Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Fall Greatness

As the fall season has continued to move on, I have continued to bird a lot.  The work schedule hasn't changed, and I don't have to be at work until 1 P.M. on almost every day that I am scheduled.  It is a challenging schedule, but on many of my mornings I can go birding.  By default I am a very early riser.  Even if I go to bed at midnight, I still wake up at 5 or 6!  Weird huh?  Probably, I try not to think about it too much.  I'm the type of person who doesn't like to sit around in the mornings and wait for work.  The conclusion will mean many of those morning hours birding.  The search for eastern vagrants that I've wanted for either my life list or Maricopa County list (which is technically..both) has continued to come at full force.  Since my last post, birding outings have been amazing!

The above picture is of the well-named Yellow-headed Blackbird.  This picture was taken at Becker Lake Wildlife Area in the White Mountains.  I went up to the White Mountains for a recent weekend with my good friends Mark Ochs and Gordon Karre and we took part of the annual Arizona Field Ornithologists (AZFO) State Meeting.  It was the 9th annual meeting.  Long weekend short, there were field trips on Friday for birders to participate in, the state meeting all day on Saturday with presentations, discussions, and quizzes, as well as field trips on Sunday morning.  Mark, Gordon, and I participated on field trips that went to Lyman Lake State Park, Concho Lake, Wenima Wildlife Area, and Becker Lake Wildlife Area.  There were good birds present, and I added six new birds to my Apache County List:  Greater White-fronted Goose, Neotropic Cormorant, Green Heron, Red-necked Phalarope, Dickcissel, and Rufous-crowned Sparrow.  Below are photographs of the Neotropic Cormorant and Green Heron.  Poor photos, but new Apache County birds!

Here is a picture of 10 plus birders scanning Becker Lake on the Sunday expedition.  Yours truly is in the picture, and the photo is courtesy of AZFO.  This is 10 of probably 80 bird nerds like myself who attended the Show Low meeting.  There were many cool people to talk to over the course of the weekend.  In this picture, we were all trying to photograph a cooperative Virginia Rail who emerged out of the reeds to greet us.

This was the best I got of the Virginia, but it did give me a chance once to photograph it well.  I guess I wasn't quick enough..

Once back from the AZFO meeting and getting back into the normal flow of the Phoenix life, I continued to bird more and more and more in pursuit of those special migrants and just to enjoy any birds and being out in general.  I have been staring at groves of willows and cottonwoods a lot, and birding inside of them too.

The above picture is from the Box Bar Recreation Site along the Lower Verde River.  Box Bar has become one of my favorite birding locations in Maricopa County, and amazing things happen at Box Bar!  The location has a ton of potential, which is why I'm birding it often.  It's one of those places where one never knows what they may find on any given outing.  One morning, I was pleased to look up and see a Merlin perched above me.  This small and fierce falcon is one that I don't get to see very often.

Another place I have visited often is of course my patch, the Glendale Recharge Ponds.  There have been some neat birds here too over the course of the last few months, and as the colder months approach, I'm sure more will show up.  Loads of cool ducks and hopefully a surprise gull.  Right now, a trio of young Peregrine Falcons have been terrorizing smaller shorebirds and waterfowl at Glendale.

Also at Glendale, I got to meet Melissa Okimoto, an amazing girl!  Melissa started birding this year, and she is an awesome birder.  I started talking to Melissa for awhile and we quickly realized we both loved birding in some of the same areas, such as locations in the Tonto National Forest.  Melissa and I then decided we would go to Slate Creek Divide and explore that area together.  When I first ran into Melissa, she had spied this Marbled Godwit, which is always a great bird to see!

On October 3rd, Melissa and I headed up to Slate Creek Divide together to explore and bird the area.  It was Melissa's first time of seeing Slate Creek Divide, and I really wanted to make it special for her.  We decided to walk down the main drainage in the area heading south into Maricopa County to search for high elevation goodies.  This area is dominated by Douglas fir and it has plenty of pines, oaks, and some sycamore habitat.  I told Melissa that seeing a Mexican Spotted Owl was a decent possibility from the start, and she loved the idea of seeing one.  In my mind, I was praying and hoping I would find one for her.  The hike down the canyon was beautiful and birds emerged as we went.  A Steller's Jay led the day off and Red-breasted Nuthatches sounded off their "trumpet" call.  Two Mountain Chickadees also showed up, a species that can be very scarce in our region.  Melissa and I found ourselves also enjoying Acorn Woodpeckers, Northern Flickers, Ruby-crowned Kinglets, Bridled Titmouse, Brown Creepers, Canyon Wrens, a Dusky Flycatcher, and some puzzling Empid Flycatchers.  Single migrants of Black-throated Gray Warbler and Western Tanager added to the fun.  I was loving the time with Melissa!  As we started to walk down the canyon for a good distance, I wasn't finding any of the Spotted Owls despite looking on almost every imaginable perch and previous perches where I saw them on.  As we came around a corner, I finally caught sight of what I was hoping and praying for to show Melissa...

