If at first you don’t succeed…

A. Quit.
B. Get reinforcements
C. Blame external conditions
D. Blame the gods
E. All of the above

These are the choices of a birder having a bad day.  How many times have you just decided to call it a day, asked another birder if they’ve had better luck finding the target, or blamed conditions?

Afterwards, you…. (select all that apply.)
A. Check ebird for more specifics on location
B. Verify field markings in a field guide/allaboutbirds
C. Call reinforcements
D. Go back again

The number of answer choices selected in question 2 indicates your level Birder Style.  (By the way, if you selected all of the above, you are an Obsessed Birder).

All of this leads me to my pursuit of George this past September.  (Can you tell what type of birder I am yet?)

So George is not a person, not even a birder.  The truth is George was a RBA celebrity.  George appeared in late July at the Meadowlands.  He was an overnight wonder.  The glossiest white feathers, a much bulkier frame; he put the egrets to shame.   And to every birder’s delight he stayed. and stayed. and stayed.

He wasn’t seen every day, but it was it was close.  Birders grew to know him on a very personal level.  They knew his favorite dinning locations at low tide; where he’d go when he needed a change of pace.  He was the celebrity that lived in your neighborhood, much like Mr. Rogers.

He was there throughout the summer, but I couldn’t get away to see him for myself.  15 minutes from my own apartment and I was house-sitting in another state!

Finally September rolled around and I was free to pursue George.  First we forgot to do our research before going.  That was that was Thursday.  So I returned at the next possible opportunity: Saturday.  Here’s what I saw:

Yellowlegs huddled on a distant shore. NJ Meadowlands. Photo taken on September 6, 2014.

Yellowlegs huddled on a distant shore. NJ Meadowlands. Photo taken on September 6, 2014.

Nope, no George slumbering here.

Snowy Egret and Yellowlegs size comparison. NJ Meadowlands. Photo taken on September 6, 2014.

Snowy Egret and Solitary Sandpipers size comparison. NJ Meadowlands. Photo taken on September 6, 2014.

No George here either.

Black and white. Cormorants and a white bird at a great distance. NJ Meadowlands. Photo taken on September 6, 2014.

Black and white. Double-crested Cormorants and a white bird at a great distance. NJ Meadowlands. Photo taken on September 6, 2014.

So a white bird at a far distance. Had its back toward me the entire time.  Visible from the New Jersey Turnpike, I’m sure, but not from my spot.

Conditions were not favorable. So home again I went. The new week began and reports of George’s habits continued. So the next Thursday rolled around. By this time, I was pretty sure I had the precise location of George’s favorite fishing hole.  Now for confirmation.

Solitary sandpipers aren't so solitary.  These solitary sandpipers look like they're skating on ice. NJ Meadowlands. Photo taken on September 11, 2014.

Solitary sandpipers aren’t so solitary. These solitary sandpipers look like they’re skating on ice. NJ Meadowlands. Photo taken on September 11, 2014.

Negative on George.

The Solitary Sandpipers now look like speed skaters in the mud. NJ Meadowlands. Photo taken on September 11, 2014.

The Solitary Sandpipers now look like speed skaters in the mud. NJ Meadowlands. Photo taken on September 11, 2014.

Still nothing.

Red-tailed Hawk. NJ Meadowlands. Photo taken on September 11, 2014.

Red-tailed Hawk. NJ Meadowlands. Photo taken on September 11, 2014.

Not George.

Hidden in the yellowlegs: Greater Yellowlegs and Lesser as well as Short-billed Dowitchers. NJ Meadowlands. Photo taken on September 11, 2014.

Hidden in the yellowlegs: Greater Yellowlegs and Lesser as well as Short-billed Dowitchers. NJ Meadowlands. Photo taken on September 11, 2014.

Finding George is like finding Waldo, or not.

A migrating Yellow Warbler passes through. NJ Meadowlands. Photo taken on September 11, 2014.

A migrating Yellow Warbler passes through. NJ Meadowlands. Photo taken on September 11, 2014.

Wrong color for George.

Conclusive proof as we're going to get: George the American White Pelican at the Meadowlands.  NJ Meadowlands. Photo taken on September 11, 2014.

