Fan-tailed Warbler

Fan-tailed Warbler

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Morning at a Couple of Water Spots

Saturday morning I decided to pay one more visit to a couple areas in the west valley; Glendale Recharge Ponds and Tres Rios Wetlands Overflow (permit required).  Needed to visit local spots for awhile as I do have an out of state trip planned in the very near future to Half Moon Bay, California, including a pelagic trip.  Arriving at the Glendale Recharge Ponds before sun up, and I created quite stir to the local Red-wing Blackbirds in the cattails near the southeast entrance.  I counted 70 Canada Geese in Pond 6 while it was still dark.  They were so much bigger than anything else out there, that they were easy to count.  As I strolled around the ponds checking out every shore bird to see if I could find something new and different, it really dawned on me haw many shore birds were out there in the 4 ponds that held water.  It probably numbers in the thousands.  While the rare birds could not be found, I did find a Long-billed Dowitcher that has forgotten that it should have molted into its winter plumage like the rest of them.  This one really stood out from the rest and was still showing some of that summer rufous coloring.

Long-billed Dowitcher

This location has its share of the Great Blue Heron and I found this one perched on a piling.  While it is not what I would call the most natural look, I had the sun behind me and wanted to see how close I could get to try for a decent photo before it flew away.  I would take a few steps and snap a couple frames then advance again.  But alas, I was not going to get very close as I quickly spotted a lady walking her dog without a leash coming from the opposite direction and she was not slowing down.  So this is the best I was able to capture in the early morning light.

Great Blue Heron

When I finally decided to leave this place and head to Tres Rios, from my car on the gravel road out I spied 3 Green-tailed Towhees actively foraging in the grass in the residential area on the south side.  Lighting conditions were horrible for photos, but with a little tweaking in Photoshop, I was able to bring out the colors of this wonderful bird.  It is very rare that I tweak my photos, but this was one of those occasions that needed it.

Green-tailed Towhee

Tres Rios is not far from Glendale Recharge Ponds and it is much more hospitable for a wider variety of birds.  I arrived mid morning and it was starting to warm up, but not nearly as hot as it had been in the past few months. I only spent about an hour there, but had a chance to try shooting some in-flight shots of some of the birds.  My targets for these shots were the Osprey and the Belted Kingfisher.  Osprey at times can be quite cooperative by soaring the skies fairly close to humans and I have been able to capture photos of them in the past.  But this day was a bit better than most.  One fly-by by one of these magnificent birds really allowed me to get probably my best in-flight photos of this bird ever.




The Belted Kingfisher has always been a tough bird for me to photograph.  Even when they are perched, they are very skittish and usually fly away before I can get close enough to them for photos.  On this day, several of them were flying all around, over the ponds and also down by the river.  So I decided to try once again at an in-flight photo of one of these beautiful and intriguing birds.  I figured I can just delete them all when I start processing them.  To my amazement, I actually got one photo that turned out fairly good and with its beak open sounding off with its characteristic rattling call.

Belted Kingfisher

Even though the day was filled with mostly common birds, it was a day well spent learning more about behavior of the many species and coming away with a couple of decent photos as well.


Sunday, September 22, 2013

Tom's Thumb Trail, McDowell Sonoran Preserve

Once again, I felt honored to be asked to assist Mike Nolan with one of the McDowell Sonoran Preserve transect bird counts.  I believe most of these counts are put on hold in the hot part of the summer in Arizona due to the high heat.  Not too many people would probably volunteer to do much of that in the heat.  This was the first transect count of the fall and I remember well the last time I took part in late May.  The hike to the transect starting point is not an easy hike. It consists of an almost 1000' gain in elevation in about 1½ miles and to many young people it is probably a piece of cake, but it is a bit strenuous for me and at the same time, a reminder for me to stay in shape so that I can explore all these wonderful places.  When I participate in these counts, I try to focus on the purpose of the count and not so much on my photography or what I am interested in.  So sometimes the photographing of birds definitely plays second fiddle.  This time was no exception as I only came away with photos of 1 bird.  We did find some great birds, including a Hermit Thrush, which was a new species for this area, but we also found a Green-tailed Towhee, a Spotted Towhee, a Sage Thrasher and a MacGillvray's Warbler. Sadly, we did not find any Black-chinned Sparrows on this trip, but we did find Rufous-crowned Sparrows, and it was one of those that gave me a chance at photos.  This one flew up and landed on a rock in front of us and casually started preening.

