Thursday, December 18, 2014

Here At The End of All Things

We explore the mountains of Costa Rica
Step boldly forward.  Change my footing so that my legs do not become tired.  Step beyond personal limitations.  

I fall in love with the Andes mountains between Argentina and Chile.  Sunset was magical
Always remember those who helped me get to this point in my life and keep learning. 

The lagoons of Semuc Champey, Guatemala reveal to me that there are truly magical places out there
Grow bored. Experiment.  Face a fear.  Question this self-inflicted reality. Encounter new people.  Embrace change. 

My first real life challenge....and life change.  Growing up.  Cape Verde taught me many things.  I will go back and confront that life lesson again. 
New bird challenges are interesting.  A birder can play it safe only for so long before s/he hits a "life bird wall".  The risks are higher and the payoffs are either an extreme success or a very disappointing low.  

An island of ancient people live their lives in the middle of Lake Titicaca, Peru.  I see the Milky Way for the first time in their cold clear dark skies.  No light but the stars.  I know nothing. 
One group of experts is replaced by another.  Many territories are unexplored.  It's an opportunity to become an explorer while stringing missing data and personal hunches together to help save our birds. Neil Armstrong. Marco Polo. Vasco Da Gama. Hernan Cortes. Sacagawea.  Any one of us can still discover if we choose.

We climbed Machu Pichu like everyone else.  It tests my physical endurance and my fear of height.  At one point, I break down and cry because of the physical stress.  I move inches to the top.  I discover I can do it. 
That's also the danger.  The uncomfortable truth.  To find a new life bird, I have to challenge myself to be open and smart about what's around me.

Color is life.  Cuzco, Peru
Keep an eye open for strange human behavior, wild animals foreign to me and ever changing environments.

I stand in a dark forest along the Pacific Ocean in Costa Rica tracking Howler Monkeys and Scarlet Macaws.  My first experience birding.  I stand alone in the forest and feel frightened.  I am truly in the wild. Alone.
Some places may be safe.  Sip your tea and watch a Blue Tit at a new friend's feeder.  Or climb to the top of a jagged mountain and find a Himalayan Snowcock.  Each bird brings with it a story.  A connection. 

We explore Chile.  Even at great heights we find fish in a small frozen lake.  How is this even possible?
It's time to leave my desert nest and begin the gamble.  1000 life birds?  Is it possible to reach that epic mark in a year or two?  We'll see.  As I leave my safety net of "knowing", I enter a strange world of the new and bizarre.  It will require me to study thousands of strange new species that I've never heard about before.   

I explore a beach for sand crabs
Live the daily routine.  Pay the monthly bills.  And explore when there is an opportunity to do so.  I'm a Cormorant stretching my wings out......waiting for them to dry.  

We explore the Mediterranean Ocean around the Italian coast.  Still not a birder. Sigh. 

For soon I will take flight across the oceans of the world, to the tundra of the North and the glaciers of the South, and touch the sun baked pyramids of the great African desert. 

My travels sparked with this amazing group of people.  I learned a lot about myself....who I was, how to speak another language, how to party like a rock star and......and discover this amazing world.  Today we are all 20 some years older.  The girls are women.  One is a mother!  This year I will return to visit them again.  It has been too long.  Ahhh Mexico!
These pictures were the beginning photo documentation pieces of my work.  Later they would evolve into this blog.  All I can say is that my life has done a complete 360.  It began with culture, plants and photography.  Today, this process has naturally led me into birding and travel. For anyone thinking about blogging, I highly recommend it!

Barcelona, Spain
Everything changes now. In a way, it's sad to part from the crazy road treks around Arizona.  Now my journeys will only focus on life birds.  Arizona still holds a few, but my eyes now wander south to the lands of Mexico.  To the North, Alaska is home to many incredible birds.  San Francisco calls to me again.  The prairies of middle America are home to the ancient mating dances of several types of grouse.  And this "thing" that I have only just begun goes on and on.  Here at the end of all things, I am both sad and happy.  One chapter ends.  Another begins.......

