Tuesday, April 7, 2015

March Madness Birding

Towards the end of March/beginning of April, sports fanatics are going crazy over who is going to be crowned the champion of college basketball.  There are many teams and only one winner.  One loss means a concluding season.  The bottom line-win or go home.  This is a birding blog, and this time frame is also an important one for birders.  The first of spring migrants are starting to arrive and it is really the point and time where things begin to get exciting.  I've really been out of the birding loop lately, but I had been planning a very important birding trip with my buddy Gordon Karre to southeastern Arizona in hopes of finding our birding buddy Josh Wallestad from Minnesota key birds in the region.  This just recently took place on the last day of March and the beginning of April.  When we got out into the field, the birding form of March Madness began.  Birds were everywhere, and Josh was seeing lifer after lifer.  Because Josh hasn't had a lot of birding in Arizona, lifer after lifer was to be expected.  But Josh's main desire was to see two very flashy species which mattered more to him than anything else.  Just like the basketball tournament, it was win or lose.  If Josh didn't get his most highly wanted target, he would have to go home and try again next year.  Sounds similar to a top notch basketball team, right?  Sorry Kentucky, but there always is next year.  Gordon and I, with our eyes full of fire, determined that Josh would leave Arizona as a birding champion.  The two days spent with Josh included many life birds and even a last second buzzer beater to win a game of owling, but could we get him the championship bird(s)?

Gordon and I left very early in the morning on March 31st to pick up Josh from the city of Maricopa, where his parents live in the winter.  Josh's son, Evan was planning to join us on the first day but decided to back out, which left Gordon, Josh, and I to search the southeastern Arizona mountains on that first day.  Before we got to our destinations, we had a great time talking birds.  Josh is very active in Minnesota birding and has contributed a lot of great discoveries to his home state and county.  As mentioned before, Josh really wanted to see life birds in Arizona, but there were two that mattered more to him than any other.  One was the cooperative and flashy Painted Redstart while the other was the gaudy and brutally coveted Elegant Trogon.  While Gordon and I knew that the Painted Redstarts would be everywhere, the Trogons wouldn't.  After initially planning the first day to be at Mount Ord, we felt like it would be better to head straight to southeastern Arizona to put us in a better position and with more time to score Josh his most wanted.  The first stop was a stop at the versatile Mount Lemmon, a treasure chest for birders.  We drove straight up to the higher elevations of the area, and within seconds, one of Josh's most wanted was already out of the way..

Who can blame Josh for the desire to see the striking Painted Redstart.  Within two hours of birding, Gordon and I made sure that Josh had all sorts of looks at Painted Redstart.  Everything seemed to be included from treetop singers to flitters-at-feet.  Seven other lifers were the icing on the cake for Josh, including the Olive Warbler.  The Greater Pewee and Buff-breasted Flycatcher also made way onto Josh's list, which are two flycatchers I greatly enjoy.  Because I was concentrating on getting Josh good views of his first evers, shooting pictures wasn't a priority for me.  Check out Josh's much better recap of his Mount Lemmon experience here:  http://www.aboywhocriedheron.com/2015/04/05/arizona-2015-the-quest-for-high-elevation-warblers-on-mt-lemmon/

The adventure then took it's next turn as we went as we went further south to Florida and Madera Canyons.  We had our eyes out for Trogons and in Florida, the rare Rufous-capped Warbler.  We didn't get either on these first attempts of day one, which would set the stage for an April Fool's attempt on the Trogon.  Between the two canyons, Josh added an impressive 14 more lifers to bring his day total to 22.  Birds were everywhere, and things got interesting quick when two Northern Beardless-Tyrannulets popped up at very close range along the Florida trail.  This is the smallest flycatcher in the United States, and it's a species I haven't been able to see a whole lot of, and yet photograph well.  The perfect photo opportunity was gift wrapped for the three of us on this trail.

The Tyrannulet was also quite the creature of curiosity.

