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!


  1. You really thrashed the place, Tommy. Nice work! Impressive Le Conte's photos too.

    My date with the thrasher spot is an inevitability, I can feel it. Maybe next year's focus.

    1. Thanks Josh! I certainly can't count on Le Conte's being so close again.

      You'll love the Thrasher site whenever you get to go there!

  2. Hey you're welcome and thank you too! You have some awesome photos! I'd say that was the best day of thrashering I have EVER had! I actualy decided to move my birdwalk on the 31st to the Thrasher Spot.

    1. Thanks Caleb! That was some hardcore fun right there! Good choice on the location movement!

  3. Epic Tommy! It's funny because I've had thrashers on my mind as well. My annual visit up to the spot will happen in February. I love these birds for all their strange reasons. You've nailed each of their behavior perfectly. Crissal and LeConte's are the worst for photos and they are such beautiful birds. I'd like to add that the LeConte's is like a goth thrasher....the vampire of them.
    My true treks out to the grasslands have been to find the SEOW's as well. Each weekend I get up and go early to find them and sunrise and luck....yet:) But I know they are out there! Happy birding!

    1. I should also add.....the Brown Thrasher is the sneaky one. He watches you while you are looking the other way and runs the other way:)

    2. Thanks Chris! Goth thrasher, that is a good way to look at it too :D

      Photographing and getting views of this bird is great. One of these days you will get a Short-eared Owl out there. The last two winters haven't been good for them at all. The winter of 2012-13 had folks going out and observing 5 of them per visit. But there's gotta be at least one around the area!

  4. Looks like you got some killer shots of Le Conte's as well. And Bendire's and Crissal as well. What a great day of thrashers. I too, have never heard or seen CBTH at this spot and agree the habitat just isn't quite right. Maybe a few have passed through from one place to another. Great post!

    1. Thanks Gordon! The thrashers were really on our side that day. These were the best I've gotten of Le Conte's and probably Bendire's too. I'm not a believer of the Curve-billed out there, not even a whit-weet.