 Rufous-crowned Sparrow

 Rufous-crowned Sparrow

Rufous-crowned Sparrow

In the transect area, we discovered many squirrels, including Rock Squirrels and Antelope Ground Squirrels, but no raptors of any kind, which made us wonder why no raptors as there seems to bee a good food supply. We did have one of the many Rock Squirrels pose for us while it was chowing down on some type of food morsel.

Rock Squirrel

Finally the time had come when we could finally make our descent and head for the trail head parking lot.  Going down can be just a tricky as some of the loose scree can make one lose their footing.  We did notice some rather attractive orange colored flowers along the trail and was wondering what they might be blooming at this time of year.  After getting home, I think I came to the conclusion that these flowers are called Arizona Poppy, but in reality they are not a true poppy.  They bloom this time of year in correlation with the monsoon rain season that just ended.  One of them was even being visited by a bee.

Arizona Poppy

Arizona Poppy with Bee

Short blog post, but it was a trip definitely worthwhile.  Always nice to explore different areas and see different habitats to see what is different in places surrounding the city of Phoenix and its suburbs that tend to be flanked by small mountainous areas. 

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Birding in Chandler, AZ

Deciding that a change of pace would be good, and after getting a report from my good friend Muriel and seeing her great photos of a Pectoral Sandpiper at Veteran's Oasis Park in Chandler, AZ, it was an obvious choice for a different destination to visit.  Luckily another birding friend Ellen, was also wanting to check it out, so we met at this location early on Sunday morning.  While we did not find the target bird, the Pectoral Sandpiper, we still had some nice birds to observe and one of them is the Burrowing Owl.  I always have to check in on the resident pair, and as usual about all I see is their heads peeking over the edges of their man made burrows.

Burrowing Owl

We discovered that the shore birds were generally absent from what was there the day before, but that is why searching for birds is sometimes a hit or miss day.  We did however find a lone Cattle Egret.  This bird is not a rare bird by any means, but not one that a person sees that often in Arizona.  This bird is originally from Africa and Asia and in the late 1800's some were found in the northeastern part of South America as they had found their way to the new world by flying across the Atlantic Ocean.  Slowly but surely, their range expanded in the Americas and by the 1940's they had started showing up in southern Texas and established themselves as a breeding avian species in the United States and they now inhabit much of south and eastern United States.  It is a bit unusual to see a single bird of this species, as they usually travel and feed in small flocks.  

Cattle Egret

The mosquitoes were very thick when we ventured down to the edges of the ponds, and since the shore birds were non-existent, we decided to head out and travel a bit east to the Higley Road Ponds.  But on the way out, one of the resident Greater Roadrunners put on a show for us and was quite cooperative for photos.  Towards the end of the show, it must have gotten tired of us watching and snapping photos, so it decided to 'moon' us!  I suppose only a real birder would enjoy being 'mooned' by a Roadrunner, however, the photo does show off the undersides of its dynamic tail feathers.

 Greater Roadrunner

Greater Roadrunner

Bidding adieu to Veteran's Oasis Park and the farewell gesture by the Roadrunner, Ellen and I then headed to the Higley Ponds a couple of miles away.  Once we arrived, we quickly began seeing many more shorebirds that VOP had to offer.  We counted at least 75 Black-necked Stilts, several Greater Yellowlegs, about 30 Least Sandpipers, a few Long-billed Dowitchers, and 22 White-faced Ibis.  We spent a lot of time checking out every shorebird, but did not find anything rare. 

 Greater Yellowlegs

Long-billed Dowitcher

Least Sandpiper

White-faced Ibis

We also discovered our first of the fall Northern Pintails.  Won't be too much longer and these ducks will be quite numerous in many of the ponds in Arizona.  

Northern Pintail

One other bird that we found at Veteran's Oasis Park was a White-crowned Sparrow which is a tad early for them in the valley, but it is another bird that will be quite abundant during the winter months in Arizona.  They spend their winters here, but in the summer they head much further north to their breeding grounds.  

