About a year ago the AOU (American Ornithologist' Union) split the Sage Sparrow into 2 different species; the Sagebrush Sparrow and the Bell's Sparrow. Having seen several of the former 'Sage' Sparrows, now the quest became to find both species and the thoughts were that both species could be found in Maricopa County in Arizona on their wintering grounds. The problem lies in the fact that the 2 species can be a bit tricky to identify with any certainty and Sagebrush is probably the most common of the 2 species to be found in Arizona. Bell's Sparrow was thought to have its eastern range in Maricopa County of Arizona. Last year I did attempt to try to locate both species, but came away unsuccessful in definitively finding the Bell's Sparrow. Found many of the Sagebrush Sparrow, but the Bell's had eluded me.
This year is a bit different due to some extensive studies by a couple of great birders. Chris McCreedy conducted a field study that included DNA testing on birds captured in mist nets. And good friend Tommy DeBardeleben, has spent countless hours finding and studying these birds at a couple places west of Phoenix. I was lucky enough to get a call from Tommy asking if I want to explore Robbins Butte area on Saturday to look for Bell's Sparrow. He did not have to ask twice; I jumped at the chance and some more good fortune that came with it was the opportunity to have Laurence Butler and a young man by the name of Caleb Strand joining us. Laurence is a very experienced birder in his own right and Caleb is an amazing birder for only being a teen. It was really quite an awesome team the 4 of us made for birding that day. Our plan of attack was to visit Robbins Butte where Chris's testing revealed mostly Bell's in this location and Tommy had just been there 2 days before and had excellent looks at Bell's as well. We did find Bell's Sparrows and was able to see the distinguishing field marks that separated them from Sagebrush Sparrows. But we also found that the Bell's seem to be a bit more skittish and do not like to pose well for photos, so the only decent photo I got was of a Sagebrush Sparrow. More trips are in order to study these birds closer and hopefully come away with a decent photo or two of the Bell's Sparrow.
Sharp-shinned Hawk - fly over while pursuing the Bell's
Sparrows were not the only stars that day. Seems that reptiles played a role in our discoveries as well. Laurence happened upon a pair of Western Diamond-backed Rattlesnakes mating and undulating under a mesquite tree. These snakes will mate in Spring and then again in the Monsoon season in Arizona, and being live bearers, they will give birth to 2-12 babies. They were well hidden under the tree, so photos were a bit tough, but still a cool thing to observe.
Western Diamond-backed Rattlesnake - mating
Western diamond-backed Rattlesnake - Mating
Western Diamond-backed Rattlesnake - 2 tails proving there are 2 snakes here
As we headed back to the car to head out to the Arlington area, I was following Caleb and right in front of me he quickly dropped to ground and picked up a medium sized Gopher Snake and held it for all of us to check it out up close and get some really nice shots.
Just a word of caution to others head out to this location. Keep an eye on where you are walking because we know there are at least 3 snakes out there!
The trip to the Arlington Pond area was very rewarding as well. On the road in, Caleb was quick to spot a Lewis's Woodpecker, which is a really cool bird to find at this low elevation as they are not very common to find in Maricopa County. At the ponds we had a large group of Black-crowned Night Herons which all spooked once we approached.
Black-crowned Night Heron
A Greater Roadrunner and a Loggerhead Shrike both posed on trees as we drove by. Caleb was also quick to spot a Common Black Hawk high up in the sky as we were departing. It was another fairly late migrant.
The last couple of photos for this post consist of 2 species of kingbirds; a Western Kingbird and a Cassin's Kingbird. Both are migrants and are probably lingering behind on their migration. We had the Western Kingbird at Robbins Butte and the Cassin's Kingbird at the Arlington ponds. It is a good comparison of the field marks of the 2 species especially for new birders.
This was a fantastic half day of birding with some awesome birders and I want to thank Tommy, Laurence, and Caleb for making this a remarkable and memorable outing. And yes, I did 'Ring My Bell' by adding the Bell's Sparrow to my life list.