Sunday, September 11, 2016

Petrel-ized!

Hurricane Newton sky photos from WIKI and AccuWeather.  Note how the storm covers a wide area from the Galápagos Islands in South America to Mexico. 
 I'm not sure how this all started.  But I was supposed to take a week off from blogging.  Apparently that wasn't going to be the plan.  In an event like no other in my life, I, along with many Arizona birders, experienced fallout from Hurricane Newton this past week. 

The storm is predicted during this time period to hit Arizona.  Birders are watching carefully. 

 It started off as an innocent storm around the equator and developed into something larger.  Forecasters began to warn us that this storm was heading straight towards us, the desert dwellers.  I've lived here for 20 years now and have never seen anything like it. Sure, we've had tropical storms but not quite like this one. I paced my house worrying about the torrential rains.  In fact, when the storm was about to hit us, I felt a bit of anxiety.  Would the rain shoot through our windows again like it had earlier this month?  People were saying to expect horizontal rain(the worst kind of rain if you're a homeowner).  The night before the storm I couldn't sleep because I was worried.  I didn't want to drive through flooded streets to get to work and had seriously considered taking the day off.  Looking back on it, I should have taken the day off, but not because of the flooding. 

Hurricane Newton crawls up the Sea of Cortez and is heading straight for Southern Arizona
 I awoke to a gentle and wonderful rain on Wednesday.  There were cool temps and the storm was a much needed gift for the desert.  Instead of the predicted 3 inches of torrential rain in a few hours; it was spread out over the entire day. But there was something more happening.  We watched as the eye of the storm fell apart over Southern Arizona. 

The track hits parts of Mexico causing flooding and damage to various towns along Coastal Mexico.  Some rain bands enter into nearby Chiapas
If you've seen the movie(or read the book), the Big Year, you'll remember a scene that mentions "major fallout". I always wondered what that would be like to experience. I would soon find out and become part of a rare national event that usually happens in other states. Who would have thought Arizona would ever experience something like this?! As predicted, the eye of Hurricane Newton fell apart over several key watering holes in Southern Arizona while we were all working.  It began with a few terns which wasn't anything big. But then there were reports of Storm-Petrels and Shearwaters!  People were stuck in meetings, classrooms, making dinner or in bad traffic when the reports started coming into the "birding newsroom".  Holy cow!!!! NEVER IN MY LIFE did I expect to see these incredible ocean birds here in the desert!


"X" marks the spot and we know where to look thanks to local predictions
This is where I take over with my photos.  Someday, I may own a satellite to plot charts and graphs, but not today:)  So from the ground, here's the Christmas miracle that happened for so many birders in September.  This will easily be one of the biggest events in Arizona history with new ABA records for the state and for the country. For example, an ABA first, the Juan Fernandez Petrel of South America flew over a birder in his driveway!  This gadfly petrel breeds off the coast of Chile on the islands of Robinson Crusoe and Alejandro Selkirk.  I swear I'm not making these names up.  He was lucky enough to snap some nice photos of the bird.  Another amazing sighting was had by Laurens Halsey who found a Wedge-tailed Shearwater!  

And this is the "X" which also included nearby Peña Blanca and Patagonia lakes.  
It's not everyday you get to see these gems, but I wasn't prepared for what I'd see.  You see, "fallout" is actually pretty sad.  While we were observing some of these poor seabirds finally touch water; there were some that were actually dying right before our very eyes. That's the "feeling" reaction I had to the initial observations. But then everyone is shouting out birds and trying to get an ID before they disappeared. That's the adrenaline part. It actually felt like a true pelagic except that we were on firm ground.  And no one was throwing up:) 

Black Storm-Petrel at the Bensen WTP
Throughout the week, we had a possible FOUR species of Storm-Petrels!!!  We quickly learned how to ID between the white-rumps and brown-rumps and everything else in between which included such topics as wedge-shaped tails vs forked tails. It was an exciting and challenging ID contest. 


