Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Birding Arizona Top to Bottom (Day 2 of 4)

Eric and I began day two of our Arizona birding trip about two hours before sunrise so we could drive from Gilbert to the Florida (flo-ree-da) Canyon trail head by first light. Like the day before, it was a raptor that was first to make our species list for the stop. We had just pulled into the parking area of the canyon and exited the SUV when a pair of Cooper's Hawks called back and forth to each other. The large female was seen perched in a nearby tree. The male was seen soon after as it flew along a ridge line of the canyon.

We encountered expected species such as Cardinal, Spotted Towhee, Verdin, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, and a range of woodpeckers and sparrows along the trail. Two life birds were seen while hiking along the trails of Florida Canyon--Rufous-crowned and Rufous-winged Sparrows. The tiny rufous-colored patch on the shoulder of the Rufous-winged Sparrow is not always visible, but once we recognized their chips and song we no longer needed to identify them by sight or field marks. They were singing around us nearly everywhere we went.

Rufous-winged Sparrow in Southeast Arizona
Rufous-winged Sparrow in Southeast Arizona
We encountered multiple wren species (Rock, Canyon, and House) in the canyon, but one very hyperactive, short-tailed wren caught my attention when I spotted it sporadically moving through some undergrowth. We were on our way down the trail and almost back to the SUV when we encountered the wren. It's reddish-brown color and cocked, short tail had me thinking Winter or Pacific Wren. Knowing it was likely a rare species for the area I aimed for a couple of difficult-to-catch images as the little wren bounced around inside its thick cover. I don't recall hearing the bird so it was tricky trying to distinguish between Winter and Pacific Wren. The image below is the best I could get. We wanted to head over to Madera Canyon so I decided to "shoot first" and ask questions later when I reviewed the images.

Vagrant Winter Wren Observed in Florida Canyon, Arizona
When I submitted the list of species we observed in Florida Canyon to eBird.org the local reviewer emailed and asked for more details. We agreed that it was a Winter, rather than Pacific, Wren based on the light throat, bold white stripe above the eye, white spots on the upper wings and back, and the barring. Picking up a rare bird on the trip to one of the birding meccas of the US was a fun accomplishment.

I had high hopes of seeing several new hummingbird species when we arrived at the Santa Rita Lodge in Madera Canyon, but it didn't take long to notice a real absence of hummingbirds around the feeders. I knew it was not peak season for hummingbird species in the canyon, but I still thought Broad-billed and Violet-crowned might be there. While waiting for hummingbirds to show up I took in a few more life birds with Mexican Jay, Arizona Woodpecker, Hepatic Tanager, and Yellow-eyed Junco.

Mexican Jay at Santa Rita Lodge in Madera Canyon, Arizona
Yellow-eyed Junco at Santa Rita Lodge in Madera Canyon, Arizona
Some Inca Doves were cooperative along with Acorn Woodpeckers. The Acorn Woodpeckers were happy to pluck up sunflower seeds, peanuts, and whatever else they could find to stash in the holes that had been carved into nearby trees.

Inca Dove at Santa Rita Lodge in Madera Canyon, Arizona
Acorn Woodpecker Stashing a Peanut in a Tree for Later Consumption at Santa Rita Lodge in Madera Canyon, Arizona 
Acorn Woodpecker at Santa Rita Lodge in Madera Canyon, Arizona
Acorn Woodpecker Stashing a Sunflower Seed in a Tree for Later Consumption at Santa Rita Lodge in Madera Canyon, Arizona
Acorn Woodpecker at Santa Rita Lodge in Madera Canyon, Arizona
It's not a great image because it was getting dark, but Eric eventually spotted and pointed out a female
Magnificent Hummingbird that flew into one of the feeders at Kubo Lodge, just up the road from Santa Rita Lodge. This was another life bird for me. As I first looked at the bird it looked very similar to many female Black-chinned Hummingbirds I'd seen Utah. However, once I saw it perch on the feeder I realized it really was much larger (about 40% larger) than any hummingbirds I'd seen in Utah.

