Arizona 2016: THE Trip Bird–#16 Becomes #1

Since my parents have become AZ snowbirds, our family has now made four trips to Arizona.  Each trip has had its own life bird goals or priorities.  Each time the target bird(s) have been realized along with a generous complement of bonus lifers.  Here’s a quick recap of those priority birds:

2014: Burrowing Owl, Vermilion Flycatcher, Cinnamon Teal

2015 (spring): Elegant Trogon and Painted Redstart

2015 (fall): Rufous-capped Warbler

So then what was the trip bird for this most recent Arizona adventure? It was an Owl, but before I tell you which one, it is worth noting that each Arizona trip has already produced multiple Owl lifers:

2014: Burrowing Owl, Long-eared Owl

2015 (spring): Elf Owl, Western Screech-Owl

2015 (fall): Northern Pygmy-Owl, Barn Owl, Spotted Owl

So what’s left in the Owl department? A few actually, but the only one I was after on this latest trip was the Whiskered Screech-Owl. It would be this trip’s most-wanted bird.

It is no coincidence that my Owl collecting started accelerating after I first met and birded with Tommy DeBardeleben in 2015.  Tommy of Tommy’s Owl Big Year (TOBY) fame is the reason why I have a pretty sweet collection of Owls.  Just like how you can never leave Grandma’s house hungry, Tommy has made sure I’ve never left Arizona feeling an Owl void.  No, he has made sure I have always gotten a good helping of a fresh Owl or two or three.  This past year our roles were reversed as I got to help Tommy find some Owls in Minnesota for TOBY, but now it was back to Tommy taking the lead once again in the storied Madera Canyon as we pursued my 16th Owl lifer.

img_0797

On the evening of October 19th, Dad and I drove out from our hotel in Green Valley to Madera Canyon to meet Tommy who was accompanied by another good birding friend, Gordon Karre.  Gordon, Tommy, and I have owled together many times all the way from the Canadian border down to the Mexican border. We’ve driven hundreds of miles together (3.6 of those were even in reverse!). We have logged an extraordinary number of Owls together from well over a dozen different species.  And here we were doing it once again.

As we waited for darkness to settle over Madera, we hung out for a bit at the feeders at Santa Rita Lodge, watching some Magnificent Hummingbirds and chatting with a birding couple from Tennessee.  With plenty of time to kill, we also successfully pursued a Rufous-winged Sparrow lifer.  Finally, though, complete darkness had fallen and it was time to go to work.  Tommy had assured me that Whiskered Screech-Owls are easy in Madera, but there was one catch: Tommy had only ever tried for them in the spring when Owls are more vocal.  Going after these birds in October was uncharted territory for Tommy. Yet, he was confident that even if the Owls were silent, we might be able to rouse them with some playback.

It turns out that the Owls were still fairly vocal.  Almost immediately when it turned dark, we started hearing some in the distance. But as we would pursue them, they would clam up.  Then the silence would hang on, which initiated the doubt-worry cycle about whether the night would be a success.  Tommy was unfazed, though, and has a lot of experience to draw from.  He owled on and kept the flashlight moving even when it seemed bleak.  Turns out the worry in my head was for nothing because shortly after we walked in the direction of a vocalizing Whiskered Screech-Owl, one landed in a tree right near us! But it must have been hunting and wouldn’t look at us…

img_0369As we crept along the canyon hillside to get in a better position to see the Owl’s face, it suddenly flew off! We could not find it again.  The satisfaction of getting the lifer was muted by the Owl showing us his bad side and only briefly at that. Would this be my lifer sighting–the side view of a bird?  The discouragement was returning the longer we weren’t finding it.  Again, Tommy never panicked or wavered; he just kept that flashlight moving. And then I heard him say those awesome words that I have heard him say so many times before, “Hey, Josh!”

Whiskered Screech-OwlThis, this is what I had been waiting/hoping for.  Tommy did it.

Whiskered Screech-OwlThis Owl was very cooperative (finally) and just let us enjoy the show.Whiskered Screech-OwlWhiskered Screech-OwlMaybe I had it backwards. Maybe it was the Owl who was enjoying the show of four happy birders who had just succeeded on their mission.

Eventually the Owl started to tire of us, perhaps even getting downright annoyed/angry with us.

Whiskered Screech-OwlWhiskered Screech-Owl

It was time to leave this Owl alone. We had gotten our fill.  So with one last look, we were on our way.

Whiskered Screech-OwlAt this point Dad went back to the car on account of a knee that was giving him fits. Gordon, Tommy, and I decided we would try for more Whiskered Screeches.  Why not?

As the three of us walked along, we heard a strange vocalization that Tommy couldn’t identify.  Earlier my dad had heard the same thing and thought it was a Whiskered Screech, but Tommy had said he hadn’t heard them make a sound like that. Eventually Tommy tracked down the source of the sound–a young Whiskered Screech high above us!

Whiskered Screech-OwlHearing this vocalization was an exciting learning experience for Tommy.  It wasn’t as cool as the Morse-code calling we heard the adult make earlier, but it was still pretty neat regardless. Have a listen for yourself:

Finally it was time to call it a night and call it a trip (birdwise, that is). Once again, the Arizona birding was a huge success with Owl lifer #16 officially on the books all thanks to this guy.

Tommy Dad GordonTwo Owl lifers remain for me in Arizona. The question is not whether Tommy can help find them, but rather, will it happen in 2017? Time will tell.

Arizona 2016: Lifers Minus 1

The reaction in our household to the snowpocalypse heading our way tonight is mixed. The kids and non-shoveling adults are excited.  I am in denial and thinking back on warm, sunny days in Arizona to cope.  Just like the warm, snow-less fall was fun while it lasted, so too were the AZ trips of two dozen+ lifers.  In both accounts, those days are long gone. While the state still holds a hefty amount of lifering potential for me, the hunt for new birds in the state is becoming more challenging.  I had modestly hoped for about a dozen new birds on this trip but fell far short of that: 7. This post will highlight 6 of those lifers. The 7th was the main target bird of the trip and will get its own post.

