Thursday, December 29, 2016

Southern Swing - Rufous-Capped Warblers and Green Kingfisher

Happy Holidays everyone! I must have been on the naughty list this year because I didn't get the Canon 1Dx Mk2, 200-400mm lens or new Binoculars that I asked for... Oh well. ; )

Yesterday I took advantage of my wife being off from work and the kids being on school holiday to take a trip down to the southern part of Arizona and do some birding in the Santa Rita mountains. I usually visit Madera Canyon, but I wanted to try some new areas. So right next door is Florida Canyon, which is one of the dependable locations for Rufous-Capped Warblers in the USA, along with some other species that would be lifers for me, and them depending on the time, I would try for some other birds in the area.

Due to the canyon walls and it being winter, I was told that the floor of the canyon would be in shadow until 9am and it wouldn't be worth getting there any earlier than that. So I slept in a little later than I would have other-wise, and got down there just about then. The approach to the Florida Trail carpark follows the drive to Madera Canyon (which was closed due to recent snowfall). There's a turn-off of the pavement just before the long drive up to Madera. The dirt roads were fine and easily drive-able in my wife's VW Passat.

I was driving along when I saw a dark shape on the road in front of me. I was expecting a raven, but instead it was a Golden Eagle. The bird was huge. I jumped out of the car to get a few photos before it flew off down the road. The white patch on the tail is indicative of a juvenile bird.

Golden Eagle
Golden Eagle - Pima County, Arizona

Golden Eagle
Golden Eagle - Pima County, Arizona
After some confusion on my part, the location of Florida Canyon on Google Maps is not where the trail-head actually is. You really want to search for the Santa Rita Experimental Range to get to the right place. There is a parking area just before the gate and a marked trail leading off left (northeast) which quickly crossed a stream that you follow up the canyon. A short ways up the trail is a large metal gate that you pass through. I followed the trail up with the creek on my right and entered an area of steep walls with some long buffalo grass growing. Not much further up some Prickly Pears were growing right up to the trail. I noticed some birds in this area and saw some gnatcatchers and a Cactus Wren nearby.

Cactus Wren
Cactus Wren - Florida Canyon, Pima County Arizona
And then I saw some small birds hopping from grass clump to grass clump a bit up the canyon wall. Once I got a clear view I saw bright yellow breast with red and white striped head, a Rufous-Capped Warbler for sure! I managed some blurry photos, but nothing great. I stood watching the other birds when I heard some activity from behind me, across the stream and on the opposite wall of canyon. A Canyon Wren was out in plain view calling away and some sparrows were also nearby.

Canyon Wren
Canyon Wren - Florida Canyon, Pima County Arizona
There were also House Wrens and Bewick's Wrens along the trail, which meant a 4 wren day.

Another bird that I was hoping to see was a Black-Chinned Sparrow. I had seen and photographed these in Albuquerque, but were not on my eBird lifelist for some reason. But here was one just in front of me that popped up after a bit of pshing.

Black-Throated Sparrow
Black-Chinned Sparrow - Florida Canyon, Pima County Arizona
But sparrows and wrens weren't the only birds on that side of the stream. I saw another pair of Rufous-Capped Warblers moving there too, which made 4 in just this one spot.

Rufous-Capped Warbler
Rufous-Capped Warbler - Florida Canyon, Pima County Arizona
Look at those colors! These may be the best looking warbler that I've seen yet. And here's an example of how they looked, deep in the grass trying to hide.

Rufous-Capped Warbler
Rufous-Capped Warbler - Florida Canyon, Pima County Arizona
I was so excited to get these good looks. I ran into some other birders along the trail, including a guide and her client, and pointed out where I saw the warblers and they were able to get some quick looks. And then the guide did me a favor and heard a Black-Capped Gnatcatcher in the same area. We manged to see it on an ocotillo and I got a lousy photo of it, but it's a rare bird for the USA and another tick for me.

Black-Capped Gnatcatcher
Black-Capped Gnatcatcher - Florida Canyon, Pima County Arizona
I explored further up the trail, but didn't see or hear anything else so I turned around and headed back down the trail to try somewhere else. I did make a note of where I saw the warbles and gnatcatcher, which you can find HERE

I had a few options of where to go next. I was close to Madera Canyon, but there were signs saying that it was closed on the approach, so I didn't want to go up there and find it snowed in still. There was also a Brown Thrasher a bit south in Tubac. But what I really wanted to try and see the Green Kingfisher at Patagonia Lake State Park. It was another 90 minutes south of me, but I was as close as I was going to get in a while, so I decided to go for it. 

I arrived in the afternoon and found a parking place at the start of the birding trail at Patagonia Lake SP. I knew that kingfisher was being seen along Sonoita Creek at the northeast corner of the lake. I made my way to the creek as fast as possible without taking too much time looking at the birds along the way. But I did see a nice Orange-Crowned Warbler appearing to feed from a cattail.

