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.

Snow Break for the Birder

On Saturday I met up with my adviser, his wife and a friend from grad school and we headed back to Sandy Hook, home of the Snowy Owl spotted during our Big Day. I was excited to do my first real birding since my return from the Galapagos, but as departure time approached and I thought of all the snow out there, the thought of trudging through snow and cold caused me to drag my feet.  Granted I should have been thrilled that we caught a break between the storms and we were all free, but it wasn’t registering.

But it wasn’t so bad. There was no wind and the snow was manageable. You might notice there’s something off about the photo….

Trekking over the white sand beach. Sandy Hook, NJ. Taken on February 8, 2014.

Trekking over the white sand beach. Sandy Hook, NJ. Taken on February 8, 2014.

No footprints!  For the most part we were able to walk entirely on top of the snow without leaving footprints.  It felt very magical and many a remark was made about elves.   But also no owl.  I didn’t do any of the planning or scouting for this trip, so it went overlooked that the last time a snowy owl had been spotted was on January 20th.

Surprising flock of Field Sparrows.  Sandy Hook, NJ. Taken on February 8, 2014.

Surprising flock of Field Sparrows. Sandy Hook, NJ. Taken on February 8, 2014.

Like last time we also had nice views Long-tailed Ducks and Red-breasted Mergansers. New were Bald Eagle, Snow Buntings, Horned Larks, American Robin, Common Goldeneye, Black Scoters and Field Sparrows. I got a glimpse of a Merlin while everyone else was mesmerized by a flashy immature Bald Eagle. So slow start to NJ birds, but getting good birds.

Horned Grebe finds a calm patch of water.   Sandy Hook, NJ. Taken on February 8, 2014.

Horned Grebe finds a calm patch of water. Sandy Hook, NJ. Taken on February 8, 2014.

Working Sandy Hook is slowly improving my identification skills of a few birds I only see about once per year. so yay! Just need to actually order my scope, so I can be a real birder.

Hermit Thrush. Sandy Hook, NJ. Taken on February 8, 2014.

Hermit Thrush. False harbinger of spring. Sandy Hook, NJ. Taken on February 8, 2014.

Call me crazy, but winter is rapidly winding up. While it cannot end too soon for many people (another several inches of snow predicted for this week?! whee!), to me I see the closing window of opportunity for Snowy Owls and Long-eared Owls.

If a tree falls,

…in the woods and you’re there to witness the momentous occasion, how cool is that?   I didn’t actually see the tree, but I heard it fall while I was out birding on Thursday after the rains let up.  Two days of rain – what a relief!   I think it’s the first rain we’ve had since Easter and it was much needed!   There have been at least two brush fires in the area (and we’re not talking about Colorado or California here, it’s New York and New Jersey!)

As soon as the rain let up Thursday, I headed out to see what birds were active.  It was about 5pm so it would coincide with the natural uptick in activity.   I decided to go on foot because there’s really no good parking near where I wanted to go.  (The nearest lot is about as far as the house, so walking made more sense.)

There was some activity on the way, but nothing I didn’t see in the park, so I didn’t log it.

Getting to the entrance though was a different story!  On park lands, I could look under the bridge leading past the park to watch Northern Rough-winged Swallow and Barn Swallows swoop in and out.  I was mostly hidden by the trees along the bank so I wouldn’t disturb them.  Nearly all my photos are blurry because they’re swift swallows (not swalling swifts), but I do really like this one:

Barn Swallow reflection.

Barn Swallow reflection.

You see the lower image and think it’s the bird, but no it’s only the reflection. The actual bird is the blob on top.  Love it.  I also love how murky and plain the backdrop is; the clouds were actually working with me for once!

I headed into the park where it was hard to pick up anything due to the roar of Common Grackles and Red-winged Blackbirds, but peering into the marsh I did pick up a Canada Geese family and a Great Egret.

I didn’t have much luck until I reached the pool area.  At the pool, I climbed the slope so I could be at eye level with the trees, and plunked myself down for a bit to watch the wildlife. I know there’s more there than what I saw, but I am very excited by what I did see!  I got my first really good looks of a yellow warbler!

Yellow Warbler laments a lack of leaves.

Yellow Warbler laments a lack of leaves.

Isn’t he beautiful? Praising the sun gods for their return no doubt.  There were other birds flitting in and out of the woods, but my next exciting visitor was the Eastern Phoebe.  It was my second chance to get a good glimpse, and my first with my camera handy!

Proud Phoebe of the eastern variety.

Proud Phoebe of the eastern variety.

So distinguished!   I had some good views of him on the ground, and on a roof, so I’m excited that the one with the green in the background captured him the best!

Common Yellowthroat whose name I will likely never remember.