Later in the afternoon we decided to drive out of the canyon and back toward Green Valley. We stopped along the way for more Rufous-winged Sparrows and moved along to other areas where we searched for Pyrrhuloxias, another life bird for me. We walked a couple of washes to no avail. Finally we checked our Birdseye app and saw that Pyrrhuloxias were seen the day before at Continental Wash. We followed the directions on the phone and began walking the wash. We made short work of locating and photographing the targeted Pyrrhuloxia. It's a bird I've chased once in southern Utah when one was reported at Lytle Ranch and one I'd searched for numerous times in Maricopa County during visits to my daughter's home.

Pyrrhuloxia in Green Valley, Arizona
Pyrrhuloxia in Green Valley, Arizona
Pyrrhuloxia in Green Valley, Arizona
The Curve-billed Thrashers were abundant in the wash. I did my best whistling impression of their "quit, quit" calls and it certainly got their attention. I'm not sure if it sounded legit to them or they were wondering "What the heck is making that awful noise?" The one below popped up on the other side of the tree from which I was whistling.


Other fun birds we encountered as we walked the Continental Wash were Costa's Hummingbird and Greater Roadrunner. As with most places we visited the Rufous-winged Sparrows were chipping all around us.

We decided to enjoy a late lunch with Mexican Food and got a short look at a flying Harris's Hawk on our way out from the restaurant in Green Valley. After driving toward and missing further looks at the hawk we tried to turn Common Ravens into Chihuahuan Ravens without success. I really wanted another life bird, but it wasn't to be. For whatever reason I stopped to photograph one of many White-winged Doves we saw during the trip.

White-winged Dove in Green Valley, Arizona
We eventually made our way back to Madera Canyon and relaxed a little around Santa Rita Lodge, where we'd sleep for the night. It was nice to chat with other birders and see a Red-tailed Hawk fly overhead. A male Magnificent Hummingbird finally made an appearance. Unfortunately for me, it was far too dark to get a good image of my first-ever male Magnificent. Thank goodness for digital technology. I was able to pull out some of the color of the green throat and purple crown from an otherwise dark object.

Follow a little R&R and trying to resolve a wi-fi problem with the lodge owner I was beginning to get excited for owling. The sun was down, the canyon air was getting much cooler and I was looking forward to adding a new owl species to my life list. I'd thought about finding a Whiskered Screech-Owl for a long time before finally making it to southeastern Arizona. Whiskered Screech-Owls had been reported near our lodge. We heard the soft tooting of our first Whiskered coming from right behind our lodge. We decided to "suit up" with warmer clothes and a light and went searching for the owl. We didn't find that one, but we soon heard another one calling from the trees across the road from our lodge. The image below shows the very first Whiskered Screech-Owl we'd ever seen.

Whiskered Screech-Owl at Madera Canyon, Arizona
After spending some time with the owl we moved higher up the canyon to where the road ends. We spent some time at the picnic area and trail head and heard several more owls calling. We tracked one down and put a light on it. It was cooperative so we captured a few images.

Whiskered Screech-Owl in Madera Canyon, Arizona
Whiskered Screech-Owl in Madera Canyon, Arizona
After a great introduction to and experience with Whiskered Screech-Owls we made our way back to town for some dinner and a few groceries. We returned to the lodge for the night having been extremely successful in accomplishing our goals for the day. I was getting excited for day 3 of our trip.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Birding Arizona Top to Bottom (Day 1 of 4)

Whiskered Screech-Owl in Madera Canyon, Arizona
My friend, Eric Peterson, and I left northern Utah about 3:30 in the morning on Friday the thirteenth. We were embarking on a trip that would take us within miles of the Mexican border in southeastern Arizona. By the time we returned to our homes in Utah County, Utah the following Monday evening we'd covered nearly 2000 miles, observed and identified nearly 130 species of birds, and added thirteen species to my personal bird species life list. We missed only four of the seventeen species I had on my target list for life birds.

Our first official stop for a bird was shortly after sunrise in the northern Arizona town of Fredonia. We had spotted a Prairie Merlin perched in a tree on the southern edge of town. I'm a sucker for raptors so I did a u-turn and captured a few images, despite the falcon being so high in the tree.

