Going off on a Tangent–er, Tanager Hunt

No, this is not Evan’s nemesis–the final AZ piece will be out soon. Until then, here’s a distraction.  Life is full of distractions.  Some of those distractions happen to be of the Tanager variety.  They are worth the time they steal–

Western Tanager

–because there are never enough Western Tanagers on this blog;

Western Tanager

–because my Minnesota list included precisely 0 WETA.

IMG_3382

Today I remedied one of those problems.

Western Tanager

Lots of fun stuff will be coming at you on this blog in the upcoming weeks. In addition to putting the lid on Arizona, Evan and I recently went on the most important and rewarding birding expedition we’ve ever done or will ever do.  The post from our Montana adventure of a lifetime will be the pinnacle post of this blog.

Arizona 2015: NIGHT Owling at the Coon Bluff Recreation Site on the Salt River

Though the SE AZ adventure took me an inordinate amount of time to write about and you multiple posts to slog through, the reality is that all of these experiences AND the adventure I’m about to lay before you all transpired in less than 48 hours time.  Intense doesn’t even begin to describe it.  Typical stories have rising action reaching a climax and then giving way to falling action.  That’s not what happened–we redefined the plot diagram. Each thrill one-upped its predecessor.  So without further adieu, here is the exciting and jaw-dropping finish to the day that began with an Elegant Trogon lifer.

After a leisurely, sight-seeing drive from Green Valley on April 1st, my family and I made it back to Maricopa around 4:00.  Since Evan, Dad, and I were going owling late that evening with Tommy DeBardeleben, the girls of the group (Melissa, Marin, Mom) decided to make it a girls night and see some princess-something-or-other movie.  Perfect.  Once back at the Maricopa house, the gender-segregated groups went to their respective destinations immediately.

I wanted to get to the Coon Bluff Recreation Site on the Salt River before dark anyhow as I was hoping to pull out a couple more lifers.  Mainly I had a gaping Phoebe-hole in my list–the Black Phoebe, which is best Phoebe of all.  As we waited for Tommy near the Coon Bluff entrance, we soaked up the last rays and views of an incredible day that began in Madera Canyon.

Coon Bluff

Cactus Wrens, despite sounding like a motor that won’t start, have motors that are always running as they could be constantly heard throughout the desert.

Cactus WrenBut no bird dominates the desert habitat near Coon Bluff like the Phainopepla.  Try to not see one if you go to Coon Bluff.

PhainopeplaOnce Tommy arrived, we all went down to the mesquite-bosque near the river to look for some of our pre-dusk targets.

Coon Bluff mesquite bosque

Right away we saw some Vermilion Flycatchers and encountered two Ladder-backed Woodpeckers.  The Ladder-backed was a lifer for Evan.  The Woodpeckers of Arizona were generally an unfriendly lot to us, snubbing photo attempts and giving poor looks in general.

Ladder-backed Woodpecker

Once we got next to the Salt River itself, Tommy found us a couple of our Black Phoebe targets.  The tail-bobbing and water’s-edge perching behavior was gratifyingly reminiscent of our lone Phoebe species back East.

Black Phoebe

Shortly after this, Tommy found Evan a Lucy’s Warbler lifer.

Lucy's Warbler

But after that tidy-lifering, it was time to head out to the entrance road and wait for darkness to fall.

Tommy EvannnnnDarkness and owl hoots weren’t the only thing we were waiting for–bird blogger Laurence Butler of the famed Butler’s Birds was set to join us for some nighttime owl escapades.  Whenever a herd of bird nerds gathers, especially of the blogging variety, there is bound to be magic.  Tonight was no exception.  In fact, once we were all together and started walking the road pictured above in the twilight, Laurence got the night off to the right start by spotting a Great Horned Owl atop a Saguaro.

Great Horned Owl Cactus

As we walked along, the nighttime sounds were immediate, omnipresent, and subtle to the untrained owler {me}.  Common Poorwills could be heard, and one gave us our life look as it buzzed our heads.  Western Screech-Owls proved to be a frustrating lot as we would hear one and head in its direction only to have it mock us by suddenly shutting up.  We’d give up and walk away and later hear it back in the same location.  This scene replayed many times with different Western Screech-Owls.

Giving up on WESO, Tommy was now hunting Elf Owls.  It didn’t take him long to hear one of the tiny guys barking.  The hunt was on.  Tommy had the Elf confined to a large mesquite tree.  Flashlights were immediately bathing the tree from all directions.  Then, Tommy called out that he spotted it! As I was heading toward him, Laurence called out that he too had it from the other side with an unobstructed view!  So I headed over to Laurence.  Nice guy that he is, he waited to take his own pictures and held up the light so I could get my life look and photograph of the Elf Owl.  Too bad I was a nighttime-owling novice and blew this gift by not using flash!  I distinctly remember watching the yellow blur of the eyes through the viewfinder as it swiveled its head at the last second.  And then it flushed further into the tree disappearing altogether.

Elf Owl

So now the hunt was on again for the 6 in. owl in the large tree.  I may have thrown away an incredible photographic opportunity, but I somewhat made up for it by making my only contribution to the owl efforts that night as I refound the sparrow-sized Elf buried deep in the branches.

Elf Owl

Elf Owl

This Elf Owl never did give us any more good lucks, though Laurence found and crushed a second bird in a different location.  At least Evan was with him and got good looks at that bird.  With crush in hand, the punctual Laurence departed from us at his preordained time.  This decision was both foolish and sacrificial, for whenever one leaves a birding party prematurely, it all but guarantees that greatness will happen for those who persevere.  And indeed, that is exactly what happened.

Dad and Evan decided to rest back at the van in the parking lot while Tommy and I were going to take one more crack at the owls.  With just the two of us, we could haul and cover a lot of ground quickly.  It turns out that covering lots of ground was not necessary since we once again had a calling Western Screech-Owl.  We set after it immediately.  The sound was subtle and quiet to me, so I was baffled when Tommy said it was really close.  I thought for sure it was a long way off.  However, we heard it in front of us, walked a short distance, and then heard it behind us!  We now had the Screech confined to one tree!  We shined our lights on the tree and in seconds Tommy hollered, “Josh! I got it!”

There, there on a branch in the middle of the tree with nothing blocking our view was the amazing Western Screech-Owl!  It was stunning.

