Tuesday, October 28, 2014
Late last week, in a hastily planned birding road trip to Flagstaff, 4 of us made a 1 day trip to the Flagstaff, Arizona area for some great birding. I joined forces with 3 other extraordinary birders, Tommy DeBardeleben, Laurence Butler, and Mark Ochs. Rather sad to say, but I have not done much birding in this part of the state, and that is a shame as there are some awesome birds to be found at this high elevation. Glad I joined in on the trip as I discovered some really awesome spots for future trips.
Our first stop was at Rio de Flag near the Museum of Northern Arizona. Not a big spot by any means, but tucked away in a residential neighborhood. The prime target birds at this location? Cassin's Finches and Evening Grosbeaks. Neither one of these birds was a new bird for me this year as I have found more Cassin's finches this year than I thought possible and sure enough, it was one of the first birds that we found, keeping to themselves high in the pines. What I was more interested in was the Evening Grosbeak, a bird that I encountered for the first time in June of this year and have been wanting to see more. One can never have too many photos of this stunning bird. Alas, they too, did not want to meet me at eye level for photos, but maybe I have not yet won over their confidence.
And since we happened to be close to a residential neighborhood, we had a 'murder' of American Crows congregating on one of the houses. (Yes, the term 'murder' is the collective name for a bunch of crows!)
A 'murder' of American Crows
From here, we headed to Ashurst Lake, which is another new spot and one that can harbor some rarities from time to time. While the lake had huge numbers of waterfowl, most of the birding here was with scopes from the distant shore line. However, a couple of species of bluebirds presented a consolation prize for photos. MOBLs and WEBLs (Mountain Bluebirds and Western Bluebirds) were evident in many places on this day and at this location we had both. I think the Mountain Bluebird has a little bit better camouflage with the blue sky than the Western Bluebirds.
As we were departing this great spot an adult Bald Eagle was posing as a sentinel in the dead branches of a pine a bit off the exit road. Always great to see this majestic bird and the symbol of the United States!
Our next spot was Mormon Lake which is a vast shallow lake especially when springtime snow melts fill up most of it. This weekend, it was fairly dry, but as we drove from points around this lake, we were noticing Lewis's Woodpeckers which are always a treat and definitely not unexpected. This is their habitat, however, we were astounded by the sheer numbers that we found, upwards to just shy of 3 dozen. They were very active in plucking acorns from the oaks and caching these acorns in many of the pine trees for feasting when the winter food sources become a little scare. This is one very unusually colored bird and another species that you can't photograph enough.
All the while the Lewis's Woodpeckers were being the star attractions, Tommy was quick to spot a Hairy Woodpecker that was not feeling a bit overwhelmed with the Lewis's. A Steller's Jay also came in to check us out. I think it felt like we were ignoring it and wanted to grab some fo the attention as well.
Hairy Woodpecker - Female
Hairy Woodpecker - Female
We caught the last of the fall aspen leaves and had to capture at least one photo with the bright gold leaves behind the pines.
Finally our day came to an end as tow of us had previous engagements for later that evening, but one last stop on the northern fringes of Phoenix was at Lake Pleasant, which is another spot I have not visited. While the place was crawling with many humans, the birding was a bit scare, but we did manage to find a couple first year Herring Gulls, which was a new state bird for me. And another first for me, was my first wild Burro. Yes, you are welcome to make jokes about it, but still rather cool for the first time.
Another great birding adventure with some really cool birds and some really cool bird nerds like me!
Monday, October 13, 2014
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.
Sunday, October 12, 2014
The first weekend in October is usually the weekend that AZFO (Arizona Field Ornithologists) holds their annual gathering. Every year it is held in a different location which is a great way to introduce others from around the state to new spots for birding. This year the meeting was held in the Globe/Miami area in Arizona and since the Pinal Mountains are close by, I was familiar with a bit of the area. The meeting was being held on Saturday, but there was a couple of mini expeditions set to take place on Friday afternoon. Chris Rohrer decided to attend so he drove up from Tucson and we met on Friday morning to make a quick trip into the Pinal Mountains as he had never been there before. Knowing the time we had to work with, we hurried through many of the spots I would normally stop at as I wanted to get Chris to the top. Turned out to be a very lucky plan because we found some really great birds at the top.
