2017 Summer Trip to Northern Arizona–The Best of the Non-Lifers

An unfortunate consequence of visiting a place like Arizona multiple times is that some birds lose that ‘wow’ factor from when they were first seen.  The excitement level for a bird is inversely proportional to the number of times that bird is seen. Take the Acorn Woodpecker, for instance.  I remember drooling over the thought of seeing one. Now on this trip, after having seen them on other trips, I didn’t even raise the camera. This is just birding reality.   It cannot be helped.  Some birds still bring it, though.  Some just haven’t been enjoyed enough or savored fully.  They still feel somewhat fresh and exciting when you bump into them.  This post highlights those birds for me on this latest trip.

Many of the these were fun mountain birds that I encountered right by our condo at the Wyndham Flagstaff Resort (great place if you go, btw). First up is the Steller’s Jay, a bird not known for its shyness. Before this trip I had only seen one on Mt. Lemmon, a brief sighting on a cloudy day.  Here, they were all over the place basking in the sun. And I looked at each one.Steller's JaySteller's JayAnother montane, neighborhood bird at the resort was the Black-headed Grosbeak.  Though I’ve seen them in Colorado and South Dakota, the views have always been fleeting and unsatisfying.  This encounter went a long way toward rectifying that.

Black-headed Grosbeak

Anywhere from the Wyndham Resort to the Schultz Pass Road, a mountain-loving bird that was seemingly ubiquitous around Flagstaff was the Western Tanager.  Even though I have seen this bird and photographed it in my home county in Minnesota, I continue to find myself in a state of face-melt when I see this bird, and I photograph it way too much.  It is illogical, really. Three individuals with varying amounts of red on their faces are shown below in three different species of trees.

Western TanagerWestern TanagerWestern TanagerLiterally a neighbor bird inhabiting the Ponderosa Pines right outside our balcony was the Pygmy Nuthatch.  These guys are industrious little busy-bodies. As such, my only other time seeing them in the past resulted in a poor photo op.  Not much changed on this trip despite being merely 5 feet away.  Pygmy Nuthatch could see blog time again.

Pygmy Nuthatch

The last bird from the resort was a parking lot bird but was by no means a trash bird. In fact, this papa Western Bluebird was a photographic lifer for me.Western BluebirdWestern BluebirdAway from the resort there were some other non-lifer favorites, like this American Three-toed Woodpecker along the Schultz Pass Road. Keep in mind that I had only ever seen one before just this past spring in Minnesota.  This bird very much still has lifer freshness associated with it.  While the unique drumming sound of this Woodpecker was the same as the one back home, its back was not.  Note how white the back is on this Rocky Mountains subspecies of the ATTW; the back of the East Taiga subspecies that we have in Minnesota is nearly all black with small white flecks.

American Three-toed WoodpeckerIn Oak Creek Canyon at Grasshopper Point Recreation Area, a Bridled Titmouse was a pleasant surprise.

Bridled TitmouseAnd the Grand Canyon is never more grand than when it serves as a backdrop from a rim-perching Black-throated Gray Warbler, a bird I have wished to have better photographs of for a long time.

Black-throated Gray WarblerBlack-throated Gray WarblerThat’s it for Arizona this time.  There will be more this winter.  For the next post we’re headed to Wisconsin’s Apostle Islands for some Warble action.

2017 Summer Trip to Northern Arizona –The Lifers

Flammulated Owl was literally and figuratively the number one lifer of the trip (see the last post if you missed it), but there were many other fun lifers that followed the Flam.  After all, one cannot go to Arizona and not come home with a few lifer souvenirs.  While I did not hit double-digits, I did snag some really exciting new ones.  One of these was a major target bird that I was just as eager to see as I was the Flam. Perhaps, though, the biggest (literally) lifer for me and the whole family was the Grand Canyon.

Grand Canyon Technically speaking it was not a lifer for me as I had been here as a small child.  Since I have no memory of it and I have a family of my own who hadn’t seen it, the time was right for a visit. Plus, the visit to Grand Canyon National Park was completely FREE thanks to the government’s Every Kid in a Park program where each 4th grade student in America can get his/her entire family and vehicle into any national park all summer long at no cost.  The lack of entry fee was definitely the icing on the cake because this place is impressive regardless.  The grandeur of the Grand Canyon and how it makes you feel when you are standing next to that vastness is nearly impossible to describe in words and capture in photographs.  Hopefully these kids will at least remember the experience.

