Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Hermit Thrush In Tempe!

Prairie Warbler is super rare to the state of AZ.  Currently, it's been showing well at Saguaro Lake near Phoenix, AZ.  State bird!
People always wonder how I find rare birds.  Well, it's a little bit of me and it's a whole lot of birders working together reporting their findings around the state, country and world. We are all a big part of the "network". On a daily or hourly basis, we can receive an email with rarity reports from the AZ Listserv or ebird. 

During a rain event, we targeted the grasslands for a Short-eared Owl and we got our sights on TWO!  They are difficult birds for Arizona.  Another state bird and Arizona nemesis NO MORE!
Anyone who subscribes to the AZ listserv will recognize the title of this post. Everyone has at least one of these birders in their community. While it is significant to their backyard patch, it is not significant to the overall community.  It's a tiny piece of a larger puzzle that we, as individual birders monitor in our own worlds.

Arizona Song Sparrow has unique rufousy tones when compared to the other subspecies of Song Sparrow
I'll get a buzz on my phone. Ooooo!  What is it?  A Trumpeter Swan in Tucson?  An Eared Quetzal on the Carrie Nation Trail?  A Prairie Warbler at Saguaro Lake? Nope. Just a Hermit Thrush on private property in Tempe.  WTF!  Even if that were a rare bird for this time of year, it's on private property!  So why even post it?

It's not a Louisiana Waterthrush.  That's rare. 

I finally have excellent views of a beautiful Louisiana Waterthrush
It's not a Red-breasted Sapsucker.  That's significant. 

A Hermit Thrush is up there with a Ladder-backed Woodpecker(at least in AZ). It's one of our most common birds found around the state.

Ladder-backed Woodpecker
If it were an American Bittern at Sweetwater, one should probably mention it. That's a rarity. 

An American Bittern holds still in the reeds at Sweetwater Wetlands. 
But do you know what's not a rarity?  A Pied-billed Grebe. Or Hermit Thrush. 

A Pied-billed Grebe out of water
When an email is sent out about the Hermit Thrush in their backyard, birders give each other the look and ask the question in a most cynical tone, "Are you going to chase that Hermit Thrush in Tempe?" We have a laugh.  Don't they know that a Hermit Thrush isn't rare?  Hasn't anyone told them? S/he seems like a nice person. And I do love their excitement.  But still.......

Rufous-winged Sparrow at my work site
If it were a Red-breasted Nuthatch at Reid Park in Tucson, THAT is newsworthy. 

A rare wintering Red-breasted Nuthatch at Reid Park in Tucson
A wintering Zone-tailed Hawk in Tucson is worth a chase!

A wintering Zone-tailed Hawk hangs out at Reid Park in Tucson
Even the casual, yet still rare, Northern Parula is worthy of a shout out. 

A Northern Parula
A Gila Woodpecker in Arizona, however, is not a rare bird and should never be reported on the listerv for Tucson or Phoenix.  Now if one was found in Florida, then birders should absolutely, without a doubt, report that miraculous sighting. 

A male Gila Woodpecker feeds from pecans
And while Pyrrhuloxias are cool, they are not rare for several parts of the state.  If it was found outside of its habitat range, then THAT is news worthy. 

The Desert Cardinal or Pyrrhuloxia
A Rufous-backed Robin should always be reported. Because it's rare ANYWHERE!

Rufous-backed Robin
And while a Hermit Thrush is NOT rare in Tempe during the winter months, it *might* be a significant find during our hot summer months.  One summer, I remember finding American Robins on a green patch in Phoenix, AZ. That was rare. And do you know what else I found?  A Hermit Thrush. Unusual.  But not rare:) 

A Prairie Falcon
Now this person has been doing this for years.  I don't know if they are a man or woman.  I just know that if I see that post, HERMIT THRUSH IN TEMPE! one more time, I will scream. If you are new to an area, observe what local birders are posting as "rare".  

