Sunday, July 20, 2014

On This Day in History on Tommy D's Birding Expeditions: The Gray Ghost Emerges

I'm proud to say that my Blog-Tommy D's Birding Expeditions, may start to have a few changes, good changes that is.  For blog posts, I usually highlight present birding outings and only write about what I have just experienced out in the field.  While those posts are what should make up most of a birding blog, it is fun to look back on things or do fun posts to remember things from the past.  I have been birding for a long time, but I have only been blog birding for a year-and-a-half.  There are many great memories that I have from my early birding days, most of which I don't have pictures for.  However, I did get a video camera in 2004 and started to film birds, which resulted in low quality photos.  They can still be fun to look at if they can accurately show the bird at least.  On the other hand, I can use some of my recent photos to replicate history.  Maybe I can give them an "old school" appeal too!  I love to know about the early histories in the lives of my birding friends and their first epic field sightings of species.  For me, I love to relive things often.  So here it is, Tommy D's Birding Expeditions is heading in a different direction, starting with this post.  As for the common posts that I do that summarize field trips and Expeditions, those will continue as usual.  At least once a month, I want to perhaps write a historical post from my previous birding years (Pre Blog), and write the post on the anniversary date of a such event.  This will give the category the name:  On This Day in History on Tommy D's Birding Expeditions.  Another random category would be fun, that would maybe involve a bird family or a certain piece of birding equipment and how I find it useful.  This can also maybe be a write up about the awesomeness of one certain birding location, and other options, I have to do some thinking.  Every month, I'm just saying it would be fun to do a different type of post or two.  I think it sounds fun.  I'll leave you now with my first post for On This Day in History on Tommy D's Birding Expeditions.  Enjoy!

The Gray Ghost Emerges

Today is July 20th, 2014.  This post will take you back to this exact date six years ago, which was July 20th, 2008.  Today, I am in Glendale, Arizona, and it is hot.  Too hot!  I might as well say Phoenix, Arizona.  Six years ago I was in a place that might be about as close to Heaven as one might get-Greer, Arizona.  I was with my family on our annual family vacation.  My Mom once said that Greer looked to her as being reminiscent of the beauty of the Swiss Alps.  And by driving around Greer and it's surrounding area, I agree with her.  Greer is part of the White Mountain region in northeastern Arizona's Apache County.  It's my favorite place in Arizona, and it is has very similar habitats involved that replicate the Rocky Mountains.  Birds and other wildlife abound here, and the birding potential in the White Mountains is great despite the fact the area is heavily underbirded.  My greatest birding story to date came from this area, right near our cabin in Greer.  If you like birding combined with a miraculous series of events, you may enjoy this story.  Come along for the ride!  The story goes like this:

"Have you ever looked in a birding field guide and picked out a favorite bird just by looking at it and reading about it's nature?  A bird that just grabbed your attention right away?  One that makes you jump more than any of the others?  One that instantly makes six hours of driving worth it?  Have you found that bird yet?  I sure did!  I actually found it rather fast.  A favorite bird can take awhile to come up with as birding goes on, or it can be met by taking a first glance.   For me, the Northern Goshawk was that bird from the start, and I loved it right when I took my first glance.  After my very first summer of birding, I got more and more familiar with North American Birds by studying field guides.  Soon enough, the Goshawk caught my attention and quickly became my favorite bird, number one on my wish list.  Many birders don't have a favorite bird, which I agree with in a lot of ways.  There is such a high volume of different species and families as it is, making it hard to pick that favorite bird.  I have many birds near the top, but none of them have ever come close to the goshawk.  The Goshawk has something much different about it.  It's majestic, powerful, and almost seems like a gray ghost in the forest.  It's aggressive and fearless, and works hard for it's prey.  Goshawks are even aggressive towards humans and have injured people who have ventured too close to nesting sites.  It's also the mountain lion in the bird world.  Just as many people would love to see a mountain lion in the wild, the fact is, they are elusive and rarely come into human sight.  The Goshawk is that bird in the bird world, and I wanted to see it more than a mountain lion itself if I had a choice.  Until I found my first Goshawk, I sometimes had a hard time believing they were around until I did see one.  The Gray Ghost was a long sought-out journey to finally catch sight of.

This is the first view I ever got of a Northern Goshawk.  Courtesy of the Peterson Field Guide to Western Birds.  Roger, you really made this bird look freaking awesome by your illustrations just like it is out in the field.  This picture caught my attention from the start, and I looked on the range map for Northern Goshawk during my rookie season as a birder.  I was obsessed with Goshawk and saw that it could potentially be seen in forests throughout Arizona.  And my search began......

