Sunday, July 19, 2015

High-elevation Hijinks

Last weekend, Caleb Strand, my younger brother Dalton, and I trekked (well, drove) up to Yavapai County for a weekend of birding.  Our targets were Mississippi Kite, Wood Duck (a very long overdue lifer), any owls, and Mexican Whip-poor-will.  The forecast showed heavy thunderstorms, so we figured our birding might be compromised.

When birding in Yavapai County, it is important to always be prepared for the best/worst.  Flash flooding and heavy rain definitely limited our birding.

First, we headed up to Chino Valley to look for an active Mississippi Kite nest.  I will not disclose the location, I don't want to jeopardize the birds.  Caleb managed to find the nest, and we photographed the female on her nest.

Caleb had a MIKI in St. David before the YB camp, but his looks were not good, and he didn't get any photos.  We were really happy with these looks.  As we were preparing to leave, to our surprise the Kite flew off the nest and landed in someone's front yard.


These looks were pretty face-melting, and I was hardly able to contain my excitement at such perfect looks and great shots at such a hard-to-get species.

We were having some crazy good luck.  We continued on to my uncle's house in the forest, unpacked, and prepared for owling, and my brother Dalton came along with us.

We drove out to Kendall Camp Trail to start our owling.  Owling was a bust, we only heard 4 Great Horned Owls.  We missed our main target, the Mexican Whip-poor-will.  Caleb and I sensed that this bird was becoming a bit of a nemesis, which it now officially is.

Caleb and I helped two intoxicated guys way out there in the boonies separate their quads, which somehow they had managed to smash and tangle together.  I can't imagine how. . .

Next day, we skipped over to Watson Woods Riparian Preserve to bird HARD!

Right away, we got Dalton his #400 lifer Indigo Bunting!  We always bird at a crazy pace, and we often end up exhausted.

Then, bunting activity exploded!  We had tons of Lazuli Buntings all around us.

Then, the Indigo Buntings came in even closer.  These buntings are a very snazzy species, and buntings are quickly climbing their way up the ladder of my favorite bird groups, especially given my recent PABU-INBU-LAZB trio of great looks and photos.

We kept birding, and had a bunch of the regular and expected species.

My main target was the Wood Duck, a bird that I have missed over and over.  Watson Lake is probably the best spot in Yavapai for this species.

Thanks to Caleb, I got looks as a young male scurried for cover!  Nemesis over!  We waited for the WODU to emerge from its reeds.

This nemesis was becoming sort of a joke, it was nice to tick it off my list.

We then went to Lynx Lake for a quick lunch at the Cafe.  We found some Acorn Woodpeckers (WOOHOO, not), and checked out out the hummingbird feeders.  Nothing good, no surprise.

We headed over to Granite Basin Lake to look for some Pygmy-Owls.  The heavens then opened a torrential downpour on us and we aborted our mission.

Back to surprisingly non-rainy Watson Lake.  The next highlight was a pair of Common Black-Hawks.  One was a young bird, which was very skittish and took off as we approached.  The other bird, an adult, was perched and screaming.

I was ecstatic to nab a photo lifer and get better looks than ever before!

Caleb knows his birds well, but I know how to photograph them.  I recommended we move to another vantage point, where we got even better looks.

It also divebombed us after we accidentally got too close to its nest!

After that, we walked back towards the car and picked up an early migrant Olive-sided Flycatcher, my second lifer of the day, and third of the trip including the Kite.

Next up was a second try at owling Kendall Camp Trail.  That was also aborted due to torrential rains and flash flood warnings.

Oh well, it was a fun trip, great photos, looks, and even three lifers!

Thanks to Caleb and Dalton for an awesome time!

Bird hard!


Sunday, July 12, 2015

Spotting Spotties

On July 10th, I contacted Tommy DeBardeleben to try to plan another trip out to Coon Bluff for night owling.  He suggested a camping trip up to the high and hazardous elevations of Slate Creek Divide, a Maricopa lister's dream.  I wanted Spotted Owl, and I hoped to get one in the nice habitat of Slate Creek.  I missed the family in Miller Canyon due to running out of time down there, and time to find them was ticking before my move up to Idaho, out of their range.  The trip's goal was a Spotted Owl, but the purpose was any and all bird species we could get our eyes on.