Orange-Crowned Warbler
Orange-Crowned Warbler - Patagonia Lake SP, Santa Cruz County Arizona
And I finally got an okay photo of a Ladder-Backed Woodpecker.

Ladder-Backed Woodpecker
Ladder-Backed Woodpecker - Patagonia Lake SP, Santa Cruz County Arizona
I'm learning that it's typical in winter here that Ruby Crowned Kinglets are going to be everywhere. Here's one with a hot of it's ruby crown.
Ruby-Crowned Kinglet
Ruby-Crowned Kinglet - Patagonia Lake SP, Santa Cruz County Arizona
One of the surprises was an Eastern Phoebe that landed high up above me in a tree. This is a continuing bird here and a nice surprise.

Eastern Phoebe
Eastern Phoebe - Patagonia Lake SP, Santa Cruz County Arizona
I finally made it to the stream near to where it empties into the lake. I wasn't sure where the kingfisher was being seen, but I thought that it was further upstream. I was there just once before in the springtime while looking for Elegant Trogons. I followed the stream as well as I could sometimes using the trail, sometimes bushwacking. I didn't know much about Green Kingfishers, but I figured that they were similar to the Common Kingfishers of Ireland and not the Belted Kingfishers of the USA. Belted Kingfishers tend to stake-out a pond or lake and dive into the water from a high perch. Common Kingfishers travel up and down waterways perching on low branches above the water. So I took my time and scanned likely spots while walking up the creek. I also planned on picking a spot and waiting for the bird to fly by.

I ran into some a group of birders who had seen the bird up aways, so I got excited and was determined to see it. I found a spot where I could see a fair bit of the creek and waited for 30 minutes without seeing anything but more kinglets. It was getting late and would have to turn back soon, but I wanted to walk just a ways further before quitting. But still no kingfisher, so I turned around and walked maybe 30 feet when a I spotted a white and green streak flying by me! I turned around and located the bird sitting on a branch over the water.

Green Kingfisher
Green Kingfisher - Patagonia Lake SP, Santa Cruz County Arizona
I watched and followed the bird as it continued to hunt over the water, right back to where I had just turned around to give up.

Green Kingfisher
Green Kingfisher - Patagonia Lake SP, Santa Cruz County Arizona
Green Kingfisher
Green Kingfisher - Patagonia Lake SP, Santa Cruz County Arizona
Green Kingfisher
Green Kingfisher - Patagonia Lake SP, Santa Cruz County Arizona
I got to watch it dive off of a perch and hit the water, and then fly off and out of site. I was so happy with getting to see this great bird and walked back to my car with a smile on my face. The three hour drive back to Gilbert was so worth it.

Trip details:

Florida Canyon - Easy drive up to the parking area via paved and then dirt, but well maintained, roads. Trail clearly marked. Quick stream crossing and then some elevation gain along mountain stream. Mobile data reception was good at the parking lot and continued up the path (I use T-Mobile and Sprint Towers via Google Fi). No restrooms and no fees associated.

Patagonia Lake State Park - Well maintained state park. Developed camp sites on the approach to the birding trail parking area. There is a $15 entrance fee per carload to visit the park. Modern restrooms are located on the approach to the birding trail and at the beach area. There's also a small convenience store at the park. The birding trail itself is mainly flat with a steep area with stairs near the beginning. Expect muddy conditions and loads of cow manure. The park offers guided walking birding tours on Monday and Friday mornings at 9am and avian boat tours on Saturday and Sunday mornings. Details can be found HERE.

Something silly to toss in here at the end. I've decided to start wearing camouflage. I don't know if I'm making things up or not, but I think that I got closer to some of the birds than than I normally would have. I'm going to keep going and see if there's truth there or not. If anyone knows of a way to test this idea, let me know.


Thanks for making it this far and Happy Holidays again.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Autumn Adventures part 2

My Autumn has been busier than I expected. Even though migration season has been over, there are still some surprises showing up here in Arizona. I'm don't know enough about the state to know if this is normal or not. I've also made it a point to visit my local park, Veterans Oasis Park, at least once a week, which I have not been doing as well as I'd like.

But first off, I took a trip back down to the Santa Cruz Flats in early November. I was hoping to see some Mountain Plovers (I didn't) and some better views of Crested Caracaras (oh yeah). This area is prime sparrow habitat with a mix of fields and built up shrubs along the roads and intersections. I was able to tick a Clay-Colored Sparrow, who was hanging out with some White-Crowned Sparrows.

Clay-Colored and White-Crowned Sparrow
Clay-Colored Sparrow (lower left) and White Crowned Sparrow (upper right) - Santa Cruz Flats, Arizona
I also managed to see some Savannah, Vesper and Lincoln's Sparrows too. And I unexpectedly got some very good views of a Common Yellowthroat, which I had not expected to see in such an arid area.

