Sunday, December 4, 2016

Swan Song

We began our morning at the Hassyampa River Preserve.  It was a pretty place and we did have a nice bird count.  But it was a random trek out to Sun City to confirm a recent sighting of a Tundra Swan that would make our day fun and exciting.  But I'll start off with some pretty Gray Fox and Hassayampa photos to properly get this adventure started.  

We entered the realm of Sun City, a huge Arizona retirement community.  It's always good to begin your search with the facts.  When the facts/data don't match up, it's time to ask questions. "Hi there, we were wondering if you've seen swans on your golf courses?  We're here to verify a Tundra Swan recently seen at one of your ponds."  

"OH yes!  We have swans at several of the ponds. There are some in that direction and over here."

"And you're sure they are not geese?  Like the two Snow Geese seen over there?" Oh gods....what if they thought those geese were swans.  It wouldn't be the first time.  This search reminded me of our Monk Parakeet follow up last year in Casa Grande.  What was impressive is that the residents here KNEW their birds and definitely knew the difference between a goose and a swan.  That was really cool. But where were they?

"No. No," they continued, "These are definitely swans. Go to the club house and they can give you better directions", replied the happy retired couple. We went to the club house and an elderly man asked me if I could fix the hot tub.  I felt like a guy wearing a red shirt in a Target Store. As it turned out, it was the wrong club house.  If there were swans, did the residents know the difference between a Mute or Tundra Swan?  We'd find out. 

One of several Mute Swans found on the golf course ponds
Our random conversations went like this for a couple hours.  The problem?  So many of the ponds were hidden from street view and that made it difficult spotting ANY bird. The Tundra Swan is a very rare bird for Maricopa County and it was important that we track down and confirm the ID of this bird.

As she heads towards the light, Magill realizes before it's too late that this isn't the right hotspot......for now. 
We were meticulous in our search. The problem?  We were in a retirement community that had many of the ponds on private property.  Both Magill and myself are responsible birders and obey the law accordingly.  If a sign is posted, we don't trespass.  And that was a frustrating (and yet kinda fun) challenge.  But as they say, "Where there's a will, there's a way."

A Harris's Hawk perches on top of a resident's home

As stated before, the hotspot markers were in different areas of the city.  The birder reporting this swan certainly had specific and detailed information in their report leading us to believe that the swan was legit.  Not many people have searched for this bird because there is question as to whether or not this swan is truly wild AND there has been some inaccurate reporting from this area in the past:)  So we hoped for the best and prepared for the worst.  But when it comes to birding, is there really a worse case scenario?  Well maybe if you were attacked by bears or fall off a cliff......but other than that.......:)

The Tundra Swan has a provenance issue.  If you don't know that word, don't worry.....I didn't either:)  It basically questions the origin of the bird and whether the swan can be "counted" as a wild bird.  After hearing the history of this particular Tundra Swan, I think we'll find out that the bird is indeed countable. Come spring, if the bird flies North, there is no question. If it stays, it's a different story. 

The stunning Hooded Mergansers
We saw some great birds in the various ponds but there was one pond that was hidden from view. We knew the swans were there. How could we view the pond without stepping on private property?  And that's when fate would have us meet up with Patti and Sylvia!  

After finding the correct club house, we stopped and asked several of the residents if they had seen the Tundra Swan or knew of any swans on the property. They said they did. And what was even better?  They knew what a Tundra Swan was! Then something really spontaneous and fun happened. They took us straight to the bird in their golf carts. Both women were so kind.  If you are reading Patti and Sylvia, a big THANK YOU for taking a couple of strange bird people out in your golf carts.  

And sure enough. There they were. The Swans. 

Tundra Swan
One Mute Swan and one Tundra Swan.  Side by side preening. 

It was a fun afternoon out on the greens.  Well, a birder's version of golf:)

It's always great investigating areas with Magill.  It reminds me of playing detective as a kid except that it's all for a good cause.  Plus you get to meet new kids adults at the playground! 

The world is an ever changing place and with it, we are finding that the birds are also adapting or struggling to survive against those changes.  I've been birding for a short 5 years in Arizona and I have to say that this year has been the craziest with sightings.  What will next week hold?  Stay tuned for more........