And here's a few more interesting birds we got to see that were also lifers for Josh, a male Hooded Oriole and male Broad-billed Hummingbird. 

Josh's family decided to also head down south and stay in Green Valley for the night.  Gordon and I dropped him off at the nearby hotel he and his family were staying at, which ended our successful day with Josh.  I could list all of the birds we got for Josh and talk more about them, but I'm not going to do that on my post other than the big hits.  Actually, they were all big hits, really.  But I think Josh's write up of these days in the field showing the multiple life birds he got will be much more exciting to read.  So check out Josh's awesome blog.

Once Josh went to the hotel, Gordon and I camped out at Madera Canyon in Bog Springs Campground.  I've stayed at this campground before, and it is quite the nice campground.  We were trying to decide what to do as far as to where an Elegant Trogon chase would take place.  We had two options: Madera Canyon or Patagonia Lake State Park.  Both places were intriguing, but Josh found an eBird report from Madera that two Trogons were seen along the wash the lines the first quarter-of-a-mile of the Super Trail.  Because Gordon and I still had a good hour of daylight left, we decided to scout the area out for Trogons.  The habitat was perfect, and within twenty minutes we heard our suspect calling up from a ridge.  This made up our mind that this was going to be the place we would try for the coveted Trogon the next day.  Until it got dark outside, we really enjoyed the canyon!

Once the night started to settle in, Gordon and I looked over cavities that we knew Whiskered Screech and Elf Owls nested in.  Several minutes later, I heard a Whiskered Screech-Owl calling and we headed over in the direction of the call.  For those who haven't heard this call, it's very neat to listen to.  It almost sounds like morse code.  As we walked through a dark oak forest, the owls were calling, and we could tell that we were very close to them.  Luckily I looked up and caught the right movement.  A Whiskered Screech-Owl was sitting between the tree and it's branches, and it almost reminded us of what the bird could potentially use for a "tucked in" day roost!

Gordon and I traced our footsteps around to the other side of the oak tree that the Whiskered was in and we were able to get good photographs as we were nearly under our source of entertainment.  The Whiskered Screech-Owl looked around at us a bit, but it didn't seem to be frightened much at all.  My flashlight works very well in these circumstances, but the light only shines on the owl briefly if we are going to take a picture rather than the light beam constantly being on the bird.  One, two, three-cheese...

As we stepped away from this owl, we heard something land in a tree besides us.  When I put my light towards the source of the sound, we saw that it was another Whiskered Screech-Owl, and it had it's wings oddly stretched out on the branches.

We were wondering what the owl was doing at first, but it was using the branches to help support itself and to make eating the lizard it had just killed much easier.  The owl easily brought it's talons up to it's beak to start devouring it's meal.

After this second owl few further into the woods, I went in another direction that I heard more morse code coming from.  I felt like I was alone in the dark when the calling stopped.  Within a few minutes, I heard something quietly land above and nearby, and I looked up to see another (or the) Whiskered Screech-Owl in the open.  I called Gordon over, and we were having another set of views of this fantastic bird at another angle.  This was a special sighting because I have only seen this species once without any good photos, and this was Gordon's first ever visual of this bird.

We then heard and visually located two Elf Owls further east down Madera Canyon, but we weren't able to get any photographs.  As we camped out at night, a quiet night turned into a windy night and it was quite hard to sleep. Situations like this really make me angry, I needed sleep on the trip more than anything.  As midnight and April Fool's officially rolled in, I was tempted to pull an April Fool's Prank on the birding community.  I decided not to, as several people would probably chop my head off and ban me for life.  If I would have gone through with my prank, there would have been a Stygian Owl sitting above our tent in Bog Springs Campground.  Maybe next year!

