Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Paying It Forward

As the list narrows, the searches become more difficult.  As a birder, I find warblers most frustrating.  They are a gift to me once spotted.  Some are easily found while others move around too much in the canopy of the trees.  But one bird still eludes me....the Elegant Trogon.  However, this time it's different.
Cooper's Hawk

On a hike into Madera Canyon, I located several nesting areas for the first time.  It was a lot of fun.  There were other birders on the trails.  One man sat devastated on a rock.  I asked him what was wrong.  He replied, "I cannot locate the Yellow-Eyed Junco!"  He was from the south and had never seen one before, but I smiled and pointed to the bush where one was hiding.  "You mean that one over there?"  His eyes flashed that excitement that birders get when finding a lifebird for the first time. I was super thrilled for him.  I called the bird out and he was able to get wonderful shots.  Some say that this bird is a "Junk bird".  I don't like that term because it sounds like it's no big thing.  The simple truth is that we can't take any one species for granted.
I walked the trails more....finding flycatchers, mammals, bugs and more.  And I came upon another group who had thought they heard the Spotted Towhee.  I had seen it on the way up.  The bird's call is unmistakable, but it also is a master of cloak and disquise.  It will disappear quickly.  However, it wasn't quick enough to hide from us this time.  The group was able to find their Towhee.  A lifebird for most of them.  I continued on my trek up the mountain trail.
Along the way, I found a Hutton's Vireo above and the House Wren below.  The bird above was confusing to me.  It acted like a Dusky.  My gut said Hutton's but I needed ID help.  Most agree it was a Hutton's and yet.....  Since the time of this shoot, I have found the Dusky several times and have been able to get nice clear shots of the bird.  It will be featured in a post coming up next week. I'd just like to thank everyone for their input when I need that extra help.
House Wren
There is a lot of sexy time going on between the birds.  I walked upon two Arizona Woodpeckers having a moment.  Luckily these were birds and not my parents.
Copulating Arizona Woodpeckers
Hummingbirds.  Who doesn't love them?  The Broad-tail below made me smile.  It's bell-like rattle swung around feeders noisily as he fed.
Broad-tail Hummingbird
I wandered.....and wandered taking it all in carefully.  Truth be told, I was hoping for Flycatchers. And found them I did!

And I picked myself up the Dusky-capped Flycatcher.    Smallest of the three similiar flycatcher species, it prefers to be near running water(check) in oak scrub(check) and near the ground to middle branches of the tree(check). But the easiest way to ID this bird??  The call.  I heard the sad "pee-ur" sound associated with the bird. The bird also lacks the distinct rufous edging on the sides of the wings(like the Ash-throated).  It's probably one of the most difficult birds to ID.  I have several shots to compare this bird with the others I've seen out in the field.
Dusky-capped  Flycatcher

Many times it comes down to observation.  The Ash-throated below is much larger and has rufous coloring along the edges of the wing.  They prefer to hang around dry washes like their much larger counterparts the Brown-Crested Flycatcher.  The calls are very different as well.

Ash-throated Flycatcher

So after awhile, it's nice to go back to easier species to ID.  And yet in this post, I've placed several of the trickier birds for people to ID.  Is it a Coopers or a Sharp-Shinned?  Is it a Dusky Flycatcher, Ruby-Crowned Kinglet or Huttons? Body posture is everything on these birds.  Is it a Dusky-capped Flycatcher, Ash-throated Flycatcher, or Brown-Crested Flycatcher? Habitat and calls for these birds.  And there are certainly many more birds that are very similar in appearance.
And so when I see the Elegant Trogon, there won't be any doubt in my mind what the bird looks like:)  I have the image burned into my memory.  Perhaps someone will help me find my new nemesis bird one of these days?  Or maybe the bird will just appear quietly as it always does while I'm alone on the trails.
Great Horned Owl
Hooo knows?:)
                                       Linking up with Stewart M for Wild Bird Wednesday

