Tuesday, January 27, 2015

A World Away

Saguaro Lake
Sometimes life gets crazy.  It definitely can be challenging.  In this fast paced life, I find that nature can be very healing.

Double-crested Cormorant at Christopher Columbus Park in Tucson
Sometimes it's not so much the birds but the escape that they provide.  It isn't fiction. I do travel quite a bit.  It's what I do best. I used to hike the same trail at the same time every day....and it got boring.  Once I started birding, I realized that I could make my walks more interesting by following the birds.

Northern Beardless Tyrannulet at Agua Caliente Park in Tucson
This past week had been a lot of fun as I trekked from our snow topped mountains to sod farms outside of Phoenix with friend Gordon Karre.  Our weather here has been wonderful.  Therefore, it's difficult to resist the urge to explore.

Pied-billed Grebe catching a snack at Agua Caliente Park
My first trek took me to Summerhaven up on Mt. Lemmon.  There was quite a bit of snow and ice up there as I hiked around my usual areas searching for the birds. 

Olive Warbler
 And surprise surprise! I lucked out by finding ONE Olive Warbler.

Agua Caliente Park
As I came down from the mountain, I decided to stop at the nearby Agua Caliente park.  And I'm glad I did!  I found their first of the year sightings of the highly sought after Northern Beardless Tyrannulets!  Pretty exciting stuff.

Yellow-eyed Junco on Summerhaven, Mt. Lemmon
Then it was off with Gordon to the Rousseau Sod Farms and Saguaro Lake in Maricopa County.  

Bald Eagle near the Salt River outside of Phoenix
A lot of the birds seen around these areas aren't as common in Tucson or around Pima county.  So many of them were first of the year birds for me. Or as birders write.....FOY.

Common Goldeneye on the Salt River
The canals around Phoenix and surrounding cities are full of really amazing ducks, geese, herons, hawks, etc. As we were looking across the agricultural fields, we'd have several birds fly up and pass over our heads.

Common Merganser near the Russo Sod Farm outside of Phoenix
Flycatchers are fun.  This bird below gets confused with the Dusky Flycatcher BUT if the birder pays attention, it can be a simple ID.  This Gray Flycatcher pumped its' tail downwards making the ID a snap.

Gray Flycatcher at Saguaro Lake
This is the first decent photo documentation that I've taken of this bird.  My first time I saw one, I used my Iphone to snap a pic. After that, I had seen them in many other locations, but the branches always got in the way of the bird! 

We counted many American Pipits at the Sod Farm.  Most of the them were feeding around the greens.

American Pipit at the Russo Sod Farm
Along the canals, we had beautiful views of an Osprey kiting.

Osprey near the canals of the Sod Farm
Beauty is everywhere and only a walk away.  And it's a great way to clear the mind after a crazy day at work!

Where will we go next week?  Stay tuned for more!

Thursday, January 22, 2015

A Dabbling Duck

Mexican Spotted Owl
There a bird.  Here a bird.  Everywhere birds.  An electronic list is sent to me daily about the birds seen around the state of Arizona. I have begun getting lists from Mexico so that I can study the strange new names.  Some are still familiar.

Red-naped Sapsucker

Over the past week, I've done some really sporadic things around Southern Arizona.  I went to find a Spotted Owl in town. 

Then it was off to help out at the Wings Over Willcox festival.  I hung out at a booth with the Mexican ranch crew(the ones that track the Jaguars).  We had a lot of wonderful people stop by including a certain bear:)

Wings Over Willcox
On Sunday, we took a trip down to the border region grasslands where we had a nice time around Peña Blanca Lake, Kino Springs and the Cienegas Grasslands near Empire Ranch.

Rock Wren
I'm in a strange place right now with birding.  It has been a lot of fun watching new birders get excited about the birds here in Arizona. To be honest, it's been a lot of fun helping people find the birds.  At home, I read up on birds.  If there's a documentary on birds, I'll watch it. 

So there are some birds I like more than others. I think that it's this way for many people.  The only bird I really wanted to see on our day out was the White-tailed Kite.  The sun was setting while we watched this beautiful kite for a half hour.  I think it has to be one of the most elegant and graceful birds out there.  The pic below was my favorite.  There are three layers to this photo.  The setting sun.  The gold colors of the grasses. And the silhouette of the kite landing.  Perfection.

