Sunday, May 28, 2017

Whipped Up in the Sierra Anchas

Every birding year brings something different.  If it's not one thing, it can certainly be another.  That's the fun thing about it.  One year can yield a lot of success with certain species, and the next year can yield a lot of failure with those certain species.  And then those species come into play, the ones that birders always want to see well, get a picture of, and the list can certainly go on.  I have my fair share of birds that fall into that category.  For example, owls rocked my world in birding last year when I attempted and completed T.O.B.Y.  This year, I haven't had much in the way of success with owls.  Trust me, I've tried.  I've only seen Montezuma Quail once in my life, and that dated all the way back to 2004 in Greer, Arizona.  The Montezuma Quail remains to be a bird I have not documented to this day.  I have heard them plenty, but that coveted visual and photograph remains elusive.  Perhaps it is because I haven't made a specific trip to seek out Montezuma Quail in southeastern Arizona somewhere?  And then there's the nightjars.  I've had limited success with this group of birds, and I've photographed and seen Common Poorwill and Lesser Nighthawk well.  The other three I've seen: Common Nighthawk, Mexican Whip-poor-will, and Eastern Whip-poor-will, I have poorly documented.  The latter two have only been sound recorded, and the Common Nighthawk has resulted in poor and distant flight shots.  I think nightjars are challenging to find, sometimes more so than owls.  Owls were a nightmare for me to find at one point too, and the more practice I had, the more I got to see them.  Maybe I need to spend more time Nightjar-ing.  Oh, and there's another nightjar I've heard well and seen very poorly, the Buff-collared Nightjar.  That is one I want to see well and experience more.  This post will take us into the heart of Gila County, Arizona, when I took a camping trip overnight into the remote, rugged, and under-birded Sierra Ancha Mountains.  I got into the Sierra Anchas late in the evening, about an hour before it was officially dark out.  I set up camp, relaxed for a while, and once it started to get darker, I set out to look for Mexican Whip-poor-wills and owls.  As I've been working on my Gila County birding list lately, the Mexican Whip-poor-will was one I was really wanting to add.

My history with Whip-poor-wills have been excellent heard only audio of both species.  The Mexican species has been somewhat kind, as it has flown by me on several occasions while I've been searching for them at night.  Sometimes they have perched on logs or horizontal branches of trees, but have been too distant for good views.  The Eastern one was feet away from me last year, but somehow avoided my detection visually.  But on this night, my previous luck with Mexican Whip-poor-wills changed.  After having some fear enter my system after striking out at my first stop without getting any birds in the first 45 minutes of darkness when Whip-poor-wills sound off the most, I went up a little higher in elevation than I was.  I was in oak and sycamore riparian habitat to start in the Sierra Anchas, and after a short drive up the road, I was ready to Whip it up when the road hit ponderosa pine and Gambel's oak.  Things got exciting when I heard a Mexican Whip-poor-will calling, and shortly after, another bird was calling.  After enjoying the cool song the birds give, one of them decided to fly by my flashlight, circle my light a little, and then proceed to land on a open bank by the side of the road.  It was close to me, and I actually had a Mexican Whip-poor-will in good view!

After singing "Whip-poor-will" a few times, it continued to sit there!

I learned a lot about Nightjar-ing in a matter of seconds.  Whenever a light is shined on these birds, the eye glare is awful despite the fact it might help one locate a bird better.  I figured out that holding the flashlight as low as possible near the knees completely reduces any of that eye glare.  It worked for me anyways!

Last year at Slate Creek Divide, I had an instance where a Common Poorwill sat on the ground and let me get very close.  It's almost as if it thought I didn't see it, so it wouldn't have to move unless I got on top of it or was about the step on it.  I hoped the Mexican Whip that was in front of me would behave the same way.  As I stepped closer to this neat bird, it showed me that it was going to be just like that Common Poorwill...

In the above picture I accidentally used a flash.  As I had my camera on the wrong setting in the moment, I wasn't aware of the flash popping up before the photo was taken.  Flash is something I don't like using as I feel it takes away from the photograph having a "natural" look.  But other than the eye glare, I think this photo is awesome.  It shows the key field marks of a Whip-poor-will.  The tail is longer, much longer than that of the similar looking but much smaller Common Poorwill.  Buff-collared Nightjar also looks similar to Whip-poor-will, but lives in a completely different habitat and has an obvious and bold buffy collar around it's neck.  Another field mark of the Mexican Whip-poor-will includes the standout gray scapulars.  The gray on the bird in the above photo looks blurry, but it really stands out and adds to the patterning of this bird.

For about ten to fifteen minutes, I enjoyed looks at this stunning bird, the first time in my life I've gotten to have great looks at it's species.  I sat by the bird a lot of the time.  It didn't have a fear in the world, I even could have touched it...

Mexican Whip-poor-wills hunt for insects by sitting on the ground or by sitting on some sort of perch.  When they sing, they can sound ventriloquist, which makes it challenging to tell exactly where their voice is coming from.  In the past I've looked on logs or branches for them without luck.  But now I realize that they probably spend a lot of their time on the ground, as this one was doing.

As I spent time with this bird, I took time to get the best photographs that my camera would allow.  Once again, this bird was anywhere from a foot to a three feet away from me during this incredible observation.

I think this next photograph below perfectly shows how well this bird can camouflage in with it's surroundings.  If I didn't spot this bird flying around, my chances of getting visuals of this bird were very slim, even if it was a foot or two away!

I had to step back from the bird a lot of times to get photographs.  After a few quick snaps here and there, I mainly focused on looking at the bird and living in the moment.  I even sat on the bank with the Whip, and it couldn't have been any calmer.  I think decided to take some video of the bird.

After spending enough time with the Whip, I decided to do something I never thought I would, and that was petting a Mexican Whip-poor-will.  I stroked it's tail feathers once.  The bird moved it's head a little but didn't seem to mind too much.  I then stroked it's mid-back.  This time, the bird flew just inches over my head and went up a little higher up on the slope we were on.  I let it be after that, I was already lucky enough and didn't need more.  The bird felt very light, I couldn't believe how light it felt.  After the bird left, I finally began to realize what really happened.  I sat with a Whip-poor-will at a foot or two away for an extended amount of time, and yes, I even got to pet it.  As I started driving back up into my camping area, I laughed hard in disbelief.  The rest of the night came away empty of any owls.  As I mentioned earlier, the two families of nightbirds switched luck around.  That's how birding works!

Oh, and here's what Sierra Anchas looks like in a lit up day.  It's a great place to bird and explore!

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