Let me preface this post with a caution:

This species is federally threatened.  It is illegal to use playback or harass the owl in any way, including getting too close and remaining in the area for too long.

Also, Slate Creek is a very hazardous area.  On my trip up there, I encountered rattlesnakes, poison ivy, steep hills, slippery rocks, and even a bear.  The birds in Miller Canyon are both more used to people and more easily accessible.  For those seeking a Spotted Owl sighting, Miller Canyon is the much better place to go.  The owls at Slate Creek are very hard to locate and access, and require a great deal of luck.

Don't ask me where the locations of these owls are, I will not tell you.

Tommy and I left the Phoenix area at around 6, hoping to reach our camping spot before dark.  We stopped along the way for some food, and reached Slate Creek right at dark.  We worked our way up the hill in the truck, and there in the middle of the road was a Common Poorwill!  I wasn't quick enough for photos, but it gave good looks.  Further up, we stopped to hike and listen for some Flammulated Owls, a much desired county bird for me.  Well, no luck.

At the top, we made our makeshift camp at a parking, and decided to hike down an undisclosed dark drainage on the Gila side to look and listen for Spotted Owls.  After about an hour, we called it a night and went to "sleep."  At about 12:30, Mr. Tommy D., who wasn't able to sleep, heard a Spotty.  His shuffling around woke me up, and I was ecstatic to hear my lifer Spotted Owl, albeit in Gila County.  We immediately opted to hike down and try to locate the now duetting pair.

We looked and looked, and the loud calls were driving us nuts!  We couldn't get any eyes on the birds.  They were in the back of a large Douglas fir tree, too thick to see through.

After what seemed like a few minutes, but was actually an hour, Tommy located one of the owls!  It was awesome to take such a great bird off of a heard only list, even though it was only on briefly.


Then, a second SPOW flew right in for EPIC looks!!  It continued calling right in front of our shocked faces, and bobbed its head curiously.  It was not bothered by us AT ALL!  It was really thrilling to see such a unique and hard to find bird in its element at night.

Can you believe it??  No flash, just high ISO.

What a great way to get my lifer.  Superlatives abounded in my mind, "Awesome!  Epic!  Cool!  Wow!"  I was ever-so-slightly disappointed that it wasn't on the Maricopa side, but oh well.  If one complains about Spotties, one will get a slap in the face from their birding partner.

We headed back to the car to go to bed a second time.  We had also heard a Great Horned Owl, bringing our nocturnal count to 3.  Our plan the next day was to hike 3.5 miles through a couple of drainages, but we knew that after this late night prowl, we would most likely be too exhausted were we to attempt that.  So we decided to shoot for a truncated hike in the morning.  By the time we were finished observing the SPOWs, it was 2:30.  We arose at 5, and heard plenty of songbirds during dawn chorus, including Hermit Thrushes and Dusky-capped Flycatchers, the latter of which was a county first for me.

We moved to the Maricopa side, and just looked for Spotted Owls.  Slate Creek definitely holds the perfect breeding habitat for Spotted Owls, with its Douglas fir forests and shady drainages.  Tommy and I both wanted to find fledglings in Maricopa, but we were actually more than content with the superb sighting the night before.

We heard Red-breasted Nuthatches, Virginia's Warblers, and Mexican Jays, all county birds for me.  We scanned and scanned, and after a couple hours, in the most dangerous part of the drainage, in an area laden with poison ivy, slippery rocks, and rattlesnakes, Tommy got eyes on a fledgling Spotted Owl.  I raised my binocs and spotted what I thought was his bird he called out.  Well, it wasn't.  I had an adult, and he had a fledgling nearby.  We knew there should be at least another fledgling, and we successfully located a third (Maricoper) Mexican Spotted Owl.  These birds were quite far enough from the other pair to assume that the adult female was a separate female than the one we had the night before.