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Winter Has Come

It is now a quieter time of birding here in Arizona. This is not to say that there isn't any great birding.  Far from it!  But with most people distracted by the holidays, many public and natural areas have less human traffic thanks in part for their need to shop. 

Great deal on Friskies Pate!
For birders, we just need to keep our eyes on the road for erratic driving.  I already have had someone dent my car from the Black Friday madness.  All I wanted was some pate for my cats!:) We, of course, forgot it was Black Friday and by that time, it was too late for us to escape. 

Lesser Scaup
The cooler temps and storms begin to usher in a new group of wintering ducks, cranes and raptors. 

Birders change their focus from mountain tops to water areas. We begin to head to local watering ponds to search for such rarities as Long-tailed Ducks or Horned Grebes. Maybe even a rare gull?

Cooper's Hawk
Some birds that are naturally difficult to see during the summer become a bit more visible as they feed from seed that has fallen to the ground. 

One of my favorite bird groups, the sparrows, begin to arrive back in great numbers.  This Brewer's Sparrow(below) is so plain and yet I think it's a gorgeous bird. 

Brewer's Sparrow
We also begin to scour the ag fields in places like Avra Valley or the infamous Santa Cruz Flats.  When I first began birding, these places were intimidating to me because their areas were so vast.  Today, it's all second nature. 

A random Osprey at the sod farm of Tweedy and Pretzer roads
As we comb the sod farms, groves of pecan trees, cattle ranches, drainage areas and barren desert expanses, we discover that all of our regular wintering guests such as the Mountain Plovers and Crested Caracaras have come back. 

Northern Harrier
We also note that there are several hundred Lark Buntings feeding from the miles of sorgum along the stretches of dirt roads.  

Crested Caracara

Cotton trucks cover us in layers of dust as we try to get a fix on the nearly invisible Mountain Plovers zig-zagging on the sod farms.  They are perfectly camouflaged as they feed from the lingering green vegetation. 

Mountain Plover
 As we exit the Santa Cruz Flats, we stop at Arizona City Lake.  Over the years, I have tried to figure out this strange community.  It is built around an artificial lake. The homes all looked rather nice at one time, but there appears to be some wear and tear now.  The fountain at the center of the lake no longer sprays regularly and now acts more like a desert island for cormorants, gulls and pelicans.  Yes, this is a great birding hotspot. 

A rare Horned Grebe. Normally rare, but this year it seems like there are more Horned Grebes than the similar looking  winter molts of the Eared species
 It's a fantastic spot for lots of rarities such as this Horned Grebe above.  Every time I see the now defunct fountain, I imagine it's where the residents bury their dead.  

The Arizona City Lake fountain used to look like this.....but not anymore.  Now it just sits like an ancient pyramid where they bury their dead. 
Well.  I do have an active imagination. The truth? It was too costly for them to run all this water all the time. Plus it's a waste of water. If residents individually want the fountain to run, they can pay for it themselves and will sporadically do so.  But I think, burial ground makes it more interesting:)

Yes, winter has finally arrived here in Arizona.  Joggers can jog.  Bikers can bike. Birders can bird. And everyone can smile and not worry about dying from heat exhaustion after 15 minutes of outside exposure:) Birders can sleep in late until 7 AM(when the sun rises) and bird until 5(when the sun sets). With a little more than a month to go before the year ends, Las Aventuras will try to make it to the 500 bird mark.  I'll leave you all with some recent visits to three of the places we visited this past week.  

Count 1. The Avra Valley area

Snow Goose in Blue Molt
Count 2.  The Santa Cruz Flats

A stunning male Vermilion Flycatcher
Count 3.  Arizona City Lake

Until next time........

Monday, November 21, 2016

Dreaming Trees

These Cottonwoods will be trimmed instead of getting cut down.  Many visitors signed petitions to keep the trees where they are. Storm damage had caused several of these trees to drop their large limbs around the San Pedro house prompting action.  These trees are home to several woodpecker species and owls and provide food and shade during the hot summer months. It's one of the few reliable places you can find Pyrrholoxias and Common Ground-Doves

This past weekend I quietly walked along the paths of the riparian corridors in Southern Arizona. 

Babs observes a rare juvenile Common Black Hawk on the DeAnza Trail
I was joined by Babs Buck for one of the treks.  We enjoyed wonderful views of many birds while celebrating the cooler temps again.