Evan Marin

Tommy DeBardeleben joined us on the trip to the Grand Canyon.  Tommy was actually hoping to see a bird that I wanted to see, the California Condor.  The California Condor was reintroduced to the Canyon in 1996 and has done well there since.  Over 70 birds are in the Utah/Arizona population with many of them frequenting the Canyon.  Tommy had seen them here many years ago.  Unfortunately they were not a “countable” bird when he saw them because they were still in the early years of reintroduction, so Tommy technically did not have California Condor on his official life and state lists.  Neither did I, so as we enjoyed the Canyon at every possible pull-off, Tommy and I were always watching the sky above and below(!) in an effort to find this bird.  Unfortunately we never had any luck.  Later that night we learned one had been seen on the cliff face right beneath Bright Angel Lodge less than an hour after we had looked at the very same spot. Argh. The good news is that we were so impressed with the Canyon that we will be back some day.  The Condor can wait until then.

There were, of course, other potential lifers for me at the Canyon.  I did see one, the Juniper Titmouse, fly across the road in front of me.  It wasn’t until the drive back on US-180 to Flagstaff that I actually got to see one well and photograph it.

Juniper TitmouseJuniper TitmouseTommy found me this bird while we were stopped for a different lifer.  As I had been driving I knew to be vigilant for Pinyon Jays.  There were a couple times while cruising at highway speeds that I thought I saw blue-colored birds cross the highway, but with no shoulder on which to pull off, I couldn’t stop to check.  All doubt was erased at one point, though, when several blue-colored birds were flying across the highway in groups.  I found a spot to pull over and observe my lifer Pinyon Jay.  Photographing them proved impossible as the birds were between me and the sun.  They also hid remarkably well in the junipers, only giving away there presence as they flushed away.  This happened over and over as we probably saw over 50 in all, flushing in small groups.  It was frustrating but still fun to see the behavior of this bird and hear its fun, laughing call.

Pinyon JayPinyon JayThe morning after the Grand Canyon adventure, Tommy and I birded the Flagstaff area hitting up Elden Springs Road and the Schultz Pass Road. The birding was incredible, but since this is just a lifer post, we’ll stick to those. The first lifer was the Grace’s Warbler, a striking bird that loves the Pines.

Grace's WarblerGrace's WarblerWhile lifering on this bird, I simultaneously lifered on Plumbeous Vireo.  This is another bird that loves life in the Pines.  Both my new lifers could be heard and seen at the same time, sometimes even in the same tree!

Plumbeous VireoPlumbeous VireoElden Springs Road merges on to Schultz Pass Road, which was a reported location of numerous individuals of the bird I wanted to see most, the Red-faced Warbler.  Tommy had me stop at a spot that looked like good habitat for this warbler–dense stands of Douglas Fir on a slope next to a somewhat open area of Aspens.  Sure enough, Tommy picked out a singing Red-faced Warbler almost immediately.  As we were trying to get visuals on it, Tommy spotted another lifer for me and one I had been hoping for–a male Williamson’s Sapsucker! Even though the Red-faced Warbler was my most wanted bird after the Flam, we know that would be a relatively easy bird along Schultz Pass Road.  Therefore, we ditched the Red-face we had been hearing in an effort to track down the dapper and somewhat elusive Sapsucker. It sure was a tease at first and not offering up much to view.

Williamson's SapsuckerEventually we got the full monty as it was too busy drilling sap wells to care about a couple of gawkers.

Williamson's Sapsucker

Williamson's SapsuckerOnce the Williamson’s was fully enjoyed, we turned our attention to the Red-faced Warbler.  I was highly impatient to finally see this bird that we were hearing.  And then it finally happened, and it was glorious.

Red-faced WarblerAdding to the pleasure of finally seeing this bird is that Red-faced Warblers are curious and therefore crushable.