Gray Ghost is the perfect nickname for a Northern Goshawk when they reach adulthood.  Both sexes look alike, and they are an overall gray raptor, a dark grayish blue above, and light gray below.  A young Goshawk, or properly, a juvenile Goshawk, is a heavily streaked brown bird that looks similar to several other raptors in North America.  However, the adult is distinctive and unlike any other raptor in it's range, and is the true treat to see.  They also belong to a genus of hawks known as Accipiters, in which three, including the Goshawk, are found in North America.  Northern Goshawks typically favor forest habitat, especially conifer and mixed-conifer forests, which often include stands of aspen trees.  They like forest edges with a nice clearing to hunt prey near a high mountain meadow.  During the sunny days, they sometimes soar above the tree line in plain view.  They are a retiring and shy raptor, and spend most of their time sitting motionless in the deep woods waiting for helpless prey.  Even in areas where Northern Goshawk populations are very dense, they are still rarely seen.  I read this information on goshawks in my book.  I thought to myself, "If I go to the right habitat and continuously look for a Goshawk, I should eventually see one".  Unfortunately, wrong was what I was to almost every degree in my expectations.  From the summers of 2001 through 2007, I thought I would see a goshawk despite it's elusive behavior if I was in these right places.  I was always in the hawk's preferred habitat as my family took annual camping trips to the White Mountains, which are located in northeastern Arizona, in Apache County.  Conifer forests are the dominant habitat here, and are Gray Ghost Country.  I looked and looked and listened, but despite my major searches, the bird became my nemesis and was really a No Go.  I wondered if I would ever luck out with a Goshawk in front of my face.  Several instances occurred where thought I heard a Goshawk and possibly saw one.  On two separate occasions, I heard calling birds that I felt were Goshawks in different places in the White Mountains.  In 2001, while hiking with my family on a White Mountain road by Sunrise that goes back to a Sunrise Ski Resort, I heard a bird up in the conifer forest calling that I felt was the bird.  It was rather faint and only called once.  On the Mount Baldy Trail, the same thing happened.  The calling bird was close by and possible to chase, but when I went back in the woods, the bird was gone.  I also had a large accipiter-like raptor fly over our family vehicle while driving through Flagstaff in the snow.  The size and flight pattern were all right for a goshawk and my Mom claimed that's what it was by what she saw, but the looks did not satisfy me at all.  The sky was dark above and the bird's field marks weren't shown well enough for me to make an identification on the bird.  It haunted me and drove me crazy.

Gray Ghost Country

Sometimes I went to forest rangers and expert birding sources asking for advice of finding a Goshawk.  Most answers were the same.  "They are tough to see".  "There aren't a lot of them around".  "We do annual Goshawk counts, and there aren't many of them up here".  Stuart Healy's opinion mattered the most out of them all, due to the fact he is one of Arizona's premier birding guides, but he said the same thing too: "Hi Tommy, Northern Goshawk is a tough find.  I almost always see them flying low through the forest (and not ever looking up).  You have to be in the very right place at the right time in order to see one.  My recommendation would be Escudilla Mountain, where there is great conifer/spruce forest mixed with high elevation meadows".  I asked Stuart this before my family and I went on our annual White Mountain vacation to Greer in July of 2008.  I wanted to look for a Goshawk badly at Escudilla Mountain.  However, I didn't have a vehicle of my own with me, and my family members didn't want to drive that far out of the way from Greer.  So if I would see a Goshawk, it would have to be elsewhere away from Escudilla.  What Stuart said made me doubt my chances even more.  Seeing this bird was most likely going to be a lucky find in a forest lurking bird, not an open sighting of a soaring bird above the trees.  I needed a miracle.  And five days into our 2008 Greer vacation, a miracle is exactly what I got.

About noon-time on July 20th, 2008, I sat down for a rest on the Mount Baldy Trail # 95 in the Mount Baldy Wilderness.  My family and I were having a wonderful hike, as we have a tradition to hike a large portion of this trail annually.  It is a beautiful area, and an area a Goshawk would certainly favor.  But we were an hour away from the trail head and there was no Goshawk during the hike.  I thought to myself, zero out of a million tries, once again.  Many nice forest birds were around though, as I particularly enjoyed watching Clark's Nutcrackers flying from tree to tree and calling back and fourth among st themselves.   As I ate while I rested, I looked into the forest and thought of how cool it would be if a Goshawk was perched on certain branches of different trees that were in my view.  It was definitely a form of daydreaming.  I then started to pray to God about seeing this bird that meant so much to me, a bird that would complete my trip.  I prayed, "Lord, thank you for this awesome time I have up here and thank you for allowing me to see everything I have seen on this trip.  More than anything though, I would love just one glimpse at a Goshawk, especially an adult.  I'd love to see it close enough to get a picture that I can remember it from.  Please Lord, help me find one, just one please, one is enough".  After my prayer, I hoped that God would help me find the elusive bird.  Being a Christian and a believer in the Lord, I felt like asking God for important things in my life would increase my chances.  I didn't want anything else but a nice adult Goshawk, a juvenile was nowhere as cool as an adult.  God always knows what I want and what's important to me, and if He wanted to bring the Gray Ghost my way, He would find a way!  Once I got back home from Mount Baldy to our Greer cabin, I wanted to rush out to the field immediately.  I usually had this time of day reserved for Bible reading and fellowship with God.  I thought to myself that one day skipping it wouldn't hurt.  If I wanted to go on the route I was wanting to go on, I would have to skip my Bible study.  But I wanted to stay true to my commitment and I made the right choice-I decided to take the time to do my Bible reading.  The passages were great and I was glad I didn't skip my daily devotions.  Putting God first is something I believe in and was striving to do.  It felt tempting to skip it or save it for later and rush out to go birding, but as I went out to the field I did feel a lot better knowing I took time to do my Bible readings first.  No, it wasn't the long route that I was wanting to go on, but it was to be a much closer and unexpectedly productive route...