White-tailed Kite lands
We hiked for a bit around several areas finding all of our wrens for the day.  At Kino Springs, we stopped for the Black-bellied Whistling ducks.  I snapped a shot even though the lighting was all wrong.  The birds came up rare on my report and I needed to document them.  It was strange because I've seen 4 or 5 of them together this time of year, but not 26!  So I snapped a photo just to be on the safe side.  

Peña Blanca Lake

Anyhow, I've been a dabbling duck.  I go there. Stay here. It doesn't matter.

I focus on getting better pictures of birds that have poor photo documentation. For example, I've seen the Blue-gray Gnatcatcher many times and yet I didn't have a very good picture of one.  I've come to enjoy watching the various gnatcatchers over the past couple years. To the untrained eye, they all look the same, but they are definitely different birds:)  And it's noticing the subtleties that make birding fun and worthwhile. 

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
So right now, I will continue to dabble in various projects until the bigger trips arrive. 

Canyon Wren, Black-bellied Whistling Ducks, White-tailed Kite and Rock Wren

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

A Disquiet Follows My Soul

Lovebird en cantata
By the end of the year, I was exhausted.  Then something strange happened to me after our jaunt to New Mexico for the Common Crane.  I became a bit sad.  Was this it?

My cat Luna is exhausted watching me run in and out of the house for a rare bird
What would I do now? For a week, I struggled to redefine my work and get a grasp on how I would organize my journey this year. I still need to make some birding progress because as most of us already know, life doesn't wait for us to catch up. 

Tucson's "new" premiere birding spot....."The Coachline Gravel Pits Lake"
So I called Kathie. We chatted for awhile and like always, she gave me some wonderful advice.  Saturday morning came quickly and I woke up feeling a tad better.  I headed out to Madera Canyon which remedied some of the building anxiety. Getting rid of the "chasing bird" syndrome is not an easy thing to do.

Lewis's Woodpecker near Madera Canyon
As I sat watching the Pine Siskins at the feeders, I noticed several birders approaching.  One asked if he could sit next to me and I said of course.  He proceeded to ask questions about the birds as did several other birders seated in the nearby benches.  Instead of giving them the answers, I had them work for their ID.  It's the teacher in me. And it was fun watching people connect with the birds. 
Pine Siskins with Lesser Goldfinches
I continued observing the birds getting quality views of them all as I've done time and time again....year after year. It doesn't make them any less spectacular.  But what would my challenge be for the year?  I was still trying to figure it all out.

Magnificent Hummingbird
Another day would pass and I'd chase the rare, for Tucson, Eastern Bluebirds and just sit and watch them feeding on the desert mistletoe berries.

Eastern Bluebird
I went to find my Yellow-headed Blackbirds for the year and discovered them in the same place around a pair of Red-winged Blackbirds.  I observed their size differences and also enjoyed viewing the male and female Red-winged Blackbirds together.  Three years ago, the female confused me. I had thought she was some rare sparrow. Silly me. Today, this bird is part of my being.

Yellow-headed Blackbirds and Red-winged Blackbirds
I move on and explore some more, spotting both common and rare birds in new and old places. And I begin to feel something inside again.  The spark. Instead of the rush to find that rare bird, I sit back enjoying the full experience.  I see two men with their scopes looking for Wood Ducks.  One of the men tells me he shot one the other day. He asks me where he could find more. I keep their locations secret. "I don't know.  I haven't seen any this year."

Drake Wood Duck. Hide your brilliance!
Two ladies are doing a big year and ask me about several birds.  I smile and share with them several areas that they should target. While they are speaking, I notice the two paired geese that have stayed in Tucson over the past month or so flying over to our location. The Snow and Greater White-fronted Geese make a landing. They have bonded now.  What if something happens to the other?  They are right by my work which makes for a nice stop on the way home. Tucson birders are very happy to have this relatively new place to bird.   Also in the water, we notice 18 Canada Geese!  For most people, these birds are common but in the Tucson area, we're lucky if we even have one stop by for a visit during the year!

A Northern Shoveler leads the way for the Snow and Greater White-fronted Geese
I continue searching and visiting areas. There are a lot of birders doing a Big January.  