Common Yellowthroat
Common Yellowthroat - Santa Cruz Flats, Arizona
Instead of seeing Mountain Plovers, I had to settle for my first photograph of a Merlin.

Merlin - Santa Cruz Flats, Arizona
As I mentioned above, I had hoped to see more Crested Caracaras. Their numbers increase here in the winter, which I did not know when I had spent the Summer looking for them. I was driving around some of the dirt roads when I noticed a group of Common Ravens in the distance. I knew that they and Caracaras can be found together, so I drove that way. I was greeted with a group of 17(!) Crested Caracaras in one field.

Crested Caracaras
Crested Caracaras - Santa Cruz Flats, Arizona 
I'm going to be heading back down there this coming weekend to try and see some Rufous-Backed Thrushes which have been reported there. If you are curious about visiting the Santa Cruz Flats, search eBird for hotspots of the area. It's mainly driving around various agricultural fields on dirt roads and seeing what is there.

Skip forward to the middle of November and an amazing bird was reported at Veterans Oasis Park, not more than 2 miles from my house. A report came on the AZNM Listserv of a Groove-Billed Ani at the park that was seen by the poster's friend the day before, on Tuesday. As it happened, I was at the park on a bird walk on that Wednesday, but never saw anything exotic, and I was in the exact spot were the Ani was being seen. 
I was able to get back there on Thursday after dropping my son off at school. The bird was reported early that morning by a group of experts, but when I finally made it to the area it had not been seen. I spent the next 2 hours expanding the search area while counting down the time that I had to go back for my son. I was a bit north of where the bird was seen that morning, and was doing some intense pshing. Suddenly, a black bird was up in the back-side of a row of brush that circled on of the retention ponds at the park. I got a fuzzy look and heard the gull-like call of the Ani.

Groove-Billed Ani
Groove-Billed Ani - Veterans Oasis Park, Chandler AZ
I waved over a birder visiting from New Jersey who was twitching the bird, who also got great views. And then the Ani flew up to the top of the shrubs and was in plain view. That bill shape was unmistakable.

Groove-Billed Ani
Groove-Billed Ani - Veterans Oasis Park, Chandler AZ
We got to see the bird for less than 2 minutes when it flew off across the basin, disappeared into some brush and was never seen again (we'll come back to this).

For Thanksgiving we drove from Phoenix West to Los Angeles to spend the holiday with some of my wife's family. I'm trying to forget about the probable Black-Tailed Kite that I saw over Studio City while on a cheesy Celebrity Home Tour... The family did meet some friends at the awesome, and busy, El Dorado Nature Center in Long Beach for a walk. We really wanted to see groups of wintering Monarch butterflies, but they were all up in higher elevations due to the warm temps. But I got to tick a California Towhee on my life-list.
California Towhee
California Towhee - El Dorado Nature Center, Long Beach California 
Back in Arizona another rare bird was being reported north in Mesa. A birder noticed an odd sparrow at his feeders. It ended up being a Harris's Sparrow, very rare for the Western half of the USA. I became friends with him on Facebook and got his address. This was another twitch while my son was at school. I arrived while the homeowner was at work, but he was nice enough to have stacked up some concrete flagstones along the outside of his wall for us to look into. Fortunately for me, there was another local birder already there so I didn't look too odd. The Harris's Sparrow made an appearance right after I arrived and I managed some quick photos.

Harris's Sparrow
Harris's Sparrow - Mesa, Arizona 

Harris's Sparrow
Harris's Sparrow - Mesa, Arizona
I was there long enough to see it on 2 visits. What a great looking bird. I would trade all of the House Sparrows in my back garden for this guys. But once again, the bird wasn't seen again after I had seen in. This was just the second time (Groove-Billed Ani), or the third time (Blackpool Warbler) but the fourth time (Chestnut-Sided Warbler) that I was the last one to see a rare bird on a twitch in Maricopa County. I would not be surprised if I was kicked off of the listserv and everyone kept reports of rare birds away from me.

I'll end this post with some photos of Northern Harriers from today at my local park: Veterans Oasis Park, in nearby Chandler. 
Northern Harrier
Northern Harrier - Veterans Oasis Park, Chandler AZ

Northern Harrier
Northern Harrier - Veterans Oasis Park, Chandler AZ

Northern Harrier
Northern Harrier - Veterans Oasis Park, Chandler AZ

As I said, I've had a busy Autumn, mostly with kids and family stuff with some birding sprinkled in. I'm hoping to see some rare robins this weekend and I'm planning on really getting a nice Arizona list together for 2017 (not a Big Year).

If you are interested in visiting the Santa Cruz Flats or Veterans Oasis Park, please contact me with any questions, or for some company. 

Follow me on Instagram @bothering_birds 

Thanks for making it this far,