Red-faced Warbler

Red-faced WarblerRed-faced WarblerBy the time we were done birding Schultz Pass Road, we had seen several of these Warblers.  Each was just as exciting as the last.  Even Tommy has to stop and look at each one, they are that captivating.Red-faced Warblers are curious and quite crushable.There were no more lifers on this morning of birding around Flagstaff.  Tommy and I had found all my targets with relative ease, and there was really nothing left to go after.  I’m kicking myself for not doing more research because MacGilivray’s Warblers breed in the area by Hart Prairie which is just northwest of Flagstaff.  Oh well, something to add to my northern Arizona to-do list next time we come back to view the Grand Canyon (and the California Condors!)

My last hope for lifers on this trip would occur on our drive from Flagstaff back to Phoenix.  We were able to take a leisurely drive south since we were overnighting in Phoenix and didn’t have to catch a plane until the next day.  So instead of hopping on I-17, we drove through Oak Creek Canyon and Sedona.  Oak Creek Canyon and the red rock formations of the Sedona area are a must-see experience for anybody.  For the birders, there is even more to experience.  My list of hopefuls was short: Yellow-breasted Chat, Common Black-Hawk, and Brown-crested Flycatcher.

After scouring eBird, I had picked a spot caled the Encinoso Picnic Area as a place to look for the Chat.  It looked really small and held multiple birds–perfect for a quick search while a non-birding family waited in the car.  Evan’s 4th grader park pass got us into this National Forest Service fee site for free too (it works for all federal lands and not just national parks). Anyhow, when I stepped out of the car I heard the distinctive calls, croaks, and whistles of a Yellow-breasted Chat immediately.  And then I found a second and third equally loud Chat.  Getting visuals on any proved very difficult.  I did see one as it flew straight up out of the thicket it was calling from.  The yellow breast was as impressive as it was unmistakable.  Trying to find a perched bird was nearly impossible though. My family waited for nearly an hour in the air-conditioned car while I tromped through the picnic area picking up ridiculous amounts of painful, thorny grass seeds of some kind in my shoes.  And here is all I have to show for my toil:

Yellow-breasted ChatI’m not naive. I understand this is a typical experience with this bird species.  It was still frustrating.  At one point I could hear a Chat singing in the thicket right in front of me.  I figured it had to be perched on top somewhere.  So I climbed a rock, held the camera above my head, snapped a picture, and hoped for the best. Well, I got him. Can you see it?

Yellow-breasted ChatHere it is at a different perch.  Same effect.

Yellow-breasted ChatYellow-breasted Chat is just one more bird to add to the list of ‘Better Looks Desired’ birds.  At one point I saw a Chat fly into a tree in the distance, and I saw a fleck of yellow among the green leaves, so I just snapped photos of that yellow spot like crazy. Turns out I got a lot of photos of a yellow leaf instead. What an aggravating bird.

IMG_0794As we continued our drive to Sedona enjoying the views of the canyon walls from the bottom of Oak Creek Canyon, we decided to pull into the National Forest Service’s Grashopper Point recreation site.  This was another fee area that we got into for free–thanks Evan.  The draw of this site is that people like to cool off in Oak Creek here. More specifically, people cliff jump off a high rock face into a 15-foot wide creek below! Apparently this narrow creek is quite deep, allowing the people we saw jumping to come out unscathed.  We did not attempt it. I was not completely sold on its safety.

Evan MarinThe deep part of the water is quite narrow as you can see the wading area takes up almost half the creek width. This spot where Evan and Marin are wading is where teenagers were jumping into the water from 15-20 feet up the rock face!  As I kept an eye on my kids, I also kept an eye out for a Common Black-Hawk in the riparian corridor.  Unfortunately one never materialized.  I was also keeping an eye and an ear out for a family of Brown-crested Flycatchers that had been reported here. I had actually given up on them too, but seconds before we got in the car to leave I spied a silent flycatcher on top of a snag a long ways away.  I snapped some photos and was pleasantly surprised to see I had captured my lifer Brown-crested Flycatcher!

Brown-crested FlycatcherThe Brown-crested Flycatcher is distinguished from the similar-looking Ash-throated Flycatcher which inhabits the same area by its larger bill, completely rufous tail underneath, and a brighter yellow belly.  Thankfully, this Flycatcher turned around to make sure I could see all the appropriate field marks.

