Sunday, August 30, 2015

Facing the Inevitable

Only days would pass before I'd find myself back in Madera Canyon. It was inevitable. It has been a very active summer for birders here in Southern Arizona.  Many are trying to find some rather difficult birds in our very trying Arizona heat.  Mix it up with some crazy monsoon weather along with our active wildlife and as they are's a vacation they won't forget anytime soon:) So as Kathleen and Zeke left for our southern mountains, young birders Walker and Dalton arrived to find several lifers of their own. 

Lesser Goldfinch-female
One of the birds on Walker's list included the Plain-capped Starthroat.  This meant sitting at the feeders for a longer period of time.  It's amazing how one day, the bird would show up without any hestitation.  But it wasn't meant to be for Walker or Dalton.  After several hours of sitting, we abandoned the feeders only to have missed the bird by 20 minutes after we left! That stung so bad. We went back and sat for a couple more hours. NADA. The Starthroat never showed up again and Walker would dip on both days for the Starthroat.  We all have to have a Nemesis bird:)  It just makes the eventual sighting even sweeter and more special. 

male Broad-billed Hummingbird
 I have certainly mellowed out a lot over the past year on this birding thing.  I have learned to just enjoy what shows up.  Walker reminds me of what it's like to have that youthful energy.  I'm not by any means old but I knew we had our work cut out for us.  This young man was going to bird hard and I mentally tried to prepare myself for the trek ahead. Normally I don't do long hikes in this crazy heat.   But he could not afford anymore dips after the Starthroat mishap.  And so it would happen as it has for so many birders before us......a trip to the mysterious and sometimes dangerous California Gulch.  

Black-headed Grosbeak-male
 As we left the feeder birding behind, we began our long trek past the Peña Blanca Lake area and headed onto a decently maintained dirt road towards the ghost town of Ruby.  The California Gulch was just beyond this fascinating town. It has a very dark past. Last year, I went camping with Gordon at Ruby.  We had a blast but we also knew that the border was only minutes from our location.  There was a moment when we heard what we thought was a bird, but it turned out that it was someone from the Mexican side communicating something. Mexico is a great place but the border is known for drug and human trafficking....especially in that spot.  So we headed back to our camp. 

male Brown-headed Cowbird
 The heat and humidity during the day increased.  Monsoon storms seemed to be popping up and dotting the skies. 

Whiskered screech-owl
From a distant hill, we could see the flash of lighting followed by the booms of thunder. Please be nice Mother Nature!  The initial cracking sound silenced the ongoing cicada hum.  Eventually we reached the general California Gulch area, but where exactly were the Five-striped Sparrows and Buff-collared Nightjars found? No internet.  No GPS.  Nothing. So we birded a stretch of the road with some good finds.  Walker found his first Pacific-slope Flycatcher, but it wasn't one of the target birds.  He's moving to Idaho and figured he'd find this bird there.  It wasn't the Nightjar nor the Sparrow.  

White-winged Dove
 On our way into the vast expanse known as "the Gulch", we spotted at least 3 Five-striped Sparrows but they took off quickly and Walker wasn't able to get a picture or good ID of the bird.  We had to continue on.  This bird was a MUST!

Overlooking the California Gulch
Along the way, I was thrilled to find lots of our common birds jumping around with juveniles in the desert scrub.  There was evidence that nesting had been a success for several species!

Bewick's Wren
 But then something incredible would happen.  I spied a WILD Desert Tortoise in the road.  My only lifer for the day!  And it was a GOOD one!  This species is threatened and in decline due to human involvement.  

When I spot one of these rare beauties, I document the time and place with a photo.  I make sure that they are safely off the road before leaving the scene. And that means just watching to make sure it crosses.  I do not carry them and as you'll find out there's a reason why. This tortoise was on a very quiet road and was safe from getting hit by a car. 

the ancient Desert Tortoise
 Here's some stuff I learned a couple years ago about finding turtles or tortoises in the desert and grassland areas. Never pick a tortoise up as it will void.  This will cause dehydration and possible death.  If the road is active, you obviously might need to move it.  Arizona Game and Fish recommends picking up the tortoise slightly off the ground(not high) and taking it safely to the other side of the road. Recent estimates indicate that there are about 100,000 individual desert tortoises remaining in the Mojave and Sonoran deserts.  As late as the 1950's the desert tortoise population averaged 200 adults per square mile. More recent studies show the level is now between 5-60 adults per square mile. This tortoise is labeled "Threatened".  One level above the "Endangered" category. 

Five-striped Sparrow
 Eventually we met up with several other birders who were also on the same mission. Together we joined forces and made it all happen.  The Buff-collared Nightjar and Five-striped Sparrows were realized.  Walker and Dalton got their hard earned lifers. And I had a bat fly into my head.  That was a first. I think I had a huge bug on my hat.

