Sunday, November 30, 2014

Black Friday Birding Specials

Crested Caracara-we counted 26 of them! 
Oh there's nothing like waiting until the last minute for those special items......

The stress.  The mad rush to get those last minute birds before that big day arrives. 

Juvenile Crested Caracara
To find them, you have to get a little down and dirty.

Red-breasted Sapsucker-snapped this past week in Madera Canyon 
I can't order these specialties online nor do I seem to find them anywhere on the racks.  "Limited edition!" I'd say.   

A favorite!  The Arizona Woodpecker.  
But I got up early before everyone else did!  Not fair.  Who cut the line?

Sexy sexy Lark Bunting
Did I go to the wrong place?  But the advertisement said......

A common color for birds out in the Flats is yellow.  Western Meadowlarks(above), Savannah Sparrows, Horned Larks, etc are just some examples.  All were in great numbers on this trek. 
.....there'd be one available down this way!  I even had the right GPS coordinates!

American Pipit
Well I guess I'll do the best I can. That's really all I can do to get ready for the big day. 

Last week after school I went to capture a shot of the geese near my school.  Snow Goose(left) with Greater white-fronted Goose
Thankfully we all teamed up and switched to Plan B.  It's always good to have a Plan B even if you didn't know you had a Plan B. Luckily we found some Mountain Plovers together.  

Mountain Plover!  We counted 6 of them.  A much needed "new" bird for the year. Nothing like waiting until the last minute:)
Better to team up and share the experience!

December 31st is approaching quickly.  Just how many more birds can I find before the year is over?  This has been an amazing experience.  Part of me just wants to bird like a normal person again.  The other part wants to keep going.  And the other part worries that I might be obsessed with birds:) A special thank you to Magill Weber for driving and suggesting a trip out to the Santa Cruz Flats. Laurence Butler also joined in on the fun and together we conquered the Flats. (Or so we thought.  A group of wise ancient birders covered the same area and found a rare gem to AZ known as a Black-throated Blue Warbler!) I swore I wouldn't go out there again unless I had to!  I even tried to get my Mountain Plovers in Colorado but that plan didn't work out.  So back to the dirty Flats it was. Even if you bird from the car, you will get dirty! But I will say that the Flats have one of the best raptor shows in Arizona during the winter. Just be prepared to take a shower when you get home:) More next week.....

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Surf's Up!

Black-crowned Night-Heron
Right now, the watering holes around Arizona are hot with migrating waterfowl from the north.  Birders are rushing to these areas to pick up a rare bird or two for their checklists.  

Thousand of tiny bugs catch the last light of the day.  
Over the past week, I've left work and headed straight away to our local parks and watering holes to see if I can catch a gull, duck or rare goose. 

Ducks and more ducks!  Ring-necked Duck, American Coots, American Wigeons and Domestic Ducks are just some of the characters who show up for their picture.
The light diminishes quickly now.  By the time I arrive to my destinations, I have about one hour to bird before it's completely dark. 

Coachline Pit Ebird Hotspot
In many ways, birding around water areas is very relaxing.  I grab my binoculars and just scan the waters.  Birds float past, fly overhead or just simply appear out of nowhere from beneath the water's surface when I stand in one spot. 

Western Grebe
Recently, Arizona has seen a great number of rare birds zip through the area.  

Clark's Grebe-my first decent photo documentation of this tricky bird.  Note orange colored bill and dark above the eye.  The above pic shows how similar the Clark's and Western Grebes are.  In Pima County, a Clark's Grebe is a rare gem. This bird was seen at Sahuarita Community Lake
There have been amazing birds like the very rare American Tree Sparrow, White-winged Scoter, Purple Finch, Bonaparte's Gull, etc......

When the report of a Surf Scoter surfaced, I drove 2 hours to go find it!  And so I sifted through every American Coot floating around the boat launch until I caught sight of my target bird. 

Say's Phoebe
With the cool temps and even cooler breezes off Saguaro Lake, I sat on a rock and watched my lifebird float past me nearby the shore.  There she was.  Something special.  A gem.

Saguaro Lake
Scoters tend to stay in the deeper waters.  Most people count them with their scopes from shore.  When I heard that this bird was hanging out near the shore, it was a no brainer.  The Scoter at this moment trumped everything else being seen in the state. 

I watched this bird chase coots and dive into the water. She was magnificent and made Year Bird 456.  Next time you are at a park, check to see if a swan, duck, grebe, coot, scoter, heron, gull or sandpiper has stopped by.  You never know who is going to show up:)

Female Surf Scoter
While on my road trips this week, I've been listening to Rose Ave's new album.  I can't stop humming the tune to this song!


