Thursday, October 31, 2013

Dark Matters

Common Raven

I don't care what anyone says, but ID'ing black birds(note that I am not writing "blackbirds":) can be a bit tricky.  There are still many to find, but here is a list on several that have made me glance once, twice, thrice........

Great-tailed Grackle

Grackles should be easy to ID and yet there can be doubt.  In Southern Arizona, a Common Grackle would be rare, but the Great-tailed Grackle(above) is very common.  So when I was in Colorado Springs, I knew I could find a Common Grackle, but the issue was that both Grackles were found there.  How would I distinguish between the two?  When I spotted several on a branch(below), I actually stood longer than normal to ID the call and look for the field marks to make sure I did in fact see the Common Grackle.  Pale Yellow iris, dark bluish glossy head and heavy bill were several of the things I looked at first.  The rain in the area made it a little difficult to pick out the bluish tones in the head and yellow eye......but I was able to see it better with my own eyes than that of the camera.

Common Grackle

But how do you tell a Brewer's Blackbird apart from a Common Grackle?  It also has a yellow eye.  The difference?  Habitat and behavior help. But body shape, slight difference in the bill and coloring also can help with ID.  The Brewer's likes to feed from the ground.  But in this case, the calls are different and I was able to quickly ID the bird.

Brewer's Blackbird
But what's this blackbird???   Before heading to Guatemala, I studied the calls and behaviors of this Melodious Blackbird below.  The call is very distinct and can be heard above all else in the canopy tree tops.  They usually fly in pairs around water ways. Both bob their heads up and down while calling to each other.  Sometimes they'll sit in opposite trees calling to one another.

But I tell you.....that call!  It is so distinct that you can't miss it.  I dropped what I was doing to capture this bird on camera.  Birding by ear can be a powerful tool.

Melodious Blackbird

Another black bird, related to the cuckoo family, is the Groove-billed Ani.  They are very common in Central America and make me smile.  They remind me of muppets with their scraggly and monster looking faces.  Again their call is distinct and I had it memorized from the time it came to Tucson.  I have it recorded on my phone because it's one of my favorite bird calls next to the Loon.   They are larger birds and appear to lazily perch on fence posts in pastures or on open branches around rivers, etc.

Groove-billed Ani

So how about those "other" black birds?  Crows and Ravens??!!!  In Tucson, it's possible to spot the Common and Chihuahuan Ravens.  But how do you tell them apart?  More common are the Common Ravens.  They generally fly in pairs, but can be seen at times flying in great numbers.  Even the experts can have a difficult time ID'ing these birds from afar.  Chihuahuan Ravens will flock around Pecan orchards here and of course, open grasslands. They have a shorter bill with long nasal bristles. However, they fly a bit differently than the closely related Common Raven.  The Common Raven "rows" its way across the airways.

American Crows

And the American Crow is a smaller bird with a large bill but much smaller than that of a Raven. The calls are the easiest to recognize. Understanding their calls, makes the ID a snap!

European Starling

European Starlings are black but very easy to ID with their body and bills.  Their starry patterns remind me of outer space.  But still.....from a distance, I have to really look.  But if I can see those triangular wings, short square tails and that stocky body, I know right away that I'm witnessing the European Starling in action.  They also tend to flock.  Again their calls are distinct.

Common Raven

One black bird(or blackbird:) that is an easy ID is the Bronzed Cowbird....if you can see the red eye:)

Bronzed Cowbird

The Brown-headed Cowbird at maturity has a black body with a brown head....hence the name. Both birds have VERY cool calls.  They sound like spacy, liquidy whistles!  AGAIN another easy ID!  Many people miss this one and I have to point it out to birders visiting from out of state. I've helped 3 birders add the Bronzed Cowbird to their life lists.  Watching someone add a cowbird to their life list makes me smile.  We take them for granted here as they are rather common.

Female Brewer's Blackbird

Here's a flock of Brown-headed Cowbirds below in flight.  You see how they could be difficult to ID?  Usually they mix with other blackbirds to add to the confusion.

Flock of Brown-headed Cowbirds

Many out of state people come to find our Yellow-headed Blackbirds.  I've witnessed this bird in the tens of thousands.  Twice I have been caught in the middle of the tornado energy and it made me smile.  My video below captures the many Yellow-headed Blackbirds making a landing in the fields adjacent to the gas station.

