Every year from mid December to early January, the National Audubon Society hosts their annual Christmas Bird Counts. Most take place within the United States however there are many more that are being held in various spots throughout the world and the list is growing. These counts are a well defined circle with a 15 mile diameter and each circle is divided up into smaller sections where teams of birders join forces and attempt to document as many species in their section and the number of birds of each species. This data is then complied by the circle coordinator and the final reports are submitted to Audubon. (Its more complicated than that, but this is the short version.)
Annually, I attempt to participate in these counts as time allows. This year, due to my work schedule, I was only able to take part in 2 of them and they were 2 days apart. The first one took place on January 2 and is know as the Carefree CBC north of Scottsdale, Arizona. I have been part of this one the past 3 years now and I have been a part of a small group that surveys one of the remote areas know as the Quein Saba area. Our team leader is Grant Loomis and the other members consisted of Tyler Loomis, Lisa Fitzner, and myself. When taking part in one of these CBC's photography definitely becomes secondary as the main focus is finding and counting birds. However, it is nice to have a camera available in case a rarity is spotted and needs to be documented. We did not find any rarities in our section this year, but we did find a few birds of interest which included our annual Gray Flycatcher, Black-chinned and Rufous-crowned Sparrows and a pair of American Pipits that looked completely out of place when they landed in the campsite where we were eating lunch. Definitely not their normal habitat, but that is what is cool about birds; they can drop in at an unusual location any time. We had an abundance of Bushtits this year and these busy little birds are one of the most amusing to watch. They are like little monkeys foraging through the trees; upside down, sideways and every other direction possible as they hang from leaves and twigs. And they travel in small flocks from tree to tree all the while chipping away. My photos indicate males as they have dark eyes. Females have light yellow eyes.
Bushtit - Male
Bushtit - Male
There is also a wonderful Crested Saguaro in this area that I look forward to seeing every year. It is a mutation of the normal Saguaro Cactus, but are pretty rare and hard to find. (Update on this cactus, it is called a Cristate Saguaro! Thanks to FB friends for the correction!)
Cristate Saguaro Cactus
Cristate Saguaro Cactus - same cactus, different angle
Then on January 4th, I took part in the Payson, Arizona CBC and was assigned to assist Brian Ison in another remote area of this circle known as the Control Road. Payson is a little over an hour north and east of the Mesa and Phoenix. It is just below the Mogollon Rim at an elevation of just little over 5000'. The Control road is further north of Payson and even a bit higher in altitude and situated just below the Rim which is about 7000' in elevation. This is a totally different habitat than what is found in and around the Phoenix area; lots of conifers and much different birds and of course with the higher elevation the temperatures were a bit colder at the start, but when the sun came out, it warmed up very nicely. Once again photography was not the focus, but later in the morning at least one of my photos helped with an identification confirmation that we needed later. We hiked a little over a mile up one of the trails off of Control Road. Most of my photos came from this hike. We had a lot of birds at various places including Stellar's Jays, Hairy Woodpeckers, and in one spot a Golden-crowned Kinglet. This is a bird that I had only seen once before, so getting to see one again was a real treat. We also had a few Bridled Titmouse and lots of Bushtits.
Bridled Titmouse (photobombed by a Bushtit in the background)
Near the end of this trail just before we turned around to head back, Brian noticed some eagles soaring in the sky above the Mogollon Rim. They were quite a distance away, but the first one we saw was an adult Bald Eagle and shortly after that we saw a couple more eagles and we quickly identified them as Golden Eagles. Finally we had what appeared to be 5 Golden Eagles soaring around above the Rim. I took photos and did not expect much due to the distance, but at least one of the photos does show 3 eagles in the view with one of them being a juvenile Golden Eagle, based on the white patches on the underside of the wings.
Golden Eagle - juvenile is in lower left corner, white wing patches
This was also the day of the Dark-eyed Junco. This bird is a single species, but has numerous sub-species with different looks and in the winter, they are quite common but can be confusing to identify the various sub-species. On this day we actually saw 4 of the sub-species and below is a lesson in Dark-eyed Juncos and 3 of the sub-species.
Dark-eyed Junco - Gray-headed
Dark-eyed Junco - Pink Sided
Dark-eyed Junco - Red-backed
Pink sided is fairly easy to identify, but the Gray-headed and the Red-backed look very similar. But note the color of the upper mandible on the Red-backed. It is very dark, almost black whereas the Gray-headed has an over all pinkish color to it.
My next blog post will have another Dark-eyed Junco and some more information on this incredibly diverse species and the many sub-species that makes up this bird.