Sunday, November 16, 2014

Remember Me

I left my good camera behind for a nice walk, but thankfully I had my cell to capture this wonderful moment.  It reminds me of UP!
Locked inside of urban sprawl, green spaces provide places for birds to live, nest, or rest (during migration). They are "islands" surrounded by an ocean of concrete buildings and roads. Is it possible for both humans and birds to coexist together in a shared space?  As I am discovering, it is a very complicated story for each bird species. 

It seemed that the entire coastline was "owned" and for much of it, our ocean views were blocked. Many homes had lots of non-native plants around their very green gardens.  Currently, much of California is in a severe drought right now. It was very obvious who had money and who didn't as the landscapes either reflected green or dusty brown. 
One of our target birds was the California Gnatcatcher.  It took us a couple hours to locate several of these birds around a protected estuary.   This species is very endangered in Southern California due to habitat loss.  It prefers the coastal scrub along the ocean that humans also enjoy.  I discovered that a lot of people in the general public were very angry at this little gnatcatcher.  The CAGN was referred to as "That bird." Apparently, "that stupid bird" was blocking progress!  For the first time in my birding travels, I heard anger from the opposition. Those who were not angry were apathetic.  Real estate was MORE important. Never have I encountered this attitude while on my treks for endangered birds. 

Hermit Thrush
As I stood in the "wild" space being passed by joggers on their cell phones, bikers, and cars, I strained my ears to listen for the catlike call. I was beginning to see why this bird was in trouble.  All around me, there were people and buildings along the border of the estuary.  Airplanes and helicopters flew overhead. Boats passed through the waterway. I was beginning to have my doubts.

Downy Woodpecker
It made me miss my open Southern Arizona landscape.  How do birds do it?  How do they survive within this massive human sprawl?  Turns out that some like it while others, like the CA Gnatcatcher, could unfortunately disappear from the area in the near future.

Western Grebes

After really studying the Orange County landscape well, I discovered that there wasn't really much space at all provided for these birds.  Hence the declining numbers!  Much like the Florida Scrub-Jay, its habitat is in decline.  These birds are now locked into areas, or fragmented, from other California Gnatcatchers. How will they maintain genetic diversity within their populations?

Savannah Sparrow(Belding's Subspecies)
It's amazing to me that so many people are apathetic about saving an endangered species. If this type of thinking was left unchecked, we'd be in a really bad place today. Some say it has already happened. On a global level (and locally), we are losing little battles here and there.  At the end, all of these little losses will add up into something very sad and big.  But who cares about a little gray songbird that looks like all the other gray birds out there? I do.  And so do a lot of other people.  

Now don't get me wrong, we had a blast.  I always enjoy the new challenges that come with the new territory.  So it was easy finding lots of new birds all cramped into these "green" spaces around Southern California.  The secret to birding around Cali is finding a central place inside the city and plan trips to nearby hotspots. Don't plan anything too far or you'll be on the road ALL DAY!  I learned that lesson well when I lived in the Bay Area many moons ago.

Acorn Woodpecker
There are so many wonderful California birds.  They have their own gnatcatcher, towhee, thrasher, gull and quail!  The Nuttall's Woodpecker featured below is also a California favorite....and a first for me!

Nuttall's Woodpecker-female
In all of this, I am somehow losing my mind as I try to process what is happening around me. There's no such thing as "It's just birding." anymore.  It's an obsession.  And to be honest, it scares me a little.  There are times I could just scream.  A new bathroom renovation or a trip somewhere exciting?  I get antsy.  I pace.  I need to explore and learn more stuff now.  There are times I get so tired that I don't want to do anything. But then someone will report something special and I'm back on the road! The fact is I feel good when I go out and do this. 

During our weekend trek, we stopped to check out the Tijuana estuary and walked 8 miles without even realizing it!  Micheal keeps track of our hiking.  Along the way, we meet weird people that tell us to follow them and see this "eagle" on a telephone pole.  Turns out the "eagle" is really a hawk. Another tells me about how her son would go out and shoot birds on the estuary and then tell her kid, "Hey son that's illegal. You're not supposed to do that."  From her "shared" stories on the trail, I don't think he ever listened to her. Then she told me to take a pic of a Great Egret that was too far away.  When is she going to turn off the trail??!!! Our nature trail connected with the local neighborhood for a time. Thankfully nature took over and we left the homes far behind. And the strange locals.

