Tuesday, December 31, 2013
On December 24th a rare bird alert and a text from expert birding friend, Tommy D. proved to be a crazy chains of events. That day a very rare bird for Maricopa County was first seen and reported by an out of state birder of a female Long-tailed Duck at the Glendale Recharge Ponds. So with a short notice I took off to search for this rarity. This is a bird that breeds in northern Canada on tundra ponds and most generally spends its winters along the northern Pacific and Atlantic coasts. After I arrived and found the bird, then a couple of other birders arrived with scopes (which gave me excellent views, by the way). This place is not the best place for photos as the ponds are quite large and the birds are most generally quite a distance away. But I was able to get photos good enough for ID purposes. This was exciting as it was a bird I thought I might never see; almost like a Christmas gift to myself. (Several birders arrived on Christmas morning and this bird was no longer there, so heading out there that same day was well worth the trip.)
Long-tailed Duck - Female
Long-tailed Duck - Female
As I was visiting with the other birders, one of them mentioned that he would like to go to Yuma to look for the juvenile White Ibis that has been found down there. After a few more comments a hasty agreement was reached to head to Yuma on Saturday the 28th and the plans were finalized with a few emails. At a godforsaken hour of 3:00 am on Saturday we met and 5 of us headed to Yuma. Joining me was Mark Ochs, (who I have been birding with several times), Steve Hosmer, Moe Bertrand, and Louis Hoeniger. Needless to say the vehicle was full, but one of our goals was to see if we could locate some of the rails in that area in the dark of the night before sunrise. In the dark at Mittry Lake, we were able to hear Sora, Virginia Rail, Clapper Rail, and a few Great Horned Owls. Unfortunately we dipped on the Black Rail, which was our main focus. Once the sun lightened up the skies a bit we then headed to the Yuma East Wetlands which was the location of the White Ibis. As we were walking the dikes an American Pipit and a Spotted Sandpiper, were being very cooperative with us.
It did not take long and Mark spied an Ibis flying over the cattails far out in the distance. All of us quickly got on the bird and knew it was our target bird with a bright orange/red bill and the white belly. But about as quickly as we saw it dropped down into the cattails and disappeared from view. Louis was quick to get a couple of photos to confirm the ID of this bird, but the rest of us just got to enjoy the brief sighting. We at least found our target bird for the day which just peaks my interest a bit more and wanting to get photos.
In returning to the Phoenix metro area, we made a brief stop at a place called Quigley Wildlife Area just north of the small town of Tacna, AZ. While it is not a birding hotspot compared to some other locations, it turned out to be quite a enjoyable destination. From the road we spied a small flock of Cattle Egrets, which is always an interesting find. This species is one that does not always hang around areas with lots of water and they have a tendency to wander a lot, so finding them can be a hit or miss.
Other birds that we found at this location included a Green Heron, a 'kiting' American Kestrel, a Red-tailed Hawk, and a Loggerhead Shrike. We also had a Prairie Falcon and a Great Horned Owl that both flushed before we saw them.
It was a day of overcast skies which made photography a bit more of a challenge, but when considering the birds we had the fortune of seeing, it was all worth the time and effort. Now that I have a better feel for birding in Yuma County, it is definitely worth more trips in the future. Kind of funny how 1 rare bird leads to a second rare bird!
Tuesday, December 24, 2013
About midway between the cities of Phoenix and Tucson lies an agricultural area in the flat open desert. The Santa Cruz River that originates in extreme southern Arizona flows south for a ways into Mexico and then turns northward and flows back into Arizona and eventually makes its ways to this flat expanse of desert. This river is dry in most places, but water does flow when there is adequate rainfall, but by the time it reaches the 'Santa Cruz Flats', it quickly dries up. This area is well known for the abundance of birdlife and most of this can be contributed to the agricultural development in this area. If not for this development, this would be a very dry desert area and not very hospital to most avian life. In the winter, many specialty migrants show up to spend their winters here.
About a week ago another birding friend, Jason Morgan contacted me to see if I would like to travel to this area to look for some specialty birds. I was more than happy to take him down there. For a person to travel there on their own for the first time, it can be a bit daunting as the network of roads can be a bit confusing and knowing where to look for certain birds does take a bit of getting to know the place. Even after several trips to this area, I still find more roads to explore. One of the first birds we discovered was a nice Ferruginous Hawk in the early morning light. This one seemed unbothered with us and let us take photos from the vehicle, in fact we were almost too close. This bird was a great start for the day.