The very first morning after we arrived in AZ, my dad and I drove up to Gilbert in the predawn to join forces with Tommy DeBardeleben and Gordon Karre to look for a couple lifers.  One of the oddest targets I’ve had in Arizona was an out-of-place Tricolored Heron that had become a regular at the Gilbert Water Ranch.  The other target bird for the morning was a Black Vulture.  We met Tommy and Gordon at the Gilbert Water Ranch where Tommy devised a plan in which he would scour the 7 ponds at GWR for the slippery Heron while Gordon would take us over to Mesa where the Black Vultures roost.  The Vultures roost on power poles along a street bordering Leisure World, a gated retirement community where only people over the age of 55 can enter.  Oddly, or not so oddly, this is really the only reliable place in the Phoenix area to get this Vulture. Whether it’s the beckoning sun or the knowledge that Leisure World didn’t produce the previous night, the Vultures take flight not long after sunrise.  Gordon had been scouting for us and knew we had to be there on time in order to see them.  It pays to have a good guide because he was absolutely right.

Black Vulture

We spent quite a bit of time watching several of these birds and their Turkey counterparts, hoping for more sunlight and a chance to see their distinct underwing pattern in flight.  But they just sat and sat…

Black VultureEventually they did lift off allowing us to see the white “hands” of the underwing, but I wasn’t able to capture a photo of it.  Later in the trip, though, I spied a small kettle of this new-to-me Vulture and was able to photograph them in flight.

Black VultureWhile I was Vulture-hunting with Dad and Gordon, Tommy called saying he had located the Tricolored Heron.  So we headed over.  Unfortunately it was distant and horribly back-lit and not providing the shocking, up-close looks a lot of birders have gotten of it recently.  Tommy and I spent a lot of time trying to find a way to get closer to the bird but we were striking out.  On our way out of GWR, we spotted it flying to a better location and I was able to get some photos.

Tricolored HeronAfter this brief morning outing with the main objective birds secured, we parted company with Tommy and Gordon–we would all later be meeting up that evening in Madera Canyon in southern Arizona to go after the #1 bird of the trip.  Once the family was all settled in our Green Valley hotel, Dad and I headed out once again to meet Tommy and Gordon at the Santa Rita Lodge.  After watching a couple Magnificent Hummingbirds on the feeders, we decided to use the last half hour of daylight to try for one more lifer, a Rufous-winged Sparrow.  Tommy knew just where to go, and he did not disappoint.

Rufous-winged Sparrow

The next lifer of the trip took place on that dark night in Madera. More on that later, but the next morning we were on the hunt for lifers again, taking the De Anza Trail near Tubac.  As was mentioned in the last post, several good non-lifers were had.  The lifering was a bit slower than expected, but we eeked out a couple. First one was the Pyrrhuloxia.  Now for my Minnesota friends who may not have a clue how to say that bird’s name, it is pronounced, “Purr-lux-ia”.  Even though I was hoping to see a male, it was still rewarding to at least see a female of the species.

PyrrhuloxiaThe only other lifer on this walk was a Gray Flycatcher that Tommy detected.  I continue to be amazed by how much I find myself liking Empids.

Gray FlycatcherFinally, the last lifer is one I picked up in the desert scrub around the hotel.  Lifering around the parking lot while waiting for the family has become sort of a tradition now.  While last year I picked up Rock Wren and Cassin’s Kingbird lifers at the hotel, this year I found a cheerful little flock of Brewer’s Sparrows.

Brewer's SparrowI’m saving the best for last and putting it in a post all on its own.  Nightbirding usually means one thing: Owls.  Coming up is a multimedia post of our successful night. Stay tuned!

Arizona 2016: An Oasis of Non-Lifers and Fan Favorites

After the week we’ve all had, there are few safe harbors of respite remaining on the internet. Social media is a minefield; regular media of any flavor is only trusted by half the people. It’s a dark world, so let’s make it a little brighter with some pics of some rad birds from this year’s Arizona expedition. You know who doesn’t give a *#&% about elections? Burrowing Owls.  Let’s be more like them.

Burrowing OwlBurrowing OwlThere is a pair of Burrowing Owls within a mile of my parents’ place that I usually visit, but this year I didn’t find them as easily in the past.  I did eventually see one which brought me relief; I hadn’t seen them the first few times I checked this year.  Normally they are always out. To get my Burrower fix this year, I had to find some brand new ones which is always fun.  This pair was found on school property in Maricopa.  How cool would it be to have Burrowing Owls at your school?

Burrowing OwlAnother new Burrowing Owl I found this trip was only 100 yards from my parents’ backyard fence–I was pretty pumped to find this one.

Burrowing OwlBurrowing Owls aren’t the only birds I enjoy re-seeing on our annual AZ trip. Vermilion Flycatcher is another.  Every year I’m finding more and more around my parents’ neighborhood. Fun fact: Vermilion Flycatchers look just as amazing after November 8th as they did before.

Vermilion FlycatcherVermilion FlycatcherI did get to do some birding beyond my parents’ neighborhood and city.  I had the pleasure of once again meeting up with good friends, Tommy DeBardeleben and Gordon Karre for some intense birding outings in southeastern AZ.  We’ll save the really juicy lifer stuff for the next two posts, but there was plenty of non-lifer goodness as well, like a Green-tailed Towhee seen along the De Anza Trail near Tubac.  Previously I had only seen an extremely back-lit one in Colorado.

Green-tailed TowheeIn many ways, this was a photo redemption trip of many birds. This Lazuli Bunting was another nice find on the De Anza Trail.  The only other sighting I had was a fleeting glimpse at a lifer in MN.  Here I got to see the front AND back of this looker.

