Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Working With Unknowns

Thick-billed Parrots at the Sonoran Desert Museum.  This is a place I like to go and actively study my birds.  
Lately, I've taken on a slower birding pace due to the heat and my work. Oh wait! I need to track down a Painted Bunting, Short-tailed Hawk, Mississippi Kite, Mexican Chickadee, Ridgway's Rail(formerly known as a Clapper Rail) and several other elusive-but-already-seen birds like the Pinyon Jay and Brown Pelican(for AZ).

A Swainson's Hawk alongside the road near St. David
This is probably the closest I'll ever get to doing a "Big Year" in the US.  I mostly stayed within the United States to search for new birds. I thought that while I was doing that I'd rediscover a lot of the other birds already seen.  So it has been a lot of fun chasing them down. 

A kettle of Turkey Vultures on Mt. Lemmon

Next year it will be a different game as we head to Southern Mexico.  In fact much of my work will be taking me out of Arizona.  There are lots of other new birds for me here in the US but my attitude is to take it slow and enjoy the fun.  

A pair of Red Crossbills(male and female) in Greer
July and August are the starts to early migration, but since I had done all my running around earlier in the year, most of my work is done within Arizona.  For the birds mentioned above, I need time and money to find them.  Since my work has begun again and my funds are exhausted, I have to budget yet again for the new year.  Plus I am personally exhausted. I have seen 442 bird species, so far, in North America. So there are nice trips coming up over the next several months but they aren't as frequent as they once were.  Which is good!

A Mountain Bluebird in Greer
I was going to head over to find the Mexican Chickadee in a remote part of the state, but the uncertain monsoons came and wrecked major havoc around the area.  Imagine desert landscape without water.  And then imagine sudden raging rivers coming out of nowhere carrying you away on an isolated road!  That's what happened with this poor lady below! Over the past several days, there have been many rescues around Southern Arizona due to the heavy monsoon rains.  Running washes are no joke!

Pic courtesy of KOLD news
The treks right now are very dangerous as we experience random intense storms, deal with really bad insects known as chiggers, rattlesnakes(cool) are out with their little ones and the heat is oppressive.  So I stay close to home and bird locally for an hour or so before returning to my air conditioned home.  I find that August and October generally tend to be my "off" months when it comes to birding.  

Female Vermilion Flycatcher
It allows me to catch up on my reading and studies on birds I'd like to find.  I think the highlight for me this month has been my study of the Cassin's Sparrows in the grasslands.  They are rather plain birds but they are so different from their relatives.  During breeding season, they will shoot straight up into the air and back down again.  I think these birds are real gems because they are difficult to ID when they aren't "larking".  So it's great fun to spend a good part of our birding adventures just observing one bird.  I have spent a lot of time studying this bird at home so that when I go out into the field, I am able to recognize the various behaviors and sounds of this bird right away.  I really enjoy the challenging birds. P.S.  Any bird with the label "Cassin's" is a piece of work.  Ask any beginning birder:)

Cassin's Sparrow in the Buenos Aires grasslands
In fact many of my evenings are spent inside of bird guides.  There are SOOO many birds.  Flycatchers can be tricky and offer a real challenge sometimes when it comes to ID.  But my biggest challenge will be the sea birds found off of the coast of California.  To me, they all look the same.  I'm beginning to note the differences between Skuas, Gulls, Terns, Jaegers, Petrels, etc. 

Great-crested Flycatcher at Merepoint, ME
On occasion, I've been known to go to an area and not really study up on the place. Sometimes it's on purpose and others times it isn't. Take for example the bird below, the Upland Sandpiper.  I didn't even know this bird existed until Kathie had mentioned to me that this was a bird she had hoped to observe.  So while I was in Maine, I studied the call which is pretty cool.  The bird runs around in grassy areas and can often be hidden from sight if it's not sitting on a fence post.  And their call!!!  I started laughing because to me, it sounds like a guy whistling at a woman passing by.  By today's standards that activity in the US is considered tacky, but we aren't dealing with humans here, are we?:)  Pretty awesome bird.  I'm no scientist but my first impression was that the bird was the offspring of a Curlew and Sandpiper:)  In fact, it looks like the evolutionary step between the various species.  They are after all related. 

