Saturday, March 14, 2015

Owling the Outskirts of a Tiny Town on Friday the 13th

Great Horned Owl Giving a Hoot

I love looking for owls, especially Northern Saw-whet Owls, near the summit of the Alpine Loop where stretches of road from Utah and Wasatch Counties rise to meet at nearly 8000 feet. The roads that allow access to the summit are closed during the winter months and generally reopen each sprint around Memorial Day weekend. Consequently, I've been left only to dream of what the Saw-whet Owls are doing up there in the early spring months as their breeding season goes into full swing. Recently I was told there was a way to drive my truck up into that area from the Wasatch County side. The Utah winter has been extremely mild with very little snow so I decided to give it a shot last night with my friend Eric Peterson. Eric and I most recently had owling success during our Presidents' Day weekend excursion to Southeast Arizona. You can read about and see images from that fun-filled weekend trip in my most recent blog posts.

Last night we enjoyed the beautiful scenery of Provo Canyon and Deer Creek Reservoir back-dropped by the majestic snow-capped peaks of Mount Timpanogos as we made a 40-minute drive from our homes in Utah County to Heber Valley in Wasatch County. I asked Eric if he'd be interested in checking for Great Horned Owls along the way. He was certainly interested so we made a stop on the outskirts of the small town of Midway, Utah where I'd located a Great Horned Owl roost a few years before.

We employed some simple owling techniques to locate not one but two Great Horned Owls. We suspect they are a breeding pair. We searched below some dense conifers for evidence of an active roost. We discovered pellets, remains of prey, and feathers. The ground below one particular tree was littered with pellets. I wondered what DNA might be found in those pellets. No doubt bits of mammals we in them.

Although we had loads of evidence pointing to one particular tree it was the call of a male we heard from another tree that let us know for sure we were on the trail to a Great Horned Owl. Eric located a pair of rabbit ears that certainly wouldn't help any TV get better reception.

These owls are meat eaters and rabbits provide lots of meat, especially for a nest of hungry little owlets. Apparently even these dominant owls experience threats from nature. The feathers below appear to be Great Horned Owl feathers that were aggressively removed since several are stuck together at the base. It's possible they belong to another species of bird that became prey to the owls, but they appear to match Great Horned Owl feathers as far as I can tell. The natural process of molting would result in individual rather than batches of feathers being lost.

Once we heard the male calling just before the sun was going down we moved in its direction. It was coming from an evergreen that was very tall and heavily covered. I've put the owl dead center in the cropped image below to make it easier to see while also providing a since of how deeply hidden the owl was in the tree.

Here's another image from a slightly different angle that is more heavily cropped for a closer view.

The owl flew from the tree and over our heads. The sun had dropped behind the mountains so the lighting was very poor, but I managed to lighten up the image below to show some of the detail of the owl. The owl was merely a dark silhouette straight out of the camera so I'm pleased with how digital technology allowed me to reveal the hidden details of the original image.

We heard the female engage in the calling at one point so we think we know where she is on a well-hidden nest, but it was the male that put on a show for us as he flew from one perch to another.

I did my best to hold the lens still as I attempted to capture two short video and audio clips of the owl hooting. I had my tripod/monopod in the truck and it would have improved the steadiness of the video, but I opted to go handheld since we were quickly losing light. Be sure to watch the video in HD for the best image quality.

Our last look at the owl before we resumed our drive into the mountains for the Saw-whets was a silhouette high atop a distant tree. What looks like a tiny owl from this perspective is a bird that is on its way to imposing death and destruction on unsuspecting mammals.

We finally reached the road that was to take us into Saw-whet territory from Soldier Hollow, but it was closed to vehicles. Determined to find our owls, we decided to check another road that would lead to great Saw-whet habitat and made our way there. That road was closed as well. We decided to drive up a third canyon road get into higher elevations. Fortune was on our side with our third option so we pressed onward and upward. The pavement transitioned to mud and rocks and the mud and rocks gave way to snow pack. I engaged the 4WD and pressed forward to where we would find perfect Saw-whet habitat, a mix of conifers and aspens.

We made our first stop and attempted to whistle and call for Saw-whets. We could hear that someone was on the dark and treacherous road ahead of us. There was no way to park on the side of the road due to the narrowness of the road and the deep snow covering the sloping edges so we simply stayed in the middle of the road hoping no one would need to pass us on their way down. Within a few minutes a Saw-whet responded to us and a tiny dark figure flew right by our heads. It landed in a short aspen on the side of the road and began interacting with us. Moments later it moved to a conifer where it posed for some photos. I never get tired of seeing these 8-inches-tall carnivores.