Monday, April 29, 2013

The Salton Sea

      Today marks the end of the Salton Sea adventures.  I think the pic above captures the image of humanity and birds living together.  Is it as beautiful as the Egret suggests?  Probably not.  But I think what I loved most about the whole experience was that it was different from other birding adventures I've recently taken. Some places recharge the birding battery and this was one of them.  
Lesser Nighthawk
We never know who to expect at each of these places.  I prayed to the bird gods and they answered by sending me a Lesser Nighthawk perched!  Never in my life had I expected such a clear and wonderful shot of this bird during daytime hours.  And the trickiest part?  Spotting the bird on the branch.  Look at how camouflage plays an important role.
American Kestrel
An American Kestrel flies from the phone lines as we walk back to our cars at the Sonny Bono center.
American Avocet
We find all kinds of sea birds feeding from the water along the shore.  I have to watch my salt intake, but apparently, they do not:)
Eared Grebe
Eared Grebes numbered in the hundreds here on this day.  I finally got to see one in full regalia!!!!  Exciting!
California Gull
California Gulls, Long-billed Dowitchers.......easy views with great observation time for each of these birds.
Long-billed Dowitcher
Terns were such a nice change of scenery for me.  I love my desert/mountain birds, but it's nice to switch it up every now and again.
Caspian Terns
Willets stood calmly along the water edge.
The whole experience is something I'd recommend for the adventurous birder not minding a little dirt with some fish bones in their shoes.
There is a documentary out there called "Bombay Beach" that addressed many of our questions while we birded there like......"Who lives here?"  We were interested in discovering what it's like living along the Salton Sea as the movie follows 3 individuals and their lives.  It is on our Netflix account and we were fascinated by it all. All I will say is that California is a diverse state that offers MANY varieties of landscape.
Caspian Tern
Apparently there is a horror flick out there with Val Kilmer called, "The Salton Sea."  We did not watch that one:)

Long-billed Curlew

The best part about exploring is understanding the culture and people surrounding the birds.  I walked into a nearby gas station for some drinks.  The lady behind the counter asked if she could help me.  It took me a second to respond because the people were so strange and interesting.  One man purchased, in Spanish, two gallons of milk with a pack of Marlboros. The Saltonian clerk responded flawlessly with a tad bit of a gringo accent in Spanish.  NOW that made me absolutely happy! Spanish teacher moment:)  But I kept my secret powers hidden and didn't let on that I could understand a single word.  The woman then turned to me and said that I looked lost.  She followed up with, "What brings you out here?" 
"Birds",  I responded.
"Are you one of them orni...ornitheologists?"
Not quite but I said, "Yes." without a blink.  I wasn't lying because I do believe in the power of birds and how they will change a person's life. Instead of a church, synagogue, temple or mosque, I worship the Audubon Society.  A secret society of bird nerds dedicated to saving our birds.
Her tone changed to a formal register and told me, "God bless you." I didn't know how to respond to that but the Cheesehead in me responded with, "Thank you.  Enjoy your day."  I'm not into the religious stuff at all but I understood her intent.
Her positive thoughts were lovely and she sent me with a smile as I left the building into the wave of heat.   I'm just hoping that that guy doesn't smoke while drinking his whole milk. That's not healthy. 
More from Las Aventuras soon. 

Friday, April 26, 2013

Salt Creek Beach

American Pelican with California Gulls and a Black-necked Stilt and Eared Grebes in the water beyond
We continued our trek along the Eastern half of the Salton sea.  At times it was barren.  No life to be seen anywhere. We knew that there were places to stop, but where were they?
We stopped at places like Bombay Beach.  Truly an American taste for the finest in 3rd world living.  Boarded up homes were still home for many. And it took me back to my days in Peace Corps in West Africa.   A big bellied man sunned on the fish head encrusted beaches.  What was this stuff getting into my shoes? Don't think about it.  Keep moving.  Oh....what's that smell??!!! But we searched for birds.

American Avocets
                                                  American Avocets covered the skies.

Long-billed Curlew
                                             Curlews were around and in nearby farmer fields.

White-faced Ibis
                                  The Ibis, Terns, Pelicans, Sandpipers, and Gulls littered the skies.

Long-billed Curlew(note the cinnamon underparts of the wing.  These are clear field marks that this is a Curlew and not a Whimbrel.  The top of the head is also different but we can't see that in this pic.)

On this day, we would get up close and personal with Bonaparte's Gulls.  A lifebird for me.  It was said that these birds hung out at Salt Creek Beach, north of Bombay Beach.

Bonaparte's Gull-French for "Cool gull"
   We combed the beaches and counted birds.  We were able to get close to the Western Sandpipers   below.  They are going from one molt to the other here in this pic.

Western Sandpipers
 And while the dead fish smell sometimes led me to almost vomiting, I was able to hold it back as I counted the birds and snapped the shots. Sometimes looking at the pictures is much better than living and "breathing in" the actual experience.  Salt Creek Beach.  Most birders head here after birding at the Sonny Bono Unit 2 refuge.  Why?  Many times a lot of birds hang out here that don't hang out at the refuge....like the Yellow-footed Gull.......a special bird unique to this ecosystem.  But our day was far from over.....