A Hermit Thrush NOT in Tempe
The whole purpose of this write?  Well, it makes me more conscious about what I should and should NOT post when reporting birds to the community.  Very rarely is it appropriate to report a rare bird if it's on private property UNLESS birders can legally chase the bird from the road or have permission to enter the property.  Currently, a homeowner in Tucson is ok with birders coming to her house and looking at her rare Streak-backed Oriole. On a side note, don't post your exact sightings of owls. I've watched people go crazy over owls and they do some inappropriate things. However, it's okay to post your sightings of a Hermit Thrush:)  Most people wouldn't chase it. Until next time......

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

The Devil Is In The Details

Birding friend, Scott Olmstead, had the weekend off. We planned a specific study on sparrows that most birders try to avoid.  Enter the Sage Sparrow.

Ferruginous Hawk-one of my favorite hawks
I would say that this is one of THE most difficult groups of sparrows in the state to ID.

A Sage Sparrow is difficult to ID in bad lighting or where the field marks cannot be seen

Scott wanted a good study session.  The Bell's Sparrow would be a lifer for him.  And I love sparrows. So the challenge was on!

So we got in the car and headed to the best place in the state for Bell's Sparrows, Robbin's Butte. And there we did our detailed study.  Scott is analytical and very good about observation.  We scoured the property and found two nice loose flocks of "Sage Sparrows".  It was SUPER enjoyable.  This is not a birding trek for a lot of people, but sparrows are my favorites.....even more so than owls!  GASP!  It was fun being with someone who also found them fascinating. 

A Bell's Sparrow-a dark malar and fairly non-streaky mantle is good for Bell's
The differences are so minute with this group of Sage Sparrows that it requires extreme patience and observation.  Several years ago, they were split and a birder's nightmare began. You can compare both species above and below.  Can you see the differences?:)  If you can't, don't stress.  Most birders have to work for this tick.  The Bell's Sparrow above has a darker malar than its head. While the more common Sagebrush Sparrow is uniformly gray in malar and head.  But there's more!

Sagebrush Sparrow-uniformly gray in malar and head-streaky back mantle
The two birds have different "mantles" (the triangular patch behind the head that connects the neck and back:)  Lighting can be an issue here in AZ so it's important to confirm the 2nd field mark, the mantle.  The Sagebrush Sparrow has heavy streaking on the mantle, but the Bell's Sparrow has very light to no streaking on the back.  Anyhow, I'm proud of the "work" we did here.  It was absolutely thrilling. Here is our list from that day. Scott added a lifer, and we were on to our next locations.  These were all new for him and it was exciting to show him around the Buckeye/Glendale area......which is not really my territory.  So kudos to my friends Gordon and Magill who have shown me their preferred routes to this great birding destination. 

Maybe a Cackling Goose but the neck was really long!  I'm still stuck on the ID of this bird.
We weren't done though.  We had more difficult birds to ID.  Scott just didn't know it yet:)  We stopped in Avondale, at a location known for its wintering Cackling Geese.  It was fun watching Scott sort through these much smaller Canada looking geese. To be honest, it was hard for me. In Arizona, we don't just get one subspecies of Cackling Goose, we can get two or three! In AZ, it's tricky business.

The Cackling Goose is a smaller bird with a thicker neck.  On one subspecies, the bill is small and triangular.  But not all subspecies are the same.  This Cackler looks to be of the Richardson's subspecies. Birders have to be very careful separating Cackling Geese from the smaller subspecies of Canada Geese.
Not all birds are tricky to identify though.  Most were a welcome reprieve from our difficult ID challenges. But how does a birder ID these tricky birds successfully?  Lots of study from bird guides, online sources, conferences and observations in the field with experts can help greatly. It's a combination from all of them that ultimately make you a better birder in general.

American White Pelican
Currently, Tucson and Phoenix are home to many wintering Snow Geese.  But we always have to carefully look and make sure we don't have a Ross's Goose in the bunch.

Snow Goose at Lakeside Park
Greater Scaups are rare to Arizona.  More common are the Lesser Scaups.  But it isn't uncommon to find a rare Greater Scaup in our local watering areas during the winter months. Does that make sense?:) It just takes a little patience and recognition of the field marks. 

A mystery scaup at Kennedy Lake
A Redhead eyes me warily as if to say, What are you up to Mister?