Upland Sandpiper in the Kennebunkport Plains
 Other birds that are difficult for me are the warblers.  I think they're tricky for everyone not only because they're small but because there are so many of them!  In Arizona, I know where I can find my warblers but when birding another state, it's all unknown.  I try to study their habitats, but memorizing it all is impossible. In fact, the bird guides have several pages dedicated to ALL the warblers! Take, for example, the Prairie Warbler below.  I kept hearing this call that I could not ID. I went through every warbler call I knew in my head and it wasn't matching anything I knew.  At that point, I realized I was dealing with a life bird.  But who was it?  I had heard it several times on the trip to Maine but couldn't pinpoint it. Then it happened!  We were able to get a visual on the bird calling and that's when we discovered our Prairie Warbler!  But alas, the rain began to fall and the observation ended:(

Prairie Warbler near the Kennebunkport Plains, ME
I always hope for better observations.  Seeing common birds spoils us into thinking that they are all this way.....but as many birders and photographers know.....it's not.  On our camping trip to Greer, I was hoping to observe Red Crossbills better.  And we did!  It's never a given as all of it is always unknown, but when it happens, there is an internal sigh.  Even if the chances are good, I try to hold back from saying outloud, "Oh we'll find that bird!" because it will jinx the observation!  

Okay, so some of you might be wondering how a Crossbill eats?  The bill is shaped to get the seeds out of pine cones!  Pretty cool!  They eat other things as well like insects, but they do have an interesting bill!

Summer Tanager at Audubon's Paton's House in Patagonia
So on these days of extreme heat, raging rivers, nasty chiggers and avenging baby rattlesnakes protecting themselves from being stepped on, I take a step back and explore close to home....and study.  One of my projects in the next couple years is to take on the Eared Quetzal and Thick-billed Parrots of Chihuahua, Mexico.  They do rarely show up here in Arizona, and when they do, the whole birding world from around the US flocks to find them.  Sadly, these parrots were extirpated from our area a long time ago.  They tried to reintroduce them back into their former habitat many years ago but found that hawks had taken over the area making it difficult for the parrots to reestablish themselves. Another issue was starvation.  Since many of these parrots were captive bred relying on human handouts, they didn't stand a chance.  The project was terminated with little hope. Today, the parrots can be found in a small area of Northern Mexico.  However, once and a decade one shows up.....:) 

 I also believe this is a sensitive species in that if one did show up, it would be kept secret on places like Ebird.  I've discovered sensitive birds over the past several years and those records are locked for my eyes only and the researchers at Ebird.  In part, it's to keep the bird(s) safe from poachers or photographers who would endanger a bird for a photo.  

Anyhow, it's good to take a break and do so some relaxing.  I'll be back in force at the end of the month searching for some rarities in Sonora, Mexico, learning about birds and doing some birding with Gordon and AZFO in Globe and finally, taking a trip up to Colorado.  But for now, it's back to the books. And it's kind of nice:)  More soon......

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

The Southern Arizona Canyon Guide

 With the onset of our monsoon summer months here in Southern Arizona, many nature lovers seek the cool comforts of our beautiful canyons.  There are so many to explore and I must admit that there are several isolated ones that I'd like to discover with others down the road.  

Each canyon is unique and has its' own personality.  My favorites are Ramsey, Huachuca, Garden and Miller Canyons of the Huachucas, and Cave Creek Canyon near Portal of the Chiricahuas.  Other canyons of birder interest are Florida and Montosa of the Santa Ritas with the main attraction being Madera.  And there are SO many more!  I haven't mentioned the Catalina Mountains but her star attraction is the internationally popular Sabino Canyon.  But if you're going to see nature quietly, the best canyons are the ones least known by the outside crowd. 

Tarantula Hawk looks for a delicious juicy grasshopper or tarantula!
So here's my rundown on some of the more popular canyons.  Again this is just a sampling of the various canyons.  There are so many more.  It's hard to believe and embarrassing to admit but I have never visited the gorgeous, mouth drooling, scenery stealing, Big Horn Sheep bucking magic of Aravaipa Canyon.  It's on my list.  Maybe for my birthday in October......