As we were photographing the owl a man with a shovel came walking up the road. He'd parked his truck below where the snow pack began and was on his way up to help dig his son's truck from the snow. Apparently the people we heard above us were stuck. We offered help and then decided we'd back the truck down from our location rather than attempt to go forward. We found a place to do about an 8-point turn. Eric guided me from outside the truck to make sure I didn't get too close to the edge of a drop off and deeper snow. Once we completed that careful maneuver we began a slow decent to another spot that appeared ideal for Saw-whets. We hit another jackpot at our second stop with our second Saw-whet of the evening. We were now three for three on owling targets for the evening.  The second Saw-whet allowed us to watch and listen to it call for several minutes before we decided to continue our way down from the mountain.

About sixty minutes and a late-night, semi-decent, fast food combo meal later we were back to our homes from a memorable evening with owls on the outskirts of a tiny town called Midway.

Monday, March 2, 2015

Birding Arizona Top to Bottom (Days 3 and 4)

Male and Female Cinnamon Teal with Female and Male Green-winged Teal at Patagonia Lake State Park, Arizona
We were covering quite a bit of territory in a rather short span of time while birding southeastern Arizona so we started each day nearly two hours before sunrise and continued until after dark. Our third day started around 5 AM so we could make the 80-minute drive from our lodge in Madera Canyon to Patagonia Lake State Park around sunrise. We were attempting to locate a reported Elegant Trogon for the first hour or so of our visit to the park. We trekked around the east end of the lake and then followed Sonoita Creek away from the lake for about 30 minutes. At one point we could tell we were no longer in the expected habitat so we reversed our course and headed back toward the lake.

One discovery I made along the trail back toward the lake grabbed my interest and attention as much as any of the birds we were observing. I noticed what looked like some sort of prickly pear cactus in an unlikely place. It was situated nearly 30 feet above my head in the crook of a tree branch. I wondered how it got in such a place. The first image gives some perspective on its location while the second image below provides a closer look.

We found a Vermilion Flycatcher that was fly catching, of course. I was going to get some images of the Vermilion until I got distracted momentarily by a Black-throated Gray Warbler high in the branches above me. It's hard to get a good angle on a warbler that prefers to have about 20 feet on the guy with the camera. At least this one showed its black throat and a tiny glimpse of the tell-tale yellow spots between the eyes and the bill that distinguish it from the look-alike and much more uncommon Black-and-white Warbler.

Black-throated Gray Warbler at Patagonia Lake State Park, Arizona
I tried to refocus on the Vermilion and was distracted again by a rival flycatcher that flew in and chased the Vermilion from its temporary perch. While Eric stayed honed in on the Vermilion I decided to follow and investigate the identity of the drive-by flycatcher. Flycatchers, especially those of the empidonax genus, are tough to identify because of their similar appearances. Many are best identified by sound rather than appearance. Some remain rather quiet until they are establishing or maintaining breeding territories. Here are several images to test your identification skills.


While watching the tiny little bird I noticed a behavior that is important in identifying the species of this flycatcher. Here's a short, hand-held video clip that captures the behavior.

I'd call this one a Gray Flycatcher based on the tail dipping behavior. It shows more of an olive coloring than I would have expected, but that seems to match the coloring of a 1st year bird as shown in my Sibley Guide to Birds of North America. The rounded crown, thin long bill with a mostly yellow lower mandible, and relatively short primary feather projection are also in line with Gray Flycatcher.

After being distracted by a warbler and an aggressive little flycatcher I finally attempted an image of the Vermilion. The light was low from cloud cover at this point and the tiny bird was high on a perch so much of the detail was lost in the image--still a striking little bird. Eric got some really nice images of the Vermilion Flycatcher.

Vermilion Flycatcher at Patagonia Lake State Park, Arizona
Another red bird, of sorts, caught my attention as we were heading back toward our SUV. Female Cardinals are not flashy like their male counterparts or the male Vermilion Flycatchers, but this female seemed to want to be photographed so I obliged.  It was back lit, but digital photography provides ways to overcome many lighting challenges.

Female Northern Cardinal at Patagonia Lake State Park, Arizona
It isn't often you get side by side comparisons of the males and females of two species, but such was the case with a pair of Cinnamon and Green-winged Teals. Males on the outside, females in the middle.

Male and Female Cinnamon Teal with Female and Male Green-winged Teal at Patagonia Lake State Park, Arizona
After leaving Patagonia Lake State Park we headed to a place I'd heard of and read about many times in recent years. I was almost certain I'd see some new hummingbirds and have opportunities for some closeups of those hummingbirds. We arrived at "Paton's Yard" and made our way to the back of the home where numerous feeding stations were situated. The feeders were full, but to our surprise and dismay, we did not see a single hummingbird. The place was crawling with House Finches, House Sparrows, White-crowned Sparrows, and a few other birds I can see any day in Utah. While waiting for the hummingbirds to arrive we entertained ourselves by shooting some of the more common birds for southeastern Arizona.