It was around 3:30 P.M. that day on July 20th, 2008, when I took one last hike for the day, which was to be a shorter afternoon hike after I finished my reading.  The candidate I chose was a trail right by the Greer cabin (Julie's Cabin) I was staying at.  This trail was the West Fork Trail # 94, and it was about one-fourth of a mile away from Julie's Cabin.  I wanted to add a few birds to my day list, and on my trip, I had daily goals of the number of birds seen per day.  The West Fork Trail has some good birding on it, often Green-tailed Towhees and Red-faced Warblers along the first few hundred feet.  A small creek runs alongside the trail for about a half of a mile before it dams up into a small pond (which is called "Badger Pond").  My initial plans were to walk this trail only back to the pond and then continue onto different parts around Greer to close out my day.  The area leading up to the small pond is beautiful, starting off in ponderosa pines and turning into a mixed conifer forest.  Starting on this trail, one would go south for a fourth of a mile and then the trail would turn to the west shortly after, when the forest got more dense.  Once at this part, mountainside slopes went up on both sides of the creek, one mountainside to the north, the other to the south, making it seem much like a small forest valley.  By the time I arrived at the pond, I had added a few birds to my day list.  I enjoyed the area around the pond for several minutes before I decided to head back to try more areas around Greer.  The north mountainside had a lot of fallen timber on it and as I just started to walk back, an object caught my eyes that was on top of a large log in midst of the fallen timber.  It was a juvenile Great Horned Owl!  And it was just sitting there, in broad daylight.  I thought to myself, "Wow, an owl, amazing!"  This was only the fifth Great Horned Owl sighting I had ever had, and I wanted to capture it on film.  On previous Great Horned Owl sightings, I was able to get very close without spooking the bird.  This time, I took one step towards the owl, and it took flight.  I was frustrated, but I saw the owl wasn't flying very far.  On my second attempt as I was climbing up the mountain side, I failed to get closer.  Third attempt, same result.  The owl was getting tougher and tougher to follow as I was on the mountainside.  I then heard a loud, "Peeek"!  "Peeek!"  "Peeek!"  It was the call of a concerned American Robin coming from the area the owl flew into.  I followed the robin's calls and came to the scene.  Immediately, I saw the robin in a pine tree and eventually I saw the owl sitting about ten feet above the robin.  Once I had the chance to get a good view of the owl, it took off again quickly.  The robin was still upset and followed the owl, continuing with it's "peeek" calls.  The owl continued to be difficult and I was very discouraged when I saw it fly off further into the wilderness.  I then watched the robin give up, and it flew back over my head, probably glad that the owl had left it's comfort zone.  Then a Steller's Jay helped me out by calling away and was now mobbing the owl.  This was my last chance at the owl, but it outsmarted me again and disappeared.  I was running all over that mountainside, covering directions going north upward, and returning south down to the main trail.  The owl was gone and I was angry.  I felt like I blew an excellent opportunity.  My previous sightings with Great Horned Owls resulted in birds being cooperative and allowing closer approach.   This bird was very spooked, and I learned the lesson of taking a "safe shot" first before moving any closer.  I decided for one last try up the northern mountainside to try and spook the owl up again, but it was gone, I didn't have any idea where it was, even though it was still close by and out of sight somewhere.  I was glad that I did get to see it at least.  Heading back was my best option now.  I was exhausted and out of breath from the chase, and I had more birding to do before the day's end.