Conclusive proof as we’re going to get: George the American White Pelican at the Meadowlands. NJ Meadowlands. Photo taken on September 11, 2014.

George!

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Puppies and Penguins for a Perfect Planet

What is more perfect than puppies protecting endangered penguin populations from predation?

Maremma puppy.  Photo from the Dodo.

Maremma puppy, presumably one of the individuals in penguin protection training. But nevertheless, cute! Photo from the Dodo.

In a quickly transforming world where job skills are constantly changing, Maremma guardian dogs are being retrained for a new job market.  Scientists and trainers are shifting the genetically selected behaviors of Maremma guardian dogs from guarding sheep to guarding the Little Blue Penguin (Eudyptula minor) of Australia from an invasive species of Red Fox.

The breeding population dropping to a low of 4 in 2004-2005 has since risen to 200 thanks to the puppy protection program.

One of the most amazing aspects of this conservation program?  It didn’t come from scientists.  It came from an ordinary citizen.  Imagine what progress we could make if everyone cared about conservation.

Little Blue Penguins, locally known as Fairy Penguins for their small stature.  Are also known as Chooks in Suits. | Photo from the Dodo.

Little Blue Penguins, locally known as Fairy Penguins for their small stature. Are also known as Chickens in Suits. Photo from the Dodo.

References and Additional Reading:
Via Meet The Dogs Responsible For The Itty Bitty Fairy Penguins’ Comeback.
Check out their website here: Flagstaff Hill
Middle Island Little Penguin Monitoring Program Season Report 2012-2013

Read about this yesterday and can’t get it out of my mind so I thought I’d share.   A birding centered post will be up shortly!

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Piering Back Through Time

August is often a quiet birding month. If you are fortunate enough to be by the seashore or along a flyway, you can witness the beginning of the migration season as shorebirds move through. Why do shorebirds depart so early?

Well here in New Jersey, we’re quite fortunate when it comes to shore birds!  We have our endangered Piping Plovers nesting on our beaches and the Ruddy Turnstones refueling on their migration, but oftentimes don’t realize the Ruddy Turnstone’s behaviors are more typical of their family (Scolopacidae). Many of the shorebirds migrate to the far northern reaches of this hemisphere. Not sure what marketing strategies they used, but it worked. “Experience Long Days in Short & Sweet Summers”?

Goodness knows I’d response to such an advertisement.  And the shorebirds definitely do.  Take a look at the two maps below.  Gleaned from the riches of the internet, on the left we have a generalized map showing the migration pathways of shorebirds between the polar reaches.  Most of our neotropicals (sciencespeak for summer birds found in the Western Hemisphere) prefer to spend their winters in more climates with a shorter commute.  However, the shorebirds hold most of the records for long distance migration (the way Kenya produces champion Olympic runners).

  • About ~1800 species perform long distance migrations (18%).
  • White-rumped Sandpiper flies 15,000 miles one way.
  • Bar-tailed Godwits Limosa lapponica fly 11,000 miles nonstop.

Now the map on the right shows breed locations for Snow Geese.  While not a shore bird, the map depicts the preference for extreme latitudinal breeding grounds also evidenced by dozens of shorebirds.  These habitats are rich with the food resources needed by the birds. So why do shorebirds migrate so early?  Long commute.

So back to birding here in the mid-Atlantic.  August saw me house-sitting once more in New York.   While house-sitting I had a few opportunities to go a birding hotspot in the county known the “the Pier”.  It’s not wooden nor is it like a boardwalk.   It’s a one-mile road once used for military purposes now converted into a paved and tree-lined walk into the Hudson River (that generally keeps your feet dry – bonus!). This is a nice spot for ducks, shorebirds, warblers, and some raptors depending on the season.  It juts out the western shore of the Hudson River as a signal to all weary birds they can find refuge here.  Just south of the Pier is a marsh which further extends sanctuary for these feathered friends.  It’s probably the best/only shorebird birding location in Rockland county.

There have been some enviable birds seen here.  Generally not by me.  But what I’m trying to build for myself is a solid working knowledge of the usual suspects at this site so I can find the fun ones.  So the remainder of this post is the dialogue in my head as I processed and assessed these images.   It’s like a note to myself for in the future when I forget what the shorebirds look it because it happens every year.

