Sunday, November 30, 2014

Strand Strikes Twice for a Thanksgiving Surprise

For the last month I've been preparing for another trip to bird Apache County's White Mountains.  In fact, I just got back from that trip, and it was awesome!  I'm tired from the trip and can't write the recap up just now, but that will come later this week.  For now, I have an awesome story to tell, and one that came as a complete surprise.  As my work week came to and end, and a four day Thanksgiving vacation was around the bend, I got to see another great bird to start off the vacation, and it was on Thanksgiving morning.

On Wednesday, November 26th, 2014, I got another great phone call from Caleb Strand, and he had some awesome news for me.  In Caleb's patch near his house, he found a Painted Bunting on Tuesday the 25th, and it was continuing on the 26th.  The Painted Bunting was a female bird, and Caleb, who just found me my Maricopa-first-Varied Thrush, was on the verge of giving me another awesome bird.  Caleb has an awesome area surrounding his house near Buckeye, and he rides his bike places and finds an incredible amount of birds every time he birds his patch.  And yet, he found yet another rarity to add to his list.  After reviewing my plans, I called Caleb back and told him I would love to attempt a shot of sighting my first Painted Bunting in Maricopa County.

The male Painted Bunting is one of the most popular and colorful birds in North America.  The female is a lime green in coloration, and is unique and distinctive as is the male with that coloration, but not as colorful as the male.  Painted Bunting is a bird I've seen once in Arizona before.  It is rare but annual in the state of Arizona during migration in early fall, particularly in southeastern Arizona.  For Maricopa County, I have three out of the four Arizona buntings, with Painted being the last gap I needed to fill.  In Maricopa, records have indicated that Painted Bunting is very rare/casual, with several fall records as well as several records of wintering birds, most of which have been females.  The three other buntings: Indigo, Lazuli, and Varied; all have plain and dull female birds.  The Painted Bunting female is quite striking, and looks like a flying lime.

Early on Thanksgiving morning, November 27th, 2014, I drove to Caleb's house and picked up Caleb at 7 A.M.  We then headed to the spot where Caleb had his sighting, which was basically a patch of weeds in midst of an area of agricultural fields and canals.  Caleb noted the Painted Bunting specifically visiting one specific patch of tall weeds that were surrounding by tamarisk and paloverde trees.  Once we got to the spot at roughly 7:10 A.M., we started to look and wait for our hopeful target to come in.  It was seeming to take forever...and we were starting to worry that the Painted Bunting had moved on.

Fortunately, some birds just take a little while to wake up.  Once the sun came up, the finches and sparrows of the area started to become more active.  Right about 8, I was away from the weed patch checking a few other weedy areas when I heard a shout that is starting to become a regular phrase from Caleb: "Tommy!  It just came in!  I've got it".  I could see the weed patch from where I was, and there was that lovely Painted Bunting!

It was really amazing how she was the same color as the weeds!

Despite the fact that we had a slight scare of a missed bird chase, it just added to the fun.  Once the Bunting came in, it was really a taste of sweet victory.  And it really added to the list of the many things I had to be thankful for within this hobby of mine!

This bird could really be overlooked quite easily, don't you think?

With the thirty minutes Caleb and I spent watching the Painted Bunting, we were rewarded with awesome views!

This was my 365th bird for Maricopa County, and a great one to add.  A huge thanks goes out to Caleb Strand, who has been finding rarities left-and-right.  And thankfully, he's my buddy and I get to hear about a lot of his awesome discoveries.  My last two Maricopa County life birds have come in the last week, both of which have been found by Caleb.  Thanksgiving week-Varied Thrush and Painted Bunting.  What will come next?  I have a lot more searching to do in Maricopa County for the remainder of 2014.  This was my seventh addition for my Maricopa County list this year, which is very good for me.  Caleb Strand is an epic birder, and I have a strong feeling I will receive many more calls and emails in the future that are similar to this one about the Painted Bunting!

Sunday, November 23, 2014

A Long Wait for a Long Search that would end up...

I hate it when something rare is found in Maricopa County that I don't have for Maricopa County and I am unable to chase it.  If I hear about the bird, chase it right away, and it leaves before I get there, that's one thing.  But to have to work double shifts for many days at work in a row and to find out about that rare bird at the beginning of the string of work days is awful.  I recently had a situation like that happen, and until Saturday, November 22nd I had to wait until what seemed to be forever until my schedule would line up to visit the Hassayampa River Preserve.