I revisit the now annual  and rare wintering Eurasian Wigeon, but this time I try to get a picture that shows the contrast between the two wigeons.

American Wigeon with a rare Eurasian Wigeon
I find myself beginning to develop a plan as I bird with my bud Magill Weber around the Phoenix Metro.  Just what would I call this chapter of my birding career?  We explore cemeteries and random parks for species we have already seen over the years.....just not for this year:) 

People ask, "What happens after we die?"  This past weekend I discovered the answer!  Birds sit on our gravestones!
But the difference here is that we examined new areas to find these same birds and that made the challenge much more exciting. Magill counts over 300 American Wigeons at one of the cemeteries.  While doing so, she locates a rare morph Storm Wigeon! About 1 in 500 male American Wigeons are born with this beautiful "White-cheeked" morph.  Definitely won't be telling any hunters about this bird!  The fun part about this count was that the birds kept flying in and out of the watering hole during Magill's count!  

Storm Wigeon-a rare morph of the American Wigeon. 
And it's these minute details I enjoy today. The challenge of finding one bird in a flock of over a hundred or a thousand is very rewarding.  As everything begins to unfold, I realize that I am happy exploring weird spots without having the need to get a pic of the bird anymore since it's not a lifebird.  I can relax and just observe. It makes birding much more enjoyable.

Laurence's Goldfinch
We play detective and think like the birds.  And there they are.  Not always.....but most of the time. 

Say it like you mean it...STOOOOOOOOOORM WIIIIIIIIGEON!  Magill says the nickname of this AMWI morph sounds lke a 70's rock band!
And then it happens! A theme snaps into my brain for this new birding year. AMERICANO. In Spanish, the word "americano" refers to anyone from the Americas which includes the US, Mexico and Canada! The primary focus of my bird searches will happen in the West and Mexico.....especially around the state of Sonora. So a North American year it is!

A Green-winged Teal showing off his.......brilliant green on the wing:)

And just like that!  POOF!  My anxiety goes away.  It's not the US anymore but a good portion of North America. I hope to see a Groove-billed Ani again which is definitely one of my top 10 favorite birds.

One of my all time favorite top 10 birds, the Groove-billed Ani.

For now, it's all about combing the parks, cemeteries and rediscovering all the birds from last year:)  And so the new adventure begins.  Americano. 

When I pass into the unknown, I hope that I am surrounded by birds.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Close Encounters of the Bird Kind

When we think of the word "ALIEN", our minds often go to outer space.  If you live close to an international border,  you might think of someone who is NOT from your own country.  Today's adventure takes us into the heart of a snow storm, the search for a very welcome alien, and a trip to Roswell, New Mexico.  But we weren't searching for UFO's. 

It began as we headed on I-10 towards New Mexico.  My final days of vacation were to be spent searching for a very rare bird to North America. Some might call this bird an illegal alien.  But most birders think otherwise:)  I didn't want to go back to work wondering "What if...."

Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge
As we moved closer to the New Mexican border, we began to see a very snowy and cold weather pattern building.  And so it began.  Severe snow showers! At times, we were in white out conditions.   How would this impact our trek??!!  Should we turn back?  

Western Meadowlark
But I began to see images like the ones above.  Birds in snow. I became curious and watched the heightened bird activity throughout the state along our route.  It was a very rare opportunity to see New Mexico covered in a blanket of snow.  And it was an opportunity to do a rare photo shoot with SNOW! 

The aftermath.....a frozen tundra!
Our trek would lead us into the Chihuahuan desert, up into forests and then back down into the hilly grasslands. As the skies began to darken, we pushed further into the storm before absolute darkness took over.  We had two excellent windows for observing this rare bird and one of them would be closing for us in a matter of hours!

Known as the Common Crane in Europe and other parts of the world, this crane isn't so common here in North America.  Cranes, during the day, will fly out into the agricultural fields and feed.  At night, the birds return to their wetlands to roost.  Early morning, they warm up and take off.  Those opportunities are what birders call "windows".  I didn't feel like chasing cranes all over the farmer's fields due to the bad road conditions.  Ice had begun to form.   