Western Screech-Owl

Western Screech-Owl

Western Screech-Owl

After we each got several nice photographs, it dawned on me that this Owl was very content.  So I left Tommy to go back and get Dad and Evan so they could see this cool bird too.  Though in my excitement and in the darkness, I ran up to the wrong van.  Thankful to not be shot by the camping inhabitants or see the goings-on behind the blanket curtain that hung from the open lift-gate, I collected myself enough to find the correct van.  After startling my dad awake and hopping in, we punched it to get back to Tommy.

I needn’t have hurried because the Screech was exactly as I left him, and Evan and Dad got great looks at their lifer too.  Then, inspired by Tommy, the only birder I’ve heard of taking selfies with birds, hilarity ensued as we each found ourselves posing with the Owl.  Intoxicated with some good owling luck as well the thrill that comes from good, clean fun selfie antics, we could not stop laughing.Josh owl selfieObviously, Tommy is much more experienced at this, and therefore much better at the bird selfies than I.  One thing I have learned from Tommy is the importance of having fun while doing this hobby.  It is clear that I still have much to learn this owl Jedi.

Tommy selfie owl

By this point we had completely lost our minds and were attempting the GREATEST OWL SELFIE OF ALL TIME–both of us posing together directly underneath the bird.  Maybe it was the giggles, maybe it was that we didn’t have a mint, or maybe it was that the owl was just fed up with the freak show because it left just as we were almost in position.  Oh well. It was still the coolest and most hilarious owling I’ve ever experienced.  And I’ve owled a LOT.

Finally it was time to go.  We said our goodbyes to Tommy until we have a frosty reunion Up North next winter.  Then we headed back to my parents’ place in Maricopa for a much-needed night of sleep after an Elegant Trogon lifer at dawn and wild Western-Screech party well after dusk.

Evan sleeping

I long to return to the desert for more nightime owling.  Next time, though, I’ll be prepared with a better flashlight, a well-rehearsed selfie pose, and my leather boots…

shoe

It was an unforgettable night with Evan, Dad, Laurence, and Tommy.   We padded the life list with a few more birds which pushed Evan up and over the big 300.  More importantly we had a lot of fun doing it.  Oh, and if you’re feeling sorry for Laurence for missing the big party at the end, don’t.  Our WESO shots gnawed at him enough to get him back out there for a second and very successful photo shoot.

The 2015 Arizona series has eight chapters: 1) Maricopa Birds, 2) Mt. Lemmon, 3) Florida Canyon, 4) Madera Canyon Part 1, 5) Madera Canyon Part 2, 6) Evan’s Big Discovery, 7) Owling at Coon Bluff on the Salt River, and 8) Evan’s Nemesis.

Arizona 2015: Evan’s Big Discovery at Green Valley

The birding on March 31st was like drinking water from a fire hose.  Not to belabor a point, but I was also super sick and just wanted to rest after lifering 23 times earlier in the day with Tommy DeBardeleben and Gordon Karre.  As I was resting in the hotel room, Evan jolted me back into birding mode when he hollered, “Dad, I see a Barn Owl!”  I was skeptical but his voice was rising, “Yeah, yeah, I do!”  I went over to the window he was looking through and saw the distant silhouette on another roof of the hotel complex a couple hundred yards away.  Zooming in with the camera I saw that Evan indeed saw an owl, but it was the Great Horned variety.

Great Horned Owl

Any owl is a fun find, even a GHOW in SE AZ.  No, it wasn’t our Barn Owl lifer, but it was still a great sighting.  At least Evan was cognizant that we were in the right country for Barn Owl as it’s not a bird we are likely to ever get back home. We saw the owl fly a short distance into a third-story alcove, so Evan and I raced out the door to see if we could get closer looks at the owl.  We realized that we could actually ride an elevator to the third floor and look out a window right by where the owl landed.  Excitement stirred as we crept up to the window, expecting to look down at the owl just a couple feet away on the roof below.  Somehow the owl gave us the slip, but look what we found!  The figure in the background is a very fresh owlet–you can see its tiny gray beak by the stucco wall.  The other white blob may be an owlet or part of the food cache.

GHOW nest

We finally located the adult perched on a light pole in the middle of the parking lot in the middle of the day, giving us our best ever views of a Great Horned Owl.

Great Horned OwlWhenever owls are involved, one should always give credit where credit is due.  Here is the discoverer admiring his prize.

Evan Great Horned Owl

What a gorgeous creature this was and a cherry on top of one heck of a day of birding in SE AZ.

Great Horned Owl

It surprised me to see a Great Horned Owl in the day like this and so unafraid.  Putting up with tourists is just one of the prices you pay for choosing such a posh and scenic home.

Great Horned Owl hotel

Having a resident owl at our accommodations always made going out to the parking lot enjoyable as you could play ‘Where’s Waldo?’ each time.  One time we found it in a palm tree.  Look at those talons!

Great Horned Owl

It was really windy that night. Can you tell?

Great Horned OwlThe Great Horned Owl wasn’t the only great bird at the hotel.  I managed to find a Black-throated Sparrow, Cactus Wren, and even a lifer Hooded Oriole or three for Evan!

Hooded Oriole

Hooded Oriole female

The Hooded Orioles were that much sweeter as we enjoyed them poolside while enjoying  other sweet views.

Green Valley

After our grand Elegant Trogon adventure on the morning of April 1st, Tommy and Gordon dropped us off at the hotel but took some time to look for Evan’s owls.  Unfortunately, Tommy and Gordon just could not get on the owl.

Tommy Gordon Great Horned Owl

They had been so obsessed with the fact that my bird photo-list on the blog is missing a Rock Pigeon picture, that they could focus on nothing but finding me Pigeons and failed to see the owl.  I was told that in this photo, Tommy had sighted a tidy group of four Pigeons.

The truth is, Tommy and Gordon just weren’t used to owling VIP-style. We brought them to the elevator that took us up three flights.  Then the doors opened, giving them this immediate and direct view:

Great Horned Owl

 

Great Horned OwlTommy and Gordon actually contributed to the owl discovery as they found the male tucked up into a palm tree!  We now had two adults in view!

