Sunday, May 24, 2015

The Tufted Angels

The Tufted Angels come together and discover new territory and birds!
The last two weeks in Southeastern Arizona have been awesome thanks to TWO rare visiting bird species.  Birders from all over the US quickly assembled and are currently hiking a major trail to find a tiny little bird.  With all the birders involved, I knew it was going to be difficult to actually get a good pic of the bird.  However, it didn't stop me from the photo shoot of our trek down.  The Band of Birders once again united for this very special day as we hiked over 8.2 miles for a code 5 bird.  The Tufted Flycatcher. 

We began our journey at the top of Carr Canyon which is located in the Huachuca Mountains. There we began our descent through rock, forest and mountain stream. 

As we made our way down, we faced rocky slopes and several steep climbs.  At one point, Magill took a spill and landed on her knee.  

Along the way, we had absolutely beautiful vistas of both the canyons.  There were several places where cliff and trail met up.  

At several places, we encountered poison ivy.  There wasn't any avoiding the plant as it spilled from both sides onto the trail.  When I got home, I took a shower!

As we got closer to the area where the Tufted Flycatcher was seen, we encountered the running mountain stream.  On several occasions, we had to figure out how we'd cross without getting the shoes wet. Wet shoes on a slope can be a bad thing. 

Gordon weighs in on the rickety looking bridge.  It is decided we'd chance it on the rocks instead:)  As we approached our coordinates, we found our secret society of birders all standing in the "spot". 

It was a beautiful moment.  I love it when a special bird makes its way into a sacred part of the world that not many people see.  We all stood and patiently waited for the bird to fly near its "possible" nesting location. I saw one bird.  But from other photographers and reliable sources, I saw pictures of a nest and a different looking TUFL.  So......

As the bird flew in, the crowd became extremely happy. Several photographers snapped off lots and lots of camera shots.  I was one of them:)  Well I tried!  The bird reminded me of a Tyrannulet in the way it flew.  It perched like a Pewee.  Physically, it was buffy like a Buff-breasted Flycatcher but with the tuft of a Juniper Titmouse!  

This is only the 8th recorded sighting of the bird in the US. As mentioned previously, two birds and a nest were reported.  If this is the case, it would be the first time that this Mexican species has ever nested in Arizona.  And that is a big deal. 

My pic of this bird is terrible, but like the Flame-colored Tanager, I know I'll have more opportunities to see this bird again when I'm in its expected habitat.  For now, I just thoroughly enjoyed the experience of the hike, being with friends and finding the bird. For many birders, it will be a story shared with people for many years to come.   

After about an hour with the Tufted Flycatcher, we continued on down to Ramsey Canyon so that the crew could get their Flame-colored Tanager for the year.  Again, the birds weren't too cooperative, but they did show.  

Our team member, Tommy D, took one for the team by heading back up to Carr Canyon so that he could bring Gordon's vehicle back down to Ramsey.  The group members were thankful.  Several birders hiked back with him and I know it made the time pass by quickly. 

Birding in Arizona is epic.  We have been enjoying wonderful weather here.  During several parts of our hike, we were actually cold!  Cold in May is something of a gift to us.   If anyone decides to chase this bird, remember to bring enough water for the trek.  Several of us brought our camelpacks.  I'm glad I did!  I drank the whole thing!

The day wouldn't have been the day without the group.  It's always special when we all can set aside a day together and go find an amazing bird.  We can be intense.  But we also laugh a lot. As we finished our day at a Mexican restaurant, I saw a real bond.  One that is caring and one of mutual respect.  I was so grateful to share that moment together. What a way to start the summer vacation!  Until next time everyone..... 

PS.  And for the poor photos of birds this week, I give you a random Wood Duck I found in one of our local parks this week.  This is a drake(or male) and it made my evening.  

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Blood and Stone

I hear you Mr. Trogon. You are calling for a mate.  My ears guide me towards your voice.  Slowly I tackle the rocky hillside along the rambling creek.  There I stand behind a tree so that you won't notice me. But you probably already do:)  For minutes, I scan the trees for your voice.  

