to get these decent pictures with the exposure obviously adjusted.

Varied Bunting

We then went up on a separate dirt road from the main road that goes through more good habitat.  This road also gives a neat scenic overview of the surrounding area.

We then had another Varied Bunting encounter.  This Varied Bunting perched up in the open and sang for the three of us.  Unlike typical Varied Buntings, this bunting wasn't so shy and gave us the best looks for the species, which resulted in these photographs.  

Varied Bunting

After the Varied Bunting showdown, we were speechless.  It was so great.  We then made our way back down to the main road level of Montosa Canyon.  The number of birders increased.

We then walked by a few birders, and one of them had the Yellow-green Vireo a few minutes prior to us walking by!  While we were looking at a studly Varied Bunting, we missed the Vireo.  Did we regret it-no, not for a second!  Oh well, you can't get all of em.  After waiting for ten minutes, we got bored and moved on.  While looking down the long road, we saw a familiar and distinctive shape in the birding world, even at a distance.  With a combination of loafers, flashy shorts, and a tucked in t-shirt, we knew it had to be the rare Phoenician Kingbird.

We confirmed the identity when we called out to the Kingbird and he quickly made his way over to us.

Normal Name: Phoenician Kingbird    Scientific Name:  Mark Ochs

By the time we left Montosa Canyon, we didn't find the Yellow-green Vireo, but it was still an awesome and successful visit.

More of Montosa Canyon

After we finished up at Montosa, we headed north to the well known Florida Canyon, in pursuit of the Rufous-capped Warblers that have been seen there reliably lately.

In the area, we found an adult Gray Hawk, MacGillivray's Warbler, Golden Eagle, and many migrants.  However, we had another rarity dip, and missed the Rufous-capped Warblers during our search.  Two hours earlier however, Laurens Halsey observed the Rufous-capped Warbler pair.  I guess timing is everything.  The Golden Eagle did make for a good consolation.

MacGillivray's Warbler

 Gray Hawk

Heading towards Madera Canyon, the surrounding mesquite grasslands were filled with the songs of Botteri's and Rufous-winged Sparrows.  It is always a treat to hear these songs.

Botteri's Sparrow

Before we headed to Madera, we saw that storms were moving in quickly.  These clouds covered the upper limits of the Santa Ritas.

Once in Madera Canyon, we knew of several goodies that had been reported of late.  These included both Lucifer and Beryline Hummingbirds.  It has been awhile since I have seen either, and I would be happy if I saw at least one of them.  The three of us started at Madera Kubo Bread and Breakfast.  Magnificent Hummingbird was the best hummingbird there, and we also enjoyed several songbirds who visited the area of the feeders.

Black-headed Grosbeak

 Rufous-crowned Sparrow

While exploring in the canyon, we heard one of our highly desired targets for the trip, the Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher.  This is one of the coolest southeastern Arizona specialties, and it's squeaky-toy like call echoes throughout the canyons where these unique flycatchers are present.  They often sit very still while they call, and can be hard to spot sometimes, until they fly to a different perch.  That was the case on this day, but with a focused effort, the three of us got good views of not only one but five Sulphur-bellied Flycatchers.  They were a family group and watching an adult feed the fledglings was very entertaining.  And the youngins' never stopped squeaking!  

Sulphur-bellied Flycatchers

Before the three of us knew it, it was already 1:30 P.M. in the afternoon.  We had time for one more stop, and that would be at the feeders at the Santa Rita Lodge.  We were joined by Mark Ochs/Phoenician Kingbird.  It started to rain hard, but we sat under covered seats to remain dry and enjoy the numerous birds feeders at the Lodge.  Many birds came around during our watch, and it was the perfect way to close out the day.  We even got one of our hummer targets, the Lucifer Hummingbird!  This is an awesome hummingbird to see, and was the first I've seen since 2010.

Lucifer Hummingbird

We also had Anna's, Black-chinned, Rufous, Broad-billed and maybe even an Allen's Hummingbird at the feeders.  The Allen's is a lifer for me, but we remained uncertain of the birds identity and will need to get better looks in the future.  It was definitely a great chance it was an Allen's, as Mark got a few really good looks at it.

Acorn Woodpecker

 Black-chinned Hummingbird

 White-winged Dove

Gordon, Muriel, and I called it quits when the rain came flying down.  The trip was an amazing success and the three of us had a great time.  Certainly a trip I won't forget and one I'll like to repeat very soon.  After reviewing notes, we tallied 105 different species over the two days.  Thanks Gordon and Muriel for an awesome trip!