Mallard in flight. The Pier, Piermont, NY. Photo taken on August 10, 2014.

Mallard in flight. The Pier, Piermont, NY. Photo taken on August 10, 2014.

As I continue working towards improvement in bird photography, I’d like to focus on birds in motion.  (Some of this may need to wait until I get a functional camera).  I like this photo though despite the blur and shadow.   The mallards are around year-round, but I do want to try to remember to appreciate them!

Osprey on the prowl. The Pier, Piermont, NY. Photo taken on August 24, 2014.

Osprey on the prowl. The Pier, Piermont, NY. Photo taken on August 24, 2014.

Another fairly frequent visitor: the Osprey.  Usually if I remember to look up often enough and scan with the binoculars, I can find at least one Osprey.  Another in motion photo.  In this one, the M-shape that helps to identify the species is less evident.   I know some birders who strongly feel Ospreys must be observed for it to be considered a good day of birding.  Thus the 24th must have been a good day.

Least Sandpiper forages among large rocks at high tide. The Pier, Piermont, NY. Photo taken on August 10, 2014.

Least Sandpiper forages among large rocks at high tide. The Pier, Piermont, NY. Photo taken on August 10, 2014.

And to close with some photos of shorebirds.  Which is what one particularly seeks in August.   Notorious for traveling in large groups and looking like carbon copies, shorebirds can be very frustrating to identify.   I know when taking these photos in August, my focus was on photography rather than identification.

Least Sandpiper gazes out at the tide. The Pier, Piermont, NY. Photo taken on August 24, 2014.

Least Sandpiper gazes out at the tide. The Pier, Piermont, NY. Photo taken on August 24, 2014.

Both the above photos featured the Least Sandpiper.  There are three small sandpipers in the region collectively known as peeps.  Please don’t eat them, they’re not as sweet as they sound!  In fact I would argue the opposite of sweet is not bitter, but frustrating!  How often is a day of birding either characterized as sweet or frustrating?   The Least is the smallest peep, but when you’re lacking a ruler and distance is an issue 1/4 inch differences don’t help!

The most obvious give away are the legs.  Take a look at the two above: yellow.  Now if in deep water, mud, or shade or poor lighting (90% of all situations +/- 5.5%) the yellow isn’t obvious.

What else stands out to me?  There seems to be a bit more of an intentional eye line, the feathers have more of a rust color, the bill seems a bit shorter?

Semipalmated Sandpiper hunkers down to wait for better times, or tides. The Pier, Piermont, NY. Photo taken on August 24, 2014.

Semipalmated Sandpiper hunkers down to wait for better times, or tides. The Pier, Piermont, NY. Photo taken on August 24, 2014.

Now this fellow above is different.  Legs are darker.  No discernible eye line. More like an eye spot? Brown-brown feathers.  I’d say this is a Semipalmated Sandpiper.  Which I believe in the Mid-Atlantic region is the most common.  (Despite what my August collection of photos appears to indicate!)  Slightly larger, which I know from my bird guide and websites, not the photo!

Least Sandpiper scrambles at the water's edge. The Pier, Piermont, NY. Photo taken on August 10, 2014.

Least Sandpiper scrambles at the water’s edge. The Pier, Piermont, NY. Photo taken on August 10, 2014.

Last and least!  The Least Sandpiper here again.   Note the rust-tinges, yellow legs, eye line.   Also, it seems that the upper breast, just below the neck region is also buffier than in other sandpipers (comparison not yet available).  Note that the Pectoral Sandpiper who is better known for this feature has coloration much further down and is a larger sandpiper.

I also just really like this photo.  It’s one in a series of 5 taken moments apart and all the others are just slightly out of focus with my autofocus.  Thanks, camera.

Additional Reading:
Ecological Studies and Environmental Monitoring at Bylot Island Sirmilik National Park.
Bird Migration. Wikipedia.