I had the Spotted Owl in my sight, and to be honest, I was relieved!  I really really really really wanted Melissa to see this bird for her first time.  When I turned around to Melissa, I calmly said with a smirk, "Hey....".  She wasn't expecting me to say ".......Spotted Owl" and then point to a Spotted Owl with a calm reaction.  The look Melissa had on her face as she looked up at this neat bird was something I'll never forget.  It was an amazing moment, and I don't think I've seen someone as happy as Melissa was to see a Spotted Owl.  I took this picture of her right after I pointed the bird out to her.  Seeing Melissa's joy in the sighting was better than the sighting itself for me :)

As Melissa and I were scampering around and were busy being thrilled with the Spotted Owl, the Owl opened up it's big black eyes and stared at us for awhile before lazily dozing back off again.  It amazes me how Spotted Owls have been seen in the drainage this year.  After birding Slate Creek since 2010 every year and not encountering a Spotted Owl in the daytime before this year, Spotted Owls have now been seen here five different times by birders this year (with three of those times now being when I've made trips down here).  

Melissa and I had a seat in the canyon and enjoyed the Spotted Owl for awhile.  It had times where it was calmly curious about us.  I'm sure these birds wonder why people stare at them with amazement..

Melissa and I really took our time exploring Slate Creek, and we then decided make a day out of the Mazatzal Mountains and to go to Mount Ord and hike Forest Road 1688's two mile duration.  It was one of the best days I've had in a long time because of the amazing company I had with me, neat birds, and being at two of my favorite locations on earth!  And on Mount Ord, Melissa and I continued to find amazing birds, including her first Red-naped Sapsucker, a nice male that she spied up high in a pine tree.  Olive Warblers and a Townsend's Warbler also showed up for a few more neat birds to add to our day list.  Other than the Spotted Owl, the birds were difficult to photograph in the thick fir and pine trees during the day.  This epic day can be summed up perfectly though by two smiling faces :)

As October has gone on, I've continued to visit riparian areas to stare at willow and cottonwood groves, and of course walk through them too.  In the past, I have often visited many different places to search for migrants instead of a few.  But this year, I have changed that up a lot.  Instead of going to many different places, I have really focused on going to a few places, and Box Bar on the Verde River has continued to be one of them.  I figured that some of these special migrants are bound to pass through, and if I keep visiting a good place like Box Bar on a regular basis, that is a better strategy than going to many different places.  Here is that picture of Box Bar's willow/cottonwood habitat again..

I found myself walking around Box Bar one morning recently, and things were good, but I found myself wanting to move on because I wanted to bird more areas further into the day.  And then I came up on a line of cottonwood and willows.  After a day of mediocre activity, the activity on this stand was all of a  I was surprised to catch sight of a Painted Redstart foraging above me, one I don't see in the lowlands often.  As I wrote down "PARE" in my field notes, the Redstart only proceeded to drop a poop right on my notes.  Because I was getting ready to head back and was thinking about leaving Box Bar, I took that as a sign I should probably leave.  As I continued down the stand, which was right along the Verde River, I saw a songbird feeding on the ground.  Right when I looked at it I realized it was something good.  Green back, solid white front.  I thought it was a Tennessee Warbler at first for the first half-second before I saw that the bird had a fierce look to it, a long white supercilum, a long bill, a dark head cap, and a red eye.  It was a Red-eyed Vireo!  The sight of the bird had me jumping, and my dedication to birding Box Bar had paid off.  The Vireo was a life bird for me, and it was also my 370th bird for Maricopa County.  It's always amazing to find a rarity rather than chase a rarity!  I enjoyed the Vireo on the ground for a few seconds before it started foraging on the willows above me.  While I didn't get a great picture, I at least got enough to document it's presence!

Red-eyed Vireo is a casual vagrant to Arizona, but is usually annual in the State.  Prior to this sighting, which was on October 6th, I had never seen a rare vireo in Arizona.  Other rare ones are Yellow-throated Vireo, White-eyed Vireo, and Yellow-green Vireo.  I have looked for and chased Yellow-green Vireo twice in my history, each one I have missed by seconds while others right by me have had looks at them!  That fact also made this sighting beyond amazing for me, it was my first rare vireo for Arizona.  For this next picture: if the lighting would have been better to show of the Vireo's red eye, it could've added a more suspenseful twist to the story.  The Red-eyed Vireo peeking out at you..........

Other than searching for special migrants at Box Bar, this peaceful place along the Verde River is full of amazing things.  Sometimes I see a Peregrine Falcon lurking around in the riparian woodlands..

Other times I'll enjoy a Harris's Hawk or two or three perched up on Saguaros..

Some of the days here have been overcast and rainy.  Isn't it cool to see two big raptors perched near each other?  

Several families of wild horses reside on this stretch of the Verde River.  It's really neat to hear them in a wilderness area rather than on a farm!

One morning I got to show the area to Melissa.  We had a great time, and I really love birding with Melissa!

The Verde River via Box Bar is one epic place!

Recently, I also made a visit to the Hassayampa River Preserve.  The Hassayampa River is another place where birding is awesome in migration.  Quite surprisingly, I haven't been there very much this year.  And because I haven't birded as much this year as I did last year, I connected with my first Gray Hawk of the year.  This is a juvenile Gray Hawk, which is a neat thing to see.  Maricopa County has a nice breeding population of this species in the Hassayampa River area near Wickenburg.

While I was at Hassayampa, I was very shocked to hear and see a male Evening Grosbeak.  It seems very early for this bird to start coming down into the lowlands, or this far south into Arizona as it is!

It's not a good picture of the Evening Grosbeak, but hey, we can tell what it is right?!  This particular Evening Grosbeak may just be an indicator of what's to come in the winter months of 2015 and 2016.  With finch irruptions starting to pop up, owls already showing up in the southern parts of the North early, and with an El' Nino being in the forecast, I think some amazing things are in store.  I hope to witness a lot of it!