Wednesday, December 27, 2017

The Zen of Birding

A Pronghorn is crowned by THE bird of Southern Arizona, the Vermilion Flycatcher
Before I begin, I'd like to wish everyone across the globe and living here in the US a Happy Holidays.  Have you ever purchased a holiday card and not want to give it up?  Well that's what happened to me with this pic above.  While down in Bisbee, I discovered Prescott based artist, Carolyn Schmitz's amazing talents. She captures Southern Arizona perfectly in this image of the Pronghorn and Vermilion Flycatcher!  Now onto this week's crazy adventure......

Bright and early on a cold crisp San Diego morning, we watch the Nazca Booby as the sun rises
 During the holiday season, I reject all things "holiday" because every day should be a celebration of life and kindness. However, I do love the family and friend time we get to share because of the time off.  Friend and crazy ABA birder, Magill suggested we go for the mega rare Nazca Booby in San Diego(still currently being seen).  I was exhausted from work (just finishing up the day before) and well, while this bird would be a lifer, it was a 5 hour drive to get to the bird. Thankfully Magill is head strong about these mega rarities and the twitch was on! 21 hours of non sleep would begin.......and life birds were to be found. 

Photo credit: Max Leibowitz.  He went out with several birders on the same day we were there and took this great pic! Nazca Booby

I always think, What would I do if I didn't chase these mega rare birds?  Sleep?  Drink coffee?  Be a normal human being? 🙂 This is the difference between birding and bird watching. When you're a birder who birds, you choose the bird and go without question. It didn't take long for us to find the Nazca Booby.  With the scope we saw the bird well on the buoy.  However, the details were blurred with the shimmer of the sun above the ocean water.  Now, when doing these mega rare bird chases, it's all about the speed birding in a limited time period because there are people waiting at home for you.  They are patient for only so long with our addictions.  There are, after all, human rituals like birthdays and holiday parties that we are required to attend.  It's spousal abuse I tell you! 

What do you get that special weird birder for the holidays?  A one way plane ticket to a Birder's Bed and Breakfast in some new birdy place. If you're (un)fortunately married to a neurotic birder, make sure you strategically find a place for your bird lover and YOU.  While you may like nature, you'll sometimes need a break from people who talk non-stop about birds and bird migration patterns. I'd equate the birding crowd conversation to men who love talking about statistics and football players or people who get into scrap booking while drinking white wine(from the box). Yuck! So I understand that non-birders after awhile tune out:)  It's only a matter of time before you burst forth with, "Those damn birds!"

Ok. Let's get back on point here:) Mega rarity chases require the proper use of time during this highly restrictive holiday season.  Would I have liked to take the boat out to see the Booby better?  Yes.  But if you have a time restraint, you have to get the birds.  So our next bird was the underwhelming mega rare Red-throated Pipit in the same general area as the Booby. 

Red-throated Pipit
 I'll be honest.  Pipits aren't my favorite birds.  While it took us 20 minutes to locate and ID the Booby, it took me an HOUR to properly ID this bird.  Magill found it and tried explaining the field marks to me.  I was stumped.  I didn't see it.  I'm really good with bird ID, but not with this bird.  So she patiently waited for me to get my act together and get comfortable with the ID of this tricky pipit.  An hour later, after a lot of observation near a dead skunk, I can now say that I know what a Red-throated Pipit looks like in winter plumage.  It's boring:)  But here are the markers for the serious out there.  Pink legs, streaky back, low to the ground and a tad smaller than the nearby American Pipits.  Of the three pipits I've seen, my "favorite" continues to be the Sprague's.  

A real Vermilion Flycatcher
 We drove back home through the agricultural wasteland known as Yuma. There were points where I almost dozed off but Magill masterfully brought up politics to keep me awake. Then we stopped in Dateland for a date shake.  I should have gotten the smaller size.  It tasted good for the first few sips and then there were chunks of dates. And that was gross. Someone recommended that I do a strawberry date shake next time. I'm not sure there will be a next time:) After our crazy and fun speed birding, I did my slow and methodical birding the next day. I went alone and closed my eyes.  Then I followed the bird song. 