Posted in resolutions, rockland | Tagged , , , , , | 3 Comments

All the Broken Things

Arizona Series Post #3

Down in the borderlands birders flock for the unusual sightings are more likely here than elsewhere.  A chance encounter at the Phoenix airport where I sat reviewing western flycatchers led to a discussion of birds with a Tucson-based birder. She recommended Miller Canyon.  Miller Canyon.  Miller Canyon.  Where all the birders go, eventually.  It’s rather like paradise for both birders and birds. My final destination.

View of the Canyon and its secrets.  Miller Canyon, Arizona. Photo taken on June 16, 2014.

View of the Canyon and its secrets. Miller Canyon, Arizona. Photo taken on June 16, 2014.

The morning started off less than auspiciously. Carrying my gear, I caught my camera on the hotel exit.  While the lens was retracted and the camera was off, it now makes a funny sound and stutters as I zoom in and out.  (After note, camera generally has a fuzzy focus at maximum optical zoom, 35x).

I drove the 90 minutes south towards Mexico.  Driving into the canyon, the GPS failed me and I was on my own.  One wrong turn and I’d probably end up in Mexico.  I pulled into the first lot, gazing around me. A solitary car was the only evidence that people might be about.  Behind was a sandy-rocky, sun-baked slope, before me was a forest.  With no additional knowledge to guide me, I waited, wondering which way to go.  As Miller Canyon was a last minute change of plans, I hadn’t thoroughly researched it. (Research extended to I found it on a map, and remembered Laurence, of Butler’s Birds, has been here).

As I deliberated, a third car pulled into the lot.  An older couple emerged.  Noting their binoculars I sought some direction.  Very kindly they suggested I follow them up to Beatty’s Guest Ranch.  We visited with Tom Beatty, Jr. who described the locations of the most sought out species: The Spotted Owl(s), Northern Goshawk, and Northern Pygmy Owl.

We set out through the Guest Ranch, towards the canyon.  Very quickly, the woman lagged behind before deciding to turn back.  Knowing this to be my first trip to the area, the man decided to continue forward.   Soon he decided to turn back as well, concerned for his partner.  He promised to at least get me to the location of the Spotted Owl, before returning to his partner. Then, I was alone.

In the location of the owl, there was the remains of a building and a dried up creek.  I wandered along the creekbed peering into the trees.  When that didn’t pan out, I scrambled to the other side of the creek and began working my way along paths that quickly degraded into mouse paths.

I did find a reptile though. So that was something.

Unknown reptile. (Not a herptologist!) Miller Canyon, Arizona. Photo taken on June 16, 2014.

Unknown reptile. (Not a herptologist!) Miller Canyon, Arizona. Photo taken on June 16, 2014.

When I heard voices, I turned around, returning to the foundations.  A family from Illinois staying at the guest ranch had arrived to seek the owl.  The granddaughter was inclined to scramble over rocks while her grandparents rested on the foundation scanning boughs.

After chatting awhile, we were joined by a birder from Vermont.  We compared notes as to who had heard which helpful hints for finding this owl. Eventually the Vermont birder decided to investigate the lower portion of the stream bed and I followed.

Back in the streambed, the Vermont birder elected to go north and I traveled south, coming across his fellow travelers.  Quite soon they located white wash, and voila, there were the spotted owl babies!  Both of them sitting in a tree, cute as can be.

Baby spotted owls sit together in the tree. Miller Canyon, Arizona. Photo taken on June 16, 2014.

Baby spotted owls sit together in the tree. Miller Canyon, Arizona. Photo taken on June 16, 2014.

We clicked and we clacked away and I’m sure the babies did as well, but we kept a safe enough distance away that we couldn’t hear any of their vocalizations.

Baby spotted looks down from its perch. Miller Canyon, Arizona. Photo taken on June 16, 2014.

Baby spotted looks down from its perch. Miller Canyon, Arizona. Photo taken on June 16, 2014.

Yet another Spotted Owlet photo. Miller Canyon, Arizona. Photo taken on June 16, 2014.

Yet another Spotted Owlet photo. Miller Canyon, Arizona. Photo taken on June 16, 2014.

Fuzziest baby ever: Spotted Owl! Miller Canyon, Arizona. Photo taken on June 16, 2014.

Fuzziest baby ever: Spotted Owl! Miller Canyon, Arizona. Photo taken on June 16, 2014.

Once we had our fill of baby spotted owls (is that even possible?) the others elected to return down the canyon while I proceeded upward.