As I was heading back down from the mountainside towards the main trail, I heard a very familiar sound, one I was hoping for more than anything else.  It was a loud hawk, a high and piercing scream, "kek-kek-kek-kek-kek".  It was the scream of a Northern Goshawk!  I thought I was definitely hearing things or I was crazy.  I listened again, "kek-kek-kek-kek-kek!"  Again, "kek-kek-kek-kek-kek!"  I wasn't hearing things at all. The sound was coming from the the opposite mountainside I was on, the one to the south, on the other side of the creek.  The Gray Ghost continued to scream.  By this time I was sprinting through the forest and jumping over logs and rocks in order to get to the spot as fast as I could.  I still had a ways to go.  "Kek-kek-kek-kek!"  The Goshawk kept screaming, and I felt like my stakes were high.  I finally arrived to the creek and jumped across, and continued up the mountain that the goshawk was on.  The screams were getting louder and louder.  I was nervous and I was shaking, this was my chance to see a Goshawk.  Fear set in too.  I asked myself, "What if the bird vanishes into the forest before I can get a look?"  Two things were going to be the outcome.  One, I see the bird, or two, I miss it by a heartbreaking few seconds.  I ignored the fear that was there, I believed I would see the bird.  Once I got closer and closer, I slowed down.  "Kek-kek-kek-kek!"  As I crept up on the noisy bird, I looked up and got my first glimpse ever of a Northern Goshawk, who was on a dead tree that must have been split in half from a storm!  This tree was about twenty feet up.  It was an adult bird, exactly what I had wished for, right in front of my eyes.  I was out of breath, and my views were amazing.  Still nervous and shaking, I tried to film the bird and couldn't hold my camera still due to my shaking hands.  I walked five feet closer.  The Goshawk continued to scream and stayed perched up close in front of me, despite the fact that I kept on moving closer to it.  I thought, "Why is this bird not bothered at all that I'm so close to it?"  I began to wonder why it was acting this way, and why such an elusive bird was giving me the easiest looks anyone would dream about.  It continued to sit there, and it kept screaming.

Then, as I slightly moved, a large bird flew out from underneath the Goshawk.  It was the Great Horned Owl!  I had completely forgotten about the owl once I heard the Goshawk, and I was shocked the owl came this far over after flying to close by trees every time I caught glimpses of it.  And the young Great Horned Owl was still very scared of me, and it coincidentally flew into the Goshawk's territory.  The owl was the reason the Goshawk was screaming.  The Goshawk was angry and took off right after the owl.  I watched as the Goshawk quickly caught up to the owl, striking it multiple times on the back.  The owl landed in another close by tree and the goshawk once again landed near the owl, looking down on the young bird.

I approached again and got point blank views of the Goshawk once again from where I stood.  I couldn't see the owl, but it could see me.  It was still scared of me, and it took flight again.  I never spied the owl when it was perched.  Once again, the angry Goshawk mobbed the owl, striking it hard again on the back.  I hoped the owl wouldn't end up dead.  Even if I wasn't there, I don't think the Goshawk would've given up.  It was an amazing sight to see.  I had clear views of two amazing raptors battling at it from thirty feet away, and eye level views.  After the owl landed again, the Goshawk followed it and perched up about thirty feet high in a pine tree.  This time, I had incredible views of the Goshawk, who was literally right above me.

I couldn't believe it was actually happening, I didn't know how to take it all in so fast.  The hawk continued to scream, and every once in a while, would take a glance at me.

For the most part, this territorial Goshawk didn't care about my presence, the young Great Horned Owl was much more of a threat.  I was only a "human" who didn't matter, I was in their home.  It was their battle.  In the Goshawk's mind, I was probably another tree.  It didn't give me any sort of acknowledgment, which really showed how fierce this elusive raptor can be.  I stood under my prize bird and watched it for about five minutes different ways-through my binoculars, naked eye, and of course taking film.

When I finally started to relax and settle down, a slight movement I made spooked the owl, and the Goshawk continued to pursue it's competition.  The Goshawk struck it on the back again, not as hard this time. The owl kept going, and it mas attempting to escape for good.  As I watched the two, the owl continued to where I previously saw it on the northern mountainside, and eventually crossing the creek.  The Goshawk stayed close to it most of the chase, but as the owl flew further, the Goshawk didn't fly as fast.  Once the owl was clearly heading to the other mountainside and crossed the creek, the Goshawk was satisfied and swooped up to the very top of a tall ponderosa pine tree, which did not cross the creek.  It looked down and probably watched to see where the owl went.  The battle between the two birds was over as the owl went back out of the Goshawk's territory.  As I had my eyes on the Goshawk, I was going to try to get under it again for more extended looks.  I quickly got my notebook out and wrote "Northern Goshawk" for the first time in my field notes.  My trip was now complete, and to me, so was my birding life list.  After recording the name in my notebook for about a short ten second span, I looked up, and the Gray Ghost was gone.  That fast!

"Don't blink or you'll miss me"-Gray Ghost
I went home right away and shared my sighting with my family, who listened to me for years say how much I wanted this bird.  I'm sure they got sick of hearing the word G-o-s-h-a-w-k.  The series of events that unfolded during that hike were no doubt in my head a miracle from God.  If the owl wasn't in those exact places when I was following it around, there would be no Goshawk.  It was a series of miraculous events, and it was incredible the Goshawk happened to see the owl flying around because I flushed it across the creek into it's territory.  I also was tested when I was about to leave for the rest of the daylight to bird instead of doing my Bible study.  The Goshawk to me felt like God's reward for obeying and putting him first, which he blesses us often for doing so.  He gave me way more than what I prayed for when I was resting earlier in the day at the Baldy Trail.  I was amazingly reminded of the Bible Verse in Ephesians 3:20, "Now to Him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us".  This story is one that is constantly a reminder to me of a gift from a God who loves each and every one of us.  There is no doubt in my mind He will pour in more blessings like this for me throughout my life and for anyone who chooses to put their faith in Him.  On another note, owls are often thought of by different people to be a sign of bad luck and other stupid things in their superstitious minds.  These assumptions are incorrect on every level.  After this story, I believe I could make a good argument with people who have bizarre bad beliefs about owls.  Good things happen when I see owls, anyways :)