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Not Again! (Yes, another post on Pima Canyon Wash)

This will be the last post from this location for awhile.  Been hitting this trail kind of hot and heavy recently for a couple reasons.  1. I need to get myself in shape for an upcoming hike to Tom's Thumb which is a bit more strenuous as it has an altitude gain of almost 1100 feet which can be a bit of a challenge.  2. I have recently found some new and incredible birds at Pima Canyon Wash that make me want to go back to check them out a bit closer.  One of those birds is the Common Poorwill which is one of those nocturnal birds belonging to the family of Goatsuckers.  A week ago I arrived very early, before the sun was up and I heard a bird calling from up on the banks of the canyon that I was unfamiliar with.  I narrowed it down to one of the species in this family since it was nocturnal and calling while it was pitch black out and after listening to the Common Poorwill's call, I knew immediately what it was.  I had never encountered this bird there before, but then I have never went birding out there in the dark.  There is a good chance that this species has been there all this time and perhaps even breeds in this location.  Since then I have gone out while it was dark in hopes of actually finding one.  That is going to be a tough mission to accomplish as they sit on the ground or rocks in the daytime, completely motionless and they blend in so well you would never see them unless you stepped on it.  

This morning my mission was early again to try finding the Common Poorwill and sure enough I heard them calling again, but no sightings.  Then I also heard two Western Screech Owls calling their soft hooting calls.  I actually saw one of these in the dark fly to a nearby tree, but I was never able to get my flashlight on it for viewing or a photo.  So these two species has rekindled my interest once again for this area.  On this day, I deviated off onto another drainage wash that I had never hiked before and found out that it led to some incredible new areas that is definitely worth exploring more in the future.  Another positive note to this hike today, is that when I checked the Great Horned Owl roost, we now have two owls, not one.  Maybe it is the same pair that raised young for 2 years in row in 2010 and 2011.  I don't think most hikers are even aware that these magnificent birds are perched in the rocks every day.

Great Horned Owls

One of the most common birds in this habitat is the Black-throated Sparrow.  It is so common that I have gotten pretty good at identifying it by its single note chip call.  I hear them constantly, but do not always see them as they have a tendency to forage on the ground and they blend in well with the rocks, gravel and vegetation fairly easy.  Today, very in early in the morning, one of them presented itself on a rock for me.  One has to agree that this is one dapper looking sparrow with that black bib and contrasting facial markings.

Black-throated Sparrow

A Gilded Flicker flew into my area just long enough to snap off a photo.  This is another bird that most of the time I will heard off in the distance and not see it.  To have one come in close enough for a photo is always a plus.  In this photo, the yellow coloring on the underside of it primaries can be seen along the edge of the wing.  This is one of the key identification marks on this bird.

Gilded Flicker

Another bird that I have noticed more frequently in the past few weeks is the Phainopepla (otherwise known as one of those 'P' birds in Arizona that is hard to pronounce, the other being the Pyrrhuloxia!).  I have seen Phainopepla in this canyon before, but they are not very common, and I am not totally sure why as there seems to be an abundant supply of mistletoe, which is one of their foods sources.  Maybe they are starting to expand their range into this area.  Always a great bird to see.


Found two species of raptors today; a Red-tailed Hawk and a pair of American Kestrels.  The Red-tail was a fly over and while the photo is not a great one, it does point out a couple of the key identification marks.  Notice the belly band of dark feather across the middle of its belly, and also note the dark patagial bars on the front edge of the underside of its wings.  Key marks in most of these birds, however there are a few color morphs where these markings cannot be seen.

 Red-tailed Hawk

American Kestrel

On my return, I discovered a Black-headed Grosbeak and for once it wasn't quite so skittish and came out into the open for some photos.  Yes, it still preferred to stay in the shade, but with this bird I will take any photo I can get.  You can definitely see how this group of birds got their names 'grosbeak'.  That is one massive beak on a bird this size.

 Black-headed Grosbeak

Black-headed Grosbeak

But the day probably belonged to the Rock Wrens.  They were quite common and calling from the hillsides and deep in the wash, I found a pair that I think might be preparing to breed once more as they were favoring a rock crevice and watching me with interest.  The recent monsoon rains will often set in motion another breeding cycle for many birds.  In one of my photos I discovered an Ornate Tree Lizard trying to get in on the act.  Funny part was that I had no idea it was there until I started processing my photos at home.