Lazuli BuntingLazuli BuntingBlack Phoebe is another of which I only had marginal photos before this trip.

Black PhoebeAnd Greater Roadrunners…we got skunked on this bird our very first AZ trip.  This bird below might have even let me pet it.  It actually walked toward me when I was only 10 feet away.

Greater RoadrunnerNow this next bird is one that I have better photos of, but c’mon, it’s a Black-throated Sparrow and needs to be included in this post regardless.

Black-throated SparrowAnd finally, the best photo redemption of all was of the only Owl Iifer I had never photographed.  Last year we saw a Barn Owl, but it flushed from its roost before I could get a photo.  It was a major letdown that I wanted to fix on this trip.  This time I was able to get a few shots before it flushed.

Barn OwlThen Tommy and I found it after it flushed and got some more shots of this cool bird.

Barn OwlNext post will be all lifers.  With three more posts (two AZ), there is much to look forward to!

The Great Arizona Encore: The Final Lifer Dance–Tempe Two-Step Style

This has been, by far, the most dragged-out birding series.  My apologies.  It’s time to finally put this AZ trip in the bag so we can talk about a couple recent MN adventures.  So here goes…

Since this was now my third trip to AZ as a birder and it being October, there really wasn’t a lot of new stuff left for me in central AZ.  Despite the odds, I managed to make a short list of potential lifers for the Phoenix area, Brown Pelican and Rosy-faced Lovebird.  Not only were they lifers, but they would be easy lifers.  I even crafted a tidy little plan where I would swoop them up in record time on the way from the airport to my parents’ house in Maricopa.  Getting a lifer on the board right away is like scoring the first run/goal/etc in a game–momentum is everything.  Well, as any experienced birder can tell you, there’s no such thing as a gimme, especially if an airline interferes with your game plan.

The flight was supposed to arrive around 12:30 PM.  Due to mechanical problems, our flight was delayed FIVE HOURS so they could fly an empty plane up from PHX to pick up us mopey, crabby passengers.  I did the math over and over in my head, somehow hoping against the odds that we would beat the setting sun to salvage at least the Brown Pelican at Tempe Town Lake.  A faster than expected flight offered a glimmer of hope–the sun was still above the horizon when we touched down.  Despite that, everything seemed to move in slow motion, except the sun.  We tried, though, and met up with Gordon Karre at Tempe Town Lake in the twilight.  No Pelican silhouette. Nothing. Just pain.

As you know, we went on and had great success with other AZ birds, but these two species gnawed at me because they were supposed to be easy.  So on our last day of vacation, the fam and I took a quick trip to Tempe to right a wrong. The first stop was Kiwanis Park for the Rosy-faced Lovebird.  The Lovebird is native to Africa and was/is a pet bird in the U.S.  Starting in the 1980s, people started noticing feral flocks of released birds in the Phoenix area.  Now 25 years later, they are thriving with a population of 5,000+ and are an ABA countable bird.  To help us–finally–count this bird, Gordon met up with us once again.  He got us on the birds right away.  Not only did he find us the typical specimen like the one on the left, but he also managed to find us this cool, rare blue-morph on the right.

Rosy-faced LovebirdThe Lovebirds have adapted well to the oases of the water-filled landscaping in the greater Phoenix area.  They especially like palms which have proven useful for nesting.Rosy-faced LovebirdThese birds are truly cute.  Melissa agrees.

Melissa palm tree

Rosy-faced LovebirdRosy-faced LovebirdHere’s an important public service announcement for those of you not acquainted with the Lovebird. It is safe to say that despite this being an “easy” bird, I don’t think I would have found them without Gordon’s help.  Here’s why: my sense of this bird’s scale was way off.  Since all you ever see on blogs are impressive close-ups of this crushable bird, I was looking for something that I thought was Pigeon-sized.  I guess I was wrong. Rosy-faced LovebirdRosy-faced LovebirdIt’s hard to stop taking pictures of such a cute bird, but that’s mostly because Kiwanis didn’t offer up much more than Neotropic Cormorants and Pigeons.  A pair of Gilded Flickers at our feet was a nice bonus.

Gilded FlickerWith the Lovebird lifer out of the way, we made the short trek up to Tempe Town Lake. The Brown Pelican was a bird I’d like to think I could have found on my own.  Gordon wasn’t taking any chances.  He led the way and spotted it out in marsh section of Tempe Town Lake.

Brown Pelican

Dad Mom Evan

It’s pretty cool, I think, to have nabbed this lifer in the middle of a land-locked state.  Even though this is a bird more befitting of a coastal state, a pair of them had been seen on the lake for several weeks. A much more common bird for central AZ, but still a year bird for me was the Snowy Egret.

Snowy Egret

Once everyone got good looks at the Pelican, Gordon and I headed across the McClintock Bridge to see what we could see on the big water of Tempe Town Lake.  Almost immediately we spotted Brown Pelican #2 gliding in from the west.

Brown PelicanBrown PelicanFinally the Pelican/Lovebird anxiety was no more.  After saying our goodbyes to Gordon, we had much of the day to do whatever, like check out the impressive collections of potted cacti and caged Macaws at Leaf&Feather in Maricopa.  I had no idea so many species of Macaws existed.  Might have to put Brazil on the bucket list.

MacawsWe also spent time playing in one of the most impressive rain storms I have seen, in Arizona no less.

Evan MarinMarinSome children were not as enthused about the deluge and were downright grumpy.

Burrowing OwlBurrowing OwlAnother AZ trip is on record, full of many new birds and great memories.  It’s time get back to MN though with some good winter owling.  Stick around, these posts will be coming out fast.

 

The Great Arizona Encore: The Patagonia Picnic Table Effect Reversal

It’s a busy time of year right now with all the decorating, gift-buying, and holiday food prep–it’s a good thing my wife’s got all that covered so I can finally bring you some AZ stories.  Actually, writing the annual Christmas letter is about my only task this time of year, and much to my wife’s chagrin, this remains a grossly unfinished task.  Please don’t tell my wife I’m blogging right now.