A party at the beach

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Sonny Bono's Legacy

A blogger, whom I respect as a birder and virtual friend, exposed me to the great lands known as the Salton Sea.  He warned me of the shady areas and recommended I take someone with me.  Kathie, blogger friend, birder friend, and friend invited me over for tea. I had coffee instead.  We have not birded together in a long while because life has become super busy for both of us.  So instead of birding (Kathie's knee was still healing from her fall), we met at her place where we hung out and chatted about my upcoming visit to the Salton Sea.  She had gone with her hubby last year.  It's definitely a sketchy place with a whole lot of character and really dusty roads!  After hearing all the stories, it turned out nothing like we expected.  I love everyone's point of views and I especially love how one place can be different for each person.  On that night, I sat with Kathie and plotted our course.  She was excited for our trip and I wish I could have packed her up in my suitcase to come birding with us.  Gus came home and we had pizza.  He shook his head at both of us bird nerds as we mapped our way around the sea. Gus declared that he'll never be going back there again!!  So here's the breakdown from our recent trip.  Forget Unit 1.  It's off limits right now.  Head to Unit 2 of the Sonny Bono Wildlife Refuge.  It was now my turn to experience the fascinating world of the Salton Sea.  The next day we left and headed to our destination.
The threatened Burrowing Owls were numerous around the farmer's fields.  It became Pat's spark bird!  Sadly, these owls are losing ground due to habitat loss in Arizona.  BUT on the opposite side of the coin, I viewed them in great numbers around the Salton Sea and the Santa Cruz Flats this year.  So that is good news.  Hopefully we can help these ground birds out a little and preserve some areas to increase their populations once again.   Note the bands on this bird's legs.
Caspian Tern
People joked about Sonny Bono.  Sonny and Cher.  I loved that TV show growing up.  After their divorce, Sonny disappeared off the map as his ex-wife skyrocketed to the top.  And then after he pulled everything together, he became a respectable politician.  But as he was reaching for the top of that mountain and skiing downhill, Sonny tragically slammed into a tree and died.  For me(and for the nation), it was shocking.  After that, I never thought I'd hear the name Sonny Bono again.  Until I became a birder.
Long-billed Dowitcher
Cher became an instant star.  Loved by the media.  Her music was/is a sensation.  And Sonny Bono?  Perhaps his living legacy, the Salton Sea Wildlife Refuge will become his greatest hit yet.  And his contribution will have made a greater impact on the world we know today....some 15 years after his death. There are still challenges.  The sea continues to shrink but there are people working on the project right now who have created plans to maintain most of the waters down the road. We had a blast as we walked the Rock Hill Trail with lots of other birders and Sonny Bono fans.
The Salton Sea was to be the great American dream full of golf courses and housing development. But that never happened the way people thought it would.  As a young adult, Sonny fell in love with this area.  As a politician, he helped restore the sea back to historic levels.  Although manmade, this area has become a very important place for birds needing to make stops. It also protects endangered birds like the Yuma Clapper Rail and California Brown Pelican.  It's also home to the large Yellow-footed Gull.  I didn't see any of them, but I did get quite a few lifebirds on this trip.
California Gulls
I met a Swedish couple looking at a Burrowing Owl near the sea. Their scope was fantastic. I asked them, "How did you hear about this place???!" Afterall, I'm an American and I know everything about my country;) Swallows pride.  Of course I write this last line as a joke. But seriously, how do international people know more about these places than I do!?! The Swedish couple responded, "Are you kidding? The Salton Sea is infamous around the world as one of the best places to view great birds." The humble American grumbled to himself. How is it possible that I know NOTHING about my own country!!!??? Or Sweden!!! Well truth be told, I can tell you everything about South America, Central America and Mexico. My Mexican friends also ask me the same questions and I laugh and ask them the same questions back, "How do you NOT know??" It's the best part of birding. Knowing absolutely nothing and discovering it all for the first time like Christopher Columbus did.....except maybe not. He wasn't such a good guy. But you know who was???
Sonny Bono.  My target bird for this day would be the Marbled Godwits.  Taking a break from the heat, we sat in a shady swinging chair as two perfect Marbled Godwits flew over our heads.  They are extremely cool birds.
Marbled Godwits
As we left the refuge, it really hit me. Sonny Bono's legacy looked us straight in the eyes.....and flew off.  BUT, the magic of  being surrounded by Cattle Egrets, Burrowing Owls, Gulls, Pelicans, Terns, Dowitchers, Dunlins, Avocets, Stilts.......well that is something to be very proud of.  It was an incredible place to explore and I hope we get a chance to go back again in fall.
In 1998, the refuge was named after Sonny Bono on his birthday. And although he's been gone for many years, his legacy will hopefully continue to have a positive impact on birds and other wildlife for generations to come.  More from this area soon......

