Sunday, May 29, 2016

A Global Big Day

On Saturday, Ms. Muriel invited me to go birding with her.  She was on a trek to find several life birds, the Rufous-capped Warbler and Red-headed Woodpecker.  Both were in remote locations.  So I brought along my water pack for an epic journey into some of Southern Arizona's most beautiful places, Hunter and Gardner Canyons. 

Our first trek was a steep one into Hunter Canyon. Muriel was hoping to find her first ever Rufous-capped Warbler.  Now you all know that I've been casually looking for this bird on several treks this year to mostly study the kind of habitat this warbler prefers. 

Western Tanager
The hike was gorgeous but a killer as we crawled our way up the mountain side. With a fully charged water pack, several pound camera, and binos around the neck, it can make a hike difficult. The key these days for rare birds is documentation. And that requires equipment.  So what would we find?

I was confident we'd find the bird but I wasn't going to say it outloud.  That would jinx the find and leave Muriel sans a life bird.  Patience and knowing where to look was key......

Cordilleran Flycatcher
 Along the way, we enjoyed observing many of the more common birds.  Once we reached the stream near the hillside, I knew we were in the right spot. It took time and the recognition of the call to get our eyes on the bird.  One called from within the New Mexican Locust bushes/trees on the hillside.  We followed the call until.....

Rufous-capped Warbler
.....the warbler made an appearance. Muriel was so excited as was I.  With the adrenaline rush, we decided to go for another lifer, a rare migrating Red-headed Woodpecker in Gardner Canyon. 

Western Kingbird
We followed the directions carefully as we entered Gardner Canyon.  Muriel is excellent with such things.  I am not.  But thankfully, several birders put in their notes that a nesting pair of Red-tailed Hawks had several young.  Within moments of parking the vehicle, I could hear them calling.  It's like playing detective.  That's part of the fun....or frustration.  Several guys were camping out and we asked them if they had seen a bunch of weird birder people come through the area and they replied..."Why yes."  

Curious Red-tailed Hawk babies....CUTE!
We followed the stream past the very vocal hawk babies into a campground.  Muriel pointed to a tree and said, "Oh my gosh! There it is!"  A white flash flew before our very eyes.  What a gorgeous bird!

Then we waited to see if the bird would make a closer appearance.  So we sat down on a log. What a beautiful place to camp! Soon another birder, Ms. Janine McCabe, strolled quietly along the dirt road.  She does that.  Secretive and almost appearing out of nowhere.  Is she human?  Yes.  Does she possess magical bird powers?  Yes.  She's one of the fun Arizona birders.

Red-headed Woodpecker
As she stepped onto the scene, the woodpecker flew above our heads and there were many "ooo's and ahhhh's".  This time we both had a lifer and it was exciting!

We celebrate our lifer at Gardner Canyon.  That's a terrible pic of me with a really bad cheesy smile.  My Grandma would not approve.  As for Muriel, well I don't think she takes a bad pic at all.  She's classy even after a day of birding.  Me on the other hand.....I need a hair cut. 
We were on a roll.  So we decided to explore, the Cienagas grasslands nearby.  A storm began to blow into the area. 

Eastern Meadowlark(Lillian's Subspecies)
The winds picked up.  But the birds were active!

So were the Black-tailed Prairie Dogs!

To finish off our day, I knew of a spot where there was a Western Screech-Owl hanging out.  We went to the spot and there he was.  And I do believe it is a "HE".  There is a nesting box nearby and this is the time of year when their young have hatched.  Dad doesn't fit in the box SO he gets the boot.  Anyhow, it was the cherry on top of our banana split.  Or in plain English, a great way to end our big Global Day.  

While we were having fun, we were also helping add data to the global network of bird species! For lots of pretty pics and info, here are our reports. Hunter Canyon. Gardner Canyon. CiĆ©nagas Grasslands. And the San Pedro Riparian Area. I love birding with Muriel. She is one of the kindest people you'll ever meet. Thank you Muriel for the invite! We'll be owling on our next trek with a new face AND a familiar one.  Stay tuned for more!  

Red-tailed Hawk

Thursday, May 26, 2016

The Bottom of the Barrel

The endless Arizona Highway
On a road trip to end them all, I sacrificed part of my soul to finish finding the two most difficult birds in our state. It just took an Arizona Big Year contestant, Brian Johnson, to nudge me into chasing the birds:) The Nutting's Flycatcher is probably THE most difficult bird in the state of Arizona. There are only a few of these birds in the state and they look similar to 3 other birds that are all part of the Myiarchus(my-ark-us) genus. And to add to the difficulty level, two of those similar looking species were there in great number along with the Nutting's Flycatcher! Gulls and Terns are EASY compared to these birds!

