Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Revisiting Old Friends

Montezuma Quail
This past week, after the onslaught of birders searching for the Eared Quetzal without any luck, they abandoned their hopeful searches and turned their eyes to our other specialties. It was mayhem.  They still continue to search.  And a few birders have reported a female now.  So it's possible the Eared Quetzals are nesting somewhere on the mountain. Whatever the case, birders need to be aware that covid has spread among the community AND birders need to follow ethical protocols. There are times when some things should be kept secret, especially during their breeding season. Playback is terrible during this time of year and people should refrain from using it. 

I was back in those old birding routes that every new hopeful birder visits.  It was rather strange.  With covid abound everywhere, I was forced to stay home during this very nasty time in Arizona.  Many of us locals leave Arizona to go birding in cooler temps.  Guides, generally, don't offer their services during this month due to nesting conditions and of course, that sweltering heat.  Everything picks up again in July when our monsoon gets into full swing and bird life is ALIVE!  

Painted Redstart
There are still windows of opportunity to bird.  Early mornings are best.  Evenings are second best. Afternoons are a no no unless you are at higher elevations but one of my favorite places to take people is currently on fire.  And it's a tragedy. So many nesting birds gone, many of them warblers.  Between crazy birders chasing that quetzal, covid closures and covid in general, the heat and the fires, it is a bit too much to take.  I regulated my outings with my friend because I can't do those extreme chases anymore for an entire day.  One of the days, I felt heat exhaustion coming on in the 104 degree temps.  Yes, I wore sun screen, a hat and drank plenty of water, but there comes a point when your body just shuts down.  Words get blurry, that little headache begins and birds become a second thought.  

Lucifer Hummingbird
There were also flashbacks during our treks.  A sadness that only one would know had they grown up as a birder with the people they once knew.  Take for example the Lucifer's Hummingbird.  Nearly every birder has gone to Mary Jo's Bed and Breakfast for their lifer Lucifer's Hummingbird.  Mary Jo passed away a little over a year now.  I haven't gone back because there are a lot of fond memories with that lady.  But we went because it's the one reliable place for birders who like photography, such as myself, to observe the secretive Montezuma Quail and of course that very special hummingbird.  Her place is now a sanctuary and it's still very special.  But I sat and looked at her home where the volunteers stay now. And it was a different experience.  The volunteers were wonderful, but Mary Jo wasn't there.  Or her African Gray Parrot. 

Least Tern
I took a day off to just work on house stuff and hang out with my neighbors.  On that day, a Least Tern showed up at Canoa Ranch.  It was a fun and fast trek to see the bird fly over the waters there. The following day, we went to search for some difficult birds.  You have to prioritize your birds.  So you choose your targets carefully.  Sometimes you spend an entire morning on ONE bird.  And that's what we did.  Anything after that window is a gift.  We achieved our targeted goals.  We stopped at another great birdy area, the Holy Trinity Monastery.  Another formerly owned Catholic property and magnet for incredible birds like the Gray Hawk, Mississippi Kite, Tropical Kingbirds and other special birds. But on the day we went there, the place looked unkept.  The shop was closed.  The pond was overgrown with algae. Broke my heart.  I sat in the meditation garden and noticed several of the wonderful shady trees were gone.  

Lesser Nighthawk

During our travels, we noticed Lesser Nighthawks hunting in broad daylight.  'Tis the season for feeding babies.  Normally these birds are only seen at dawn or dusk and at night around lights catching bugs. 

Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl
There are several birds in Arizona that are well protected and kept secret.  However, those secrets get leaked and then coordinates appear.  Such is the case with the Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl, a very sensitive species in AZ.  The species is another Holy Grail for birders, ABA'ers, state listers, county listers, etc.  There are few spots in the US that you can see them.  Texas is the best place for them.  Arizona has many but they are located in VERY difficult access places far away from civilization. The best place for these owls is still Organ Pipe National Monument in a VERY accessible place.  And that's all I will say:)

Scaled Quail
I think the most exciting part of our journeys came from observing all three quail species.  It was a lot of fun revisiting these old sites for some great birds.  Currently my plans are on hold.  As we see a spike in covid around the country, it has once again messed with travel plans.  Testing in this country is a joke. I'll leave it at that.  

juvenile Gambel's Quail

Stay cool everyone. And stay safe! Until next time....

Saturday, June 20, 2020

As Rare as a Unicorn

The incredible beauty of Portal, AZ.  A must visit place for all people to see, especially for birders
On the day the Eared Quetzal showed up in Southern Arizona, it would also be the day I was in a no WiFi zone in Box Canyon with Celeste. There we casually observed a beautiful group of White-throated Swifts feeding babies.  Meanwhile the birding world was literally and figuratively on fire elsewhere. Our Catalina mountain near Tucson is STILL on fire.  The other fire was the one that spread just as fast, only by word of mouth.

