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.....


Thanks for stopping by!