Elegant Trogon
Eventually I find you and marvel at your beauty.  I know there is another who is also calling to her.  She is in the canyon and both of you are vying for her affections. I secretly wish you luck. 

As we say our good-byes, I step off a ledge and fall into the creek. Damnit! "Don't look back!  Go get her!" The bird leaves me behind as I lie on my side.  My padded rear takes the brunt of the impact as does my left arm.  Scrapes.  Blood.  Stone.  It was worth it. 

Tree Creeper
Once the dust settles, I realize my phone flew into the stream! Quickly I grab the half submerged device and proceed to dry it off.  Oh oh.  I pick myself up and wander the trail some more. 

It doesn't take long before I am surrounded by new friends. We stand together and I think about how perfect the moment is.  I'm alone, safe and in tune with the world around me. Together we walk the dirt path without a care in the world. Isn't this the way life should be?

Hummingbirds zip around my head.  All around me, birds are nesting and singing.  I think about my last week of work before summer break begins.  I think about my friend Melissa who isn't with us anymore.  I think about what will come. And what may be.  Excited. Nervous.  Perhaps stressed. A wedding will do this to a person. But my mind wanders and I forget about what was stressing me in the first place. Like the hummingbird, my thoughts quickly move onto other forest matters.

Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher
I move inches forward.  There I spy Sulphur-bellied Flycatchers.  It was only three years ago I found them in that exact same spot.  Were these the children or the same adults I glanced upon not so long ago?  I remember being such a novice then.  In many ways, I still am.  But now I know these local characters.  By heart. By song.  By habit.  By love.  For it's what changed me. 

As my crazy work schedule comes to an end, I can sit down and organize this summer better.  I have several conferences to attend, a trip to Colorado, a camping trip into the Chiricahuas, and our Mexican trek.  

A blurry Flame-colored male Tanager
 The mission on this day had been to find the nesting and rare-to-the-US Flame-colored Tanagers.  This bird wasn't a life bird but it was a new bird for the US list.  And honestly, I just wanted to see them.  I have yet to get a better photo of these birds, but I know I'll see them again in the future. The Flame-colored Tanager, formerly known as the Stripe-back Tanager, is a medium size songbird. Formerly placed in the Tanager family, it and other members of its genus are now classified in the cardinal this Pyrrhuloxia(pronounced Pear-oh-luck-zee-ah) below. 

Pyrrhuloxia-taken at my school this week
  And so my stories shall continue.  We have reached the 1/3 mark of the year.  As we close off this chapter of the "Americano" travels, I take a look back with a video clip below. This video was filmed in Wisconsin and Arizona from the United States while another part was taken in Sonora, Mexico.


Being out in the wild, makes me feel alive.  The stresses of work, my crazy neighborhood, and life all seem to wash away.  On this day, I am only able to spend 5 hours outdoors.  But it's the best 5 hours of therapy a person can have. PS. If your cell phone gets wet, turn it off and stick it in a ziploc bag full of dry rice.  It really works!  Until next time!

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Within Limits

Least Tern at Sweetwater, marks the 300th bird

Pima County, Arizona is an amazing place to bird.  It's one of the birdiest areas of the US! Thanks to our mountain, canyon, grassland and desert habitat, it's home to so many wonderful critters. 

Yesterday was an important day for me as I hit the 300 species mark in Pima County. A rare Least Tern flew into Sweetwater Wetlands helping me achieve this unintended goal. The highest species count for Pima County is 445 birds.  Here is a look back at some of the gems discovered around Tucson and surrounding areas. 

                                         Black-capped Gnatcatcher on Proctor Road
Pima County has a special group of birds that most birders need on their lists. Eventually they have to make their way to Southern Arizona:) It's amazing how many people just care about getting these birds on their US list.  And then there is that ABA list!  If they aren't on the ABA list, it's not important.  I don't get that thinking.  I understand it, but I'm not the kind of person that likes having someone tell me whether or not a bird "counts".  All birds matter! Either way, these two birds are countable and very much desired! I had seen both of these birds in other countries first.  Later, I added them onto my US list.  