White-throated Swift
In the background, we had Scott's Orioles and Five-striped Sparrows singing. A Lucifer Hummingbird buzzed us with a loud speeding motorcycle VROOOM!  Sure, they are all exceptional birds but so were the swifts.  Since when do we ever get chances to see this species in action?  There, in the high rocks on the cliff in that little crack, the little ones called out to the group with their hungry call, "Feed us!"  And the group of swifts would all go and feed the babies. 

As we left our beautiful trek from Box Canyon and the grasslands, we hit a wifi spot and saw that a very rare Eared Quetzal was seen in the Chiricahua Mountains.  I have waited so long to see that bird.  It would be a lifer and one from my bucket list.  But by the time we got back from our birding, we were both too tired to make the nearly 3 hour drive to a remote part of the state.  It would have been dark by the time we got there.  

We planned to go if the bird had been seen again.  We were set for a Thursday trek to Portal.  After the day it was reported, the bird was nowhere to be found for several days.  "I should have gone!  I should have gone!"  The group who saw the bird had really nice views. Usually this bird is a heard only species in the dense forest.  Sometimes, it's seen but briefly!  But on that first night reported, the bird was so cooperative for that evening crew of birders that they even got pictures!  I was angry with myself.  I remember a friend's words to me about rare birds. "You can rest when you're dead." I was so angry with myself for NOT TRYING!  Even if I had dipped, I would have felt better because I had made the attempt.  Now it was too late. I'd probably have to wait another 10-20 years or go to Mexico. The latter was the original plan.

Western Wood-Pewee building a nest
The next day we were supposed to go but there weren't any sightings.  We made the tough decision to stay.  I suggested we hike the Carrie Nation Trail to find bear and our own Eared Quetzal!  It was the right decision but a grueling hike!  The bird song was so beautiful. Hermit Thrushes sang and their electronic melodies echoed throughout the canyon. 

Arizona Sister
The bird show was incredible as were the lizards and butterflies.  A hiker was so excited about the bears that he even filmed them and showed me his videos.  What a beautiful thing to see! 

Yarrow's Spiny Lizard
We were exhausted after that day.  Still no reports of an Eared Quetzal.  My iceless cooler arrived as I got home from our Carrie Nation Trail hike.  I was so excited.  You just plug it into the outlet in your vehicle and drive while it keeps all your meals and drinks cool!  No need to get covid or stop at restaurants.  People reminded me to make sure I unplugged it after I was driving so that I didn't kill my car battery.  

This cooler came at the right time because I was going to get to see my friend Gordon for a Saturday morning run up to Globe where we would bird. We hadn't been able to bird for several months and I was looking forward to seeing him. That night, I set all my equipment out, including my new iceless cooler!  I prepped my meals for the day and then all hell broke lose. 

This pic is not mine, from KOLD news
That evening our Santa Catalina mountain exploded with fire. I had some friends leave their home to take a fun weekend trip up to a cooler location.  When they left, there was no fire.  As the wind picked up, the flames spread quickly and raced down the mountain towards their home.  Their neighborhood was set to GO which means that they had to evacuate.  Our friend Lori got their dogs and watched the fire as it approached their home. The town of Catalina was almost up in flames.  This lasted until 3 in the morning as everyone worried about this fire.  Our friends drove back the next day and thankfully, the fire fighters were able to keep it away from their property!  But the fire still threatens surrounding communities.  Now it's on the other side by my friend Celeste's home!

Mexican Jay
I was supposed to leave the house by 4 AM so that I could meet Gordon by 6 in Globe.  Well, that wasn't going to happen so I texted him and let him know that my plans to meet him had changed. I went to sleep and didn't wake up until 10 AM.  I sat in the pajamas bummed yet again that I missed birding with my friend, watching the fire grow out of control on the Catalina mountains, and reading a few of the birder's posts who had seen the Eared Quetzal that one special night.  I should have gone.  I should have gone. 

All my stuff still sat on the table.  The backpack.  The cooler.  The camera and water flask were charged and full.  Then a birding friend, Steve V, posted on FB that the quetzal was seen again.  I grabbed my face mask and without thinking, loaded my vehicle, the USS Betty White, with all my stuff.  And I drove.

My first view of the Eared Quetzal!
I put on relaxing music to calm my inner anxiety.  But I felt better because I was acting and not feeling sorry for myself or making terrible excuses for not going.  

