Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Working With Unknowns

Thick-billed Parrots at the Sonoran Desert Museum.  This is a place I like to go and actively study my birds.  
Lately, I've taken on a slower birding pace due to the heat and my work. Oh wait! I need to track down a Painted Bunting, Short-tailed Hawk, Mississippi Kite, Mexican Chickadee, Ridgway's Rail(formerly known as a Clapper Rail) and several other elusive-but-already-seen birds like the Pinyon Jay and Brown Pelican(for AZ).

A Swainson's Hawk alongside the road near St. David
This is probably the closest I'll ever get to doing a "Big Year" in the US.  I mostly stayed within the United States to search for new birds. I thought that while I was doing that I'd rediscover a lot of the other birds already seen.  So it has been a lot of fun chasing them down. 

A kettle of Turkey Vultures on Mt. Lemmon

Next year it will be a different game as we head to Southern Mexico.  In fact much of my work will be taking me out of Arizona.  There are lots of other new birds for me here in the US but my attitude is to take it slow and enjoy the fun.  

A pair of Red Crossbills(male and female) in Greer
July and August are the starts to early migration, but since I had done all my running around earlier in the year, most of my work is done within Arizona.  For the birds mentioned above, I need time and money to find them.  Since my work has begun again and my funds are exhausted, I have to budget yet again for the new year.  Plus I am personally exhausted. I have seen 442 bird species, so far, in North America. So there are nice trips coming up over the next several months but they aren't as frequent as they once were.  Which is good!

A Mountain Bluebird in Greer
I was going to head over to find the Mexican Chickadee in a remote part of the state, but the uncertain monsoons came and wrecked major havoc around the area.  Imagine desert landscape without water.  And then imagine sudden raging rivers coming out of nowhere carrying you away on an isolated road!  That's what happened with this poor lady below! Over the past several days, there have been many rescues around Southern Arizona due to the heavy monsoon rains.  Running washes are no joke!

Pic courtesy of KOLD news
The treks right now are very dangerous as we experience random intense storms, deal with really bad insects known as chiggers, rattlesnakes(cool) are out with their little ones and the heat is oppressive.  So I stay close to home and bird locally for an hour or so before returning to my air conditioned home.  I find that August and October generally tend to be my "off" months when it comes to birding.  

Female Vermilion Flycatcher
It allows me to catch up on my reading and studies on birds I'd like to find.  I think the highlight for me this month has been my study of the Cassin's Sparrows in the grasslands.  They are rather plain birds but they are so different from their relatives.  During breeding season, they will shoot straight up into the air and back down again.  I think these birds are real gems because they are difficult to ID when they aren't "larking".  So it's great fun to spend a good part of our birding adventures just observing one bird.  I have spent a lot of time studying this bird at home so that when I go out into the field, I am able to recognize the various behaviors and sounds of this bird right away.  I really enjoy the challenging birds. P.S.  Any bird with the label "Cassin's" is a piece of work.  Ask any beginning birder:)

Cassin's Sparrow in the Buenos Aires grasslands
In fact many of my evenings are spent inside of bird guides.  There are SOOO many birds.  Flycatchers can be tricky and offer a real challenge sometimes when it comes to ID.  But my biggest challenge will be the sea birds found off of the coast of California.  To me, they all look the same.  I'm beginning to note the differences between Skuas, Gulls, Terns, Jaegers, Petrels, etc. 

Great-crested Flycatcher at Merepoint, ME
On occasion, I've been known to go to an area and not really study up on the place. Sometimes it's on purpose and others times it isn't. Take for example the bird below, the Upland Sandpiper.  I didn't even know this bird existed until Kathie had mentioned to me that this was a bird she had hoped to observe.  So while I was in Maine, I studied the call which is pretty cool.  The bird runs around in grassy areas and can often be hidden from sight if it's not sitting on a fence post.  And their call!!!  I started laughing because to me, it sounds like a guy whistling at a woman passing by.  By today's standards that activity in the US is considered tacky, but we aren't dealing with humans here, are we?:)  Pretty awesome bird.  I'm no scientist but my first impression was that the bird was the offspring of a Curlew and Sandpiper:)  In fact, it looks like the evolutionary step between the various species.  They are after all related. 

Upland Sandpiper in the Kennebunkport Plains
 Other birds that are difficult for me are the warblers.  I think they're tricky for everyone not only because they're small but because there are so many of them!  In Arizona, I know where I can find my warblers but when birding another state, it's all unknown.  I try to study their habitats, but memorizing it all is impossible. In fact, the bird guides have several pages dedicated to ALL the warblers! Take, for example, the Prairie Warbler below.  I kept hearing this call that I could not ID. I went through every warbler call I knew in my head and it wasn't matching anything I knew.  At that point, I realized I was dealing with a life bird.  But who was it?  I had heard it several times on the trip to Maine but couldn't pinpoint it. Then it happened!  We were able to get a visual on the bird calling and that's when we discovered our Prairie Warbler!  But alas, the rain began to fall and the observation ended:(

Prairie Warbler near the Kennebunkport Plains, ME
I always hope for better observations.  Seeing common birds spoils us into thinking that they are all this way.....but as many birders and photographers know.....it's not.  On our camping trip to Greer, I was hoping to observe Red Crossbills better.  And we did!  It's never a given as all of it is always unknown, but when it happens, there is an internal sigh.  Even if the chances are good, I try to hold back from saying outloud, "Oh we'll find that bird!" because it will jinx the observation!  

Okay, so some of you might be wondering how a Crossbill eats?  The bill is shaped to get the seeds out of pine cones!  Pretty cool!  They eat other things as well like insects, but they do have an interesting bill!

