Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Tactical Alert

My weekly observations at Reid Park includes watching people watch birds.
Recently, I had to send my professional lens into the shop again because it locked up on me during our Wood Thrush journey.  So I sent the lens out of town for a fixin' and stayed close to home for some tactical training. 

My favorite habitat in Arizona, the grasslands.  And my favorite group of birds, the sparrows!
Tucson birders have pretty much all stayed in town this past weekend(which is uncommon).  A friend contacted me and asked if I wanted to do some birding in town.  I got the vibe that we were all doing the same thing and our plan went something like this, "We want to find something rare.  We don't care what it is.  But let's challenge ourselves and see if we can find something cool around town."

Magical and breathtaking, the open spaces of our Arizona grasslands make me feel alive
So that was our challenge. For the most part, it was unspoken but everyone who was doing a big year in Pima County decided that this was the weekend that something good was going to show up.  And I have to say we did great. 

Sheri, Jennifer and Peggy observe some great sparrows.
Before we did our big challenge, I had some friends come to town who needed help finding a Baird's Sparrow.  Easy.  

We sit at a water tank whispering and watching birds come to take a sip.  This Savannah Sparrow is thirsty....and wary!
We scanned the cattle tanks and along fence lines for our sparrows and had a great time observing some beautiful birds. 

Western Meadowlark
Around the Sonoita and Patagonia areas, we found several Baird's Sparrows, an American Bittern and a small flock of Chestnut-collared Longspurs.  

Patagonia Lake
It was a fun day out with Jennifer, Peggy and Sheri as we searched for all kinds of birds.  

Jennifer and Sheri are enjoying the butterfly show
So that was my fun birding.  Then came the tactical birding.  And again, the WHOLE week was set up to find something rare at our local parks and watering holes. Lens or no lens, the challenge was on!

Northern Cardinal at the Patagonia State Park feeders

It was a very good week full of surprises.  We had Cackling Geese, Red-breasted Mergansers everywhere, and something even more rare and special, a Couch's Kingbird. 

A Couch's Kingbird is a bird that might be seen in southern Texas but more commonly observed in Mexico. And here's how this chase organically evolved in Tucson.  One day I went to bird at Ft. Lowell Park.  I spotted Red Crossbills crunching away on pine cones. They were a nice find and I posted my sightings.  Then Melissa Williams went to find them the next day.  In the process of birding the park, she found an unusual out-of-place kingbird.

She posted on Facebook that she thought it was a little late for a Tropical Kingbird to be in Tucson.  And she was right. The next day, the Tucson birding crew all met up in one of those rare gatherings.  For a long while, we all worked together to figure out Melissa's bird and at the end of taking audio samples and photos, we concluded that her bird was a very special and rare Couch's Kingbird, a first record for Pima County!  This is not an easy bird to ID.  It looks a lot like our Tropical Kingbird:) If the bird calls, the ID is a snap.  Luckily for all of us, this kingbird made the "kip" calls.

Couch's Kingbird
 While all of this was going on, we were dealing with our poor Cassie.  She became very sick and was having a hard time breathing.  Afraid that we'd lose her, we took her to the ER.  I'm glad we did because we would have lost her.  She has a genetic disease known as Congestive Heart Failure. She is only 10 years old and hopefully with the meds, she'll be with us a little longer. I can say that her health has improved and her appetite has returned.  All critters have my heart.  They are my kryptonite.  She has health insurance which is better than our own! We still have a few more doctor appointments and we're hoping that she'll make a full recovery. 

Soon my professional lens will back and I will be preparing for some arctic cold temps in the North.  Until next time....

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Las Aventuras: Arizona Grebes and Loons

One of my all time favorite movies, On Golden Pond, uses the Common Loon as a back piece to the beauty and sadness of growing old together
It's time again to cover Arizona's birding world.  This time we'll focus on the grebes and loons in this state.  While it seems unlikely that this state could even have loons here, we have to remember that these birds do migrate south into the Sea of Cortez and Pacific Ocean. Often times these birds are found in deep bodies of water. Pacific storms are also responsible for their appearances in the state. Without further ado, here are the grebes and loons that can found this time of year in our state. 

Pied-billed Grebe are common and widespread in Arizona all year round.  They even make some fun sounds.
Beginning with the grebes. The first and most common of grebes found in Arizona is the Pied-billed Grebe.  They can be seen all year round in our natural or artificial watering holes in the state. This is one bird you don't really need to chase.  

Note the darker overall tones of the Eared Grebe, which is the default grebe for the state during our winter months and migration
So let's get to the other grebes that birders in this state like to chase.  Two similar looking grebes, the Eared and Horned Grebes can be found in many areas around the state during the winter months.  The Eared Grebe is the default grebe of the state.  BUT there are a few Horned Grebes swimming around the deeper lakes and ponds.  Learn their winter plumage to help ID these often tricky birds.  They have beautiful summer plumage but when we see them here, they usually look like these pics above and below. 