California Towhee
Officially we hear things are "protected" and yet, many times, there isn't anyone out "there" patrolling for poaching, shooting, etc. In many places, I see park officials stuck in information booths collecting entrance fees. I know they want to be out there working in the field.  So many of my friends in the business have told me about the endless paperwork that comes with the job.  And let's not mention all the time that goes into applying for grants to help cover the costs needed due to federal cuts, etc. We spend billions on war and killing and yet we don't have enough money to properly maintain and staff these wild areas.  Birders see it all. 

 Oak Titmouse
Imagine an oak tree without its tree sprite, the Oak Titmouse, jumping around the branches.  Or the empty holes in trees once used by the common Acorn Woodpecker. I couldn't imagine the landscape without these birds. Each species contributes something important to our environment. What will the fate of the California Gnatcatcher be?  Do we really care enough to protect it?  The real estate world is eyeing up their habitat for development and have not let this bird alone. They are pushing to have it taken off the endangered list this year.  Could they eventually win this seemingly uphill battle? 

California Gnatcatcher
For more about birds from around the world, check out Wild Bird Wednesday

Monday, November 10, 2014

California Dreaming

Over the past weekend, I felt a strong urge to go to California.  So we got into our car and drove.  I had mapped out this trip a couple months in advance.  The purpose?  To find the wild and feral populations of exotic birds that have spread throughout the Southern California region.  While we were there, we would also study the rare California Gnatcatchers that lived in the preserve by our nearby hotel. 

Before I begin with this incredible bird list, I'd like to clarify a birding rule of mine.  In the United States, we have a very important organization known as the ABA or the American Birding Association.  While I do not always follow their rules, I do understand them.  They are the organization that tells birders which birds "count" and which ones "don't".  Over the years, invasive non-native species(to the US) like the House Sparrow, Monk Parakeet, Rock Pigeon, European Starling, Eurasion collared dove, Muscovy Duck, Rosy-faced Lovebird and many others have been added onto the lists and now "count" for birders. But ONLY if you go to the areas where they "count".  For example, you can only count a Rosy-faced Lovebird in Maricopa County, Arizona.   There are strict birders who only bird according to the ABA list.  Anything off that list is not worthy of their effort nor time.  And while that's certainly one way of looking at the birding world, it isn't necessarily mine. 

My criteria for "counting" a bird is a bit different. If the bird is not an escapee and has proven to breed and thrive in numbers, I will count it. Surprisingly, all of the birds featured today are countable in several areas around the US while others may join the list soon.  As a side note, ABA allows for the Spotted Dove to still be counted around the Los Angeles area while it appears that much of their population has almost disappeared!  I found one recent report around the LA area.  So what happens when these feral birds have a fallout?  Do they also fall off the ABA list? 

Red-lored Parrot
Anyhow, let's get started. I was absolutely excited to find wild parrots flying free around the Orange County and the San Diego area.  

Let's begin with the Lilac-crowned Parrot below.

Lilac-crowned Parrot
This was a parrot at the top of my list.  It's disappearing from the wild in its native home of Mexico due to poaching and habitat loss.  Surprisingly, this bird has been around for quite some time in Southern California where it has sustained a slowly growing population.  The flocks are large and loud! Often they will be mixed in with their closely related cousins, the Red-crowned Parrots. Oh yes....another one of those almost cryptic species!

Red-crowned Parrot
The Red-crowned Parrot is now the only ABA countable parrot in California. It can also be counted in Texas. Their numbers have grown substantially over the past years in California, Texas and Florida.  Again this parrot is also from the Mexican region where it is also listed as endangered. However this parrot is not doing well. Its numbers have severely decreased in many parts along the Atlantic slope of Mexico. Will these parrots eventually only survive in the US?  Only time and conservation efforts will tell. 

Northern Red Bishop
Let's head over to Africa.  One bird that is being considered as an addition to the ABA list is the Northern Red Bishop.  In the Orange County area, these finch-like birds are common around parks and stream areas.  They are actually considered weavers and prefer grassy areas near water sources.  There are now feral populations in Southern California, Texas, Puerto Rico and several other Caribbean islands.  This is a stunner for sure!

Scaly-breasted Munia
Now this bird was JUST added to the ABA list.  This spice finch(formerly known as the Nutmeg Mannikin) now goes by the name Scaly-breasted munia.  Often they are heard quickly flying over your head but on a very special day, we noticed sparkles of raspberry purple coming from the reeds along an estuary.  When I got the binos on the bird, I was able to count 4 of them!  This is a stunning bird from India and Sri Lanka.  Its numbers have taken off and now these birds can commonly be seen at almost any locale you visit!