Great Horned Owl

It was fun to watch these Arizona birders, who by all rights should be jaded to all common birds, enjoy this pair of nationally common GHOWs along with us.  Perhaps, after now having seen such birds as the Painted Redstart and Elegant Trogon, Evan is the one who’s jaded…

Josh Evan Great Horned Owl

The only cure for such a hardened-heart toward the owls would be an infusion of multiple owl lifers on one of the most thrilling owl-prowls we’ve ever had.  Coming up next is some exciting NIGHT owling we had that very night back in the Phoenix area along the Salt River.  Stay tuned.

The 2015 Arizona series has eight chapters: 1) Maricopa Birds, 2) Mt. Lemmon, 3) Florida Canyon, 4) Madera Canyon Part 1, 5) Madera Canyon Part 2, 6) Evan’s Big Discovery, 7) Owling at Coon Bluff on the Salt River, and 8) Evan’s Nemesis.

Arizona 2015: The Return to Madera Canyon — Elegant Trogon or Bust!

Getting back to my hotel in Green Valley that afternoon on the 31st after lifering hard at Mt. Lemmon, Florida Canyon, and Madera Canyon, I couldn’t take any more birding, mostly because my stomach bug was still raging hard. I got about an hour’s rest before Evan made a big birding discovery at the hotel that forced me into full-on birding mode again.  This discovery will be the focus of the next blog post. Once that excitement settled down, I finally collected my thoughts enough to remember that Tommy DeBardeleben and Gordon Karre were counting on me to check the internet for Trogon reports to decide what we should do in the morning.  According to eBird, no Trogons had been seen for over a week at Patagonia Lake State Park.  On the other hand, just the day before, Eric Ripma had eBirded two male Elegant Trogons 1/4 mile up the Super Trail at Madera Canyon.  The choice was now clear, especially since Madera was a short 15 minute drive away where Patagonia was closer to an hour.  I texted Gordon and we all mutually agreed that Madera it was.

After telling Evan about the cool birds I saw and after he had some good sightings at the hotel, he was in a birding mood and wanted to go on the Trogon hunt the next morning.  I felt our chances were decent after that eBird report, so I was glad he made that decision.  Adding to the excitement was that my health was back to 100% on April Fools morning.  It was feeling like a GREAT day to lifer on my grail bird.

sunrise

Tommy and Gordon picked us up at the hotel at 6:00 to bring us back to the mountain.  As we drove to the Super Trail parking lot, Evan lifered on Mexican Jay out the car window near the Santa Rita Lodge.  We weren’t stopping for those secondary lifers, though.  We were on a mission, and our crew-leader Tommy was shouldering all the weight and anxiety of the Trogon hunt.  Like Kirby Puckett in Game 6 of the 1991 World Series, Tommy was putting the team on his back and was determined to bring us all to glory.  Before we got to hiking that morning, Tommy spoke to me in a hushed tone, “Now, I don’t want you to get your hopes up, but Gordon and I scouted the Super Trail last night and we…heard a Trogon.”

“Yeah, I won’t get my hopes up,” I lied between pounding heartbeats.

Almost immediately after we got on the Super Trail, Evan had his Painted Redstart lifer.  I was happy for him because I knew he also really wanted to see this bird too even though he didn’t go with me to Mt. Lemmon the day before. Gordon pointed out a Bushtit at one point which didn’t get me too excited since I had seen them and crushed them in Colorado.  Evan chimed in, though, and reminded me that that was a life bird for him! Oops.

Not long after that I spotted a crazy-looking creature barreling down the path toward us.  It turned out to be a single-striped morph of the Hooded Skunk.

Hooded Skunk

I’ve learned that birders, myself included, are an easily distracted lot, especially when it comes to cool animals.  The TROGONS-ONLY! mode was now set-aside for a wild-skunk chase, a venture that could have gone south in so many regards.

Gordon Tommy Evan

Front to Back: Gordon Karre, Evan, Tommy DeBardeleben

Thankfully it didn’t, though, and we were back on the Super Trail hunting for Trogons again.  A little bit later as we were walking along looking at every mid-level perch along the canyon wash for our target, an exotic bird sound boomed and brought us to an abrupt halt.

“That’s it!” Tommy exclaimed.  Tommy thought he heard it further up the wash, but as we all paused to listen, the sound was coming from behind us in an area we had already walked past!  Tommy had been leading our single-file procession up the wash and was actually the furthest from the bird.  Tommy immediately sprung into action and quickly walked by all of us to now take the lead in the opposite direction we had been traveling.  It was an extremely serious and tense moment–we were on the cusp of glory, and we could all taste it. The whole time we were hearing the cool sound of the calling Elegant Trogon and multiple heart beats were collectively being skipped.  In seconds Tommy had pinned the location of the calling Trogon from across the wash.  Then, magic happened– he saw it take flight, in all its splendor, and land on our side of the wash!  This was the moment when Tommy pointed it out to all of us and became a greater hero than Kirby Puckett. We got to see it in the early morning light briefly before it flew into an open area allowing incredible but brief looks.  It was staggering. We were really looking at an Elegant Trogon. I managed to get a couple photos before it flew further up the mountain slope.  Considering the early morning light and the bird’s unwillingness to sit still, I was beyond thrilled to get this shot which is the best souvenir I could hope for from the 2015 AZ trip.

Elegant Trogon

I never could get that classic shot of the bright orange belly and white neck band, though I saw those features whenever the bird would fly.  That forward look was the photo I really wanted, but the more I think about it, the more I like the photo above because it shows off the bird’s emerald sheen on its back as well as its coppery tail.  You don’t see that too often in photos.  And considering some birders dip completely on the Trogon or get crummy views at best, I count myself extremely lucky for the sighting alone.  This photo was the icing on the cake.

That said, I didn’t stop trying for the classic shot.  I never got it, but it’s a right of passage that I should post at least one blurry, bigfoot-esque photo of this massive prize.  At least you can get a sense of the bird’s orange belly.

Elegant Trogon Tommy and Gordon were excited with the find too, namely because they had gotten us this key lifer, but also because it is a fantastic year bird for them.  The only comparison I have is a Great Gray Owl to a Minnesota birder–it’s a bird we can never count on, is elusive and easily missed, and is always a thrill to see.  So as the bird kept calling and moving up the slope, Tommy asked me, “You want to go after it, Josh?”  Um, yeah!

