Friday, October 31, 2014

AZ Big Year - Week Forty-two 10/15-10/21

It was a wonderful week to be birding in southeast Arizona.  The Plain-capped Starthroat showed up at the private residence in Green Valley after two months absence.  This bird was the earliest on record and maybe the latest (except for a bird that wintered in Phoenix many years ago).  I got invited to see it and was able to take a few friends.  There are only two things better than seeing a Starthroat, seeing multiple Starthroats at the same time and seeing a Starthroat with friends.  Louise and I took a mid-day hike up the Old Baldy Trail in Madera Canyon on Thursday 16th.  Right next to the trail we found a flock of five Pine Siskins and two Cassin’s Finches.  The Siskins are expected however they haven’t shown up in numbers yet.  The Cassin’s Finches were somewhat expect being that flocks of this species have been seen in the Santa Catalina and Chiricahua Mountains.  As we were hiking through one of the more sheltered stretches of the trail, I noticed some whitewash on the rocks in my path.  Looking up (and closing my mouth) I see the butt & tail of a Mexican Spotted Owl.  This is the same stretch of trail that I saw my first Madera Canyon Spotted Owl several years ago (30 Sept 2008).  On Friday 17th I walked the Santa Cruz River both directions from Santa Gertrudis Lane.  I walked along the river northbound (not the trail) for about a quarter of a mile, not hearing much of anything I turned around and headed south.  About a hundred yards south of the lane I come across a large flock of Yellow-rumped “Audubon’s” Warblers and see another birder heading my way.  The other birder was Keith Kamper and while we were sorting through the warbler flock, a small flock of Lawrence’s Goldfinches fly in.  I thought I had heard the goldfinches early but dismissed them.  Well they were real.  We counted twenty-eight and I hope this means a good winter for the species.  After Keith & I went our separate ways, I found a Painted Redstart (unusual for this elevation), an adult male Bullock’s Oriole, and while walking out several Cedar Waxwings are perched above the Pyracanthas.  Late that evening while walking with Louise, we heard a Barn Owl. It is good to have three species of owls back in the neighborhood again!
Sunday 19th turned out to be a very interesting day, for birding in general and specifically year listing.   Louise and I started the day with another Quetzal Quest Trek.  The route this day was up the Carrie Nation Trail past the Carrie Nation Mine to the Agua Caliente Trail then east to Josephine Saddle and down the Old Baldy Trail.  From a standpoint of birds, the most interesting observation was of thirty-six Cassin’s Finches in the drainage about a quarter of a mile above the Carrie Nation Mine.  They were fun to watch, a quarter to a third of the flock would perch up high in a nearby dead snag while the rest would feed on currant berries (I think) and grass seeds.  On the Agua Caliente Trail while I was scanning for Quetzals, Louise found a Red-breasted Nuthatch.  There appears to be a minor influx of this species into southern Arizona this fall and this was the first I had seen in the Santa Rita Mountains.  The hike down the Old Baldy Trail was uneventful though very nice.  I lingered in the vicinity of the Spotted Owl roost I found a few days before, not occupied today.  I found an eBird report of a family of Spotted Owls somewhere up here in August, interesting.
Louise and I returned home. As we were laying down for a post-hike nap, my phone catches up on receiving email it missed while in the mountains.  I scan the list and see an email from Mark.  Mark & Molly had seen an adult male Baltimore Oriole along the Santa Cruz River near Sweetwater Wetlands.  I lean over, kiss Louise, jump out of bed, and head out.  The directions stated that it might be quicker to go to Christopher Columbus Park to access the area.  So I did.  I also discovered that a Brown Thrasher had been seen at a nearby park along the Rillito River, now I had two birds to chase.  