Friday, February 26, 2016

A Huge Owl Prowl

I guess I'm just as thrilled as finding owls this year in Arizona as I was last year in Arizona.  After lifering four times in the owl department on my recent trip to Minnesota, I've come up with this crazy idea.  I want to see and photograph as many owl species as possible in 2016.  With there being 19 owls in North America, I wonder if I could possibly see and photograph all of them this year.  The birds are awesome, and I may be going crazy.  I'm not going to explain myself about that crazy idea, but I will say it's not impossible for me to attempt that idea this year to say the least.  Seeing an owl in the field on a day roost or finding one at night often exceeds finding other birds within a second.  I always get excited when I see Great Horned Owls, the commonest owl I've seen in my records by far.  According to eBird, I have 107 observations of Great Horned Owls, and the other 16 I have are obviously below that.  Luckily, Arizona is a supreme state when it comes to seeing a variety of owls.  We have a little bit of everything, and in the next month or so, all of our breeding owls are going to be back on site.  I can't wait to try for Flammulated Owls again this year, and of course I can't wait for more Saw-whet Owl attempts, Elf Owl nights, and an upcoming Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl attempt.  Last weekend I went to southeastern Arizona to search for Short-eared Owls in the San Rafael Grasslands without luck as well as of course bird the heck out of the surrounding area.  Despite the owls were missing in action, the many neat birds in SEAZ can make up for it quickly.  With me craving some outings of owling by both nocturnal and diurnal searches, this recent Wednesday night and most of Thursday saw me seeking such.

On Wednesday night, February 24th, I found myself at home talking to my brother Tyler and asking his opinion on what I should do with a Northern Saw-whet Owl search I found myself wanting to attempt nocturnally in Prescott.  My choices were to drive up that night or wake up horribly early and go the next morning.  I decided on going early in the morning.  Something else I wanted to do was to get myself fired up for this year's upcoming owl season, especially those searches that would be on the nocturnal side of things.  Ever since I got my new camera, I haven't taken it out at night to practice night shots at all.  I figured that to do such, I should start off simple by finding the most cooperative owl in the world of nocturnal birding.  I went out to Maricopa County's Lower Salt River Recreation Area to do such, and to look for my target.  Watch this video to see what this target is and how friendly it can be to those wanting to find it...

If you watched the video, than you know that the owl is the Western Screech-Owl.

Western Screech-Owls are awesome, and I can't remember the last time that I set out to look for one and didn't find one.  At night that is, I've only seen one Western Screech-Owl diurnally my entire life.

This outing was thought of at first to be a practice shoot for upcoming owling trips when I thought of how I am going to photograph birds at night in the upcoming year.  Even though that was the initial goal, I found myself enjoying the Western Screech-Owls a lot, and it turned out to be much more than just a practice run.  It's always neat to hear these owls vocalizing and duet ting back-and-fourth, but these owls were extra cooperative on this night, as shown in the video.

Western Screech-Owls are often tame, and that was the case on this night.  I would practically walk right up to them, and some of these birds weren't too far above eye level.  These owls are a little strange too.  While sitting there, they sometimes appear motionless with the exception of the width of how open their eyes are, which changes pretty quickly.

The Western Screech-Owl itself a versatile appearance in many ways.  It can look slim, and it can look fat.  It can look mean, and it can look friendly.  It can look like a round-headed owl one second, and then it will show it's ear tufts the next second.  A neat but bizarre bird, and one that is sure fun to observe in the field.

Most of the time with these owls, I'm the one who leaves.  When I look back, they are usually sitting in the same exact spot..

After I was going to leave the Salt River at about 9, the Screech-Owl in the video forced me to stay for another 45 minutes.  I got home close to 11 P.M., and feel asleep shortly before midnight.  My alarm was set to 2 A.M., and after getting two hours of sleep, I was then off to Prescott to search for Northern Saw-whet Owls on February 25th, leaving at 3.  Arriving in Prescott at 5 A.M, I spent the next hour and change looking for Saw-whet Owls along a creek in midst of oak and ponderosa pine forest.  What I thought would be a sure bet, turned into a shear regret.  The birds were silent.  What the heck?  After seeing that others had them here easily a few weeks ago and the fact I was here on December 31st and had four of them reply back to me constantly throughout the evening made me think these birds would go off again.  But perhaps the evening and night is better for them.  And perhaps by the time their shift is almost over in the latter hours of darkness, maybe they are done calling?  Who knows, I'll try and go back soon.  At night.  That's what birding is all about, you have hits and misses.  I did have two Great Horned Owls calling in Prescott, as well as my ninth Western Screech-Owl in that same period of darkness (I had eight at Coon Bluff).