My friend Caleb Strand is an awesome birder, and he finds awesome birds to go along with it.  On November 13th, Caleb went on a rarity finding rampage at the Hassayampa River Preserve and I was amazed when I heard his results.  Caleb's discoveries came in numerously on his visit, and he found a Rufous-backed Robin, Winter Wren, Red Fox Sparrow, and a highly wanted bird of mine in Maricopa County, the Varied Thrush.  I've seen one Varied Thrush in my life prior to this discovery, and I really wanted to get this one because Varied Thrushes are awesome anytime and anywhere and I really wanted it for my Maricopa County list.  But there was a problem, my work schedule.  Caleb found the birds on a Thursday, and Friday through Sunday at work resulted in three consecutive double twelve hour shifts.  On Monday and Tuesday, I was scheduled off, and on Monday and Tuesday, the Preserve is closed.  When the Preserve opened back up on Wednesday, I was once again scheduled to work three more consecutive double twelve hour shifts in a row.  But luckily on November 22nd, the Preserve and I had matching schedules, and after a week that Caleb had found the Varied Thrush, I was still eager to put in a search for it.  Varied Thrushes, a breeder in the northwest in wet coniferous forests, are quite elusive and aren't easy birds to find.  Between Caleb's discovery, the Varied Thrush was seen on only one day between his initial sighting and my visit today, and that came on the day after his discovery at a section of the preserve a considerable distance away from where he first saw the thrush.  I wasn't worried about that though, I was concentrating on the day that was in front of me.  Everyone has different luck in the path they walk, and I was hoping I would be stepping foot in the right direction.  One thing was for sure, I would have strong help!  Caleb and his friend John Kafer were also coming to bird at Hassayampa when I was going, and we met up and birded together.  With the eagle eye as a teammate in the field, I figured we would have a decent chance of relocating the birds.

Things started out interesting.  An Evening Grosbeak called from the riparian woodlands as the three of us walked through the Preserve's River Ramble Trail.  We went to the area where Caleb discovered the Varied Thrush, which was also very close to the Rufous-backed Robin.  Amazingly, Caleb never had seen those species prior to the day he discovered them.  And yet, he found both of them within minutes of each other!  And also, the thrushes were foraging within feet of each other.  As we searched in the area for over two hours, we came up empty.  For some reason, I was still optimistic about looking for the Varied Thrush, although I wasn't holding my breath with hopes on seeing the bird.  We searched in the area for over two hours and didn't find the Varied Thrush, but I did hear a Winter Wren calling away up the trail.  The three of us went after the wren, and we actually had some very good binocular views and I managed to pull of a few pictures of the tiny bird.

Winter Wrens are considered rare throughout Arizona, and because of it's recent split with Pacific Wren, it's status in the state isn't known yet.  But since the split, multiple Winter Wrens have been observed in Arizona every year and I think this is the 9th time I've either found or co-found this species in the field.  It's the third Winter Wren I've had in recent weeks.  As we searched and searched and birded and birded, we weren't finding any rare thrushes.  Our strategy took us down further into the area on the Lion Trail, where we checked in case the birds moved down river a little.  The Lion Trail had many birds like the rest of the Preserve, but the rarest we had was a flyover Pine Siskin.  Caleb and John then took a lunch break, and I stayed at the Preserve for a lunch that I had already brought. and because I wanted maximum field time.  Caleb and John returned quickly and John decided to nap, which left Caleb and I to search the rest of the Preserve.  Before Caleb joined me, I had found a flock of American Robins along the Palm Lake Loop.  I heard a different thrushy sounding "chup" call and I was searching hard for whatever it might be.  Within minutes, Caleb looked up and spied the Rufous-backed Robin!  It wasn't the Varied Thrush, but it is always amazing to see this Mexican species.  This Rufous-backed Robin was my personal third record for Maricopa County, in which one of the other ones was from Hassayampa River Preserve.  Interestingly, Caleb's initial discovery of this bird was completely on the other side of the Preserve.  It's probably the same bird, but can we be sure?  Anyways, it's a Rufous-backed Robin and an awesome bird to see!