 I was filling up my gas once and a black cloud descended around the parking lot.  Another time I was birding in Tucson and an entire flock flew around me.  I was surrounded by magic!

Yellow-headed Blackbirds

These blackbirds are easy to ID.  Their calls are varied and diverse but thankfully their colors stand out among the rest.  Someone asked me once, "What are those blackbirds with a yellow head?"  Yellow-headed Blackbirds.  "Oh, that's easy."  Sure is. 
So is this Red-winged Blackbird below. Interestingly enough, the female looks nothing like the male.  To a beginner, they look like different birds.  Is it a Waterthrush?  A Finch?  Nope.  Just the female Red-Winged Blackbird:)
Red-winged Blackbird

Finally I end with a Chihuahuan Raven. Of all these black birds I shared today, I think the Common and Chihuahuan Ravens are probably the most difficult to ID.  This may sound weird, but when I see a Chihuahuan Raven, I just "know".  I'll mark them down wherever I am to keep tabs on their location.  On Ebird, there is a Chihuahuan Raven expert who monitors our populations and I was able to email and chat with him about his studies.  I have many more black birds to find, but here are the ones I've been able to ID so far.
Chihuahuan Raven

Common Raven

Finally, I'd like to add one last thing about taking pictures of black birds or animals.  It's really difficult!!!  I find that having a very light background brings the detail out on these birds.  Below is a pic of our cat Cassie.  She sometimes blends right in with the surroundings.  

Cassie-the black kitty
Happy Halloween everyone!!!

Monday, October 28, 2013

That Confinement Box

Black-crowned Night Heron

I could write about the details.  Become mired in the facts. I learned early on while blogging that I didn't enjoy such things.  I figure I do enough of it every day.  The artist inside wants his blog to capture the magic of our world because quite frankly, the experiences are magical.

Pike's Peak

Everything is explained.  Everything needs an answer.  Everything must fit with this or that.  There is no in between. I get into a car and drive away from people and society.  The further I get, the more my mind relaxes and opens up to the possibilities.

Ladderback Woodpecker

I imagine standing in the grand vistas of the world.  The sunny bright arctic circle.  The snowy dark forests of Canada.  The Egyptian deserts. The Himalayan mountains. The Congolese rain forest.

Vermilion Flycatcher

I imagine that there are people wanting to be standing where I naturally explore. For them, it is also foreign. My foreign.  My familiar.  As a boy, I dreamed of these things.  In my twenties, everyday was different and crazy.  In my thirties, I paid for those twenties.  In my forties, I am alive again. I began to realize that there aren't as many days ahead of me as there are behind.  So I wake up every day with a quick pace similar to that of my youth. first:)

Northern Waterthrush-Life bird!

National Geographic magazines exposed me, as a kid, to the world at large.  I read my Ranger Ricks, Arizona Highways, and National Geographics the minute they arrived in the mail.  I built a wooden airplane with my neighbor friend.  We knew it would fly and take us to foreign places.  I sat in the cockpit and imagined flying out of snow covered Wisconsin pastures over tropical waters watching whales breach the waves below.  Maybe I would discover the last dinosaur on Earth.  It was in Brazil hiding within the unexplored Amazon rain forest! (or so the article in my Ranger Rick stated)

Northern Mockingbird

I wanted to escape my hometown as a child.  My 8th grade year, I babysat for my cousins in Flagstaff, AZ.  I left the lakeshores of Wisconsin and discovered the mountains of Arizona. And I knew that I wanted to see the world.  But I had to follow the details.  Study. Work.  Earn my right to dream.


Today I still have to study, work and earn my right to dream.  But it has become so much easier.  And it is reality.  I live a life of adventure.  There isn't a formula for this.  I had to feel it inside. And it took me over a decade to discover my inner child again. There is nothing worse than feeling dead from within. That feeling of mundane. What is that?  That's not life and it's certainly not how I want to live.

Head down I-10, take the exit to Tubac and turn right.....blah blah blah.  Boring. Instead, I think, "Head to the open air, away from society onto that beautiful river along the historical DeAnza trail. Follow history.  Follow your heart."   And discover what lies ahead.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

A Hobbit's Tale

A long time ago, I decided to leave my home in the Shire.  It was too comfortable. I dreamed of far away places.  There were so many adventures just waiting beyond the borders.