Spot the Spotted Owl!!  They are sure good at camouflage.

Got it!!!

I don't think this young fella had ever seen a human before, he was so curious!  We maintained a distance of at least 60 feet at all times, these photos are pretty cropped.

Here's the mama and the other fledgling:

After my recent string of birding luck, I was truly fortunate to have this awesome experience in my own home county!

It was hard to leave, but we kept going down the drainage.  We birded some more, but our minds were on those owls.  After hiking some more and finding nothing too noteworthy, we turned around and headed back up.

We were really excited to revisit these guys.  Unexpectedly, our whole trip really turned into one long Spotted Owl highlight!

This guy was giving us a real show with his stretching and acrobatics!  Again, we maintained an even farther distance on this viewing.


And of course, the customary selfies.  You can see the respectable distance we maintained:



What a great experience, getting these incredible birds in my home county!  It was so unbelievable, and now the Spotted Owl is my favorite bird!

Thanks to Mr. Tommy D. for being a great birding partner!

Once more, for good measure:

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Is It Possible To Bird Too Much? The Answer Is YES - An Adventure to Remember

Now the title of this post may have you wondering, "Is Walker OK?  He loves birds, why is he debating if birding is a good hobby?"  Well it is, but sometimes it gets just too ridiculous.

This will be a very long post, covering a tremendous 22-hour, including 16-mile hiking, 4 hour driving, birding day.  Sit down, grab some popcorn, and relax.

I recently met Mr. Gordon Karre at the Painted Bunting location at Tres Rios.  We wanted to plan a birding trip together, so we decided to go to Ord.  This worked out well, because after finding the PABU with Caleb Strand, he and I had also planned a trip up to Mt. Ord.  We knew we had to all go up together.  When three bird bloggers get together, awesome things happen.  We planned to meet at Bushnell Tanks at 5:45 A.M.  Caleb overnighted at my house so we could get an early start and meet Mr. Gordon.  Like the kids we are, we were too excited to sleep.  We each got 1.5 hours of sleep, and we left dark and early at 3 A.M.  Picked up a Lesser Nighthawk on the way up, a bird we wouldn't see for the rest of the day.

We wanted to make the most of a full day of birding.  Our itinerary was a trip up to Bushnell for the Indigo Buntings, after which Gordon would depart to prepare for his awesome upcoming birding trip.  Then, our idea was to go over to Sunflower, then up to Ord and the 1688 trail.  Then, we would stay up there until dark and go owling at Ord.  Sound like a long day?  That wasn't the end of it.  We also planned to go out to owl at Coon Bluff after finishing at Ord.  We figured it was either genius or stupid to be out from 3 A.M. until 1 A.M. the next day.  Probably the latter.  Anyway, here we go.

Caleb and I arrived at Bushnell around 4.  It was still pitch black, so no pictures.  We had lots of early songbirds calling, and quickly picked up heard only Elf Owl and Common Poorwill.  Owls are epic, and anyone who says otherwise should stop reading now.  Then, as the sun was rising, we heard a distant Indigo Bunting!  One of our main targets, and a lifer for me.  Their song is pretty dang cool.

Gordon met us at around 5:15, and we hiked down into the great riparian habitat.  We had plenty of the usual songbirds, SUTAs, YEWAs, NOCAs, BLGRs, YBCHs, etc., birds that would make any non-birder want to forsake their birdless ways and denounce non-birder-ism.  A Zone-tailed Hawk watched us carefully.

We continued with not much too noteworthy until a loud Indigo Bunting song was again heard.  We waited, and it came in, giving nice looks.  With a fashionable bird such as Mr. INBU, looks are always very appreciated.  It is also nice to take such a cool-for-Maricopa bird off of a heard only list.  Backlighting, however, limited photo ops.

Whew, great sighting.  Soon after, we had a pair of Zonies trying to ward us off of their territory, and two Cassin's Kingbirds harassed those mean old hawks out of our way so we could trudge on.