So where were we with AZ? Oh yes, our family had departed Green Valley after a two-day stay and were about to go on a loop tour around the Santa Ritas, heading down to Nogales and back up through Patagonia and Sonoita.  There were only a couple birds on the agenda for the day.  The first (and also most exciting prospect) was checking on a Barn Owl day roost–somewhere in southern Arizona. 🙂  For some reason, Evan has latched on to this species and was one he really wanted to see.  He’ll refer to it by its scientific name, Tyto alba, and he’s been known to play its blood-curdling scream on his iPod in our house.

Once we got to the Owl’s roost, I walked up to this tower of sorts and looked up into the rafters.  Immediately I locked eyes with my Barn Owl lifer, tucked way up in the shadows! Just as I started to point it out to Evan and my dad, the Barn Owl flushed out of the opening right toward us! Of course I wasn’t ready with the camera, but our looks at this Owl were hard to beat.  Evan, bug-eyed, said in an astonished voice, “Whoa, Tyto alba just flew right by me!”

With no photo, the sighting was bittersweet for me.  But a Barn Owl seen is way better than no Barn Owl, so off to Patagonia we went.  In this city (and southern AZ in general), birders are the norm and not the nerd-freaks that people think of us in other places:

Patagonia binoculars

Patagonia is hallowed birding ground where all kinds of birding myths and legends originate.  In fact, a famous birding phenomenon known as the Patagonia Picnic Table Effect was coined from something remarkable that happened here that has also played out numerous times in many other locations.  Here’s the PPTE in a nutshell: some birders in the 1970s stopping for lunch in Patagonia discovered a rare bird which brought in more birders who discovered more rare birds in that location.  Whenever I find a rarity, I always hope it’s the beginning of the Patagonia Picnic Table Effect.  Needless to say, Patagonia is a place I have longed to visit after reading about it in books.

Despite the fact that the PPTE is based on multiple rarities and despite the fact that we were actually in Patagonia, I was after one bird at one very famous location:

Paton Center for HummingbirdsThe famous Paton House–hard to believe I was actually here.

Paton'sNo, we didn’t come for the common White-winged Doves, though they were dapper and only the second time we’d seen one.

White-winged DoveNor did we come for the WWDO’s cousin, the much less abiding Inca Dove.

Inca DoveIt was nice to see a Black-headed Grosbeak even if it was a bit scruffy looking, but that’s still not why we came.

Black-headed Grosbeak

I very much enjoyed up-close looks at my first MALE Gila Woodpecker–still not why we came though.

Gila WoodpeckerWe came for the Hummingbirds.  But not for the Broad-billed.

Broad-billed Hummingbird

Sorry, this teasing is annoying, especially since you knew from the first photo that the main attraction is the Violet-crowned Hummingbird.  Like so many birders before us, we made our pilgrimage to Patons’ just to add this key lifer.  Good thing we saw one.

Violet-crowned HummingbirdAin’t it a beaut?Violet-crowned HummingbirdIt knows it too. Like Orcas or Dolphins, it pandered to its gawking audience.

Violet-crowned HummingbirdSo that was that.  Tommy DeBardeleben and Gordon Karre had told me about a much rarer Hummer, the Plain-capped Starthroat, that had been seen regularly somewhere in Patagonia.  Not knowing exactly where to go for it and not feeling I could make yet another birding stop with the non-birding family, I didn’t even bother to check into it.

Instead, my family and I ate lunch at a park in Patagonia after a successful trip to Patons’.  It wasn’t until we were somewhere past Sonoita that it dawned on me–we ate lunch at a real life Patagonia picnic table.  And ironically, I don’t recall seeing/hearing a single bird in that park while we ate.  Back to that Plain-capped Starthroat, I also didn’t realize until we got home that we had driven within a block of that ultra-rare Mexican bird. I probably could have stopped to watch a feeder for a bit and not wrecked the family’s travel schedule. I am sure this will haunt me for years, possibly decades.

Moving on, we finally made it back to Maricopa. Before we got to my parents’ house, though, we had to check up on a couple of old friends in my parents’ neighborhood.  Love this guy (or gal–there’s one of each).

Burrowing OwlScanning a residential pond in the low light of the evening, I was excited to see the brilliant pop of color of the male Vermilion Flycatcher in my binoculars.  They never get old.

Vermilion FlycatcherWe also saw a Jackrabbit of some sort which was a cool experience.

JackrabbitThe Arizona fun isn’t over.  Next up is the final post and arguably the ugliest and cutest birds you will see.

Arizona? Minnesota? What state is this anyway?

I’ll tell you what state it is–it’s the state of chaos; it’s the state of shock and awe.  Minnesota is simultaneously being invaded by both Snowy Owls and not one, not two, but three Vermilion Flycatchers this week.  Incredibly there hasn’t been such a sighting in 21 years and two of this year’s birds have shown up at the same location.  Moreover, other good vagrants and migrants keep popping up all over the state, sending birders’ heads spinning, not knowing which direction to travel.  I was in such a predicament this weekend–frozen with indecision.

I finally opted for the two reliable Vermilion Flycatchers in Becker County.  It would make a dandy addition to my state list whereas all the other good birds popping up were ones I already had locked down for that category.  I asked Evan if he wanted to go along, and I was delightfully surprised when he said he wanted to go on this adventure.  So this morning we left the house at 4 AM to go north of Detroit Lakes to see those Vermilions at first light. Which we did.  Promptly seeing our MN VEFL upon arrival, I raised the camera, looked through the viewfinder, and read the message “No Memory Card”!  Are you kidding?  It finally happened that I’d go on a rarity chase and forget something so crucial. It didn’t bother me tooooo much because I have lots of photos of striking VEFL males from Arizona already.  But still, it hurts a bit.  Thankfully, birding friend John Richardson pinch hit for me and let me use a couple of his shots for the blog.  And if you’re going to have a pinch-hitter, who better than a slugger like rarity-magnet John, a.k.a. Mr. Brambling, a.k.a. Mr. Black-headed Grosbeak, a.k.a, a.k.a.