Tommy, Evan, and I started racing up the slope for better looks at this bird.  It continued to call and move often, which Tommy believes is a sign that it was looking for a mate.  Evan was having trouble on the steep incline with his sandals, so he waited on the trail with Gordon while Tommy and I went uphill.  Eventually the bird had gone completely out of sight and earshot, and we gave up and headed back down the hill.  Once Evan and I were in sight of each other again, he called up the mountain with a huge grin on his face, “Hey dad, I just got my Arizona Woodpecker!”

“What?! You beat me to it?!”

This was the smug look that met me at the bottom of the hill.  Do you see the smug all over that face?

Evan

He and Gordon had gone behind my back, literally and figuratively, for this life bird which I was now desperate to see even though I had just come off a literal mountain-high from seeing the coolest bird of my life.  But it didn’t take long for Gordon to find the AZ specialty  for me too.  I got crummy looks, but a lifer is a lifer after all.

Arizona WoodpeckerAfter double-lifering, our party of four continued up the wash in hopes of refinding the Trogon or finding a new one altogether.

Gordon Tommy Evan

L-R: Tommy, Evan, Gordon

Sadly, we never did see or hear the Trogon again even though we walked the wash as far as we could.  The walk back was pleasant with lots of bounce in all our steps as we had secured the main treasure.  As we walked along, I could visibly tell that a weight had been lifted from Tommy’s shoulders.  He was relaxed; he had done his job that he took more seriously than anyone else.  The rest of us were all just on Cloud 9, now enjoying being in bonus-birding mode.  To kick things off, we had another lovely Painted Redstart, and Tommy found Evan his Townsend’s Solitaire lifer.

Townsend's SolitaireFinally the sun crested the mountain peaks, washing the valleys below with beautiful light.  Evan announced he had found a great photo-op of an abiding Mexican Jay while Gordon and Tommy simultaneously found him his Hutton’s Vireo lifer.  I opted for photographing the Jay while Evan got his Vireo.  Great photo-scouting, Evan.

Mexican JayAnd nearing the parking lot, we were also able to get Evan his Bridled Titmouse lifer.  I was finally able to get a photo of them.

Bridled Titmouse

Getting back to the car, we decided to make a stop at the spot in Madera Canyon where Gordon and Tommy crushed Whiskered Screech-Owls the night before.  I got to sleep in a hotel room the previous night instead of a tent. They got WHSOs.  I guess that’s a fair trade, or not. Definitely not. I’d sleep on a rock for those shots: Tommy’s photos and Gordon’s photos. Sadly, our brief owl search turned up nothing, other than a nice photo op of a lone Band-tailed Pigeon that Gordon found.

Band-tailed Pigeon

Evan and I then hung out at the Santa Rita Lodge feeders to get Evan caught up on some lifers while Tommy and Gordon went to work packing up their campsite.  Evan quickly lifered on Broad-billed Hummingbird, Acorn Woodpecker, and Red-naped Sapsucker.

Acorn Woodpecker

Red-naped Sapsucker

Red-naped Sapsucker

We also had an Arizona Woodpecker fly over our heads, and Evan finally got good looks at numerous Lesser Goldfinches.  His lifering on LEGO was the same brief sighting as mine in Colorado.

Lesser Goldfinch

After enjoying these birds for a little while, Evan and I went into the gift shop at Santa Rita Lodge where we were greatly wooed by anything and everything Elegant.  There’s nothing as effective as victory for loosening the purse strings: Trogon hat for me, Trogon pin for Evan, Trogon postcard for Randy back home who’s always dipped on ELTR…  Thankfully, Tommy and Gordon came back before we were completely bedecked in Trogon bling/apparel.

It was a monumental morning that will go down in the Wallestad birding history books as one of the greatest birding adventures of all time. We got the big guy.  All the dreaming and planning culminated in success. Moreover, Evan added nine additional lifers, including the dazzling and much coveted Painted Redstart. A huge thanks goes out to Tommy and Gordon for making it all happen. The only fitting way to end this post is a group photo of the conquerors.  These men will never be the same; they belong to an elite club.  They stand a little taller.  They walk with confidence. These men have seen the Elegant Trogon.

Josh Gordon Tommy Evan

L-R: Yours Truly, Gordon, Evan, Tommy

The 2015 Arizona series has eight chapters: 1) Maricopa Birds, 2) Mt. Lemmon, 3) Florida Canyon, 4) Madera Canyon Part 1, 5) Madera Canyon Part 2, 6) Evan’s Big Discovery, 7) Owling at Coon Bluff on the Salt River, and 8) Evan’s Nemesis.

Arizona 2015: Welcome to Madera Canyon

Santa Rita Lodge Madera Canyon

Madera Canyon. Wow.  What a thrill it was to be on the hallowed birding ground of which I’ve only read about in books and blog posts.  Tommy DeBardeleben and Gordon Karre had brought me here after an already successful morning of 18 life birds accumulated at stops on Mt. Lemmon and at Florida Canyon.  Yet, my number one target was still not in the bag; the Elegant Trogon, or lack thereof, was now a pressing weight on us all.  Despite this, we had about an hour’s worth of time before Tommy and Gordon would bring me to my Green Valley hotel.  That time would be spent picking up miscellaneous lifers so that the next morning would strictly be all about the Trogon.

Again my stomach bug was preventing me from enjoying every second, but I kept dragging myself out of the car and taking pictures of birds, knowing that I’d be able to enjoy it all later.  The first place we stopped were the feeders at Santa Rita Lodge.  The first life bird was a Mexican Jay.

IMG_2772The Broad-billed Hummingbirds were as thick as flies around the feeding station. I am not sorry I am forcing you to look at another Broad-billed shot.  Drink it in.  It will be the last Broad-billed you see on this blog in 2015.

Broad-billed Hummingbird

Acorn Woodpeckers were a little more down to earth at the Santa Rita Lodge.  This guy and a buddy were clowning around, practicing their dismembered wing illusion for all the Santa Rita guests.  Well-fed birds must occupy their surplus of time somehow after all.

Acorn Woodpecker

The second lifer of Madera Canyon was a Red-naped Sapsucker.  I am impressed with this bird’s limited range and rarity, but I have to say our Yellow-bellied Sapsucker variety back home has it beat, mostly because its name has better potential for insulting someone.

Red-naped Sapsucker

The third Madera lifer that Tommy and Gordon found me was a pair of nesting Canyon Wrens hanging out on the Santa Rita Lodge owner’s personal house and fence.  As compensation for free lodging, the Canyon Wrens provide home security.