Well, not much else excited us until I spotted a Juniper Titmouse, a county first for me.  I think I ended up with about 20 Maricopers that day.  Also, another lifer target of mine was the Gray Vireo, and I was glad to be able to get one into my camera's field of view.  I'll spare you the pics, it was still pretty dark and cloudy out.

After the Titmouse, we faced the walk back to our car.  It was 7 A.M. and we had already been birding for 3 hours.  Day 1/7th over.  I was already tired.  Uh oh.

There is a nice stretch of riparian habitat along the trail at Bushnell, and on the way back to our cars, we had an absolute frenzy of Indigo Bunting activity.  These put our last sighting to shame!

After almost-crushing some of these awesome Buntings, and realizing my bunting luck has continued, I was pretty dang excited.  On the trail back, again, more of the usual and expected birds for that habitat and elevation.  Good birding, but we had to leave Bushnell and resume our epic itinerary.  It was great birding with Gordon and Caleb, and unfortunately Gordon could not continue up Ord with us, because he had to leave to prepare for his upcoming trip.

Here's the eBird report:
Bushnell Tanks

We ended at Bushnell at 9, and birded Sunflower for Common Black-hawks.  No success with those awesome and descriptively-named hawks.  We had a few good species, but nothing WOW!

Here's the eBird checklist.

Up to Ord Mr. Bird-it-hard Caleb and I went.  I was already losing steam because of my lack of sleep and having already hiked 4 miles.  No matter when you're birding hard though.

Black-chinned Sparrow was another bird Caleb assured me I would get by the droves on my first trip to Ord.  He was right.  Lifer!

We also had plenty of Bushtits, Scott's Orioles, and Spotted Towhees, and Bewick's Wrens.  I also improved my GRVI shots.

After birding the lower slopes, I was really happy with my three lifer day I had going so far.  My last target of the day was Olive Warbler.  Commence search.

Caleb and I had the "brilliant" idea to fully explore one of the drainages on Mt. Ord.  We hiked up the 1688 trail, and down the farthest drainage before the 1688 goes over the other side.

Loads of good birds awaited us.  Wrens, Creepers, Nuthatches, etc., all birds I had never had in Maricopa.  We were both getting pretty hot, and we decided to take a seat.  Black-chinned, Costa's, Anna's, and Broad-tailed Hummingbirds buzzed around us.

We kept our ears peeled for any Olive Warblers.  I was getting pretty (really) tired and kind of annoyed that Mr. Bird-it-hard still had all this energy.  I wanted a nap.  I was really off my game at that point.  Then, Caleb heard an Olive Warbler and got eyes on it.  Thanks to him for spotting it and directing me to it.  4 lifers so far!

This is when the day started to get ridiculous.  It was around noon.  We had been birding for 9 hours, since we left my house, a full day and more.  Wow.  Then, we realized, if our plan was to owl that night, we would be out at least another 12 hours.  It was kind of surreal sitting in a drainage on Mt. Ord and having more birding time than we knew what to do with.  However, we were determined to find an owl day roost of some sort, as if we would among the thousands and thousands of trees.  It seemed wise at the time.  We birded until 2 p.m. down in the drainage, and I even took a nap down on a log in a ditch. The log was even narrower than my body.  Weirdness continuing.  After my nap, Caleb said he knew I was tired because I "didn't care" about my Olive Warbler lifer.  HAHA.  After sleeping for 20 minutes, I was really refreshed even though the sun melted my face while I was napping.  It was a crazy weird day, I'm telling you.  Caleb even wanted to hike back down that long drainage at night, because we saw some habitat that was good for some owls.  I told him in no uncertain terms, "Dude, you're crazy.  No offense.  Maybe on a day where we haven't already birded 18 hours by the time we start owling."

However, we kept birding and kept going down the drainage.  I was getting Maricopers out the ears, being my first time in high-elevation in the county.

Hepatic Tanagers are so nice.  Like, so nice.