Wedge-rumped Storm-Petrel during a brief moment of sun at the Amado WTP
But there was one species of Storm-Petrel that confused everyone.  It had a white-rump and a square tail.  It looked like a Leach's Storm-Petrel but not quite.  For hours, people took notes, videos and photos of these birds in flight.  Still.  What Storm-Petrel species was it?!! Several California birders chimed into the AZ conversation and we were shocked by what they were saying. 


This week, I landed Least, Black and my lifer Wedge-rumped Storm-Petrel. Top: Wedge-rumped Storm-Petrel, Middle: Black Storm-Petrel and bottom from left to right, Ashy Storm-Petrel and Townsend's Storm-Petrel(these were the ones we had to rule out from the top two) 
A Wedge-rumped Storm-Petrel!  This is a Galápagos Island species! Mind blowing. This storm was really a wonderful outdoor classroom experience.  By the next day, all the Storm-Petrels were gone or dead. It was like this major event never happened. Many Maricopa birders(the Phoenix crowd) and others were bummed as they tried desperately to find just ONE Storm-Petrel.  In an answer to their prayers, the bird gods gave them one incredible view of a Wedge-rumped Storm-Petrel in the heart of their lands. There, in their 100+ degree temps, they had marvelous views of this exciting bird. James McVay, who we've met on this blog, discovered the bird at a random park in Mesa. He was the guy doing a big year with his pops last year. Anyhow, the Maricopa birders really had the best views of anyone in this state. They had great lighting and really close and unobstructed views of this very special bird. Then, by the next day, this bird too had vanished. 

Hard core birders from left to right.  Wonderful birding guide Laurens Halsey is focused like no other.  Big year contestant, for Arizona, Brian Johnson is in the middle and the emergency rare bird contact person, Debra Finch is on the line with another awesome bird guide, Chris Benesh, describing the chaos that is happening around us as if it were a play by play for a football game.  In the background, another great bird guide Richard Fray goes over notes with other birders.  Yes folks, Arizona is the real deal when it comes to birds.  You'll never find a better group of birders in this country.  Many of us, including myself, have grown from their knowledge and expertise while "working" out in the field.   Not seen is Chris McCreedy who is trying to cover and record the flight patterns of the Storm-Petrels and other "interesting" birds seen over the waters. 
Final thoughts.  There were two sides of birders that showed themselves to the birding community.  The science crew and the "save-the-whales birds" crew.  Some were saying let them naturally die so that we can study and preserve them. The other half tried to save them.  And like all things with opposite views, both were accomplished.  I had a box just in case. Here is a local new's report about the fallout.  It was a wonderful experience to watch Mother Nature in action.  


Observing the Black Storm-Petrel from the Benson WTP.  It's a tricky area to bird because the hours are not posted.  Thankfully the people at the water treatment plant extended the hours for many birders.  
The birders here did an incredible job laying out a "net" to try and find rarities. Some birders, like a woman named Pat, hoped that Storm-Petrels would fall from the sky into her backyard. We can't all be lucky like Brian Gibbons with his amazing Juan Fernandez Petrel find(that is seriously the worst name for a bird). One day Pat.  One day......


Coachline, a lake once more!
Anyhow, during the next day at 4 AM(and before work), I covered the Northwest corner of Tucson at Coachline while others went to all the other watering holes in Southern Arizona.  All of our findings were relayed thanks in part to Andrew Core. It's wonderful being part of a team.  I'm not done with Storm-Petrels or Shearwaters just yet:)  Stay tuned for more fun...in about two weeks or so.  Hopefully, I can relax for awhile before things pick up again. 

Saturday, September 3, 2016

Vaporizing Cold Rub

Photo courtesy of Babs Buck.  Left to right, Gordon, Me and Muriel
The intense desert heat lifted as we entered the autumn like weather near the town of Greer. Finally!  It was cold again!

The abandoned South Fork cabins
We found an abandoned camp littered with old mattresses and broken glass.  Our mission was simple......find two tricky birds, the American Three-toed Woodpecker and Dusky Grouse.

Left to right, Muriel, Babs and Gordon
I joined Babs, Gordon and Muriel as we searched high and low for these two would-be-lifer birds.