One hit wonder?  Or someone who made a difference?

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Defining My Work

A shift in thought.  A shift in effort. A time to think and re-evaluate what I am really doing.  Since the start of this blog, it's been all about the experiences with plants, birds, wildlife and travel.  It was on our trip to Yuma that my other half Pat began to see what I see when I travel to what normally would be considered "eye sores" by the general public.  I could try to be politically correct, but I think I need to be honest here.  Most people drive through Yuma on their way to San Diego and never look back. People always joke sarcastically about it being an Arizona "must see"!  In the teacher's lounge, someone wrote the question on the bulletin board , "What are your summer plans?"  Someone wrote, "Going to Yuma."  Another anonymous person wrote, "Been there.  Done that."  While another said, "Send me a postcard!"  Like I've mentioned before, it's a place most people pass by quickly. It wasn't until we went looking for birds that I saw the real beauty of this town.  So when Pat heard that I reserved a hotel room in Yuma, I didn't hear the end of it.  "Why in the world are we going to that place? Ugh, these birds!" 
Western Kingbird
And true to form, our room was terrible. But really?  We just slept there so who cares, right?  Several of the sites were littered with broken glass, drunks, and the homeless. Some of the tenants, and yes we believe some people lived at the hotel!, found breakfast to be delicious.  A young British man looked at me as he grabbed all the chocolate covered donuts and said, "Score!"  I didn't know what to say and continued stirring the powdered cream into my coffee. An older woman entered the building in her 1970's pink and paisley pajamas.  At that point I left with my coffee only to be attacked by a Northern Mockingbird nesting in a magnolia tree! Needless to say, I didn't always feel safe around certain areas but I did find incredible diversity in plants and birds that are only found in Yuma!  We visited several wetlands from Gateway Park.  It was here that we had great views of the Lesser Nighthawks, discovered the amazing wetlands along the Colorado river, and really found the heart of Yuma.  And it was beautiful. We woke up early one morning and hiked along the river and discovered many wonderful warblers, like Wilson's, Yellow, Yellow-rumped, Nashville, and Lucy's, calling out from the trees.
But something amazing happened.  At first, I thought I observed a Cooper's Hawk flying.  But the flight was all wrong and the wing angles, etc were way off.  I brushed it off and continued on our walk.  On the way back, we heard homeless people, who had been sleeping along the Colorado river, yelling at one another.  "No you're going to testify as to what happened.", replied the scraggly woman to the two scraggly men. Normally I would eavesdrop more, because I do enjoy some nice gossip from time to time, but their voices faded out as the "Cooper's Hawk" had landed.  But this time the bird was close and it wasn't a Cooper's! I always wonder where I'll be when I discover a lifebird for the first time.  And it's never what I imagine it to be:)  I tightened my lens on the target bird.  My heart began to beat quickly.  Then I passed the lens over to Pat and said, "Tell me what you see."
White-tailed Kite
Pat went over the bird's physical features.  I asked specific questions not revealing what I thought the bird to be.  When we finished, I smiled and did my happy dance.  The White-tailed Kite.  Not always a reliable or easy bird to find, but one that required a celebratory breakfast afterwards. Pat kept an eye on the now loud homeless people while I snapped ID shots of the bird as best I could.   The lighting was all wrong! If they had pestered me while I was doing the shoot, I would have clocked them a good one.  NEVER mess with a lifebird!:)
And only then did I snap out of my crazy need to chase birds. I feel mortality for the first time in my life. Some bizarre things have happened to family and friends over the past couple years.  Every day is a gift and it should not be wasted.  And I feel like I have a lot of catching up to do.  When my doctor gave me a warning at the last visit, it snapped me to full attention.  I could care less about my health, but wait.....poor health will interfere with the great adventures ahead!  I hope that's not the case, but I am beginning to understand the word "limitations" from older birders or birders with health conditions that no longer can do the massive hikes up canyons or waterfalls.  Standing on top of a hill with my other half over the Yuma Wetlands at twilight reminded me that it's time to stop the crazy chases and watch my calorie intake:)  It's time to take it all in and just be because there's nothing more special than that perfect moment. And with birding, there are many!  Below, look carefully.  The Nighthawk flies!