But the real story isn't about any of us.  It's about the father/son team we met.  Enter James and Monroe McKay.  James, who is recently retired, is traveling around the ABA world with his 87 year old father.  Together they are accomplishing amazing things.  Their one rule?  Father and son must BOTH see or hear the bird before they can count it.  Night birding operates primarily with the use of our ears. If we are lucky, we will just see the shadow of the bird fly around us. If we can ID the call, we can count the bird. Well, his father could not hear the soft "laughing" of the nearby Elf Owls.  Birders united to help both these men see the owl. 

Here are some hardcore birders. From left to right, James and Monroe McKay and Walker and Dalton Noe

And within moments, we had the world's tiniest owl pass through the mesquite tree next to us where it was hanging out with some juveniles on a branch. Mission accomplished.  They moved on their way until their "laughter" disappeared further down into the canyon. While we waited for the night sky, I learned much about their wonderful adventures across the country. It is an amazing accomplishment! 

Elf Owl
 After hearing the Buff-collared Nightjar, we all drove back together in a caravan safely passing through the network of dirt roads until we reached the interstate. Border Patrol was active that night.  Several bug people were out collecting. And Common Poorwills flew around our vehicle.  Once we entered back into the Rio Rico area, Walker was able to contact his family and let them know we were okay. On MY way home, I had a crazy thing happen. A meteorite fragment flared across the front of my windshield and almost hit my car on the interstate!  Maybe the hit from the bat messed up my head. But seriously, it was a bit scary! Anyhow,what an amazingly difficult and hot day out in our beautiful desert.  There is no place like our wild Southern Arizona on this planet. The Sonoran Desert is a thing of wonder.  Scary sometimes.  But that's what makes it so amazing.  

 I wish Walker and Dalton luck on their journey ahead.  Sure Idaho won't have all those Mexican vagrants, but Arizona isn't that far away.  Plus, think about all the amazing adventures you'll have around that state.  Idaho sounds like a beautiful place to explore. And full of amazing finds!  Happy trails ahead for all!

The Glendale Recharge Ponds-normally it's a brutal survey of shorebirds.  The shorebirds are great, but the intense heat makes it a killer.  Bring plenty of water out to this area. And your scope!!  It's your one stop shopping center for shorebirds in Arizona:)  This place actually was quite beautiful as we went to find the Sabine's Gull around sunset. 
On a final note, since we are heading into September in a few days, my North American bird tally is at 493 for the year.  My latest addition is the Sabine's Gull.  There are a few that are currently migrating through the state of Arizona thanks in part to the active monsoon weather patterns here this year.  I will say this about August.  It has been a long and tough month for me as a birder.  My energy levels are waaaaay down now that work is here again.  Plus the heat makes everything so much more difficult.  In the days ahead, we will be exploring a lot more of the wild wild west. I am looking forward to these treks with great anticipation. Not only will the birds be great, if we find them, but the landscape and temps alone will make the trekking so much more fun.  And perhaps we'll meet a fellow blogger or two along the way:)  Stay tuned for more....
For more about birds check out Wild Bird Wednesday(link on the left side top) and Anni's I'd-Rather-B-Birdin'

Friday, August 28, 2015

An Ode to August

Barrel Cactus Bloom
August you can be quite stunning.  But you also drain me of my energy. I see rain and I smile.  I see sun and I frown. Hot, sweaty, sticky T-shirts are not my thing. It's a love-hate relationship with you.

Migrating Black Terns at Benson's WTP
You bring us rarities.  You bring us color.  Lightning, thunder, raging desert rivers along with gulls, terns and lots of other interesting things. But try searching for a Painted Bunting in 100+ degrees while walking around wet grassy bug filled fields! You, dear August, test my limits.

Texas Ranger and Barrel Cactus
I begin to think of ocean waters, cool breezes, and freezing nights.

The Benson WTP
I come home from an exhausting day at work.  No energy to do anything.  Just sleep.

Mary Jo Ballator's Ash Canyon Retreat-home to the US rare Lucifer Hummmingbirds
Hiking is not even possible.  So I sit among the blooming flowers and watch the migrating hummingbirds from within my chair. 

Male Lucifer Hummingbird
The bugs bite me.  Itch itch itch.  You are way too intense for me and all I can do to escape you, August, is retreat into my air conditioned car.

I think of stain glass windows and old pine with lots of musty books. It's raining all day long.  And cold.  Behind my window, I watch the birds while enjoying a hot cup of coffee. 