Common Yellowthroat whose name I will likely never remember.

Then my last exciting little fellow came about from some movement in the rushes below.  It took a white to spot him and longer to get his appearance on camera, but voila, a Common Yellowthroat!  And a lifer, too!   I spotted two males and one female.  It took me awhile to figure out the second was a female, but nothing else felt quite right.

After that I decided to wander away from the water in the hopes that I’d hear better, so I began moving up the mountain slope.   In the woods I didn’t have much beyond Blue Jays, and American Robins, although I did hear one American Crow fly over and come across a flock of White-throated Sparrows.

As night fell, it became more of a hike and less of a birding excursion, which is fine.  It was about two years since I had last traveled those trails so it was nice to see them again.  I wanted the one that looked over the Hudson, so it took some doing, but I did find it and was reward with my first Bald Eagle viewing of the month.  With the bluffs above the Hudson, I knew it was pretty good for Bald Eagles!   Soon the calls of the frogs, lured me onward.

At the western portion of the park, there are a number of “ponds” or artifical constructs that have since become ponds.  They’re quite lovely to hike along.  So I headed over to investigate the frog calls and picked up a Wood Duck and a Hermit Thrush.

From there I continued to the southern most portion of the park, and then after the sunset and a gentle rain began to fall, I made my way along the main trail about 1.9 miles to home.

Cure for the Birding Blues

The weather recovered quickly.  Two days above 50, most of the snow is gone and I may have my first sunburn of the year. So, highlights:

Got home from work yesterday, decided to walk to my favorite birding patch.  It’s a mile down the road all along one of the Hudson River Tributaries so the entire walk has the potential to be a lovely bird experience.  The walk goes nearly halfway across the Hudson River and is a bird mecca, or at least a frequently birded place by local Audubon outings. In the summer, with the shimmering heat, it’s like walking through VanGogh’s mind.

Birds at the Pier yesterday: Canada Goose, Canvasback, Bufflehead, Ruddy Duck, Ring-billed Gull Mourning Dove, Downy Woodpecker, Tufted Titmouse, Northern Mockingbird, European Starling, Red-winged Blackbird, Common Grackle, House Finch, House Sparrow.

A bit disappointing – normally there are more ducks… hello Mallard? There was a stiff wind.

So, I decided to head back there this morning.  The Pier is a lovely combination of woods, river, and wetland.  Watching ebird, I know people bird it in the morning and have fantastic luck (Iceland Gull, Common Goldeneye).  So I was out there, and, boy, was I surprised to find it was flooded.  The flood waters up to the road on the way in should have been an indicator.  Possibly some combination of high tide and wind.

So instead of walking the mile out and back, I contented myself with wandering past the dogpark and into the woods where I met a man walking his Napoleon-complex-dog.

Birds at the Pier this morning: Canada Goose, Mallard, Ring-billed Gull, Mourning Dove, Blue Jay, Black-capped Chickadee, Carolina Wren, American Robin, White-throated Sparrow, Northern Cardinal, Red-winged Blackbird, Common Grackle and others I couldn’t identify, including these:

Closer, closer, closer, but who are we?

Closer, closer, closer, but who are we?  Click on image for a closer look.

My guess is Red-tailed Hawk based on (1) size, (2) location – have personally seen Red-tails here although others have seen Bald Eagles, Coopers, and Marsh Hawks, (3) have seen Red-tails pairing up recently, and (4) they look just like the Red-tailed Hawks I photographed yesterday.  My biggest reason why I’m not confident on this ID is the pale rusty-orange tinge of the leg feathers.  It’s in multiple photos.  It could be a product of poor lighting – they were out where the water was and I couldn’t get to a better view despite my best efforts.

New visitors to the yard over the last few days have included: Red-winged Blackbird, Common Grackle, Wild Turkey, and American Tree Sparrow.

feeder-birds

The turkey looks so majestic with those bold colors, and also, so reptilian.

As I was finishing up at work today, one of our members/volunteers stopped in to record a sighting on the grounds: Hermit Thrush.  So of course, once I locked up the building I had to go have a look-see.  While I was out there making my way around the pond, the Belted Kingfisher was going berserk.  Sounded like a bee in his bonnet.

TNC birds: American Black Duck, Mallard, Hooded Merganser, Northern Harrier, Mourning Dove, Belted Kingfisher, Downy Woodpecker, Pileated Woodpecker, Black-capped Chickadee, Tufted Titmouse, Carolina Wren, Red-winged Blackbird, and Common Grackle, and…. Hermit Thrush!

Now you see me! Now you don't! The Hermit Thrush bustled about.

Now you see me! Now you don’t! The Hermit Thrush bustled about, too busy for photographs.