Inca Dove at Paton's Yard in Patagonia, Arizona
Female Gila Woodpecker at Paton's Yard in Patagonia, Arizona
Pine Siskin at Paton's Yard in Patagonia, Arizona

Male (red crown) and female Ladder-backed Woodpeckers were not shy about visiting the trees near the feeder as we stood by to wait for at least a few hummingbirds to arrive. It took a while, but we eventually saw a single Anna's Hummingbird fly through the yard. The lack of hummingbirds at Paton's Yard was probably the biggest surprise of the trip. I will definitely have to visit the area later in the summer when specialty hummers make their way up from Central and South America.

It was early afternoon when we decided to drive back toward the Gilbert area via the Santa Cruz Flats. I'd read about the area in blog posts by Arizona birders. It was an area we targeted because Crested Caracaras were known to frequent the area and I had never seen one. We also had hopes of seeing a vagrant Black-throated Blue Warbler and American Redstart that were reported in a specific location within the Flats.

This is not what I envisioned for my first encounter with a wild Javelina. It appeared as though someone had hit it while crossing the road the night or day before we arrived. I hope I have a better encounter during a future visit to Arizona.

As we continued our drive through the Flats we ran across a Prairie Falcon that was quite camera shy. It was a good bird to find, but a visual was all it allowed once it saw the camera lenses emerge from the windows of our SUV. Fortunately for us another cool-looking raptor did allow a few images. This one just happened to be my favorite buteo, Buteo regalis, the Ferruginous Hawk. It was a nice adult light-morph sporting its rufous leggings.

Adult Light-morph Ferruginous Hawk in Pinal County, Arizona
Adult Light-morph Ferruginous Hawk in Pinal County, Arizona
Small groups of Savannah Sparrows appeared here and there. One large flock of Lark Buntings eluded our attempts to capture photos so we settled for the less flighty Savannahs instead.

Savannah Sparrow in Pinal County, Arizona
We did end up finding the American Redstart, but we missed the Black-throated Blue Warbler. A local birder said it had not been seen since a recent storm came through with some strong winds. Perhaps the wind motivated it to move along from it vagrant stopping point.

We spotted a few distant Crested Caracaras in a field so we chalked up another life bird for me. They were too far from the road to allow photos when we first spotted them, but they were closer when we made a later pass through the area.

Adult Crested Caracara in Pinal County, Arizona
Juvenile Crested Caracaras in Pinal County, Arizona
We had a dinner appointment for a home-cooked meal at my daughter's home so we directed the SUV toward Gilbert. Our third day of birding Arizona top to bottom was productive despite missing our targeted Trogon and the hummingbirds at Paton's Yard. We ended day three after seeing some fun birds, capturing some nice images, and enjoying a delicious dinner with my some of my favorite grandchildren.

Day four was primarily dedicated to making the ten-hour drive back to northern Utah, but we did spend a couple of hours trying to get in some final birding and photography opportunities at Veteran's Oasis Park in Gilbert. Sunrise at the park was beautiful and calming. It was a peaceful moment I enjoyed knowing I'd be back to the grind with work within 24 hours.

Sunrise at Veteran's Oasis Park in Gilbert, Arizona
This post is getting long so I'll try to keep the rest to images from the Park and along the road back to Utah. I thought it was unique to capture a Great Egret, Great Blue Heron, and Black-crowned Night-Heron in the single frame below.

Both Cooper's and Sharp-shinned Hawks were hunting in the park. I watched both attempt to chase down birds they were hoping to turn into breakfast, but neither one was successful while I was watching them. 

Some male Anna's Hummingbirds allowed us to photograph them on the trail back to the SUV.

Male Anna's Hummingbird at Veteran's Oasis Park in Gilbert, Arizona
Male Anna's Hummingbird at Veteran's Oasis Park in Gilbert, Arizona
The last bird we saw as we were just about to arrive at the parking lot was disguised as a rough-looking clump in a Mesquite Tree. I did a double take and realized it was a Greater Roadrunner fluffing its feathers. I approached it to get a better look and the fluffed feathers lost their fluff. The bird returned to its recognizable form. I managed a photo just before the bird dropped to the ground and sauntered off into some nearby vegetation.

Greater Roadrunner at Veteran's Oasis Park in Gilbert, Arizona
We hit the road and continued until we reached Jacob Lake, a much higher elevation in the Kaibab Forest of northern Arizona. We stopped to pick up a few mountain species and managed to draw in some Red Crossbills and Pygmy Nuthatches.

Pygmy Nuthatch Near Jacob Lake, Arizona
A few hoodoos near Bryce Canyon provided a final look at southern Utah landscapes as we were heading toward northern Utah.  Soon the sun would set and we'd be driving through the dark to our final destination.

Two-thousand miles, nearly 130 species, 13 life birds, and four days later we were home with memories and images from another outdoor great outdoor adventure.