After hiking through the Mesquite Meander Trail at Hassayampa, Caleb and I decided to try the River Ramble and Lyke's Lookout areas again.  We decided to go back to the area where Caleb discovered the Varied Thrush.  At this point, I was still on the lookout, but as I was getting somewhat tired, my mindset shifted to neutral and I wasn't as alert as I was earlier in the day.  This is when rarity searching can become very dangerous.  When the mind goes to neutral and completely relaxed, it's probably not as alert to what's around and what's not as the early morning mind would be.  But I guess I'll never know for sure, I only know what birds I've detected, not the birds I've missed.  Heck, perhaps the Varied Thrush was simply perched behind a tree we walked by and was really only feet away from us?  At this point in the day, I was just glad to be out birding and having a good time.  Caleb and I had many good serious birding conversations going.  I'll admit, once we got into Varied Thrush "country" I was so tuned in with our conversation that I wasn't paying attention to movement like I should have been.  Luckily, Caleb never stops paying attention.  As we were talking, Caleb exclaimed, "Mr. Tommy!  I have the Thrush!".  I turned and looked to see Caleb with his binoculars raised, and after he located it once, he quickly located it again.  He pointed out a branch to me that the bird was on, and when I scanned, I quickly got on the Varied Thrush!  Boy was I shocked, I wasn't thinking we were going to get on it this late in the day.

Once again, Caleb's eagle eyes prevailed and I had good views of the Varied Thrush through my binoculars and at least diagnostic photos with my camera.  Caleb and I followed the bird around for awhile before losing it and then re-finding it again.  Varied Thrushes are shy birds, and this bird was very shy and never allowed the two of us to get very close.  I saw it well through my binoculars and got identifiable pictures of the bird, which was already enough for me.  When I get a new Maricopa County life bird like this one, I'm not picky about getting killer views or killer pictures, I just want to see the bird and be able to identify it as well as get at least a poor picture where folks can tell what the bird is.  

As Caleb and I viewed the Varied Thrush from the junction of the River Ramble and Lyke's Lookout Trails, the bird was very active and was moving around constantly.  It was probably getting it's final snack in for the day, as it was getting later in the afternoon.  When Caleb first spied the bird, it was about 2:30 P.M.  We left the Thrush and Caleb had to get back to John for their trip back home to the south.  I birded with Caleb back to the visitor center and said bye to him and John.  At this point I still had about an hour of birding left, and I decided to go right back to looking for the Varied Thrush.  The first Varied Thrush I saw was a female bird at Boyce Thompson Arboretum last year in December.  This one was much more special because it's a striking adult male and it was in my home county.  As I searched the area I was having trouble re-finding the bird.  The clock was quickly ticking, and as I started to leave the dense cottonwoods along the Lyke's Lookout area, I saw movement from a bird flying in the trees.  I looked up and saw that it was the Varied Thrush, and it was much closer this time!

The late afternoon light shining down on the area was beautiful, and it added something extra special to the sighting.  For about thirty seconds, the Varied Thrush at up and close by, and gosh did I really enjoy it.  This bird is rare but annual in Arizona, and there are usually several chase-able birds in the state every year.  It isn't as rare as a lot of the rarities, but it is one of those special birds that will make a day anytime or anywhere whether seeing it in Arizona as a rare winter visitor or seeing and hearing it's unforgettable song on it's breeding grounds.  I have yet to hear one sing, and I really hope I can someday in the Pacific Northwest.  Once the bird flew from this high perch, it then stayed a little lower and I followed it around until it went off the trail.  It was still pretty shy of me, but I had excellent binocular views and more good photo opportunities.

