Saturday, June 30, 2018

18 Years and a Parula

I've been birding for 18 years now, and it seems crazy that it's been that long.  My first real "birding" took place on June 18th, 2000, at Goldwater Lake in Prescott, Arizona when I wrote down field notes of observations.  Before that it started to pick up in Greer, Arizona.  In those 18 years I've seen some awesome things, and over the past month, I've certainly seen some more awesome things, such as a new life bird.  Before that life bird, there were some other great highlights.  And then there was that life bird.  Following the life bird, I'll look back on some birding memories from past to present.  This might be a fun post to write, maybe it'll be fun for you all to read too ;)

My Phoenix Suns won the rights to draft the Number 1 overall pick, and it looks like they made a good choice with Deandre Ayton.  After the Spotted Owl excitement that Caleb and I had in the Sierra Anchas, it seemed like some of my friends wanted to draft the Spotted Owls as their number one pick.  I returned to the spot again with Walker and Dara, and the Spotted Owl pair gave us a show.  Seeing Spotted Owls in the wild is always a spellbinding event.

Seeing a Raccoon peeking out of it's sycamore tree home was a highlight too in those Sierra Ancha Mountains.

The following week I returned to the Anchas again with my friend Jeff hoping to find the Spotted Owls.  We started off by covering multiple habitats in Gila County, such as Roosevelt Lake and upwards in elevation to the coniferous forests of the Sierra Anchas.  This Black-throated Gray Warbler and Red-faced Warbler, along with many other birds, were seen in quantity.  

Jeff and I had great fun exploring the Anchas.  We even drove over part of a fallen tree in the middle of a rugged road, talk about fun!  But we got skunked on the Spotted Owls.  And the perfect animal crossed our paths to prove it...

The Sierra Anchas are a mountain range that has extremely limited coverage.  Birders need to do more reps there.  Here is the canyon that harbors Workman Creek.  Jeff thought it was really cool too!

Caleb and I went on a trip to Madera Canyon.  Once at Madera, we hiked up the Carrie Nation Trail.  What a neat trail it was to hike, and there were many great SEAZ birds to go along with it.  Elegant Trogon anyone?!

Our first Sulphur-bellied Flycatchers of the year were stand out too.

Earlier in June, I went with Gordon Karre, Janet Witzeman, and Laurie Nessel to the Chiricahua Mountains.  It was a great time spent with friends while looking for the Slate-throated Redstart without luck.  Here, our quartet was in the South Fork of Cave Creek Canyon, one of the most scenic places one may see in Arizona.

We did spend about 6 hours looking for that Slate-throated Redstart, which would've been a milestone bird for Janet.  Even though we didn't see it, we still had a blast.  That time also included fixing a flat tire.  It wasn't an easy fix, we had to dig a hole into the ground to create space to fit the spare tire on.  Recent discussion among birders suggest birders look for the Redstart from the road.  We stuck to that, but we did go 30 feet off of the road to enjoy the shade of a huge pine tree.  There was pure soil on the ground on the path where we walked to the pine tree, and there was pure soil all around the pine tree.  There was no vegetation immediately around that would support any Redstarts.  We were good, and we weren't disturbing any habitat.  One birder, Doofis Magoo I'll call him, was an exact rule player.  He tried to explain ethics to us and gave us his two cents about us breaking ethics by sitting at even an arms reach off the road.  After I gave him my two cents back in less than 15 words, he left almost immediately.  I can remember Janet saying, "that guy was in the wrong place at the wrong time".  I can't stand birders who are like that guy, and the four of us didn't go any further past the infamous pine tree.  Some other birders may have gone further, but I don't really care.  It's their call, their business.  A door knob wasn't able to get to us, after all, it was just a door knob.  We were treated to a handful of southeastern Arizona birds between Pinery and Cave Creek Canyons, such as the Elegant Trogon.

A stop in Dave Jasper's yard in Portal gave us views of a female Lucifer Hummingbird.  It's a hummer I don't get the chance to see often, and it was a lifer for Laurie!

A recent trip up to Mount Lemmon was the first time I've thoroughly birded the Catalinas from the low to high elevations.  The place is amazing.  Here are some bird highlights from the time I spent there.

Yellow-eyed Junco

Buff-breasted Flycatcher on nest near Rose Canyon Lake in Catalina Mountains

same Buff-breasted Flycatcher

Red-faced Warbler

Guess which nest this belongs to?