A Santa Cruz resident takes Molly, her horse, for a much needed exercise.
Our challenge? Could we find something rare? We went to find what we could find but without expectations.  It was a fun morning out.

Juvenile Common Black Hawk

It didn't take long before we spotted a juvenile Common Black Hawk!  It fed from grasshoppers along the Santa Cruz river.

The bird seemed to follow us along the DeAnza trail.  This hawk should be down in Mexico or Central America right now, but it has decided to hang around Tubac.  It has been an unusually warm fall so this may explain why this bird is still hanging around the Santa Cruz river.

While not rare, we found the orestera subspecies of the Orange-crowned Warbler.  It's not the most common subspecies here in the state.  Most of the Orange-crowned Warblers here in AZ fall under the brighter yellowish/green lutescens subspecies.

Orange-crowned Warbler(orestera subspecies)
This was an exciting addition to the other Orange-crowned Warbler finds.  Altogether, there are 4 subspecies. I can now say that I have officially seen 3 of the 4 subspecies.

lutescens subspecies

The lutescens subspecies is shown above with the orange-crown showing(rare).  The sordida subspecies was found on Catalina Island off the coast of California.  It has been mentioned that this bird may be separated as a new species down the road. It lives on the Channel Islands year round. 

sordida subspecies
Birding is so diverse.  You get as nerdy as ID'ing subspecies or meeting up with artists.  Here is Michael Summers inspiring onlookers with his talent at the Scottsdale's DeRubeis Fine Art Gallery.  Ideas were exchanged for an art show. It would be so much fun to collaborate with him BUT I need to clone myself.  Money for birding trips?  Or money for putting a photo gallery together? Such decisions!

Michael Summers at work
But on this weekend, I took it slow.  It was a quiet walk alone to several places.  I watched a juvenile Peregrine Falcon at sunset as I let my body absorb the cold temps.  It felt so good.  This summer has been relentless.  I am looking forward to the winter ahead.

Juvenile Peregrine Falcon
The trees along the riparian corridor are rich with life right now. 

The trees are about to sleep for several months.

Babs snapped this shot of me.  We had a great morning out.
And as I walk under these dreaming trees, I plan to take my birding into a quieter chapter of my life.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Where The Wild Things Are

Bald Eagle
A meteor exploded a kilometer over my car in the dark skies.  I drove watching this bizarre light approach my vehicle over the moonscape. What was it?  Hopefully not a UFO.  How would I explain that one?  No.  The light began to waver and exploded into three green fragments as they hit a cotton field.  What if that meteor had hit my car?  What if......

It was a nice distraction from the dark thoughts of late. We began our day with feral horses. A colt looks at us for the first time during a hike along the fast flowing Verde River.

We watch this beautiful scene play out as the horses cross the river.

I let the anxiety go and just enjoy the moment with my bud Gordon. I have not been well for several weeks.  This is my first real outing in a long time.

Two Bald Eagles, America's national symbol, fly over our heads.  They didn't choose to be symbols. But here they were riding the thermals up higher and higher into the bright blue sky. 

Rivers flow.  Eagles fly. And horses sip from the sweet waters of the river. This is my America.

The beautiful Verde River
Over the weekend, we all come together and enjoy some road tripping.  We needed fresh air to breathe after such a terrible week of news. It has not been easy to smile lately. 

Anxiety can create some of the worst pain ever with the knowledge that there are savages out there who'd take this country back 50 years!

Rosy-faced Lovebird in Tempe, AZ
Rosy-faced Lovebirds were never native to Phoenix and yet, they now live here in the 10's of thousands.  We have embraced them as part of our Arizona bird community. They add color to our lives. They show each other compassion as they cuddle up on the branches of trees. And it is here that they peacefully coexist among all the other birds in this city. Although, they do need to keep their eyes open for those prickly cacti!

It's not easy waking up in the morning realizing that things like our environment or people's rights are in jeopardy.  No one should live in fear except maybe that bright red Vermilion Flycatcher on the telephone wire.  American Kestrels and Merlins love little birds:)

Vermilion Flycatcher-male
No. It's not easy knowing that my country is bitterly divided. As an observer of the wild world, I worry most about our environment and the damage it will endure from a man who doesn't believe in global warming.

So I, along with over half the American voters, will be watching as these very difficult 4 years unfold. Until next time......