Note the overall whiter tones of the Horned Grebe.  Rare but a regular rarity during our winter months.
Another similar looking grebe species, the Western and Clark's Grebes, are also found in this state.  The Western, again, is usually the default grebe for Southern Arizona BUT if you carefully look through each and every one of those Western Grebes, you might find a Clark's Grebe in the mix:)  

Western Grebes are the default for the state.  But don't assume that they are all Western Grebes
During the winter months, Clark's Grebes usually migrate to deeper waters in concentrated numbers around the Phoenix area and up around the Lake Havasu border. Western Grebes have a weak bill with black below the eye.  Clark's Grebes have a bold bright yellow bill with their dark plumage ABOVE the eye.  They too can be difficult to ID. They even hybridize!  There is still a lingering question in the birder's world.  Are these two species really just one species?

Bright strong yellow bill and black above the eye with lighter plumage make this a good ID for the Clark's Grebe
All of these grebes can be seen in the state every year.  There is a little driving involved but overall, they are not difficult to find.  HOWEVER, the gems of all grebe gems, if such things existed, would be the Red-necked Grebe and Least Grebe.  The Least Grebe is the crowning jewel of Arizona birding.  Red-necked Grebes are common birds for the ABA listers but the Least Grebe is the one that can only be seen just slightly north of the US border. 

Rare and accidental now in the state of Arizona, the Least Grebe. THE grebe high on many birder's lists. 
Several years ago, Least Grebes were common and often found breeding in a place called Peña Blanca Lake.  They are a smaller grebe and can be predated on by bigger fish.  The fisher people of the area, and the state, decided to add Bass to the lake.  By doing so, these fish ate all the little grebes up and today, this bird is very difficult to find.  It is now uncommon to see one.  If they are spotted somewhere, it's often in a remote and far away grassland watering hole.  The grebe usually doesn't stay long and flies off.  If you do spot a Least Grebe, you are fortunate!

Common Loon
Now.  Let's talk about one of my favorite group of birds, the Loons!  "Look Norman, the loons!  The loons!!!"  Growing up in the Midwest, I remember the haunting sounds of the Common Loon on our lakes right at sunset.  It was chilling and quite beautiful.  The first time I heard that there was a Common Loon in Tucson, I nearly messed myself!  Well come to find out, during the months of November, December and January, loons can often be seen in various parts of the state.  Some stay all winter long!  Most require a scope.  There are 5 loon species and 4 of them have been seen in this state.  Let's take a look. 

Unfortunately, this Pacific Loon didn't live long.  It was caught up in storm and was forced to land in this artificial lake in Tucson.  It starved to death.  Today its' body can be seen at the UA's bird collection for record keeping. 
The Common Loon is common.  The second most common?  The Pacific Loon!  So keep your eyes open for this random visitor, especially after a good winter storm! 

Last year, I saw my first Yellow-billed Loon and Red-throated Loon.  These two birds are super rare to the state.  They are really good birds.  If you are a state lister and there's a report on one of these birds, go:)  As far as I know, there hasn't been a confirmed report of an Arctic Loon in Arizona.  But I'm sure one of these days, one will show up:)

Katherine's Landing is a real birder's treat near the border of Nevada and Arizona.  The water is deep and good for Red-necked Grebes and exotic loons:)
I have always enjoyed our searches for these birds because they usually involve water and cold windy days.  These birds aren't usually associated with Arizona but they do occur during migration.  As mentioned before, some even winter briefly in our state.  Until next time.......

Bill Williams National Wildlife Refuge near Lake Havasu is a great spot for Clark's Grebes and Barrow's Goldeneyes during the winter months. 

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

No Day But Today

Vermilion Flycatcher during one of my weekly surveys at Reid Park in Tucson, AZ

"The heart may freeze or it can burn
  The pain will ease if I can learn

  There is no future
  There is no past
  I live each moment as my last 

  There's only us
  There's only this
  Forget regret-or life is yours to miss

  No other road
  No other way
  No day but today!"-Rent

Another routine check at El Río Preserve in Marana, reveals a mile long string of Yellow-headed Blackbirds passing by the moon at sunset

On the trails this week, I did a little bit of tactical, studied and artistic birding.  It was a crazy week full of super early mornings, even by a birder's standards.

a Scaled Quail at Cochise Lake

We came back from Colorado and stopped at the beautiful Cochise Lake in Willcox, AZ.  This was my artistic birding. We had to prioritize our stops. So we skimmed through New Mexico in order to watch the beautiful sunset over Cochise Lake.

a Javelina feeds from the grasses of the golf course at Willcox

It was so peaceful and beautiful.  As the sun went down, several hundred Sandhill Cranes flew above our heads.

Sandhill Cranes at sunset
That is the true art of birding. It was a magical way to end our day.

Greater White-fronted Geese at Willcox
Days would follow and it would be time for studied birding.  Studied birding is my way of doing regular visits to local hotspots and recording important information. This year I have chosen Reid Park and several other hotspots to do my weekly counts to better understand bird patterns.

juvenile male Rose-breasted Grosbeak
On this day, I went to the Santa Rita Lodge and sat with out-of-town birders helping them ID unusual birds.  Sometimes, I just throw myself into the mix.  They don't know who I am and I don't know who they are.  But it's the most natural way of meeting good people.  I spent my morning helping these birders ID female hummingbirds(which can be tricky).