 Rock Wren

 Rock Wren

Rock Wren with Ornate Tree Lizard

One bird photo then a couple more of non-avian critters.  Of course there is always Black-tailed Gnatcatchers and of course I am always taking photos of them, so anyone can skip over this photo if they are tired of seeing photos of this bird.

Black-tailed Gnatcatcher

Saw lots of lizards during the hike, but this time I caught one in the action of feeding on a bee.  It is not often I see a lizard with prey.  This is a Common Side-blotched Lizard that caught a bee and I think the bee lost.

Common Side-blotched Lizard with prey

And finally I found a Coyote that did not even pay attention to me.  Not sure if it knew I was around or not, but it was slowly working its way up a secluded wash very leisurely, but never once turned around to even stare at me.


Tomorrow is a different destination and next weekend who knows where I will venture.  

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Boyce Thompson Arboretum

It has been a while since I visited this wonderful place and when I received an email announcing an impromptu bird walk with some wonderful and excellent birders with AZFO, of course I was going to check it out and see what was new.  The first thing to greet me was the redesigned parking area.  Much more parking spaces and much better defined.  I do miss some of the older trees that were in the original parking lot, but in a couple of years some of the new plantings will make up for the loss.  Since this was a short notice bird walk, most of the people that showed up were members of AZFO and very good and knowledgeable about birds, so I was in very good company.  While the day was cloudy and overcast, the opportunities for photos was not as good as they could have been, so will have to share the few photos that did turn out ok.

I arrived a little earlier than most and I went in and down to the first hummingbird feeder area and I could hear two Yellow-breasted Chats calling but they were not being very active and as usual were hiding in the trees.  Finally caught a glimpse of some yellow and located one.  Of course it was not going to expose itself and make the photo any easier, so I had to be content with what I got.

Yellow-breasted Chat

When walking near the herb garden area a Rock Squirrel carried a fruit from one of the nearby trees up onto a rock and was proceeding to chow down.  Caught it with its mouth open!

Rock Squirrel

Another interesting critter just happens to be an insect, the Tarantula Hawk Wasp.  Only the females sting and their sting is rated as the second most painful sting on the Schmidt sting rating.  Only the Bullet Ant is worse.  I have no desire to test the sting rating, but thankfully, this is not an aggressive insect towards humans.  Females will find a Tarantula and sting it and paralyze it then drag it back to a burrow and lay an egg on the spider.  When the egg hatches it feeds on the tarantula before it pupates. You have to admit, they are rather attractive to look at though.

 Tarantula Hawk

Tarantula Hawk

About 30 minutes before AZFO was to hold their meeting, I took a quick hike up and around the higher trail and found an Ash-throated Flycatcher.  Did not have much more time for birding so headed to the Smith Center to attend the meeting.

Ash-throated Flycatcher

I did take a slight detour off the highway just outside of BTA and traveled to the Picketpost Trailhead.  I always like to stop here when I have a little free time and in my 20 minutes of walking around, I discovered a Cactus Wren gathering grasses.  Not sure if it was going to attempt nesting and breeding again, but it is highly possible as the monsoon rains can do this to many species of birds.  

 Cactus Wren

 Cactus Wren

 This place never disappoints.  We had lots of birds and a large variety of birds, but with the overcast skies and large number of people around, getting photos was a bit more difficult.  But it is not always about the photos, seeing and observing the birds is a enough of a reward in itself. 

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Pima Canyon Wash - Aug 31 & Sept 1, 2013

Last weekend was a long 3 day holiday weekend and not wanting to lose out on any birding opportunities but still stay close to home, I headed out to one of my regular spots, Pima Canyon Wash in South Mountain Park.  I needed a good hike instead of the treadmill at home and the nights have been cooling off ever so slightly and hiking at dawn before the sun rises is definitely doable.  

One of the first birds that I heard and then spied was a Loggerhead Shrike and this was right at sun rise with the full yellow morning glow shining on it.  The photo definitely does not show off its normal colors of black, white and gray, but that black mask is unmistakable.  At one time these birds were nicknamed 'butcher birds', which I think is a bit harsh of a name for them.  True, they can be quite aggressive in searching for and capturing their prey, but lots of other birds do the same thing.  These birds, in spite of their smaller size will take on small rodents and small birds and lizards if they can capture them.  However, their mainstay diet is insects, large and small.