Instead of going far out into the wilderness for my ideal Goshawk search, I got it less than a half mile from my cabin, which blew me away as well.  As I walked into my cabin room after I shared my experience with my family, I entered the video taken from the sighting.  I got nearly five minutes of video, which also has an accurate time code on it.  The time code of the first clip taken was four-twenty P.M., and the last was four-thirty P.M.  Taking video stills for pictures from the video turned out pretty decent for a non-HD camera!  And if I had the camera I do now at that time, I think I would have some of the best Northern Goshawk photos known to man...just saying!  I watched the goshawk for ten minutes with the incredible close up views, the sighting I thought was too good to ever happen.  The Gray Ghost was right around my cabin in the Greer area, and this time, I was finally on the lucky end".

How close was the Northern Goshawk to Julie's Cabin?  About 0.4 miles!  Here is a map overview of the described area and observations.
Video Time!  Here is a video of the Goshawk that I took that day on July 20th, 2008, via YouTube.  Sorry for the shakiness, but I'm not a great filmer and it doesn't help when nerves kick in on top of that..

Click on the link below:
Northern Goshawk in Greer, Arizona

Also on July 20th, 2008....

On July 20th, 2008.  I remember getting out of bed at about 2 A.M. in the morning.  My parents waked me up, saying that a large Black Bear was outside of our rental cabin in Greer and digging in the trashcan.  I quickly got out of bed and ran to the window to miss the large mammal by only a few seconds.  The bear heard our movement and spooked.  I then got up early after I missed the bear again to explore the White Mountain roads with my brother Tyler.  After seeing a Peregrine Falcon and hundreds of Elk at the nearby Sunrise Recreation Area, Tyler and I joined the rest of my family for a hike into the Mount Baldy Wilderness.  The Mount Baldy Wilderness is arguably close to the top when it comes to the most beautiful location in Arizona.  Ironically, my sister Tiffany was ahead of our group when we were hiking at Mount Baldy.  I remember talking to my parents, and Tiffany ran out of the woods and yelled at me, "Tommy, I need your help!".  When I joined Tiffany, she took me to look at an injured Northern Flicker.  Tiffany had seen a few Northern Flickers chasing an unknown hawk through the forest.  One of the Flickers crashed into a tree and was lying on the ground on it's back.  I took a stick and flipped it over so it was upright, and the woodpecker flew off as if nothing ever happened!  Tiffany said the hawk was flying fast through the trees, which sounded like an accipiter to me.  I wonder what accipiter species it was?  It could've been a Goshawk!  My Goshawk sighting did occur later in the afternoon after we got back from our family hike and were hanging out at our rental place, called Julie's Cabin.  The Northern Goshawk was one of 42 bird species I had that day, which also included Western Tanager, American Dipper, Gray Catbird, and Red Crossbill.

After the Gray Ghost Emerged:  Goshawks and Me since July 20th, 2008

After July 20th, 2008, things continued to be the same for me.  The Northern Goshawk is still my favorite bird, and I don't think anything will ever change that.  Over the last six years, I have had seven Northern Goshawk observations.  It may seem like it is a good stat, but it really isn't.  Out of those seven records, two of them have been heard only birds.  The other three have come from a known nest.  The remaining two are sightings of juvenile birds, which are far more likely to be seen then adults.  I'll briefly summarize these sightings here:

September 4th, 2010:  This Goshawk sighting was perhaps the strangest one that I have ever had.  While birding at the Lower Salt River Recreation Area with Jim Kopitzke, I found a juvenile Northern Goshawk.  When the bird flew away after it was spooked, I was convinced it was a Great Horned Owl.  But when it took flight again, I saw that it was a young accipiter.  It's field marks were revealed and shown in flight and through looks from my spotting scope.  I didn't report this Northern Goshawk on the birding forums, because it was crazy.  The Lower Salt River Recreation Area is Lower Sonoran desert, and Goshawks are casual in the lowlands.  I've publicly declared the Goshawk is my favorite bird, so I didn't want people to think I was crazy in finding one in a riparian woodland in the desert.  There is a guy named Nelson Briefer out there, who finds "Goshawks" in cities, that is why I didn't care to report it.  Jim wasn't crazy about reporting it either and he had his doubts, but after a few days, he felt good about the identification too.

August 14th, 2012:  I was on my family vacation in Telluride, Colorado.  On one of my hikes, I got lucky and heard two young Northern Goshawks calling up in a dense fir and aspen forest.  Several times, they came up over the ridge from where the sounds were coming from and flew out in the open.  Too bad this was before I was given a good camera.  But the bulkiness of this bird is still evident from a distance!