Brown-crested Flycatcher The lifering on this fifth trip to AZ was definitely a quality over quantity sort of thing. And unless I make a summer trip to SE AZ, the lifering will be significantly limited on subsequent trips to visit my parents in central AZ in the winter months. Regardless of lifers being available, good birds can ALWAYS be had in Arizona.  In the next post, I’ll highlight my favorite non-lifers from this most recent trip.

#17

It’s hard to be a part of Tommy DeBardeleben’s Owl Big Year (TOBY) in 2016 and not have it rub off on you in some way.  Watching my friend Tommy see all of America’s Owl species in one year was inspirational and got me thinking about completing my own “set” of Owls since I was so close.  In the fall of 2016, I made it my goal to see a Whiskered Screech-Owl on our annual trip to Arizona.  After that Owl was secured, only 3 Owls of 19 remained: Boreal Owl, Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl, and Flammulated Owl–none of which would be particularly easy.  In fact, all of them are quite challenging. Nevertheless, a plan was hatched to make a rare summer trip to Arizona to attempt Owl lifer #17, Flammulated Owl.  Going in summer was necessary since this Owl is a migratory summer resident that is not around in Arizona during the fall/winter when we usually visit.  And since Flams are associated with the forests of higher elevations, we’d have to head to the mountains for this bird.

There are many places in Arizona to look for Flams, but to make it a family-friendly trip I opted for northern Arizona so that we could knock out our lifer Grand Canyon too.  Tommy had suggested that the Flagstaff area held great Flam habitat.  I liked his suggestion, so we made plans for a quick, end-of-school-year vacation at the Wyndham Flagstaff Resort.  Tommy made plans to join us for a couple days of our vacation so that he could help me get yet another new Owl.  Previously Tommy had shown me six Owl lifers on other Arizona trips.

The Owling was to commence on the first night of our vacation. May 30th was travel day and got off to an early start.  We landed at PHX around noon local time and proceeded to make the 2-hour trip north to Flagstaff.  Tommy drove up from Phoenix later in the afternoon and after some grocery shopping and enjoying a meal together, Tommy and I were off for a night of Owling while the family stayed back at the resort to relax.

Tommy and I had an hour’s drive to the southeast along the Lake Mary Road to make our Flam attempt at arguably the best place to try for them: Happy Jack Lodge.  The Flam fame for this location started when Caleb Strand discovered multiple reliable, accommodating birds here a couple years.  This was the site where Tommy got his TOBY Flam in 2016.  I have seen many crushing photos of Flams from Tommy and Caleb from this site and have drooled over the possibility of Owling here.  And now it was finally going to happen.  Although, daydreams of Flams perched low in Oaks were interrupted by a couple close encounters with Elk on the road.  Thankfully Tommy was driving and was skilled at spotting them.  The Elk weren’t the only distraction. We cruised right by Mormon Lake, the site of the the Arizona first state record Common Crane that showed up earlier in the month and disappeared just a week or so before our trip.  I found out later (back in Minnesota) that the Common Crane was refound on our last day of vacation! Doh!

We got to Happy Jack Lodge just as it was getting dark.  After a short walk through the campground, we started Owling in the adjacent forest which was fairly wide open.  I was expecting magic at any minute. But it was eerily…silent. We forged on, stopping every now and then to listen and play tapes. Nothing.  What was going on? In my mind I had billed Happy Jack as a sure thing, so disappointment was quickly setting in.  We weren’t hearing any nighttime sounds. The lack of activity coupled with the long day of travel was finally taking its toll on me.  I found it difficult to stay awake and focused and had to pause often to sit down and rest. Finally, enough was enough, and we ditched Happy Jack altogether.  We were now entering the unknown territory for getting me this Owl lifer.  It’s a good thing Tommy is a skilled Owler and is not at all daunted by the unknown.

