Wednesday, January 28, 2015

The Only Way to Bird Effectively in Sickness

I've been very sick the last few days, including today.  The nose has been running, my eyes have been hurting, my body is weak, and the scariest of all, my lungs hurt.  Hurting lungs is not a good thing, but they have shown a few signs of letting up as I write.  I hate to stay inside all day and need some sort of daylight or activity to keep myself from going completely down the mental deep end.  As I've written about many strange birding occurrences or stories, I'm about to give you another:  the one and only way to bird effectively in miserable sickness.  It's not too challenging (unless diarrhea is your worst symptom), it basically involves driving to a spot, looking at a bird, and then leaving.  It would take a major highlight bird in my books to get my butt out of the house, especially since I was going to be driving to a spot, looking at a bird, and then leaving.  I've recently bought my first ever XBox 360, and I also left that extreme fun on the couch for a bird, a Maricoper like-bird.  Going into November of 2014, I had 363 birds on my Maricopa County list, and I got four more to bring the total up to 367 before 2014 was all said and done.  And two of those birds were given to me by Caleb Strand.  Strand the Grand has been on a role, and he found yet another bird that would be a new Maricopa County bird for me, a Greater Pewee!  Despite my sickness, it helped me greatly to get out of the house for a little while, hang with Caleb, and look for this Greater Pewee in a roadside grove of pecan trees.  This method involved standing and waiting for a bird to pop up.

This grove of pecan trees is close to Buckeye, Arizona, and is along Fremont Road just north of the M-C 85 Road and is just west of Jackrabbit Trail.  Caleb's lives close by and is constantly finding rarities in this area he lives in at isolated patches of different habitats.  I've thought this pecan grove has looked attractive when Caleb and I have driven by it in the past, and that was proven when the Greater Pewee showed up for Caleb.  He found the bird on Monday the 26th of January at 2:00 P.M.  Caleb and I got to the spot today at about 12:20 P.M.  We started waiting and looking and walking down the street a few times for a short distance.  1.5 hours went by quickly, and my fatigue level was dropping drastically.  I was sure the Greater Pewee was still in the grove, but I was also sure he wanted me to see him another day.  Caleb and I waited, and waited, and waited.  At the last second, I did notice a flycatcher come in that wasn't the numerous Black and Say's Phoebes that we were seeing.  Ironically, it was around 2:00 P.M. and two days later, and yes it was my first ever Maricopa County Greater Pewee!

The Greater Pewee is a flycatcher who's range typically lies in Mexico and southeastern Arizona and southwestern New Mexico.  However, it can be found in small numbers breeding in central Arizona and it is usually a rare but annual winter visitor somewhere in the southwest.  I've seen Greater Pewee at a few locations in central Arizona such as in Gila and Yavapai Counties, but I have never been lucky enough to encounter one in Maricopa County.  Mount Ord and Slate Creek Divide offer seemingly appropriate habitat to harbor this species in breeding season (especially Slate Creek!), but for whatever reason I have never found one in those areas in the Matzatzal Mountains (others have on occasions though!).  At times, Greater Pewees winter in Arizona in riparian areas, groves of trees, and planted groves of conifers at parks or cemeteries.  Maricopa County has had several such records, and Caleb's discovery added to the list.  It was an awesome way to get a bird and lift my dark spirits despite my sickness.  The Greater Pewee may look like a plain gray bird other than his awesome hair-do and bright orange lower mandible.  But hey, it can sure sing.  Jose Maria always comes at the best-of-times!

Caleb and I watched the flycatcher for about 20 minutes as it was active and flew from tree-top to tree-top.  It didn't sing for us, but it did regularly give it's high-pitched "peep-peep" call.  It was a wonderful treat to see this bird, and it was an interesting way to get Maricoper # 368.  Another huge thanks to Caleb, who has given me 3 out of my last 5 Maricopers (364, 365, and now 368).

When I'm sick like this, I guess I'm more of a pewee than a Pewee itself.  I just explained and successfully demonstrated how to bird when your miserable.  If the treasure is sighted, I guess it may make one temporarily feel better.  The Greater Pewee is my first major highlight of 2015.  What do I consider a major highlight?  There's three categories.  One is a life bird, anytime or anywhere.  The other is an Arizona statebird.  The third is a Maricoper, a new bird for my Maricopa County list.  And I must admit, the last one I mentioned is usually what I get the most excited about.  Cheers to 2015 officially being underway!

Jose Maria!