Gordon and I were thankfully able to get a decent sleep after the wind messed things up at midnight.  As the morning rolled in, we went to pick up Josh from Green Valley before it was light out and we were planning to arrive at the Super Trail at dawn.  This time, Josh's son Evan was able to join us and it was great to meet Evan.  Evan was interested in birding before Josh and they both started to bird together as a father-son hobby.  Now, Josh is addicted.  Cool story huh?!  Just like Josh, Evan was wanting to see an Elegant Trogon, and of course the Painted Redstarts that he wasn't there for on the previous day.  We got to the Super Trail and started our hike.  On April Fool's Day, it seems like a risky day to try and locate a hit-or-miss bird like the Elegant Trogon.  I was hoping and praying that we wouldn't get skunked.  And that didn't help when Josh spied something coming down the trail, that turned out to be the single striped morph of the Hooded Skunk.

When we were in the field, the "get skunked on the Trogon" thing didn't cross my mind when a skunk was right in front of us to start off the hike.  I'm not a superstitious birder, I've always played the cards as there dealt to me.  In fact, we all enjoyed the skunk and a few ooohs and aaahs were probably said.  As the skunk walked around, a Painted Redstart came by and showed Evan how cool it is for the first time in Evan's life.

We then continued down the Super Trail.  I was leading the way down the trail, and I was anxious.  Every branch was looked at, every tree was scanned underneath, every part of the wash lining the trail had Elegant Trogon written on it.  As we got close to where Gordon and I heard an Elegant Trogon the previous night, we stopped and listened.  Luckily, lightning struck twice for a second day, and an Elegant Trogon started calling from where we had previously come.  We walked quickly back down the trail, and found where the Trogon was calling from, which was across from the wash.  But then a male Trogon in all of it's splendor flew across the wash and landed in a vegetated tree above us.  We had a few looks of the bird, although they weren't great.  It then flew past us again and allowed Josh and Evan to see it's epic coloration, and landed in the open.  Josh and Evan were both ecstatic and the sight of the bird, and Gordon and I were too.  This is a bird one could never pass up for a viewing opportunity.  Although the looks weren't the best on earth, they were still good.  The Trogon flew up a surrounding ridge further.  After Josh and I climbed up further after the bird, we weren't able to get in a good picture setting before the bird went out of sight.  But the sighting was great, and Gordon and I were relieved that we were on the winning side of this search.  Gordon and I focused on pointing out Josh and Evan's first Trogon sighting to them, so we didn't worry about getting our own pictures.  But here is a Trogon picture I took in 2013 in Patagonia, cool huh!  I stole this idea from Gordon, which I know he won't mind.

After the Super Trail, we finished up our fun at the Santa Rita Lodge.  At the gift shop, Josh and Evan filled up on some Trogon souvenirs, which the gift shop has a lot of, appropriately.  Everyone loves the Trogon!  We took a group photograph too.  Left to right: Josh Wallestad, Gordon Karre, Evan Wallestad, and Yours Truly.

As we dropped Evan and Josh off in Green Valley, they showed us a pair of Great Horned Owls that nest at the hotel they were staying at.  It was very impressive, and we had eye level views with one of the adults on the third story of the building.  Evan discovered this pair of Great Horned Owls in the previous afternoon.  This young man had quite the eye for birds, and we were impressed!