Egyptian Goose
Two birds considered for the ABA list were a bit surprising for me.  In Florida, the Egyptian Goose can be counted.  In California, more research needs to be done on this bird but they seem to be expanding their range.  Soon this bird may be "countable" on that precious ABA list.  We were lucky to spot two that flew into the woods and ponds we were scouting.  

Indian Peafowl....for now
Now this bird I've always wondered about.  I saw reports of these birds known as Indian Peafowl.  What in the world were they?!!  Turns out that the Indian Peafowl also goes by the general public name of Peacock! Except that Peacock refers to the male of the Peafowl!   Yes, these birds may also be added soon to the ABA list in California as they are breeding and expanding their range in wild areas.  However, the Indian title may be dropped and Common added instead.  

Pin-tailed whydah
Finally,  I had to end on one of my favorites.....the Pin-tailed whydah.  If I didn't have my ears, I wouldn't have been able to locate these tiny birds.  In fact,  they acted like little mice crawling through the grass.  This is a bird from Africa but now has established itself in places like Southern California and Puerto Rico.  During breeding season, the male develops a long tail that will make your jaw drop.  A field mark to help ID these little birds in their non-breeding plumage is that red bill. 

Birds are amazing creatures and I hope you enjoyed this inner city world travel.  Southern California is a strange place to bird.  It's saturated with buildings and people but if you look hard in between the cracks, you'll discover some hidden gems. 

I'll have more next week for you all on the native Californian species that we observed around Orange County and San Diego.  Until next time......

For more about other amazing birds from around the world, check out Wild Bird Wednesday!

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Cryptic Mysteries

The "Western" Flycatchers
Top-Cordilleran Flycatcher Bottom-Pacific-Slope Flycatcher
When I first began this birding quest, I had NO idea what kind of game would unfold!  Over the past several years, I've had so many wonderful hours of frustration and study!  Welcome to Birding 201 as we explore similar looking birds!  Take, for example, the pic above. When I first met these individuals, I had wanted to pull my hair out but since I'm already losing it I didn't think that was such a good idea.  These birds were once lumped together as Western Flycatchers.  Then some birdbrains in 1989 decided to split them. Today, birders still have issues sorting through these two birds.  If the bird doesn't make a sound, we usually mark it as a Western Flycatcher because these two birds look virtually identical! They are known as a CRYPTIC species.  {Cryptic species- one of two or more morphologically indistinguishable biological groups that are incapable of interbreeding} Or in plain English, they are different birds who happen to look the same!  Some birders still hate that the Western Flycatchers were split into Pacific-slope and Cordilleran Flycatchers. After having observed these birds often in the wild, I can understand why they were split.  It turns out, I was the bird brain:)

The Yellow Kingbirds
Then came the Kingbirds. I've only spotted 4 of these similar looking birds with a couple more to go! Ugh!  During the first days of bird, the gods must have said let's mess with birders a bit.  Over time, field marks played an important role.  An ancient Jedi taught me to look carefully.  Cassin's=white throat and a call that sounds like, "Come here!"; Western=white feathers on the outside of the tail; Tropical=notched tail; Thick-billed=whiter and bigger.  I haven't even gotten to the Couch's Kingbird yet! That should be fun!

Mallards, right? Wrong.
Then I find out that not all ducks are Mallards!  What??!!!  Yep, it's true.  While they may look like Mallards, they're not.  American Black Ducks, Mottled Ducks and the Mallard(including a subspecies known as the  Mexican Mallard) made me scratch my head!  The American Black Duck is on top left, Mallard bottom left and Mottled Duck right side. Even worse is when they hybridize and make matters worse! 

Tyrants in their own way!  L-R; T-B
Great Crested Flycatcher; Brown-crested Flycatcher
Ash-throated Flycatcher; Dusky-capped Flycatcher
 Then came the Tyrant Flycatchers! WHY????!!!!  Birders still have problems today distinguishing between the Ash-throated and Brown-crested Flycatchers in Arizona. They do look quite different once you've observed them for awhile. The Dusky-capped is the easiest because it makes a sad sound when it calls.  And it's smaller. I still have to find the similar looking Nutting's Flycatcher.  They are part of a genus known as the Myiarchus group. Or as I like to say, the Mariachi group:) Their secret to ID is memorizing their calls. 