I was very thankful and blessed to get this chance to see and document this rare Arizona bird in Maricopa County.  As I mentioned earlier, this is a Maricopa County life bird for me, which I commonly refer to as a "Maricoper".  It's my 364th bird for Maricopa County overall, and my sixth addition to my county list for 2014.  For a quick recap, the first five additions to that list for me this year have been Harris's Sparrow, Williamson's Sapsucker, Northern Saw-whet Owl, Spotted Owl, and Flammulated Owl.  The Varied Thrush and Harris's Sparrow are the only statewide additions added to the list this year so far.  The three owls and Williamson's Sapsucker aren't rare in Arizona but they are in Maricopa County, where they are very rare and local.  It felt great to get a new Maricoper, and the quest and search now begins for Maricoper # 365.  What will it be?!  There are some rare and local grassland birds to search for in the near future.  Maybe one of them will be my next addition, or it can also be a very rare statewide rarity of some sort.  After all, it's November and almost December, the two best months of the year for rarities to show up in numbers in Arizona.  I also had to wait so long to attempt a shot at this bird, 9 days after the discovery.  It was a pain-in-the-butt waiting, but once the search was successful, it made it much more awesome.  Hopefully I'll find my next Maricopa County lifer and won't find out about one just as I'm about to work three twelve hour work shifts in a row.

To end the post, I want to give a huge thanks and shout out to Caleb Strand!  This kid is an awesome and talented birder and if it weren't for him, I still would be Varied Thrushless on my Maricopa list.  Caleb is the hero of this post.

Friday, November 21, 2014

What is being seen around Maricopa County lately?

I've been birding around Maricopa County a lot during this month.  On a lot of trips, I haven't been able to write blogs and stuff like that due to busyness.  After all, what's more important:  One, field time, or two, blog time.  I would have to say field time.  Anyways I've been birding throughout Maricopa County a lot lately in pursuit of hopeful avian treasure.  I've missed several birds that would be Maricopa County life birds (Blue-throated Hummingbird, Crested Caracara, Varied Thrush), but that is the way it goes.  You get up and bird hard no matter what, because you can't win unless you try.  Fall is usually my lucky time of year.  One of my last expeditions resulted in me finding several rarities in one day.  It was a fun day, but I haven't found that really nice rarity that brings jaw dropping excitement to my eyes.  I hope it's around the corner, either that or a new Maricopa County lifer, which my last one dated back to June 5th, 2014: a Flammulated Owl at Slate Creek Divide.  The higher a list gets, the harder it gets to find new birds.  I honestly like the challenge, a lot actually and I care about my Maricopa County list more than I care about my actual life list.  Is that saying a lot, or am I just a complete idiot?  The highlights of these last expeditions have come from long trips as I've been searching for my next Maricoper (what I often call a Maricopa County life bird), as I am on my quest for # 364.

Before this year, I had never seen a Williamson's Sapsucker in Maricopa County until a female bird appeared in front of me at Mount Ord in April.  Since then I've seen two more, another female at Mount Ord and this nice adult male at the Hassayampa River Preserve.  The adult male was extra special, it was the first lowland Williamson's Sapsucker I have seen in Arizona.

I've seen quite a few Black-throated Gray Warblers recently also, especially when visiting riparian woodlands in the lowlands.  This warbler is always cool to see.

No true birder could ever outgrow the awesomeness of the Vermilion Flycatcher!  I saw this bird at the Granite Reef Recreation Area on the Lower Salt River.

 Also at the Lower Salt River Recreation Area, I had some up close looks at this family of Harris's Hawks.  This area is one of the best locations to find this neat raptor in Maricopa County.

Also during my Salt River time I found a Pyrrhuloxia, which is quite the rare sight in Maricopa County.  I found this female bird at the Butcher Jones Recreation Site, and it was a pleasant surprise and a new bird for my Salt River list.  The Salt River is one of my favorite Maricopa County patch areas.

Sharp-shinned Hawks are now hear in the county for the winter in decent numbers.  I had a chance to really get a great photo of the second bird down, but I didn't prepare myself well enough, which happens often.

I recently had a two day span where I saw an Eastern Phoebe on consecutive days: one that I found at Tres Rios and the other that I kinda chased and refound that was discovered by Troy Corman at the Verde River.  The Verde River bird is below, and it was at the Needle Rock Recreation Area.

When I went to Tres Rios, I detected 94 species in 6 hours worth of birding.  It's an awesome place to bird, and two years ago I tallied 102 species at the location in an all day effort.  At all months of the year, Tres Rios holds diverse bird life.  I was surprised to find a rare-in-Maricopa lowlands Golden-crowned Kinglet.

I also found a cooperative Sora..

And enjoyed views of a Merlin and Osprey..