Red Mite

The Santa Rita Mountains

  1. Madera Canyon-star attraction for birders, hikers and picnickers seeking cooler temps.  Easy access with wonderfully maintained paved roads.  There are Bed and Breakfasts in the Canyon.  We've stayed at one and had a great time. It is a popular place for observing lots of wonderful hummingbirds! 
    The very special Black-capped Gnatcatcher can be found in both Montosa and Florida Canyons and sometimes along the Proctor Trail of Madera Canyon.
  2. Montosa Canyon-the secret gem of the Santa Ritas.  Lots of specialty birds can hang out in this area. It is a canyon for hunters, joggers and birders.  Access into the canyon isn't difficult but can be if there is a monsoon storm. Parts of the road are paved while others are gravel. I also recommend going with others as I have run into drug runners.  It is an area that can be remote.  
    Rufous-capped Warblers along the narrow canyon and stream bed of Florida Canyon
  3. Florida Canyon-really a lovely canyon with a good chance of spotting the rare-to-the-US Rufous-capped Warbler.  The road can be rocky and difficult at times if there have been rains. There are trails but they are geared more towards birders and hikers.  Often, there is an active stream.  There is a small waterfall area that requires climbing.  It's good to have someone there to spot you in case you fall.  And it does happen. 

The Huachuca Mountains

This is easily my favorite mountain range because of its proximity to Tucson. It's also near the border and attracts all kinds of exotics! Great birds and other critters!  Here are just a few of my favorites.

Ferruginous Hawk near the entrance to Huachuca Canyon
  1. Huachuca Canyon-one of my favorites!  There is great hiking here along with the birding.  You'll need to bring your US ID to get onto this military base but it's easy.  Be careful with your Canadian birder friends.  Personally I never had an issue, but I've heard reports of these snowbirds getting turned away.  Military threats indeed!  This canyon has been home to the infamous Sinaloa Wren and other rare Mexican Species.  The issues?  The road can be rough after a rain event.  Wildlife!  This canyon, like many others, is home to bears and other fun critters. But for some reason, we hear more reports about bear in this area than any other canyon during our summer months. 
    Arizona Woodpecker is another special bird that people hope to glance!
  2. Ramsey Canyon-my personal favorite.  Sure there are great birds here but it's more than that.  Sometimes I just want to go for a nice lovely hike and walk among deer and coati.  There is a 6 dollar entrance fee but it's worth it.  This is also a great canyon for rarities like the Violet-crowned Hummingbird. And I personally think this canyon and Montosa have some of the most interesting bugs flying around!
    Violet-crowned Hummingbird
  3. My surprise new favorite canyon this year has been Garden Canyon on the Ft. Huachuca base.  Dark and magical with streams crossing the road, this place reminded me of something I've read in a fairytale.  I even got a fairytale picture of a Spotted Owl! This shot reminds me of Winnie the Pooh.....and I don't know why.
    Garden Canyon and a beautiful Spotted Owl!
  4.  Miller Canyon-Epic trails with lots of specialty birds like the Montezuma Quail, Northern Goshawk, and White-eared Hummingbird.  Here you can visit Beatty's Orchard and enjoy lots of incredible hummingbirds around his CAS(Controlled Access Site).  There are benches and lots of feeders to keep a nature lover occupied for some time.   Sit underneath the shade of the ramada and enjoy the show!  He does ask for a donation to keep his feeders full.
    A Montezuma Quail watches me from a trail off of the gravel road of Miller Canyon
  5. Ash Canyon is another great spot for birders to hang out for a break from the trails.  There are lots of hummingbirds including the very special Lucifer Hummingbirds that hang out at her location.  They are rare to Southern Arizona but they are regulars at Mary Jo's place.  A 5 dollar donation is requested to help maintain the feeders around her bed and breakfast. 

Juvenile male Broad-billed Hummingbird

The Chiricahua Mountains

Admittedly, I have barely touched these mountains.  The trip from Tucson is a bit further than other mountain ranges so I have to carefully schedule my visits here.  This is one incredible place full of species that cannot be found anywhere else in the US.  It is home to the Mexican Chickadee and other specialty birds.  Normally if I visit the Chiricahuas, I will stay for a couple nights because the one way trek is almost 3 hours long.  

Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher

Cave Creek Canyon is the only canyon I have visited.  It's pretty amazing as it feels like there is more wildlife than humans in this rather remote part of the world.  If you are driving from Phoenix or Tucson, you will need to pass through New Mexico and then reenter Arizona on the other side of the Chiricahuas to enter Portal. There is another road that crosses over the mountain range but it requires a sturdy car:)  Again, it's another favorite hotspot for me.