The first bird that caught our attention flew over our heads from the rear and quickly flew on the back side of some pine trees, but it quickly returned and it turned out to be a Lewis's Woodpecker. Not a rare bird in Arizona by any means, but one that I had never observed in Gila County. While the photo is not the best, it is at least diagnostic of the species.
About the same time that I was trying to get some photos of this bird on the other side of a small pond, Chris noticed a Band-tailed Pigeon in one of the oaks on the south side. Once again, not a rare bird, but a bit uncommon and not always easy to find and photograph. My previous sightings only consist of one photograph of the bottom end of one of these birds, but high up in a pine tree snag. This one was cooperative with us for photos, but the angle of the sunlight was not where we would have preferred. Regardless, it was nice to get some identifiable photos of this bird.
As we were really enjoying the moment with good looks of these 2 species of birds, another small flock of smaller birds flew over and into the tops of the pines. Once again this was another bird that was new to me for this location. In fact, this same bird was a life bird for both Chris and I back in February of this year; Cassin's Finch. I believe this made the 3rd sighting of this bird for us this year.
Cassin's Finch - There are 3 of these birds in this photo
It would have been great to have more time to explore this area, but since we had to be back into Globe by about noon, we did not have the luxury of excess time on our hands. Even though it was a relatively quick trip up and back, we did find some remarkable birds.
We had signed up for a mini Field Expedition in the afternoon to visit Timber Campground and Jones Water Campgrounds so we met up with the very large group that had signed up. Both spots offered great birding but as usual, afternoon birding is not always the best time to explore. We did get to see some really nice birds, but photography was not at its best except for a Bridled Titmouse. Both spots are now on my list of places to visit and spend more time exploring.
The meeting on Saturday was a success with lots of great presentations and information to be absorbed. Sunday we had signed up for the Sierra Ancha Wilderness area field trip and we were introduced to some amazing wilderness with outstanding scenery. The first stop included an inside viewing of the habitat near the Rossevelt Lake Diversion Dam. We had a lot of birds and had a great time, unfortunately, my only photos for that day consisted of an Ash-throated Flycatcher and a Gray Flycatcher.
When we returned to the entrance area we discovered a Great-horned Owl on the steps to the restrooms. The owl will probably never know how lucky it was to be found by this group of humans. There were several in the group that were familiar with rescue and rehabilitation. It was captured and found to be very emancipated and it was then transported to Liberty Wildlife in Scottsdale, AZ and was found to have suffered a leg fracture that had already started to heal. It was given food and an IV for re-hydration and is expected to make a full recovery. That was good news to all.
This was a great weekend for Arizona birding. Got to see many birding friends and meet many more. Definitely will be an annual event for me. In ending this post, just want to share a couple of other photos that I got on this weekend of things other than birds.
Wednesday, October 8, 2014
Recently I have fallen a bit behind in my blog posts, so decided it is time to catch up on some great birding that I have been able to enjoy the past couple of weeks.
Birding friend, Tommy DeBardeleben and I, headed back to Apache County the last couple of days in September. A bit of information about Apache County; with a total area of 11,218 square miles, it is the 3rd largest county in the state of Arizona and the 6th largest county in the United States. In total size, this county is larger than 8 states in the United States, which helps to put its size into perspective. It covers a vary large land area and consequently, the diversity is also quite impressive. We knew we only had 2 days to get some birding done, so we planned our strategy hoping to get some unique birds.
In July we had made an attempt to find the Black-billed Magpie at a small Native American community on the Navajo Nation Reservation, Teec Nos Pos, in the far northeastern part of the state near the Four Corners National Monument. At the time we were joined by Magill Weber and Chris Rohrer in that endeavor and we had seriously underestimated the distance to this far corner and we came away from that trip empty. This time, we planned our strategy a bit different. We wanted to try to arrive at this spot early in the morning as corvids have a tendency to be early risers and usually quite vocal. We left the Phoenix area in the late afternoon on a Sunday and arrived in Chambers, AZ where we spent the first night. This left us still about 2½ hours away from Teec Nos Pos and we hit the road about 4:30 am the next morning for our destination. We did have a couple of really cool sightings in the dark from the road, a Common Poorwill was lit up by the headlights and a little bit further up the road, we had a Red Fox cross the road in front of us. The Red Fox is not very common in Arizona and can only be found in the northeastern part of the state. It was really awesome to see this beautiful canine with its white-tipped tail.
