Friday, April 25, 2014

High On Humboldt

Today, I set out for a birding expedition to the general area of Seven Springs, with my plans originally being to have a hardcore day of birding.  This area is located 50 miles north of Phoenix, has excellent birding, but is highly underbirded.  I don't usually get up this way on a regular basis, but when I do, I usually cover a lot of the area, pretty hardcore.  A hardcore day of birding meant covering multiple locations, including the bushwhacking one mile route in the lush and thick Seven Springs Wash.  Truth be told, hardcore birding never really happened, and my route only drove over Seven Springs Wash, it never walked down into it.  I could have missed a rare eastern songbird vagrant, but I was fine with the could have today.  For me as a birder, things are more about having fun these days.  And having fun a lot of times means to relax and just enjoy the day.  Enjoying the morning is what I did, and my first stop ended up taking up most of my day.  For birding, I love it when the birding is great and the scenery is also great.  Today the two went hand-in-hand, and that place was at Mount Humboldt, which is accessed from Seven Springs Road before one gets to the Seven Springs Recreation Area itself.  The area of Mount Humboldt is a birder's paradise and a sight seer's paradise.  I like the nice combination, and I decided to spend most of my time on the four mile stretch leading up to Mount Humboldt.  The scenery here is breathtaking, and the birding compliments it well.  Avian life on Mount Humboldt isn't over abundant by species numbers, but those species that are present up there will make any visit worthwhile.  Just to name a few:  Scott's Oriole, Gray Vireo, and Black-chinned Sparrow.  I seem to keep on birding in places where these three species are found.  Maybe I just can't get enough of them?  I arrived to the base of the road and started to drive up to Mount Humboldt at about 7:15 A.M.

Mount Humboldt has interesting surrounding habitat that includes desert scrub, chaparral, and juniper.  From the access point to the base of the climbing mountain road, the elevation is about 3,500'.  Once one drives for four miles to the summit of Mount Humboldt, the elevation is then 5,204 feet.  It's not high like the forested transition zone elevations in Maricopa County's Mazatzal Mountains, but for this area, it is quite spectacular.  The views here are amazing, and they do include views of Mount Ord and Four Peaks as well as a towering overlook of Horseshoe Lake.  Today I drove straight to the top, and I've never really birded Mount Humboldt and Seven Springs much at all in April and May.  Here is a selection of photos that really show off the amazing scenery at the summit of the Mountain.

Four Peaks are the peaks on the right

There is Mount Ord!  You can see the tall towers from here!

The weather was perfect at the top of Mount Humboldt, and as we can all see, so was the scenery.  The birding was great too.  As I got to the top, an Ash-throated Flycatcher greeted as the first bird of the day.  He was sitting around the fences that shelter the towers at the summit.

The summit area has good chaparral habitat, perfect for Black-chinned Sparrow.  But the chaparral is really much more limited to the area of the summit and the last 1/2 mile of the road.  And there were a few pairs of Black-chinned Sparrows.  It was cool to see a pair up close.  The male has a much blacker chin than the female does.

There were some interesting migrants out-and-about, including several Green-tailed Towhees, a Townsend's Warbler, Black-throated Gray Warbler, and Wilson's Warbler.  The first two are shown below.

Things got really good when I was able to see this Rufous-crowned Sparrow up close.  This species is one that doesn't really come to mind much.  It's pretty secretive and is heard far more often than it is seen.  But this area is a good area to see this sparrow in.  And they are a neat sparrow, or towhee more properly.  They are in their own genus, but right up at the top of the sparrow family with the towhees.  This sighting also proves that with Black-chinned and Rufous-crowned Sparrows, and Green-tailed Towhee already, that Mount Humboldt is very sparrowy.  

I then started back down the road from the summit and stopped at many different places in search of more goodies.

And did I mention that the road up to Mount Humboldt is paved?  It's actually pretty nice.  But there are a lot of potholes in the road.  Some of the horrible historic potholes have been covered up, while others haven't.  I kinda like it, it makes the drive extra interesting and does keep the crazy speedsters out there somewhat at bay.

The main reason I came up to Humboldt was to try and attempt at getting killer looks and killer photographs at my favorite oriole, Mr. Scott's.  The Scott's Oriole is an incredible and beautiful bird, and I did see plenty of them during my time this morning.  I figured there would be plenty of them, since they do favor open and dry woodlands, such as those with junipers at places like Mount Humboldt.  As I drove down the mountain, it didn't take me long to hear a male Scott's Oriole start singing it's meadowlark-like song.  I found the bird and his mate, and I wasn't at a good angle to photograph him.  He then flew down the hill further, where I got somewhat decent but distant photographs.  But still, what a striking bird from a distance!

After this bird flew off, I drove down the road further to find another Scott's Oriole roadside.  I heard him singing right after I passed him, and when I put my truck in reverse, he headed up a slope.  After parking, I followed him around, and he had a female with him also.  As I was following the birds, I took two steps to far, only to have the oriole come back and perch in the open.  After retracing the two steps back, one wrong movement I made spooked the bird.  He was up and singing and was very close, hadn't I spooked him, I would have had great photographs.  I was VERY angry at myself.  Before this happened, though, and during the follow-around process, I did get a few decent shots in.  There will hopefully be another chance soon!