Monday, December 15, 2014

The Tucson CBC-Winterhaven and the Rillito Wash

Each year, Tucson Audubon has their annual CBC(Christmas Bird Count). And each year, I participate.  However this year something changed.  I became a group leader for the first time.  And so our team had a mission to find common and rare birds in Area 23 or as we like to call it.....Winterhaven.
From my photo series called, "Holiday Rush" back in 2011.  The blur represents this crazy time of year and also how fast this CBC went this year!
Winterhaven is a wonderful urban forest full of old trees and landscape. It's also a place Tucsonans visit to get into their holiday spirit!

Some of the largest Aleppo Pines can be found in this neighborhood.  Nesting hawks, owls, and ravens use these trees to nest. 
To make the task less daunting, I was joined by friend Gordon Karre and Jan Wilson.  It was a crazy weekend full of scouting for the "big day". While none of us expected life birds, we did find lots of wonderful birds just a couple miles away from my house. 

Black-tailed Gnatcatcher
On Friday, I went with Jan to scout several parks within our area.  Our mission was to cut some time on Sunday and find the reported Bronzed Cowbirds, a roving Cassin's Kingbird, several Great Horned Owls and a family of Harris's Hawks.  Together, with the help from the local neighborhood, we were able to pinpoint known locations of their infamous feathered and VOCAL residents. Some of the people actually replicated their calls!  Not bad at all! I asked them questions about what kinds of things they saw.  One lady described a group of hawks hanging out together in a group.  Then I asked her, "Were they brown?  Did they have yellow legs?" And she invited us to come into her backyard to have a look. Our hunch was correct.  Harris's Hawks.

Harris's Hawk
On Sunday, we were able to find all of them.  It was early to rise for the Great Horned Owl! And it was our first bird for the day as a team!  We also had a Red-breasted Nuthatch in the neighborhood on Friday.  But come Sunday, we weren't able to locate the bird again.  Instead, we found a White-breasted Nuthatch!

A Redhead!  And yet our Tucson CBC circle dipped on two of these birds!  Had I known, we could have poached another group's area to add them to our list!  These were seen on Saturday night!  But  midnight Sunday is when the count officially begins.  
Saturday, Gordon drove down from Phoenix. Here in Tucson it rained all morning! We tried to find the reported Baltimore Oriole and ended up looking at the fantastic waterfowl around the Sweetwater Wetlands and Reid Park.  After a cold and fun day out in the field, we had a nice dinner at a local Thai restaurant. 

Then Sunday came.  Being titled "Area Leader" is bit scary.  It's a big responsibility that required me to pull up the map and really focus on areas with the most birds that were inside our area. Time is a major constraint on these counts. We also worked on some hunches.  Some worked out; some didn't.   I know Area 23 well as I drive it everyday to work.  But it's still a bit overwhelming to lead and guide a team.  I didn't want to fail in the eyes of the Master Planner, Mr. Rich Hoyer.  For two years, he took the time and showed me how a birder must scout for birds in both known and unknown locations.  He KNOWS the routes and areas of his CBC circle well. Not all CBC count leaders are like this. Afterwards, we had a wonderful potluck. Rich made a delicious chili. Everyone eagerly listened to those rare bird reports from around town.  And there were quite a few! 

A Red-tailed Hawk watches us
As I sat with these birders, I thought about how amazing they were. I may not know many of them in person, but I read their reports daily.  There were so many stories, secret birding spots and bird behaviors shared during this dinner.  I went home wanting to know more.  Do more! As birders, we learn crazy things from each other.  We are our best teachers.  

Pied-billed Grebe
A personal goal for me on this count was to explore one of the last wild stands of cholla(pronounced ch-oh-ya) in the neighborhood.  Our Cactus Wren population within the city is disappearing.  Their populations are either declining or stable(depending on which end of the city you're on) due to habitat loss from housing developments.  Many homeowners don't want this plant around their property. 

Cactus Wren
I notice that wherever there isn't cholla cactus, Cactus Wrens are either not present or there are very few. I have them nesting at my work site in Oro Valley within a healthy preserved section of Sonoran desert.  There these birds nest every year in several chollas. Curve-billed Thrashers will also use this very important cactus for nesting. 

