Friday, February 5, 2016

The Twice-told Tale

Glassy reflections at the San Rafael Grasslands

"All this has happened before and it will happen again."  Each year I retrace my steps, but I am certainly coming to the end of it all.  There is only "out there" now, beyond Arizona. 

I've finished up most of my work in Arizona and there are just a few places I need to survey again for my final birds. The Black Rail, the American Three-toed Woodpecker and Dusky Grouse. I need a photo of the Flammulated Owl, but I can do that elsewhere.  Arizona, it has been fun, but it is time to focus on the world at large.  Now my work will take me into the various locales around the Americas. Or I will be helping out with various projects around the state.

American Kestrel
So when it came time to plan for the weekend, I could only think of the grasslands. They are my favorite places to bird. I asked my friend Marla if she wanted to go for a drive through an amazing area.  And she was up for it.  There was that same rare Yellow-throated Warbler hanging out in Patagonia Park again this year, but I had no desire to chase it. Those days are over. Instead, I helped guide some visitor's to where the bird may be hanging out.  If you want to read about it, you can click on last year's report.  I'm not telling the same story twice on this blog:)

The beautiful San Rafael Grasslands
I saw my Baird's Sparrow and White-tailed Kites, but I was more interested in letting Marla find them.  She had never seen these birds before and it was great showing her around the San Rafael Grasslands.  There is something fun about helping others explore new areas. I like taking pictures but lately, I've been into the binos a lot more. So in a moment of my yearly reflection, I thought about what I will plan for this upcoming year. No more chasing the same rare birds. No more of the "same" experiences.  It's time to focus on other things. 

When with non-birders, it's fun to make finding birds a game. And it was fun watching Marla stumble upon a rafter of turkeys. After I heard her gasp, I knew she spotted something nice. They were our first of the year Wild Turkeys!  After counting each and every one of them twice, we came to the conclusion that there were 28 of them!

Wild Turkeys in Patagonia
January has passed and I will disappear for awhile from the birding world in Arizona.  It's a break long overdue.  There is still one trip left in Yuma.  And one for Greer.  I think I feel this way EVERY winter before spring break.  It's hard to break routine:)  Even with fun hobbies!

Canyon Towhee in Patagonia
One last note. Before the weekend started, I went with my colleagues to prepare for the annual breeding event at our school. And yes I'm talking owls here:) My ebird records were showing that it was time for our Mama Owl to begin nesting. So we prepped her nest, Oro Valley style, and cleaned out the debris from last year for our very high maintenance Soccer Mom Owl:)  And we loved it!

Peter Fletcher climbs the ladder to clean out the debris with gloves.  We put in a new blanket so that Mom can stay cozy on her nest.
 By Monday, our Great Horned Owls were preparing to nest again and we were thrilled. This is one of the reasons why keeping data is awesome! It has happened before and it will hopefully happen again. And there is something very rejuvenating about it all.

Last years brood:)
 It's like seeing that first tulip appear out of the snow.  A sign that vacation is near:) 

In the meantime, I'll continue working in the bird world.  I'm thinking about doing another "Birds in Blooms" series while I'm waiting for the next big trek. I'll be out in the grasslands again doing more surveys for my own records and helping out Tucson Audubon with Longspur and Sparrow studies. My favorites!

Dark-eyed Junco(Pink-sided) 
I plan to finish off this last series of "grassland" blogs at the Buenos Aires Wildlife Refuge next week.  

Arizona Woodpecker

Here are my half hearted(or whole hearted) attempts at good photos of birds already seen.  Although, I still strive to get better photos of a Red-necked Grebe:)  The pic below represents a slice of the 179 species seen during the month of January. After seeing birds over and over again, I have learned to hone in on their behaviors and it is rewarding. My difficult objective was achieved, 7 new state birds and 4 new lifers(Yellow-billed Loon, McCown's Longspur, American Bittern and Barrow's Goldeneye!) The challenge has ended and now it's time for adventure! 

