Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Birding With Jim - Day 2

On Monday we decided to head up to the Seven Springs Recreation Area which is a totally different habitat than where we did our birding on Sunday. This spot is located north and east of the Phoenix metro area and is at a higher elevation.  It consists of a stream of running water surrounded by low desert mountains. Temperature at this location is much colder and often has ice in many places in the winter. On the road up to Seven Springs right about sunrise, we found a couple of Harris's Hawks in a tree by Blue Wash.  Nothing that is normally newsworthy.  However, remember this small bit of information, as the day is not yet over.
Within a few minutes of stopping we already had 2 new life birds for Jim; Bridled Titmouse and a Mountain Chickadee.  And about 15 minutes after that we got bird number 3, a Sage Thrasher.  As it turns out, they were fairly common in this location.  They can be found at the Thrasher Spot where we had visited the day before, but I think this location is a bit better for finding them consistently. 
Sage Thrasher
Another bird that I was hoping to find for Jim was the Mountain Bluebird.  This is a good spot for them in the winter and we were finding a lot of Western Bluebirds and no Mountain Bluebirds.  Must have had a little luck as we headed back towards the car, a pair of Mountain Bluebirds appeared in the tree above us.  Success and one more new life bird for Jim.
 Mountain Bluebird
Mountain Bluebird
From here, we decided to head for the various spots along the Salt River. On our way back towards Scottsdale, and while Jim was checking out his smart phone and the notices, I made a fairly sudden stop and pulled off the road and told him to look in the tree a bit behind us and on his side of the road.  We had a family of 5 more Harris's Hawks.  At least this time I was able to get a photo of one of them before they all took flight to the west.  That brought our tally of Harris's Hawks up to 7 for the day.  I have never seen that many in one day before, so this was quite exciting.  (No, it is not over yet.  You will have to keep reading!)
Harris's Hawk
After lunch in Scottsdale and a brief visit to Fountain Lake, we then set out for the north end of Bush Highway to explore the Salt River from the north.  Once we turned off the Beeline Highway and started south on the Bush Highway towards Saguaro Lake and Butcher Jones Beach and as we were driving through desert scrub populated by many Saguaro Cactus and just before the turn off to Butcher Jones Beach, we found another 2 more Harris's Hawks perched on a Saguaro Cactus off the road a ways.  That brings our total of Harris's Hawks up to 9 for the day!!!  Incredible?  Yes, but nope, still not done; read on.
At Butcher Jones Beach, and as we were studying the various ducks one of the resident Ring-billed Gulls made a few passes over the water and it is always fun to try capturing photos of them in-flight.
 Ring-billed Gull
 Ring-billed Gull
Ring-billed Gull
We then headed back to the picnic area as I had another bird in mind that I wanted to find as I knew it would probably be another new bird for Jim, but I had not mentioned it yet.  Jim spied one first and knew immediately that it was a flycatcher, but since it belongs to a family of flycatchers that can be hard to identify, the species, might be difficult.  I quickly pointed out to him to notice a behavior of this bird as it perched; it was frequently dipping its tail downward like a phoebe.  This is a great thing to know for this group of flycatchers as the Gray Flycatcher has this behavior.  Some birds can be vary difficult to identify by what they look like alone and knowing behavior and calls can often make that ID a bit easier.  One of my photos shows a morsel (insect) that it had just captured from near the ground.
 Gray Flycatcher
Gray Flycatcher
A Black-tailed Gnatcatcher also made an appearance in the area and I almost never pass up a chance to photograph these busy little birds.  They can be so curious and will allow fairly close viewing even though they are very busy and do not sit still very long.
Black-tailed Gnatcatcher
From here we headed south on Bush Highway once more with the next destination being Coon Bluff.  Guess what?  Right on the highway we found an electrical pole with 2 crossbars and lo and behold, 2 more Harris's Hawks!  What an incredible day with 11 Harris's Hawks in various locations.  (OK, for those readers that have been following along just for the Harris's Hawk saga, you can now leave if you wish as that is the end of them for this day!  But, if you leave now, you are going to miss the most colorful bird of the day.) 
The stop at Coon Bluff was not as productive as I had hoped it would be with Phainopepla and Ladder-backed Woodpeckers being the easiest to photograph.  Was hoping for something else, but it was not found at Coon Bluff on this day.
 Ladder-backed Woodpecker - Female
Phainopepla - Female
Phainopepla - Male
The final stop was at Granite Reef and finally we found a bird that Jim was wanting to see in Arizona, the Vermilion Flycatcher.  His only other sighting of one, was a vagrant rare one on the east coast of the US.  So it was high time to finally see one where they belong.
Vermilion Flycatcher
In the two days that we spent birding in Maricopa County, I believe I was able to help Jim add 12 new life birds to his list.  He continued bird for the rest of the week while I had to return to work and he added a few more on his own.  It as a lot of fun spending these two days birding, and want to thank Jim for the good times.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Birding With Jim - Day 1