I left the camera in the truck and walked through rain & mosquitos across the park to the Santa Cruz River.  I found the marker that Mark had left and shooed mosquitos while looking & listening for the Baltimore Oriole.  With the overcast clouds it was difficult birding.  At around 5pm I decided to give the Brown Thrasher a try with the little daylight I had left.  I start walking back towards the mesquite bosque at the north end of Columbus Park.   I pished at some movements I saw in some willows at the northeast corner of the bosque and to my amazement the adult male Baltimore Oriole pops up for a brief obscured view and then disappears.  I had visions of the movie The Big Year as I almost immediately began running to the next bird after getting a barely satisfying looks at the oriole.  So be it, I’m doing a Big Year!  I arrive at Rio Vista Natural Resource Park with little light.  Though the clouds were breaking the sun had set by the time I arrived and it was getting dark.  I found the rock & the bushes where Rich had seen the thrasher.  I listened to every natural sound I could hear for any indication that the thrasher was about.  Finally I hear the thrasher make a few calls, get close and see movement in the thick underbrush of a nearby mesquite.  I am pishing, chirping, making whatever kind of noise I think will arouse the curiosity of a thrasher.  Then a unleashed dog runs up, I must of aroused its curiosity, the Brown Thrasher flies from the thick cover providing acceptable views before it disappears near the Rillito River bed. It is getting dark and not worth chasing any more.  I’m not sure if I should be grateful or cursing the leash less dog & its owner.  I’m back in my truck in less than 90 second after seeing the thrasher and heading home.  I really hope the rest of the additions to the year list are better than the two today.  Though both of the birds were valuable contributions to my list, there is something unsettling about chasing and only getting brief glimpses at these birds.
The next morning, Monday 20th, I find myself driving to the San Rafael Valley trying to arrive before sunrise.   I arrive just as the sun is peaking over the Huachuca Mountains to the east.  A White-tailed Kite flies over heading out of the valley towards the Patagonia Mountains to the west.  There are Eastern Meadowlarks everywhere and many are singing.  I see several sparrow-like birds flushing from the road, both on the road and near the road.  They are probably Savannah or Vesper Sparrow but unidentified because they are between me & the sun and I cannot see much more than blurs.  I finally see one sparrow perched up on a fence wire.  Amazingly it’s a Baird’s Sparrow.  The first sparrow I can identify is the one I’m looking for.  Where are the Grasshopper Sparrows?  I get several pictures of the Baird’s Sparrow and proceed eastward.  The Baird’s Sparrow was in the low area below the “Lone Tree” pond about a half mile from the west entrance to the valley.  The road climbs a rise as you head east and begins to curve a bit.  On the top of the rise I begin to see birds in the road, Horned Larks and Vesper Sparrows.   Then one of them caught my eye, a Sprague’s Pipit. I get a few seconds of binocular views before it flushes, heading to the sky.  Several minutes later I see another as it flushes and can identify it only by its call and the “heading towards the sky” flushing behavior.  Two-of-three day-targets taken care of.  I begin focusing on finding flocks, like longspurs.  I end up hearing one Chestnut-collared Longspur, no flocks and no McCown’s.  This valley is the headwaters of the Santa Cruz River.  The northern-most river crossing was dry however a crossing further south about five miles had water flowing.  The whole valley was quite beautiful this morning, as it is most mornings I visit.  As I am heading back near where I first saw the Baird’s Sparrow, I see three sparrows perched on the fence.  All three are Baird’s and all three it photographed. Possibly the best photographs I have of Baird’s Sparrows.  I finally see a Grasshopper Sparrow and leave the valley.