Bridled Titmouse
Everyone has their favorite birding hotspot.  Southern Arizona is rich with diversity and has lots to offer.  That's why it's such a wonderful playground for so many outdoor aficionados from around the world.  We're more than just a desert.  Happy Birding! Until next time.....

A little hummingbird fun at Madera Canyon.  For more bird fun, check out Wild Bird Wednesday!

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Height Of Emotion

New England is a gorgeous place to bird.  I found myself drawn towards the borders of New Hampshire and Maine. The mountains and heavily forested areas were rather magical.  So we decided to take a trip into the Rangely District where we would explore several areas. 

We stopped at several hotspots which included rest stops, campgrounds and the infamous Boy Scout's road.  But before we began our walks into the wooded areas, we stopped at this amazing overlook.  Talk about breathtaking!

As the day went on, we had some amazing views of vireos and warblers. The humidity increased and a storm was brewing. 

Blue-headed Vireo
It would be great if someone could invent a light air conditioning outfit that would keep us cool on our hikes:) When we explore new areas(or old), we become wrapped up in all the wonderful discoveries forgetting about the bugs biting or terrible heat beating us slowly down.  But there comes a point when it doesn't matter how many bottles of water you drink or what sun hat you wear......

There comes a point when someone (or everyone) breaks down and says enough is enough.  Yet the bird song keeps us from using our common sense.  What's that?  Who's making that call? Just a couple meters here.  Pangs of hunger. Thirst. Itch. Damn mosquito!  Itch. Blood. Itch! A tick!?! How long has that been there?!  Just a few more minutes. Northern Parula!  Awesome!  And the time flies.  The dearest of friends become grouchy. The bug bites become too much.  And....

Northern Parula
SHAZAM!!!  Like that storm building on the horizon, words become thunder and lightning.

Red-breasted Nuthatch
Wait!  A Blackburnian Warbler!?!  Life bird!!!  And then the storm hits:)

Blackburnian Warbler
I look back at this day and really enjoyed our visit to this region.  The views were beautiful but I remember everyone suffering from humidity and heat exhaustion.  At one point Kathie and I were grouchy with each other and dare I say it.....sounding like a bunch of old farts. Looking back at it, I have a good chuckle. Recently I witnessed another birder duo go at it and realized it's a natural part of any friendship/relationship.....especially when birds are involved. I had a smile. 

It rained hard later that day. A welcome relief from the unrelenting heat. We sat inside of a cute and cozy restaurant watching the thunderstorm take hold. 

I ate my warm chowder and noticed a couple Killdeer running around in the parking lot. On the way home, we spotted yet another porcupine for the year!  I have gone years without seeing them in the wild and within this year alone, I've had 7 different sightings in Arizona, Maine and New Mexico!

Locals know where to go for some relief from the humidity!
I think of all the incredible places we visited in New England, and I have to say that this area and the Lost Pond were my favorites.   Stay tuned for more!

Broad-winged Hawk

For more about birds from around the world, check out Wild Bird Wednesday!

Sunday, August 3, 2014

A Band of Birders

The Green-tailed Towhee
The journey never ends and the birds are always out there just waiting to be found.  Part of the fun about birding is getting the chance to hang out with new and old friends of all ages!  

Milbert's Tortoiseshell Butterfly

And the part I love most is how spontaneous it all can be!  It's like being a kid again.
Cordilleran Flycatcher
Recently I have really gotten back into camping.  My family used to go often on the weekends while we were growing up in Wisconsin. It has been a lot of fun setting up "home" in the middle of the woods with friends.  The secret to a good nights sleep?  An air mattress:) 

Nesting Cordilleran Flycatchers
So on a trip to Greer, we, the band of birders, went looking for some elusive birds.  There we would discover many amazing birds like the American Dipper(finally!), Gray Jays, Pine Grosbeaks and a Long-eared Owl!

Of course, we'd spot many other beautiful things, but there's nothing quite like the company of fun people to enhance the birding experience. 

Northern Pygmy-Owl
Risk taking was something I used to do often when I was younger. Birding can be a lot like gambling.  You win some and you lose some. On Friday, we hit all of our target birds except the Dusky Grouse.  But with the unexpected Long-eared Owl making an appearance, it was a win-win for everyone...making up for the dip on the Grouse.