We also had a Prairie Falcon in the early morning, but it definitely did not want its photo taken, but the second one we found later in the morning was a little more accommodating. But even then, it did not allow us to get too close. Prairie Falcons seem to be one of the most wary of all the raptors.
By far, the most numerous of all the raptors we found was the Red-tailed Hawk. Here is just a sampling of a few of them.
Our target bird for Jason, was the Crested Caracara. This is an area that they can be found with regularity and after driving to the places where I normally found them in the past and coming up empty, I was starting to think I had failed to find them. I had known that it was common for them to hang out with Common Ravens and had advised Jason of that fact. Finally we came to an intersection and got out of the vehicle to scan the fields and sure enough, Jason was quick to spot some far off in the distance. Most of the farm land in this area is posted and this presents a bit of a problem in getting close to these awesome birds. We traveled around to the far side that got us a bit closer and was able to at least get better views, but even then they were probably still ¼ mile away. Photos were not meant to be this time, so I made a feeble attempt to at least try,
We then worked our way up to the sod farms where wintertime can bring Mountain Plovers to the state of Arizona. These are birds that most people would think love to be near water and most plovers are found near water. Quite contrary, the Mountain Plover likes to nest on short grass prairies, especially near Prairie Dog towns. They breed on the high plains of North America from southern Alberta and Saskatchewan south to northern New Mexico and Texas. They are not a common bird and their numbers are being monitored due to loss of habitat on their breeding grounds. It is a bird that many birders love to find as they can be difficult to locate. Jason and I were fortunate to find 6 of these, but they were even further away from us than the Caracara. Once again, I still took some photos just for documentation purposes.
3 Mountain Plovers
As we were leaving the field where the Mountain Plovers were located, Jason and his sharp eyes noticed a Burrowing Owl along the side of the road on his side of the vehicle. We parked right there in the road and watched and photographed this character for some time. It was probably the most cooperative of all the birds we saw on this day. By the looks of the pellets outside his 'burrow', it appears to be finding plenty to feed on in this area.
Our last stop was at Arizona City Lake just to check out the waterfowl that might be there. Here we found some Eared Grebe and it was nice to compare them to the Horned Grebe that I had seen recently in Chandler. Very good comparison which helps to make future identifications much easier.
Another great day of birding and sometimes the fun is in the hunt for those special birds that you know are there and then when you find them, it is quite gratifying.
Wednesday, December 18, 2013
After such a great day on Saturday and chasing some rarities, I figured that my odds of anything special on Sunday were just about nil. But there had been a few reports of a Varied Thrush at one of my most favorite spots, Boyce Thompson Arboretum which is only about 45 minutes from my house. So it was not hard for me to decide to check it out, because of my love for this place. I arrived about 15 minutes early before they had opened the gates, so I parked my vehicle on the opposite side of the highway near the gate and of course got out of the car and started enjoying the birds that were found just along the road. The star of the road side was a male Pyrrhuloxia that paid a visit to me. Often nicknamed the 'Desert Cardinal', it is a bird that I do not see as often as I would like. What a great way to start my Sunday adventure!
While wandering around and looking for the Varied Thrush, I realized that this location had become a hotbed for another species of thrush, the Hermit Thrush. They were everywhere and even though they are not the most colorful of birds, they are always a delight to see. Not as flighty as the warblers, but can be sitting on a branch watching you and you could look right past them. They do blend in with their surroundings quite well but they are so stately sitting on a perch.
Of course there were other birds to entertain me while searching for my target bird. There were many Spotted Towhees, but they did not want to show themselves so I settled for some photos of a female Northern Cardinal and a Curve-billed Thrasher.
With the help of some others, we knew the vicinity where the Varied Thrush was hanging out and with the help of Bernie Howe, I finally camped out where he had seen it earlier and we waited. Patience and silence really paid off as it came into view foraging in the fallen leaves from the colorful deciduous trees in the area. The colors of this bird blended in so well with the leaves. Success on this find as well. This is a bird that breeds in the far northwest of the United States and extending all the way to Alaska. But in the winter some of these birds can wander far and wide, and this one definitely wandered quite a distance.