Rufous-winged Sparrow
I also studied several lower elevation birds that weren't supposed to be at the feeders.  Across the map, we are noticing birds moving up in elevation due to global change.  Take for example the Rufous-winged Sparrow ^(a Southern Arizona favorite) and the Lark Sparrow below.  Both of these birds should be found at the lower elevations of the Santa Rita Mountain range.  But here they were.

Lark Sparrow
Then there's tactical birding.  Tactical birding can be interesting.  Or it can be terrible.  A Wood Thrush was reported in a very remote and unlikely place in our state.  I needed this bird for the state AND I also needed better views of this bird.  I've only heard these birds calling from the dark areas of the woods in Maine and in Wisconsin. 

I didn't want to drive nearly 2 hours to this place called Dateland.  But any chance to get better views of a bird that I had only heard in my life was worth the trek.  We gambled and were rewarded with stunning views of this normally secretive thrush.

Wood Thrush
People have asked me how I balance it all out.  It's tricky but I make the time.  Just like people make time to exercise, etc., I make sure I put in the time for my birds. So many birders have said, "You can rest when your dead." And they're right. There's work.  There's home.  There's family and friends.  And there's birding:) 

Until next time.....

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

My Winter Plumage

Between artistic and tactical birding, there has to be a balance.  This past weekend, the artistic and explorer side took over, but not without great "cost". 

A Gray Jay
Over the next several months, I have scheduled some very important journeys into various places.  Some will include new birds while others will just extend my knowledge of known birds.  

The Alpine level of Pike's Peak
My heart craved the frozen temps of Colorado and so we went.  After Cabo and the above average temps back home in Arizona, I needed to feel the sensation of being frozen.  I wanted to remember what the cold was like again. 

My nephew brought his Doritos with him and the package crinkled.  I heard a sound from the depths of the forests. A gray figure moved towards us. Then more. That's when I taught him about Gray Jays. I forgot my package of nuts in the car but we did have a few chips to hand out. Apparently this wasn't the first time these jays have heard such crinkling sounds:)

Doritos are bad choices for humans and Gray Jays.  Bring unsalted nuts and that'll get their attention. 
I was at the Alpine level again.  It was so nice to be there.  Everything was frozen around us and I felt at peace. When you endure the onslaught of hot temps on a daily basis, you CRAVE the cold. 

Here, the few year long species of birds danced around us in circles where they zeeted and chicka dee-dee-deed from inside of the trees. 

Mountain Chickadee
Meanwhile, back in Arizona, I was losing the tactical advantage.  Rare eastern vagrants decided to show up in mass numbers.  None of them were life birds but they would have been STATE birds for me. I missed 4 possible new birds for that state list! 

I had a good laugh.  It was bound to happen because it happens to every birder!  We make plans and then there we are.  Thankfully, the birds weren't once in a lifetime rare.  It just would have been nice to add a couple new birds onto that every expanding state list:)  But then again, I didn't entirely care either. I have to remind myself that birding isn't a competition.  It's why I took myself off that crazy top 100 hundred list.

Black-capped Chickadee
The Bob Ross in me had taken over.  I collected data for several hotspots that I had created for Ebird in Colorado several years ago and at one point, I just sat down on a wooden bench and smiled.  Life is awesome and about to get better.  And hanging out in this cold weather revitalized my energies.  Hot beef barley soup and hot coffee.  THAT is my habitat of choice. 

In this pic above, Quail Lake in Colorado Springs, I snapped this shot of the fall colors.  5 years ago I put this lake on the ebird map. It was just coming into its own.  It was bustling with a lot of energy.  And birds.
So I proudly wear my winter plumage as the season begins!  Until next time.....

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

An Arizona Autumn

After Mexico, we hopped into our car and drove to Pinetop in the beautiful White Mountains of Arizona. Autumn has arrived. 

It's great to get outside and really BE outside. 

American Dipper gets a little breakfast
We hiked around the Greer area and saw lots of beautiful things. 

There is something very wonderful about fall. Maybe it's the fresh air.  Maybe it's about standing in one spot and enjoying the observations a little longer than usual.  Or maybe it's the hot sweet potato soup that is served at a local restaurant. 

Red Crossbill-this is the female AND she is yellow:)
Whatever it is, autumn is pretty awesome.

Red-naped Sapsucker
During the weekend, we hit all my favorite hotspots and counted birds.

Mountain Chickadee
We checked up on Payson's local resident, the Bald Eagle.  I've been wondering if this bird will ever pair up.  Ever since the severe drought of 2012, this bird has hung around the local watering holes.  I interviewed several residents who told me that the bird still continues "the single life".

Bald Eagle
After an intensely hot summer, I am so happy that the cooler temps have arrived again. 

There is so much to look forward to. Until next time......