We arrived at the dry wash area for Teec Nos Pos around 7:00 am, and since Tommy was driving at the time, immediately I spied a magpie in a tree on the south side of the highway. As we pulled into the pull off, it flew northward and over Highway 160 where it was joined by at least 3 more magpies. We had come here thinking we would be lucky to find one as the last few reports had been of people seeing or only hearing one of these birds and already we had 4 of them and they were easy to follow with their loud and raucous calling. We then hiked down the wash area to the south where we topped a ridge on the west side and once again found 4 more. Obviously we were hearing them before we saw these next four. Of course we were elated to see this many in a short time. A bit later we traveled into the town itself and found at least 3 more, with one of them posing on a tree by the road for us. What an awesome count of a really cool bird. This is the only reliable spot in Arizona where this species can be found so it is a highly sought after bird for those wanting to add a new species on their Arizona bird list.
Town namesake in rocks on ridge above town.
Finally, a sense of fulfillment and we thoroughly cherished the moment. On the road back south we had decided to visit a couple of the lakes and ponds along the way, with a quick stop at Canyon de Chelly National Monument. This place is breathtakingly beautiful and appears to be a spot for some awesome birding, but with time constraints on our visit (remember how big Apache County is?) we had to move on.
Canyon de Chelly ruins
Canyon de Chelly ruins
One stop that proved to be beneficial, was Ganado, AZ. A quick stop at the Water Treatment Ponds and we got to witness a Common Raven harassing an Osprey. I think the raven won that one as we did not see a return of the Osprey once the raven chased it away.
Common Raven harassing an Osprey
Common Raven harassing an Osprey
Common Raven harassing an Osprey
Also at Ganado, we stopped at Ganado Lake, a place that we visited in July and it has earned high marks in our book as a great birding spot. The lake had thousands of American Coots on it far out in the lake, but it also had its share of other waterfowl, including several Eared Grebes. Many of them were a bit far out for photos, but at least one of them ventured close enough to shore to at least get a photo of it and its bright red/orange eye. While Tommy was meticulously checking out all the waterfowl through his scope (binoculars cannot see out on the water as well as a scope), I started to try concentrating on anything close by and turned around to find a Sage Thrasher running in spurts down the embankment between the plants. This was another bird we had hoped to find on this trip, so it was a very pleasant discovery for both of us.
We spent the next night in Springerville, AZ and early the next morning we headed to Sipe Wildlife Area. This has quickly become one of my favorite spots in the White Mountains and Apache County. When we arrived in the parking area, we quickly discovered more Red-naped Sapsuckers than I have ever seen before. The trees were full of them and they were vying for the best feeding spots. Among them was a single Yellow-bellied Sapsucker that Tommy keenly spied, but I failed to locate it which would have been an awesome bird to see in Apache County.
Even an American Goldfinch paid us a visit and with Tommy's excellent skills of bird songs, it was quite easily found. This bird is well known throughout the United States, but in Arizona it is a bit uncommon as it is usually only a winter visitor.
Once we hit the trails and paths, a few birds allowed for some photos along the way such as Mountain Bluebirds and Lincoln Sparrows.
Just like the first visit, the numbers of Pinyon Jays were high and we had several flocks fly over at various different times. One flock held 74 birds, followed very shortly with another small flock of 12 and a bit later another flock of over 20 birds.
Knowing how great Lyman Lake was on past visits, we knew that a visit was in order on this trip as well and once again it did not disappoint. Tommy was quick to notice some terns out on the lake and after extensive scoping views of the 6 terns, Tommy was able to identify them as 4 Forster's Terns and 2 Common Terns. What a nice couple of species to add to our Apache County list. Once again, this shows the importance of a scope when birding on large bodies of water, and also to have someone knowledgeable about species of terns and their winter plumage variations.
Forster's Terns and a Common Tern
As the day slowly started to come to an end and knowing we had about a 4 hour drive back to the Phoenix vicinity, we headed out and made one last stop at some ponds near the small town of McNary. This is another spot with potential for further exploration. While there, one of the resident American Crows flew in for a closer look. Can't pass up a photography shot when it presents itself so close and inquisitively.
Another great birding trip with some outstanding results. Have to thank Tommy for the suggestion and organizing of this trip that netted both of us some great birds to add to our Apache County list and I even added a couple of new birds to my Arizona state list as well.