Answer:  Yellow-eyed Junco

Rivoli's Hummingbird

June 20th was the day, and the main highlight trip of this post.  Caleb, Dara, and I were after a Tropical Parula.  The Tropical Parula is a Mexican warbler that reaches southern Texas and very rarely strays into southern Arizona.  This Tropical Parula, who I am talking about as being a potential buddy of mine, is about the 6th record for Arizona of his species, if I remember right.  He'd be a buddy to Dara, Caleb, and me if we could land him.  As we made our way through a long trek into Ramsey Canyon of the Huachuca Mountains of southeastern Arizona, we started our search.  It wasn't long before we were greeted by two Tufted Flycatchers.  Three years ago these small flycatchers were a huge deal, and now, they are reliable in two locations and seem to be increasing.

Before our hike, the three of us enjoyed a dawn bird chorus in Carr Canyon.  A Mexican Whip-poor-will was among the many and it sounded off a few times before going down.  What Caleb, Dara, and I did that day was hike down from the Comfort Springs Trail via Carr Canyon for 2.3 miles into Ramsey Canyon.  We had to do this due to Ramsey Canyon being closed on Wednesdays.  The hike is a scenic one.  Miller Canyon has always been my favorite canyon in the Huachucas, Carr Canyon has always been Dara's, and Ramsey Canyon has always been Caleb's.  We took turns saying why each other's was better than the other's, but Caleb boldly stated that Ramsey would be the favorite of all three by the day's end.  Once we got down into Ramsey I was blown away.  Birds were everywhere as we made our way down canyon towards the Parula's haunts.  In the bug world, we were distracted by the epic Apache Spiketail, which is the Liam Neeson of odes.

We crossed a creek, enjoyed more Spiketails, and before we knew it, we were at the stakeout spot for the Tropical Parula.  From here, all it was a waiting game.  In the midst, Dara showed off her food supplying skills.  Because of that, we all enjoyed a Snickers bar.  And then, The Boy heard it.  A good song was now playing in the trees.  And down steep slopes and a ravine we went.  It wasn't much longer before that Tropical Parula we were listening too became our buddy.

Tropical Parulas breed in oak and pine woodlands throughout their range.  This bird felt right at home in the whereabouts of his haunt.  We had Ramsey Canyon and the Tropical Parula to ourselves that day, and man it felt good.  This bird is very closely related to the familiar Northern Parula.  The main difference is the lack of eye arcs and the fact the Tropical Parula has a black "masked" look to it.  There's some other differences of course, such as the solid mango chest on the Tropical male.  Here are a selection of photographs I was able to obtain of this worthwhile bird.

After the initial detection of the bird, the Parula continued to sing away for close to an hour while we were in the area.  The adventure with Caleb and Dara was a great one, and the Tropical Parula was a lifer for all three of us!  I was thrilled to share the adventure with my friends and two birders that I respect.

Ramsey Canyon held one more awesome bird for us just past where the Tropical Parula was.  A singing tanager turned into the rare Flame-colored Tanager.  For Caleb and I it was only our third sighting of the species, and for Dara, it meant reeling in another great bird and lifer!  Caleb mentioned how incredible it was to have Tufted Flycatcher, Tropical Parula, Flame-colored Tanager and a handful of other things like Elegant Trogon, all on one checklist!  The Boy makes the best of points...

By the end of the day, we managed to combine our three favorite Huachuca Canyons:  Miller, Carr, and Ramsey, all into the itinerary.  And Caleb was right, Dara and I changed our minds.  Ramsey Canyon is all of our favorites now.  The Boy was right again, what can we do....

18 Years of Birding 

My first field notebook still seems like a classic to me in my own mind.  I cut pictures out of a magazine and pasted them on the front of a spiral notebook I bought at Walmart.

The inside flap had the same thing.  Real creative Tommy.

Over 100 pages of field notes filled my first book from 2000-2002.

Here's what I looked like when I first started birding.  I was just about to go into the 8th grade.  Just a little nerdy...

My first birding buddy wasn't technically a "birder" when I first started birding.  He was into wildlife watching lots of times, but when he found out that I became a birder, he decided to become a birder too.  This was one of my all time best friends who was my grandfather, Harold Crosser.  I got to share my first three years of birding with him, mainly through stories, before he passed away.  The second he would see me, we would have a conversation about it.  As shown in the picture below, there were always a lot of people around us and we'd always have our own conversation in the midst.  The bond we had was one I'll always remember.