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Searching for the Bashful and Boisterous

A good day's worth of birding should usually include searching for birds that are easy to see as well as for birds that are more difficult to see.  It's fun to see both because one won't go home in complete disappointment if some needs are filled and others are meant to be waited for and searched for longer.  There are bird packages everywhere one goes where there will be the common and uncommon, easy to see and the hard to see, etc.  I find myself birding that way when I bird the Arlington and Buckeye area southwest of Phoenix.  It's a great birding area, and it has many neat birds.  With the area's expansive habitats and equally expansive private property acres, it's pretty difficult to bird sometimes.  I just decided to bird the area and I teamed up with my buddy and birding phenomenon Caleb Strand and we searched for the common and uncommon, as well as the easy-to-see and the hard-to-see.  How Caleb and I would fare-that was up to us.  Whether we found the epic avian life or not, it was guaranteed we would give it a good effort.

I picked Caleb up early and we mainly wanted to search the world famous "Thrasher Spot" at the intersection of Baseline Road and Salome Highway as well as a thick riparian jungle that neighbors Caleb's house.  Before it really got light out, Caleb and I decided to cruise through the Arlington Valley's fields in remote hopes of finding a Short-eared Owl.  The toast didn't pop up for us on the attempt and is still burning, but we did see about 8 Northern Harriers cruising through a short stretch.  They always say, "where the harriers fly through the day, the Short-eared Owls will have their night's say".  I abide by that statement, and I'll be back to try again.  But Caleb and I were graced by a fly-by flocks of Sandhill Cranes to start the morning off.  These winged giants are pretty hard to beat.  They are extremely cool-looking and they also give breathtaking calls that really dig deep into one's soul.  It's a peaceful sight and sound, and even a non-birder would appreciate the Sandhill Cranes.  No Caleb and I weren't standing in Willcox Playa to witness thousands of cranes, but a smaller scale is even an immaculate observation to say the least.

An impressive Bald Eagle was seen in shocking fashion as it was feeding on the ground with ravens.  We didn't see it until it was spooked up by my vehicle.  It even landed close by on a dirt berm.  Despite the fact I parked and we got our cameras out, it took off at the last sequence before we got off any killer photos.  Ferruginous Hawks in the Valley also proved to be awesome as usual.  And then it was on to the Thrasher Spot to seek out the hard-to-see and the easy-to-see.  Caleb and I love to visit this area during this time, it's fun to get our year firsts for the Thrasher Spot package, as well as search and bird and photograph the area's special birds.  Thrashers are always a hot commodity, but the Sage Sparrow species come at a high price too for birders.  Once Caleb and I got to the "Spot", we really got into searching for the Thrashers.  Thrashers that were both Boisterous and Bashful that is...

In this season as well as early-March, this location is usually dynamite for seeing four species of Thrashers.  Boisterous Bendire's, Sexy Sage, Cunning Crissals, and Lurking Le Conte's are what can be found here, and they send birders (especially visitors) into a frenzy.  Some folks claim to see Curve-billed Thrashers here at times, but I have never seen one in my many visits here.  It's the wrong habitat for a Curve-billed to thrive.  I'm not doubting my fellow birding folks, but if there was a Curve-billed around I would expect to hear some sort of a whit-wheet.  For such a loud mouth, it would be weird for it to be kept silent.  From the start of arrival, Caleb and I heard Boisterous Bendire's singing his head off.  And if one looks on the mesquite tops, the Bendire's is usually sitting up and is unexposed.  

Thrashers have detailed songs that are hard to tell apart, and most of them are delivered in a monotone fashion with the exception of the Bendire's Thrasher.  He sings his heart out throughout the day, while his shyer residents on site give what sounds to be a half-hearted melody as they slink around in the brush.  This time frame of the year brings thrasher mating season.  While the others aren't ready to say much about their love life from exposed perches, Mr. Bendire's has never had a walk of shame.  And he's obviously proud of it.  

The Bendire's Thrasher is usually the one who makes life easy on eager birders visiting the famous intersection.  You have to love birds like this!

The shy Le Conte's Thrasher is usually the main attraction for visiting birders.  This location is the best spot in the world for viewing the Le Conte's Thrasher.  They are very hard to approach and killer views are usually obtained through a scope when a bird needs to perch on a saltbush.  As one says, there is always that one time where you get lucky.  During the search, Caleb and I stumbled across a very cooperative pair of Le Conte's Thrashers.  We weren't expecting them to be super close like they were.  It must have been something I said, cause they weren't the typical "Lurking Le Conte's".  True to their behavior, they did feel the need to have a branch nearby often.

If this Le Conte's had hopped up a foot more, we may have had some of the best photographs of this species in it's natural history.  The close range was extraordinary, and the bird never popped up out of the branches at that range...