The storms hindered much of our stay, often chasing us off the trails due to intense lightning storms.

Olive-sided Flycatcher at Butcher's Campground
The wildlife was cooperative. Maybe too cooperative. At one point, we encountered Mexican Gray Wolves on the trail.  We left the dark woods quickly.

Elk
Squirrels. Wolves. Deer. Elk. Coyotes. Chipmunks. Coyotes.  All seen while searching for our birds.

Abert's Squirrel
A juvenile Olive-sided Flycatcher made everyone happy as it hung out near the road bathing.


Often times, this bird hangs out high up in the trees far far away from photographers.


During the bad weather, we stopped at some great eats in Springerville. Booga Red's and Los Dos Molinos provided some tasty Mexican dishes spiced up with green chiles.


At the dawn's early light, we searched for American Dippers and Gray Jays.


We combed the grasslands for Mountain Bluebirds and Pine Siskins.


Pine Siskin
We were surrounded by life everywhere.

Gray-collared Chipmunk
We encountered young and old alike.

Adult and Juvenile Pied-billed Grebe
And eventually, after a lot of hard work, we found JUST ONE of our target birds. The amazing American Three-toed Woodpecker.  FINALLY!  After 4 lifetime attempts and about 100+ hours of trekking over the years, I found my bird.  Whoever said birding was "easy" needs to have their head examined.  It's not easy!  The more birds we find; the trickier the game gets.

American Three-toed Woodpecker-new lifebird; found on the often reliable Butler's Trail in Greer
The rain won't keep us away:)  My treks move forward to coastal waters with a special lady.  I will return home to the frozen North.  And in the meantime, we'll be meeting up with old friends(and new) again on the trails both here and elsewhere over the next two months. 

A fun shot.  I'm reenacting my happy hobbit side on the trails
A special thanks to Gordon for driving the several hour journey from Phoenix! One chapter of my life is ending and another is just about to begin. Over the next several months, things are about to get good. It has been a difficult year with a lot of hard work involved, but I see a light at the end of the tunnel and things are going to get exciting:)  For my international friends out there, I'm coming your way:)  As of now, I'll be on blogger hiatus for a couple weeks.  I'll be back again reporting from the trails. Until next time....

Monday, August 29, 2016

The Desert Rains



CRACK!  A bolt of lightning streaked through the sky splitting a desert mesquite in half. It falls into a major road nearly hitting a car. My cat looks toward the sound.  And I begin to hear the winds and torrential monsoon rains crash down upon us. 


Two hours pass and nearly three inches of rain trap homeowners. And while they are trapped, they discover the unwanted leaks in their roofs. I can't keep the rain out of our house because it's not raining down.....it's raining sideways!  Another tree is blown over and comes racing down a wash(now raging river) and takes out a truck.  Emergency vehicles are everywhere.  Streets, I mean rivers, form and block people from leaving their homes. The world comes to a standstill. 

Coachline "Lake" is back.
Meanwhile, Mother Nature reclaims her desert from human kind.  Dams and supports that were placed along areas to feed the ag fields, are destroyed.  The water returns to nature and feeds the land once again.  This birder rejoices.  A lake has been reborn!

Tiger Whiptail
Cacti flower.  And lizards take advantage of the puddles of water.  There they sip from the tiny pools and replenish their reserves. 


A rare Snow Goose gains strength and flies.  Perhaps someday it will return to the North where it will breed.  But not today. Apparently it prefers the desert over tundra:)

Snow Goose
During the month of August, strange birds pass through our state.  Some are expected while others are very rare.  But chasing them in the heat isn't always fun.


 However, if they're easier to find, it makes the trek worth it.  Monsoon will begin to wind down now.  And that's okay with me:)  It means the high temps will also disappear:)

Tricolored Heron


Until next time.....







Tuesday, August 23, 2016

A Future To Believe In Part 2



I remember looking up into the broken sunlight of the leafy ceiling. Birds flew from one branch to another. Just shadows really. In the grasses, he pointed to a hidden deer skull. Everyone in my 2nd grade class was in awe. 