This bird, like its close relative, the Elegant Trogon, blends perfectly into the shadows of trees. 

Then the bird flew our way!  NO WAY!  
There were a lot of birders with smiling faces that afternoon.  Fast track to now and there have been hundreds of birders who remain hopeful.  Even as I write this, there are people from all over the US keeping an eye out for this rare Arizona gem.  For me, it was a lifer and Arizona bird.  But for the ABA listers, which covers North America(not Mexico but Hawaii?!), it's a significant bird.  Due to covid and airline flights, many are naturally choosing to drive.  I have met birders from almost every state here in AZ, THE capital of covid.  There is no greater sport than the one played by ABA listers.  I am not that person but I understand their competitive natures.  To say that this quetzal didn't light a fire in my brain for the irrational chase would be a lie.  

Its relative, the Resplendent Quetzal, did the same thing to me years ago in Guatemala where I interviewed locals to find a secure place to see this bird.  On a time constrained trip, there are only small windows, moments really, to observe these birds. Living in a place gives you more time to enjoy these birds. As a traveler with an agenda, if you miss it, it's over.  In Guatemala, the quetzal is their national bird.  It's also the name of their currency.  And it also happens to be a rare bird.  My friend followed my crazy butt to the area near Coban EARLY on that foggy morning.  Together, with a wonderful family, we saw so many of these birds flying around eating avocados. We also had avocados with our breakfast after observing these amazing birds.  It was one of those perfect days.  They were never seen again while we were there on that day. It was a 30 minute window and then....it was done.

We share an exciting moment with this little girl as she grabs video of these amazing birds. She stays with Lynda and helps point all the birds hiding in the trees from her.  We are amazed by the quetzal show near Coban
Like the Kirtland's Warbler or Lesser Prairie-Chicken, it took some research to see that particular subspecies of Resplendent Quetzal in Guatemala. It is said that at some point, the Resplendent Quetzal may be split into separate species. It took a lot of work to see them in Guatemala.  They were much easier to see in Costa Rica.  Anyhow, back to the Eared Quetzal.  

This is the print I ordered for my wall.  
Here's what I can tell you. The Eared Quetzal is a very secretive bird, even in its most active range. So to get views of the bird ANYTIME like this is a Christmas miracle.  And to get a view of this bird in the US is one extra bonus.  As many of you know, I travel to Mexico often.  It is my sacred place of sanity and spirituality.  So any chance I get to go to Mexico is a special time.  The Eared Quetzal and Thick-billed Parrot have been on my research list for quite some time. Drug cartels over recent years have made travel to that particular area difficult.  US news makes you fear Mexico more than you should so I listen to the people who live there.  And I read several local papers.  Yeah.  It really wasn't safe.  Now with covid, the borders are locked.  So one can understand why an Eared Quetzal in Arizona is a big deal. The last sustained view of an Eared Quetzal in Arizona was back in 1999.  There have been other "sightings" or "heard onlys" since then, but nothing like a viewable bird for many people to see out in the open.  In fact, ebird has had very little photo documentation on this species....until now:)

I hope others are able to find him safely.  After more than a week now, this bird still makes me smile.  This is what bucket list birds do; they inspire and capture the magic of birding. It's about exploration. It's about sharing an experience. And it's also about observing an incredible bird that you never thought possible. The Eared Quetzal is like a unicorn.  We see the bird in our guides, but never hope that we'll ever see something so amazing. Surely this bird does not exist. I promised myself that if I ever saw this bird, I'd make a photo and hang it up in my house.  I've ordered the picture and I'm drywalling, texturizing and painting the area where it will go.  If this is the last bird I ever see, I will be a happy person.  Until next time.... 

Monday, June 15, 2020

Terns Of Endearment

Western Tiger Swallowtail
I wish we could have slowed down our time in California.  It was such a nice stay full of great birds and memories.  We stayed close to the beach and had fun looking at the birds along the shoreline. 

Arctic Tern-blood red/orange thickish shorter bill
Besides the many Brown Pelicans, we also saw many terns.  The previous week in Arizona, we had a super rare Arctic Tern show up at a local watering hole. It had been my only tern for the year which was rather surprising!  Usually a Forster's or Least Tern shows up in April first.  Instead it was the super rare Arctic Tern.  Okay!  I'll take it. 