It didn't pop up for us there perfectly, but throughout the observations during the morning we had the pair giving us excellent views, and we were able to obtain some awesome photographs.  We witnessed something I have never seen at the Thrasher Spot with the Le Conte's.  The bird sang high at the top and near the top of mesquite trees several times.  For a bird that is so shy and low-dwelling, he was broadcasting his territory quite well.  It wasn't as loud as the Bendire's and he wasn't as approachable as the Bendire's, but the Le Conte's show was one of the best I have seen of this species.

These were one of the best times I have been able to view the elusive Le Conte's Thrasher, and this was by far my best photograph I have ever been able to obtain of one.  A non-birder wouldn't find this Thrasher to be good looking or even interesting at all, but for the serious birder-it is cool!  Caleb and I both have a dream of being feet away from a Le Conte's Thrasher and getting a ground level shot of the bird running (in perfect focus).  Can we dream?  Yes.  Will that dream come true?  Most likely not.  Here's a story behind the entry photo to our arrival at the Thrasher Spot.  You can see Caleb's awesome head, and he's looking up at a Bendire's Thrasher.  We had two other thrashers to find after un-lurking Lurky Le Conte's.

Caleb soon found a Sage Thrasher after we had luck with others, and that was shortly followed up by a calling Crissal Thrasher to give us a thrasher grand slam.  Sage Thrashers are on average more cooperative for approach, but this one sure wasn't.  Caleb caught up to it in time to get photographs, and minutes later we were on the chase again to look for the Crissal Thrasher.  After some searching, we got lucky and came across a pair of Crissal Thrashers.  They are shy like the Le Conte's Thrasher, but seem to be shy and hard to see on purpose.  If a Le Conte's Thrasher turned into a human, I think it would turn out to be some sort of geek who was made fun of in school and was scared of all the bullies.  The Crissal Thrasher looks like a fiercely mean bird, perhaps the loner on campus who could knock one to pieces with one blow.  That type of person is not easy to get along with, because they just don't want you around.  Perhaps the Crissal Thrasher is that way too, because it's usually a pain-in-the-butt type of bird.  But similar to the Le Conte's, a cooperative Crissal Thrasher perched up in a mesquite.  Caleb, who has never been able to photograph a Crissal, finally got his chance to snap away at a close range.  As I snapped these distant and horrible but still diagnostic photographs, Caleb was a good distance in front of me.  The bill of the Crissal Thrasher is incredible.  Seeing this bird up and perched or any decent look in general is always a treat.

Besides thrashers, Caleb and I took time to look through Sage Sparrow species, and there were a lot of them.  We stuck on the northern side of the area were I found more Bell's Sparrows to be, an observation I made last year.  True to the area, we found at least 7 Bell's Sparrows in condensed saltbush habitat and about 15 Sagebrush Sparrows in more open saltbush habitat.  Here is a shot of a Bell's I was able to obtain.

After the Thrasher Spot, Caleb and I ventured over to the Buckeye area to explore a riparian area on private property (where Caleb has gotten permission to bird) by the intersections of Dean and Beloat Roads.  Caleb has found Winter Wren, American Redstart, Black-and-white Warbler, and more in this dense and promising riparian area.  The Redstart was one I was really hoping to see, because it's an adult male and I've never seen an adult male American Redstart.  We started searching right as we arrived on the spot.

I was expecting the Redstart more than the Black-and-white Warbler due to it's active behavior, but we didn't find the stunning American Redstart in over an hours worth of looking.  However, the Black-and-white Warbler was one of the first birds we saw!  

Black-and-white Warblers feed and forage in nuthatch fashion, making them a very unique warbler.  If one is moving very slowly or is sitting still like the one photographed was the other day, this isn't an easy warbler to spot.

We birded out in the field for a half day before I joined my Mom for an epic hike at a place I haven't explored yet, one that would be good for desert birding.  True to the name of the post, Caleb and I saw both showy and shy birds, a good mix for any day of birding.  Thank you Caleb for a fun time!

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Fulvous's Epic Consolations

I've been really lazy in 2015 so far.  Birding wise that is.  But my head is scratching too.  I have 143 species for the year, which seems pretty high to me.  I haven't really been out in the field that much, but I have hit some key places with good bird diversity.  One of those places has been Tres Rios Overbank Wetlands, which I have now visited on two consecutive days in search of Fulvous Whistling-Ducks that have been seen in the Wetlands and surrounding area on and off for several weeks now.  I've been looking so the question is-where in the heck do these stupid ducks go?  They aren't stupid, I just really want to catch my first ever glimpse of one really really bad.  I went again today, and came up empty on the Fulvous search.  However, at a place like Tres Rios and it's surrounding area, there are always highlights whether you find that lurking rarity or not.