Neotropic Cormorants
 While the wild and crazy holiday traffic (and shopping) was going on, I enjoyed the quiet of the parks and trails. 

Bird guide, Richard Fray mentioned that there were Lawrence's Goldfinches near my home. So got in my car for a quick drive.  These goldfinches are tricky and not always reliable.  On top of that, they are tricky to observe as they are often skittish and like to hide in thick vegetation.  

I've seen these birds often enough but never quite like this.  Again, I was alone and followed their song.  Patiently, this time, I waited for them to come down and feed in the open.  I didn't move.  I didn't flinch.  For an hour, I became part of the landscape until they were comfortable with me. Then I slowly moved towards their area and had this magical moment of perfection. 

Lawrence's Goldfinch

Happy Holidays everyone!  I'll be back in Maine next week with friend and birder Kathie Brown. I'd also like to thank Max Leibowitz for sharing his photo on this blog. Our scope pictures weren't pretty but thanks to Max, you can see the details of this beautiful bird from the Galapagos Island area.  Until next time.....

Sunday, December 17, 2017

The Winds of Winter

Two wintering Northern Parulas are hanging out at Glendale Recharge Ponds
As we finish out this month of December, I begin to sketch out my final works for this year. The cold winds have arrived reminding us all that winter is here in the US.

Over the past several weeks, I have just wandered random trails collecting data and enjoying our birds in Arizona. Recently I have done some counts along a rocky trail on Mt. Lemmon for a friend.  Yesterday, I went hiking 6 miles with another birder.  We watched from the distance as a winter storm blew over our desert dwellings.  The air on the mountain turned from cold to bone chilling cold.  My kind of weather. 

During a lunch break in a secluded fern forest alongside a tiny pool of water, we watched many birds come down to take a sip.  They felt the storm coming and were actively feeding in preparation for the snow that was about to fall. 

Chestnut-sided Warbler
I spoke with my birding partner about the way of the world.  The frosty winds blew through the canyon in the dark woods.  A Williamson's Sapsucker fed from a tree nearby.  

Birds are amazing.  They bring me such peace and happiness.  When I'm not with them outside, I read about them inside.  But during this moment in the shaded glen of perfection, I sat with my birding partner discussing the weight of the world .  

This Least Sandpiper is smaller than what this pic makes it out to be
So. What I am about to write is not easy.  But this is a blog about my personal reflections whilst in the process of discovering 10000 birds in this lifetime. I work with people.  I watch populations of humanity.  I listen.  I observe my surroundings.  And I feel unsettled. I know.  It's not the holiday talk you might want to hear. 

The wintering Zone-tailed Hawk hangs out at Reid Park for the winter. 
 During our conversation, we noted how the military base has been increasingly active here in Tucson.  Friends of ours have been working late nights.  Later than normal.  A sign, perhaps, that things are coming. 

Yellow-rumped Warbler
 Humanity has warred with one another since the day we came to be.  One would think that we would learn, but I have observed enough humanity on every side to know that not all things are equal or balanced.  This year has been rough on the US and other places around the world.  Fires.  Hurricanes. Drought. Bombings. Shootings. Then there are the birds. I have even noticed the changes here due to our fires in the various mountain ranges. Some of us suspect that the hurricanes have altered migration patterns of warblers which is why we've had a very good eastern warbler year in Arizona. The patterns are odd.  

Gambel's White-crowned Sparrow
 People shop and people go about their lives like they normally would. I think about all those who have lost so much this year and it breaks my heart. 

Female Summer Tanager
 I sat in that wooded glen thinking about how perfect it was. And I wish I could hide forever inside of that moment, safe and protected. 