As best as I could remember a quarter mile up the stream there was said to be a large rock in the stream with a tree growing from it where the Northern Goshawks lurked.  A quarter mile beyond that there was a large tree with a hole in it where a Northern Pygmy Owl lived. These seemed admirable goals.  And should I fail in this mission, there was always remarkable scenery and other birds (hopefully) to console myself with.  And, baby Spotted Owls.

Being completely new and unfamiliar with Miller Canyon I had little sense of where these locations spent many segments of canyon double checking my surroundings.  I did eventually find a tree that might have been the Northern Goshawk tree.  However, the area was quiet.   No tanagers, pewees, or warblers as consolation prizes.

Northern Goshawk tree; no goshawks. Miller Canyon, Arizona. Photo taken on June 16, 2014.

Northern Goshawk tree; no goshawks. (If this isn’t the tree, I clearly don’t know what was!) Miller Canyon, Arizona. Photo taken on June 16, 2014.

I saw, contemplated, and slowly savored some of my water.  Did I mention I had very limited water?  This may have been the moment I realized that I hadn’t refilled my water bottle after the last excursion.  (When I had arrived I noticed that the back up bottle in the car had sprung a leak and now longer could function as the back up.) Oops.  I had less than a bottle with me.

This is where I became mixed up.  Being overwhelmed, first by being here, and second by the complicated directions that referred to landmarks existed more in time than space, I mixed up the sequence for these target birds.  I continued up the canyon path looking for the Pygmy Owl which was actually already well past me.  Alas.

However, it was a beautiful, serene walk as the elevation became to climb more sharply.  The canyon path separated from the canyon floor, bringing me up into the canopy.

Birds even graced the path, so major win.  Arizona Woodpeckers (the most common woodpecker ever?), additional views of Plumaceous Vireo, Hermit Thrush, and the all-American Robin, plenty of Painted Redstarts (properly red ones!),  and I even figured out a Canyon Wren by call.  I also picked up towhee, tanagers, and grosbeaks, oh my! Spotted, Western, and Black-headed.   Each a delight once I determined what I was looking at.

At one time I did hear a loud and continuing raucous on the far side of the creekbed.  Every time of bird in the vicinity clamored in consternation at some sight beneath me.  I stopped and peered endlessly, but the most I saw was something of a moderate size and gray in the shadow, slink between two bushes.  I was very tempted to tumble down the canyonside to immediately get closer and investigate.  The only thing that held me back was the realization I’d have to climb back up.  Secondary, and only a bit later was the notion that perhaps one should not chase after predators unprepared.

As my heart rate calmed once more I had a visitor who was probably coming in to determine what the raucous was about.  This particular feather friend landed so close that I almost couldn’t zoom back enough to get it into focus.  But there you, Red-faced Warbler.  One blurry photo (not shown) and this one below.

Aptly named Red-faced warbler.  Miller Canyon, Arizona. Photo taken on June 16, 2014.

Aptly named Red-faced warbler. Miller Canyon, Arizona. Photo taken on June 16, 2014.

As my water ran low, I contemplated turning around with each step I took.  I would set myself a destination as my turn around point, but keep going just a bit further.  Eventually, such persistence paid off.  I caught a flash of bold yellow, back down in the creekbed:

Sulfur-bellied Flycatcher.  Score. Miller Canyon, Arizona. Photo taken on June 16, 2014.

Sulfur-bellied Flycatcher. Score. Miller Canyon, Arizona. Photo taken on June 16, 2014.

As best I can tell, this is a Sulfur-bellied Flycatcher.  I don’t see any other flycatcher that looks this bold.  A short while later (at this point it was sometime in the afternoon),  I turned around and made my way more quickly back the canyon.

I searched in vain once more for the Northern Pygmy Owl… in vain because I was entirely on the wrong section of trail. I decided to swing by the Spotted Owls because they’d make a lovely consolation prize (not that one was needed!), but a sweet note to end my excursion and trip on.