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Loon-y Tunes

Bill Williams National Wildlife Refuge

Sometimes.  Just sometimes this birding epic can be a little too much. On a gamble(or was it twitching?), we did something crazy. Four and half hours later, we found ourselves along the Colorado River and in the infamous Lake Havasu area. I had never been there before and it was the last area of Arizona that I needed to explore.  The purpose of our exhausting mission?  Loons.  Lots and lots of loons. And a certain wintering Goldeneye.

People will say that we are crazy, but I am on a quest to add state birds to the Arizona list this month.  We weren't just chasing a rare Yellow-billed Loon; we were chasing a large group of waterbirds that are normally rare for much of Arizona except for the Havasu area. They have been waiting for me to add them to my state list:) This is a very long trek for many Arizona birders. Therefore it's one of the least visited birding regions in the state. Well that is until the rarest loon in the world, the Yellow-billed Loon(Diver), decided to stop in Arizona. Their population is about 10000 worldwide and very little is known about this species of loon since they breed up in the icy regions of the far North. It is listed as an endangered bird due to habitat loss, oil spills and over fishing.

Hattie points us to our FOY American Robin! 
For this trek, 3 humans and a dog explored bird spaces along the beautiful Colorado River. The journey turned out to be very rewarding.  We didn't have just one loon; we had an epic 4 species of loon!!! I should have titled this post "Your One Stop Shopping Center" because we added Herring Gull, Red-necked Grebe, Yellow-billed, Red-necked, Pacific and Common Loons, and Barrow's Goldeneyes.  Two birds would be lifers.  And 4 birds would be added to my state list!  That is a VERY good day.

Ring-billed Gull
With my parks pass, we were able to get into Katherine's Landing for "free".  It costs 20 dollars for people without the pass!!!  As Tracy Morgan would say, "That's crazy!"  I became excited when I saw water.  And lots of it.  There was a network of piers in the area and it was COLD!  So we ventured onto moving piers.

Cold and windy, I make a fake smile.  I'm freezing!

We called out birds left and right. "Clark's Grebe! Wood Duck! Golden Eagles having!" But where was that Yellow-billed Loon?

Searching for that Yellow-billed Loon at Katherine Landing
As we scanned the waters, the wind kept the piers moving.  Normally I am one to stomach the bouncy waves but I think with me focusing on far away birds in a scope and a moving pier, I became a bit queasy.

Top from left to right: Yellow-billed Loon(wiki), Pacific Loon; Bottom left to right Red-throated Loon, Common Loon  
Loons are amazing.  They also make incredible vocalizations.  ID'ing a Loon in breeding plumage is easy.  It's when they are in their winter forms that can challenge even the best of birders.  Loons love deep waters and most often are seen from the distance if you are on land.  But apparently waving a white shirt in the air will attract these birds......hmmm.  Something to try next time.

Many times a scope is necessary and even then it can be difficult. Such was the case with the Yellow-billed Loon.  It hung out further away due to the human traffic.  Here is the image I was able to capture(below).  

When I visit Alaska and Canada, I hope to get better photos of this bird one day. The bill is large and upright making it stand out!

You can note the size differences.  In the photo, the YBLO hangs out with a Common Loon.  It's more upright and larger making the COLO look like it's "slouching" in the water.
 Thankfully, the other loons(in the montage above) were seen from vantage points where I could get nice photos. The Pacific Loon was sick and unfortunately didn't live long after that photo was taken. I was just a newbie, but after that sad incident, I programmed our Wildlife Rescue program into my phone. Today the bird's body can be found at the University of Arizona for study. The Red-throated Loon has a spotty back and is lighter gray overall in its winter plumage.  It was seen from a pier in California.  My Common Loon shot was taken in Mexico just feet from the shore! But of all the loons, the Yellow-billed is the rarest of the 5 loons in the world.  

 I think my love for loons began as a child on the lakes of Minnesota where we'd vacation often.  Their calls were the most haunting and beautiful sounds I have ever heard.  My number one favorite movie of all time is "On Golden Pond".  This movie heavily uses the Common Loon as a metaphor for life and relationships. And once a year, I revisit this incredible movie about this aging journey we all must make.