Ah, Scott's Oriole, what a class act of freaking awesomeness.  The juniper woodland is also home to another bird I've seen a lot lately, the Gray Vireo.  These noisy little gray songsters can be heard almost all day right now, as they have arrived for breeding season and have started to set up their territories.  They are a little hard to see at times as they forage through the junipers and occasionally briefly land on that bare perch.

Once finding the appropriate juniper, the gray pygmy will often show half of it's face in hide-and-seek fashion.

With patience, the Gray Vireo will often sit up and stare with curiosity while singing at the same time.  This is now the third location I have photographed this bird during this month of April, I'm sure the Gray Vireo population hates me by now.

Mount Humboldt has Crissal Thrashers too along with these three goodies a favorites of mine (Scott's Oriole, Gray Vireo, Black-chinned Sparrow).  It also has wintering Sage Thrashers in high numbers as well as Western and Mountain Bluebirds.  And of course there's plenty more other than what I mentioned.  Mount Humboldt is an awesome place to bird and have scenic gazes.  As I walked down the road further, I found that this Canyon Towhee had quite the meal going.  I think it was his way of asking if I wanted some, but there is no way I could ever eat that!

Mount Humboldt also has a few of the typical desert birds in it's limits in the desert scrub habitat.  This includes a lot of Cactus Wrens and this rad-looking Black-throated Sparrow.

I didn't shrike-out today either!

I made two stops at Mount Humboldt this morning, and in between that I made a visit to Seven Springs Recreation Area for about an hour, which I'll get to in a second.  But it's been awhile since I've been up on Humboldt, and it certainly won't be a long time gap ever again between visits.  I love this place.  The birding is fun, it's scenic and peaceful, and it's great exercise.  Thanks again Humboldt!

I did make a stop at the very nearby Seven Springs Recreation Area thinking I would maybe still have a hardcore day of birding.  Once I got there, I just wasn't up for the effort here or at the Seven Springs Wash.  I wanted to go back up to Humboldt.  Before I went back up, I did spend about an hour at Seven Springs, and it is always a neat area to visit!

A pair of both Common Black-Hawks and Zone-tailed Hawks were soaring overhead.  They never soar close enough together for both to get in the frame.  At least, that was the case today.

In the riparian area, I stumbled across these male and female Summer Tanagers.  The male was enjoying quite the snack.

An Indigo Bunting was singing along the creek, but after 15-20 minutes of following it around with no visuals, I gave up.  Plenty of noisy Brown-crested Flycatchers were around though!

At Seven Springs there a day use areas, picnic areas, and camping areas.  The Black Phoebe wants everyone to know they can't camp out in the day use area.  What a way to rub it in.  

The morning was a good one to be out birding.  Many great highlights, and awesome birding locations and birds.  Till next time.....

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Chatting Up A Storm at Hassayampa

The Hassayampa River Preserve is one of Maricopa County's best riparian corridors.  I love to visit this place, and there are always good things to be seen here.  This includes breeding Gray and Red-shouldered Hawks and Tropical Kingbirds, and a handful of other birds.

Despite the fact Hassayampa is home to a lot of birds, most of those birds are very hard to photograph.  The habitat here is thick and dense, and the birds have plenty of cover.  Today, I arrived and noticed from the start that the Yellow-breasted Chats are back in full force.  The Yellow-breasted Chat is "classified" as a warbler, but it acts like a thrasher or a catbird, and sounds like everything in the book.  It's an odd bird, but is very cool.  Chats are very chatty, and they are also very elusive.  They don't come out in the open much, and are often difficult to view yet alone get photographs.  Luckily today, I had a few Yellow-breasted Chats who were very cooperative for my camera.  This was by far my highlight of the day today.

The Yellow-breasted Chat is clearly the largest, and strangest "Wood Warbler".  What's weird about it?  It sings at night, it's large, it's bill is tanager thick, and it's tail is way too long.  It has the voice of a thrasher, and it's just freaking weird.  It's over 7 inches in length and it's wingspan is nearly a foot.  That is one weird bird, and one weird warbler.  It's also very cool at the same time!

There were a few other photo highlights during the day.  Although a poor few photos, I got to see my first Lawrence's Goldfinch of the year.

Yellow Warblers were very numerous, perhaps the most numerous bird at Hassayampa.  They sing away in the top of the cottonwoods.  They are hard to photograph!

The Bell's Vireo is another common bird that stays hidden.  They are hard to photograph also, why did I find myself photographing so many true hardcores today?  This bird was even banded too, probably right at the Preserve grounds.

The female Vermilion Flycatcher is a lot more easy to photograph, and was one of four Vermilions I saw during my trip.

I then made the average Common Yellowthroat look like a Yellowthroat robot.  I had my flash on and setting on automatic, a recipe and proof of a disastrous photograph.

I then stumbled upon these red-phased Coachwhips on top of each other.  I think they were making snake love.  Now, this snake is usually shy, but not these ones.  It's usually a struggle to get a good look at one of these suckers.  

At Hassayampa, other highlights that weren't photographed were Gray and Red-shouldered Hawks, a female Broad-billed Hummingbird, Brown-crested Flycatcher, Canyon Wren, Cedar Waxwings, MacGillivray's and Townsend's Warblers, and Hooded Oriole.  Plenty of Summer Tanagers also.  Hassayampa is a neat place that is always fun to bird, 44 species in all.