The babies were nowhere to be found.  Too well camouflaged perhaps.  But I did find one of the adults.  From my vantage point I could only catch a profile glimpse.  But I wanted more.  I scrambled around her, moving 90 degrees with her as the center of my circle, but from head on, I couldn’t locate her.  The angle was too different.  I retreated and tried my luck, stopping every few paces to reorient myself.  I decided scrambling on a tree would be a smart idea to help me better view the owl.  Scrambling off the tree I’m  not entirely sure what happened, but there was a tumble.  I did protect all my gear as I topped into the empty creekbed but I fear my pride was injured.

My first glimpse of the mother (assumption) Spotted Owl. Miller Canyon, Arizona. Photo taken on June 16, 2014.

My first glimpse of the mother (assumption) Spotted Owl. Miller Canyon, Arizona. Photo taken on June 16, 2014.

Now I was determined to press on and get a better view.  Resolute, I pushed forward.  Finding a better view in the creekbed (I had been looking in the wrong tree the first time!), I squatted down to set up the camera and. rrrrriiiiippppp….. there went my favorite hiking pants.  They had embroidery and pockets, and they fit (the last one being harder to find than the embroidery)!  A rip beyond salvation.  Photos, must get photos.  Must make the sacrifice of pants and pride worthwhile.

Mama Spotted Owl. Miller Canyon, Arizona. Photo taken on June 16, 2014.

Mama Spotted Owl. Miller Canyon, Arizona. Photo taken on June 16, 2014.

Please tell me it was.

After this, I said good bye to the owls, and made my way down the trail.  Here I had an epiphany.  Now, I am one of those people who tend to be *really* well prepared, except for the times I’m not at all.  This fortunately was a really well prepared time.  I happened to have a change of clothes in my pack.  So I was about to swap out the ripped pants. Then, I continued down the trail to the Hummingbird feeders to end my day, and my trip.

So this is the tale of all the broken things, many months later. Hopefully the wait was worthwhile.

Posted in arizona, travel | Tagged , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Oooooh for Owls

Arizona Birding Series: #3

I meant to share this the other week, but while I am working on the conclusion to my Arizona series, I thought I’d link to this for your viewing pleasure, cause there aren’t enough owls in the world. (That’s a fact).

Staring Contest. Burrowing Owl Stakeout, Tucson, Arizona. Photo taken on June 14, 2014.

Staring Contest, now with video. Burrowing Owl Stakeout, Tucson, Arizona. Photo taken on June 14, 2014.

Unfortunately, Flickr and WordPress continue to not play well so I can’t actually imbed videos.

Posted in arizona, travel | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Sunrise Stakeout

Arizona Birding Series: #2

Dreams do come true.  When researching my impending (now long since passed!) trip to Arizona, I was determined to see a Burrowing Owl.  Such indelible birds were not to be missed!

Research through the annals of ebird revealed that Burrowing Owls were to be found on Lisa Frank Avenue, right in Tucson, a mile from our hotel!  Clearly this was meant to be.  I was out the door by 7am the first morning, alone, as my sister reneged on her agreement to accompany me. (You did!)

The streets leading to the stakeout where a mixture of desert scrub and industrial complex beneath a rising sun. I wasn’t sure entirely what to expect or how hard finding Burrowing Owls would be.  So I headed at out at the earliest opportunity to maximize my chances of spotting an owl.

King of the Fence. Burrowing Owl Stakeout, Tucson, Arizona. Photo taken on June 14, 2014.

King of the Fence. Burrowing Owl Stakeout, Tucson, Arizona. Photo taken on June 14, 2014.

Lo and behold, there was a Burrowing Owl on a fence post. Right outside the Lisa Frank Building*  Not at all where one expects to find an owl. I might have easily walked past as blinded by the building as I was.  The fence was much closer to the road than the building.  Had I longer arms I might have touched the owl. (If I could have, I would have hugged it! Reached that is, if I could have reached. All owls want to be hugged. It’s a fact.)

Hike and Seek. Burrowing Owl Stakeout, Tucson, Arizona. Photo taken on June 14, 2014.

Hide and Seek. Burrowing Owl Stakeout, Tucson, Arizona. Photo taken on June 14, 2014.

I walked to the far side of the street to sit and watch in amazement. (I might have texted a fellow birder or two back east to share my amazing fortune!)  Then I noticed there were more owls.  And they made sounds!  It was almost too much to bear.