August 19th, 2012:  Five days after seeing the juvenile Goshawk in Telluride, Colorado, I heard an adult Goshawk screaming by our cabin relentlessly on the day we were leaving Colorado.  Sadly, the bird was calling right as we were leaving the state to head back to Arizona, so I didn't have time to accurately track it down.  Throughout the trip, I heard a Northern Goshawk call, only to discover the Gray Jay imitating the Goshawk to perfection.  Although it sounded good, it wasn't very loud.  When the actual Goshawk decided to vocalize, it was sadly too late.  But the Gray Jay is a funny bird, and it's cool it can replicate a Goshawk scream as well as it did!  I was so impressed I invited a Gray Jay into our cabin during the trip for some snacks.

March 20th, 2013:  The Northern Goshawk is found throughout the forests of Arizona, including the southeastern Arizona high elevation mountains.  Laurence Butler and I were in Miller Canyon of the Huachuca Mountains.  While I usually go to southeastern Arizona for specialty birds, I don't think of it being the place to look for Goshawks as much as the northern part of the state.  But southeast Arizona has excellent habitat and just as good of chances as any for the Goshawk.  And they were starting to be reported in Miller Canyon.  As Laurence and I were hiking up a trail in Miller, I was a few steps ahead of Laurence.  I saw a large raptor fly in.  From my view, it was mainly obscured, but it did look like a Goshawk.  Laurence then exclaimed, "Hey Tommy, I think we've got a Goshawk......yeah Tommy....we definitely have a Goshawk!"  Laurence had a great view of the bird, but when I got to his viewpoint, the NoGo took off and flew over our heads, further up into Miller Canyon.  This was typical Gray Ghost fashion, for me anyways.

June 8th, 2013:  The Northern Goshawk in Miller Canyon found a mate and the two nested in Miller Canyon.  Not only did they nest, but they nested in a spot where birders can easily view the pair from the trail!  For a Northern Goshawk, this is a very rare occasion.  Many birders came down to get looks at this otherwise elusive bird.  On June 8th, I came down to Miller Canyon once again with my buddies Mark Ochs and Gordon Karre.  We knew about the nest and wanted to see the Goshawks.  The juvenile bird was sitting on the nest during our visit.  We sat around and waited for the adult for awhile, but it never came in to visit.  I was impressed that a Goshawk nest could be observed with convenience along a trail!  What a rare thing that is.

July 21st, 2013:  Remember the Mount Baldy Wilderness Area that I mentioned before on this post?  Well, this is near Greer and is where I said my prayer to God in help of finding one of these things.  Back then, I always came to Mount Baldy in thinking that it had the best example of Northern Goshawk habitat, which it does.  From 2001 to 2012, I never detected a Goshawk in the area or along the trail.  Well, on this date, it all changed.  I heard two birds counter-calling back and fourth on both sides of the Little Colorado River along the West Baldy Trail.  One of them was pretty close to me.  After following the calls of the bird off trail, I searched unsuccessfully for the Goshawk.  But I was glad to at least observe a Goshawk by call to know for sure they are at Baldy.  It is the Gray Ghost, isn't it?

June 11th, 2014:  Back to Miller Canyon in the Huachucas we go!  After the Goshawk nesting pair in Miller Canyon was discovered last year, the birds returned again.  Magill Weber and I made a trip down to Miller in hopes of seeing the Northern Goshawks and more.  The female Northern Goshawk was always on the nest, but seeing her well was another story.  She would barely peek her head out of the nest for most of the duration of visits and views from birders.  Several people did report that she would sometimes stand up on the edge of the nest for a short while.  Everyone needs some circulation, I'm sure birds are no different!  The Miller Canyon nest is probably just right at a distance where the nest is far enough from the trail for the Goshawks to feel they are at a safe distance away from people.  If it were any closer, the birds wouldn't be too happy and would attack people.  But the nest is close enough for outstanding views of these good looking raptors.  When Magill and I arrived in the early A.M. to the nest site, the female was hunkered down as usual, with some of her head barely showing.  While enjoying other birds, we waited for nearly three hours for the Goshawk to stand up.  She finally did, and it was worth every minute of waiting, and the six plus hours of driving back-and-fourth from Phoenix!  This was only the second good look that I have ever been able to have of a Goshawk after the incredible first encounter!

These last seven observations have really also shown how elusive and tough the bird is.  Three of the seven records have come near or at this Miller Canyon nest, two of them have been heard birds, and the other two have been juveniles (with one of them being lost).  I hope to find and see a Northern Goshawk soon far back in the remote wilderness for my next sighting.

The Northern Goshawk is a bird I hope to encounter more in the field, although I know it won't be often.  And that is what makes the Northern Goshawk a fun bird to me.  It's challenging to find, and once it's found, it's like being given a trophy.  I hope you've enjoyed my first:  On This Day in History on Tommy D's Birding Expeditions post!  Thank you for reading if you did.  