Social Flycatcher; Lesser Kiskadee
Boat-billed Flycatcher; Great Kiskadee
I discovered the tropics had their own group of Tyrants. But these Tyrants I loved to ID because of their comic calls and acrobatic prowess. Or maybe it's the black mask around the eyes? Anyway, at that point, I realized this life bird hunt around the world wasn't going to be easy.  I remember hating it all.  However, to count a life bird, a birder has to know what they are doing.  I was forced to learn and pay attention to the details. And without realizing it, it made me a better observer!

Ibis Madness! Top-Glossy Ibis in Florida Bottom-White-faced Ibis in Arizona
And that white face every new birder asks about?  Around the eyes.  Can you see it? I thought so:)
 Time of year. Migration patterns.  Tiny field marks.  Calls.  Behaviors.  Habitat differences. Size.  It can determine the difference between a Ross's Goose or Snow Goose.  A Cackling Goose vs. Canada Goose.  Or a Bicknell's Thrush over a Gray-cheeked Thrush.  

Top-Allen's Hummingbird Bottom-Rufous Hummingbird
 Listening to birders argue over such details brings a smile to my face.  "That's an Allen's!"  "Are you sure?  You can't always go by those field marks!" etc etc etc.  But you can bet it will come down to those rectrices! If the bird stays around long enough:) 

American Crow, Fish Crow, Common Raven and Chihuahuan Raven
 But crows and ravens! They require 2 seconds of your time. Stop, listen and go. All of them are smart and intelligent birds! Dare I say, smarter than some humans?  Distance can play tricks on determining size. When I'm out in the field, it's hard to tell because they are flying so fast.  BUT, their calls and behavior will help with their ID right away!

Elegant Trogon top and Slaty-tailed Trogon bottom-they say the bottom bird is greener!  But in the dark rainforest, I had a hard time seeing it.
So I'm in the rain forest and find a trogon, and it looks like the Elegant Trogon from Southern Arizona?? Impossible! Last year, Pat tried to secretly put together a photography book as a holiday gift using my photos.  Quickly, Pat realizes it's not so easy.  "What??!!!!  They look the same!!!!"  Holiday gift exposed.  

The Sage Sparrows
Top-Sagebrush Sparrow
Bottom-Bell's Sparrow
So now to present day. When it came time to find the Bell's Sparrow, I groaned. It's crunch time now.  If I am to add new birds to the national 2014 list, I have to go after these tricky birds.  There I was this weekend in the middle of gunshots going off around me searching for these birds alone.  Hunting season is in full swing and I had to be careful. All I needed to do was find a bird with a darker malar.  It sounds easy, but I assure you it's not.  This is still a new bird for many people here in Arizona and the ID can be very difficult.  The Sage Sparrow was split into two species....the Bell's Sparrow and the Sagebrush Sparrow only last year. But we knew it was only a matter of time before this split would happen. The Sagebrush is common here but the Bell's will mingle within the Sagebrush populations during the winter months.  We had gone to a conference on these birds over a month ago which had studied the "Sage" sparrows in several areas around Arizona during the 2013-14 year.  I hit the jackpot on my trip to Robbins Butte Wildlife Area.  

Bell's Sparrows
The Bell's prefers high density vegetation and can be trickier to photograph.  Some good field marks for the Bell's here(Mojave subspecies) are little to no streaking on the back and a darker malar than the head.  I sat for hours studying my pictures on several of these birds and then emailed Mr. Tommy D for help. He has put in hours and hours of work out in the field with both the Bell's and Sagebrush sparrows. I am thankful for my birder friends.  Sometimes you have to call on help and have a second opinion on some things. So thank you Tommy!  New year bird and life bird added!  Now when I go out into the field again, I'll have a stronger understanding about this newly split bird. I still have a lot to learn!

Top-Clay-colored Sparrow
Bottom-Brewer's Sparrow
Nearly two years ago from this date, I had a similar challenge with my friend Kathie Brown. We had found "different" acting sparrows hanging out with the Brewer's Sparrows. They were brighter than their duller counterparts. This weekend, I went in search of the not-so-common Clay-colored Sparrow and found it!  Two years ago I wouldn't have been able to call this bird out in the field alone, but this weekend, I did. Thanks to our study and observations from the past, I was able to look for key field marks.  Experience and study make the ID on difficult birds a cinch! And it was a thrill. Plus it was the second new bird for the year in one weekend! Truth be told, it's these kinds of cryptic species that make birding exciting.  While similar looking sandpipers, sparrows, hawks, etc can be frustrating, they also offer us insight into just how really complex our world is.  In the beginning, I didn't understand it.  Today I appreciate that subtlety and challenge.  Here's another Tommy D video on Birding Stereotypes....about ID! Enjoy!

For more from around the world, check out Wild Bird Wednesday!