Botteri's Sparrow-lifer for Bernie
He continued to lead us into the woods pointing out a beautiful Cedar Waxwing and American Robin.  Bernie reminded us to walk quietly.  We did our best. For most of the time. I mean...we were still kids after all:)

The darker Grasshopper Sparrow of the West
Later in life, I joined yet another nature walk with Bernie.  I was now in 7th grade.  We were looking for owls.  Their hidden locations were revealed as we watched them silently sleep on their perches. For many of us, it was our first wild owl we had ever seen!

One of the many deer I saw this summer at the Woodland Dunes
By now, I knew these woods well.  We played along a creek that once ran freely into the Dunes. I hid in the forests with my friends and built secret fortresses.  We also snuck out of our homes before the parents noticed that we hadn't done the chores. No one could find us if they tried.  It was our secret hiding place.


Eventually they cut down our secret forest and covered the creek with dirt and ugly factories. Angered adults and kids watched helplessly as the chainsaws shredded the trees to the ground. Today, those same factories that destroyed our natural playland sit empty because the work has since gone elsewhere. They had also tried to cut down the Woodland Dunes many years ago, but a few stood firm and protected this sacred area. Bernie lead the grassroot efforts to keep it free from "progress".  Many locals didn't get it. land=work=$$.  Oh if they could have seen their futures.  Today, nothing is left of the city I once knew.  The city continues to shrink and locals struggle to find work.  It is a shadow of what it used to be.  But the one thing that still attracts people from all over?  Our beautiful coastline and forests. And I gotta say.  The birding in Manitowoc County is pretty awesome.

Horned Lark
Later on in life, I returned back to the Dunes as a birder and an adult. Now I could truly understand the scope of what Bernie had set out to do. He was still there banding owls and educating us, the public. But it wouldn't be for long. Now, he was training others to do what he had done for decades.  It only took me a couple decades to catch up with Bernie and understand why the Woodland Dunes had been so important.  A few people knew early on, like Bernie, that the Woodland Dunes was an important wildlife area that needed to be protected for migrating birds, nesting songbirds, etc.  I have very few regrets in life, but there are times I wish I would have spent more time and attention to the people and the important work they were doing. 


He was still the kind person I remembered as a kid. I watched him handle the owls with ease as he taught others the proper way to band them. 




After listening to his stories about banding birds, I realized that there is still so much I don't know. He even banded the trickier ones like Chimney Swifts! 

Bernie's Hermit Warbler
And now it was my turn to help this wonderful man out.  It was an honor and privilege to aide him in the discovery of our birds here in Southern Arizona.  We found Bernie's last warbler for the US and North America. Afterwards, we headed to the grasslands where we were able to watch a herd of pronghorns casually stroll through the verdant hills.


He gave me his "needs" list and I smiled.  While I love birding in the mountains, my favorite habitat to bird is in the grasslands.  And he needed quite a few of the grassland birds!  We had beautiful views of his lifer Botteri's and Cassin's Sparrows.  He discovered Cassin's and Thick-billed Kingbirds. And of course, the Hermit Warbler. 5 lifebirds!


Time is precious.  And although I only had a day to bird with Bernie and his son Jeff, I was so happy to do so.  It's the least I could do for a man who has done so much for us.  Thank you Bernie for your life long work.  Thank you for keeping areas like the Woodland Dunes safe from development. I don't recognize much of my city anymore, but I do remember my childhood playgrounds because they were protected and made safe by people like you.  When I enter the Dunes or Point Beach State Forest, I am neither child nor adult. I exist in a timeless space where it all comes together as one. I am surrounded by happy thoughts of my past.  I am reminded of my present. And I see future generations of kids exploring these places like I did when I was a kid.  Your life long work continues to inspire us and will continue for as long as people treasure these beautiful spaces.  Thank you for all that you do!

Not my photo but from the Woodland Dunes website.  I remember these days in the 70's and early 80's.  A sunny day with wet snow and yet still cold enough to wear gloves.  Bernie educates us about the nature.

Until next time.......