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Birding Gila County's Pinal Mountains

Today, I birded in the Pinal Mountains in Gila County with my buddy Gordon Karre.  The Pinal Mountains are a wonderful place, and they have great high elevation forest birding.  Prior to today, I had only been to this central Arizona mountain range one other time in 2011.  It has great birding, and I was dying to get out today.  With four more days until my family vacation and a string of twelve hour work shifts remaining before that vacation day, I wanted to bird all day today in higher elevations.  And the Pinal Mountains were a good choice.  Birding with Gordon is awesome, and we combined forces to do some hardcore birding.  By the end of the long day, we tallied nearly 70 species throughout the low and high elevations of the Pinal Mountains.

Despite the fact that we did have a decent species list (with nearly half of those coming from the lower elevations of the Pinals), the birds were rather hard to photograph on this trip.  It is that time of year where parents are feeding young and are on eggs, and most bird species aren't so vocal, yet photograph-able.  We heard many birds and saw most of the species, but many of them were quick glimpses of birds that just weren't cooperative.  With the thick mixed-conifer, aspen, oak, and sycamore forests of the Pinal Mountains, birds have to be searched for carefully!

Before we reached the conifers, Gordon spied this rather weird looking Red-tailed Hawk on a rather weird looking perch, an ocotillo.

As Gordon and I climbed up into the high elevations, the Red-breasted Nuthatches were sure to sound off their trumpets.  I'm not even kidding-if you listen to this small bird, it really sounds like a small trumpet.

One of the day's exciting finds were observing several flocks of Red Crossbills in the area.  This is a bird Gordon and I don't see very often, so it was quite the treat.  The songs and calls of these odd birds were heard throughout the day in various coniferous locations throughout the area.  I wonder what TYPE of Red Crossbill this is?

We also saw plenty of the not-so-creepy Creeper, the Brown Creeper.  It's life is filled with climbing up trees, eating bugs, and then repeating the process after he climbs up to the top of tree by flying down to the bottom of the next tree.  Fun life huh?

This female Broad-tailed Hummingbird just finished eating up an insect, you can see the bug's remains drooping down from the bill.  Gordon nearly captured the bug on film too.  Broad-tailed Hummingbirds are abundant in the Pinal Mountains.

The Pinal Mountains are also home to a good number of Dusky-capped Flycatchers in the pine, oak, and sycamore forests near the Sulfide Del Rey Picnic Area.  These mountains are home to a significant number of southeastern Arizona birds for a central Arizona location.  A Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher was even found here last year and a Short-tailed Hawk was also found here.  But those both pale in comparison to the most likely but hypothetical observation that one once had historically of an ABA mega-rare Orange-billed Nightingale Thrush at the top of these mountains near Pinal Peak.  These Dusky-capped Flycatchers and others show the potential that this underbirded mountain range has.

We observed this Hairy Woodpecker feeding nestlings, which was pretty cool!

Near the top of the Pinals by Pinal Peak we visited a friendly cabin owner's yard to observe his hummingbird feeders.  Did I mention Pinal Peak is nearly eight thousand feet in elevation?  In this upper area, the forest is made up of pine, fir, and aspen and is very cool and has beautiful weather.  The hummingbird feeders are filled with hummers.  This included dozens of Broad-tailed Hummingbirds, two Rufous Hummingbirds, and a pair of Magnificent Hummingbirds.  The Magnificent Hummingbird is a favorite of mine, it was cool to see them in Central Arizona for the first time.

Male Broad-tailed Hummingbirds

Female Magnificent Hummingbird

Although the warblers weren't very viewable today, I was able to get off this picture of the awesome Red-faced Warbler!  It doesn't do the bird justice but it is always cool to see!

And then there was this one bird that Gordon and I spent a lot of time trying to photograph well.....and we couldn't.  A prized shot of this bird has to either be eye-level or above-level.  If your neither, which is most of the case, you'll end up with a picture of a bright light-orange lower mandible.  The bird has a black upper mandible, and it's awesome to capture them both.  For the most part, the Greater Pewee turned his back on us today.

While this isn't a bad shot, it is below eye-level.  This gives the Greater Pewee an light-orange billed look only.  And this bird has a black upper mandible.  There were a few times that I had opportunities for the nice and prized shot, but with loose branches nearby and sloppy Tommy D footing, the shy Greater Pewee has a lot to wimp out at.