Last weekend, birding friend, Jim Austin-Cole from New Jersey, was in Arizona for a week and together we spent two days searching for new life birds for Jim in Arizona. The first day we headed to the western side of the greater Phoenix area, specifically to the Buckeye/Arlington area.  Immediately after we turned off of Highway 85 and headed west on Baseline Road, the first bird to greet us was a very nice Ferruginous Hawk.  Our first real stop was the infamous 'Thasher Spot' at Baseline and Salome Hwy.  When we arrived we found another lost soul from Rhode Island there and he was also looking for the major prize, the Le Conte's Thrasher and he joined us.

The first thrasher we located was Bendire's Thrasher and as we made our way towards one of them we heard a thrasher call in the brush to the left of us that caught my attention and it was not long before we caught a glimpse of two Le Conte's scampering on the ground from one shrub to another. As we slowly tried to get closer for photos, one of them flew up into the branches of a tree and allowed good looks and some photos. This bird has never been easy to photograph but this pose was a dream come true.

Le Conte's Thrasher

As Jim and I departed the area we spied a few sparrows near the highway and mixed in just happened to be a few Brewer's Sparrows. We left this spot with 3 new life birds for Jim;  Bendire's Thrasher, Le Conte's Thrasher and Brewer's Sparrow.

Brewer's Sparrow
From the Thrasher Spot, we then headed out to cover the various spots along the many roads.  At one little stop along the road a Lincoln's Sparrow gave us an over-the-shoulder look before it took off for better cover and we did find a small flock of 55 Sandhill Cranes.  Not a common bird in Maricopa County, but there is a small flock that spends their winters in the Arlington area.  And we found huge numbers of Brewer's Blackbirds.
 Lincoln's Sparrow

 Sandhill Cranes

Sandhill Cranes
Brewer's Blackbird
After lunch in Buckeye, we headed to Friendship Park which is the place that I discover just two weeks before as a good place for the Lawrence's Goldfinch.  Since we were later in the day, we were only able to find one, but at least we got good looks at it and added another new life bird for Jim.  The only photos I took at this location was a bad one of a Common Yellowthroat (not an easy bird to photograph) and a Neotropic Cormorant that was busy preening its feathers.
 Common Yellowthroat

 Neotropic Cormorant

Neotropic Cormorant
Our last stop was Glendale Recharge Ponds which had large numbers of ducks and shorebirds.  Ducks were not so cooperative, but some of the shorebirds were a bit more accommodating, including Greater Yellowlegs and Lesser Yellowlegs feeding side by side which really made for a great comparison of the two species.  Had lots of Least Sandpipers and one of them was in the mood for taking a bath.
Greater Yellowlegs

Lesser Yellowlegs
 Least Sandpiper

Least Sandpiper
It was a great day of birding and I took off a day from work on Monday to take Jim to a totally different location and habitat.  That will be the focus of my next post.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Greater Phoenix Waterbird Count

Saturday January 17th, I took part in the Greater Phoenix Waterbird Count.  This is an annual event that is initiated by Arizona Game & Fish.  It focuses on identifying and counting all birds that rely on water in their daily routine.  The city is divided up into several mapped out designated areas and teams are assigned to cover those spots.  The data collected by this massive count helps AZG&F in keeping a handle on the population trends of all these water related birds and what kind of impact it is having on the city.  When a person stops to think that most of these birds would never be seen here as this is Sonoran Desert, it is incredible.  But the hundreds of ponds and lakes that have been made by man for golf courses, housing developments and many other uses has made this a premium spot for many of these birds to spend the winter. 
This year I had the great fortune of being teamed up with Scott Christopher and we spent over 7 hours checking on every little pool, pond and lake in our designated area.  There are some good aspects of doing something like this, and of course there are a few that get a bit tedious, such as counting American Wigeons.  In our area, we had just a little over 1500 of these birds and yes, it tends to get a bit old looking at and counting these birds.
Probably the most exciting find for the two of us was a pair of Wood Ducks.  They are not considered rare but are uncommon in and around the Phoenix area.  Always fun to see these birds as they are just so stunning to see.
 Wood Duck
Luckily, we had access to Leisure World due to a person by the name of Bill Weaver that drove us around to take in all the ponds within that location.  Had we not been able to get access to this wonderful spot, we would not have had any Great Blue Herons or Great Egrets on our list for that day.  The Great Blue Herons that have nested there are now feeding some young that will be fledging in the very near future.  They almost look out of place at the top of a tall pine tree.
  We also had a couple of Black-crowned Night Herons in Leisure World as well that were still perched in the trees waiting for the sun to rise and create some heat for them.
Great Blue Heron