A Curve-billed Thrasher nests in a most protective Teddy Bear Cholla
Humans, however, hate this "jumping cactus" as it can be quite painful on the skin. It will hook onto anything that passes by and if that happens, you won't forget the sensation. That is how it spreads:) We had good news on our count that day as we found 3 Cactus Wrens!  That was my highlight from our trek around Area 23 for the day. 

My favorite pic from the day!  Gordon is TALL and so are these Cholla Cactus!  What a trooper! No Cactus Wrens were seen in this area.  There was some nesting evidence in a couple.  As Gordon went deeper into the patch, he didn't notice much in the way of old nest material but he did find plenty of Mourning Doves hiding!
Overall we found 43 species for the day which is higher than past CBC reports from our area.  We added 6 new species to the list! Love was in the air as we observed Red-tailed Hawks "in the mood" and a Costa's Hummingbird showing off for his lady friend. He danced high above us with his high pitched whir.  

Female Costa's Hummingbird
We discovered all birds on our lists from Friday and Sunday minus the Brewer's Blackbirds, Townsend's Warbler,  Rufous-winged Sparrows and Hutton's Vireo.  The top birds from our area that were "must finds" for the count were the American Pipits, Bronzed Cowbirds, Vermilion Flycatchers, and Bronzed Cowbirds. All achieved!

Bronzed Cowbird
Our first team bird wasn't the dreaded Rock Pigeon but the Great Horned Owl!  Our last bird for the day was a beautiful Red-naped Sapsucker. 

Eurasian-collared Dove
The most common birds were easily the Lesser Goldfinches(181 birds), House Finches(359 birds), and Mourning Doves(318). Overall we had a wonderful weekend outdoors!

Target birding is back on for the next two weeks and should be interesting.  How interesting? You'll have to stay tuned for more!  As one year of goals finishes up, a new one will begin and it will take me to far away places:) Opportunities, like this CBC, give me a better insight about what's going on locally with our birds.  When we take this sliver of data and add it to what's happening globally, all of us involved begin to see the bigger picture.  To get involved in the US with the Christmas Bird Count, contact your local Audubon and find out when they have their CBC.  They need volunteers who can hike or just sit in their house and count birds at their feeders. It's really a great experience!  More next week....

Monday, December 8, 2014

From The Darkness We Rise

A first time photo of a Ross's Goose at Las Aventuras.  While I've seen this bird many times, I haven't been within photo range. Note smaller bill sans the "smile" of the similar looking Snow Goose

Days free are spent on the road before the sun rises.  It's really one of the truly peaceful times before dawn breaks.  No waiting, chasing, or wondering if that rare bird will show up. It's just getting there while listening to the radio with my hot cup of coffee. As the sun begins to rise, a man with his crazy obsession for birds begins yet another quest. How will this day shape up?

A ray of light shines hope on our search for the Brown Thrasher
Once I arrive, I scan the dark path ahead. It's enveloped by fog. Rabbits and mice scamper across the trails. No humans anywhere to be seen except near the entrance where old men have decided to meet for coffee.  Warm mist rises from the waters. It's here I stand in the chilly air watching geese bathe.  My first target bird(the Ross's Goose) is revealed. I snap my pics behind a bush as I watch this beautiful bird preen its feathers. Early morning is a precious and finite time period with birds. One can't spend too much time on one bird without risking the dreaded dip on other target birds! Birds will "park" themselves in one spot overnight before taking off the next day. I had to move quickly and find the elusive Brown Thrasher.  Like most thrashers, they are much more visible and vocal during the earlier hours of day. 

Gila Woodpecker
I stand with another birder as we wait.....and wait.....and wait for this bird. It's almost a requirement for this particular bird.  Finally, the bird makes a brief appearance several times and then disappears for good. While not the best views I've had of a Brown Thrasher, I decide to move on. I am able to add it onto my Arizona list. 

The San Pedro River flows!
Another trail.  Another bird. This time, I went looking for a feral Ring-necked Pheasant.  Birders suspect that someone released this bird within the city of Gilbert. For several weeks, this bird has done well in this human created riparian area.  This is definitely not a common bird around Arizona except maybe along the agricultural fields of the Yuma/California border

Anna's Hummingbird
Blackbirds have put on some amazing shows this past week. They always flock in great numbers.  Sometimes a Cooper's Hawk chases them.  Other times it's the Northern Harrier.