My favorite pic of this series are these Red Crossbills, Type 2 from Reid Park.  This has been a very good year for them here in Tucson. 
 After verbally putting my thoughts together out loud with this birder, I felt sad. Is there a war coming and is there no way around it? One side pushes the other.  More innocent lives will be affected. I see between the lines. This isn't Iraq.  This is something completely different. After our trek, my thoughts still lingered on that conversation for the rest of the day. 

A Vermilion Flycatcher takes a sip from the bubbler
Anyhow, enough on this topic. I will say though that I have just shared with you some of the things that run through my head while on the trails. While you were looking at the pics(in a sense, birding with me), you were also following my thoughts.  I'm pretty sure we all do it.  Some birders will talk a lot while on the trails. Some birders talk to themselves:) I usually save my thoughts until we've found our birds. These are the things I process in my brain while playing detective out in the field. So thanks for reading through my thoughts here.  

 In a few weeks, my life bird hunt will take me up to Maine to visit my friend Kathie and her hubby Gus.  We will be doing some casual and fun birding around the coastal area. I'm definitely looking forward to the break.  

Ring-necked Duck
On a side note, I am ok.  I really am.  I'm just a deep thinker.  I work with so many people every day that all of their worries, concerns, and stories recycle around in my mind during my off hours.  It is why birding is SO important to me.  It's the silence from word that I crave after these busy times. The birds I've presented today in this post are from my research and data runs for Audubon.  Someone has to look over our birds:) Each of us can make a difference in their success. I'd like to encourage you to join a CBC(Christmas Bird Count) wherever you may live.  It can be as easy as monitoring your backyard bird feeder or as adventurous as a long hike on a beautiful trail. Contact your local Audubon for more information. I can't change the way of the world, but I can try and make a small difference in my own little bubble. Until next time!

Monday, December 11, 2017

Las Aventuras: 2017 in Review

On a trek to Aribabi in Mexico, a Canyon Wren stops by to check out my binos
With this year coming to a close, I can safely say that it has been a life changing period for me. I would tell you that my work hasn't been all "innocent and fun" like in years past. The naive birder is gone and a more focused/data driven person has taken over. In other words, I've redefined my approach to all things avian.  There are times when I miss my beginning days as a birder, but I wouldn't give them up for everything that I have gained through experience.  

In Cartagena, Costa Rica, we spy some excellent birds
Our Costa Rica trek this summer was amazing. After being on the trails everywhere this year, I realized that it was the Arizona birds that mattered most.  While observing a life bird for the first time is great, it's quickly replaced with another adrenaline push to find the next.  However, with the birds I know best, I feel a deeper connection.  When I guide people to find our birds, I realize that I truly am in love with Southern Arizona birds. Here are highlights from the year.  

While not my favorite place to bird during the hot and humid summer, the Glendale Recharge Pond was home to a rare Red Knot
You might note that many of these birds were found with Gordon and Magill.  If it wasn't for Magill's prodding, I wouldn't have gone due to distance. And if it wasn't for Gordon's drive to find birds, I may have missed a few. In short, teamwork and friendship mean everything. And in my mind, it justifies the reason why we trek so far away to find a rare bird.  It's the experience that stays with us for life. Plus it's better to share that moment with a friend.  So get ready for some stories......:)

Dead cattle on the other side of that pond.  Nasty.  Nasty. Nasty. 
Grossest place to bird?  State challenges are fun. Can you find a rare bird in impossible conditions?  That's the challenge.  This year, I'd give this award to the Ruddy Turnstone. While I've seen this ocean/water species many times, I have not seen one in Arizona.  And with reason! Who wants to bird ugly areas in the hot humid desert? During migration, a few show up at cattle slop ponds.  What are cattle slop ponds?  Well, they are made up of water, poop, mud and more poop with some run off chemicals. To make matters worse, one showed up near a pile of dead rotting cattle.  Usually my gag reflex is good, but it took days for the smell of decay and death to get out of my nose.  I actually considered becoming a full time vegetarian after that trip.  Micheal drove to the spot in his bright pink scrubs after work.  He is not a birder but finds the places we visit interesting and weird.  After Magill and I spotted the bird, we prodded Micheal to get out of the car to look at the target bird just so he could tick it on his Arizona list. 