Black-crowned Night Heron
Also in the enclosed area of Leisure World, we were checking out the other birds as well, even while we were counting.  Scott found a Harris's Hawk and the Gila Woodpecker made an appearance at the home of our guide, Bill Weaver.
 Gila Woodpecker - Female
Harris's Hawk
OK, now back to the waterbirds.  We had the fortune to locate a few Canvasback at various places, including males and females.  At Longbow Golf Course that held two Canvasback drakes, they had their heads tucked and did not want to show us their full beauty, but they were keenly watching us even as they rested.  That red eye is a dead giveaway that they were Canvasback.  
 Canvasback - Female
Canvasback - Male
At another pond we had a pair of Bufflehead, and also a group of fairly large carp in the water.  Cannot recall ever posting a photo of a fish on my blog, so this might be a first.  These carp were probably at least 24" in length (and that is not a fish story!).
Bufflehead - Female on left, Male on right
The most photogenic ducks for us were some Redheads at a pond in the northern areas.  They were sharing the pond with some Ring-necked Ducks and it was obvious that the locals must have been feeding these birds as they quickly swam towards us and really allowed some great close up shots.  Even one of the local American Coots got active as it got out of the water and walked around a large tuft of grass right towards me.  I was so intrigued by its lobed feet that I just had to focus on a photo of how unique it is.
American Coot - lobed foot
Many of the pods we visited were located in residential areas and it is always amazing at what some of the locals do to try and keep unwanted birds such as Canada Geese away.  Most of the methods involve decoys of one kind or another.  This one left us a bit puzzled as to whether or not it was supposed to be an alligator or a crocodile, and if it really succeeded.  Most of these birds don't frequent habitats that hold these reptiles, so not sure if they really know what one is.
Who knew???  Alligators or Crocodiles in Arizona????
We had a great day of counting birds with a few surprises along the way even though it got a little old counting some of these ducks.  Will be interesting to see what next year holds.

Friday, January 16, 2015

The Diversity of Maricopa County - Part 2

On Sunday of this past weekend, I teamed up with Jason Morgan and we headed to the Seven Springs Recreation area north of Cave Creek, AZ.  This place is a totally different habitat than where I spent Saturday and it involved a couple of miles of hiking.  And the morning started out as a very cold morning where one could see their breath.  It was one of those days where the sun would appear and then disappear creating some warmth then coolness.  Plus the fact that we also spent most of our time in the washes of canyons and some shade, reminded us to bring a jacket where ever we went.
We were welcomed at Seven Springs Rec Area by a huge number of Cedar Waxwings that were hanging out in the trees with large numbers of American Robins and Mountain and Western Bluebirds.  A couple of Sage Thrashers were also found as well as a Red-naped Sapsucker, which I believe was a new bird for Jason.  Typical for most sapsuckers, this one was well in the shade of a tree and photos were a bit scare. Most of the other birds were a bit of distance away and did not allow for photos except for one lone Cedar Waxwing.
 Cedar Waxwing
Red-naped Sapsucker
Spotted Towhees were fairly common as their calls gave them away.  Usually a skulker and hiding in the undercover, at least one of them made an appearance for at least one photo.
Spotted Towhee
As we followed the trail along Cave Creek we watched for the sign that designated the crossing to the south which used to be marked by cairns placed in the streambed to assist people as where to cross.  The summer monsoons had washed away all those cairns and someone was kind enough to tie some pink ribbons on the trees in the streambed to mark where to go.  Shortly after we crossed the first small stream of running water, I heard a double 'chimp' call. And  mentioned to Jason that there might be a Winter or Pacific Wren nearby.  I have not had a lot of experience with either one of these birds having only seen one of each in the past.  The Winter Wren from my past was the one that wintered at the Gilbert Riparian Water Preserve three years ago and after some patience it showed itself and I was able to obtain photos.  My only previous experience with a Pacific Wren was one at the Rio Salado in Phoenix two years ago and that one was so secretive that I only got about 3 glimpses of it dashing about deep in the brush and no photos.  Well this time, this one was not so timid and once it showed itself, I knew it was a Pacific Wren because of its rich brown color.  Both species have very short stubby tails.  This little 4" bird was truly the find of the day.
 Pacific Wren
 Pacific Wren
Pacific Wren
Once we finished up in the Seven Springs area, we headed to Rackensack Canyon on the way back, which really turned out to be a bust.  It was very quiet with very little bird activity and almost no singing.  We did happen to find an Empidonax Flycatcher, which belongs to a family of hard-to-identify birds.  The most common species at this time of year would normally be the Gray Flycatcher and they are usually one of the easiest to identify due to their behavior of dipping their tail downward like a phoebe.  Well this one was not doing that and based on the fairly small bill, I initially thought this was a Hammond's Flycatcher.  But after looking at my photos once I got home, I started leaning toward's a Dusky Flycatcher due to the short primary projections.  Hammond's has longer primary projections.  Both Hammond's and Dusky would both be considered rare at this time of the year, however, both have been reported in that vicinity this month, so it is not out of the realm of possibilities that this is one of them. 
 Hammond's/Dusky Flycatcher
Hammond's/Dusky Flycatcher
Jason and I both came away with some great birds, maybe not much in the way of photos except for my first photos of a Pacific Wren.  By the time we left Rackensack Canyon, a few rain showers had started which was a sign to maybe call it a day to keep from getting our gear wet.