I figured my day was now complete and I could start making my way back to the visitor center, but along the way, I met a couple of other birders and they mentioned that they had seen a male Williamson's Sapsucker earlier in the picnic area. Well that peaked my interest as well as that is not a common bird to be found. So Bernie and I headed to the picnic area to try to find it and a couple of other birders from Idaho arrived just before us and had already found it in one of the pines in the picnic area. Last spring a female had made BTA its home for a couple of weeks and it drew many birders in to take a look. This time it was a male and was about 35 feet up in the tree.
Another successful trip to Boyce Thompson Arboretum. I love this place and will go back often. Its a membership that is a worthy investment.
Tuesday, December 17, 2013
Late last week, I was contacted by the 2 other 'Phoenician Kingbirds' about heading south to the Tucson area on Saturday to chase some rarity warblers. Yes, we kind of come up with a nickname for the 3 of us, Tommy DeBardeleben, Mark Ochs and myself. Tommy and I met Mark at Picacho Peak and we headed straight to Reid Park and our first stop was the pond behind the Hardesty Building where a female Black Scoter has been residing for over 2 weeks. I had seen it once before with another birder friend, Chris Rohrer, but it was not very cooperative with us, staying in the far shadows of the back part of this fenced in pond. This time we had a bit of better luck as it swam out into the central part of the pond and we got some really good looks at this rather odd duck. Scoters are diving sea ducks that have short necks and breed in the far north. There are 3 species of scoters, the Black Scoter, the Surf Scoter and the White-winged Scoter and they are uncommon in Arizona as migrants. Strangely, I have seen all 3 species in this desert landlocked state of Arizona. Who knew?
Next we ventured to another part of Reid Park to try our luck at finding another rarity, the Pine Warbler. All I can say is that I am really lucky to have had some expert birders with me along with another couple that was there also searching for it. We knew it was not going to be in its bright breeding coloration, but this turned out to be one of the dullest and drabbest warblers I have ever seen. It was hanging out with a large flock of Yellow-rumped Warblers, and it was pretty difficult to pick it out amongst the Yellow-rumps. Someone had left remnants of a cake on one of the benches by the playground equipment and all the warblers (and a Gila Woodpecker) were very busy pigging out on the cake. This was probably one of the most disappointing new life birds that I can recall. Now I am going to have to head to the eastern part of the US to see one in breeding plumage.
Gila Woodpecker, pigging out on some cake
Had a couple of Vermilion Flycatcher females entertain us in the park, plus I had to take a side trip to one of the ponds to check out water birds such as a Snowy Egret and an American Wigeon.
From there we headed to the Tanque Verde Wash in Tucson to try and locate another warbler that is rare for Arizona, the Magnolia Warbler. This is a bird that breeds in the far north, especially Canada and into northeastern United States. Well this one turned out to be fairly easy to find as it was still hanging out right where several others birders had seen it and reported it. And for all the drabness that the Pine Warbler provided, this one made up for it quite quickly. A very stunning bird and this one showed off its flashy tail several times for us.
So far we were doing quite well, so on the road to our last target bird, we made a brief stop at Evergreen Cemetery in Tucson to maybe find the Greater Pewee that has been living there for the past few weeks. This is a bird that should be spending its winter much further south down in Mexico. This time we were not so lucky, but we know it was still there as it had been reported earlier in the day by others, but since we were short on time we needed to move on, but before we left we had a nice Merlin pay us a visit right above us along with several Northern Flickers. What was cool to discover was that one of the Northern Flickers was a 'Yellow-shafted' form. The yellow-shafted is the form most generally found in the eastern part of the US while the most common form we get in Arizona is the red-shafted. While it is not considered a separate species, it is always nice to see and document an unusual bird for the state.
'Yellow-shafrf' Northern Flicker
Our last target bird was a Louisiana Waterthrush which has been spending it's time on the Santa Cruz River near the Ina Street bridge. Yes, we found it by is distinct chip note and caught some brief glimpses of if as it flew from one area of dense vegetation to another. Alas, no photo opportunities were going to happen on this day. But that just gives me another new goal, get a photo of one!