I had several enjoyable highlights during my morning today that I was able to capture on camera.  When I arrived at Tres Rios, the temperature was cool and it was partly cloudy.  Rain didn't cross my mind, but a storm blew in quickly and I made it back to my truck before I got drenched by the pour down.  Before that took place, I noticed an immature Sharp-shinned Hawk sitting motionless and waiting for prey in dense brush.

The Sharp-shinned Hawk is one that I always enjoy seeing.  The reason is because it's North America's smallest hawk.  Their abilities as bird hunters really are amazing despite the small size of this bird.  Sometimes I forget that I'm even observing a hawk due to the small size of this raptor.  This Sharp-shinned Hawk at Tres Rios today was sitting motionless and very close by when I luckily caught sight of it.  Sharp-shinned Hawks belong to a genus of hawks called Accipiter, and they are the smallest of the three such species found in North America.  This "Sharpie" today was waiting for an unfortunate passerine to devour until I scared it off.  I was also about twenty feet away when I first caught sight of the bird.  If it weren't for the branches in the way, then I would have a killer Sharpie photo.

When the rain came, I quickly hiked back to the truck.  Before and after going to the Overbank Wetlands, I went to a nearby dairy pond in midst of the many farms near the Tres Rios area.  I was able to see Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks yesterday in this pond, and I went in hopes that the Fulvous Whistling-Ducks would maybe find their way to it.  When I went before Tres Rios, there weren't any Whistling-Ducks to be seen.  However on the visit after Tres Rios, I pulled up to see a flock of 12 Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks in the pond.  Yesterday most of the ducks were bedded down in pond-side grass and weren't showing very well.  This time, the ducks were completely visible, and I was happy with the result.  I haven't spent quality time with this neat-looking duck up close in a long time!

As a result of me trying to get closer to the ducks, they luckily flew over to a closer side of the pond.  In flight, the Black-bellied has a distinctive white "wing-stripe" that the Fulvous will never show.

The ducks were then closer-than-before, and I decided to go out and enjoy them and photograph them despite the rain coming down.

Here is a shot of all twelve....

Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks are hit-or-miss most of the time when birding in Maricopa County, and Tres Rios is the best place to observe them.  It has been well over a year since I have really had good looks at one like I have had today.  Not bad for a farm slop pond, eh?  

On the way home, I had luck with a bird that is usually very shy and out of good camera range.  I looked up on a pole wire to see a pretty female Belted Kingfisher sitting there.  On the south side of a traffic-limited 115th Avenue, I pulled a u-turn and photographed this Kingfisher.  She wasn't very nervous of my presence, luckily.  

The Belted Kingfisher is widespread in North America, and is the only kingfisher with that geographical range.  The others that have been found in North America have limited ranges or are vagrant.  One of my favorite world bird families is the kingfisher family.  Seeing one of them on a regular basis is something I am lucky to have!

The Fulvous Whistling-Duck hopes have led me to hang around Tres Rios a lot lately, including the last two days.  Tomorrow morning sounds like a similar forecast, but hopefully there won't be any rain in the mix.  I hope to come away with this duck in the next few weeks, but at least I have awesome birds to watch and photograph in the meantime.  

Monday, January 12, 2015

Ending 2014, Beginning 2015

It's January 2015, and things have began for this new year.  For me I've had plenty of busy work days, but I've also had time to get some birding in so far.  There have been some neat highlights.  No life birds or Maricopa County life birds have found my binoculars yet, but there is no say of when that may or may not happen.  It's the time to get out in the field and enjoy a new year of birding.  2014 was a great year for me.  A very great year!  It saw 21 life birds in southern California, 4 more life birds in Arizona, 7 birds to my Arizona state list, and for the most fun of all, 9 birds to my Maricopa County list.  Highlights were numerous and variable.  The reel included everything from looking up to see a Spotted Owl at point blank range to seeing a White-eared Hummingbird in Phoenix, finding Pine Grosbeaks breeding in the White Mountains, going on a rare bird chase after an Asian shorebird on a random afternoon, attempting two big days, spotting an eastern warbler on Christmas lights, and seeing my first ever pelagic bird.  These were just a few of 2014's highlights, and I begin to seriously wonder:  What will 2015 bring to the table?  How can it possibly top an epic 2014?

