Sunday, June 28, 2015

Destiny Awaits

As we headed towards the snow covered Rocky Mountains, I thought to myself, "Will we be driving to the top?"  

Note the cars in the distance.  They are tiny.  Also note the steep ledges:)
I soon discovered the answer to that question as we drove near steep drop offs along several cliffs. There weren't any of those guard rails in several of the "Ohhhh $@!*" spots but it's not like any of those things matter anyway. If you're going to drive or slide off the cliff, a guard rail really isn't going to stop a several ton vehicle. Standing on the top of anything tall is my greatest fear.  When I saw a Golden Eagle fly nearby our location within only several feet, I knew we were high up.  Oh gods, this birding adventure is going to kill me!

As we climbed higher and higher into the alpine region, it became colder, windier and much harder to breathe. But it was only here that we might spy the amazing White-tailed Ptarmigan.  So I white-knuckled it to the top driving like a true flatlander....under the speed limit and hanging out in the center lane whenever possible.  Micheal yelled at me several times to stay in our lane.  I saw a bird dancing in the snow but I couldn't stop because that was the rule.  And I had a park ranger behind me:)  After that drive, Micheal took over for the rest of our alpine adventure:)

male Mountain Bluebird
As we parked our car along the edge of a cliff, I scoured the snow covered landscape for a trail. We searched for a few moments before locating something of a path. I remember the research involved with this bird and I laughed.  In my naive little mind, we were in a forest looking for a bird.  But in reality, we were above the timberline in the snow hiking along a crazy trail that scared the crap out of me. I was still in the "denial" stage. I imagined my parents up there with us and mom telling me, "That's okay honey.  You go get your bird.  Your father and I will stay in the car:)"  That made me smile.  Humor is the secret to making a scary situation.....less scary:)

But if we were to claim our life bird, we would have to do what was required to find ourselves the White-tailed Ptarmigans. It's an alpine level bird during the summer and blends in real well with all the rocks. During the winter, they turn all white and hang out along the timberline region buried in the snow.  I was expecting this grouse to be mainly a ground bird so we scanned every rock and chunk of snow. 

American Pipit
During our survey, we discovered breeding American Pipits and Mountain Bluebirds!  All of these birds were collecting nesting materials or actually building their nests.  I hadn't expected to see an American Pipit at all. They winter in Arizona around our ugly farm fields but breed high up in the alpine level in the most scenic areas on this planet.  My opinion of the American Pipit really changed after this trek. They went from "okay" to "cool". 

As we sat on a rock, a Marmot popped his head out as if to say, "What are you folks doing around these parts?"

So we continued to crunch our way through the snow. Where were these Ptarmigans????!!!!!  We certainly put a lot of time and effort into finding them!  

Micheal scanned and scanned. I kept my ears open. And then I heard this loud squawking. 

"There!  Over there Micheal!"  He put his binos on the birds.  I got the camera ready and together we observed these amazing birds scout around the area for food.  They did like to fly a bit more than I imagined and that was interesting to observe. 

White-tailed Ptarmigan
It was another high five moment for a tricky bird.  The White-tailed Ptarmigan is often a nemesis bird for many birders because of its ability to blend in with the surrounding landscape.  Just getting to the area can be difficult with the ever changing weather patterns. With that said, there are some who are lucky enough to have the birds sit only a few feet from them for a nice picture.  This was not the case for us.

We stopped at the Alpine Visitor Center after our hike and got a look at these birds up close in their display case.  It was an amazing trek finding this bird and coffee/hot chocolate never tasted better after this chilly morning hike. Have I ever mentioned how birding is awesomely epic?  Ok, I might overuse the word "epic" sometimes, but hey it is!

Least Chipmunk
Stay tuned for more next week as we explore the lovely Estes Park......

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Legends of Destiny

Destiny.  What is it?  Is it something that is guaranteed to happen in our future?  Or is it a hidden power that will control what will happen to us in the future? Perhaps we are simply the masters of our own destiny.

Our views from the tent at Mary's Lake Campground near Estes Park
Las Aventuras will explore the Rocky Mountain National Park in a 3 part series over the next several weeks.  This journey was very special and took us to some incredible places.  

Our base camp was outside of Estes Park at Mary's Campground.  It was affordable and away from the chaos of the tourist crowd.  We arrived and quickly set up camp so that we could go hiking and eating and hiking some more. 

Clark's Nutcracker
I needed a break from the Arizona heat, but I hadn't expected the bipolar weather temps.  In one day, it went from rain to hail then back to clear and sunny followed by hurricane winds and freezing temps.  Rocky Mountain weather is NO joke!

Least Chipmunk
We were prepared, but it still came as a shock to the system.  So after we set up camp, we climbed the great Trail Ridge Road to the top and did some scouting along the various trails for a very important bird, the White-tailed Ptarmigan. 

As a child, I remembered this one particular image from School House Rocks.  And it has stuck with me for many years.