A Wood Thrush drives the tractor over to us
Earliest AM? Another epic rare bird showed up for the state, the Wood Thrush.  It happened to be in Dateland, AZ which is in the middle of nowhere and 2+ hours away from my house.  Last year I said, I'd be ok driving 2 hours anywhere, but this year, it's more like 45 minutes.  While the Wood Thrush wasn't a life bird, it was a bird that I didn't have ANY photo documentation of!  So it was important to find this bird and we did. I slept for a whole 3 hours that night and drove under the starlight to Gila Bend where I'd meet up with Magill. It was a 3AM wake up call for a 7:10 arrival. 

I love winter birding in AZ.  It's pretty magical. 
Most beautiful place to bird? Without a doubt, one of the most magical days to bird was on a cold misty morning in the northern part of our state in an area lined with wineries and forests. Again with Magill, we searched for a Tennesee Warbler.  With my magic powers, I pointed to a stump and said "That's where the Tennessee Warbler will show up."  And by my command, the warbler appeared exactly where I pointed.  I didn't tell her about my secret powers because we both were enjoying the views of this rare visiting Arizona warbler. After we found the warbler, we spent the rest of the morning enjoying the beautiful Page Springs Fish Hatchery.  

Between the Great Potoo and the Spotted Antbird, I'd have to say that Spotted Antbird won me over just a little bit more. 
Best Bird? My favorite bird this year? The Spotted Antbird. We were near a secret waterfall in the rain forests of Costa Rica.  It was dark and there were small pools of water attracting the attention of the forest birds. We watched in the darkness as a beautiful Spotted Antbird bathed in one of these pools.

Parque Metropolotano La Sabana in San Jose, Costa Rica is home to lots of great birds, but bring a friend
Closest call to danger?  During a trek to a park within San Jose, we searched and found the Yellow-naped Parrot. There were joggers and cool people around us. Then we spotted our target bird. So I thought it was safe to take out the camera. That's when two hoodlums eyed up my camera.  Thankfully the police were just around the corner to apprehend them.  We took off just in time. Never again.  Knock on wood.  

Puddles like these in Liberia were full of biting mosquitos....and birds. 
Worst bug attacks?  In Liberia, we stayed near farm fields to find some important birds.  And we found them but not without a major bug attack.  I got excited about a Wood Stork or Southern Lapwing, I forget, and stepped/slipped in some mud.  Something bit me and made my foot three times larger.  It was a strange and gross experience.  

One of my favorite days during our Pacific Northwest trip
Coolest bird in snow? I will never forget my experience with the Spruce Grouse.  We were with friend and bird guide Khanh Tranh in Oregon hiking a snowy trail.  At one point the snow got very deep.  It didn't stop us though.  I heard a slight noise and then glimpsed a shadow from the forest.  Then a beautiful male stayed awhile for us to observe him. What a great experience! 

Hearing Mountain Quail, we followed the misty road.  I felt like there was a savage killer hiding somewhere in that broken forest. 
Creepiest place? While on the hunt for Mountain Quail and Sooty Grouse, we explored an area outside of Timber, OR. It was a logging area that was quite remote and beautiful.  Everything was great until we found gun casings and a dead pig that had been recently shot.  We tend to think of Oregon as a liberal minded state, but I learned that there are areas where savage morons lurk.  I would not want to be alone in this area. As birders, we must always be aware of our surroundings. 