Roseate Tern

  Today's post title, refers to some of the harder birds that people usually put at the bottom of their life bird list to chase because of their distance, visibility and/or difficulty factor. And who wants to drive 4 hours to just HEAR a bird?! 

Nesting Red-tailed Hawks
The road into the "Nutting's area" is remote and requires a tough vehicle.  So we rented one with high clearance. There was NO cell service.  Water packs had to be used.  AND it was hot in this forgotten world of emerald green vegetation. 

The remote immense jungle off of Planet Ranch Road
The riparian area is beautiful, but it is not for the faint of heart. In fact, not so long ago some birders had to be rescued.  Luckily they found a spot where there was cell phone service.  While we were there, we didn't have any signal at all so they were very lucky! We had to memorize the Nutting's Flycatcher calls and separate the voice from the Ash-throated and Brown-crested Flycatchers.

Following a wash in this remote riparian area
It wasn't a day of art.  It was all about finding these difficult birds. Most of our morning was spent hiking in the heat and shrubbery.  Eventually, we found one bird for sure.  We may have spied a second but the bird flew off before I could get my binos on it. Nor did it call.  Satisfied, we headed back towards the parking area.  BUT where was the parking lot??!!!!

Ash-throated Flycatcher

Thankfully my compadre, Brian, had a compass and we were able to find the mound of vegetation that we had to crawl through to return to our vehicle.  By that time, I had run out of water and needed some shade.  Cold water made me forget the nasty mosquito bites I received all over my legs:)

Western Wood-Pewee

While the Nutting's Flycatcher isn't a popular bird to chase because of its' remote location and difficult ID, it is a bird that many need for their list if they are doing a Big Year(which Brian is doing).  ABA listers also need to chase this bird to stay in the competition. While it wasn't a lifer, it was a new state bird for me. These birds are quite common in Mexico. Like the "Western Flycatchers", the Nutting's is a part of a confusing group of birds that look alike or what scientists call "Cryptic Species".

Left side-Brown-crested Flycatcher(top); Dusky-capped Flycatcher(bottom) Right side-Nutting's Flycatcher(top); Ash-throated Flycatcher(bottom). 
 Most birders cannot just look at the bird and call it.  They have to listen to their calls for the ID. The Nutting's, if it screams, "WHEEEP!", is then an easier bird to ID.  But if it doesn't do that(and it didn't), it can be a bear:)  Anyhow, no more of that business. Again.  

Birding, for me, is not a competition.  It's an art.  The experience behind the bird is as important as the bird itself. My lifer Nutting's will always be in the tropics of Mexico. I'm just thankful I was with Brian during this trek because I wouldn't have done this alone. 

Another headache for some....the "Western" Flycatchers Top:Cordilleran Flycatcher Bottom: Pacific-Slope Flycatcher
I went a tad extreme on this day. Driving the distance we did for the Nutting's Flycatcher was one thing, but to do it again during the same day for a Black Rail was crazy.  But I was sick of making excuses for this bird.  I'm a "rip the band-aid off" kind of person. 

Top from Left to Right: Great-crested Flycatcher; Brown-crested Flycatcher   Bottom from Left to Right: Ash-throated Flycatcher; Dusky-capped Flycatcher(in Guatemala)
The Black Rail is another bird a lot of people put off chasing only because it's mostly a "heard only" bird.  It's easy to hear, but extremely secretive!  That's why I'm calling this lifer a two parter.  While I heard it only in Arizona, I plan on going to Texas to the Anahuac NWR and the Yellow Rail Birding Festival, LA to get photos.

Night Falls over the ag fields in Yuma
But for now, it was a fascinating stop into a buggy area. In the darkness, we heard two of the birds call.  We were bit up during my video recording by hundreds of mosquitoes. This is why my camera is shaky.  

Birding has its challenges.  On that day, I was once again almost up for 24 hours!  Thankfully Gordon let me crash at his place to get an early start for Lake Havasu.  By the time I returned home to Tucson, it was around 2 AM the next day.  What an exhausting day!

Some of you may ask, "Then why do it?"  I'll be honest.  I'm also fascinated by the birders who go on these chases.  I'm finding as I work with many different people that the birds mean different things to them.  One weekend, they become a number for a fundraising event.  On another weekend, it's about staying number 1 in the state of Arizona.  During another weekend, I find myself up at midnight working with only owls. Another weekend, I chase a rare warbler.  And then there are those who just want to see pretty birds.  And for me, it's about many different things.  Birds=adventures=science=passion=life's greatest journey.

