Monday, November 18, 2019

Coastal Desires


Living in the desert makes me yearn to be near the ocean when I have the opportunity.  I guess I was also chasing Rock Sandpipers along the Oregon coast near Tillamook even if it was a little early for their arrival. It was more about enjoying the cold ocean wind.  Autumn colors. Ocean. Coffee. And birds. 


Tillamook is relatively close to Portland.  It's an hour and something drive through beautiful misty coastal rain forest to the rocky Oregon shoreline. Between the rain and dark conditions, it was a challenge to find birds.  

Beautiful Portland from on top of a dormant volcano
I often forget that most of the country is cold outside of Tucson.  It's refreshing to be surrounded by misty gray skies. I'm not a fan of gray skies for more than a couple days, but I do love how they can make one sleepy and tired all the time.  It's great "sleeping in" weather. 

Varied Thrush are absolutely beautiful but you would never know it from the dark conditions they like inhabit
As I drove along the magical highway 6 from Portland, I'd find opportunities to stop and explore for a quick bird count in a nearby campground or parking lot. The lighting inside some of these old forest areas made taking photos difficult. The habitat though was truly unique and much different from the birding in Arizona. 



I hit the peak time of autumn and everything around me was full of color.  Leaves were falling. And I felt very happy. 

Black Turnstone
When I arrived at the ports along the coast, I could see a very turbulent ocean with lots of high winds.  The birding was still better here along the ocean than it was inland as there had been nonstop rain. Along the coast, other than the winds, it was pretty decent birding weather. I searched coves that were calm and protected from the wind. And sure enough, I'd find all the shorebirds huddled together. 

Surfbird
Originally I had planned to hike along the beach to count gulls but the waves were out of control and the tide was high. I scanned around harbors for Marbled and Ancient Murrelets but again, the water was too rough.  It's amazing anything can survive those chaotic waves. 



At one location, I enjoyed watching sandpipers huddle together. The wind was so loud that the birds were not spooked by my movement. I enjoyed long looks at these birds until a Peregrine Falcon flew over and caused chaos. 

Least Sandpiper
I'll admit that sandpipers are not my most favorite shorebirds to observe.  I like them, but I often see them through a scope.  And that's rather boring.  In this situation, I was able to get a few feet above them and see their field marks better. 

Two slightly larger Western Sandpipers sandwich a Least Sandpiper
A new storm was heading my way and the waves began to hit the shoreline harder. I carefully walked out onto the point keeping my eyes out for rogue waves. 



A bird that I don't often get to see, the Black Turnstone, was a thrill to observe. 


And who doesn't love a cool looking Surfbird?  I hadn't been expecting this species up in Oregon.  For some reason, I think of them as a Southern California/Mexico bird, but their range extends from the top of North American to the southern tip of South America.  That's pretty amazing. 


The rain began to fall and the waves were now crashing against the shore and getting me wet.  At one point, I put the camera away and tried to not get pushed around by the strong winds.  


The highway back to Portland is absolutely beautiful.  There's also a chance for birders to spy Mountain Quail and Sooty Grouse. My last lifer for the trip was the sneaky Mountain Quail.  

Mountain Quail refused to pose for the camera. 
I'd like to thank Khanh and Robert for their hospitality.  It was the break I needed.  Next week we head back to Arizona for some birding with friends.  Until next time.....

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Clouds of Cranes

Local bird guide, Ken Blankenship shows visitors from out of town the beauty of the Draw
November is a relatively quiet month in Southeastern Arizona for birders. Wintering birds arrive while most of our summer breeding birds have left for the year. Many local bird guides plan their vacations during this time of year because everything slows down a bit. But that doesn't mean Arizona birding gets any less exciting!


Nature enthusiasts try to get that perfect shot of the cranes from one of the platforms
It's also the perfect time to search for wintering favorites like the Sprague's Pipit, Ruddy Ground Dove, Bell's Sparrow, Eurasian Wigeon or Mountain Plover. This past weekend, we headed out to the Whitewater Draw, near McNeal, for my yearly Sandhill Crane count.  We were not disappointed!