Then Saturday came.  Oh Saturday!  We drove to the 4 corners area to search for a Black-billed Magpie(below).  Why a gorgeous bird like this would hang around the 4 corners area is beyond me!  There had been reports of several birds in the area. And they were found in a tree-lined wash.  Okay, no problem.  So we drove a looooooong way to get there.....and gambled.

Black-billed Magpie in Colorado Springs, CO
Along the way, we joked and laughed really hoping we'd see this bird and count it on our state list.  The areas we had been passing were quite beautiful but not looking very Magpie friendly.  Eventually we arrived at the Klingon sounding(Star Trek reference/I'm a nerd) settlement known as Teec Nos Pos. Actually it's Navajo for "Cottonwoods in a Circle".  

Our intrepid crew!  Pic courtesy of Tommy D!  From left to right...Me, Magill, Gordon and Tommy
That made sense because the town was built around a wash full of Cottonwoods. This part of the Navajo Reservation reminded me of a ghost town. And not the good kind.  I swear there were zombies hiding behind trees. I don't know where all the people were, but it was dead silent. Thankfully we were a band of birders exploring strange new worlds and seeking out new life and new civilizations.  Or at least that's what I told myself:)

So we reached the area where the Magpies had been reported.  The habitat looked right. The coordinates were correct. So we hesitantly left our space shuttle vehicle. I was wearing a red shirt that day. Broken glass bottles sparkled in between the rocks. And there was trash everywhere.  Several trees were spray painted with colorful letters.  Dirty shirts and other clothing items draped tree branches. Perhaps a homeless encampment? Or maybe some sort of wild outdoor party happened here? There was evidence of beer drinking.  But the intrepid crew of the USS Gordon entered the forested area listening for a singular Magpie call. 

Solitary Sandpiper
One of the crew members explored a densely packed wooded area alone and discovered a human male shooting his arm full of drugs. "Yellow Alert!" (one condition level below Red Alert or meaning high caution) At this point, birds became secondary. Soon after, other humans arrived in a beat up car and our band of birders began to discuss the safety factors.  The heart to explore beats strongly in each of us, but sometimes the risk isn't worth it. And it was decided inside this rather sketchy and narrow wash that we would leave and explore around the settlement....at warp speed:)

Long-eared Owl
I could see the disappointment on people's faces.  I felt it as well!  It's hard to dip on a bird you know is in the area.  But safety first!  On this day, something triggered a couple of our alarms and I have found to trust in it for a good reason.  I have been incident free over the years while traveling here and there and I hope to keep it that way. 

American Dipper
However with that said, I enjoyed the experience very much.  I would never have gone to that part of the state alone and I was so glad we were able to explore new territory together.  Sometimes it's not always about getting the target bird....sometimes it's about something more. It won't be an experience I forget anytime soon. We thought we'd head to the 4 corners for a photo op on a human made landmark, but when we discovered that it was going to cost 5 bucks a person, we all said, "NO WAY!"  The bitter taste of dipping on the Magpie was still present.

Prairie Dog
But what's that saying? "Take milk from a cow and make a milkshake".  No no I think it's "Squeeze lemons and make a vodka lemonade:)" In any case, we birded our way back into Greer during a beautiful monsoon storm.  And that long trip back?  It wasn't long at all because we had fun trekking along the lakes on the return trip!  I discovered my mammal lifer!  The Prairie Dog. 

Male Calliope Hummingbird
And like the old childhood/college adventures, we returned to camp and planned our fun for the next day under the night sky while we ate our meal. Common Nighthawks called from the darkness.  The rain began to pitter patter down from the canopy of the trees.  A sign that it was time to retire into our tents.  That night I slept well as the cool breeze blew in under the tent flaps. 

As a side note, the 4 Corners area is safe as is most of Teec Nos Pos.  But many times, as in our case, we were searching in areas not populated or known by many people.  The birds always guide us.  Part of the fun in birding is playing the role of detective.  Unfortunately, there are places like the one we visited that can be sketchy.  Arizona has several of these birding hotspots and its always best to go in a group.  More next time....

From Sheep's Crossing in Greer!  A great place to go fishing and find an American Dipper:)  For more great birds and places to find them, check out Wild Bird Wednesday!