All my photography work is my own EXCEPT for the photo below:)  This Black Rail is a cool bird and one you all need to see a picture of.  Maybe one day I'll have one of my own to share with you all.  For now, I'll share my audio:)

Black Rail from Wikipedia

"Looks like we made it!" through this post:)  To break up the headaches, we were able to see Barry Manilow in concert before he retires!  Cell phone pics are pretty great!

"Looks like we made it!":)

Monday, May 23, 2016

Wrenegade Madness

Summer Tanager
It started around 5 PM on a Saturday night. The Tucson Audubon's Birdathon began.  Our members Matt, Jennie, Sara, Tim and Corey all gathered for the most exhausting trek ever.  We began our journey into Wilcox at Lake Cochise. 

The winds of change came upon us as a storm blew through Southern Arizona.  But we were prepared. 

Hermit Thrush
At the top of Mt. Lemmon, we nearly froze to death as dense fog brought the kind of cold rarely experienced by desert birders.  A wet chill tried to dampen our spirits, but we weren't having any of it. 

And down the mountains we went into the grasslands of Sonoita. 

White-winged Doves, Inca Dove and Lark Sparrow
There it was warm.  So we hid in the shadows with this Rufous-crowned Sparrow counting birds outside of Patagonia. 

Rufous-crowned Sparrow
We looked up. And down.  And all around. And would you believe it if I told you we found lots of birds?:)  Thanks to fundraising events like these, we'll hopefully continue to protect our birds for generations to come. 

During a reprieve, we settled down at some feeders and watched....more birds. 

Yellow-breasted Chat
Before we knew it, Sunday had come and gone.  Our once a year birding event would come to an end. And every year, we ask ourselves, "Why do we do this crazy thing?"

But we remember quickly that it's all about protecting our planet's birds and the habitats they use.  We raised money.  We had a lot of fun.  And we found 174 birds in one day!  THAT is a good day indeed!

The Wrenegades
As the marathon came to a close, we said our good-bye's quickly so that we could get into our comfy beds and sleep forever.  The Wrenegades will return another day. 

Barn Owl
Until next time.......

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

The Arizona 400 Club

Prothonotary Warbler
Well, life is good when you first begin birding.  It seems like everyday is a new bird day.  And for two years, it's pretty easy stuff. Then you hit the 300 wall.  In Arizona, it's easy to get over 200 birds for your state list.  But it's not so easy going from 300 to 400 birds.  Today's post is about the spectacular journey that took a difficult two years to achieve.

California Condor
It happened on April 30th, 2016.  A random Prothonotory Warbler had been migrating through one of our desert washes.  I was in my pajamas watching Game of Thrones.  My friend Magill texts me and tells me to get off my butt and go get the warbler.  I was playing with my cats and quite honestly had no desire to chase a warbler.  They are so hard to spot and always give me a headache.  But it would be a lifer and help me enter the 400 club for Arizona. So I reluctantly got into my car and went to the wash.

During my drive, I remembered my 300 start that began back on September 17th, 2013 with a Black-bellied Plover. I thought, "I'll never make it to 400.  Who cares, why try?"  I forgot about the number, yet curious birders would ask me what my state total was often and I'd reply, "I don't know."  The birds in the 300 category are majestic, difficult(to find and ID sometimes) and mostly in areas outside of my Southern Arizona birding zone.

The California Condor for me is THE bird of my 300 list.  It's the one I love the most.  It's the one Micheal loved.  And it's in the area furthest away from civilization......the North Rim of the Grand Canyon.  One of the most beautiful places on this planet.  And I'll be honest.  This bird made me cry. The sighting gave me goosebumps and made my eyes water up.  I always dreamed of seeing these birds in Arizona and around the Grand Canyon as a child. Never in my wildest dreams did I think I'd get the chance to see them in my lifetime. They were near extinction and I remember in 8th grade that I felt incredibly sad after our Biology teacher's lesson. I have always loved nature as a child, but today I have fully accepted it into my life. My life's work is only getting started. Thanks to many hard working people, these birds are slowly making a comeback today. 

Blue-footed Booby
Stranger things have happened.  A juvenile Blue-footed Booby made it into the Patagonia State Park. Kathie was still living in Arizona and we stood there marveling at this incredible ocean bird in the desert.  How in the world??!!!!

Eventually the list narrowed and the really difficult chases had to happen.  The Ridgway's Rail is one of the trickiest birds to find.  Not so hard to hear, but I wanted to SEE the bird.  When I finally saw my first one, I felt a heavy weight lift off of my shoulder. 