What a fantastic week, four new year birds yields a total of 396 for 2014.  And now according to the ABA, reintroduced California Condors are countable in Arizona-Yuck!

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

AZ Big Year - Week Forty-one 10/8-10/14

It felt like a really slow week with regards to birds & birding.  I guided twice, went on two solo excursions, and several hours of local birding.  I also planned but did not make it to the San Rafael Valley, twice!  We are in the period between where the bulk of the autumn migration has passed and the wintering birds have yet to arrive in substantial numbers.  As one doing a big year, I hope this is the lull in the final push to 400 and beyond. 
The guiding, on Friday 10th & Saturday 11th, was to lower Florida and Madera Canyons.  Both days were rather slow but we saw some wonderful sights including the long present female White-eared Hummingbird at the Santa Rita Lodge.  With the exception of records from Tubac 10/22/2009 and from Madera Canyon 10/15/1985, this is the latest White-eared Hummingbird around. 
My two solo trips were to the De Anza Trail near Tubac and to Pena Blanca Lake.  At Tubac I hoped to find some eastern vagrants, warblers or orioles.  I was fortunate to be standing at the right spot when a Louisiana Waterthrush flew in calling, landed on a bare branch, and then went into the deep brush next to the river.  I managed a few documentary photographs.  At Pena Blanca Lake I was also searching for eastern vagrants, specifically a Chestnut-sided Warbler that was reported a few days prior. No luck with this warbler or any other vagrant.
Louisiana Waterthrush
Some very exciting news did arrive this week.  The Plain-capped Starthroat that had been hanging around a private residence in Green Valley beginning in late-April through at least 7 July was again seen on Wednesday 8th October.  The residents had been gone for two months, August & September; the bird appears to found alternate feeders yet returned to the original feeders.  While writing this, I am making arrangements visit and see one of the most loyal hummingbirds around. (Side note: This is probably the same individual that spent the summer of 2013 at this residence.)
My plans for a trip to the San Rafael Valley was  postponed twice.  Once because I slept in.  The  second time I woke up, thought about the timing (potentially too early in the season for some of the targets), and tentatively rescheduled for next week.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

AZ Big Year - Week Forty 10/1-10/7

As mentioned in my last post, I have another target bird, the Clay-colored Sparrow.  Though considered rare this species is probably fairly regular as a fall migrant.  They winter in south Texas through western Mexico and are occasionally found in southern Arizona in the winter.  I do not see Clay-colored Sparrows every year but when I do, it is usually in a mixed-species sparrow flock, often with Brewer’s or Chipping Sparrows.  So that is my focus.  It is the First of October and that means I should also be looking for vagrant warblers.  I’ve wanted to go play in the mud, so Wednesday 1st morning I head down the Santa Cruz River at Clark Crossing.  I heard the conditions there were great for anyone wanting to play in the mud – I wasn’t disappointed.  The De Anza Trail doesn’t exist anymore immediately south of Clark Crossing.  The Santa Cruz River has created multiple channels and much of the underbrush has been washed away or buried in mud.   It still looks promising for birds, particularly waterthrushes which I did not find.  I did find one mixed-species flock the held several warblers including a Tennessee Warbler.  This species is easily missed and is not found every year.  I feel pretty fortunate to have found one for the year and so early in the fall.  Once I had enough of playing in the mud, I following the De Anza Trail to the north.  Rather than mud, the trail was dry & dusty, I found mosquitos.  While I was listening to the Sinaloa Wren performing his ratchet calls, it was all I could do to not run because of the mosquitos.  There were at least six Gray Hawks still present, though I only saw a couple of them I heard six distinct individuals calling as an adult Zone-tailed Hawk cruised south along the river at tree-top level. After leaving Tubac, I stopped at the Amado Pond.  There was very little activity except the fifteen Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks and they weren’t very active.  I made what I thought was going to be just a scouting stop at the Elephant Head Road trailhead for the De Anza Trail.  I wanted to check out the weed conditions to see if it was worth a stop at a later time to look for sparrows.  It was late morning and I didn’t think much would be active.  The weeds, grass, and scattered Mesquites looked good for sparrow.  I walked from my truck to get a better look at several yellow-bellied kingbirds when I flushed a small flock of sparrows.  The second sparrow I look at in my binoculars was a Clay-colored Sparrow! I studied it for several seconds before it took off with at least two Brewer’s Sparrows and six Gambel’s White-crowned Sparrows. What an incredible morning of birding! At this point in the game, any year bird is good; particularly good when they come in twos, and even better when I find them myself rather than chasing someone else’s find. Now I need to find another target bird.
Townsend's Warbler
Louise & I decide late in the morning Thursday 2nd to take a hike up in Madera Canyon.  It is October and I decided this would be the first of the Quetzal Quest Treks.  More like a training hike than a QQT.  It was a wonderful hike with the highlight bird-wise being four Townsend’s Warblers. There were quiet a few Red-bordered Satyrs flitting about and Madera Creek is flowing wonderfully.   The biggest highlight of all was being able to spend some quality time with my beautiful wife.