I'll see the birds but just maybe not right away. It's what Kathie was trying to tell me all along. She is the feeling birder absorbed in the moment, the people, and the experiences.  I am the logistical organizer that requires a plan with one or two target birds new to the list for the year or for the life list.   But like all things in life, I have to find balance.   Watching the Lesser Nighthawk fly over the water with a cool breeze next to Pat was pretty amazing. Capturing photos of the Lesser Nighthawk.....perfection.  After our trip, Pat purchased an expensive camera to join in on the fun because it's only now that a certain someone has discovered the thrills of the chase:)
Lesser Nighthawk
As I sat on that hillside next to the ghetto broken glass, I thought about my work.  The United States has become a huge playground to me.  It's not about finding the most birds in a year but observing the birds present.  It's about finding the life birds and telling the stories that go with finding each of them.  As I work out in this field more, I am saddened by the obvious loss of habitat around the world.  I get it now, but I don't think most people do.  I consider this international journey finding birds to be a documentation of our diminishing planet.  We are still destroying riparian habitats and building outwards into areas that should not have development.  Currently, our last free flowing river in southern Arizona(the San Pedro) will be redirected to service a Sierra Vista settlement.  A proposed mine site is planned to begin sometime this year (or into the next) within the precious Santa Rita mountains, home to Madera Canyon.  This will also effect the Empire Gulch near Sonoita.  Exxon is pushing its leftover oil from a massive leak into wetlands killing off wildlife.  There are regulations in place but it seems that rules were made to be broken and pushed aside by higher ranking officials. Local government is getting bypassed by state officials who aren't listening to the people.  My job is to capture and record all of this before it disappears.  For more information on the Santa Rita mountain, click here.  For information on the San Pedro river, click here.  We live in a world now that is slowly shrinking.  Our planet can only sustain so many people.  What will be left I wonder after all is said and done?  

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Something About Mary

From Kachina Springs, Flagstaff, AZ
There are some wonderful benefits to the new Ebird IPHONE app known as Birdlog.  It's great! Let's say you want to go to an unknown place and bird. All you have to do is turn on your phone from your location and pretend to submit a report.  Highlighted red, blue or yellow tags will pop up showing you places where birders go seek new life and new civilizations.  And that's how we found Mary lake, Kachina Springs, and the Mormon Lake in Flagstaff.
I have lived in Arizona for a good portion of my life and had never known about these places. It was a fun car ride and along the way we made stops.....many of them! Our best views came from a family of Osprey fishing on Lower Mary Lake.  The weather was just perfect and made for some great birding!   
There were so many waterbirds that I had to really be careful.  I'm glad I did because I was able to get my Common Goldeneye.  The pic below shows many "ducks" to the common eye, but if you blow that pic up, you'd see it's a massive mix of Buffleheads, Mergansers, Ducks, Coots, and oh so much more.
So let's do it for fun!  Let's blow this pic up and take a look at some of these fantastic water birds! Here's a Common Goldeneye(below) that I found in Wisconsin. Once I have a good shot of the lifebird, I relax and observe the birds as they are.  At Kachina Springs, I was able to breathe in the fresh mountain air and count birds.
Buffleheads made for a great show.
Western Bluebirds surrounded the water areas.
Ruddy ducks....
Ring-necked ducks......
Northern Shovelers....
Common Mergansers....
Lesser Scaups....
and Green-teals ducks are all swimming together.  The trick is taking a closer look and never assuming that they're all one species.  Something Kathie taught me. Not Mary.

I do love ducks, but I love Osprey more.  It's hard to count ducks and other waterbirds when these gorgeous birds of prey are out in full hunting mode.
The views were enjoyable.  The walks were fantastic.  And the birds were just icing on the cake.  I think driving through the woods with my car window down was my favorite part.  It was like being back home in Wisconsin again.  Perfection for some is fishing.  Perfection for me is this.  All of it.  The birds, the plants, the new discoveries and of course......the experiences.  If you're up in the Flagstaff area, check out Kachina Springs, Mormon Lake and the Upper and Lower Mary Lake recreational areas.  All I have to say about it is, "Frank and beans!"  More to come....