Ruffled Feathers. Burrowing Owl Stakeout, Tucson, Arizona. Photo taken on June 14, 2014.

Ruffled Feathers. Burrowing Owl Stakeout, Tucson, Arizona. Photo taken on June 14, 2014.

There were times they appeared to stare at me, and other times they appeared utterly disinterested.  The above owl seemed more concerned with letting the wind blow through its feathers than the whirl of my camera hard at work.

Pounce? Burrowing Owl Stakeout, Tucson, Arizona. Photo taken on June 14, 2014.

Pounce? Burrowing Owl Stakeout, Tucson, Arizona. Photo taken on June 14, 2014.

They appeared very amicable birds, interacting and moving amongst each other.  They’d sit together, then rearrange themselves.  Sometimes darting across the street to chat with a neighbor, other times ducking into the burrow.

Burrowing Owl surveys the landscape at it's burrow. Burrowing Owl Stakeout, Tucson, Arizona. Photo taken on June 14, 2014.

Burrowing Owl surveys the landscape at it’s burrow. Burrowing Owl Stakeout, Tucson, Arizona. Photo taken on June 14, 2014.

I sat there for half an hour or so, rapturing in owls.  A few people stopped to speak to me about it – the owls here are a locally-known phenomenon.   I guess they get a good number of birders.

Staring Contest. Burrowing Owl Stakeout, Tucson, Arizona. Photo taken on June 14, 2014.

Staring Contest. Burrowing Owl Stakeout, Tucson, Arizona. Photo taken on June 14, 2014.

There were at least 6 owls.  I stayed as long as I could and then hurried back for family engagements.

*Lisa Frank Avenue and Building, of course, the headquarters for the company responsible for the purple and pastel unicorn and fantasy themed binders and trapper-keepers on the market in the 90s aimed at pre-teen girls.

Posted in arizona, tnc | Tagged , , , , , | 4 Comments

Key to Life

Arizona Birding Series: Post #1

The desert is a dead place.   I suspect many people believe this. Harsh. Stark. Unforgiving.  These descriptions are more appropriate.   A desert is defined only by the amount of precipitation it receives.  Water is the key to life.  Nowhere is this more evident than the desert.

There are also many types of deserts.  Many people associate sand with deserts: sweeping sand dunes and camels.  This is not an American desert.  Much to the chagrin of school children across the country, the American West does not have camels. Nor are sand dunes much good for  sledding.

There are four deserts in the United States: all of which pass through Arizona. These are the Great Basin, the Mohave, the Sonoran, and the Chihuacuan. The Chihuacuan is a Mexican desert that just stretches north into the states.   The Great Basin begins near the Grand Canyon and progresses upwards to Idaho and Oregon.  Did you know there are deserts in Oregon?  Most people don’t realize this because they assume the Pacific Northwest is too cold and universally rainy.  In fact, the Cascade Mountain Range creates a rain shadow.  As the winds carry the air up, the airs cool, condensation forms, and the clouds release their moisture on the western slopes.  Crossing the caps of the Cascades, the moisture from the clouds is depleted, leaving parched lands to the east.  This is the Great Basin Desert.  Deserts can be very cold in the winter, at night, or even throughout the year.  Take Antarctica.  Yep, another desert.  This one a polar desert.

These deserts vary by temperature, by precipitation (combined we call this climate), by elevation, by botany.  Some deserts receive more precipitation than others. The Atacama Desert of Chile receives 0.04 inches annually while the Sonoran Desert averages  3 to 16 inches of rain a year.  Typically deserts receive less than 10 inches per year. Regarding botanical differences, cacti are only found in Western Hemisphere deserts.  There are no cacti in Africa. Apparently you can have camels, or cactus, but not both.   That’s evolution for you.

Elevation plays a surprisingly important role in deserts and with birds.  Did you know some migrations are elevation-based?  E.g. Pine Warblers are known to do this as are Anna’s Hummingbirds. Anna’s Hummingbird breeds in the dry California lowlands, vacations in the mountains, and winters in the deserts of Arizona and Mexico.  