Red-bordered Satyr
Hopkins Fork Madera Creek
On Friday 3rd I ventured up in to Florida Canyon.  It has been a long while, since late August that I’ve birded here.  I was hoping that the Rufous-capped Warblers had moved down the canyon a bit making it easier for guiding.  The paths that birders created & basically the entire area are now overgrown and the creek is running full.  Because of the former, seeing birds was difficult.  Because of the latter, hearing birds was difficult.  Nevertheless, it was an enjoyable walk through the bush.  I did hear at least one Rufous-capped Warbler and one Black-capped Gnatcatcher.  I was away from the creek a bit when I heard each of them but both were deep in the vegetation so no visuals.
On Saturday 4th I joined Molly, Mark, & Gary for an enjoyable day at the AZFO Annual Meeting in Miami, AZ.  It was a wonderful day of informative presentations and meeting with birding friends from through the state.  I also was fortunate to meeting several birding colleagues that previously I had only communicated with via email or known only by reputation. It was a day full of birds with only one eBird checklist, Mark stopped along the highway overlooking Boyce Thompson Arboretum and we counted Turkey Vultures coming onto roost.
On Sunday 5th I paid a late morning visit to the Green Valley WTTP.  Among a loose group of Long-billed Dowitchers I found one Short-billed Dowitcher. Otherwise shorebird numbers and there habitat are diminishing.  Also of note was an immature Greater White-fronted Goose in the basin south of the entrance road.  I am note sure what was more noteworthy, the goose or the basin filled with water. During an evening walk Louise and I found five Lesser Nighthawks hawking insects of the lighted entrance to the neighborhood.

Broad-billed Hummingbirds
On Monday 6th Louise and I walked from the Proctor Road parking area up past the Whitehouse Picnic Area & back.  We found an almost late Yellow-billed Cuckoo feeding with a large number immature Blue Grosbeaks and a female Broad-billed Hummingbird feeding one juvenile.  I photographed the hummingbirds while the juvenile embraced its mother’s bill for the food transfer, very interesting to witness.  There was also a late(?) Botteri’s Sparrow at the Proctor Road parking area where I believe a pair bred recently. On our evening walk through the neighborhood, Louise & I counted only two Lesser Nighthawks and late in the evening I heard a Barn Owl calling near the house.
Moon & Lesser Nighthawk over Madera Reserve
Juvenile Gray Hawk

On Tuesday 7th I walked the De Anza Trail south & then north of Santa Gertrudis Lane.  I had a large number of vireos; 1 Plumbeous, 4 Cassin’s, and 10 Warbling.  The latter two triggered eBird filters.  There was also a female Black-and-white Warbler along the river just north of the lane.  Otherwise it is starting to feel like fall.

At the end of this week, the yearly total is 392 with the addition of the Clay-colored Sparrow & the Tennessee Warbler.  I’m still deciding on what the next “target” will be but I am planning a trip to look for Baird’s Sparrow, Sprague’s Pipit, and McCown’s Longspurs soon.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

AZ Big Year - Week Thirty-Nine 9/24-9/30

On Wednesday 24th I meet five folks from Japan, Yuko & her husband and three friends at the Santa Rita Lodge.  Though all speak & understand at least some English, Yuko acts as an interpreter for much of the day.  Birding was particularly slow from a local standpoint however we had an enjoyable day since many of the birds were new and the scenery is nothing like Japan. We birded lower Florida Canyon, the grasslands below Madera Canyon, and in Madera Canyon at the Mt Wrightson Picnic Area & Madera Picnic Area.
The rest of the week was spent mostly working around the house or waiting for my truck to be repaired.  Monday 29th afternoon & Tuesday 30th morning I visited North Santa Cruz Park in Sahuarita hoping to find some sparrow flocks.  My next target, like the Forster’s Tern was in prior week, is Clay-colored Sparrow.  I didn’t have much luck at all with sparrows but was pleased to see an adult Common Black Hawk flying through the nearby pecan grove.
No new birds this week so I’m still at 390.