Mopping Up in Central AZ

Seeing as how winter is very much still alive in Minnesota, I’m not that late in writing up a report from a late January trip to visit to Arizona. Over the years the Arizona trips and respective lifers have piled up. While there is no end in sight for the former, the latter is definitely petering out. The remnant that remains for me in central AZ is a geographically scattered bunch of birds that never made their way to the top of the wish list, heck, not even the top 10 on any given trip. Gone are the days of going after some cool Owl or Trogon. Instead I’ve entered the errand-birding stage for this area, finally going after some of these ‘nobodies’. Ironically, though, these passed-over birds have become some of the most coveted since they are all that remain for this junkie looking for his next lifer fix. In fact, the one I wanted most was Prairie Falcon.

We had just a couple hours of daylight after we arrived in AZ that first day. I couldn’t not take a stab at this lifer in the agricultural fields around Stanfield where some Prairie Falcons had been reported. Dad, Melissa, and Evan accompanied me on this little quest. Wintering raptors are ubiquitous in these flats with one on nearly every pole top. Time was diminishing quickly, so my identification of most of these birds was reduced to Hawk sp. Once I saw a raptor was a hawk, we got the car rolling again just trying to cover more miles and poles to get the good one. I may have been in a hurry, but there is always time for a road-side Burrowing Owl.

Burrowing OwlFinally, I found the sought-after silhouette at the eleventh hour.

Prairie FalconPrairie FalconMy clean-up operations are not haphazard–my strategy is to try to go after anything rare first and save the most common for later if need be. One of those rarities was the Rufous-backed Robin. This past winter was exceptional for this species with many records popping up in AZ. So that next day, my friend Gordon Karre took me on a mini-outing to stake out a gorgeous backyard in Paradise Valley to hopefully get one of two Robins that had been eating the berries of pyracantha bushes. The problem was that time and berries had run out for this particular Robin pair. We dipped.

So Gordon and I moved on to another target just a couple miles away before retiring the birding efforts for the day. The Bronzed Cowbird, often a forgotten possibility on all these trips, was now at the top of the queue.  Gordon and I found a known wintering flock in Paradise Valley at some horse stables.

Bronzed CowbirdWith that target achieved, the birding was put on hold until the next morning where Gordon, my Dad, and I would follow the same strategy–go after a key rarity and snag as many other lifers along the way. That rarity was the Ruddy Ground-Dove. Though we were going to originally go after one in the Phoenix area, it became a no-show just a couple days before the trip.  We were then forced to go south to the Red Rock feedlot where several had been seen.

Initially, we had trouble finding these birds as we drove the perimeter of the massive feedlot and scanned for birds. There were some interesting distractions among the droves of common birds–a Vermilion Flycatcher, Lark Sparrows, a flock of Yellow-headed Blackbirds, and this lovely female Lark Bunting.

Lark BuntingFinally we got on to the flock(!) of the rare Doves, finding five or six in all. Here are four of them with an Inca Dove that has identity issues, all huddling to keep warm on this chilly morning.

Ruddy Ground-DoveRuddy Ground-DoveIMG_2229Ruddy Ground-DoveThe plan was to cruise through the Santa Cruz Flats on the way home to try for two birds I had long been holding in reserve: Crested Caracara and Mountain Plover. The Santa Cruz Flats are fun place to bird where one can not only stumble across a Mark Ochs lifer but also see cool stuff like Harris’s Hawks.

Harris's Hawk

And a bonus Prairie Falcon.

Prairie FalconThen, thanks to our trusty guide, we finally got onto one of the two targets–a whole heap of Crested Caracaras. Crested CaracaraCrested CaracaraNot long after, Gordon had found us some Mountain Plovers.

Mountain Plover

With some of the longtime holes finally filled in on the list, there wasn’t much to do on this trip in the lifer department especially considering our time was limited. Even still, the birds around the parents’ house provide just as much entertainment and constant opportunities for photo improvement. This year it was the Verdin’s turn for a better photo.

VerdinSome birds practically throw themselves at you when you’re just out walking in the neighborhood. Vermilion Flycatchers seem to be becoming more prolific in the area of Maricopa where Mom and Dad live. I don’t mind.

Vermilion FlycatcherVermilion FlycatcherLast, but certainly not least, checking on our neighborhood buddy is an annual tradition.

Burrowing OwlSo that’s it from this trip. Pretty tame by previous standards, but that will more than be made up for on an upcoming post detailing another trip to Arizona that was focused exclusively on birding. But first, we have to cover another excursion to Duluth. There was an irruption going on this winter, after all.

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: 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?

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

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

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

sunrise

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

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

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

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

Hooded Skunk

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

Gordon Tommy Evan

Front to Back: Gordon Karre, Evan, Tommy DeBardeleben

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

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

Elegant Trogon

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

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

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

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

“What?! You beat me to it?!”

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

Evan

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

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

Gordon Tommy Evan

L-R: Tommy, Evan, Gordon

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

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

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

Bridled Titmouse

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

Band-tailed Pigeon

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

Acorn Woodpecker

Red-naped Sapsucker

Red-naped Sapsucker

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

Lesser Goldfinch

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

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

Josh Gordon Tommy Evan

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

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

Arizona 2015: Connecting with Old Maricopa Friends and Making New

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

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

lizard

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

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

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

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

Western Kingbird

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

Western Kingbird

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

Say's Phoebe

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

Northern Mockingbird

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

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

Gambel's Quail

Gambel's Quail

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

Western Grebe

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

no beber

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

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