It's safe to say that I've now gotten my feet wet for 2015.  I've chased a few birds that are rare and will be good for my 2015 list.  The first three goodies to start my list off have been ducks.  Two of them have come from Lake Pleasant, which are three different scoters of two different species.  These two Black Scoters and this White-winged Scoter have spent a lot of time together.  Many lucky birders have successfully chased these two rarities at Lake Pleasant.  However, one of the Black Scoters since this picture was taken has appeared to have left the area or was forced to leave or vanish.....there was a Peregrine Falcon loafing in the area.

Common Goldeneye numbers are increasing on Lake Pleasant, and there have been a few Red-breasted Mergansers around lately too.

The third rare duck to start off the year came from a local park in Glendale called Los Dagos.  For the second straight winter, it has now hosted a striking male Eurasian Wigeon.  I initially thought this bird was going to have my attention for a year tick, but I ended up spending an hour plus with it for obvious reasons.

A fun day came around on a Sunday afternoon when I joined Caleb Strand for an expedition in Buckeye and Arlington.  Our main goal was to find both Lapland and McCown's Longspurs where Caleb had been having them on a regular basis in a plowed field close to his house.  For awhile Caleb thought that there was one Lapland and two McCown's.  By the end of the day, we added another McCown's and another Lapland to increase the count to five birds of two species.  Starting off the day gave us good looks at the McCown's, while the Lapland Longspur was being very difficult to see.

It took Caleb and I another visit to this barren field to catch sight of the Lapland Longspur.  Caleb had been seeing them on at least four prior visits out to this field in late afternoon.  Whatever Caleb had to say, I listened and never questioned and let him take charge.  I left the job up to him to find the Lapland Longspur.  I even handed him my scope and said, "here, find it".  Within minutes Caleb said the Lap was in the scope, and seconds later, I had an awesome view of it, thanks to Caleb.  These birds are very hard to see and they blend right in with the ground.  As Caleb found the bird, I realized there was a second Lapland Longspur feeding with the first one that Caleb caught sight of!  It was hard to see, but I caught the movement and saw that there was something in the shadow "spot'' on the barren ground.  We were able to get fairly close to one of these birds to snap photos.  For me, it was the first time I have ever been able to photograph a Lapland Longspur, and I was very stoked at that.  It is a very good-looking bird, even in it's basic plumage as shown below.  Photographic lifers are always very fun to get to.  Thank you Caleb!  The thought of "What will Caleb discover in 2015?" always crosses my mind too.  He found me 2 of my 9 Maricopers last year.

Without Caleb Strand, "good luck" finding the Lapland Longspur!

During the day, Caleb and I also went to Arlington to look for goodies such as the recent Crested Caracara as well as Sandhill Cranes and more.  Arlington wasn't very active, but we did come across a few Ferruginous Hawks.  This raptor is quite diverse in it's plumage range, and Caleb and I both enjoyed incredible views of both light and dark morph Ferruginous Hawks.  Who could ever pass up watching this gorgeous bird...

Up next was a very fun morning of birding Seven Springs Recreation Area and Rackensack Canyon with Kurt and Cindy Radamaker.  Kurt and Cindy are both great birders and it was a pleasure to bird with them.  As expected, we had many birds and found some goodies of our own.  We went to Seven Springs first, and the area was filled with Cedar Waxwings, American Robins, Cassin's Finches, Western Bluebirds, Sage Thrashers, and even a wintering Painted Redstart!

At Rackensack Canyon, Kurt, Cindy, and I walked down the trail in pursuit of Fox Sparrows.  This is where I had roughly 15 individuals in December of 2013, and we wanted to check up on the numbers.  The Fox Sparrows didn't give us a hard time at all, and we had at least a dozen individuals!  I was very glad to tell Kurt and Cindy about the numbers I had here and them have the numbers be present again.

Kurt Radamaker also has a serious eagle eye.  While watching a Fox Sparrow, Kurt scanned a distant sparrow flock and picked out the rare Golden-crowned Sparrow.  The bird wasn't too far out of my camera's reach and I was able to get a distant but diagnostic photograph.  Kurt and Cindy are bird magnets.  Whenever they are around, good things pop up!  Out of many of the rare things they have found, the Smith's Longspur in 2012 (Arizona's second ever record, Maricopa's first) was something I was glad I was fortunate to be able to see.  

An obliging Green-tailed Towhee also made it's presence known in Fox Sparrow country.

At the end of 2014, Fulvous Whistling-Ducks were found at Tres Rios and at several other spots southwest of Phoenix.  Birder Robert Bowker recently saw another Fulvous Whistling-Duck flock at Tres Rios, and I went there to put in a search.  No luck, but I'm going to keep trying.  These ducks are starting to seriously annoy the living crap out of me.  Despite the no show, it's always fun to bird at Tres Rios, where abundant bird life is always found!  

Hello 2015!!!!!!!!