After dropping Mark off at his vehicle, Tommy and I head north and made a brief stop at the Veteran's Oasis Park in Chandler to check out the Horned Grebe that was found a couple days earlier. It was not hard to find this handsome small bird on the fishing lake and I was surprised at the distance it would travel under water when it would make a dive. You never knew where it was going to surface. This spotting helped me reach a milestone of viewing all 7 species of United States grebes in Maricopa County in Arizona. This was considered almost impossible until last January when a Least Grebe was found in a small pond in Chandler Heights. That bird was way far north of its range and allowed several birders to hit that milestone back in January. I had seen the Horned Grebe in Lake Havasu before, but this was my first viewing in Maricopa County.
Once again a very successful trip and I have to give thanks to Tommy and Mark for helping me to achieve more birds to my lifetime list.
Saturday, December 7, 2013
On Friday November 29th, birding friend, Chris Rohrer ventured up from Tucson to the Phoenix area to spend a day of birding in the far western reaches of the 'West Valley' near Phoenix. The area is a vast area that extends from the infamous 'Thrasher Spot' to the agricultural fields of Arlington and Buckeye. In the winter this can be very productive for finding many migrant birds as well as some resident birds. Our first stop was the Thrasher Spot which is famous for being probably the most reliable spot to find the fairly uncommon Le Conte's Thrasher. We came to this spot in the hopes of finding both the 2 new sparrow species which were a result of the AOU making a split on the old 'Sage' Sparrow. The 2 new birds from this split are the Sagebrush Sparrow and the Bell's Sparrow. While we struck out on the Bell's Sparrow, we did find and observe several of the Sagebrush Sparrows which are most likely the most common of these 2 species to be found here.
We also dipped on the Le Conte's Thrasher this time, but will try again maybe when breeding season approaches. As a consolation, we did see a few Bendire's Thrashers and one of 2 Crissal Thrashers put on a singing show for us and allowed us some great looks. Most thrasher species can be quite secretive and elusive, so when one does land at the top of a tree and starts singing, it can be quite moving as most of their songs are quite melodic.
From the Thrasher Spot, we hit the roads by first heading down towards Arlington. Had intentions of taking Chris to the Arlington Ponds, but the road was very muddy and rutted, and we though better of that idea. But we had many birds along the road including the American Kestrel. We counted over 20 of these birds along the road. This bird is our smallest and most common falcon in the United States and in the winter they can be found in high numbers in Arizona.
We also had the great fortune of finding 2 Ferruginous Hawks along the roadways which is another winter visitor to our area and one that many birders love to find in Arizona.
Other birds included a Greater Roadrunner, (no photos), a few Savannah Sparrows, a few Western Meadowlarks, and at one farms with a corral, a huge flock of Red-winged Blackbirds with some Brown-headed Cowbirds in the mix.
Flock of Red-winged Blackbirds and Brown-headed Cowbirds
Finally we arrived at the Lower River Ponds which Chris had never seen and we were amazed by the sheer number of American White Pelicans that were there. We counted over 140 and a week later another person counted over 250. This photo only shows a small portion of these magnificent birds that were located there and if one looks closely you will see 2 Snow Geese in the middle. Looks like midgets among the giants!
American White Pelicans and Snow Geese
American White Pelican
American White Pelican
While we were astounded by the number of pelicans, we also noticed large numbers for Great Egrets and Great Blue Herons on the banks on the opposite sides and in the fields back behind and to the south of the ponds and mixed in with those Great Blue Herons was a sprinkling of Sandhill Cranes. There is a small contingent of these magnificent birds that spend their winters in the vicinity of Maricopa County. While they were quite a distance from us for photos, they eventually took flight and when seen flying, they do not even resemble the herons. Very easy distinction.
The ponds were also visited by a juvenile Bald Eagle flying over the ponds that made many of the waterfowl take flight. While the sun was in the wrong place for photos, it was still quite interesting to see a Great Egret and the Bald Eagle in the same frame. No, the eagle or the Egret were chasing each other; they just happened to be in the same frame at the same time.
Bald Eagle and Great Egret
Bald Eagle and Great Egret
Bald Eagle and Great Egret
What a wonderful place to visit for birds in especially in the wintertime in Arizona. With the milder weather this state has to offer, we get the opportunity to see many wonderful birds that like to make their winter homes in Arizona.