Canyon Wren

Tommy and Gordon were right–Canyon Wren is the best Wren.

Canyon Wren

Not long after this I was able to lifer on Bridled Titmouse.  It was frustrating that these birds didn’t give better looks because this was a bird I had really wanted to see well.  That brought the lifer total for Madera Canyon up to four, but Tommy and Gordon had gotten over that number since we shattered it at Florida Canyon.

After 20 minutes or so at the Santa Rita Lodge, we ventured further up Madera Canyon to the feeders at Kubo Bed&Breakfast.  There were a few Hummingbirds around.  One stuck out as it dwarfed the rest.  It was my magnificent Magnificent Hummingbird lifer.

Magnificent Hummingbird

By this point my strength and time were completely gone.  My stomach was churning and my head was spinning with a massive 23 life birds accumulated in about 7 hours.  I didn’t even know my number then, though Tommy always knew what my tally was.  Tommy and Gordon delivered me to my hotel at precisely 3:00, so I could join my family for vacation within a vacation in Green Valley.

The Elegant Trogon search would have to begin in earnest the next morning.  I parted company with these two fine birders that afternoon under a certain level of anxiety and indecision.  Their stress of finding the Trogon the next day for me was palpable despite my assurances that I’d already had a fantastic trip,Trogon or not.  They were taking this way more serious than me.  I know the risks in birding.  Dipping is a big part of it, and I was mentally prepared for it (mostly because I know there will be more AZ trips in my future).

Indecision for the next day’s plan of attack was also clouding everything.  Tommy was torn between Patagonia Lake State Park and Madera Canyon.  A very easy Trogon had been seen all winter at Patagonia, but now in late March/early April, that bird would likely move to higher elevations any day.  Madera Canyon, on the other hand, was the proper elevation, but its birds had not been as easy to locate.  Decisions, decisions….  What would we do?  At the moment, I couldn’t focus on the tough calls.  I just wanted to stop being aware of my stomach 100% of the time.  What would happen? How would this all end? Only the next day would hold the answers.

The 2015 Arizona series has eight chapters: 1) Maricopa Birds, 2) Mt. Lemmon, 3) Florida Canyon, 4) Madera Canyon Part 1, 5) Madera Canyon Part 2, 6) Evan’s Big Discovery, 7) Owling at Coon Bluff on the Salt River, and 8) Evan’s Nemesis.

Arizona 2015: The Hunt for Elegant Trogons and Rufous-capped Warblers at Florida Canyon

The post title inspires shivers. For me too, but not for the obvious reasons. Unbeknownst to my birding escorts, Tommy DeBardeleben and Gordon Karre, I had been battling a bad stomach bug for the past 24 hours. One only gets so many chances at SE AZ in life, so I wasn’t going to let a little misery hold me back from birding glory.  Still, at this point in the day, after Mt. Lemmon’s winding roads, never-ending stop-and-go traffic across Tucson, and the sweltering heat, my condition was becoming increasingly distracting. I say this not to win your pity or admiration for gutting it out (thankfully not literally), but to let you know that my enjoyment from Florida Canyon would have to come after-the-fact as in the writing of this post.  So let’s enjoy these great birds together!

Gordon and Tommy were obsessed with the number 4.  They got me four lifers at Cypress and four lifers at Rose Canyon.  Anything less at Florida Canyon would have greatly disappointed them.  They needn’t worry because the lifering was fast and furious in the parking area.  The birds were generally uncooperative for photos, but in minutes I had Broad-billed Hummingbird, Ladder-backed Woodpecker, and Hooded Oriole.  Also, to my delight was a bird I’ve been on good terms with–the Rufous Hummingbird.  This was now my 4th RUHU sighting from three different states in a one-year period. Here’s a shot of the Rufous and my lifer Broad-billed.

Rufous Hummingbird Broad-billed HummingbirdThere was too much going on–internally and externally–to worry about good photos, and we had to keep the main objective in front of us–finding an Elegant Trogon that had been reported in recent days in the shady, lower regions of Florida Canyon.  Things eventually slowed down as we scanned carefully for the Trogon.  The secondary lifering now came at a nice, steady pace.  Lucy’s Warbler clinched the coveted #4 spot for this third stop of the day.

Lucy's Warbler

No longer a lifer, this male Broad-billed Hummer was still stop-and-look worthy as it offered up some better photo-ops.

Broad-billed Hummingbird

Here you can see why it is so named.

Broad-billed Hummingbird

A bland lifer that popped up next was the Dusky Flycatcher.  For this ID, I am totally relying on my birding companions. I have no pride when it comes to empid identification of either the eastern or western variety.

Dusky Flycatcher

As we ventured further up the canyon, the shady trees and our Trogon hopes were disappearing.  The only reason to push on through this now shrubby and hot valley was to look for the brush-loving, prized birds that have made Florida Canyon famous–the Rufous-capped Warblers.  Alas, it was not meant to be on this trip.  Tommy and Gordon shared how it often takes birders several attempts to get this prize.  I wasn’t disappointed; it’d already been a fantastic morning at Mt. Lemmon and now Florida Canyon.  Plus there were some more lifers and photo-ops to be had as we pursued the Warblers. The perky Ash-throated Flycatcher was surprisingly fun for being a bland-colored bird.

Ash-throated Flycatcher

The Canyon Towhee, on the other hand, was a bit haggard and answered the door in his 5 O’Clock shadow, tank-top, and boxing shorts.  At least it showed itself.  Thanks for nothing, Bell’s Vireos.

Canyon Towhee

IMG_2723

A much more accommodating Hooded Oriole posed for some photos.

Hooded Oriole

Hooded Oriole

Eventually we turned around and began hiking back down Florida Canyon, a quicker leg of the trip since the birds were now old-hat.  Except for Broad-billed Hummingbirds.  They demand your attention and look different at every turn.

Broad-billed Hummingbird

Around this time I spotted a small, gray bird in a shrub.  Tommy quickly got on it right away and excitedly announced it was a bird whose name-length belies its size– the Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet. The Tyrannulet turned out to be two such birds and both gave fantastic views.  Tommy and Gordon were beside themselves with glee.  Though it’s small, though it’s gray, this bird is not often seen.  Their reaction made me appreciate this lifer and these views even more.  It was a neat, little bird for sure.

Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet

Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet

Venturing back through the taller trees we were now in Trogon-mode again.  Alas, it was not meant to be, but Gordon and Tommy found me another big target of mine for the trip, the Black-throated Gray Warbler!  In true warbler fashion, it did not offer up great views.  This was my only look and photo of this bird.

Black-throated Gray Warbler

I would have liked to try harder for a better look, but we had to keep our priorities straight.  Trogon-less at Florida, we had to make it over to Madera Canyon for another try.  I shall return for you Mr. Black-throated Gray!

Despite our to desire get back onto nausea-inducing roads and into more Trogon habitat, there was time for me to finally get a decent look at a Lesser Goldfinch, a bird I had seen briefly in Colorado last summer. Anyone who doesn’t enjoy LEGOs, whether that be the brick, waffle, or the bird, is crazy.  Greater Goldfinch sounds like a more appropriate name.

Lesser Goldfinch

As we were pulling out from Florida Canyon, Tommy heard another lifer out the car window–the Rufous-crowned Sparrow.  It wasn’t the red-headed bird we came for, but I’ll take it!

Rufous-crowned Sparrowwwww

Rufous-crowned Sparrow

We blew Tommy and Gordon’s hopes of four lifers out of the water as we left Florida Canyon with 10 new birds: Ladder-backed Woodpecker, Broad-billed Hummingbird, Hooded Oriole, Lucy’s Warbler, Dusky Flycatcher, Ash-throated Flycatcher, Canyon Towhee, Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet, Black-throated Gray Warbler, and Rufous-crowned Sparrow.  That brought the morning’s tally to 18 life birds.  Now it was on to Madera Canyon for an hour of birding before I would be joining my family at Green Valley.  And that wee little hour was enough for its own blog post–that’s how good Madera Canyon is.

The 2015 Arizona series has eight chapters: 1) Maricopa Birds, 2) Mt. Lemmon, 3) Florida Canyon, 4) Madera Canyon Part 1, 5) Madera Canyon Part 2, 6) Evan’s Big Discovery, 7) Owling at Coon Bluff on the Salt River, and 8) Evan’s Nemesis.

Arizona 2015: The Quest for High-Elevation Warblers on Mt. Lemmon

SE AZ — Truly, no other group of four letters can elicit as much excitement from a birder. On March 31st, I had made arrangements to head that direction with Tommy DeBardeleben, a.k.a. eBird King of Maricopa County (greater Phoenix area), and Gordon Karre in search of my two main Arizona targets this year, the Painted Redstart and Elegant Trogon.  The plan was to spend two half-days hitting up Mt. Lemmon, Florida Canyon, and Madera Canyon with an overnight stay in the Green Valley area.   The next day would provide extra time for searching for these targets if needed. Tommy and Gordon would camp out at Madera Canyon while my family would venture south to join me at a hotel in Green Valley.

Originally Evan was going to go with me on part one of this two-day adventure, but at the last minute he bailed on me.  I think he realized it would be a long day and that Grandma and Grandpa’s house is more fun.  Fair enough.  Meanwhile I hopped into a car with Gordon and Tommy at 4:30 AM sharp.  Melissa couldn’t believe I was going off with complete strangers; apparently she doesn’t fully understand the eccentric, but super-friendly and non-axe-murdering birding community.

Outside, the drive down to Tucson was dark, but inside it was enlightening as I got to know these two birders a little better and chat about all things bird-related. Eventually daylight began to break as we hit Tucson and began the ascent up Mt. Lemmon just northeast of town.  We would be going after the high-elevation warblers, namely the Painted Redstart, before heading further southeast to begin the Trogon hunt. The scenery was amazing as we wound our way up the mountain where Saguaro-studded southerly slopes gave way to Ponderosa Pine Forests on the northerly slopes.

Looking SW from Mt. Lemmon; Tucson is the flat area below.

Looking SW from Mt. Lemmon; Tucson is the flat area below.

As evidence of how beautiful this area is, even these Arizonans expressed their enthusiasm for the scenery they’ve seen many times before.  A collective sigh was expressed, though, when we passed the location of an ABA Code-4 Slate-throated Redstart that was seen just a week earlier but not by this car’s occupants.

Our first stop was a picnic wayside rest at Cypress.  Stepping out into the chilly air was a refreshing change from the 90s we’d experienced the day before in Maricopa. The habitat shift from desert to pine forests was also a welcome change.  The lifering started as soon as I could get my sweatshirt on. The first was a Yellow-eyed Junco.   It’s so cool how a change in iris color can make a Junco not so junky, but actually quite an attractive bird.

Yellow-eyed Junco

Then Tommy announced what I’d been dreaming of for months: “Hey, Josh, I hear your Redstart.”  Gordon and Tommy knew the Painted Redstart would be easy, but I never expected it to be this easy.  In a short time I got my life look in the early morning light at the most striking warbler there is. It did not fail to wow me.Painted RedstartIn my naivete’ I thought this was one my chance at a Painted Redstart and therefore wanted to stay on it until I could get satisfactory photos.  But Tommy and Gordon had my best birding interests at heart along with the knowledge that this would not be the last Painted Redstart of the day, so they said it was time to move on to higher ground.  Before we could make it back to the car, we had two more lifers–uncooperative, tree-top dwelling Pygmy Nuthatches and an equally stubborn Acorn Woodpecker.

Pygmy Nuthatch

Acorn WoodpeckerWe got to enjoy the sights and sounds of a Spotted Towhee who was calling voraciously at Cypress before we went further up the mountain to Rose Canyon.  The lifering again started immediately at Rose Canyon as a calling Hutton’s Vireo was announcing his presence.

Hutton's Vireo

Tommy was real quiet now, taking in all the sounds.  He only shared a tiny fraction of what he was hearing, but the ones he did announce were exciting–Stellar’s Jay, Greater Pewee, and the one that really got me revved up–Olive Warbler! Ever since I saw this bird on Laurence Butler’s blog last year at this time, I have dreamed of seeing this bird too.  This was really target #3 for the trip.  Pretty soon we tracked down this Warbler that is technically not even a warbler as it’s in its own bird family.  That doesn’t matter to me.  It’s a pretty sweet bird and not so common either. We found a group of three with a nice, bright male.

