Friday, November 30, 2012

Nothing Beats A Great Pair of Legs

Today it's all about the long legged birds showing off at the Riparian Preserve at Gilbert Water Ranch.
Great Blue Heron in flight
Here are some shots from just of few of my favorite birds in flight. Or reflecting:)
Snowy Egret
If you're looking to refine your skills on capturing herons or egrets in flight, this is the place to do it.
They were everywhere.  I also got a chance to watch Great Blue Herons in a mating dance.  Very cool.
I'll part now and leave you with these incredible birds.  Until tomorrow.....

Great Egret in water as Snowy Egret lands next to its larger relative

Snowy Egret in flight

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Scauping Around

Remembering the "Golden Rule" of birding, we looked at the large groups of birds.  At the Gilbert Water Ranch, we'd get clear shots of the elusive Northern Pintails and Lesser Scaup.
Northern Pintail
But we had to really observe.  All these ducks today are a first for Las Aventuras.  The eye can play tricks with ducks.  Hybrids, female/male ducks, and similar looking ducks like the Canvasback/Redheads can cause one to lose track and blend them all together.
Ring-necked Duck
The important rule though is to keep your ears open.  If a rare bird is spotted in your area, there's a chance that others may be around as well.  Several posts ago, I spoke about searching for the Lesser Scaup at the Amado Recharge basin near Madera Canyon.  At the time, I wasn't able to find the bird but this Gilbert Ranch experience really led us to some great observations.
But as you can imagine, the duck below was popular with families and their kids.  Just a domestic duck.  Still cute.  This particular bird was a celebrity with the crowds at the park:)
But I'm weird.  The Lesser Scaups hiding with all the others made me jump up and down. I rushed down the bridge to get close up shots!
Lesser Scaup
Both sexes were found hiding in the Ring-necked Duck crowd.  And I had to really focus and pay attention to find them. By this time, Kathie and I were exhausted and tired.  We had spent an entire morning counting birds.  We found over 50 birds but by the time we returned back to our car, our minds were drained and our bodies lacked nourishment.
The last bird I counted on this day would be another lifer for me....the Lesser Scaup.  It just took more work and mental focus to find it:)  And what little exists up in my head was then completely drained.
But Kathie and I weren't finished.  There are two more posts coming up from our adventure and day off birding.  It's serious business and it's never 1 or 2 hours with us......but an entire day.  Just wait until you see what else we found:)  What a trip!  At the end of the day, we went home and slept.  And didn't bird for several days afterwards:)
Green-Winged Teal
More tomorrow....

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

"Peep" Show

Long-billed Dowitchers
As a beginning birder earlier this year, I'd hear the word "peeps" used on a regular basis.  I had NO idea what that meant until I asked a birder.  From my Wisconsin viewpoint, I thought it meant "buddies" as in "my peeps" or my peers!
In the field, it's hard to ID small birds from a distance, but we know they're out there.  They are small birds that normally consist of sandpipers, snipes etc.  We can see them flying but we can't ID them.   At that point, these birds are all lumped into the category known as peeps.
What was special about Gilbert Water Ranch was that we could get up and close to these birds without them flying off from us!  And we just sat watching these incredible birds walk right past us near the shore.
Black Neck Stilt
It was an exciting morning as Kathie and I sat on the shore counting and ID'ing birds. Lighting is a constant challenge in Arizona as the sun is very bright, but I am happy with the results.
Least Sandpipers
The nicest part was watching the Sandpipers up close and observing their behaviors. But I also had other surprises.
The Green Heron below was hunting.  These particular herons are the trickiest to capture on camera and I was thrilled to peer from a bush with Kathie and watch the bird stalk its food.
Green Heron
The Black Neck Stilts were also important.  I have not been able to get a nice clear shot for a long time.  My fingers fumbled through the triggers on my camera as I was overwhelmed with closeup shots.  One bird species would pass and another would distract!  No fair!
Had it not been for Kathie's eye, I would not have been able to spot the Wilson's Snipe.  It was a total thrill to strain my eyes and lens to find this one.  With the bright sun and various browns, I almost missed out on this bird. Now if I go out into the field, I'll have a better eye for this species.
Wilson's Snipe
The "Peep" show was out of this world!  I highly recommend this preserve in Gilbert for birders/nature enthusiasts visiting Arizona.  If you're stuck in Phoenix and wanting to connect with the outdoors, this is the perfect place.  There are bathrooms and more importantly......drinking fountains at the entrance.  People forget how hot it gets in AZ(even in winter) and don't prepare for the water situation.  At least here you have a quick rescue nearby if you get thirsty:) I find that while birding I forget to drink enough water and then get light headed.  That's when I sit down in the shade and refuel.
Here is a random thought to end this post.  The opening and closing shots of the Dowitchers are my favorites from this series.  I was thinking about framing them and putting them in the bathroom.  And I can't tell you why I thought this but I want to do it.  But back to the subject.  If you're into "Peep" shows and live here, I highly recommend the Riparian Preserve at Gilbert Water Ranch.  From a photographers point of view, this place will give you PRIMO views!
And for those of you from the Phoenix area, I don't mean to upset:)  Tucson and Phoenix residents have definite opinions about the "other" city and these posts are written in a fun manner. But I always write from my Wisconsin point of view and consider this blog as a way to share potential issues for snowbirders and our many winter visitors that come to visit AZ this time of year.  I lived in Phoenix.  Once:)  But Tucson stole my heart.  Remember to always lock your car on bird/wildlife outings, use sunscreen, bring plenty of water and a hat.  Kathie and I both talk about securing things up all the time whether we are in Tucson or Phoenix on our missions.  I now have a cell phone because of that drug run in from Montosa Canyon near Green Valley this past summer.  So remember to be smart wherever you go and keep an eye open for suspicious activity.  Arizona is a beautiful state but in many ways it still can be quite wild and random....partly due to the border being nearby.  But don't let that stop you from the outdoors:)  Think of my attitude towards Phoenix like that of the Sun Devils vs. The Wildcats.  It's all done in jest:)  Well maybe not the Jan Brewer bits:)  I'm no longer living in the safe and comfortable world of the Shire, but I'll take a walk on the wild side to be a part of this crazy state. More tomorrow....

