Friday, March 31, 2017

Take Notice

The San Francisco Peaks outside of Flagstaff
Back in Arizona, the sun was out and spring had begun. 

Common Gallinule
Nesting birds were everywhere.  I was gone for one week and in one week so much had changed here!  New birds had arrived!  

a nesting Greater Roadrunner
Hawks begin the migration cycle. Then the Lucy's and Yellow Warblers arrive with the Bell's Vireos.  They are followed by the gulls, terns and sandpipers. While all that is going on, the Black-headed Grosbeaks, Tanagers and Orioles also move forward. Hummingbirds and night birds start to fly into the scene and it can be quite overwhelming! 

Ornate Tree Lizard
Sometimes it's hard to pick and choose where to go because there is so much activity happening around us. The birds are most active in the spring as they call for a potential mate.  It is also during this time that birders will get quality views of the normally secretive birds.  

Lucy's Warbler
The wildflower show begins and is then followed by cacti blooming everywhere!

Parry's Beardtongue or Parry's Penstemon
We watch as juvenile Bald Eagles attempt to copulate or just practice aerial flights with other birds.  Here, we can see the size difference between these two birds as they fly over Mormon Lake up in Flagstaff. I didn't observe any aggression between the Bald Eagle and Red-tailed Hawk.  I got a sense that it was either territorial or that the eagle was practicing its flight moves with the hawk.  Human comparison?  Like two ice skaters in sync with each other during a performance.  

This was quite a show. 

I hear a Great Horned Owl make a call.  I follow his low hoot that echoes in the palms and find two ladies making out.  I said, "Hey, stop making out and look at the owl above you!"  They pulled out their cell phones and snapped shots.  Apparently love is the air for all living things. 

Great Horned Owl

"The moment you doubt whether you can fly, you cease forever to be able to do it."  Peter Pan 

I am a birder and always will be.  I cannot give up this journey.  Sometimes I question myself.  When is enough....enough?  And then something happens to remind me that without certain elements in my life, I'd be lost.

While my trip to the Pacific Northwest satiated my lifer search, it once again brought me back to reality.  Each day alive is a gift. I was reminded of that once again when one of my fellow co-workers unexpectedly passed away during surgery.  She was only 62 years old. I have met so many people that only have their work or kids that define them. Retirement is a reawakening for many people. But for some, it's the scariest thing ever. This teacher was always the first one at school helping the kiddos learn their math. Once she told me that if she didn't have her job, she wouldn't be sure what she would do. And that is a reality for many people. 

Curve-billed Thasher in Cholla nest
I get so busy with my own life that I forget to stop and think about those who suffer from loneliness. It's often said we surround ourselves with people who are like-minded.  I think most people are busy, happy and pursuing their passions.  But that isn't always the case.  I drown in my work sometimes and need to take the time to pay better attention to my coworkers around me.  I mean....I do it with the birds! And if I didn't pay attention to the details in my marriage, I'd be in big trouble:)

Hedgehog Cactus in bloom
 A moment in time.  That's all we have.  As spring arrives, I remember to soak it all into this brain of mine. My definition of work?  It's something I enjoy.  It grounds me and gives me a routine but it isn't my life.  That's not to say that I don't love what I do....but it doesn't define my existence.  My marriage, the birds, my friends, my family....and my cats take up a lot of my time. I'm a lucky guy and I never take any of that for granted.

"Hey!, it's time for a haircut!"
Life is an adventure. So is shaving a long haired cat. I know Ms. Harmon would have loved this because she was a cat person just like we are. We talked about cats way more than anyone ever should:)  Until next time....

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Far Over The Misty Mountains Cold

I was fascinated by the coastal forests of Oregon.

It was haunting and remote.

Often times, everything was clouded in mist.

We heard Mountain Quail calling from the darkness.

We also saw signs that a savage people lived in the area.  It was a bit scary.  I don't think I would have come here alone.

A lumber company regulated this forest but there was no sign that they were there.  Occasionally, we saw an abandoned tractor here or there.

We searched for the Sooty Grouse. But no luck.

Photography was difficult but it was there I spotted two very quiet Varied Thrush.  Lifers.

A special thank you to Khanh Tran for a fun trek around the states of Washington and Oregon. And to Robert and Khanh for their warm hospitality!  And to both Gordon and Khanh for driving!  It was a crazy week that went by too quickly.

I will return but it will happen during the summer.  For now, it's back to the desert southwest.  It's time for a little sunshine:)

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Finger Licking Good

California Quail
The thing about ground birds is that they are VERY hard to spot.  Often we'd hear the birds, like the Mountain Quail, and not see them.  We'd drive miles and miles into their habitat range and just look.  

The eyes can get tired from scanning hillsides, rocks and roads for hours.  We passed countless Horned Larks and Snow Buntings.  And then two Gray Partridges zoomed past our car......into the shadows.  No good.  We needed better looks. 

Horned Lark
At one point, we noticed Ruffed Grouse in the snowy trees.  They blended into the bare branches and gray skies pretty well. 

This is yet another grouse that I have looked for time and time again back in Wisconsin.  After watching Khanh scan for grouse, I think I have a better idea about finding these birds on my own.  I had been doing it all wrong!

With new buds on the trees, and towards the evening hours, we found many of these birds feeding.  

Ruffed Grouse
 Our next day found us on the road again.  This time for the skittish Gray Partridge.  Khanh spotted a covey of about 15 birds running along side the road. 

Gray Partridge
 We had to be quick with cameras as they quickly took off in flight.  The Gray Partridge was introduced from Eurasia and can be a tricky spot for birders. They rely heavily on agricultural fields and the grains farmers feed their cattle.  