Redhead at Reid Park
In my searches, I find more Snow Geese.

The Blue Molt Snow Goose of Columbus Park
A Pied-billed Grebe surfaces for a second before disappearing into the water in search of food.

Pied-billed Grebe
Then I spot a juvenile Snow Goose!  This winter, they seem to be everywhere in Tucson.

It has been a good month so far in that it has been full of amazing finds for the state. We both finally saw the Black-throated Green Warbler in Phoenix.  Later, we chased a rare Lapland Longspur.  And then with friend Magill, we conquered the Short-eared Owl.

My first state record of the Black-throated Green Warbler in AZ
 I currently am working on the details for more journeys into the unknown.  Some of it is scary as I retrace my past and discover (or rediscover) new birds. 

Black-throated Gray Warbler
The journey ahead will be interesting.  That much is certain.  Until next time.....

Thursday, January 18, 2018

The Whispers of Wind

Wait.  Watch.  Listen.  Whisper.

American Kestrel
The secrets of the grassland eventually reveals itself.

Eastern Meadowlark, Lillian's
In a trance.  Cautiously, we watch each other.

Trust. Peace. Serenity. My world. Their world.  Our existence.

This moment of perfection and balance lasts only for a moment. Then the wind, as it moves the grasses, forces into motion the flocks of birds. They quickly take flight and then vanish into the golden haze. 

In the blink of an eye, everything disappears around us as if they had never been there.  Ghosts. 

It is here where I find peace and a spiritual connection to the universe.

Chestnut-collared Longspurs
I can travel the world and explore all of the amazing places, but it is here, in the grasslands, that I feel at home.

The cool wind forces the stagnant heat off of my shoulders. 

Say's Phoebe
I marvel at the sun and how it brings me joy.  My home. It's so good to be back.

Burrowing Owls
The thrill of coming home has never changed. My travels only reaffirm my love for Arizona. 

The thrill of finding longspurs!  In these photos, we discover the Chestnut-collared, McCown's and Lapland Longspurs
Until next time.......

Friday, January 12, 2018

The Cyclone Bomb

An Eastern Gray Squirrel takes a sip from a warm bird bath to stay warm

At first, it was a snowflake. Then two. And three. Followed by a billion. The forecasted cyclone bomb finally hit. 

Every time Gus heard the words "Cyclone Bomb", he would moan. Why does everything have to be sensationalized?  It was just a good ol' blizzard!

Kathie searches for that elusive Barred Owl on a branch.....somewhere
It was a beautiful disaster.  I watched in fascination as the world came to a screeching halt. The silence of a blizzard is rather spiritual. 

A Blue Jay is one of many birds that use the heated bird bath for a sip
The steam rose from the heated bird bath and kept the wildlife from freezing. We sat with tea watching this historical event unravel before our eyes. 

Coda watches the birds in her first blizzard
I looked down and found Coda watching the winter wonderland outside.  That's when I knew I had fallen in love with her.  It's amazing how quickly I had become attached to this pooch. As she looked out the sliding door, I knew I would miss my little Coda burger.  But there was a bigger question brewing in the back of my mind. Would I ever get home? I was only a couple days away from flying out of the state.

Dark-eyed Junco
Thousands of passengers were stranded along the East Coast in airports as all of their flights were cancelled.  Could Maine get their roads cleaned up in time for my flight back home?  I wish I hadn't worried about such silly things, but I needed to get back in time for work.  So I just threw those thoughts away and enjoyed the views. 

The night before the storm, Mainers hit the grocery stores pretty heavily.  They purchased all of the bread, tomatoes and milk from the shelves.  What a weird combination!  We, on the other hand, purchased lobster meat and other seafood things. 

Gus prepares lobster rolls
A very excellent man by the name of Gus made us lobster rolls.  So we had wine and lobster rolls.  Ok.  What I'm about to admit is embarrassing. 