Coyote pups need water and want to play with the photographer!  Not today:)
 Most speak ill of the whipping frozen winds of the north.  Not me.  I feel energized by them. I imagine myself at the Whitewater Draw on a cold January day.

Female Lucifer Hummingbird
August.  You are beautiful but you are too high maintenance for me.

As much as I hate saying good-bye to you, I am also secretly relieved that you are leaving.  Is that terrible of me to write?

Sweetwater Wetlands
Your close friend, September, will be visiting soon and I look forward to a brief visit. Nothing personal:)

Monday, August 24, 2015

Sassy Pants

In the words of my Grandma's husband Bob, "Sassy pants!" Oh the joys of birding!  After our warbler work on Mt. Lemmon, we put together a report for our fellow birders on the listserv.  It's a place where birders can go to find out which rare or difficult birds are being seen around the state of Arizona.  During the work, we found a Spotted Owl up on Mt. Lemmon.  It's not the first time I've seen them there, but I don't report detailed info on any official site and keep the location "undisclosed". I ask my birder friends to do this if I'm with them while we're out in the field. Our specific reports are hidden from the public view. Here is a response we received from one of the birders responding to the listserv report. I shall name her "Sassy Pants". 

"If you have birds where your location is "undisclosed", why bother reporting it to the listserv?  Frankly, I think it's rude and bragging that you report birds that other people can't chase.  So the next time we have a rare bird in our gated community I'll make sure to report it to the listserv as a "private residence".   Both of us were shocked by Sassy Pants.  This owl is threatened and as a policy, we do not give exact GPS coordinates on federally protected species! 

There's a reason why we keep an owl's location a secret.  There is a LOT of background info here that I have obtained from over the years of owl surveys, etc.  So to be short here, many people cross the lines with these birds.  Take for example, this Northern Saw-whet Owl below.  I was invited to join this banding crew in my hometown while back in Wisconsin.  But I was not allowed into the area where the owls were collected for banding.  Reason?  A past "volunteer" was secretly poaching the area and selling these birds in the illegal pet trade!  Eventually, this individual was caught and taken into custody.

"What is going on???"
This Barn Owl, below, in Tucson several years ago had an idiot photographer cut down the branches to "clear the vegetation" away for a photo. The owl never returned back to that spot.  This year, people had posted Barn Owl photos up in the Phoenix area and birders found gun casings along with two of the fledglings dead. Another photography group in Phoenix bated young Burrowing owls onto a piece of a cholla skeleton with mealy worms. ILLEGAL!!  And there are more stories like this all over the country.

So to "Sassy Pants", there are reasons we do not give exact gps coordinates for owls and why our reports are hidden. You should be happy that we mention in the report that these owls can be found in the general area. PLUS, if you're a birder, you're going to know that they are in the area.  You don't even need us to tell you where one can find an owl.  That's lazy Sassy!

In a message back, one might write this to you.....
"Dear Sassy, 
 If you want to "chase" a Spotted Owl, there are plenty of well known locations in Arizona to do so. It's incredibly "rude" of YOU to chastise someone for not reporting the specific location of a federally listed species, and you're the one "bragging" about keeping everyone out of your fancy private gate community.
There are thousands of members on the AZNM Listserv and probably fewer than 100 who actually post bird reports on it.  Think about what you wrote--you're very upset towards someone you don't even know, who bothered to go out of their way to give YOU information about birds.  If you are actively trying to discourage people like us, who actually do post bird reports, to stop doing so, you're doing a great job.  Keep up the good work and pretty soon you will have no one posting on the Listserv."  But that is a bit too sassy for me.  However, I will remember this person's name and if she needs help, I'll be busy. Such vulgar behavior.  

As you can see, the birding world can be a fickle one.  There are beautiful people.  Crazy people.  People who actually look like the birds. Funny people.  Mean people. And people who don't even look like birders.  We are a diverse group!  I am the gypsy birder. I go where my heart takes me. But once and awhile, I'm reminded that there are those who would try to suck the beauty and art of birding dry.  So my advice to these meanies!  Be nice! And understand that we are protecting the wildlife that we all love and treasure dearly. 

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Her Blue Mug

Magnificent Hummingbird
She emailed me and asked if I would be around to bird.  I never met her but I had heard so many wonderful things about this lady. Facebook may not be for everyone, but it can and does connect us with some of the most amazing people.  Over time and through the birding community, we find out who is legit, mass murderer or authentic:) I knew I would be meeting a legit person thanks to word of mouth by my birding friends.  And so at the brilliant hour of 6 AM, I met the woman who loves to put a Blue Mug in her pictures on FB.  This mug represents a happy moment or highlight from the day.  For Kathleen Cameron, it would be her first trek into Southern Arizona.  She brought a companion by the name of Zeke(or was it the other way around:)? Together we scoured the road up Madera Canyon. 