A rare Herring Gull-gulls are fun to ID! Really!!

 As we were getting ready to leave, we heard a loud blood curdling scream.  I thought, oh oh.  Magill has gone off the deep end!  As I spun around, I was happy to see that she hadn't fallen into the cold waters but was horrified to see that her million dollar scope was sinking into the dark waters!  She was able to recover the scope before it completely submerged into the depths of the unknown. It was like that first ding on your newly purchased car:(

Common Goldeneye
It was also time to claim the Barrow's Goldeneyes that are typically found in Northern Arizona this time of year.  What's interesting about these birds is that they look similar to the Common Goldeneyes except that they have a white mark on their face in the shape of a semicolon instead of a white dot.

Barrow's Goldeneye-drake
These birds can be tricky as they can blend into large rafts of Common Goldeneyes. And they often seem to hang out further away from the place you're standing:)  My first view with them was with Magill through her still wet scope.  Thankfully it all still worked.  Then I noticed there was a pair near one side of a stretch of land with water on both sides.  Since it was a life bird, I went down the walkway to get pics of the bathing birds.

Magill pointed out to me there differences between the female Common and Barrow's Goldeneyes.  I think I got this one right.  The bill on the female Barrow's Goldeneye is completely orange.

After this trek, it was time to call it quits.  There are no big years left.  There just is.  And that's a good place to be. It's time to educate younger birders and give back to a community who has given me so much.  As for the loons?  They're currently still hanging out:)  Good birding!

Sunday, January 24, 2016

White Winter Hymnal

The brisk cold winds of change came soon after my return to Arizona. One week after the warm border searches, it was time for some mountain fun. Winter had indeed arrived to Southern Arizona. 

the snowy Huachucas
With state birds in mind, I joined a walk I had been wanting to do for awhile in Sierra Vista. Last week it was the Streak-backed Oriole and today, I was hoping to find the secretive American Bittern at the Sierra Vista EOP(or Environmental Operations Park) It's a secured area with group lead access only on Sunday mornings. With the recent snowfall during the weekend, I couldn't resist the photography bit in both the Huachuca mountains and Cienagas Grasslands.  And this is where our story takes place today.

A Loggerhead Shrike at work.  It's Vole dinner
On our way through the gates, a participant in the group noticed a vole speared onto a branch.  It was evidence that the "Butcherbird" (aka Loggerhead Shrike) was nearby.  While the group examined the fresh kill, we tried locating the bird. No luck!  But as we left, we noticed that the vole was gone:)  

Loggerhead Shrike
Afterwards, I took a solitary walk on the snowy paths of Ramsey Canyon.  There, melting snow fell upon my head.  I was a tad wet when I left this winter wonderland.  BUT WOW!

My favorite tree in all of Arizona.  It's old and ancient.  Someday I'd like my ashes to be placed around this very large tree. I call it the Heart Tree.  It's at the center of Ramsey Canyon, one of my top ten favorite places in Arizona.
During my walk, I was surprised by how quiet the birds were.  I can only imagine how dangerous it might be as a small bird dodging the huge snow chunks falling from the trees. It was dangerous for people! I suppose it would be the equivalent to an aerial avalanche.  I made note and realized that most birds flew just below the snowline where they were active and feeding.

In the soft crunch of snow beneath my shoes, I watched a Coati run towards me on our now shared route.  We both stopped for a moment and watched each other before he turned off and headed towards the nearby abandoned cabin.

I very much like the cold.  I don't like the eternal gray skies that can sometimes come with the snow, but I do prefer the frosty temps over the hot sweltering ones of our summer months.

One path leads to another.  I stopped in the nearby grasslands and hiked some more.  Birds were present, but I was more interested in quiet reflection.  Things are changing.  I can sense it coming and I need to be ready for those changes.