"If I take one more step, it'll be the farthest away from home I've ever been." 

So I did the proper thing.  I waited my youth out.  I went to school and got my education.  When I graduated, I moved away from my people.  And I missed them.

I missed the closed and safe borders of her community. The comfort of pumpkin pies and snowy skies. The named forests and hills that are not on a "proper" map.  And yet something else called me out yonder pass the Brandywine river.  Pass the comforts of food and familiarity.

“Home is behind, the world ahead,
and there are many paths to tread

through shadows to the edge of night,
until the stars are all alight.”

The truth is I never fit in.  Most people are content with what is.  I had too many questions and I was different.  Realizing at an early age that I cannot change what is, I left my Shire. Why should one want to go outside of their comfort zone?  And yet I am hobbit.  I like comfort.  I like familiarity.  It feels good. I am connected to those forests and hills that carry the memories of my loved ones both present and gone.  But I feared comfort and complacency.  When I return home to the Shire, I see not much has changed in habit or attitude. And I also know that I made the right decision years ago.  But it's never easy.  The Shire makes me forget about the outside world. People tend their garden, raise their family, go to work like most I suppose, but it's different. It's safe.

When something is disagreeable, it's different.  It can be a cold place.  The people's faces are hard. The world is changing and it has changed the stubborn Shire against her will.  All the work has gone elsewhere. The factories are shut.  The farms are corporations. And yet some family businesses remain but they too dwindle as their children leave for elsewhere.

I carry the Shire inside of me every day by retelling the tales of my youth. Children made chestnut necklaces and played in their front yards without having to worry about some Orc trying to harm them. There seem to be more and more Orcs everywhere these days. The Shire is still a place of "hellos" and friendly conversation.  A pub to share an ale or two with a complete stranger while smoking some pipe-weed. No matter how many times I tell them that smoking is bad for them, they "huff" me off and ignore me.  Therefore I no longer lecture.  I move myself out of the room.

Slowly the Shire withers away as the population decreases. But still tradition remains in full force.  An ale for a thought. Fried cheese curds for a snack. A pumpkin pie for dessert. Followed by more food.  Because eating is the way of my people. In the Shire, we celebrate with 6 meals. Breakfast, Second Breakfast, Elevensies, Luncheon, Afternoon Tea, Dinner, and Supper

And so I left the Shire my 8th grade year of school.  I went to the mountains and canyons of the great West. It was scary and exciting. I knew from that time forward, I would travel the world.  It was also on that trip, I lost one of my best childhood Grandfather. He was only 57 years old. Today I carry his wedding ring as a reminder that life is short.  It is not a burden.  It's a reminder to live.

Time passed quickly as I had to leave soon for the Western world again. 

As a child, I always connected to Bilbo and Frodo the most.  During one of our great hobbit meals, we recollected times past.  Some understood the adventures.  Some dreamed of those adventures. Most were glad they hadn't known the far away places I've visited.  And it reminds me that I am alone on this journey.  The greater world my own personal treasure. My quiet reflection. 

“How do you pick up the threads of an old life? How do you go on, when in your heart, you begin to understand, there is no going back? There are some things that time cannot mend. Some hurts that go too deep...that have taken hold.”

 And yet, the Shire is my home.  No matter how far I travel, there will always be that part of me inside.  

Friday, October 18, 2013

Data Gaps

Black Squirrel

 During my research, I utilize several methods to find birds. Obviously I use Ebird to help track down recent sightings, but I also do a lot of reading on habitat and range using guides and the internet. Arizona is Ebirded to death.  The professionals will tell you that it's not true as there are some large gaps in the state that don't have many reports.  This is true.  But if you are like most people wanting to bird the state, you'll fly into Phoenix or Tucson and have no issues finding all of our hotspots with recent reports from those areas.