Painted Redstart
I am a natural birder with targets in mind but if I don't find them for the day, I'm ok.  But when birders come to get life birds and ask for help, the pressure is on! I want to get them all of their lifers, but sometimes the birds have other ideas. 

Canyon Wren
Thankfully, it was a great day out and every bird cooperated!  Timing is another thing.  Some windows are better than others.  For example, we dipped on the Elegant Trogon in the afternoon.  The best time for this bird is EARLY in the morning.  Most Trogons around the world are easy to find, but I have to admit that our Elegant Trogon can be a stinker to find for many visiting birders.  

Rufous-crowned Sparrow
We began our fun at the Santa Rita Lodge and did a stationary count.  Later we hiked a trail to find the Trogons. During our observations at the Santa Rita Lodge, I was fascinated by all the birds chowing down on the white moths hanging out near the lodge. It was like popcorn for them. There were 5 different species of bird all feasting on the same moth.   

Bridled Titmouse
Over the years, I have witnessed the increased sightings of Plain-capped Starthroat hummingbirds here in Southern Arizona.  Their populations seem to continue to grow.  This once very rare bird is still considered rare but not RARE like it used to be.  For Zeke, it would be a lifer.  Thankfully, the bird showed up!

Left to right, Broad-billed Hummingbird and Plain-capped Starthroat
This photo below was taken last year.  One of the field marks to look for on this large hummer is their vertical white stripe on the back.  It's also the largest hummingbird of the charm.  Even larger than the Magnificent Hummingbird featured above!

While we were there observing lots of awesome birds, I learned much about this place known as Idaho(pronounced Eye-dah-hoe).  Apparently they have birds there that include the ones I need!  From what I understood from our conversations, Idaho is a beautiful place full of fantastic creatures. However, it's about a thousand miles away and a FULL day of driving to get there. I know this only because this is what these two crazy birders did!  They got up at 4:30 AM and arrived into Southern Arizona at 9 PM!!!!!  Now that's dedication!

We went up to Bog Springs and they set up camp for a few days.  While we were there, I knew of several places where Whiskered screech owls like to hang out when they are not nesting.  Of course, they are never there when I take birders to see this would-be-lifer.  So I was just going to tell them to keep an eye out in a certain area for this pretty awesome owl.  As I pointed to the hole, everyone just dropped their jaw with several indiscernible words coming out of our mouths.  This was a moment!  Quietly, we all took our photos from a distance careful not to disturb this beautiful creature. 

We spent a longer while observing this often-heard-but-rarely-seen owl.  Talk about luck! This was a Christmas miracle especially now that their nesting has finished. Many will begin their migration back south during the month of August.  

Whiskered-screech Owl
We continued on after seeing an increase in people around the canyon.  Owls make people crazy and even if a person isn't a birder, they still go bananas for them.  So to keep the owl safe and protected, we casually moved up the trail not attracting attention. 

As for that blue mug?  Well, I got to hold it with my new friends!

Photo by Zeke Watkins-an ebird reviewer in Idaho
Here's a little info on Kathleen Cameron.  She is a birding guide based out of Idaho.  Founder of her company, Majestic Feathers Birding Tours, she leads tours into wonderful places like Peru, Costa Rica, Panama, etc etc! In fact, Colombia is on their agenda for next year. Over the past couple of years, Colombia has really become a safe place for birders and tourists to travel.  In fact, this year I have been getting many positive reports from birders and travelers alike about the country.  For birders, this is an AWESOME opportunity to explore one of the birdiest countries in the world.  After spending the day with Kathleen and Zeke, I can say I would love to bird again with them both.  My trip to Mexico zapped a lot of my bird energy.  With the temps rising and my energy levels disappearing, I had to return home to regenerate again:)

Kathleen also produced a documentary called Connecting With Owls.  This is a great DVD full of owl info and fun.  To purchase her DVD, you can click here. The Whiskered screech owl, a bird that only makes it up into Southern Arizona during the spring and summer, was a new owl for Kathleen which made the day a whole lot more special. Maybe it was her blue mug that brought us such fortune? Anyhow, birding is awesome and so are the people.   

And speaking of owls, here is the lastest update on the ones I've seen this year.  It has been a good year indeed! For more fun about birds, check out I'D Rather B Birdin' over at Anni's blog! Until next time friends.....

L to R
Barn, Western screech, Ferruginous Pygmy Owls
Northern Pygmy, Great Horned, Burrowing Owls
Long-eared, Whiskered screech, Snowy Owl(in WI this year)
Spotted, Elf and Great Horned Owlet