The last ground bird we observed well was the California Quail.  I was happy when Gordon was finally able to get great photos of this sometimes difficult quail.  And I only say "difficult" because it hasn't been easy for the two of us over the past several years. There is one spot in Arizona where they can be found and it's a difficult area for photos. These are not common birds for us here. While we both had seen the birds, it was Gordon who hadn't really gotten nice close ups of this quail.  So I'm glad they played nice for him.  

I've learned a lot from our grouse trek up into the Pacific Northwest.  It's not easy.  None of it.  Yes, certain times of year are easier than others, but they are difficult birds.  I have shared stories about attempted views of the Gunnison's sage-grouse.  It still hasn't happened but like I've stated before on other posts......I have enjoyed dipping on this bird only so that I can go back to Gunnison again.  It's a pretty special place for me.  If you need a guide in the states of Oregon and Washington(and possibly Canada), I'd highly recommend my friend Khanh Tran. He's a great guide and knows his owls and grouse well (and all the other specialty birds that are found in his area). We did the impossible and it was exhausting.  Sitting back now, I have time to reflect on the week long journey.  The birds, the food, the fun and the company were the best. I think I have a couple more posts to go and then I'll be back in Arizona for all the fun I've been having here.  More to come..... 

Friday, March 24, 2017

Sacred Grounds

"Hey there Mr. Gordon? Watcha looking at?"  It seems like everywhere I turn, I see this guy with that lens poking out of some window or tree branch.  He nudged his head towards the booming sounds of THE LEK.  

This male Greater sage grouse ventures close to our vehicle before heading to the lek.  
I nearly messed myself as I turned towards the booms. I didn't bring any Depends with me so I'm glad that nothing happened:) It was......THEM!  How many years has it taken me to see this event?  How many attempts?  I don't even want to talk about it.  But it was happening NOW.  Magic. 

A true North American bird, the Greater sage-grouse, is often a difficult grouse to find if they aren't on their leks performing their ritual mating dances.

At sunrise, our friend and guide, Khanh Tran, took us into a remote area to observe these beautiful birds at sunrise.  It was on private land.  And we were all alone.  Often times, birders have to set up these trips together with regional agencies to observe these birds in the wild.  When there are lots of birders all packed together to observe a special bird, it's called a......and pardon my language here......a "Shit Show".  I laugh every time I hear that expression:)

We were on their sacred grounds just far enough away to not disturb their incredible dances. As the sun rose, the snow sparkled from the new light while the males BOOMED and spun around in semi-circles for a female in the area.  A true wildlife ballroom!

I can show you pictures but I can't really express how spiritual this moment was for me.  It was THE top bird on this trip.  We drove hours and miles to see these birds and it was well worth the effort. 

This bird is listed as Near Threatened due to habitat loss.  Historically, their range covered 16 American states and parts of Alberta, British Columbia and Saskatchewan in Canada.  These birds once lived in places like Arizona, Kansas, Nebraska, Oklahoma and New Mexico! However, recent reports from the US Fish and Wildlife Service have shown that this species has done quite well over the past couple of years and will not require endangered protection status. 

In the meantime, as responsible birders, we'll keep this lek secret.  If you click on the video above, you'll see how far we actually were from the birds.  We lucked out with one bird and had a close-up of a male on his way to the lek.  In the audio, you'll hear Western Meadowlarks and Horned Larks in the background and if you listen carefully, you may hear the booming that the males make.  The smart phone still has a long way to go with the audio sensitivity.  The pictures you see today were taken with a 500 mm lens at a very healthy distance from the lek.  More adventures to come......

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

50 Shades of Gray

During the early and cold hours of the morning, we watched the moon set behind the snow capped mountains of Washington.

The darkness was replaced with overcast skies.  All with various shades of gray......

Bald Eagle
It was the heavy gray that finally got the best of me. Melancholy set in. I watched as the frozen mist took over the land.

I sipped my hot coffee looking out from our SUV window. The roads were rough.  And they were remote.

Rough-legged Hawk
It was all beautiful until we noticed that one of the tires was leaking air.  At that point, the birding trek changed moods.  It was time to get back to a village.  Or be stuck in the ice cold tundra of Washington state.

We acquired our target bird, the White-headed Woodpecker, along the road.  She was a beauty!

Lifer-White-headed Woodpecker, female
Thankfully we made it back to town in one piece.  We had the tire fixed for 10 bucks and we were off again for more adventures. 

Gray-crowned rosy finch

Birding is an incredible journey that takes us to some very remote places.  I'm not sure I could do it alone for some of these birds. 

These journeys do pay off big time though as we are able to observe birds in the wild away from humanity.  

Photo courtesy of Khanh Tran.  I didn't know he took this pic of us but you can get a scope of the lighting conditions and magnitude of the Cliff Swallow nests. 
Sometimes I stand in a remote area and think to myself, What the hell am I doing here?  I could be killed and no one would know.  So, when I'm with friends, I feel safe:)  I'm the guy that always has a Plan B or C.  But on this trek, I had zero plans for back up and it caused a little anxiety. It's the teacher in me. This kind of wild terrain is the stuff I dream of......but as I get older, I'm getting.....cautious??  What is that all about?  

Another lifer, the Gray-crowned rosy finch, was seen in great numbers around old Cliff Swallow nests.  This is only something I've read about in books.  In fact, most birders don't get to observe this behavior.  The fact that we did see this, speaks volumes about how special this observation was for us. 

While I began to miss the Arizonan sun a bit, I was enraptured by these amazing winter birds.  A special "thank you" to friend and guide, Khanh Tran, for sharing with us his knowledge about his local birds. We have now expanded our birder language to include several more species of bird. 

Several more tales to tell from the Pacific Northwest and then we're back in Arizona for spring and wildflower season.  More adventures to come....

American Three-toed Woodpecker