On the day I birded at Tres Rios, I got a call from Caleb as I finished.  Caleb found a Crested Caracara, which is a new Maricoper for me.  I decided to chase it and I picked up Caleb on the way.  We ended up missing the bird, but hopefully I'll see the Caracara soon in Maricopa.  Caleb and I still saw a lot of other cool birds, such as Sandhill Cranes!

Northern Harriers are now present in common numbers in appropriate habitat.  They may indeed help me on one of my next major goals.

Short-eared Owl has been found in Maricopa County in the agricultural and farm areas southwest of Phoenix in the past.  The habitat out there is great for them, they have to be around somewhere.  Birders often say that where many Northern Harriers fly in the day, Short-eared Owls will take over at night.  My next goal has been activated, and after Caleb and I came up Caracara-less, we drove around at dusk and early night to search for Short-eared Owls.  No luck yet, but the searching is fun.  Will Short-eared Owl be my next Maricoper?  We'll have to see!  After all, three out of my five Maricopa County additions this year have been owls.  Another would be nice!

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

A Horror Movie in the Field...

Enter the Villain, an evil hawk who wants to mess with me....

As I was planning to be at Tres Rios early, I saw this hawk along Broadway and I thought it looked interesting.  Regardless, it is interesting, but is it the interesting I was hoping for?  A chunky dark-morph buteo with a short-looking bill?  Yes, it requires immediate scrutinizing...

I thought, "could this possibly be a Rough-legged Hawk?"

My quarry and I played an obnoxious game of chase.  I shouldn't say I, I didn't sign up for the game.  This bird gave me the impression of being a Rough-legged Hawk, and he perched like one too.  Rough-legged Hawks like to perch on thin perches, such as twigs and such..

As you can see, he also has whitish lore areas, which is a good field mark for a dark-morph Roughie.  I was in hope, but I wasn't holding my breath.  There always are those demon variable Red-tailed Hawks such as Harlan's and more to go along with every field identification problem with hawks.  But this one had me jumping, it appeared to have black wrists when it continued to play "it's" fun game of chase.

I thought for sure I had a takeaway Rough-legged Hawk after this sequence.  I've seen this bird before, but I've always longed to find one in Maricopa County.  In prior times, I had a likely Rough-legged Hawk that painfully got away.  This one drew in flocks of Red-winged Blackbirds also.

As I took photos and studied the bird in my scope, it all seemed like this was the real deal, a RLHA.  The bird's tarsus appeared to be feathery, he was fat, he perched on a thin twig, la di di, la di da.

And then the horror movie took place, and it really showed me how deceptive birds can really be a lot of times.  As the bird kicked up again and took flight, it's wrists didn't seem to be as dark as they appeared in flight from my earlier photos..

And yet again, then they did...

But at this turn, the tail pattern seemed too weird for Rough-legged..

And then, things got really jacked up..

The bird's legs weren't so short once it perched on the branch again..facing me.  

After the excitement, I realized my bird was most likely a dark-morph Harlan's Hawk.  I went back to my truck and had a tantrum.  I'm being 100% serious too.  I threw a temper tantrum.   I was tricked, and I really am owed a Rough-legged Hawk now for Maricopa County.  Doing research, some of the reasons this isn't a Rough-legged Hawk is because the white on the lores/forehead area almost touch the eye, where they wouldn't quite in Rough-legged Hawk.  And as shown, this guy really doesn't have the dark "wrists" as he appeared to earlier.  His legs aren't so feathery and his talons look pretty big.  The tail pattern is wrong on that shot.  Conclusion:  In most ways I wish I didn't encounter this bird, but in other ways, experiences like this do make us better birders in the long run.  I have a lot to learn.  AND THE REAL CONCLUSION:  It's probably not a Harlan's Hawk either, but a just a dark-morph young Red-tail.  Harlan's or Dark-morph Red-tail, it's still a freaking Red-tailed Hawk.  

For a little more fun on this bird, the white in the lores seem to be away from the eyes in this bird..

And in this picture too..

Here's an earlier picture of the bird taking off also.  It's legs don't seem so feathery, but those talons seem very small.  And notice the red's a horrible pic but the tail flash is annoyingly red.  Ah, you stupid Red-tail.