Loggerhead Shrike

Anna's Hummingbirds seemed to be more abundant than ever on this trip.  Trying to capture them in a photo with their full gorget in bright iridescent color is usually quite tough, so I settled for just partial color in this photo.  This bird is quite common at my feeders in my yard, but I usually avoid taking their photos near feeders if I can.  I really prefer to capture them in a more natural setting like this.

Anna's Hummingbird, male

Another little bird that made a very brief appearance was a Pacific-sloped Flycatcher.  It landed on a branch with its back to me and I was able to only snap a couple of shots and then it was gone and I could not relocate it.  It is one of those birds that belong to a family of nearly identical looking birds, the Empidonax Flycatchers, and can be very difficult to identify.  Many times they can only be identified by their call, but when they are silent, (which is quite frequently) then it gets tougher.  This one was a little easier once I could look at the photo.  It has an eye ring, (which most have), but this eye ring is slightly elongated in the rear, which is usually indicative of one of the western flycatchers, the Pacific-sloped or the Cordilleran.  It also has an all orangish colored lower mandible which sets it apart from the others  Both of these birds are almost identical in appearance, but the key to help with the ID on these two is habitat.  Pacific-sloped are found in Arizona only during migration as they breed on the west coast, plus they inhabit lower elevations.  The Cordilleran actually breeds in higher elevations in Arizona and when they migrate they are very rarely found in lower elevations.  So with the lower elevation of this bird, it is a Pacific-sloped Flycatcher.

Pacific-sloped Flycatcher

The stars this day though, were the warblers.  Warblers are not usually found in this location, except during migration as this is not normal warbler breeding habitat.  I was lucky enough to find a pair of Black-throated Gray Warblers on this trip.  I have seen a single bird twice before but at quite a distance.  This time I had to scramble up a couple of rocks and was able to come away with a couple of photos even though I had to try to focus between some sticks and twigs in the foreground and even found it feasting on an insect.

 Black-throated Gray Warbler, with insect

 Black-throated Gray Warbler, with insect

The next warbler that I happened to find was a Hermit Warbler.  This is is a bird I would not normally expect to see at this low elevation and I have only seen this species in Maricopa County on Mt Ord.  I have also seen it in the Pinal Mountains and the Huachuca Mountains.  But this is the first time I have seen one in Pima Canyon Wash, so it was a very pleasant surprise.

 Hermit Warbler

Hermit Warbler

All of these photos so far were taken on Saturday August 31st.  Felt so good to see these cool birds, I decided to return on Sunday morning, September 1st.  And it is quite amazing how different the two days turn out.  

On Sunday, I arrived before the sun even rose and was hiking with a flashlight (have to take heed as those rattlesnakes are a bit harder to see when it is dark).  Shortly into the wash area, I heard a Great Horned Owl calling.  It was too dark to try to locate so decided to check the old owl roosting area in the rock when I returned.  In the meantime, I continued up the wash and this time, I saw no warblers, but much of the regulars, including a couple of juveniles.  Couple of the photos that I liked best were the Black-tailed Gnatcatcher juvenile and a Black-throated Sparrow juvenile.

 Black-tailed Gnatcatcher

Black-throated Sparrow, juvenile

On the return, I did find a Lesser Nighthawk, but alas it did not land for me to capture photos, but it was another nice find as I had not seen this bird in this location before.  Also was able to capture a photo of a Zebra-tailed Lizard and a couple of Rock Squirrels that were climbing in the rocky areas.

Zebra-tailed Lizard

 Rock Squirrel

Rock Squirrel

Finally on my return, I made a special point to search for the Great Horned Owl that I had heard when I started my hike.  Sure enough it was perched where I had seen them about a year ago.  It was great to see one has returned.  Not sure if it was one of the originals or maybe one of the offspring that they successfully raised one of those years, but I hope it finds enough prey so that it stays around.

Great Horned Owl

This just goes to show how exciting it is to go bird watching.  Birds, with their ability to fly, can move around a lot and consequently can show up in different places from time to time.  Already looking forward to the places I will visit this next weekend.