Becker County Vermilion Flycatcher #1; Photo by John Richardson

Becker County Vermilion Flycatcher #1; I believe this is the individual we saw; Photo by John Richardson

Becker County Vermilion Flycatcher #2; Photo by John Richardson

Becker County Vermilion Flycatcher #2; Photo by John Richardson

Pretty neat stuff, right? Not only were these some great birds, but the homeowners were top-notch people, very friendly and welcoming.  Evan thoroughly enjoyed their dog, and they thoroughly enjoyed that a youngster had come out to witness a cool phenomenon in nature.  They were even kind enough to tell me where the nearest Wal-Mart was so I could pick up a memory card because…..we were off next to look for reported adult male Long-tailed Duck in winter plumage!  Though the Vermilion was a state bird for me and the LT Duck was not, I was more excited about seeing this duck in this plumage.  There was no way I was going unprepared for this one.

Once we finally made it to the slough south of Stakke Lake in Becker County after spending a ridiculous amount of time in that Wal-Mart, it took a little bit of searching before I found it.  Our views were distant, but I was able to get Evan some looks on the LCD.  His response was something along the lines of “Whoa, cool!” Indeed. It seemed so odd to see an ocean duck sitting on a slough and hugging the shoreline, or in this case, sitting on it.

Long-tailed DuckSuch a striking bird. Check out this chest!

Long-tailed DuckLong-tailed DuckEven though it was far away, it was still such a treat to watch this handsome duck.  Our lifer a couple a years ago was an immature-type bird that did not live up to its name.

Long-tailed DuckLong-tailed DuckAfter that fun, Evan and I hit the road for the 3-hour trip home.  Our second Northern Shrike of the fall was a nice bonus on our drive.  Despite the memory card snafu, it was a memorable trip with Evan where we got to see some really fantastic birds for Minnesota.

We’ll get back to the Arizona stuff, I promise, but don’t be surprised if there’s another interruption or two!

The Great Arizona Encore: The Patagonia Preparty

Leaving Green Valley was not easy. Breathtaking scenery, perfect temps, and posh accommodations are hard to leave behind.  On the other hand, leaving Green Valley was necessary in order to tour new (to us) parts of beautiful, southern Arizona and visit more hotspots of birding fame.   Our route for the morning would basically circle the Santa Rita Mountains taking us all the way down to the border at Nogales and back up north via Patagonia and Sonoita.  Then it would be back to Maricopa.

Sitting outside on the patio that morning, I was not focused on birding. I was having a slow morning after the epic Huachuca madness from the day before, a birding hangover if you will.  Sure, visions of Violet-crowned Hummingbirds and Barn Owls danced through my head, but it was the thought of breakfast that was winning the war for my mind as I waited for my family to pack, assemble, powder, puff, etc. Not even an unfamiliar bird song was getting me to move. Meh, I’ve seen it all around here, I thought.  But then, the bird song that sounds like a motor that won’t start actually got my birding motor started for the day. Thank you, Honorable Cactus Wren. This ability to coax even the most reluctant into birding and into beautiful Arizona deserts must be how you got your title of State Bird.

Cactus Wren

It didn’t take me long to realize the desert scrub around the hotel was quite birdy.  It was simply hopping with birds.  I could hardly believe it when I pulled up the binoculars on one of the first birds–Rock Wren a.k.a. the day’s first lifer.  And I almost didn’t even bird here.

Rock WrenI really, really like the pot-bellied appearance of this bird.  This may be my favorite photo from the trip. And is it just me, or does ROWR bear an uncanny resemblance to our 27th President?

President William Howard Taft Source: National Archives and Records Administration

President William Howard Taft                                         Source: National Archives and Records Administration

Turns out the Taft Wren wasn’t the only delightful surprise of this little foray beyond the parking lot.  A pair of Cassin’s Kingbirds gave a second lifer of the morning.  And yes, I did peek under their undergarments to look for white tail edges to make sure they weren’t Western Kingbirds, though once you see them in real life, they are obviously different.

Cassin's Kingbird

Cassin's KingbirdHigh on two completely unexpected lifers, I continued to scope out the fun birds around the hotel, not the least of which were numerous Lark Sparrows.  I have not seen enough Lark Sparrows yet.

Lark SparrowWhat I have seen plenty of in recent years are Say’s Phoebes, and I already have plenty of photos to prove it.  But these birds just know how to pose…

Say's PhoebeIt was also fun to see a prickly-looking Curve-billed Thrasher.  I’m glad they didn’t choose him for state bird.

Curve-billed Thrasher

Eventually the family was assembled and ready for breakfast, and the parking lot birding was over. But what a gem of a spot.  Last spring I had Hooded Orioles, Great Horned Owls, and Black-throated Sparrows here too.  I’ve got a nice little patch list going.

I know I promised Patagonia in this post, but we’ll pick up this story in the next one and get it started off right with a BARN OWL search.  But first, breakfast.

The Great Arizona Encore: Ash Canyon and Miller Canyon

Let’s face it, this blog title is pretty plain.  But anyone familiar with these two SE AZ birding hotspots knows that the birds there are anything but. After our adventure in Hunter Canyon, we made the short trip to the next canyon to the south–Ash Canyon.

Evan Ash Canyon

Much to my relief, we weren’t going to take another hike up a mountain.  Instead, we were going to the Ash Canyon B&B for a little geri-birding–or feeder watching from comfortable chairs.

Ash Canyon B&BWe got some great views of some fun birds while we rested from our recent hike in Hunter Canyon.  It was nice to finally see a much nicer Canyon Towee than the haggard one I saw in Florida Canyon last spring.  This bird was a lifer for Evan.