While birding around Prescott until noon after the miss, I missed by second owl target in the area, which was a Barn Owl.  Oh well, I'll try again in the Phoenix area.  I did get my first ever Yavapai County Eastern Phoebe, and I also searched for a Red-shouldered Hawk there that didn't show up for me at Willow Lake.  Many birds were around though, as both Willow and Watson Lakes are bomb.

My last stop of the day targeted my fourth hopeful owl of the prowl.  This owl is one of my favorites to pursue because it is extremely tough to see and if I can catch sight of an individual perched before it decides to take off, I consider it a huge accomplishment.  These owls are the masters of camouflage, and they can make you feel just plain stupid when they take off at close range from a branch tangle you are already looking at.  This particular owl is in this picture.   Can you make any of it out?  I will say, if you look hard enough, you can see the birds breast, bill, side of head, and talons. 

The picture above showed this owl right as it was about to take off.  Unfortunately,  I spied the owl once I walked past it, and it knows whether I am looking at it or not.  When I caught sight of it, I played it cool for a few minutes before it decided to leave.  If only I had spied it sooner.  Here's another view from a different pose.  For this moment, I would almost say this is easy to spy compared to other tangles of crap that this owl likes to hide in.  If this is generous, wow...

I take a few steps to get at a slightly better angle.  As you can see now, it's a Long-eared Owl.  And man, can they blend in or what!  They aren't a small owl by any means either, they just know what they are doing and they do it well..

Long-eared Owls do not like people, including me.  They are very sensitive to human disturbance.  When I look for one and find one, I limit myself to how many times I follow it once it flushes.  In this circumstance, it is different.  I know of a day roost for Long-eared Owls in Arizona that I will keep undisclosed (undisclosed means don't ask me where I see these birds at).  They like a dense tangle of trees, and there are plenty of Long-eared Owls in this tangle.  I try to see them perched first, but because they spook easily and hide better than Waldo, that is usually not the case.  Once they fly, they are obvious and as soon as they land in another tree they are usually back inside of another dense tangle or at the opposite side of a tree.  They flush in almost a single file line, and once the many owls flush, they land in many other different trees. 

Most of the Long-eared Owls flush into similar tangles of branches within trees compared to the tree that they were roosting in.  Some of them will land in more open areas than others on occasion.  I love it when they do this! 

They are almost always in thick shady areas.  Even with this one being perched relatively in the open, it would still be overlooked by most without a careful scan with binoculars.

As I walked through the grove of trees, the Long-eared Owls would continue to flush, but not all of them.  Because I knew in general where some of them were, it wasn't completely hard as long as I scrutinized every branch, leaf, and tangle.  And finally, there was a cooperative one.  For the next thirty minutes, I walked a total of 30 feet in an attempt to view this guy better.

The long wait of edging closer turned out to be worth it, as this Long-eared Owl was braver than it's fellow companions.

I had a great view of it considering the fact it was a Long-eared Owl.  This is a species I have yet to get "crushing" photographs of yet, but I do have good pictures.  Because of this owl's sensitivity, it's not worth it to me to keep traipsing back and fourth through their roosting area.  For me, this outing lasted three hours with me crawling on the ground and walking as slow as can be through this area.  With Long-eared Owls, I love to observe them anytime and if I get good photos, great, and if I don't get good photos, that is great also.

I hung out with this owl for quite some time because I got to see some of both of it's postures.  Here is it's typical alert posture that most see.

And here is some of it's relaxed "camouflage" posture.  Notice the facial difference?  He was starting to relax a little as I watched from a distance.

As I continued to inch closer, he was still aware of every little inch I moved or every time I lifted my camera up to take his picture.

See the opening to the branches on the right of the owl?  The bird finally left as I was about to inch over and get a shot without any branches in the way.  Yep, that's Long-eared Owling for you!

While I was walking, I even heard one of the many Long-eared Owls hooting.  It was the first time of hearing one in the wild.  I managed to crawl underneath my buddy once again who I previously looked at.  As I inched closer, he was still ever concerned about my every move, and once again, retreated right as I was about to get an open view.