The magic that is a lobster roll
Gus remembered that I had eaten three of these Maine delights the last time I came to visit. No way!  He was right!  It took three of these lobstah rolls once AGAIN to fill me up.  I was such a pig!  I do not eat fish or seafood in most places, but in Maine, it all tastes SO good!  And like with my visits in Wisconsin, I left Maine 10 pounds heavier.  My doctor had a nice conversation with me.  Now why in the world would I schedule a doctor's visit right after the holidays?   

A Wild Turkey is like a dinosaur
The Wild Turkeys were wild.  They often chased the smaller birds away. It was Coda's job to keep the feeders open for all birds as she chased the turkeys back into the woods.  

Kathie purchased beef suet for the woodpeckers.  This is a really cheap option that you can purchase in the meat department for a couple bucks.  I know it looks gross but it helps the woodpeckers(and other birds) stay warm in these cold temps.  We had 3 species of woodpeckers visit this station, the Hairy, Downy and Red-bellied Woodpeckers were regulars.  

A male Downy Woodpecker feeds from the frozen beef suet to keep warm
That night I put on my pajamas.  I snuggled with Coda until she had to go to bed. Kathie assured me the roads would be clear the next day. How on earth was that possible?  I lost consciousness that night and woke up to plowed roads!  My gods, she was right!

A juvenile Bald Eagle swoops low to catch a gull
That next bipolar day, the sun blared down upon us as if there had never been a blizzard.  We went to my first landfill in Bath to count gulls.  It was amazing. 

There were thousands of gulls flying all around us.  As many as 10 Bald Eagles flew around the trash to grab a gull for dinner.  I was in awe.  I could've sat there for hours. However, the smell from the trash after awhile made me a little nauseous. In fact, if I lived there, I'd bring the lady at the visitor's drive thru window some lunch.  There she peered down upon us from that trailer window with a smile probably thinking to herself, These people must be crazy.  We visited this epic landfill twice.  There was trash EVERYWHERE! And birds!

But no Glaucous Gulls. I documented every quadrant with gulls in flight and on trash.  I spent several hours scanning photos at home searching and searching for the gull but no luck. Kathie will have to come visit me in Wisconsin during the winter to get her lifer gull. 

Bald Eagles are epic. Two years ago, I had a hard time getting a decent shot of one.  However, 2017 and the start of 2018 have been good to me in the Eagle department. 

As we left the landfill, a snowflake fell.  Then two. And three. Followed by a billion.  I thought it wasn't supposed to snow again.  Then it did. This is the way of Maine. 

During our final days, we'd freeze again as the temps went below zero.  The gray skies were weighing on me heavily and I began to miss Arizona. I love Maine but I could never live there. The magical thing about home is that it feels good to leave, but it feels even better to come back. 

We had such a great time birding in the challenging conditions. It was even better spending time with Kathie, Gus and their kids. 

the beautiful drake Common Eider
The ocean birding was pretty epic.  

We'd stop in wooded areas looking for berries and marvel at flocks of Eastern Bluebirds and American Robins feeding from the bushes. 

An Eastern Bluebird grabs a berry or two to survive the temps
Our last lifer for the trip was a Black-legged Kittiwake.  It's almost embarrassing to admit that it has taken me this long to find one!  We stood along the frigid rocks of the Acadia National Park Peninsula and watched a smaller looking "gull" fly with several Ring-billed Gulls. 

Black-legged Kittiwake

As the sun set, we were still able to get nice views of the bird in flight.  I couldn't feel my fingers. I thought I was pushing my shutter button but nothing was happening.  So I took off my gloves and forced my finger down on the button again.  The camera made painful, almost drawn out, clicks letting me know that the cold was getting to her. It was -12 and the wind was acting quite angry. 

Another snowflake fell. Then two. And three. Followed by a billion.  

This poor man was frozen solid. There was no saving him from the brutal freezing temps.
Thankfully, my flight left on time but I watched as those travelers stranded on Thursday night(night of the Cyclone Bomb) were still trying to re-book their flights home.  The trip seemed to all happen in a blink of an eye.  I guess that's what happens when you bird with a dear friend.  There are still several more adventures in store for Maine.  So Kathie, get ready to grow a pair of sea legs for several islands as we will explore alcids breeding on their home turf:) It's time to get back to sunny Arizona birding. Until next time.......