When we arrived at our various destinations, I really really smiled.  This place did not disappoint.  It was like I was a kid at home sitting in front of the TV watching my Saturday Morning Cartoons. I always dreamed of exploring these incredible places.  I was with Woodsy the Owl, Yogi the Bear and a smiling Park Ranger all over again.  Talk about Rocky Mountain High! John Denver was right!

Perfection.  We stood in the bright sunlight as it rained around us. How is that possible?  Well it's the magic of Rocky Mountain weather:)  Elk surrounded us everywhere we went. And I kept thinking, "WOW!  This is real!"

The rains and snows flooded the creeks so badly that I knew finding an American Dipper was out of the question.  But there were so many other things to keep our attention occupied. 

Sometimes I forgot that I was birding.  I just wanted to climb up on the next rock and see what lie beyond.  

Each little thing was examined with that childlike wonder.  In Arizona, I know what to expect, but here in this brand new wilderness, we were explorers again! 

A majestic Elk lifts his head and takes my breath away. We sit and watch him eat for a loooooooong while. 

Then we reach the meadows and find so many more Elk eating.  We sit on the side of the road and watch.  I can't believe how quickly the time flew by on this week long trek.  It was so special. 

Next week we'll take you on a birding adventure that was truly epic!  For now, I leave you with this sunset shot.  If you look closely, you'll see the tiny droplets of rain.

Here's the late great John Denver singing "Rocky Mountain High". As for destiny?  Well I'd like to think we made it happen:) Or was it the White-tailed Ptarmigan? Until next week friends. 

Sunday, June 14, 2015

The Blues

Broad-billed Hummingbird Male
Southern Arizona is a great place to experience a new adventure every day. Today, we visit the Santa Rita Lodge in beautiful Madera Canyon. 

While I was doing my 85 minute sit, I was shocked by all the blue birds around me.  Many times, I hear people asking, "Why are our birds in North America so drab and brown?"  I suppose when compared to our tropical neighbors, the birds tend to be more brown.  But I wouldn't say drab. Perhaps they weren't looking in the right place?

Blue Grosbeak male; female is yellowish-brown
It was a cool and breezy afternoon at the benches. While I was there, I noticed several birders who were intent on finding birds.  We started speaking and I gave them the rundown on what birds could be seen here.  I told them I was looking for a Varied Bunting on this stationary count.  And they told me that they needed a Blue Grosbeak.  Together, we put our eyes to the task and teamed up.  

male Varied Bunting
As I sat there thinking about the "brown bird comments", I began to question it.  I didn't see many brown birds on this visit but I did notice a color theme for the day. Among the blues and purples and lavenders, there were Mexican Jays, Broad-billed Hummingbirds, Black-chinned Hummingbirds, Magnificent Hummingbirds, Varied Buntings and scads of Blue Grosbeaks. 

Mexican Jay-the jay that I am most familiar with except perhaps the Stellar's Jay.  These two birds are the most common jays for Southern Arizona birders.
I also began to think about hummingbirds since Santa Rita Lodge is known for their summer hummer fun.  Almost every hummingbird known to the US comes to their feeders except the Ruby-throated Hummingbird and a couple hummingbird species from Texas. In my yard alone, I've had 5 different species visit!

Black-chinned Hummingbird
My work is about to begin. I have spent a lot of time reading and researching for my trek into southern Mexico this summer.  This chart below shows my work on hummingbirds over the past 4 years.  I have only been able to photo document 24 of the 25 hummingbirds seen.   

The only hummingbird I have not been able to capture on camera is the Sparkling-tailed Hummingbird.  The conditions were terrible when I saw this beautiful hummer in Guatemala.  There are 356 hummingbirds in the world which means I have a lots of fun trips to plan:)  The Americas are exciting for me. I could focus my lifetime in these places and be happy. 

Top to bottom and left to right. I have many of the male species here as they are very distinct from each other. 
Rufous Hummingbird, Rufous Sabrewing, Violet-bellied, Rufous-tailed, Broad-tailed
Mountain-gem, Broad-billed, Snowy-bellied Hummingbird, Lucifer, Blue-chested Hummingbirds
White-eared, Plain-capped Starthroat, Anna's, Allen's, Costa's Hummingbirds
Violet Sabrewing, Black-chinned, Long-billed Hermit, Violet-crowned, Blue-throated Hummingbirds
Magnificent, Lucifer(again:), Ruby-throated, Azure-crowned, Calliope

Here is a video from my treks around North America.  Excuse the shaky camera.  My cell phone is MUCH better with movie clips than my actual camera....but my camera can get closer to the birds.    Stay tuned for more fun.  Until next time, happy birding!

Elegant Tern at Lakeside Park in Tucson
This week's rare bird alert. We had yet another rain storm blow in this past Tuesday. On a hunch, I went to check out the same place where I found a second Least Tern for Tucson and discovered yet another great tern!  This Elegant Tern made its' way to Tucson and hung out at Lakeside Park. Normally this bird is found along the Pacific Ocean. This year is the year of terns in the Old Pueblo!  Pretty exciting stuff. 