Some of the Long-eared Owls flushed into this large juniper tree, which was on my way out as I was leaving.  As I looked down at my clock, what felt like one hour was over three hours.  When your slowly trying to avoid disturbing something, time can sure fly!  As I was leaving, the owls were piling into this juniper, as well as another stretch of thick trees along the wash I was walking down.  They haven't ever flown into this particular section in the times I have visited the roost.  Can you see the owls?

I would call spying these ones easy as compared to the other  But they didn't stay very long in this spot either...

As I walked out of the area, some of the Long-eared Owls flew back to their main roost and past me.  Some of them I managed to get a few decent pictures of.

What a fun time owling, all within a time span of less than 24 hours!  

Monday, February 15, 2016

Bullhead City to Yuma, Loons to an Oriole

I had to work for 10 consecutive days after getting back from my epic vacation and birding trip to Minnesota.  Other than a quick jaunt up to a park in Surprise only to miss a Barrow's Goldeneye upon the first day of my return, I didn't do any birding during those ten days.  I came down with sickness and spent any mornings I had resting before I had to go to work.  Some birding ideas came around, and they came at the idea of me chasing two birds in the western parts of Arizona.  These two birds, Yellow-billed Loon and Streak-backed Oriole, are two that I have had my chances at chasing in previous years of birding.  Because I love to save money when it comes to birding trips, I don't chase many birds outside of Maricopa County when it comes down to these birds.  I feel like they will show up in Maricopa County again and I'll hopefully get to see them then.  But I've also had that urge and craving for awesome life birds lately.  I'm sure going to Minnesota and racking up 15 lifers over a 4 day span had a little something to do with it.  With some plans made with two great birding buddies, I went after two more life birds this past weekend.  And I was hoping to succeed.  After all, I am closing in on 500 birds for my life list, and that is a very exciting milestone to reach.

The first birding trip was to go after the Yellow-billed Loon.  My buddy Gordon Karre and I headed out to northwestern Arizona and a tiny crack of Nevada for this trip.  We felt like our chances were great, as there where at least two Yellow-billed Loons in the area.  One of these loons toggled between both Arizona and Nevada waters at Davis Dam on the Lake Mohave while the other was also at Lake Mohave but further north at Katherine's Landing.  The latter was being very cooperative for birders, and was often being seen right off of shore.  Gordon and I took advantage of cheap prices for hotels in Laughlin.  Rooms were only 20 bucks, and it was nice to have that advantage to be very close to Lake Mohave to start of the morning of February 12th, 2016.  The hotel that we stayed at was one in a Casino, and it was the first time I've been to a Casino.  I will say though in all honesty, I didn't gamble away a penny.  The Casino had some epic side notes to it, such as a buffet we ate at for breakfast before a five minute drive back into Arizona and into Davis Dam.  With the Casino actually being right along the Colorado River, we took a look outside to see many birds utilizing the Nevada waters and we officially started our Nevada list.  More impressive was this hungry Raccoon walking around and about on boats to search for a breakfast.  I was thrilled at the sight of this animal, and it's an animal I don't see a whole lot of, and one I certainly haven't been able to photograph.

From the Raccoon we moved back on into Arizona to start our Yellow-billed Loon search at Davis Dam on both Arizona and Nevada waters.  As we stepped out of the vehicle, it took me about a minute to luckily locate the Yellow-billed Loon somewhat close by on Arizona waters.  I had it in my scope for close to a minutes worth.  Gordon had time to see it, and then the awesome start had a dramatic drop off.  We realized it was terribly windy outside and as the loon disappeared, so did most of the fun.  Gordon and I could barely stand up straight, yet alone bird.  We were trying hard to relocate our brief look at our loon lifer, but that wasn't happening.  At Stopsign Cove beneath us, we had a few neat birds, including nice looks at male and female Red-breasted Merganser as well as a Common Loon.

Despite the howling winds that were louder than wolves themselves, the sight of Lake Mohave from Davis Dam was quite impressive.  There were masses of birds out on the waters, but Gordon and I struggled to see them well.  But I can honestly say, we were trying hard!