Lesser Goldfinches mob the thistle feeder
"They" say change is good and inevitable. Sometimes it's about saying good-bye to the ritual and people involved around these loving spaces dedicated to birds and wildlife.  I sat at the now named Tucson Audubon's Paton Center for Hummingbirds alone.  Thankfully Tucson Audubon was able to purchase this home for current and future generations of birders.  It's a great spot for all kinds of birds and a traditional stop for many birders and tourists coming through the Patagonia area.  It's a piece of feathered folklore written in a sacred text for those who worship the bird.

The Violet-crowned Hummingbird-an established resident of Tucson Audubon's Paton's Center for Hummingbirds
Before Tucson took over, a guy by the name of Larry Morgan kept the feeders running for years after the homeowners, the Paton's, passed away.  You'd see him outside with his smiling face helping people spot their lifer Violet-crowned Hummingbird.  When Larry and his wife said they were leaving to begin a new chapter in their lives, I was both happy and sad. It wasn't quite the same without him there on this last visit.  It just proves once again how we all can make a difference for so many people. And how Larry has made a huge impact for thousands of birders across the world.  How can I write down this feeling in my Cheesehead lingo?  It's like having coffee cake with your friends on Saturday morning for many years and more Saturday morning get togethers.  You eat the coffee cake alone.  And it doesn't taste as good.  Anyhow, I'm going to miss Larry and my Patagonia routine.  He's one of the nicest people you'll ever meet! He's in Tucson now so hopefully we'll get to do some birding together now that he's closer:)

My reflections continued into the Ciénagas Grasslands near Empire Gulch where I walked alone against the biting wind. I strayed into the old abandoned buildings looking for owls and other goodies.  This is another top 10 favorite spot for me in Arizona.  There are 3 grassland sectors in this general region.....the San Rafael Grasslands, the Ciénagas Grasslands and Buenos Aires Grasslands.  ALL are spectacular!

The overall weekend was a lot of fun and full of quality alone time.  Every person has their favorite place to bird(or just visit!) While all birds are amazing, their locales are sometimes not:)  This weekend was about connecting with the places I love the most.

And as for my new state bird?  Yes, I achieved my goal.  I found that rare stinker of an American Bittern that has been hiding out for several months in Sierra Vista. The bird would have silently flown off had I not heard the rustle of reeds nearby. I was able to get everyone onto the bird before it disappeared into the far distance. I'd like to thank our group leader Bill Brown for the opportunity to bird this spot in depth.  He did an outstanding job with everyone involved. And it's always a plus working with people who are kind and friendly. Bill is as we say in Wisconsin "good people". Leading a bird tour isn't is as easy as it looks as I'd soon get to experience personally.  But that story is for next time. 

American Bittern in flight during our Sierra Vista EOP walk 
On a final note, one of the things I do with new birds is study them in various locations around the country.  The picture above is from the actual bird we saw.  It is countable. The one I studied in Utah, below, is not as it was in a large aviary.  I do hours of study on each new bird before trying to find them in the field.  And this is where I think aviaries are important as they can be a living classroom for birders and people interested in wildlife. I can read about birds and memorize their sounds, but understanding their movement and behaviors in a closed setting helps me "observe" better out in the field. 

American Bittern
From volunteer to participant to bird guide, my January continues in a most spectacular way. My quest within the state of Arizona for new state birds takes me north into unexplored territory. Stay tuned for more.....

Monday, January 18, 2016

The Borderlands

The borderlands of the US are some of the wildest and most remote areas of the American Southwest.  It's often best to go with water, friends and a good vehicle for these treks. 