Ridgway's Rail
And then it came time for Mountain Plovers in dusty fields along junky roads that were tough on tires. And with Kathie again I spotted my first Mountain Plovers.

Mountain Plover
Then swifts.  Yuck.  They are sooo fast and give me headaches as well.  It required alone time without the pressure of other birders around me to find this lifer.  After two hours alone in Tucson, I was able to call my first Vaux's Swift.  But it took two years to get this photo below!

Vaux's Swift
Then it was time for the Grosbeaks.  One of my favorite group of birds. Searching for the beautiful Evening and Pine Grosbeaks are often difficult to find in the state....especially the Pine Grosbeaks because they are in a very tight habitat. And yet, they do live here.  Evening Grosbeaks are more common in Arizona BUT I have had to drive into higher elevations further north in Arizona to find them.  However, my first poor looks at one happened in Summerhaven up on Mt. Lemmon.

Evening Grosbeak
A several mile hike lead us to an amazing Mexican migrant. The Tufted Flycatcher.  Sore bodies healed over the week:)

Tufted Flycatcher
There were easy ones. Not always.  But they were a welcome break from the intense hours of chases. 

Greater White-fronted Goose
Some required us to work together.  After waiting a couple hours, a tropical Purple Gallinule would appear. 

Purple Gallinule
Some birds required us to find specific habitat in the state that attracted birds.  Lily pads(rare for Arizona)= Purple Gallinule  

American Dipper
Moving stream at the right speed(rare in Arizona)=American Dipper

Red-breasted Sapsucker
Drippy sappy mesquite tree during winter=Red-breasted Sapsucker

Elusive American Bittern
And sometimes you gamble.  And often you can lose, but sometimes you strike it big and find a rare American Bittern in a small area of wetlands.

Chestnut-collared Longspurs
If you REALLY want to get to the 400 club in Arizona, you have to know your longspurs.  More headaches BUT I honestly love these birds.  After a blowing dust storm and major headache, I found my McCown's Longspurs among the many hundreds of brown and yellow ground birds. 

McCown's Longspurs
Sometimes, you get shot at by stupid hunters, or nearly trampled by horseback riders or find fish hooks embedded to the bottom of your shoes.  Such was the case with the amazing Rusty Blackbird.

Rusty Blackbird
And then there are stupid ideas.  Black-billed Magpies.  We were camping near the beautiful town of Greer during the summer and decided to go chase down these birds. We thought it was a "closer" drive but it turned into HOURS!  We finally get to this weird town known as Teec Nos Pos on a practically empty reservation near the 4 corners and attempt to look for the birds. It was ugly. What did we find?  Shattered glass bottles, needles and oh.....a drug user. There were disagreements and discussion.  How far does a birder go if it jeopardizes their safety? We never did find the birds and it was the biggest fail ever.  

Later on, I returned with Micheal to visit our family in Colorado.  We tried once again to find these birds on an amazing road trip into Gunnison, Colorado. I decided to make the route go through Teec Nos Pos, AZ for a quick check.  Turned out to be the right idea and one of the most beautiful western routes to take during fall. And voila!  3 were hanging out along the highway.  All I can say is NEVER AGAIN!

I have great pics of these birds BUT I wanted to show my AZ friends that they really do live in Arizona:) And in that weird town of Teec Nos Pos!  I swear it's a Klingon Settlement.
The 400 list can also be based on hunches.  During a "hunch", I followed my heart to a nearby park in June and discovered an Elegant Tern for my birding peeps.  Never in my life did I expect to find this beauty.  I expected something.  Just not this very cool tern. 

Elegant Tern at Lakeside Park
As I finally arrived to my destination, I stood near the Tanque Verde wash full of Cottonwoods. It was all rather uneventful.  No one knew but me what this bird meant. A yellow caught my eye.  Western Tanager.  Another golden flash.  Yellow Warbler.  Female Summer Tanager.  Yellow-breasted Chat.  Black-headed Grosbeak!  Of course!!, I told myself.  This was after all a warbler.  Then I spied a chunky lemon throw itself into the tree in front of me.  I saw the butt of this bird and knew that Arizona number 400 was about to happen. I predicted where the bird would perch and focused my lens.  Experience paid off and I got my shots of the amazing Prothonotary Warbler.  It was about a 2 minute observation but it was one of those wonderful moments that seem to last forever.  

During the weekend, I glowed.  What a very special bird to mark my entrance into the AZ 400 club.  This year I have some truly special places that I will be sharing with you all.  I can't wait to visit them and report back. The life bird quest is about to begin again! Until next time......