A young Sandhill Crane sticks close to the trail
Most birders think that the Sandhill Crane show is at its best in December and January, but mid-November is really quite excellent as well. With the arctic blast moving down into many US states this past week, I figured that cranes would be on the move.  Sandhill Cranes begin to migrate after their waterways are frozen by the cold northern weather. 

Incoming Sandhill Cranes
 Over the years, the Sandhill Crane population has increased dramatically at the Whitewater Draw  Wildlife area making it a premier Southeastern Arizona birding destination. I have discovered through personal experience that November is probably the best month to see these birds up close as they move back further in December and January due to the hunting season (which begins from November 22nd until December 18th this year.)  

Sandhill Cranes blanket the skies as they settle in for the afternoon

There are a couple platforms that will allow you access to see the birds closer.  If you do go, keep your eyes open for a rare wintering Ruddy Ground Dove. Other Whitewater Draw birds of interest include Great Horned and Barn Owls. I even suspect there could be a secretive Short-eared Owl hiding in those grasses. 

Keep your eyes open for a rare Ruddy Ground Dove.  Several can and do winter here from time to time
There are two great times to observe the spectacular Sandhill Cranes lifting off, early morning at sunrise and around 11 AM when the birds return to the wetlands for the day.  



If you're an early morning riser, which I am not, then the sunrise liftoff is perfect for you.  Wear some warm clothes because it can often be cold!  If you like to sleep in and have breakfast, then be there by 10:30 or eleven. 


Great Horned Owls hoot
Great Horned Owls are pairing up right now.  



So listen for their hoots and you might be serenaded by these amazing birds. 


I'd also like to mention my route that I take when I do my annual birding count at the Whitewater Draw.  I live in Tucson so it takes about 1 hour and 44 minutes to get there. It's easy to be tempted by the other amazing birding hotspots on the way there, but stay focused birder! Cranes first. 


Drive to the Draw.  Bird until 1 PM.  Then stop in Bisbee(nearby) for lunch or a late breakfast. And on your way back, stop by the San Pedro House along the San Pedro Riparian area outside of Sierra Vista for a nice afternoon walk. It makes for a great way to end your birding adventures. 


OH! One other thing!  If you see a flock of Snow Geese at the Whitewater Draw, don't assume they are all Snow Geese!  Can you find the Ross's Geese in the pic below?


Often the skies were full of cranes! I had estimated at least 6000 birds, but there were definitely more as we were leaving.  By the end of December and into January, Sandhill Crane numbers are at their highest!



To see our checklists from the day, I've attached them here with the links.  
Stop one.  The Whitewater Draw Wildlife Area
Stop two. The San Pedro House and Riparian Area


Sunset at the San Pedro Riparian Area
On a side note, I'm excited to be writing for Tucson Audubon and sharing my love for Southeastern Arizona birds with you all. Each month, I'll feature something exciting from the state of Arizona but I'll focus much of my energy around activities in Southeastern Arizona.  Next month, we'll be joining Jake Mohlman's CBC for the Atascosa Highlands.  So if you're looking to get involved in the birding world, check out Tucson Audubon's list of CBC(Christmas Bird Count) locations.  It's a great way to meet people and discover incredible birds. 

Note that the hyphen is no longer needed for the Common Ground Dove OR Ruddy Ground Dove.  A change that was made by the ABA this summer.  Also of note.  If you put a dog bowl out with water, will a Common Ground Dove be guaranteed? 😃
 November brings us much needed relief from the hot temps.  As many of us prepare to celebrate the upcoming holiday season, make sure you take the time to get outdoors and enjoy the birds.  Most people will be rushing to the malls and other high human density areas.  With everyone shopping and busy with holiday prep, the nature trails are often quiet and perfect for exploration. 