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

The Gilbert Water Ranch Diaries

We had heard a rumor.  One that would prove true.  Kathie and I met at a super early hour to find birds up in the Gilbert area.  We drove into the parking lot and my lifebird count started to rise leaps and bounds.
European Starling
As I write this today, I am laughing to myself.  Kathie and I have been on a million trips since this post.  On Sunday, we were on an epic journey together and started talking about our blogs and how far behind we are on writing.  She asked me, "Did you get to the Gilbert Ranch yet?"  I smiled and panicked at the same time.  "NO!"  We both have so many photos to process.  But life has been super busy and everything took a backseat.
Well anyhow, we entered the park and saw all the usual suspects of Arizona...Verdin, Starlings, Blackbirds, Egrets, Herons, Thrashers, Quail, etc etc etc......but we were there for the "Peep" show.  A little bird told us that we could see them up close and personal.  And boy did we ever!  A special post is coming on those tiny little birds.
But we were able to get so many birds in our first hours at this Gilbert Preserve.  I'm not a Phoenix fan but it was cool enough for us to be there on this day.    Phoenix is essentially one big concrete island in the middle of the desert full of crazy people who drive into your house while you're sleeping.  I'm not even joking.  The most random crime events happen there.  It's super hot all year round.  Full of cars and traffic.  Nature isn't far away but it's a drive.  Gilbert is essentially one big suburb of cookie cutter homes.  Our GPS tracker led us straight into this preserve and I think my jaw dropped to the ground.  What an amazing surprise!
Northern Mockingbird
There were birders present during the beginning hours.  Although I did count one homeless person who asked us to ID a Starling. Now that could have been legit but it felt like he was going to ask us for something more.   Something wasn't right with that one and we left with grace.  Now don't get me wrong, I was polite but in Phoenix, you never know if someone is going to pull a knife on it's best to avoid those random elements whenever possible.
Snowy Egret
We both lost ourselves in the first hour with lots of "oh my gosh Kathie, LOOK!"  "Chris!  Get over here!"  Talk about being kids in a toy store. She's writing.  I'm taking pictures. Birds are flying everywhere. Complete and utter chaos. "What's the number on that Kathie?  How many Pintails would say?" And it went on and on like that......but we also stopped counting to just stare in awe at the amazing array of birds that we normally don't get to see up close.
Northern Pintail Ducks
Now if you're in Tucson, you need a spotting scope to see many of these birds.....especially in the Sweetwater Recharge ponds.  But at Gilbert, you could practically touch these birds.  That's how close they were.
Long-billed Dowitcher
And DOVES!!!  Phoenix and surrounding suburbish cities are full of them.  While Tucson has most of the same doves, most of them moved up to Phoenix and Casa Grande.  It would be here in Gilbert that I would spot my first Incan and Eurasian doves.
Eurasian Dove
I'd be watching a Killdeer or Sandpiper only to find hundreds of birds all shooting up into the air because a Northern Harrier was flying our way!  No way.  Camera!  Focus Chris!  Get your lens on him!  Focus FOCUS!  You're going to lose the bird!
Northern Harrier
Birding with myself is terrible sometimes.  I am a perfectionist when it comes to getting the shot and if I don't get it, I'm pretty hard on myself. Yes, birding is fun but it's full of challenges that push you to your limits in so many ways.
Meanwhile, a new Dragonfly comes my way and I think of Jeanne and her love of all things "wings" and snap the shot.  Pretty lifer!  While doing this photo shoot.......something more epic happens.
Variegated Meadowhawk
An Osprey flies over my head and I nearly crap my pants.  "Kathie!  Kathie!  Oh my....!"  It was the one bird I was hoping to see.  I mean REALLY hoping to see.  "Chris be careful....!"  I run off with my camera. A little kid with a little bell, "Dah Ding Dah Ding" comes out of nowhere and I almost get run over.  WTH!  When did runners, bikers and horse back riders join the birders on the trails???!!!  
I snap back to reality and train my eyes and observation onto this incredibly beautiful bird.  Kathie is so supportive and understood my thrill.  At that point, I stopped counting birds and just stood watching the Osprey for a long time.
Meanwhile, a Great Egret passes by the Osprey to check out his catch:)  In fact a lot of birds found the Osprey's find interesting:)