My first real birding trip came from Greer in August of 2000 for 5 days.  After I decided to bird, I birded here and there, but when that Greer trip came around, I was stoked.  I had just turned 14, and those 5 days in Greer and throughout the White Mountains gave me about 60 species of birds.  And that's when I became obsessed with birding and haven't looked back.  I didn't have a good field guide at that time, and I had to check one out at the library.  My Dad saw the library book in my stash of things I was going to bring on the trip.  He told me I couldn't bring it because it was a library book.  I decided to put the book in a hidden place in my backpack and I managed to hide it from my Dad the entire trip.  If it weren't for Roger Tory Peterson's Western Birds, I wouldn't have been able to know much about what I was looking at.

2000 to 2008 were years that I birded a few times of year around Phoenix and always on vacation.  From 2009 through present, birding has taken over, and I'm always out birding.  Since field notebooks in my early days, technology has given us eBird and a handy eBird field app that we can use from our smartphones and enter our sightings in, from the field.  Birding has certainly changed and come a LONG way as the world has changed since that millennium year.  

After some thought, here are my Top 10 favorite birds through 18 years:

10.  Painted Redstart:  Never get sick of seeing it, even though they are very common

9.  Osprey:  The first bird I watched

8.  Elegant Trogon:  Doesn't seem right to be seen in Arizona

7.  American Dipper:  North America's one and only aquatic songbird, epic

6.  Spotted Owl:  Mysterious and wild but yet welcoming

5.  Laysan Albatross:  Can fly for thousands of miles at once over open ocean, can't believe I've seen one

4.  Northern Hawk Owl:  Fierce and it doesn't care

3.  Boreal Owl:  Completed one of my biggest goals, is freaking cool looking, and loves the spruce-fir

2.  Great Gray Owl:  Intimidating and majestic

1.  Northern Goshawk:  Became my favorite bird at a first glance, and it's a powerful and fearless predator who lives in those forests I love to bird in most

My Top 10 Favorite Arizona Birding Locations:

9.  Duncan Birding Trail:  There's something epic about this place

8.  Gilbert Water Ranch:  A classic that I used to go to 2-3 times weekly in 2009 when I really got serious about birding.  It was the location where I learned the most at.

7.  Morgan City Wash:  This spot is appropriately described as "an oasis in the desert".  And it really is.  When I go to Morgan City Wash, I almost expect the unexpected..

6.  Roosevelt Lake:  Roosevelt Lake is huge, and it's intimidating to bird.  One needs an entire day to bird it well.  That is why I like Roosevelt Lake.

5.  Miller Canyon:  The first place I really got to enjoy the birds in Southeastern Arizona, and it's left an impact!

4.  Glendale Recharge Ponds:  It's my patch and only 15-20 mins from home, and it's a location where one can see a ton of birds on any given day.  It's also one of the best shorebirding spots in all of Arizona.

3.  Slate Creek Divide and Mt. Ord:  My favorite Maricopa County locations.  Slate Creek is epic because of it's remoteness and replications of southeastern Arizona canyons that feature pine, oak, Doug fir, and sycamore.  Mount Ord has always been my quick escape for birding and more and gets me into pine forests faster than any other spot.  

2.  Greer:  Greer is where I grew up outside of home due to annual family vacations that were taken for long periods of time.  It was the perfect place to be taught about nature, and it was also the place that led me to this epic thing called birding.

1.  Mt. Baldy:  Mount Baldy features my favorite habitat in Arizona in good quantity, which is spruce-fir forest.  Birding in spruce-fir forest is life.

Spots Outside of Arizona I've enjoyed the most:

Washburn County, Wisconsin:  My Dad's family is from this northwest part of Wisconsin.  Great for seeing eastern warblers!

Sax-Sim Bog, Minnesota:  Great Gray Owl.  Boreal Owl.  Gray Wolf.  Enough said..

Mount Rainier National Park, Washington:  One of the most scenic places I've been to.  Boreal Owls with Walker and Khanh.

The Pacific Ocean outside of San Diego:  My first pelagic trip I took was out of San Diego with Gordon.  Two Albatross species and a handful of other sea birds.

Kandiyohi County, Minnesota:  Home of the Josh Wallestad family.  Great eastern birding too, I got many lifers here.

San Jacinto Mountains, California:  A mountain range close to Arizona where Dominic and I saw White-headed Woodpeckers and more.

To close, my top birding experience was my first look at Boreal Owls.  Seeing my first looks at Boreal Owls meant me completing an Owl Big Year.  To complete that goal, I traveled to six different states to see and photograph the 19 species of owls that breed in the United States and Canada.  It was the funnest thing I've done in my life.  And the epic Boreal Owl was the closer...