Out of breath, we opted to just stationary bird for a while and see what we could get, before we started the long walk back to the car.  At around 3 p.m., we started to head back out of the drainage, which we must have hiked at least a mile and a half down, and back to the car for water and a break in the AC.  We had basically covered all the ground we wanted to, and we still had 5 hours before we started to owl.  We were kind of shocked at how much time we still had left, even though we had been birding for 12 hours.  Day about 1/2 over.  This was probably the longest day of my life.

Back to the car.  We decided to head back down and bird Sunflower for a while more to "kill some time."  At Sunflower, we had more songbirds, and a couple Zone-tailed Hawks.  I discovered Caleb can communicate with them!  Freaky!  We also took a short nap on the pavement to relieve some tiredness.

Caleb communicating with a ZTHA:


 More Tired - -me taking a nap

We were really shocked and worn out from already hiking about 10 miles and birding for over 12 hours. We just kind of sat there on the Old Beeline Highway for a while.  We debated going home, BUT THAT'S NOT WHAT BIRD HARD BIRDERS DO!! IS IT??  We called Mr. Tommy DeBardeleben, who knows a bunch about owling on Ord, and asked him if it was worthwhile to go back up the 1688.  He told us it was, and who are we to deny an expert?  We got our second wind and headed to Ord.

Whew, back up the hill at around 6 p.m.  15 hours of birding so far, 7 left.  Day 2/3rds over.  I realized I might actually survive.  We hiked up 1688 again, all the way to the drainage we had hiked down earlier, and staked out our potential spots.  At this point, our only thoughts were not to fall asleep as we walked.

We sat and waited for darkness to fall, and we started listening for Northern Pygmy-Owl, a bird we both needed for the county.  Success!  Two too-too and too-too-too notes confirmed the presence of Pymgy-Owl!  Well, that made the owling worth it.  We also listened for Saw-whet and Spotted with no luck.  About 10 Poorwills calling were a nice, although mediocre, consolation.  Oh well, Pygmy was a nice bird, especially for Maricopa.

We started walking down, and listened down some of the drainages for any activity,  No luck.  As if our day could get any weirder, it started raining on us.  We still had at least two miles to go back down the hill to where we were parked.  This was at around 9, so we booked it down.  The rain didn't get any worse, and we made it to the car at about 9:45.  At this point, for about the third time that day, I just wanted to quit, after 18.75 hours of birding, but I knew we still had to hit Coon Bluff.  Total birding time:  18.75 hours, 16 miles hiked.  Day 6/7ths over.

Here is the eBird checklist:
Mt. Ord

So we made the drive to Coon Bluff, and listened for Elf Owls.  No luck, unlike a few days before when I had gone owling with Tommy D.  Here are a couple quick shots from that night:

Well, no Elfs (or Elves, depending on your preference) this time around, but we had already heard one that day, what seemed like an eternity ago at the time.

We headed over to the mesquite bosque, where our goal was the Western Screech-Owl family.  We heard some bouncing ball calls and located the adults.

Evil Glare

After observing these neat little nocturnal hunters, I was startled to see one of the Salt River feral horses roaming about.  He looked a little crazed.  After making two hurried runs by us, he turned around and STARTED TO CHARGE ME!  At about 20 yards off, he quickly swerved around me, while I wondered if my too-short life was going to end after being trampled by a feral horse while owling.  What a weird day, seriously.  At this point, 10:45 P.M., we were about 98% asleep after about 20 hours of birding.  We did manage to locate both fledglings, but only got pictures of one of them:

After that icing, we were ready to call it a night.  To top it off, Siri sent me in the wrong direction on the way home, my tires were low pressure so I had to stop and fill them up, and got turned around again, and we got pulled over by an Oompa Loompa dressed as a policeman (well, that last bit is an exaggeration.  No pull-overs.)  But still, it was a tremendously long and odd day.

Napping on a log, four lifers, getting charged by a wild horse, hiking 16 miles, birding 22 hours, Caleb calling in a ZTHA, napping on the pavement, owling three different locations, and other things meant this was a day I'll never forget.  We reached home at 1 a.m. after driving there safely, and I'm not sure if I'll ever attempt that long of a day again.


Bird hard, but not too hard.