Canyon TowheeWe also got to see another Scott’s Oriole (female), but this one did not show itself well either.

Scott's OrioleSeeing a lifer Dark-eyed Junco sub-species, like this Gray-headed variety, is always fun.

Gray-headed JuncoAcorn Woodpeckers were a common sight at all our stops in the Huachucas. At least at Mary Jo’s feeders, you can get a good photo while sitting down–a great combo.

Acorn Woodpecker

Of course, some of the main attractions at the Ash Canyon B&B are the Hummingbirds.  Mostly there were Anna’s Hummingbirds, and most of those are unimpressive-looking right now.

Anna's HummingbirdEvan also got his Magnificent Hummingbird lifer with the help of owner Mary Jo who seems to constantly monitor the bird activity in her yard. Tommy and Gordon were watching a different set of Hummingbird feeders and had seen one of the reported Lucifer Hummingbirds.  So Evan and I joined them and watched those feeders for a short time to see if we could get this rare Hummer too.  That said, Miller Canyon was beckoning, both for what it held and for the short amount of time we had left to bird.  Thankfully the Lucifer was understanding and showed up in short order.  Note the thick, decurved bill.

Lucifer Hummingbird

Lucifer HummingbirdThe rarity of this bird was really cool even if the plain looks of this juvenile bird were not impressive.  I regretfully later found out that an adult male Lucifer had been visiting these feeders on the very day we were there. Doh!

After a total of 20 minutes at the Ash Canyon B&B, it was time to shoot north passing by Hunter Canyon where we had been and then stopping at Miller Canyon.  When I first wanted to go to Hunter Canyon, I had no idea how close it was to Miller Canyon, a place I’d read about many times.  Miller Canyon is arguably most famous for reliable and cooperative Spotted Owls.  So the thought of getting another Owl lifer on this trip, and a federally threatened one at that, was almost intoxicating. Hopes were raised further by a fresh listserv report that a pair them had been seen in the upper parts of Miller Canyon near Split Rock. It, of course, would mean another good hike up a steeper canyon than Hunter.  With an Owl prize at the end, it was worth the exercise…if we could gain access.

Miller Canyon

Like the power lines that obstruct a perfect view of Miller Canyon in the photo above, so too the Beatty Guest Ranch’s land blocks the easiest access to Miller Canyon.  Convenience always comes at a price.  We were more than willing to pay the $5/person fee to cut across the Beatty land, but a sign on the gate said it was closed for the season and no one was at the house. 🙁 Then, however, we spied a gun-toting man with four coon hounds coming down the path toward us.  It was the owner’s son, and he said he’d take us up the canyon.

We paid the man and dutifully followed behind him.  As a hunter myself I’ve been around a number of people with guns, but following this quiet stranger holding a lever-action .30-30 gave me a certain unease.  This is now the second time this year that birding has put my son in the company of a gun-toting, plaid-clothed, non-hunting stranger.  Any hopes of that Father-of-the-Year award have long gone out the window, especially if you note my position relative to Evan’s:

Evan Tommy Gordon

As we walked along, thoughts kept flipping back-and-forth from ‘I bet he’s perfectly safe’ to ‘I bet he’s pretty quick with that lever-action’.  You can see which thought won out as there is more to this post.

Evan was oblivious to such concerns and thoroughly enjoyed the canine companionship of the four coon hounds that crashed the brush around us on this oddest of all bird hikes.  Two of the hounds were spitting images of Old Dan and Little Ann.  Our mysterious, quiet guide showed his soft spot for nature when he scooped up a chilly Alligator Lizard on the path and showed it to us all before depositing it off to the side. Of course, I was hoping for a photo of it in its more natural, original state, but this one’s fun too.

Evan Alligator LizardAfter hiking nearly a mile uphill, we finally reached Split Rock.  Here there were two elderly women had been brought to this location earlier to look for the Spotted Owls.  Our guide checked out the usual perches for the Owls, a family group of four birds, but none of them held anything.  Then, real casually, he points to a different tree and says, “Oh, here’s one.” Sweet!

Spotted Owl

It was a relief, physically and mentally, to pause and enjoy this rare bird.  It also seemed to lighten the mood considerably as our silent guide unleashed a wealth of information on the owls and describing them and their habits and occurrences in the canyon with great delight.  It would have been the perfect moment for a beer.  Too bad no one thought to pack some along.

Spotted OwlThis Owl was a pretty mellow fellow, which I understand is typical for this species.  It could not have cared less that we were ooing and awwing over it.

Spotted Owl

Here is a contextual photo for you.  Can you spot Spotty?

Spotted OwlTommy and I went a little further up the canyon hoping to spot one of the other Spotted Owls on our own which is half the fun of owling.  But without any more luck, it was finally time to head back down the canyon. What a thrill it was, though, to get this prized lifer:

Spotted Owl

As we got closer to the parking area, a Canyon Wren decided to play nice for some photos.  This was a lifer for Evan as well.

Canyon Wren

Canyon WrenThen there was one last big gift for our big day in the Huachucas.  We were nearly to the car when Tommy thought he heard a Black-throated Gray Warbler.  I saw one last spring, but only briefly.  I was hoping for a better photo.  However, I’m just going to have to wait for that because the bird turned out to be a lifer Townsend’s Warbler instead! Now I need a redemptive photo of two western Warblers.

Townsend's WarblerWhat an incredible day it was at our three stops in the Huachuca Mountains.  It was finally time to hit the road to join my family back at Green Valley.  Once again, Tommy and Gordon outdid themselves and provided another fun set of SE AZ memories.  We said our goodbyes and vowed to meet up again this winter back in Minnesota where it’s not as warm, definitely not as scenic, but with just as cool (if not cooler) Owls.  Hopefully Evan and I can repay these guys with some awesome lifers of their own.