                                           Rufous-capped Warbler at Florida Canyon 

Articles have been written on both of the Black-capped Gnatcatchers and Rufous-capped Warblers.  Thanks to global warming, these birds are beginning to expand their range. 

                                               Sage Thrasher
It's always a treat to find birds migrating through our various areas like the Sage Thrasher(above).  A central to lower US state bird, the Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, erased my terrible day woes last year as it flew right past me at Sweetwater Wetlands!  It perched on a branch for a few moments reminding me that work is just work.  Life is more important.  While work is important, it doesn't define who I am.  I am more. 

                                       Scissor-tailed Flycatcher
I think I can speak for most birders this year on these birds below.  Trumpeter Swans flew into the Sweetwater Wetlands shocking the local birding establishments!  People wet their pants and dropped whatever they were doing and ran to Sweetwater! I'm serious. I'm going to write something here that speaks volumes about us. We could be in the most serious conversations.  Maybe we are signing divorce papers, attending a funeral, etc. But mention a rare bird and watch your birder friends secretly slip out the door:) These incredible swans stuck around for the day allowing many birders to join together on this unofficial holiday. They were one day wonders! And I would say that these two swans have been the best birds so far in Pima County this year. 

                                        Trumpeter Swans at Sweetwater

Another excellent bird for us this year has been the Heerman's Gull.  There have been several sightings over the past several months!  This is a pretty cool gull and a bird I hadn't thought I'd add to my Pima list anytime soon!  They are found along the coasts of Southern California and Mexico.  It's a pretty sexy gull and an easy ID for people who aren't great with gull ID. 

Heerman's Gull

One of my favorite birds is the Common Loon. Never in a million years when I first started birding did I think Tucson could have visiting Loons.  As a young child growing up around Wisconsin and Minnesota, I remember their magical calls.  An all-time favorite movie, On Golden Pond, always comes to mind when I see one of these majestic birds. 

Common Loon

So here's a weird one.  The Black Scoter.  On a cloudy and rainy day, a massive storm front delivered a Black Scoter to the Old Pueblo!  There, for several months in a random deep pond, a female scoter hung out.  An ocean bird in the desert!

                                            Black Scoter

Other shockers included this Juvenile Tricolored Heron on a golf course. 

                                                                                        juvenile Tricolored Heron

Or this random Whimbrel in the middle of the desert.  And just for fun, it hung out with a Long-billed Curlew to mess with birders:)


Other birds, like this Barn Owl, are sometimes hard to come by! What a treat to have seen one here within the Tucson limits!  Again I don't advertise their locations as there are a few photographers who who will cross unethical lines. Since when is a picture more important than the welfare of our birds?  One of the tenants of a good birder is to never intentionally disturb a bird out in the field.  If I see them eating or nesting, I keep my distance.  I have met several birders/photographers in the field who bait their birds(i.e. hawks, etc) for a better photo.  Or they cut a branch down to get that "annoying" thing out of the way.....for a better photo. This is unethical. And that is why this particular Barn Owl left the tree.  Thanks to some crazy owl fanatic who decided to cut down a couple branches, this Barn Owl didn't return to that spot. 

                                         Barn Owl at Sweetwater

Mt. Lemmon is a prime location for finding nesting Red-faced and Olive Warblers during our summer months! 

Red-faced Warbler

Once birders believed that Elegant Trogons(below) could not be found in Pima County.  Then last year, the infamous Florida Canyon sported a pair.  And they were in Pima County.  This year they are still there!

During my beginning days as a birder, I went to see the visiting Brown Pelican during our monsoon at a nearby park. I was hot and sweaty, but I sure enjoyed viewing this pelican. During monsoon, it's common to have a Brown Pelican or two blown into the deserts.  Many times they are rescued and taken back to San Diego, CA.  A small few have remained and can be found up around the Phoenix area. Pelicans in the desert. 

                                           Brown Pelican

Finally, several years ago, a Groove-billed Ani came to the Sweetwater Wetlands and got me excited.  I love Spanish and the tropics!  Nothing says tropical like an Ani!  I fell in love with this bird so much, I went back several times to observe it.   This is one of my top ten favorite birds...for now:)  The Audubon guide who discovered this bird flipped out! And this bird put Tucson on the US map for a week!