Olive Warbler

Olive WarblerOne bird that really fired up Tommy and Gordon was a calling Buff-breasted Flycatcher.  I honestly hadn’t read up on the bird, but these guys were telling me what a good find this was especially this far north.  I certainly understand how rarity can enhance a bird’s desirability, so I was pleased to tally this bird for which Kaufman gives no range map in his field guide.

Buff-breasted Flycatcher

After some searching for a Greater Pewee, we ended up hiking the road down toward the lake.  The towering pines everywhere were awesome.

Rose Canyon

They were awesome because they harbored more Painted Redstarts.

Painted Redstart

You will now see an exorbitant amount of Painted Redstart photos.  I will not apologize. You should not complain.

Painted Redstart

Tommy and Gordon don’t just find you Painted Redstarts.  No, they go the extra mile and get you multiple dancing birds literally at your feet.

Painted Redstart

Painted Redstart

Painted Redstart

Honestly, my trip was made after this experience.  It had been a powerful couple of hours.  With Painted Redstarts adequately crushed, we could now focus on the Trogon search deeper into SE AZ.  As we hiked the hill back to the car, the guys pointed out a Hairy Woodpecker.  Normally a Hairy Woodpecker wouldn’t get the time of day on this blog, but I had to take a photo of this western variation to show my friends and readers back home.  All of our Hairy Woodpeckers have white spots on the wings and back.  Like so many other birds and color morphs, the western US always gets the good ones.

Hairy Woodpecker

Once we got to the area where we had the Olive Warblers, we could hear the distinctive “Jose’ Maria” song of the Greater Pewee.  It is such a cool sound as Tommy has often described on his blog.  After a little searching, Tommy spotted it way up high at the top of a pine.

IMG_2693

Mt. Lemmon was a tidy-little stop giving me two birds I’d dreamed about, Painted Redstart and Olive Warbler, along with six other life birds: Greater Pewee, Buff-breasted Flycatcher, Acorn Woodpecker, Hutton’s Vireo, Pygmy Nuthatch, and Yellow-eyed Junco.  Tommy and Gordon outdid themselves on this outing. Thanks Tommy and Gordon for all the great birds!

The next stop would be Florida Canyon where the search for Rufous-capped Warblers and Elegant Trogons would begin.

The 2015 Arizona series has eight chapters: 1) Maricopa Birds, 2) Mt. Lemmon, 3) Florida Canyon, 4) Madera Canyon Part 1, 5) Madera Canyon Part 2, 6) Evan’s Big Discovery, 7) Owling at Coon Bluff on the Salt River, and 8) Evan’s Nemesis.

Arizona 2015: Connecting with Old Maricopa Friends and Making New

Coming home from vacation is always a mixed-bag.  There is the unbeatable comforts of sleeping in one’s own bed and seeing the family dog again, which is only off-set by the reality of reality–unpacked bags, piles of mail, and employment.  But, it’s still the weekend and the mail and bags can wait; it’s time to unpack the bird photos and stories from a very birdy spring-break trip to visit my snowbird parents in Arizona.

Unlike last year, I woke up that first morning in Arizona this year with zero birding anxiety.  Partly this was due to the fact that last year we had pretty much conquered all the birds that could be had in the suburbia environment of Maricopa.  It was also due to the knowledge that the next two days in SE AZ would provide plenty of birding excitement. So in this calm before the storm, there was nothing to do but relax, hang out, and do some casual birdwatching. There were also lizards.

lizard

As fun as lizard-wrangling can be, one must never pass up an opportunity to visit Burrowing Owls especially when they are less than a mile from the house.  It was great to see the same pair in the same burrow as last year.

Burrowing OwlThe reunion tour continued at a municipal park where I discovered a pair of Vermilion Flycatchers last year.  Evan and I were pleasantly surprised to find not just one pair there this year, but two. Seeing the males do their pot-bellied flight displays is a real treat.

Vermilion FlycatcherGood birds can be had in my parents’ yard and just beyond.  My dad had been seeing a Greater Roadrunner around the house recently.  Evan and I were going to set out to see if we could find it.  As I was literally walking out to get Evan in the back yard, I caught a fast glimpse of the Roadrunner himself on the fence! While I was able to finally put this lifer to rest, Evan still didn’t see it–something that would become a common theme for the trip…

The search for the Roadrunner provided many opportunities to enjoy birds we don’t normally get to see.  Western Kingbirds–anywhere–never get old.  We had several this year.  How did we miss them last year?!

Western Kingbird

The Maricopa WEKIs are quite cooperative and unashamed, allowing a couple out-of-towners to do intimate checks for the similar-looking Cassin’s Kingbirds.

Western Kingbird

Say’s Phoebe is a bird I have not yet added to my Minnesota list.  For now, these Maricopa birds will have to fill the Say’s Phoebe void.

Say's Phoebe

The same can be said of Northern Mockingbirds.  The name of this species ironically mocks us northern birders since it is a much easier bird down south.

Northern Mockingbird

Continuing in this vein of ironic names is that while the Common Grackle is not so common in Arizona, the Great-tailed Grackle is common but not so great to Arizona birders.  Needless to say, this is a fun bird for us vagrant birders both in the visual and audio sense.

Great-tailed Grackle No trip to Arizona is complete without seeing the bodacious and skittish Gambel’s Quail.

Gambel's Quail

Gambel's Quail

Not only was it fun to visit all these old friends again, but Evan also got to add a big lifer within Maricopa’s city limits.  It was definitely a surprise to bump into a Western Grebe in one of the scuzzy man-made ponds of reclaimed water.  Though I was hoping it was a Clark’s, it was nice that Evan could finally tally this bird, one that he has had lingering soreness over me seeing and not him.

Western Grebe

These nasty ponds have given us some good birds the past couple years, but it’s important to remember that no matter how hot it gets in AZ and how thirsty one gets…no beber.

no beber

Consider this post an appetizer of great things to come from our Arizona trip.  The main course(s), the filet mignon of birds, is yet to come.  There will be a whole new cast of characters, birds and otherwise, for your viewing and reading pleasure.

The 2015 Arizona series has eight chapters: 1) Maricopa Birds, 2) Mt. Lemmon, 3) Florida Canyon, 4) Madera Canyon Part 1, 5) Madera Canyon Part 2, 6) Evan’s Big Discovery, 7) Owling at Coon Bluff on the Salt River, and 8) Evan’s Nemesis.