We did well staying away from people, but people gravitated towards each other and we had to be conscience of this.  Thankfully Cheroot, the wonder dog, helped maintain social distance with his grouchy demeanor. He's really not grouchy.  He loves hanging with his friends, but he doesn't like strangers! Or dogs off their leash!  I don't have a dog because I'm a cat person but dog owners are sometimes so irresponsible. Sure, you're dog is friendly and so am I.  However, some dogs are not friendly and are put on a leash for a reason(besides it being the law! to protect wildlife) "Free dogs" who are social put themselves in danger by running up to defensive pooches.  It was a new element to our birding that I hadn't much thought about.  A lady in Balboa Park laughed and said her unleashed dog was friendly and that it was "okay".  Yes, we love your dog, but Cheroot will rip the dog apart because of your negligence!  If I were a cat, I'd hiss. 

Forster's Tern
Let's talk about birds. While at the beach, we were noticing a lot of terns flying over our heads.  And with a closer look, we noticed quite a few species of tern.  My friend Celeste mentioned there was black at the tip of the bill.  That narrowed the bird down to a Caspian or Forster's Tern.  I saw her bird and then noticed it had a thin orange bill with a beautiful tail pattern.  Forster's. But what were the other terns?!

The next tern we saw breeds in the same area as the Snowy Plovers.  And sure enough, a Least Tern flew over our heads.  They weren't as numerous as the other species and an easy one to ID.  Small tern with a yellow bill. 

Least Tern
Wildlife and visitors continued along the beach of Southern California.  In one area, we had both Harbor Seals (or Common Seal) in one colony while several rocks over, we saw a huge group of California Sea Lions.  

Harbor Seals
It's tricky for birders.  Terns are magnificent creatures, but they aren't always easy in their varied plumage.  Often I go with the bill as a field mark.  We were lucky as we had clear marks.  I start getting into trouble when both Arctic and Common terns are in the same area.  Then there's the Elegant Tern vs the Royal Tern.  We did see a few Royal Terns while we were there. Let's take a look.

Royal Tern
Here's a shot of both species.  Royal Terns will also have the black cap.  This one does not.  The bills are slightly thicker with the Royal Tern.  The tern also has a paler orange/yellow coloring. 

Elegant Tern
When you look at the Elegant Tern, you'll see a longer skinnier orange bill.  It's also a large and elegant tern. REALLY:)  These terns are more common along the coast of Southern California right now and were the predominant tern species over the waters. 

Another tern that I know well is the Caspian Tern. It breeds along the shores of Lake Michigan in my home state of Wisconsin.  This tern is widespread and a bulky tern with a heavy orange bill with a dark end. This was the second most common tern species along the coastal waters.  

Caspian Tern
During the in between time, we'd all sit and enjoy the shade.  The ocean is great but the sun can still be very strong.  We found shade and charged our batteries under a tree full of Allen's Hummingbirds. 

A tern that I had been wanting to observe in the wild finally happened on this trek.  All of my friends have seen this species except me:)  That was such a wonderful discovery.  I thought I had seen one fly over my head.  My heart skipped a beat and my pace quickened on the beach towards the salt marsh.  These birds were outside the clouds of terns over the estuary.  They were fishing from the calmer waters of the salt marsh.  Easy to ID with that nice black bill. 

Gull-billed Tern
Where did we see all these terns?  Well, we found them at Imperial Beach along the Tijuana Slough that borders the ocean front.   Here is the list that we generated from our walk. Directions to get there are in the report.  One bird we did not see was the Ridgway's Rail which is often found there in good numbers.  But we didn't time our visits to the tide.  When the tide rises, you have a better chance of spotting this very cool and endangered rail. 

The end of the pier behind Celeste is where you can find the Pelagic Cormorants, when it opens again.  Great eats along that road as well
I want to also share with you that it's possible to observe all three cormorants in this area.  The most common cormorants seen are the Brandt's and Double-crested Cormorants.  The more difficult one can be the Pelagic.  But for some reason, the purplish hues of the beautiful Pelagic Cormorant love the end of the big Imperial Beach pier.  Even though the pier was closed, I did spy one bird fly towards the end of it. 

Brandt's Cormorant
It was a lovely walk.  The past two posts covered 5 principal areas of what I think are San Diego's premier birding spots.  There's a few more but we avoided those areas due to high human traffic.  We stayed near Balboa Park which is a really nice walk and full of great birds including the exotics.  We spied Red-crowned and Yellow-headed Parrots with Red-headed Parakeets.  Also feeding from the grasses were the Scaly-breasted Munia. 

Other stops included the beautiful Imperial Beach and Tijuana Slough, La Jolla coastal area, Torrey-Pines State Park, the Bird and Butterfly Garden near the Tijuana border, and Sunset Cliffs Natural Park where we saw this beautiful California Thrasher below. 

California Thrasher
If anything, this trek inspired me to get on the road soon.  But something was holding me back.  I'm glad I waited.  The bird gods have been kind to the birding community in Arizona. 