Slaughter Ranch easily had 80 some birders on the property.  Most were nice:)
Birder drama.  Yes.  There was even drama this year. A mega rare bird for Arizona, the Little Bunting, had shown up at a place called Slaughter Ranch.  I know.  It sounds like a haunted house.  Slaughter just happened to be the last name of the rancher.  Anyhow, there were MANY birders there.  In fact, there were lots of top bird guides among the birding crowd.  We walked around the property and I realized the Little Bunting wasn't going to show.  SO, me and the Gordon strolled around the property and had fun. It was getting warm and we both wanted to go home.  On the way out, we stopped to look at a field full of birds. I noticed a weird looking yellow bird in that field and thought it was a meadowlark, but it was strange enough for me to take pics.  So I half heartedly took the pics, got some much needed water and headed home with Gordon.  Later as I was developing my photos, I discovered that the "meadowlark" in question was actually a female Bobolink!!!!  THAT was a state bird.  I submitted the records to our organization here which got several individuals that were at the ranch, including one very vocal birder, angry. Apparently, they missed that bird too! Why hadn't I told them all?!  He thought maybe I did it on purpose. I would never do that to anyone. I responded politely that if I had known right away what the bird was, I would have let everyone know. Yikes!

Remembering Grandma.   As many of you know, my Grandma passed away this summer and it was difficult for me to let go, especially when it came time to fill her hummingbird feeders for the last time. A male Ruby-throated Hummingbird flew directly in front of my face as I was filling up HIS feeder.  I laughed and cried at the same time.  At the time, I had thought our family would lose the land.  Today, my brother Adam has purchased this very special place and it will continue to be with our family for generations.  And he has assured me that Grandma's birds will be fed.  And I'll be there to help him out.  Every year, my Grandma and I both prepared for her birds to arrive around her birthday in May.  I gave her migration updates and tricks to improve her feeder activity.  I know her energy will shine with her grandsons looking after her birds. 

The beautiful grasslands of the Cienagas
The birds that made me piss myself.  This year during my tour with bird guide guru Chris Benesh, we took our participants to an area full of Prairie Dogs in the grasslands.  While we were having fun with everyone and helping them ID their life birds, a couple from our group spied a weird looking bird.  We went to help them ID the bird and then.....we both pissed ourselves, an Upland Sandpiper! These are VERY rare migrating birds to our state and most often you need a scope for them.  This bird was fairly close for all to see with their binos.  I'd say it was my best bird for the state until a LeConte's Sparrow showed up!!!  I ran right after work to look at that rare sparrow. Not only was it a life bird, it was a state and county bird as well. Both birds were epic. 

Arenal!  Oh you wonderful birdy location
Life Bird Bonanza. After my first years of birding, life birds slowed down to a trickle and I forgot how overwhelming it was at first.  Then I went to Arenal in Costa Rica with Gordon and for a full two hours, we were bombarded with life bird after life bird.  You forget about food.  You forget about reality.  You just snap shots of birds and ask questions later.  One bird would pop up and disappear to be replaced with another new bird. Every day we stayed at the lodge, we had new birds.  It was overwhelming. And fun:)

This trail on Mt. Lemmon is both beautiful and gnarly at the same time. 
The Birds That Made Me Question My Sanity. I have been really enjoying Pima County birding this year.  With friend Brian Nicholas, we went on a journey to Mt. Lemmon to find Cassin's Finches and Golden-crowned Kinglets.  And maybe a Clark's Nutcracker.  All are birds that I didn't have on my Pima County list.  I did not prepare well at all for this trek.  I don't know what I was thinking but I came unprepared. Things got scary for me when we took a wrong turn on the trail.  I had only enough water for the length of the hike.  Luckily, Brian had extra water. Next week, I head over again.  This time I will be prepared.  We found Cassin's Finches and Golden-crowned Kinglets though:)

Favorite Pic? While there are too many to choose from, there is one that stands out.  I was with Magill at Madera Canyon when I heard mobbing going on. We found the source of the bird call and looked up. 

Mountain Pygmy-Owl
Birding takes dedication.  People always ask me how I do it with a full time job.  Easy.  I make time for it. It has changed my life forever. This is what dreams are made of.  And I am living my dream, slop ponds and all:)  Until next time......