We explore and record our sightings carefully
Until next time everyone!  Happy birding!



Sunday, November 3, 2019

Pumpkin Spice and Everything Nice

A male Ruffed Grouse puts on a show for his lady friend
This week we take you to the beautiful Pacific Northwest where I joined friend and bird guide Khanh Tran for a scouting mission.  


Our mission?  To scout several new areas for owls and grouse, specifically the Boreal Owl.  And while I was there, I wanted to understand the Blue Grouse habitat better.  Several years ago, they were split.  The Dusky Grouse. And the Sooty Grouse. 

Pine Grosbeak
It was a fun trip.  There were no expectations other than to go birding with Khanh and have fun. Khanh needed to do some scouting for his clients and we definitely checked out some amazing places together. 


Pine Grosbeaks were definitely in good numbers for this time of year.  We had them at virtually every location.  Khanh mentioned that this might be a good sign for winter birding in Washington state. 


We maneuvered around hunters during this week on mostly secure roads. During one outing, we had three species of chickadees.  My ears could pick out ONE Boreal Owl and we both briefly saw the bird.  A huge flock of Mountain Chickadees passed through the area, but one lingered a little longer.  Bingo!  But it didn't stick around for a pic. This chickadee prefers the higher elevations, above 5,500 feet, in Engelmann spruce.  The tighter the growth of these spruce; the better chances of us finding this species of chickadee. 

A Mule Deer evades the hunters
It was fun watching Khanh bird.  He is unique from other birders in that he studies habitat well.  He knows his elevations.  In fact, his jeep has a sensor detecting elevation hikes. And what separates him from other birders is that he doesn't use ebird.  He's aware of it, but he does his own thing.  I admire that about him.  It frustrates some local birders because he doesn't report his findings on ebird. In fact, during our time together, I hid several reports to protect the owls.  It takes a lot of time and money, along with the habitat knowledge, to find these birds.  This kind of birding is very different from much of my Arizona work.  However, I will say today that Ebird has blocked out several sensitive and specific owl species sightings from their program.  And I'm appreciative of that.  It's all to protect the bird.  You want an owl?  Teach yourself by attending conferences, reading and personal exploration.  There are no short cuts. 


The roads and hillsides burst forth with bright fall color.  I don't think Khanh even knew how wonderful it would be.  Every year, I plan an autumn trek somewhere where I can just bird and look at the pretty landscape.  During this time of year, the birds take a backseat to all the trees and bushes changing color. 


Chestnut-backed Chickadee
Often during our trek to find the Boreal Owl, there would be flurries as we hiked in elevation.  Then the snow would happen and it was time for the holiday music.  Everyone always apologizes for the weather, but I informed Khanh that I bring the rain and snow with me everywhere I go.  I hate the heat so much and I love wrapping myself up in my fuzzy lined jacket.  It makes me happy to feel that cold.  He told me it wasn't optimal weather, and I understood that very well.  I didn't care.  We were just birding and doing what I would normally do in Arizona. Chasing birds gets old.  Exploring new habitat however NEVER gets old. 


I frosted my hair for this trek so that I would match my surroundings:)  Snow. The older I get, the more and more I hate the heat.  I'm not sure I could live along the Pacific Northwest because of the constant overcast skies.  But eastern Washington or Oregon wouldn't be such a bad option. The minute you leave the rain forest strip, the skies open and the sun shines. 


One of the most stressful things about the birding here are the roads. On this trek, there was only one road that was questionable. I mean, if that rock below my feet let go, there's no way of surviving that fall. The pic below shows me on that sketchy part of the road.  The rock juts out and underneath the rock there is nothing for a couple thousand feet!