Sugar and Spice and a Whole Lot of Nice

IMG_2423What are a couple of birders to do when they are kicked out of the house for a bonafide girls-only, princess birthday tea-party?  Hmmmm…

Even if we could stomach the inordinate amounts of pink, lace, and so forth, Marin was adamant that her brother and I NOT be anywhere in sight.  All day long she wanted us to go birding and kept asking when we’d be leaving.  We didn’t have a license to go birding–we were given orders.

I had decided on traveling about an hour south to look for Long-eared Owls near Morton.  Just as we were about to be exiled from the princess fairy-world, a fantastic bird sighting by Bill Marengo came in on the listserv, a Cinnamon Teal in New Germany, a town an hour away to the southeast.  This is a bird I needed for my state list, and after lingering regrets of not chasing the one last year in Stewart a MILE from my AUNT AND UNCLE’s HOUSE, it was an easy decision to switch from owl mode to cool, western duck mode.  Also, Minnesota only gets maybe one or two Cinnamon Teal a year, so another chance this close to home was not one to pass up!

Halfway to New Germany a devastating report came in that the Cinnamon Teal had flown off and wasn’t relocated.  However, we had nothing better to do and were halfway to the site already–we might as well look around in the area.  After all, treasure hunting is always more fun when you know you there’s actually treasure in the area.

We started with ground zero at the large wetland southwest of New Germany and were pleasantly surprised to see a couple of cars lined up by the original location.  Scopes were out.  Things were looking good. Hopping out and visiting with the other birders quickly revealed that the duck was back!

Birders are so great at these random, road-side, birding flash-mobs that bewilder the rural passers-by; we were instantly invited to view the Cinnamon through scopes trained on it.  Renowned county-lister, Denny Martin, quickly set up his apparatus to accommodate the much shorter Evan.

Denny Martin Evan

L-R: Bill Marengo (Discover of the Cinnamon Teal), Barb Martin, Denny Martin, Evan

Such a good bird the Cinnamon Teal is and so great it was to see one again.  This duck was one of the very first life birds we nabbed within an hour of deboarding a plane in Arizona last year.

Cinnamon Teal

I couldn’t do much about the distance or light in this situation, but beggars can’t be choosers.  At least you can see what all the hype was about.

Cinnamon Teal

As we watched and chatted with the Martins (the people not the birds), some Eagles (the birds not the people) flew over.  I normally don’t even look- the height of the birds combined with my lack of long-range optics and poor ID skills means I am highly unlikely to ever pick out a Golden Eagle.  Denny Martin quickly trained his scope-still set at Evan’s level-on one bird.  With the tenacity of a county-lister and lots of years of experience, he stayed on that Eagle for a long time until he got the clincher field marks he was looking for – a small head and golden nape as it turned into the sun.  Golden Eagle! It was a county bird for the Martins, a second state bird in as many minutes for me, and a life bird for Evan.

After the Golden Eagle we all went back to visiting and enjoying the Cinnamon Teal as more birders kept responding to the call.  Cars kept stacking up behind us the longer we stayed.  They’d get their tick and leave.  New cars would replace them.  Really new cars. Really awesome cars. Really puts my mini-van-to-shame cars.

PorscheThis sighting at a birding-rave may be the rarest thing I’ve seen yet.  Just how special is a Cinnamon Teal in Minnesota?  It’s drive-your-Porsche-on-gravel special.

Yard Bird #74 – Far, Far From a Cardinal in the Snow

The birds are conspiring against me.  After the trip Up North, I was all set to be a responsible, non-birding adult who takes care of all those non-birding chores, duties, etc, and who generally uses his time wisely before jet-setting for Arizona in a couple weeks for…more bird gluttony.  The birds have had other plans–they’ve been in my face.

For starters, FOYs are increasing exponentially.  My year list doubled in the last couple weeks.

Some we are catching on arrival.

Cackling Goose

Cackling Goose is a solid FOY, not to be taken-for-granted.

Some we are catching on departure.

Lapland Longspur

2015 was dangerously close to being Lapland Longspurless. Tragedy averted.

Then there is the time-consuming documentation of good birds, FOY or otherwise, that comes along with responsible birding.

Northern Shrike

March 16th! The time is approaching when a MN Shrike cannot be safely identified by the calendar alone. Despite his proclivities for our recent warmer temps, this guy’s barred breast gave him away as a Northern.

Of course, when an MOU-official county first-record shows up in the home county, you simply must go after it.

Mute Swan

The race to see a rare bird is all the more urgent when an invasive, destructive species like the Mute Swan will be shot on sight by the DNR or USFWS.

Even if it chooses an uninspiring place to land.

Big Kandiyohi Lake

Big Kandiyohi Lake from County Park #2

Even if it is an unambitious slug that hangs out ALL day in one spot and might be a sick bird.

Mute Swan

An escapee? Doubtful-no leg bands seen when standing or clipped wings seen when flapping.

Then there are birds you simply have to take time to look at, unless of course, no one read you E.B. White’s classic, The Trumpet of the Swan, when you were a kid.

Trumpeter Swan

This Trumpeter Swan descendant of Louis is purported to play the trumpet line in the opening credits of Homeland.

Finally, there are birds that you cannot ignore even if you never venture out–yard birds.  Last week I stayed home one day to take care of a sick Evan. Upon pulling in the driveway after going out to pick up soda crackers, 7-Up, and so on, Evan told me he thought he saw a Bald Eagle overhead.  Not a rare sighting at our house, as it happens 2-3 times annually, but it was definitely a noteworthy sighting that caused me to get out of the car and look up. It was no hum-drum Eagle.  I nearly felt the breath knocked out of me when I saw it cruise directly over the house under 100 feet up–a new yard bird and rare one at that, a dark morph Rough-legged Hawk! Normally I always have the camera with me in the vehicle.  Instead, I raced into the house and got back in time for one shot to document this color-morph of an uncommon bird that is exciting anywhere, but all the more exciting because it graced our yard with its shadow.

Rough-legged Hawk

This was only my fourth county RLHA and my second-ever dark morph.

Evan and I chased after this bird for better photos, but it just kept slipping away as it glided on the wind.  I kept raving about what a cool find it was for our yard to which Evan replied, “You’re welcome, Dad.”