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

History(And Birds)

Mexican culture is alive at the La Fiesta de Tumacácori

Years ago I moved to Arizona.  Then I traveled the world just to confirm how cool Tucson really was. Maybe there was some place even more amazing?  But after all my adventures, it was Tucson that I would, without a doubt, call home. As I have invested myself into the community over the years, I have become part of the Tucson fabric.

My first true passion, before birds, was the Hispanic culture, specifically the Mexican one. 

The closest I could get to Mexico (and still be in the US) was Arizona.  I didn't want Texas, New Mexico or California.  I wanted Arizona.  My 8th grade trip to Flagstaff forever changed my life.  When I went back to Wisconsin after that magical summer in the canyons and mountains, I knew that one day I would leave my hometown for good.  Then during another magical trip to Mexico City my Senior year of high school, I altered my course once again.  Spanish. As I did my research, I discovered a little city(at the time) known as Tucson. This city had the best of both worlds.

Cactus Wren
This weekend, we took the history club around Southern Arizona to visit all of our amazing landmarks. It was such a fun time.  Not only did we combine the old missions and the mining towns of Tombstone and Bisbee, we were also able to watch live performances of traditional Mexican dance.  (And on the side), I had the students point out the birds that they were observing. It was the ultimate wildlife, historical and Mexican heritage tour ever.  Seeing Southern Arizona through their eyes reminded me of my love for this state. 

The Earps meet in Tombstone at the OK Corral
The trip was organized by my friends Lori and April who then invited me along for the fun. They hadn't been to many of these places before and I had mentioned that I often go to bird around these historical sites.  Once we packed the students up in the vans, our adventures began!

Common Raven
How often do I pass these places and not really look at the majestic churches or old towns?  Well in my defense, I'm forever looking for or at birds:)

the mission of San Xavier Del Bac
During our trip, I ran into a former student who graduated with a Natural Resource and Spanish degree (and was working at Saguaro National Park!)  My dream job!  She was at a booth in the festival promoting National Parks. I was so proud.  She told me she earned her Spanish degree because of my class. And that's always good to hear. Better than a paycheck. Then a current student met with my now much older former student and it was so strange! I saw the beginning of the end.  The teacher becomes the student again. And his former student becomes a mentor with wonderful advice about getting into the national parks system. 

Lark Sparrow at the Tubac Presidio Museum
 The current students had fun role playing at the Tubac Presidio.  Imagine being in this old classroom.  It has style!  I'd love to have a classroom like this!

I introduced the students to Mexican Jays. Or was it the other way around?:) Jays are always cooperative birds....with a little food.  Again, a student brought Ritz crackers and was munching on them when the jays heard the crinkle of the package and then........we had pretty blue jays all around us.  

Mexican Jay
We strolled along the roads of Bisbee doing a little holiday shopping in the wonderful fall like temps. 

the old mining town of Bisbee
Wherever we had wildlife, we stopped to look at it just like we would if we were on a tour in a mine or museum. 

White-tailed Deer at the Chiricahua National Monument
It was a beautiful weekend out. 

Lori and April at Tombstone
On a side note, if these posts feel like they are up and down emotionally, they are.  During this trip, my Grandma's husband finally passed away. Life doesn't care.  It forces me to keep going but it's amazing how I can go from laughter to tears each day. Between my Grandma, her husband Bob, my cat, the political scene here, conservation attacks, tours, it's amazing I haven't gone bonkers.  But writing has helped me process all of these emotions. This past weekend I took a bad spill on a road while hiking.  I was telling a student to be careful and as I said it, I tripped and did an acrobatic feat that I didn't even know I could do.  My training has taught me to roll.  So instead of breaking a bone, I have some nice scrapes and bruises on the left side of my body. I always wondered how people fell.  Now I know. It sucks.

I am reminded that life is full of surprises and I have to roll with the punches(and scars:). I do know that we had an amazing experience this weekend and I'm grateful for those moments. There is yet so much more work to be done and by educating our youth about these historical and wild spaces, we are helping the young understand the importance of these much needed landmarks. They are, after all, why I moved to Arizona in the first place. Until next time.....