Maybe not exciting, but I think beautiful, the Western Gulls were nesting along the coastal cliffs. 

Western Gull
On our way home, we spied this very young Green Heron at a park in Yuma, AZ.  At one point I had to take this poor little heron out of the pond because a girl ran up to it and forced it into the water. It barely could swim. It needed a few days to get more strength. She knew what she was doing and it pissed me off. Back in the day, you could yell at kids freely(or talk to them nicely). I was hungry and grouchy and not in the mood to deal with kids. So instead, I had a talk with her mother while giving her the death stare. Then I rescued the little bird who couldn't get out of the pond due to the concrete pond wall being too high.  Hope this little one is okay.  Just needs a few days to strengthen up.  

juvenile Green Heron

So if you are chasing terns along the coast of Southern California, here are the terns we saw most to least being the Least:)

1. Elegant Tern-the most common
2. Caspian Tern
3. Forster's Tern
4. Gull-billed Tern
5. Royal Tern
6. Least Tern

We're back in Southern Arizona enduring the heat and wildfires.  Please think good thoughts for our Mt. Lemmon.  The Bighorn Fire was caused by a lightning strike for about a week now. As we were arriving back into Tucson, we hit the huge lightning storm. It has done some major damage to the mountain. I hope we can get it under control. Fire is good but it's not cool when you have your friend's home in danger of getting burned down.  It's painful to watch the wildlife flee their homes off the mountain.  June is already a stressful time for all the critters with water and heat being major factors. And the smoke! Is it covid or smoke that's causing the headaches? It's one thing after another these days. Next week, we take a longer and deeper look into the magic of Southeastern Arizona birding. 

Not my image, from ABC 15 news

Friday, June 12, 2020

Ocean Tides

Not social distancing.  The CDC recommends wearing a mask if you decide to get that close:)  
As the desert heat overtook Tucson, we made an escape to the much cooler California coast. 

Black Oystercatcher
We found some open and lovely spaces to keep away from the crowds. And when we encountered groups of people, we wore our masks. 

It was a much needed mental break from the day-to-day routine. It was also great to see that in many parts of Southern California that 90 percent of the people wore facial masks and observed social distancing.  It wasn't until we got closer to the Orange County border that we noticed more people not wearing them.  La Jolla was a great example of people NOT wearing masks or observing the 6 foot rule. 

I love it when people paint on the beach.  So nice to see. 
We sat in our chairs and watched the waves crash against the shore.  As the tide began to rise, the cold waters began to erase the footprints on the sand.  The waves hit the ending beach point of the nearby estuary.  Ocean waters rushed into the salt marsh with great vigor forcing the inland river to rise. Slowly the sand eroded around us and the beach disappeared. 

The Snowy Egret has yellow feet
Hundreds of terns flew over the "sweet spot" where the river and ocean met.  There, they collected tiny fish from the waters. 

California Sea Lions
The sun filtered through the clouds.  And often the clouds won their gray battles. 

the beaches of Torrey Pines
It was during that night of the ocean tides entering the salt marsh that I noticed a pair of Gull-billed Terns hunt over the tidal rivers of the marsh.  At one point, I saw a bird collecting nesting material. 

My only 2020 lifer so far, the Gull-billed Tern!
This has been such a strange year.  We have a fire on our mountain in Tucson. Then there's the George Floyd protests amid the rising number of covid cases in AZ.  And then my summer job was cancelled.  No summer school.  We don't even know how school will start up with the cases on the rise again.  My Panama trip was cancelled yet airlines want everyone to get back on a plane like it's okay when clearly it's not. There's a lot of mixed messaging happening. We talk about all lives having value and yet we are allowing our elderly to die at elevated rates over money. Basically, we're all on our own even when they annoyingly say, "We're all in this together." No we are not.  So watching terns at an estuary was a welcome mental retreat.  

California ground squirrel
You can see people wanting to get back to normal.  California state closed the parking lots to national and state parks making access to the beaches almost impossible.  I know little tricks to avoid the public craziness, but even I had challenges on this adventure. We figured it all out and had a great time. 

Snowy Plover
Snowy Plovers were in good numbers as were terns and other shorebirds.  It was a lot of fun doing some ocean birding and getting out of the Arizona heat.  I actually felt a spark of excitement on this trip after observing the tern.  The road is calling for me again.  In the next post, I'll cover ID points for terns and some other fun observations. 

Our first day on the beach was a welcome moment.  Like a mental sigh of relief. I didn't realize how much stress I have been carrying inside of me. Ocean breezes, cooler temps, awesome birds and lots of people watching.  Life finds a way to go on even during a pandemic.  Until next time....