Prairie Merlin in Fredonia, Arizona
A Golden Eagle perched on a juniper caused us to make our second impromptu stop. I parked our rented SUV on the side of the road so we could approach the eagle while using a juniper tree as a blind. Well, the eagle must have seen our long shadows and took flight before we were ready to shoot.

Golden Eagle in Flight in Northern Arizona
Our first planned stop was along Highway 89A at Navajo Bridge above Marble Canyon. California Condors are known to perch on the support structures of the bridge and on the 400' cliffs that rise above the Colorado River below the bridge. When our first bird was a small falcon and our second was a large eagle we had hopes that the California Condor would be next. I'd never seen a California Condor before so I was hopeful to pick up my first life bird of the trip. The view from the foot bridge was spectacular. The image is a little deceiving because those cliffs really are hundreds of feet tall.

The Colorado River and Marble Canyon Seen From Navajo Bridge in Marble Canyon, Arizona
The view below the bridge was also spectacular because it contained my first sighting of a California Condor. The Condor, known as K6, was preening on a rock right below us. I did a search of the Peregrine Fund website and discovered that K6 (aka 586) hatched May 24, 2010 and was released into the Arizona wild March 21, 2012. He's considered a teenager of sorts for Condors. The skin on his face will turn pink when he reaches adulthood.

California Condor in Marble Canyon, Arizona

California Condor in Marble Canyon, Arizona
With a little patience we were  able to see the bird do some pre-flight stretching and then glide from its perch to pass below the foot bridge and land on the auto bridge support structure. The wing span of a Condor is about 109 inches or about 9 feet.

California Condor in Marble Canyon, Arizona
California Condor in Marble Canyon, Arizona
The pose on the auto bridge reminded me of a scene from the movie Castaway. When Tom Hanks stretched out his arms and declared to no one (since he was on a deserted island), "I have created fire!"

California Condor in Marble Canyon, Arizona
We saw about five Condors at the bridge, including this juvenile which was perched on the foot bridge below us. The juveniles have black skin on their heads. This one was tagged with "O9". I unable to find an exact match for this on on the Peregrine Fund website.

California Condor in Marble Canyon, Arizona
After enjoying the scenery and condors from Navajo Bridge we continued our journey. Our next stop was Montezuma Well Picnic Area just off of I-17 in Yavapai County, Arizona. This is where Eric helped me locate another life bird, Bridled Titmouse. I didn't get photos of the Titmice that I liked, but I did get one or two at other stops later in our trip. I did capture a unique pose of a pair of Mourning Doves at the picnic area. I noticed both were showing their gold iridescent feathers on the sides of their necks so I attempted to capture an image with both showing those golden feathers at the same time.

Mourning Doves at Montezuma Castle National Monument, Arizona
We observed over 20 species, including a flycatcher we were unable to positively identify, during our short stop at the picnic area. We saw an adult Bald Eagle flying high above us and flushed a Sharp-shinned Hawk on our way out of the picnic area to continue our fortune with raptors for the trip.

Our next planned stop would be the Riparian Preserve at the Gilbert Water Ranch before spending the night at my daughter's home in Gilbert. We spent about 90 minutes just before sunset birding the Preserve. It's a must-visit for birders who visit central Arizona and I visit it nearly every time I go visit my daughter's family. A Green Heron seen as the sun was setting was a highlight of the visit to the Preserve for me. I like the soft golden-orange light on the bird. I first noticed it facing one way and then watched as it slowly turned and moved into a more heavily wooded perch about 15 feet away.

Green Heron in Gilbert, Arizona
Green Heron in Gilbert, Arizona
We saw about 40 bird species before we left the Preserve to enjoy dinner with my daughter's family. Among the 40 was a Roadrunner. It was the first time I'd seen a Roadrunner at the Preserve despite having made numerous visits over the past few years. It was the Gilas at the Saguaros that gave us our final photo ops for Day 1 of our trip. A female was captured atop a cactus and a male, showing his red crown, was seen watching the world from its hole.

