Thursday, October 9, 2014

The Bell's of Robbins Butte and a few other recent sightings

Today on October 9th, 2014, I ventured out southwest of Phoenix to the Robbin Butte Wildlife Area.  I woke up this morning and spent an hour or so and wasted time on deciding where to go.  It's been in my strong interest to go out to search for Bell's and Sagebrush Sparrows once they arrive for the fall and winter.  I thought I would have had to wait a little longer for the birds to arrive, but I whipped out Janet Witzeman's book, Birds of Phoenix and Maricopa County and the bar graphs indicate that Sage Sparrows should arrive in the before the second week of October in decent numbers.  For some reason I thought it was more towards mid-October when they arrive in numbers, but I was glad to see that I was wrong.  I decided to go out to Robbins Butte to look for Bell's Sparrows.  Recently, birder and biologist Chris McCreedy has done extensive studies on Bell's and Sagebrush Sparrow in their wintering distribution in Arizona and California as well as their wintering distributions.  The study showed a lot about the two species, and the denser saltbush habitat found at Robbins Butte is favored more by Bell's Sparrows than Sagebrush Sparrows.  McCreedy's study showed that Bell's is the dominant species at Robbin's Butte, and Sagebrush dominates elsewhere.  I was eager to get out to Robbins Butte and start my search.  Once I got there, I started birding in the appropriate habitat right away.

Luckily, it didn't take me long to start hearing the call notes of Sage Sparrow species, and I began to start seeing Bell's Sparrows whenever they would pop up.

By the end of the search that lasted over three hours, I found many Sage Sparrows, and most of them were Bell's as McCreedy discovered at this location previously.  I had 1-2 Sagebrush Sparrows, and probably anywhere between 10-15 Bell's Sparrows.  There were quite a few birds I wasn't able to see well, so I won't call them anything other than Sage Sparrow sp., but they all looked good for Bell's also.  I covered a rather small area at Robbin's Butte, and the Bell's Sparrow wasn't disappointing!  This next Bell's Sparrow was one of the most cooperative birds that I had during the search, if only I could have had my camera focused better.  

As I've mentioned in my previous posts about Bell's Sparrow field marks, this bird differs from the similar Sagebrush Sparrow it was split from by it's darker-blackish malar stripe that contrasts with it's gray head and nape.  Sagebrush has a malar-stripe that isn't as extensive and is much lighter, and the Sagebrush's malar is the same tone in coloration as the head and nape.  The back of the bird is also very plain and is relatively unstreaked, where in Sagebrush Sparrow the back is noticeably streaked.  

Here's a more distant shot of a Bell's Sparrow from behind.  It isn't a good picture, but it does show the plainness of the back.

This bird was pretty cooperative, while the others didn't allow me to get too close.

This Bell's Sparrow was more cooperative than the others.  I was able to get close and stand still while the bird foraged on the ground and came out into the open several times.  

Here are a few more pictures of the bird above.  The contrast of the gray head and black malar are very evident in this picture, and the brownish back also contrasts with the other features to give the bird a "three-toned" look.  

Here's a few more Bell's Sparrows from the morning.  I really enjoy observing both Sage Sparrow species.

Other than the Bell's Sparrows, a Praying Mantis was a nice addition to the morning!

Other than this Expedition and a few recent lengthy trips to Apache County, I've kept most of my birding local.  On one of those days, I went birding with Caleb Strand, who is an epic birder.  Caleb is a teen, and his birding skills are already top notch.  During our birding day, we went birding at the Hassayampa River at both the rest stop and the Preserve, as well as Lake Pleasant.  I was very thrilled to find Caleb his first ever California Gull.  On Caleb's most recent birthday, he found his first Sabine's Gull, a rarity in Arizona.  California Gull isn't rare, so I joked with him that it was wrong how he was getting rarities as lifers before expected birds.

A guess what Caleb and I found after we found his lifer Cali Gull?  Another Sabine's Gull!  The Sabine's stayed distant, but we had decent scope views and a flying field mark to deal with.  At Hassayampa, this Summer Tanager was still hanging around.

While taking a snack break on a trailside bench, we also discovered this Lesser Goldfinch sitting on a nest.  I only noticed this nest because the bird flew into it.  If that didn't happen, this nest would probably be very hard to pick out.

Nashville and Wilson's Warblers were also quite numerous along the two trails that were open at the Hassayampa River Preserve.  Due to flooding, three of the trails in the Preserve were sadly closed.  Had they had been open, I think Caleb and I would found more birds, and perhaps a rarity.

I also spent a weekend by birding Tres Rios Wetlands and Glendale Recharge Ponds on both days.  I had 98 species combined between the two mornings, 76 at Tres Rios and 75 at Glendale.  But the birds weren't so photogenic, except for this Black-crowned Night-Heron and these Cattle Egrets.

Hopefully more birding expeditions will be coming soon!


  1. Seeking out a specific bird like the Bell's Sparrow and then finding that target is one of my favorite ways to bird. Nice work on accomplishing your mission and educating us bird nerds on these two sparrow species in the process!

    I've pulled a Caleb a couple of times - Spotted Towhee before Eastern, Lesser Black-backed Gull before Bonaparte's, etc. Good birds on your outings, especially that SUTA. Also, that is the most crisp photo of a Black-crowned Night Heron I have ever seen.

    1. Thanks Josh! It was a fun day of birding, and I love to bird with that specific goal in mind a lot of times. I hope to write another post on both of the sparrows soon, I love to find them and I just love the Sagebrush Sparrow species in general, I believe they are probably my favorites of the sparrow family (I can't say for sure, some of the eastern sparrows are awesome beyond belief!).

      Caleb birding is awesome, I too, have a couple of examples myself of seeing rarer things before more expected things. When you come back to Arizona, I'll have to point you to some locations where you can get awesome shots of Black-crowned Night-Herons!

  2. Great post with some great photos. Definitely made some great points in delineating the differences in these 2 species.

    1. Thanks Gordon, these sparrows will be a work in process for awhile! They are fun to study and look at!

  3. Wow great photos of the BESP's!!! Thanks so much for bringing me out there! Also great photos of the CAGU, SUTA, WIWA, NAWA, SUTA, BCNH, and CAEA!!!

    1. Thank you Caleb! It was awesome birding with you!