Coming up is still one more day in SE AZ…but without Tommy and Gordon’s help, how would we fare?  Check back and see.  Next stop: Patagonia.

The Great Arizona Encore: Huelcome to the Huachucas

Going to Arizona annually is incredibly exciting for a birder because that state never seems to run out of new birds, and if it does, it can always borrow a couple from Mexico.  But fall in general is a tougher time to bird and central Arizona hardly held anything new for me at this time of year.  On the other hand, Southeast Arizona can hold wonders and surprises for even local birders. It’s a place where magic happens. Therefore my family and I went on to Green Valley after Mt. Lemmon for a two-night stay or a vacation within a vacation.  The Santa Ritas were splendid as were the cooler temps in the higher elevations of southern Arizona.

Santa Ritas

I had a tougher time picking out a main target bird for this Arizona trip.  Whatever I picked just seemed dramatically anticlimactic after last spring’s Elegant Trogon and Painted Redstart.  I finally settled on a good one, though, a worthy objective.  I wanted to see the Rufous-capped Warbler, a rare visitor from Mexico that, in recent years, has acquired resident status in certain mountain canyons in SE AZ.  The most notable of those is Florida Canyon, so that is where I wanted to bird.  As time went on and I communicated with Tommy DeBardeleben, he advised me that Pena Blanca Canyon would probably be better for that bird.  Okay, sounds good to me.  Then as the weeks got closer, I started paying attention to the listserv and was seeing that an even rarer Mexican Warbler was being seen quite regularly even up to a couple days before our trip! That bird was the Slate-throated Redstart.  Not only was this bird being seen in Hunter Canyon of the Huachuca Mountains, but there had been as many as five Rufous-capped Warblers in the same area!!!!! Tommy and Gordon were going to be birding with me.  I brought up the idea of going to Hunter Canyon, and they liked it.  So last Friday Evan and I met up with Tommy and Gordon at a Fry’s parking lot in Sahuarita in the pre-dawn hours, and soon afterward the “Elegant Trogon Fantastic Four” was on its way to the Huachuca Mountains for what would turn out to be yet another epic SE AZ adventure.

The Huachucas run north and south and have many famous birding canyons on its eastern side.  We would be hitting up Hunter Canyon, Miller Canyon, and Ash Canyon.  It felt incredible to be in this area that I’ve read about on blogs and in books.  Hunter Canyon, the site of both ABA-rare Warblers, was where we started.

Hunter Canyon

Even though we didn’t see any Montezuma Quail (darn it) on the long drive up to the parking area, we got out of the car and had a good bird right away.  In fact, it’s one Evan and I needed for our life lists–the Northern Goshawk.

Northern Goshawk

The Goshawk wasn’t coming any closer, so we began our ascent up the canyon listening along the way for anything new or interesting.

Tommy Hunter CanyonTommy’s ear for bird sounds is truly impressive–hardly a chip note, flight call, or song gets by him.  In fact, he doesn’t even announce all that he’s hearing unless it’s important, like this lifer Bewick’s Wren.

Bewick's Wren

For the most part, though, all that could be heard was the huffing and puffing of the two flat-landers of the group as we climbed on and on.  We were missing our oxygen-rich 1,100 feet back home.  Evan sat down on rocks several times, and I had to keep coaxing him to go on.  Besides, we were almost to the exciting part of the canyon where the walls were steeper and the trees towered above us and where the Warblers are…

Evan TommyIt is where this lowland scrub terminates and the forest of the canyon begins that the Slate-throated Redstart had been seen just a couple days prior.  We paused to look and listen, but it seemed well-known at this point that the Redstart was gone.  We did, however, start to hear multiple Rufous-capped Warblers all around us! Getting a visual of this brush-loving bird is another story.  The sound seemed to come from everywhere and then stopped all of the sudden.  Weird. So onward and upward we kept going.  At least the view back down the mountain was nice.

Hunter Canyon

The life birds were definitely not coming at a fast pace, so a Spotted Towhee was a nice distraction for the time being.

Spotted TowheeIn hindsight, this was the calm before the storm because things took off in a hurry.  It all started when Tommy spotted a male Hepatic Tanager which was a lifer for Evan and me.  I didn’t see it, but I spotted my own Hepatic lifer (female).

Hepatic TanagerI really wanted to see the male Tommy found.  Eventually I saw it, but it was not being cooperative at all.

Hepatic Tanager

I did catch it out in the open once.  Not the best photo, but it shows the subtle red coloration compared to a bright red Summer Tanager.Hepatic TanagerTommy said that sometimes Tanagers will respond to a Northern Pygmy-Owl call.  When he played it, a live Pygmy-Owl tooted back! Tommy took off up the canyon trail to see if he could locate it.  I started soon after but then saw bright flash of yellow and black come across the blue sky–Scott’s Oriole!  What a looker it was! It landed at the very top of a tree offering me nothing but butt views. It’s a pretty nice-looking butt, anyhow.

Scott's OrioleAs I was jockeying for a position from which I could see the Oriole better, Tommy called out calmly, “Guys, Pygmy-Owl.”  For some reason I thought this meant he was hearing it, and so I continued to keep working on the Oriole.  A few seconds later, Tommy’s voice carried a little more urgency. An Owl lifer trumps an Oriole photo.  Evan, Gordon, and I hustled up to where Tommy was.  Sure enough, he had eyes on it.  Wow, just wow.

Northern Pygmy-Owl

Seeing this awesome Owl with my naked vision was much easier than trying to find it in my viewfinder.  I was amazed at how small it was.  Here’s a reference shot.  These pine cones are about the size of an adult’s fist–do you see the Owl?

Northern Pygmy-OwlThis was such a fun life bird.  I was not expecting this one on this trip. Excuse the numerous photos–I was, and still am, very excited about this sighting.