Just check out the wingspan below!  When it flew over our heads, I felt the presence of a dragon.  The shadow was big....and so were the talons as it looked at us below:)  I really respect Kathie and value her thoughts on birds.  We remind each other of etiquette and keeping our distance as to not bother the birds.  I'll be writing about a very controversial topic in a couple weeks while on the tail of a super rare bird on the trail.  Birding etiquette is always first on our minds.
Osprey in flight!
And just as incredible as the Osprey was to me, this Incan Dove below made my day.  I have been really bothered this year by their disappearance from Pima County.  They are rare to find in Tucson.  I've been searching for them the entire year.  Once numbering in the thousands around Tucson, these birds now are somewhere in the hundreds.  While Tucson has seen a major decrease in their populations, the Phoenix area has seen a rise in their numbers  What gives?  Over the next two days, we'll be exploring more from Gilbert Ranch.
Inca Dove
I'd like to thank Laurence from Butlers Birds and Things for putting the idea into our heads.  We want to bird with you Laurence.  Imagine the epic birder team we'll make together.  We'd become a force unlike any other.  All birders would fear us.  50 birds in a day?  How about 200?!  Okay maybe I have an active imagination:)  But I can't wait to meet you maestro.  More tomorrow....

Monday, November 26, 2012

Digging Deeper

Great Egret
Searching(chasing really) for the Western Grebe, I wasn't into the photography bit.  However, the one picture that I really worked for was this one.  It was an early early morning at around 6 AM before the humans and their dogs would arrive at Sam Lena Park in Tucson.  Using my GPS tracker, I was hot on the trail before it got too hot!
Western Grebe
I found my target bird which is only used for ID purposes.  This is not a great shot but evidence that I found the bird.  Along the way, I had nice views of this female Belted Kingfisher.  I am hoping to get better shots but this is my best so far.
Female Belted Kingfisher
However, my series of photos dealing with this Great Egret below would be the artsy shots for the day.  And everything thing else was just icing on the cake.  Here is my take on the work.  Note the clarity of the shadows and the slightly out of focus images of the actual bird and its' reflection.  And my intent here is, "What's real?"
And that was a thrill for me to observe!  But more importantly it creates a deeper shade to the shot than looking at "just another bird".  I think I took about 50 of these!  I never know when an opportunity will present itself, but when it does, I'm ready with the camera.
Spotted Sandpiper
While focusing on the Great Egret, my eye captured another lifebird scurrying along the shore of the lake.  Grabbing the camera, I snapped an image quickly before the bird disappeared.
Northern Rough Winged Swallow
Above my head, two Northern Rough Winged Swallows flew.  I questioned if they were real, but I snapped the shots for evidence.  Not all of them have migrated and several reports from that day indicated several were still in the area.
Northern Harriers
After Sam Lena, I headed to the Amado Recharge ponds to find the Lesser Scaup reported.  I would find the find the bird but not on this day.  But I did see another two Northern Harriers along the pond.  I had to strain my lens to get a poor quality shot.   They are such interesting birds.  I'll have a report on how challenging the birding has become so stay tuned for more:)