Female Gila Woodpecker in Gilbert, Arizona
Male Gila Woodpecker in Gilbert, Arizona
Our trip was starting off swell. After a few hours of sleep we were hitting the road before 5 Saturday morning so we could make our way down beyond Tucson for my inaugural southeast Arizona birding experience. Eric had been there before so I was grateful to have him navigating as he usually does on our outdoor adventures. We were on our way to bird Florida and Madera Canyons for Day 2 of our 4-day trip.


Monday, February 2, 2015

Hey, Turkey! What's That Thing on Your Face?

Some days it seems that birds are hiding when you go looking for them. That was the case the other day while I was out with a friend looking for Northern Pygmy Owls near Sundance Ski Resort in Utah County, Utah. The owls were not cooperating and it seemed that every other bird had left for better places. When a small group of Wild Turkeys crossed the road I figured it was time to do something other than stare endlessly at bare tree branches and the tops of evergreens and wires and sticks and...everything else a small owl might choose to use for a perch. The turkeys were foraging and occasionally "struttin' their stuff".

I don't want to sound rude or insensitive or offend those who love turkey faces, but at close range a turkey's face is...well...kinda ugly. The color is interesting, but that doesn't hide all the other odd features very well, especially that shape-changing, fleshy protuberance originating from the forehead of the Toms. I won't elaborate on the changing shape of the appendage, but it has to do with blood flow. The beard hanging from the chest is odd by human standards. My wife wouldn't put up with that kind of man-scaping, but then again I'm not a turkey. Well...maybe some people think I am. The fleshy bumps on the neck and head are called caruncles and are similar to the aforementioned protuberance. They also fill with blood and turn bright read when Tom gets worked up for whatever reason.

Here's a series of images I think will show what I'm talking about. They are in sequence to show the metamorphosis of the appendage folks call a "snood". It's purpose is still debated, but its bizarre appearance is not up for debate from my perspective. When I googled "snood" I found snood hair coverings for women. This here Tom might look better wearing that kind of snood instead.







I think I like their looks better when taken in as a whole, from a bit more of a distance.


I can't image how turkeys would describe humans if they could. I guess we are all odd in our own ways. I captured some video as three males were gobbling, foraging, and struttin' their stuff. The snood is in different stages for each Tom. Notice the two strutting have dangling snoods while the third one just seems to have food on its mind so the snood is in the retracted position.

This video is best viewed in 1080p HD


Saturday, January 31, 2015

Can't Sleep? Go Look For Owls

I had the chance to sleep in this morning, but my internal clock didn't care that it was Saturday. I tossed in bed a bit and then decided to use the early morning hours to look for an owl species I hadn't seen since last summer. While my most normal people were sleeping in their warm beds I drove to a nearby canyon and began to call for a Northern Saw-whet Owl. The area was perfect habitat for the species, but I wondered if the mild northern Utah winter allowed the tiny owls to stay higher in the mountains. I was delighted when a Saw-whet responded almost immediately to my call. Standing alone in the dark I looked in the direction of the call. I saw the silhouette of the owl as it flew across the moonlit sky above me. I followed the silhouette and relocated the owl as it gave its "toot, toot, toot..." call from its perch slightly down the hillside from me. I quietly moved down the hillside until I was able to see the silhouette on a large branch above me.


Saw-whets are about eight inches tall and are strictly nocturnal. They feed most actively just after dark and just before dawn. Knowing that Saw-whets are meat eaters I began to wonder if Screech-owls and Saw-whets shared territories. I wondered about this because Screech-owls are about the same size and also eat meat. My brief wondering came to an end when I heard a Screech-owl start calling from some trees just twenty feet away from where I just encountered the Saw-whet. I focused my attention on Screech-owl and listened to it call for several minutes.

I didn't get a photo of the Screech-owl this morning, but I did capture an image of a Screech-owl in the same area a month or so ago. The Screech-owl was a bit more camera friendly and allowed a much closer approach.




As I was about to leave the area to head home I heard the faint call of a Great Horned Owl coming down from the hillside up the canyon above me. I walked up the canyon to get closer to the owl. I then realized that a pair of owls were calling to each other. It is mating season, after all, for the Great Horned Owls. I was feeling quite fortunate after encountering three owl species within an hour, an hour during which most normal people in the state of Utah were sleeping.