Saturday, June 6, 2015

A Wandering Gypsy

On a rainy day, we decided to travel the magical Gila River circuit. We began our route on Highway 77 and circled around the towns of Winkelman, Globe, Florence and then back down to Tucson. 

Tubing down the Gila River
Some people can float down the river and throw their beer cans in the water without a thought.  Me, on the other hand, needed to clean those beer cans up before they were blown into the river. So with Micheal's help, we grabbed most of them off the beach. 

Note Cliff Swallow nests in background.  Who does this??!!!
One of the cans escaped our grasp as the wind blew it into the river! Once the current grabbed it; it was gone! We are now going to start packing garbage bags in our car to get rid of the fish line, beer cans and other piggish human leftovers. It's their reckless behavior that endangers our wildlife and pollutes our few waterways here in Arizona.  And there's not enough people out there to manage these areas properly so much of it goes unsupervised. 

Cliff Swallows nest.  Note the cute juvenile peaking the head out of the nest.
Glad I got that off my chest.  Now for the write!  I know one thing for certain.  Wherever I go, I will find birds.  They might not always be the "target" bird for the day but there always seems to be a surprise waiting around each rock, hanging out on a tree branch, or soaring high above my head.  You can't put a price on these experiences...well beyond gas, eating out, etc.  Along the verdant Gila River near Winkelman, AZ, we stopped at several sites to check up on some nesting Common Black Hawks, Cliff Swallows(above), Hooded Orioles, Yellow-breasted Chats, etc. It was overcast, breezy and cool! I highly recommend driving from Tucson along Highway 77 to Globe. Once in Globe, let your wanderlust take over and just explore.  Go north into the forests. Go west into some gorgeous canyon country.  Or go east and head to the San Carlos Reservoir. 

Casa Grande Ruins
This past week I bought my National Parks Pass since we are going to need it for several stops this year.  We decided to check up on another nesting favorite of ours, the Great Horned Owls. We used our pass at the Casa Grande Ruins and found our old friends hanging out on the beams above the ancient structure. 

Rock Pigeon
At this point, it began drizzling outside!  If you're not familiar with Southern Arizona, June tends to be our driest month of the year.  Many years we receive little to zero precipitation.  However this year, we started the month out with some hot temps, but they have gone away thanks to rain!  Even as I write this post, it's overcast and drizzling in Tucson!  Anyhow the pics are a bit grainy from it being dark outside. 

Great Horned Owl male
On the way back into Tucson, we stopped at the superstar hotspot known as Coachline yet again for another rare visitor.....the American White Pelican. 

a cloudy Coachline Lake
It was fun watching new birders try to figure out this bird from afar. Their puzzled expressions made me smile. They asked me in their declarative questioning voices, "That's not an egret or heron."  "No." "That's not a gull." "No, but the California Gull is behind it."  "So what is it?"  I never give the answer. Too easy to do.  The teacher in me helps them figure it out on their own. It's much more satisfying to watch them process their answers. Here is what they initially saw. And you can see why they were stumped. 

What do you see?  Three bird species in this photo.  Neotropic Cormorants, CA Gull and American White Pelican
Now for you all familiar with pelicans, this is obviously a pelican.  But if you're from the desert and have just begun birding, this "rare" bird would certainly confuse.  So when the lady spoke with her questionable declarative voice, "Certainly it's not a Pelican?" Ding ding ding!!!  Then I watched them get excited.  A lifer for everyone in the party and a great way to end the day.  

American White Pelican
And "thanks" to several curious boys, the birds moved into the waters. 

American Wigeon(drake) rare for this time of year
 For the rest of my week, I just went to a nearby park to bird.  On this day, it WAS hot and I like to go towards the evening when it cools down. Plus there is adequate shade there for me to count birds. 

Zone-tailed Hawk at Saguaro National Park, Rincon Unit
 Another surprise happened at Saguaro National Park.  Because again, it was VERY hot, I went to get my Parks pass and drive/bird their 9 mile loop.  I know it sounds funny, but this is one of the ways we can logistically bird during our very hot summers in the desert.  Saguaro National Park is a great place to find all your desert critters from the comfort of your a/c run car.  At the end of the loop, I highly recommend stopping at the Javelina Picnic area.  Sit in the shaded ramadas and have lunch or walk around a bit.  This is probably the birdiest area.  You'll have all kinds of critters come to your picnic table.  I know some people don't like reptiles, but this is a great place to find all kinds of snakes and lizards.  Just watch where you step.  And like each time I visit this park, I always discover something new.  Last time it was the Gila Monster.  This time it was a beautiful Zone-tailed Hawk(above).  WOW! 

Young Common Ravens hanging out at Reid Park
 So for the books, I added three new bird species this week to the year list.  I found a Blue Grosbeak and Common Black Hawk along the Gila River and the American White Pelican at Coachline lake. This brings my species list up to 321 birds for North America.   In other news, I submitted my writing and photography to Bird Watcher's Digest.  That felt good!  Note to self.  Need to buy another external file.  Next week we will be traveling somewhere completely new:) Until then, have a great week and happy birding! 

Drake Wood Duck is yet another rare duck for Tucson in the summer