Northern Pygmy-Owl

Northern Pygmy-Owl

Northern Pygmy-OwlTime waits for no man, though, and neither do Rufous-capped Warblers.  As I was photographing this cool Owl and trying for better angles, a Rufous-capped Warbler started singing nearby and Tommy was off again!  In seconds Tommy got a visual on the bird and called me over.  I’ve learned from Tommy and Gordon to first get a good look at a lifer with binoculars and then worry about a photo second.  So that’s what I did.  In no time at all, I also saw the Rufous-capped Warbler pop up for a second and got to see that amazingly yellow throat.

Then it took a lot of patience and blurry photos of sticks and brush as I made many failed attempts at getting a photo.  Hmmm, colorful fall foliage?

Northern Pygmy-Owl

Or….

Rufous-capped Warbler

OH YEAH!!!!!!!!!!!!

This was the numero uno (Mexican bird, get it?) target and therefore the biggest thrill of some pretty monumental thrills in Hunter Canyon.  The lifering was fast and furious.  From the Hepatics to the Rufous-cap, I would guess a maximum of ten minutes had elapsed.  It was mind-blowing and overwhelming, leaving no time to linger and soak up the enjoyment of any one of those species.  I guess you take whatever SE AZ throws your way.  Sometimes that means the cool birds are shoved down your throat.  And if that’s the case, you eagerly open your mouth wide in anticipation.

After this, there was nothing else to do but walk down another Arizona mountain victorious…

Evan Tommy…and then go to next-door Miller Canyon and Ash Canyon for even more adventure! You don’t want to miss it–there will be coon dogs, guns, and yes, more cool lifers.

A huge thanks to Tommy DeBardeleben and Gordon Karre for a incredibly memorable bird hunt in Hunter Canyon!

The Great Arizona Encore: When Life Gives You a Lemmon…and a Tangerine

I can hardly believe it myself–a bonus trip to AZ in 2015 is now on the books and coming to you on the blog.  It turns out that fall break is a much more convenient time for our family (NOT for birders) to go on our annual peregrination to visit my snowbird parents in Maricopa. Sadly, spring trips will be no more. It seemed strange to trade our lovely fall weather for the desert heat.  Also strange was the fact that we, my parents, and this Golden-crowned Kinglet were competing in a race to the south.

Golden-crowned Kinglet

Thankfully my parents won (barely) and were able to welcome us all to their home. The Kinglet, rudely, did not show.  Of course, my parents who were traveling by car were greatly aided by an airline that had devious plans for messing with my perfectly picked schedule and meticulous birding plans that would have given the old life list a couple bumps within an hour of landing.  Yep, a mechanical problem grounded the plane and delayed us 5 HOURS while we waited for an empty plane to fly up from Phoenix to pick up our moping, angry selves.  Then again, this is a much preferred state of being than say, dead in a crash because of a mechanical failure. But still.  Now we would be getting into Phoenix just as the sun was setting–an inconvenience to your average traveler but a complete devastation to a birder.  I guess the Brown Pelicans and Rosy-faced Lovebirds in Tempe would just have to wait.

Or would they? Relatively speaking, we got to Phoenix faster than expected with an hour left of the day!  I thought the rental car process would be speedier.  I also thought the rental car would be considerably less orangey.

orange carThe sun was sinking but things were still glaringly aglow around us as we Dodge Darted ourselves across town to Tempe Town Lake where Gordon Karre was waiting for us to hopefully helps us salvage the Brown Pelican lifer on the first day.  Maybe the car blinded his vision, but Gordon just couldn’t find the target in the now twilight of the evening. Arrghh!

Fast forward to the next day when my parents and my family headed out on a big, two-night expedition to SE AZ.  The first agenda item was a trip up to the top of Mt. Lemmon just northeast of Tucson.  Ever since I traveled that road with Gordon Karre and Tommy DeBardeleben last March, I wanted to bring my family back here.  The scenery is amazing as you travel the twisting mountain road from the Saguaro-studded hillsides in the lower elevations to the majestic Pine-forests in the higher elevations all while looking out over stunning vistas.

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

Looking SW from Mt. Lemmon; Tucson is the flat area below. Photo from March 2015.

There was also a bird of interest for me.  Steller’s Jays are quite reliable near the summit of Mt. Lemmon on which rests a tiny village called Summerhaven. Despite two trips to the Colorado Rockies and a previous trip up Mt. Lemmon in recent years, I still had never seen one.  I reckoned I would finally fix that.

What I could not fix was the weather. Gloomy skies and steady drizzle diminished the beauty of the drive up the mountain, so it was now just an A+ instead of the normal A+++. And it was chilly, 52º.

Evan MarinOnce we completed the hour-long, 26 mile drive up to Summerhaven, I immediately started scanning for my target bird, a bird that Chris Rohrer assured me would be super easy to get.  I kind of expected them to just be everywhere, so depression was starting to set in when we drove through the town and I wasn’t seeing any birdlife.  We got out of the van and Melissa asked me what that weird noise was.  Then she said, “Oh, here’s your bird.” Twenty feet in front of the car–Chris was right.  Ah, the Steller’s Jay, at long last.

Steller's Jay

While the fam scoped out a trinket shop, I went on the hunt for a better photo of the target and to see what else I might turn up.

Numerous Yellow-eyed Juncos were foraging all over one of the streets.  Evan was later able to add this bird to his life list as well as Pygmy Nuthatch, birds I first saw on Mt. Lemmon last March.

Yellow-eyed Junco

I also discovered the Frankenstein of the Junco world.

IMG_6029

Eventually I caught up with a Steller’s Jay again and got what I was after despite the drizzle and clouds. What a great-looking bird and a long-awaited addition to the list!

Steller's Jay

Steller's JayAt least day two was going according to plan.  Now, could we say the same for day three in the Huachuca Mountains where there was not only a Slate-throated Redstart but also SEVERAL Rufous-capped Warblers?