Gordon and I also heard something strangely wrong in the Greater Pewee's famous "Jose Maria" song.  All male Greater Pewee's (Jose's) commonly announce their love for their mates (Maria's) in the song Jose-Jose-Maria.  It's a high-pitched melody, one that most birds can't handle.  Jose's Olive-sided cousin loves to sing in a high pitched voice also in regards to drinking a lot of beer, but not about his mate.  Today, two Joses in the Pinals were singing lazy, and the "Maria" in the song sounded more like "Marie".  Gordon and I were both disgusted.  After all these years, we find out that the Greater Pewee is a cheater, and has left Maria for Marie.  Who is Marie?  I'm just joking, the male Greater Pewee's probably just don't care as much as the peak of breeding season has probably passed.  Perhaps the vocal cords need a rest (were talking about two syllables instead of three), but it really sounded like he was saying Marie.  Maybe birds get laryngitis too?  The Greater Pewee also gets offended very easily, even at harmless jokes.

"Sound travels in forests, even when you think your talking quietly.  No 'killer' photos for you".  

Here is an example of where I could've had a nice shot.  All the Greater Pewee had to do, was turn around!

Or look straight down at me or tilt his head sideways...

Most of the problem is me, I sometimes can't focus right.  This shot could've been awesome.  Could have been.  Both mandibles are in view!!!  

I guess these two turned out pretty good.  And you've gotta love the Greater Pewee's rad fro.

Climbing up mountains attempting to get above or at eye-level with a Greater Pewee is a challenging and tough exercise.  It's certainly a fun bird to observe and one I don't see often.  I think I'll get that chance for that killer shot some other time I hope, at least I got to observe this bird up close for a long time.  In climbing up the mountain in pursuit of that picture, some of the views were great.  These were some of many great views of the Pinal Mountains, so here is that time to show off some of the scenery from the place I got to bird today!

The Pinal Mountains are a great birding location and is one I should visit a lot more.  Who knows what you may find up here!  Thanks Gordon for an awesome and fun day of birding!

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Completing the Big 5 Search at Base and Meridian

Here we are, in Phoenix, Arizona.  It's very hot, and any local birding results in being done by 9 A.M., a time in which I can't stand the heat any longer.  I went back out to Baseline and Meridian Wildlife Area again today, in pursuit of those awesome birds.  Those five awesome birds that I have nicknamed the "B and M Big 5" have all presented themselves to me except for one of them.  I was hoping to land that final bird today.  The monsoons are here also, which results in some amazing cloud formations.

I had some awesome company today!  I was joined by Caleb Strand and Joe Ford.  The three of us combined for an awesome team, and we were bound to find some cool birds, and I was feeling that our chances were good to find that wanted B & M target of mine.  Caleb is a luck charm when it comes to finding that species, I'll get to the species later in the post.  At 14 years of age, Caleb is already an outstanding and talented birder.  When I birded with Caleb today, I felt like I was birding with someone who has been doing this for years, not someone who was 14.  He knew every single bird call we heard as well, which he told me he figured out by watching birds sing and by following them around.  That is the making of an awesome field birder.  Caleb and Joe bird together a lot, and they have discovered a lot of cool things.  Here is a picture of my birding friends.

As usual, things started out good.  We heard a Yellow-billed Cuckoo calling a quickly got Joe his first look at a Virginia Rail.  It was the continuing juvenile Rail that has been seen.

We then got very good looks of a female Least Bittern in the same area.  I've been photographing this bird a lot lately, and today, this bird let us venture up very close.

We then went to search for visuals of the Yellow-billed Cuckoo.  After a good attempt, we weren't able to hear anymore of them yet alone see any more of them.  During the Cuckoo search, we did find one of the area's Barn Owls, as well as this day flying Lesser Nighthawk.

We then made that last target into our final search.  We had been birding for about three hours, and it was starting to become to hot for our comfort levels.  In the last attempt at a good bird, Caleb and I spied the target at the same time down in the reeds lining the Gila River.  Can you see a bird down in there?

If you can see it, great, I'm sure you can.  It's the big Clapper Rail.  I have had luck with this bird on previous visits to this Wildlife Area, but have yet to in a couple of years.  It was good to look down and see the Clapper Rail walking through the reeds.  Seeing the Clapper Rail also completed my search for the Baseline and Meridian Wildlife Area Big 5!  Now with limited and still distant views, Caleb and I wanted more Clapper Rail action.  In the pond that this bird was frequenting, there is luckily an opening along the pond where one can get down to the water and still see most of the pond.  Caleb and I went down while Joe stayed up high on the river overlook.  Joe saw the bird walk across the clearing before Caleb and I got there.  But then, we got lucky, as the Clapper Rail (or another Clapper Rail) decided to walk right by us!

While the first shot above came out good, it was one of those situations where I knew I could crush the bird or let my nerves take over with pressure.  The nerves took over and I wasn't able to get the bird in focus as well.  But oh well, the first picture is perfect for me, and the experience was fantastic!!  Caleb is definitely the Clapper Rail magnet. 

Here's a more typical Clapper Rail shot!  

I now have all of the B and M's photographed and seen for the summer.  What fun it has been, I love birding this place!  Thank you Caleb and Joe for the awesome birding morning, I had a great time birding with both of you.  We had a lot to celebrate with our sightings so it had to call for a celebration picture!

Here is one more shot of the monsoon clouds over the Gila River.  Awesome!!