                                                Groove-billed Ani

As you can see, birding within your own area can be fun and exciting.  It's a challenge like everything else, but all these birds add up over time. Have you tried birding within your own county?  If so, what were some of the cool birds you've discovered?

                                    Black-bellied Whistling Duck

I have several key trips planned this year that will hopefully propel me towards the 800 life bird mark.  In June, I celebrate my 4th year as a birder.  This life journey continues to change me forever.  We'll be heading out of Arizona to several states this summer while also traveling to Southern Mexico. 

 On a whim, I followed a theory and discovered a 2nd tern on my own in the city of Tucson!  That was a bonus!  Here it is flying about at Lakeside Park.  Pretty cool!

Monday, May 11, 2015

Above and Beyond

Cascarones and Cinco De Mayo
It has been utter chaos.  Too much going on! The above picture is how I felt this past week.  Final exams, a retirement party and a whole lot more!  So I'll try to piece it all together the best I can. 

Coach Dee in the middle and Ms. Tami(aka Zumba Diva)
First off, we had a retirement party for an amazing teacher.  We are going to miss Coach Dee's loud and crazy antics around school.  I don't do work parties or really hang out with work friends, but this woman is an inspiration and I, along with so many others, will miss her. 

Red Yucca-a good choice for Tucson!  Anna's Hummingbirds will love this plant while it is blooming!
Meanwhile, we're seriously planning for wedding stuff and trying to get everyone on the same page for the October event.  I'm overwhelmed with finals preps and grading.  None of it is very fun.  So on my breaks at work, I walk outside and just find a corner on campus and listen to the birds singing.  There is so much nesting going on!

Scaled Quail
During the weekend, I worked with Magill on the "Big Sit" and Cornell's "Global Big Day".  This was way more interesting! Saturday began with an idea and evolved into something more.  We headed to Willcox Lake and counted the birds which was productive, but the idea of sitting around this lake for a full day was a bit much.  We decided to combine these two events into one. 

Gambel's Quail
The Quail were posing as were the Orioles, Tanagers and lots of other interesting birds!  Eventually, we get to Coachline Lake and set up our gear for the Big Sit.  I pull out the cooler and chairs. We get the snacks out and I pop open a nice cold beer. After a day of hiking, it was good to sit down and relax for about 4 hours under a tent. 

Magill made awesome shirts for our Coachline "Big Sit".  Little Ground Squirrels kept us entertained while we counted the birds under the big tent. 

We ended the day on a high note as 60 Lesser Nighthawks serenaded about us catching insects.  It was quite the sight!

Round-tailed Ground Squirrel
We both went home exhausted but happy.  It was a nice day out.  Sunday, I wanted to really hike and take advantage of the nice cool temps. So on Mother's Day, Micheal and I headed out to the beautiful Miller Canyon. 

Black-chinned Hummingbird
Again, we had a wonderful day out.  There was lots of hiking and lots of great finds.  While we didn't find the Flame-colored Tanagers, we did see Mexican Jays chasing a Northern Goshawk, a nesting Blue-throated Hummingbird, and lots of amazing critters.

Yarrow's Spiny Lizard
For nearly 4 years, I have been birding.  June will mark my 4th anniversary as a changed man.  During these years, I've only had two sightings of the rare Chiricahuan Leopard Frog.  My first time was in Ramsey Canyon.  And my second time was in Miller Canyon on Sunday while crossing a stream.  

I think without current human intervention, these frogs would be extinct by now. I once heard a local naturalist tell another that it's only a matter of time before they disappear.  I also heard another report from a different naturalist who thinks they are making great progress.  What do I think?  Well, it's great that I saw a frog in this canyon.  Before the Miller Canyon fire, they were plentiful.  After the fire, they all but disappeared.  Finding one on Sunday was hopeful. 

And finally, here are some Southern Arizona flowers that really make a statement.  Below, the Golden Columbine is found at higher elevations around our Sky Islands.  

While this Mountain Rose Mallow is currently blooming in our butterfly garden at El Presidio in Tucson. This is one tough little plant!

Have a great week and stay tuned for more next week!