We arrived into Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge just in time.  The snow was now falling quite a bit.  We had our gear as we hiked to a spot where we could count the hundreds of Sandhill Cranes flying over our heads.  It wasn't long before we spotted our target bird, but darkness had settled in.....and so had the cranes.  We marked their location and where the Common Crane landed so that we could get some photos in the morning. By this time, the roads had become slick and dangerous.   

On the way back, we spotted deer and elk along the sides of the country roads.  We drove slowly to our bed and breakfast on the back roads careful not to make any sudden moves allowing ourselves enough breaking room.     

In the darkness, I could make out Western Meadowlarks hunkering down for the night.  This bird was very common around the fields here and it was a bird I wanted to study more.  We have both Eastern and Western Meadowlarks in southern Arizona, but they seem to be trickier to capture on camera.  Every time I've gone to New Mexico, they seem to pose for me.  

But this Common Crane.  It was our target bird.  A couple years ago, I studied cranes and took plenty of notes on them during a summer trip to Wisconsin.  My focus, at the time, was our state's very special crane known as the Whooping Crane.  While we were there, we attended several lectures about the various crane populations around the world.  The Common Crane, unlike many others, has a stable and very large population back in Europe, Asia and other parts.                                                                                                                                                            
Common Crane
It's rather distinct when compared to our Sandhill Cranes here.   The bird is larger.  It has a black crown and neck.  There is a white patch behind the eye with a yellowish bill.  The very top of the head on this crane is red and featherless. 

I've placed a pic of the common Sandhill Crane below for comparison. 

Sandhill Cranes
There is no denying the voice of a crane.  It's loud and can be heard in the far distance as they fly from one area to the next.  In the evening, we scanned the skies and counted over 2000 Sandhill Cranes!  And we found one Common Crane in the bunch.  In the morning, we knew we had to go back and relocate for an ID pic.  Anytime a rare bird is observed, it is best to get a picture for not only credibility but for evidence as well.  When ebirding a rare bird, it's important to include as much information as you can like......what you observe, what time, where, pics, etc etc....

So I am including real time photos of what we saw.  With my binoculars, I could see everything.  As you can see with this camera pic, it's a lot more difficult using a camera.  We stood in the cold.  Micheal kept the data as I relayed to him the information from my bins.  He'd punch in the numbers and I'd count the cranes flying over.  This allowed me to focus on what direction the cranes were flying and where they were landing.  Bitter Lake National Wildlife refuge was a new area for us and it was important we didn't waste time in the morning searching for the birds before they took off. 

Start counting and look for Waldo!  I mean...the Common Crane:)
We returned in the morning to the 2500 cranes.  They are noisy birds so it was easy to get into an area to view them.  The problem with this particular target bird was distance.  Scopes are great but I don't own one.  However with binoculars, I was able to spot the bird.  If I had used only a camera, I wouldn't have been able to spot the bird. 

Where might the Common Crane be?  Can you find the bird?
When I began birding, this type of mission would have been impossible for me.  Experience and practice have been wonderful teachers.  I used to dread these challenges but today I look forward to them.  I've also learned better to enjoy these crazy places and look beyond the birds.  Roswell wasn't what I thought it would be.  Sure it has its cheesy museums and restaurants, but it's also more than that.  

So part of our experience explored the cheesy tourist fun while the other led us into the amazing landscape vistas around this fantastic New Mexican locale.  

Note:  Bald Eagle above my head
When I first began birding, I hated the idea of exploring New Mexico because I "thought" it was a boring state.  After several years of visiting this state, I have fallen in love with this secret gem of America.  The food, the people, the landscape, the culture, and the wildlife seem to be mostly untouched by the outside world.  When compared to the crazy urban development of California, New Mexico is still wild and open. The Wild West is still alive here and I hope it stays that way for a very long time.  

My Senior Graduation Picture
Perhaps the greatest question behind discovering this bird was, "How on Earth did this crane get all the way over here to the US?" A common opinion is that this crane got mixed up in the northern migration route with the Sandhill Cranes.  Every bird has a story.  And in a way, I suppose it's a similar story to the Roswell Aliens who landed here many years ago. Supposedly, they also took a wrong turn:)  Either way, I now can say I've seen an alien(or two) in Roswell, New Mexico.