Particularly in the Sonoran Desert, as you climb a mountain, it’s akin to traveling North.  With a tall enough mountain, climbing a couple thousand feet in the air is botanically similar to traveling a couple thousand miles north: you’ll pass thought the same vegetative transformations.  The geologic presence of mountains creates desert islands: Isolated regions of greenery within a desert sea.  This is where the birders go.

Madera Canyon, Arizona. Photo taken June 16, 2014.

Elephant Head from Proctor Road. Madera Canyon, Arizona. Photo taken on June 16, 2014.

I began my Arizona Birding Excursion at Proctor Road earlyish in the morning.  I figured I’d do Proctor Road before the day grew too warm.

Madera Canyon, Arizona. Photo taken June 16, 2014.

Yep. Waiting on the ID. Madera Canyon, Arizona. Photo taken on June 16, 2014.

It was…. disappointing.  There were few birds calling and fewer birds moving.  A few times I’d catch a glimpse of something flying by, but never enough for a positive identification. I stuck with it though for over an hour.  Enjoying the dramatic change in scenery from the east coast.

Canyon Tohee is well hidden in the underbrush.  This was key to identification. Madera Canyon, Arizona. Photo taken June 16, 2014.

Canyon Towhee is well hidden in the underbrush. This was key to identification. Madera Canyon, Arizona. Photo taken on June 16, 2014.

The above bird is one of the few I saw along Proctor Road.  My best guess is Canyon Towhee based on color/size/habitat.   The markings along the face threw me for awhile until I realized it wasn’t tribal paint or distinctive plumage, but a blurry branch.

Hurray for Bat Conservation everywhere!  Madera Canyon, Arizona. Photo taken June 16, 2014.

Hurray for Bat Conservation everywhere! Madera Canyon, Arizona. Photo taken on June 16, 2014.

Eventually I decided staying in an area with few birds was pointless and moved further up the mountain where at least there were more identifiable birds.

I had birded in Madera Canyon a decade ago.  It was enough to remember the name, but not where in the canyon we were.  So I picked a trail that seemed to hold promise.  And headed up.

Have we met before?  A Hermit Thrush pauses in puzzlement at the East Coast Birder. Madera Canyon, Arizona. Photo taken June 16, 2014.

Have we met before? A Hermit Thrush pauses in puzzlement at the East Coast Birder. Madera Canyon, Arizona. Photo taken on June 16, 2014.

At least there were more birds.  One of the earliest I ran into was this quite familar Hermit Thrush.  I found it and identified it.  The day was looking better.

For awhile there was doubt as I called into question my skills.  But that’s how the rough patches go.  It helped to run into two other sets of birders who gave me a sense of what was further down the road: not much.  It wasn’t be.  They did tell me of one or two, which I was fortunate enough to come across.

The first Painted Redstarts were exciting and encouraging views even if they proved to be exceedingly common. Madera Canyon, Arizona. Photo taken June 16, 2014.

The first Painted Redstarts were exciting and encouraging views even if they proved to be exceedingly common. Madera Canyon, Arizona. Photo taken June 16, 2014.

One of the promised birds were Painted Redstarts which is a fine specimen of a redstart, if only because they actually have red.  Our east coast American red-UP-starts can only boast orange which makes the name seem silly.  Thus it was uplifting to see properly red redstarts.

Plumbeous Vireo scans for insects. Madera Canyon, Arizona. Photo taken June 16, 2014.

Plumbeous Vireo scans for insects. Madera Canyon, Arizona. Photo taken June 16, 2014.

This bird was also an exciting find: a vireo near the ground and photographable: call the papers!

So about those flycatchers.... the East Coast ones are hard enough! Madera Canyon, Arizona. Photo taken June 16, 2014.

So about those flycatchers…. the East Coast ones are hard enough! Madera Canyon, Arizona. Photo taken June 16, 2014.

Both sets of birders told me about one particular stretch with flycatchers.  No particulars, just there were flycatchers.

It was a quiet day.  The canyon trail was empty beyond the birders I saw towards the trailhead.  I enjoyed the scenery and the trek up, and then back down.

Upwards view of  Madera Canyon, Arizona. Photo taken June 16, 2014.

Upwards view of Madera Canyon, Arizona. Photo taken on June 16, 2014.

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