Wednesday, January 14, 2015

The Diversity of Maricopa County - Part 1

Finally, a full weekend of birding where I felt good and I had some awesome company to go birding with me.  Saturday, Muriel Neddermeyer joined me by heading out to some spots west of the Phoenix metro area.  We ended up having an incredible day of birding with some very nice birds.
We started out by heading to Friendship Park in Avondale; a very unlikely spot for birds, but I had read a couple of eBird reports that Lawrence's Goldfinches had been reported there recently.  Definitely want to get there early to avoid the crowds of soccer teams playing.  After getting a feel for the park, we quickly decided that the southwest corner of this park would be the mostly likely habitat.  After a few minutes we caught a glimpse of a few in a small cottonwood tree and they quickly took off. So we meandered down to the dry stream bed and found a tree full of Lesser Goldfinches, but upon closer inspection, we found some of the elusive Lawrence's Goldfinches also a bit lower in the tree and of course harder to photograph.  No matter, because finding this bird is rather special as they are definitely not as common as the other finches.
Lawrence's Goldfinch
From there we traveled a little bit further south to Baseline and Meridian a place that Muriel had not yet been to.  A great place with lot of different habitat, including running water in the river and desert scrub on the hill sides nearby.  At one time we came across a group of very active warblers and we were checking out several Yellow-rumped Warblers and Orange-crowned Warblers and we both zeroed in on a bird that was different.  Luckily Muriel had just seen one of these birds about a week before at Granite Reef and she knew immediately that it was a female American Redstart.  As soon as she said that, I immediately knew she was right.  It is not a bird that I have seen very often as they are rare to uncommon in Arizona, but it seems like about a dozen or so get reported every winter.  It is really cool to find a rare or unusual bird without chasing someone else's find. Wish I could have gotten a bit better focus on it, but at least the photos are good enough for an ID.
American Redstart - Female

American Redstart - Female
We also had the privilege of watching a Peregrine Falcon fly over and take a dive at some Eurasian-collared Doves, but it missed this time.  Also had a small flock of 4 American White Pelicans fly over.  This day was overcast all day and photos leave a lot to be desired when the sun is not shining as all my photos from that day are definitely not the best.
American White Pelican
From here we headed further west to the Buckeye/Arlington area where we were treated to a vary wide array of raptors.  We had 5 Ferruginous Hawks, including a rare 'dark-morph' of this species.  Lots of Red-tailed Hawks, which included a 'light-morph' "Harlan's" Red-tailed Hawk.  Also had a Prairie Falcon that was very wary of humans and did not allow any close approaches for photos.
American Kestrel

 American Kestrel
The next two birds are both Ferruginous Hawks.  The first one is the normal Ferruginous Hawk and by far the most common one.  The second one is the much scarcer 'dark-morph' Ferruginous Hawk.  I had not seen this color morph of this species before, so this was a real treat.  While the birds do look very different from each other, one thing they do have in common is the extended yellow gape which gives one the impressions of a yellow 'grin'.
Ferruginous Hawk

Ferruginous Hawk

Ferruginous Hawk - Dark morph

Ferruginous Hawk - Dark morph

 Ferruginous Hawk - Dark morph
The next couple of photos is  light-morph 'Harlan's' Red-tailed Hawk which is another rare color morph.  I have actually seen one of these once before in a fly over in my neighborhood in Mesa a couple of years ago.  This bird also comes in a dark-morph phase and it is a bit more common than the light-morph.
'Harlan's Red-tailed Hawk - light morph

 'Harlan's Red-tailed Hawk - light morph
We also had a field with over 70 Black Vultures in it; another field with over 300 Yellow-headed Blackbirds mixed in with a few Red-winged and Brewer's Blackbirds.
 Black Vultures

Black Vultures

Yellow-headed Blackbirds
And in one of the freshly flooded fields we found a couple of Long-billed Curlews, an extraordinary bird with a very long curved bill.
Long-billed Curlew
Before we knew it, this day was drawing to a close.  It is amazing at how time flies when one is having a great day of birding.  I want to thank Muriel for joining me on this trek, just wish the weather would not have been quite so overcast and cloudy.  Photos might have been a bit better, but just seeing these remarkable birds made the day a great day.