On the drive back to Flagstaff, Tommy decided to stop at Wiemer Springs Road where he had seen a recent eBird report of a couple Flammulated Owls.  It was worth a shot.  Tommy had never been here before, but he got excited once he saw the habitat.  He felt really good about our chances.  We continued the ritual of hiking, pausing to listen, and playing tapes. Then, a short time after playing the tape, we heard a “Poot!” It was a Flam! And once it started, it kept going: “Poot!….poot!….poot!” Tommy said, “Let’s go get it!” and led the way into the woods as we tried to pin down the Owl for visuals and photos.  We tracked down what tree it was in, but Flams can perch high and remain out of sight as they perch close to the trunk of the tree.  We scanned and scanned with our flashlights.  Finally, Tommy shouted, “Josh, I’ve got it!” I hustled over to where Tommy was, but just then it flew and I never saw it.  This played over a few times: we’d hear the bird, track it down, Tommy would get a quick visual, and then it would fly as I approached.  It was so frustrating.  We even had a second Flam that we heard, but neither was being cooperative for us.  Eventually the Owls were quiet and we were super tired.  We had to call it a day for Flam attempt #1.  Officially, #17 was on the list as a heard-only, but it wasn’t as gratifying as it could have been if I had actually seen it.

The next day Tommy accompanied our family on a trip to the Grand Canyon.  Throughout the day we discussed what we should do for our next and final night of trying for the Flam.  Options included Owling closer to Flagstaff, returning to Happy Jack, and returning Wiemer Springs Road.  We finally decided on the latter as we knew there were actually Owls at that location.  Their reclusive habits made us nervous, though.

When we got to Wiemer Springs Road, Tommy had commented that it would be funny if we got the Flam right away.  We began the walk we had taken the night before and  played the tape in the same spot we had found one.  Immediately we got a response! I followed Tommy through the woods.  Rather than scanning with my own light apart from Tommy, I basically stayed right at his side.  This time it paid off as Tommy quickly got on the Owl with his light, and this time it stayed put!! Flammmmmmmm!!!!!

Flammulated Owl

Flammulated OwlFlammulated Owl

We literally had about one minute to view/photograph this bird before it flew off from its 30-foot high perch.  From the time we had started walking to when this encounter was over, only 12 minutes had gone by! It was quite the stroke of luck, or more likely, an answer to prayer as Tommy had said.  Wow, what a thrill it was to get this Owl with my buddy, Tommy! I was very satisfied with the experience and the photos I got, but since the night was still very young, we decided to keep trying for more visuals.

The rest of the night would play out like the night before where additional visuals and cooperative birds could just not be had.  We did hear a couple more Flammulated Owls, but none was willing to sit still.  However, the excitement for the night was not over.  As we were chasing yet another Flam vocalization, I heard something faintly in the distance that sounded like a Western Screech-Owl.  Unsure of what I was hearing, I asked Tommy if there were Screech Owls in the area.  He told me they were very unlikely at these high elevations.  We paused to listen, and I kept hearing it! The bouncy ball song was unmistakable.  Tommy wasn’t picking it up though which surprised me and caused me to doubt my senses.  But then he caught part of the distant vocalization and confirmed it was a Western Screech!  It was a Coconino County first for Tommy besides! Since this bird is somewhat rare for this part of the state, we decided to track it down for visuals and photo documentation.  Unlike Flams, Western Screech-Owls are very cooperative.  Tommy knew we would have no trouble seeing it.  Tommy was right.

Western Screech-Owl

Strangely, though, this bird stayed very high and wouldn’t come close for photos.  We actually detected at least three Western Screech-Owls, two adults and one juvenile.

Western Screech-OwlAfter the Screech-Owl fun, we kept up our search for Flams with no further sightings.  A pair of dueting Great Horned Owls did give us a three-Owl night, however.  With Flammulated Owl locked down and photo-documented as my 17th Owl lifer, the trip was a huge success.  A fun coincidence is that the Flam was Tommy’s 17th Owl species for TOBY. I can’t thank Tommy enough for all the Owl species he has shown me (7 in all!).  The next day we celebrated in a most appropriate way–eating at the Toasted Owl Cafe right by our resort in Flagstaff.  It’s very good, by the way.

Image may contain: 2 people, people smiling, people standing and outdoor

So now only two Owls remain for me.  I got Owl lifer #16 in 2016, #17 in 2017, so I’m putting it out there as my next birding goal: #18 in ’18 and #19 in ’19.  Research and plans are already underway.  There is a chance Tommy still might be able to help me with one of those, but I may be on my own in other parts of the country for the rest of the journey.  Thanks again, Tommy!

Coming up in the next post will be the other lifers of this Arizona trip, highlighted by a real show-stopper which was the other major target bird of the trip!

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.