Black-capped Chickadee

This is not true for many places like, for example, Colorado or Wisconsin. Heading into Colorado was hit or miss.  I wrote down all the major and potential lifebirds to be found. However there were gaps in the data. Or in other words, there wasn't any data on certain areas at all!  If there was data, it was years old.  I had the same issue in Guatemala and Mexico. So on these trips, I had to bridge the gaps with my own experience.  For my Colorado trip, I had about 5 or 6 life birds to find.  My brother-in-law is leaving for Kuwait hence the trek north.  Everyone likes to be outdoors and so we hiked our way through the many beautiful spaces of Colorado Springs.

One of the first things I wanted to do was get the Black-billed Magpie with my camera.  This is a very common bird in Colorado Springs.  I have a post on them from long ago but I was just learning how to use my camera.  One of the places we went to bird was Sondermann Park.  It had several birds on my target list which included an Eastern Kingbird.  This is a beautiful trail along a stream full of birds!  While I dipped on the Eastern Kingbird reported there, I picked up a life bird I wasn't expecting. 

Black-billed Magpie

The Olive-sided Flycatcher!!!  Yes!  It just sat on the branch and said to us, "Here I am.  Take as many pics as you want!"  And I did.  If this had been the only life bird I found for the day, I would have been happy.  But as luck would have it, more birds would pop up along this trail.

Olive-sided Flycatcher

But since it's a life bird and a first for the blog, here are some close-ups of the flycatcher.  They are found in Arizona.  Some of them are in trickier spots to find around the state.  Some of them are too far to chase. And they do pop in Tucson during migration, but I kept dipping on this bird.  When we found this handsome bird, everyone moved on to find more.  Pat understands the word, "life bird" and is constantly trying to aide in my quest to find them.  So when I said "life bird", Pat stood with me longer to observe the bird while the others moved further down the trail.  But what we didn't realize was that there was going to be a cluster of activity along the stream's edge.

It was hard to take my eyes off of this bird, but when someone said, "Blue Jay!", I was forced to move.

But not without spotting the first of the year Downy Woodpecker!  Hairy Woodpeckers are common in Arizona.  The Downy is much harder to find, but in Colorado Springs, they dominate the landscape.  In fact, we saw many Downy Woodpeckers, Williamson's Sapsuckers, and Northern Flickers.  I think Colorado Springs is the headquarters for Northern Flickers:)

Downy Woodpecker

Finally!  As a child growing up in Wisconsin, I had seen many birds but I couldn't trace the dates when I saw them so decades later, I discovered my first common Blue Jay that most people see.  And it was awesome.  Technically, another lifebird in molt:)

Blue Jay

Another fun place to bird is Garden of the Gods.  It's popular among the tourists and overall, just a nice place to hike.

Garden of the Gods

This area is a hotspot for Western Scrub-Jays and Magpies.  There are lots of beautiful Aspen trees and red rock formations.

Western Scrub Jay

One last note.  I have learned to balance the birding bit by birding in local areas around the neighborhoods of family and friends.  Another spot that was not really birded well was Quail Lake which was 5 minutes from our place. So I jumped in the car and did a quick walk around the lake and discovered.......

Quail Lake in Colorado Springs

Several juvenile Common Grackles.  Another life bird!  I heard the "grackle" sound and watched them for quite a bit of time to make sure I was actually seeing a Common Grackle and not a Red-winged Blackbird or Great-tailed Grackle or Brewer's Blackbird:)  These birds were mixed in with Red-winged Blackbirds. It was really gray and cloudy making the black on the bird tricky.  But to ID Common Grackles, I looked for the yellow eyes(check), their vocalizations(check) and a variation in color from the bluish head and darker body(check).  In the pics, it's hard to see that bluish sheen on the head because of the lighting.

Common Grackle

We had a nice trip and visit.  I have more photos from several other places coming up.  And hopefully I will have added more data to Ebird that will be useful.  Recently, four of my lists that I marked as a Hotspot for Ebird in Colorado Springs were accepted. That never would have happened in Arizona. Hopefully other Ebirders will visit and bird these beautiful parks and trails.

Keep your eyes open for the hummingbird moth below during summer and early fall:)  Rumor has it that snow has fallen over there!

White-lined Sphinx Moth
They were all over!

Dear blogger friends, I will be visiting soon.  I'm on vacation right now and will be back next week. There is a lot more to report, but for now I hope all of you are enjoying fall....or spring wherever you may be.  All my best.  More soon.....
I'm linking up with Wild Bird Wednesday.  So many amazing birds out there!