Mixed flock of Red-winged and Yellow-headed Blackbirds
Hundreds of years ago, people wrote about millions of birds clouding the skies for days! never allowing the sun a chance to shine on the people below.  Can you imagine? 

Yellow-headed Blackbirds at sunset
In Tucson, Yellow-headed Blackbirds will flock in the thousands.  And there's nothing quite like getting caught up in the middle of their microburst.  

Meanwhile, the photographer has to put his camera down for the moment or he fears the risk of losing that brief sighting of a rare bird.  It can be a bit frustrating at times, but he knows that not every bird will pose nicely. 

House Sparrow
Understanding the meaning behind "competitive" birding has been quite the learning experience. It's a huge commitment of time. Artist and photographer have to sometimes take a back seat. Home improvements are put on hold (some of the cleaning may not always get done).  Money goes towards gas and travel instead of clothes and other fancy things.  Evenings are spent planning.  Mornings are early to rise.   

Northern Flicker
But when December 31st arrives, this birder will wake up on January 1st a normal man again. Or so he says....:)

Neotropic Cormorant
So I chase the silly birds, the real birds(the ABA kinds) and everything else in between.  If it has wings, it's game. And between breaks, I stop and take it all in. What an incredible journey!

Domestic variety of Muscovy Duck
So as the month of December continues and the birding gets extremely competitive, I remember several things to keep my sanity. It's all about the friendships, birds and experiences gained.  

Huachuca Canyon
At one point this weekend, we couldn't bird anymore.  The rain began to fall and I stood there smiling. Perfection.  As the darkness takes over, I prepare to rise again.  Each day with a new challenge.  Each day a reminder that life is truly wonderful. 

I've been into doing video clips while on my trips.  Here's the latest creative endeavor from my phone.  Music from the Mockingjay.  The song is called, "The Hanging Tree."  Until next time.....

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Black Friday Birding Specials

Crested Caracara-we counted 26 of them! 
Oh there's nothing like waiting until the last minute for those special items......

The stress.  The mad rush to get those last minute birds before that big day arrives. 

Juvenile Crested Caracara
To find them, you have to get a little down and dirty.

Red-breasted Sapsucker-snapped this past week in Madera Canyon 
I can't order these specialties online nor do I seem to find them anywhere on the racks.  "Limited edition!" I'd say.   

A favorite!  The Arizona Woodpecker.  
But I got up early before everyone else did!  Not fair.  Who cut the line?

Sexy sexy Lark Bunting
Did I go to the wrong place?  But the advertisement said......

A common color for birds out in the Flats is yellow.  Western Meadowlarks(above), Savannah Sparrows, Horned Larks, etc are just some examples.  All were in great numbers on this trek. 
.....there'd be one available down this way!  I even had the right GPS coordinates!

American Pipit
Well I guess I'll do the best I can. That's really all I can do to get ready for the big day. 

Last week after school I went to capture a shot of the geese near my school.  Snow Goose(left) with Greater white-fronted Goose
Thankfully we all teamed up and switched to Plan B.  It's always good to have a Plan B even if you didn't know you had a Plan B. Luckily we found some Mountain Plovers together.  

Mountain Plover!  We counted 6 of them.  A much needed "new" bird for the year. Nothing like waiting until the last minute:)
Better to team up and share the experience!

December 31st is approaching quickly.  Just how many more birds can I find before the year is over?  This has been an amazing experience.  Part of me just wants to bird like a normal person again.  The other part wants to keep going.  And the other part worries that I might be obsessed with birds:) A special thank you to Magill Weber for driving and suggesting a trip out to the Santa Cruz Flats. Laurence Butler also joined in on the fun and together we conquered the Flats. (Or so we thought.  A group of wise ancient birders covered the same area and found a rare gem to AZ known as a Black-throated Blue Warbler!) I swore I wouldn't go out there again unless I had to!  I even tried to get my Mountain Plovers in Colorado but that plan didn't work out.  So back to the dirty Flats it was. Even if you bird from the car, you will get dirty! But I will say that the Flats have one of the best raptor shows in Arizona during the winter. Just be prepared to take a shower when you get home:) More next week.....