Summer Tanager at Audubon's Paton's House in Patagonia
So on these days of extreme heat, raging rivers, nasty chiggers and avenging baby rattlesnakes protecting themselves from being stepped on, I take a step back and explore close to home....and study.  One of my projects in the next couple years is to take on the Eared Quetzal and Thick-billed Parrots of Chihuahua, Mexico.  They do rarely show up here in Arizona, and when they do, the whole birding world from around the US flocks to find them.  Sadly, these parrots were extirpated from our area a long time ago.  They tried to reintroduce them back into their former habitat many years ago but found that hawks had taken over the area making it difficult for the parrots to reestablish themselves. Another issue was starvation.  Since many of these parrots were captive bred relying on human handouts, they didn't stand a chance.  The project was terminated with little hope. Today, the parrots can be found in a small area of Northern Mexico.  However, once and a decade one shows up.....:) 

 I also believe this is a sensitive species in that if one did show up, it would be kept secret on places like Ebird.  I've discovered sensitive birds over the past several years and those records are locked for my eyes only and the researchers at Ebird.  In part, it's to keep the bird(s) safe from poachers or photographers who would endanger a bird for a photo.  

Anyhow, it's good to take a break and do so some relaxing.  I'll be back in force at the end of the month searching for some rarities in Sonora, Mexico, learning about birds and doing some birding with Gordon and AZFO in Globe and finally, taking a trip up to Colorado.  But for now, it's back to the books. And it's kind of nice:)  More soon......


  1. I am exhausted just reading about the amount of work you have got through. Put your feet up and have a rest.

  2. Great post Chris! Many awesome stories and photos. That picture you got of the Red Crossbill pair is killer! I can brag and say I was right there when you got that picture!

  3. You certainly have had a busy year so far, Chris. I think part of the fun of birding is that when you do take time to read, all sorts of interesting memories pop up, you learn something that you then see next time you are out birding or you get something to hope to see or dream of seeing. Enjoy the break!

  4. I slip into Adrian comment :-)
    Always admiring your intense energy.

  5. Hi Chris!:) A thoroughly enjoyable post,with so much detailed information, not only about the birds you seek out, but why at times you don't. The photo of the lady in distress was a big eye opener for me.Never knew this could happen in the desert. Your photos are all great, love the little sparrow, and flycatcher, the plainest of all the birds you posted,but so sweet. Shame about the failure of the Parrot project, but love your pictures, they look like they are in love!:)Enjoy your rest.
    Take care!:)

  6. Chris, your birding is like an adventure..Unlike my casual strolls thru a local park.. I loved reading about your birding and great finds.. It would be cool for the parrots to make a come back, I agree that if they do their location should be a secret.. Happy birding!

  7. A very fine series Chris.. your parrots reminded me of our lot :) yes the crossbill is a little odd, an effective eating implement by the sounds of it! I definitely find the smaller birds such a challenge, more because they're just so skittish, never stop long enough. Happy reading, good way to fill in time during the hot weather.

  8. You really take birding seriously!

  9. Beautiful pictures, you really take your birding seriously,

  10. There were several awesome trips this summer and our trip up to Greer was incredible Tommy. So glad we all got the chance to get close to the Red Crossbills. And KaHolly, birding is a VERY serious art:) I've had fun finding lots of great birds....except maybe the Bicknell's Thrush. That was a frustrating experience and VERY difficult bird to distinguish between the also common Swainson's!

  11. Is birding a hobby??? hectic post!

    Cheers - Stewart M - Melbourne

  12. Beautiful birds. You have shot fantastic variety.

  13. Great post Chris with some awesome photos. Enjoy your break - you certainly deserve it with all your birding expeditions this year. You have seen some incredible birds and I love the way you do so much research :)

  14. So far my birding has been confined to Ontario so I envy you getting out of your own area to search for lifers! Yes, the warblers are very tricky indeed to identify!

  15. So many wonderful sightings, I love the kettle of vultures and mountain bluebird. Enjoy your break!

  16. I admire your passion for birds and that sometimes you risk to see them. I greet you cordially.

  17. They've had to ask our tourists to be sure NOT to put GPS on their photos of rhino. So much poaching! When we saw Disa in the reserve I didn't put the pictures on my blog. I always think 3 times before posting a rare plant or animal.

  18. Chris your birding adventures never cease to amaze me I don't know how you keep going have a happy time enjoy :)

  19. You, slow down when it comes to birding. Hard to believe, but the pre-studying makes a lot of sense.

  20. That's one bird I'm tracking as it moves in its southerly direction and I hope to spot one this year/season ---the Mississippi Kite. I read just yesterday that 5 were seen in the Dallas area...they're coming my way. I hope.

    Love the array of colorful birds. Such a lovely set of different species.

    [and the flooded arroyos....what memories of this during the monsoon season in Tucson]

  21. I hope you're sat down now Chris. You've had a very busy year Chris, one that most birders only dream about. Your enthusiam shines through your every word and picture but I'm not so sure you will be able to take much of a break with so much enthusiasm bubbling away.
    A great set of pictures today - the Swainson's Hawk and the vultures especially.

  22. Great post, great images, thanks for letting us visit.

  23. I am still pretty clueless about MOST of the bird species! Have a lot to learn. :-) Love your photos. I too am staying indoors right now, and since I still have a lot of the trip photos to post, I'm doing OK. Did get a few shots in the yard that will have to wait a bit(the house finches feeding on the saguaro fruits, and two cactus wrens, plus a few more hummer shots.) I also got the AMAZING pinks-and-greys-churning-cloud-sunset sky about a week ago, and I can't figure out when to post those either. :-) I can truly imagine you would be exhausted about now. You have been to MANY spots and taken MANY amazing photos! Rest a bit while you can!


Thanks for stopping by!