For those of you following my Dusky Grouse search in Arizona, you will know that I have not had any luck with this bird over the years.  I have searched the right kinds of habitat for this bird and looked in the right locations. Well, I'm excited to say that I spotted my first 3 Dusky Grouse! After studying them for 20 minutes, I attempted a pic.  Understanding their behaviors and where they prefer to feed has helped me understand our only AZ grouse better.  They are found in the White Mountains around Greer, the North Rim of the Grand Canyon and around Snowbowl north of Flagstaff on Mt. Humphrey.  Next year, I know how I'll approach finding my last "new" breeding AZ bird. 

An elusive Dusky Grouse
Now onto our Boreal Owl story.  Our first night was too windy.  The snow storm was strong and the night dark.  No luck. 


It was on our second night, again during the most beautiful snow storm, that we'd find our Boreal Owl in a new location.  There was no wind.  It was quiet. Dark. And snow flakes gently fell to the ground.  The packy kind of snow. As we stood under the snow umbrella of a dense conifer tree, we heard the unmistakable "skee-oo" of the Boreal Owl.  Most people just get to hear that call, but I was rewarded with a great look as the bird flew into my light.  It's short body and longer wings flew silently under that quiet umbrella into the branches above our head.  I didn't know which was cooler, the atmosphere surrounding the bird or the bird itself.  It wasn't long, but it was enough to ID and memorize.  I closed my eyes and tried to mentally capture this moment for those really difficult days at my job. There are no souvenir pictures other than the one my mind mentally took.  I was proud of myself for letting the camera at my side so I could just enjoy watching this bird. "Skee-oo!" and it moved further away.  And then another quieter, further "Skee-oo!" The Boreal Owl was gone. 



It was hard to top that sighting of the owl, but the following day, we saw a male Ruffed Grouse on display!  Never in our lives have we seen this bird display.  Khanh sees this bird all the time, but never like this.  I have only ever dreamed about seeing this bird in his mating stance ever since the day I began studying them in Wisconsin.  I thought I'd never see this bird do it's strut.  But years later, both Khanh and myself get the observation of a lifetime!


The larches of the North Cascades were a brilliant yellow as the sun hit them with a gentle ray of light. 


We hiked northern Washington along the Canadian border in lots of snow. 


Don't mind my crazy hair.  Khanh looks great.  I need a haircut. Until next time friends!



Saturday, October 26, 2019

Welcome Surprises

A Sonoran Bumblebee stops for a look
Summer has officially left the desert and the end of the 2019 year is coming.  As we get closer to the start of the holidays, I've been enjoying some peaceful outings with friends and family. 


Our friend Bonnie from Wales came to visit. And it was a blast getting to hang out with Sherry too! We took a nice hike in Madera Canyon to find that elusive Elegant Trogon.  


After our hike, we sat at the Santa Rita Lodge feeders and watched a Black-throated Gray Warbler take a sip from the fountain. 

Swainson's Hawk
As we took my Santa Rita bird route, we had a lingering Swainson's Hawk fly over our heads.  This bird was most likely heading south for the winter. 


With the extreme temps gone now, it's SO nice to sit under a rock and absorb the natural world around us.  


A male Vermilion Flycatcher fluoresces in the autumn light. 


This year has been all about reflection. About friends.  About sharing the experience with others. I remember those days when I did all of my birding alone, but now, I can't imagine my world without these friends. 

Bronzed Cowbird
One night after a rough day at work, I went to a local park to count black birds.  Not everyone gets into the black birds, but I like this group a lot.  I sat on a lawn at a local park and watched them feed from the grasses. When I say black birds, I literally mean any bird that is black including cowbirds and blackbirds:)

Yellow-headed Blackbirds
To my surprise I discovered many of our wintering birds are coming back!  


juvenile Gray Hawk
While some of our summering ones still linger. 


I welcome the wintering birds.  I welcome those friendships both new and old.  And I welcome back these wonderful temperatures.  Winter has come.  Next week we celebrate autumn in the Pacific Northwest.  I hope you join me for our adventures with friend and bird guide Khanh Tran.  Until next time friends.....