We then headed off to Katherine Landing and walked around in hopes of finding that Yellow-billed Loon, the one that had been so close to shore and friendly to birders.  Despite checking the Landing four times over the course of five hours, that Yellow-billed Loon was a no show.  It was back-and-fourth to Davis Dam and Katherine Landing to search for stuff, as well as a few coves further north on Mohave.  The wind was bad everywhere, but did lit up ten percent at the northern coves and Katherine.  There weren't many birds away from Davis Dam, and one of the standouts was a Redhead who had a Coot swimming up to him in amazement.  "My new buddy is the coolest!"

Gordon and I then ran into fellow birder, Leo Miller.  Leo was after the same target as we were, and the three of us teamed up to look for the Yellow-billed Loons any further.  There were four different loons that were spied out on the lake, and at times, birders were seeing all four species: Red-throated, Common, Pacific, and our coveted Yellow-billed in the same scope view!  With the exception of the Red-throated, Gordon and I did have the other three locked up.  The wind was constantly beyond terrible without any signs of letting up.  Even though we got the Yellow-billed Loon, early, I felt as if we didn't get it because it was short lived.  I asked myself, "How can getting a lifer be disappointing?"  I guess I just hate the wind with a passion.  Without it, who knows how Gordon and I would have fared otherwise.  Back at Davis Dam, Gordon, Leo, and I continued our search for one last time as the wind was truly wearing the three of us out.  As I scanned the lake way out into Nevada waters, that lightning finally struck twice.  I had the loon in my scope!  Leo and Gordon immediately got on the bird as I had it in the scope, and we could clearly see that it was the Yellow-billed Loon.

Luckily, the road along the stretch of the lake traveled north into Nevada, and we got to a point that was close to where I had spied the loon.  The three of us looked until I spied it again, but this time, we had excellent scope views of the bird.  Gordon, Leo, and I were all on cloud nine.  With the wind still howling louder than wolves, I attempted to get a challenging shot off of the Yellow-billed Loon through my scope.  And it worked!

The Yellow-billed Loon made things simple this time around and stayed above the water for a consistent amount of time as we all got to enjoy it.  I can't say how grateful I was to have gotten this look and these shots off of this lifer of mine.  Yellow-billed Loons are casual in Arizona, and they have been seen in western Arizona on the Lower Colorado River more than once since 2009 when I became a serious birder.  This was the first time I've chased one, and boy am I glad I did!

The Yellow-billed Loon is North America's largest loon out of the five species, and is a good three to four inches larger than the second largest and closely related Common Loon.  Yellow-billed Loons breed on tundra lakes and ponds in summer, and in winter they usually prefer inland coastal waters.  Their breeding range is small in the Arctic and Yellow-billed Loons are very scarce and aren't nearly as prominent as the other four loon species.  When a Yellow-billed Loon shows up in chase-able locations in winter that are far south of it's breeding range, many birders seek it out in hopes of a sighting.  

With the wind being terrible, I consider all of these shots to be lucky shots that I took through my scope!

Here is some information on this particular Yellow-billed Loon on the Arizona Field Ornithologists website.  This information explains who found the bird and when it was found, the status of Yellow-billed Loon in Arizona, as well as field marks to separate this bird from other loons:

"This Yellow-billed Loon was found by Lauren Harter on 17 January 2016

There are seven previously accepted records for Arizona, five of those in the Lower Colorado River Valley with an eighth pending from nearby Katherine Landing.

On this bird, the size, shape and color of the bill are diagnostic for Yellow-billed Loon.  Note especially the lack of a dark line on the culmen. On Common Loon in this plumage there is almost always a dark line across the culmen extending almost to the tip of the bill. This bird also has the characteristic pale head and neck of a Yellow-billed and when in relaxed swimming posture holds the bill at an uptilted angle. In some poses there is a sharp peak in the crown, a feature that is probably more prominent in males. The pale edges of the back feathers are characteristic of first winter plumage".

Here are Gordon and Leo celebrating this rare North American bird!

Lake Mohave was a very neat place, I hope to explore it again sometime with it being windless.  As you can see in these pictures, the whitecaps on the water show how windy it was!

Gordon and I had a great ending to a challenging day of birding in the wind.  Thank you Gordon for a fun time!