From Green Valley, Gordon and I headed back to Phoenix.  After Gordon called it a day, I went back home for a few hours to rest and I then met up with Josh, Evan, Josh's dad Rick, and another awesome buddy we all know, Laurence Butler.  The five of us all birded at Coon Bluff Recreation Area for night owling to close out our birding expedition and an already productive April Fool's Day.  Josh's Dad Rick was a biologist, and he did very important field studies on Greater Sage Grouse.  He often birds with Josh and Evan and it was very fun to have him along with us.  Before Laurence arrived, I birded around Coon Bluff with the three Wallestads and we enjoyed many southwestern birds, one of which was another life bird for Josh in the Black Phoebe.  Laurence then arrived before dark, and we all started to owl once the light vanished.  A Great Horned Owl sat on a distant Saguaro cactus and called away.  We then started to hear Western Screech-Owls and pursued them immediately.  The small owls proved to be difficult in locating, and it seemed as if every time we would walk away from them, they would start calling again.  Fear set in early for me as I wasn't hearing any Elf Owls.  I figured there were a few in the area and that maybe the real bulk of them hadn't arrived on territory yet.  Usually, the night at Coon Bluff is filled with the yelps of the world's smallest owl.  As we walked further east down the road, I finally heard one calling, which turned into a pair.  Laurence and I took the Wallestads around, and were eventually able to give everyone visuals of the tiny owl.  I didn't attempt any pictures, but Laurence and Josh were able to obtain some (Laurence got a crushing shot!).  It was a life bird for the Wallestads.  Before we knew it, the time had passed and we were left with 45 minutes on the clock.  Laurence had to leave and Rick and Evan wanted to hang out by the van.  Josh and I decided to make a last crack at the Western Screech-Owls.  We heard them calling again near where we originally did, and Josh and I went after them.  As we went in the desert, we heard one calling and we could tell that it was very close.  After scanning many branches and tangles, Josh and I spied our source.  Luckily, it was seemingly fearless and close.

Josh and I started snapping pictures and moved even closer to the Owl, who was about ten feet away from us.  And it didn't budge!  With only minutes left on the clock for our birding expedition, this owl couldn't have popped up at a better time.  I must say, I love owling.  It has to be the funnest aspect of birding.  And in back-to-back nights, I got to photograph both of our Screech-Owls 90% better than I ever have before!

The Western Screech-Owl was Josh's second lifer owl of the night, and because it was just sitting there for us, Josh ran to get Evan and Rick.  Within minutes, the Wallestads drove down the road and got right back to the spot.  While this took place, the owl sat there and calmly looked at me before it was admired by four birders at once.  Rick and Evan enjoyed the sight of it just as much as Josh and I were.  It then turned into a scene of laughter as Josh and I got in "selfies" with the owl.  The owl even let us approach within three or four feet before it left.  Josh and I wanted to both get underneath the owl to attempt one of the best selfies ever with an unrestrained and wild owl, but the ones we got were awesome enough.

Josh posted the selfie pictures on Facebook later, and his wife Melissa said something hilarious:  "The enthusiasm you birding brothers have for what you do is infectious...even if I don't get it.... At. All."

It was a fun two days in the field and I enjoyed helping Josh get many life birds.  I think he had 28 to be exact while I was birding with him.  Huge thanks to Gordon, Josh, and Evan for making these birding outings fun and to Laurence and Rick for joining in on the owl searches.  

These two days were the birding form of March Madness.  Last night, Duke took home the championship trophy for college basketball.  Based on Josh's targets, the championship contenders were Painted Redstart and Elegant Trogon.  Josh, who was Duke?  Was it the Trogon, or the Redstart?  And we did have our epic buzzer beater, the Western Screech-Owl.  This was my first major birding in nearly two months, and it was one of the more enjoyable trips I have taken part of.  


  1. No contest - the Elegant Trogon was Duke! The rarity, the beauty, and the adrenaline-pumping chase up the mountain made this the better bird. But, I have to tell you that the unseeded Western Screech-Owl made it very far through the bracket! The owl's cool and all, but the laugh-fest photo shoot made it a very memorable experience.

    Loved the basketball analogy throughout the post and the ties to April Fool's Day. Thanks again for taking time out of prime basketball season to do a little birdwatchin' with some tourists who are now sporting excessive Trogon bling and apparel. 28 lifers was a mega trip that edged out last year's 27--a huge thanks to you and Gordon!

    All your owl shots are sick, sick, sick! These are unbelievably cool photos, especially of the Whiskered. I have a new target now--Whiskered Screech-Owl, but can the Tommy repeat championship glory and deliver yet again?!

  2. This post was AMAZING!!! You crushed many birds, saw even more, and had a great time while doing it! I'm glad you guys had an awesome time :)

  3. Whew! That like, fills a quota for the year, but makes it all the harder to wait for the next opportunity!