Ferruginous Hawk
After I returned from Wisconsin, I had wanted to go to Yuma and find a rare Streak-backed Oriole.  It's a three hour drive and I didn't want to make it alone. The trek to Yuma can be...somewhat dry:) When my friends Gordon and Muriel said they were chasing the bird, I asked if I could join them. They still thought I was in Wisconsin.  And I actually was at the time of my text:)

Streak-backed Oriole
They were very kind and let me hitch a ride on this very early morning trek. Since it was the first day of the year, we felt that it was important to start the year off with a "proper" bird:) That's the birder rule.  The other birder rule is to record every bird you see on that first day.  On this day, we would find the beautiful Streak-backed Oriole from Mexico:)

Burrowing Owls
We also made lots of other discoveries on our way back home.  There were plenty of Burrowing Owls around the farming fields. But as we were counting birds, my body decided it couldn't take the stress anymore and I crashed.  I had just returned from Wisconsin and slept for 3 hours before getting back on the road again in Arizona!  I think at one point I did some snoring.  

Can you see where the border is?  Hint:  the left side is Mexico and the right is the US.  The dry creek bed is basically the dividing line. 
I also had signed up previously to help out with the Atascosa CBC count around the California Gulch and Warsaw Canyon areas along the Mexican border the following day.  So as I said good-bye to Muriel and Gordon on Saturday, I was off with Dave and Ron on Sunday doing more area counts of birds. Yes I was still exhausted. But it was for a good cause and a way to help out Tucson Audubon. 

We print a map and find a new riparian area to bird along the Warsaw Canyon area.  I write in my notes that water in winter is very important for the Five-striped Sparrow.  There was a springs/creek along a rocky outcrop. And it was here that we found one of these sparrows.  On the other counts for the day, several other FSSP were discovered around similar spots. 
As we walked along the springs of Warsaw Canyon, we found wonderful birds like the Elegant Trogon, Five-striped Sparrow and Black-capped Gnatcatcher.  The roads along the border were rocky and steep, but somehow we managed to get to our very isolated locations. 

Hooded Skunk
This area was full of fantastic wildlife.  Throughout the day, we had excellent views(!) of the very secretive Montezuma Quail!  Their numbers were quite impressive, but that didn't stop them from disappearing quickly into the vegetation. 

Female Montezuma Quail pretending to be a rock. It took me 5 minutes to locate her!  That's how "invisible" they can be!
The border can be hot and dangerous.  My tip to birders/historians/hikers/off road junkies/herpers/wildlife trackers, and everyone else who wants to visit these areas?  Bring food and water with you.  Use a sturdy vehicle that can handle off road conditions.  If you can, try and bring a friend or two with you. And always keep your eyes open. Cell phone service is spotty and doesn't work much of the time. Most of the time, the border crossing folk won't do any harm. I've been into other areas when I first began birding that had opened my eyes up to what is "THE BORDER".  It's the reason why I now carry a cell phone that has a tracker on it. I went 12 years without a cell phone! Now I'm addicted and straying away from my story so....With all that said, I have NEVER had issues in this area(Ruby Road/Peña Blanca Lake), but I have heard stories. Water and flat tires should be your main concern. And keep it all locked up. 

As we chased a Northern Beardless Tyrannulet, we found a water depot for people crossing this very isolated stretch of desert. A church organization from Tucson supplies water and food in this hidden location. These "watering holes" have been controversial as this church has been in the news several times for its humanitarian work along the border. I have no opinion on the matter, but I do hate the trash left behind in the nearby wash!

As Dave drove his all terrain vehicle up the sharp and rocky "roads", I laughed. I think it's something I do when I'm nervous.  But it was kinda fun:) We were going up some steep inclines! Luckily none of us had to use the bathroom! 

Northern Beardless Tyrannulet

As the day came to close, I thought about how crazy my start to the New Year had been. From snow to desert and then back to snow again.  I feel like I've finally hit my stride as a legit birder and that everything I've done has lead me to this moment in my life. And yet I still have so much to learn! My focus this year is on finding new state birds for Arizona. Over the next couple weeks, we'll explore the beautiful Ramsey Canyon, Lake Havasu and the Willcox area.  If you haven't done a CBC(or Christmas Bird Count) with your local Audubon, I highly encourage trying it out. And throughout the year, your local Audubon will have many other events planned! Check it out! It's good for the birds and it's a great way to meet new birders and make friends. And of course, learn about our feathered friends. Until next time.......