Up next was Yuma, as my next target lifebird was a Streak-backed Oriole.  I would have my buddy Dominic Sherony with me for this trek, and it would come on February 13th, 2016, a day after the Yellow-billed Loon trek.  A Streak-backed Oriole was reported at Riverside Park near the Yuma East Wetlands on December 24th, 2015 by Jim Taylor.  Since then, dozens upon dozens of birders have staked out this Mexican rarity.  It has frequented a trail along the Colorado River in the Yuma East Wetlands, but also has come into Riverside Park by the Wetlands to feed on fruit that has been growing off of palm trees in the park.  Although this bird spends more of it's time in the Wetlands themselves, it is easier to see as it makes regular visits to Riverside Park during the day.  Sometimes, birders have spent several hours and have missed the bird.  Dominic and I were hoping to be on the fortunate side.  Also, this was a rare occasion while birding with Dominic because it would be a lifer for both of us.  Dominic has seen a lot of birds, but the Streak-backed Oriole would be his first ABA lifer in over three years if we would be successful.  For me, I've had chances to chase Streak-backed Oriole on several occasions before this one.  I decided to save money in hopes that it would choose to visit Maricopa County again.  Like I said earlier, I was craving to see some new birds, and I was at Yuma and near the Yuma East Wetlands in hopes of seeing a Streak-backed Oriole.  

Dominic and I started at 8:38 A.M. and started to wait at Riverside Park.  When it would visit Riverside Park, the Oriole would feed on fruits out of the palm trees there and it would also fly to other trees within the park.  We were watching the palms and other trees at all times, as well as listening for the orioles high pitched "whistle" call as well as the more common and long chatter call.  While we had been waiting for over an hour, I heard that chatter call coming from the river in the distance at 9:56 A.M.  When I went shortly north to try hearing it more, I looked up to see the Streak-backed Oriole flying in the direction of Riverside Park.  I ran to tell Dominic and a couple from California that the bird was probably going to come in at any second to it's favorite palm tree.  As we anxiously watched, the Streak-backed Oriole came into it's favorite palm tree at 9:58 A.M.  And it was quite the sight!

It became the first time that Dominic and I had gotten a lifer at the same time, and this cool-looking Oriole was now eating right in front of us.

In 2006 and in 2007, Gilbert Water Ranch had a Streak-backed Oriole that wintered for two consecutive winters.  Sadly, that was before my hardcore birding time before I knew about the birding listserv and such.  Had I had known about the birding list, that bird would have been on my list long before now!  Hopefully, another one will make it's way closer to me someday.

As you can see by these photographs, the Streak-backed Oriole is very well named.  This is an adult male.  And his back is very streaked!

Good field marks for this bird are of course the streaked back, but also the thick and straight bill, black on the lower madible (lower bill), bright orange on the face, and white edgings on the wing feathers.

Streak-backed Oriole has even bred in Arizona before.  Other than that, it's status in Arizona is considered to be a casual fall and winter visitor.  In Mexico and not too far south of the border, this bird is very widespread and common in lowland riparian habitats.

The bird was striking in flight with bright combinations of orange and black.  Seeing the bird flying in was an exciting, as well as the 15 minutes we spent watching it.  Lifer # 494.

Because this bird is cool and with me having several chances to chase other Streak-backed Orioles before this bird, it was awesome to see it for the first time and it seemed like I gained a bird that was overdue in a way.

Dominic and I then headed north of Yuma to explore Mittry Lake.  We wanted to check for a Red-throated Loon that was recently found by Henry Detwiler, as well as attempt at hearing the elusive Black Rail.  Mittry Lake is a neat place, and it was the second time I've visited the location.

Many common waterbirds filled up the lake without any sign of the Red-throated Loon, and a Harrier cruised over the marsh.

Our attempts at Black Rails weren't successful, as expected in mid-day.  We did visit Hidden Shores Golf Course just north of Mittry Lake for awhile.  It was shocking to see a flock of 20 Long-billed Curlews walking around on the golf course!

Here is Dominic enjoying Mittry Lake.  It was the first time he's been to this area.

It was a crazy and fun two days of birding with two consecutive trips falling on two consecutive day to chase two lifers.  I'm glad to have added both Yellow-billed Loon and Streak-backed Oriole to my lifelist, which are two rarities in North America.  It was also cool to bird in these two areas on these two days, as I've never been to the Bullhead City area for birding and I rarely venture into Yuma County.  Thanks Gordon and Dominic for the fun expeditions.