Sunday, February 26, 2012

Phainopeplas on the Butcher Jones Tr., Superstition Mts, AZ

The beautiful scenery from the Butcher Jones Trail, Superstition Mts, Phoenix, AZ; 12/23/2011.
Yesterday I posted about water birds that I observed from this gorgeous trail (Above) in the Superstition Mountains. Today I will feature land birds that I came across on the same hike. There was good variety of both water and land birds:
WATER: Great Blue Heron, Ring-billed Gulls, American Coots, Western Grebes (hundreds), Pied-billed Grebe, Mallards, Ruddy Ducks, Buffleheads, Greater Scaups, Ring-necked Ducks, and Gadwalls.
LAND: Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Great-tailed Grackles, Yellow-rumped Audubon's Warbler, Northern Cardinal, Verdin, Black-throated Sparrows, Cactus Wrens, Curve-billed Thrasher, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, European Starlings, American Robin (heard only), Gila Woodpecker, Northern Red-shafted Flicker, Gilded Flicker (?), and my favorite - Phainopeplas (Below).
A nice outline of a Phainopepla, Butcher Jones Trail, Superstition Mts, Phoenix, AZ; 12/23/2011.
As I was rounding the bend of the trail on the lower shore of an inlet that was thickly shaded with willows, junipers, paloverde, mistletoe, and crucifixion thorn (I think - I do not know my Sonoran desert vegetation very well), I heard a bird song that I knew that I have heard before but was not immediately familiar with. It came from the top of a tree above me, but the vegetation was too dense to see through. I had to climb up a steep bank to get myself above the tree branches that lines the shore of the inlet of Suagaro Lake. I tried to pinpoint where the bird was that was making the sound. Then after a few minutes it showed itself, the dark sillhouette of a bird with a crest like that of a Cardinal - a Phainopepla (Above).
An up close Phainopepla peeking out over the brush, Butcher Jones Trail, Superstition Mts, Phoenix, AZ; 12/23/2011.
I definately became excited because the previous few times I came across Phainopeplas were on very gray or high white days with poor light, which didn't make for very good photography of a very dark plumaged bird, as is the Phainopepla. Today was different - it was a perfectly clear sunny day with a beautiful blue sky - excellent for bird photography. The problem was as soon I discovered it, it craftily kept tree branches between it and me. I tried to explain to it that I only wanted a photo - no harm ... it didn't believe me and flew deeper into the brush. That meant I had to go into my patient mode - wait it out and hope that it pops out into the clear.  After several minutes it flew out of the thicker brush and alit very near me - not more than 15-20 feet - but stll kept mostly hidden except for a the feint vision of its parts poking through the flora. I would see a tail stick out. Then it would turn around and I would see its head, then disappear again... then a tail... then a head... etc...  Finally it hopped up one branch higher and I could see the entire top half of its body, crystal clear and in perfect light. I snapped away and it stayed put for several more minutes - often looking at me as if wondering why I wasn't moving along (Below).
The Phainopepla looking at me and asking, "Why are you still here pointing that big black barrel at me? Butcher Jones Trail, Superstition Mts, Phoenix, AZ; 12/23/2011.
It was good five to ten minutes more of the Phainopepla changing its position - back to me - full front - both profiles, but it would not move to a branch that would give me a whole body shot. At the time I had my 1.4 extender on with my 500mm Sigma zoom lens. I knew I did not need the extender as I was so close to it, but I also knew that my autofocus will not work while the extender was attached. I wanted to be ready to autofocus with the burst mode if and when it decided to to fly out. I would have loved to get a BIF of a Phainopepla, especially in such good light.  So with this Phainopepla seemingly to stay put in the same spot for so long, I gambled and decided to take off the extender. That meant several seconds of lowering the camera, releasing the extender from both the Rebel T1i and the Zoom, then making sure I tucked it away safely, and replacing the Zoom back onto the camera body and switching to autofocus and lifting the viewfinder back up to my face. It probably took me 20 seconds to get this done without moving too fast. Within those 20 seconds, the Phainopepla emerged from the branch and landed on a branch just as close to me but perfectly in the open - full body - perfect light. Just as I lifted the the camera to my eye to refocus, it flew off. I lost the gamble.
A backlit Phainopepla, Butcher Jones Trail, Superstition Mts, Phoenix, AZ; 12/23/2011.
It flew to quite a distance down the slope nearer to the shoreline. I had to scramble down from my perch, hike through the dense treelined trail and come out the other side to look for it again. By the time I located it, it was in full open view, but now it was backlit and very far away (Above).  After a few more shots, it finally flew off out of sight. Later on my return trip, I saw it (or another) again but was never in good position for a picture, and I didn't want to leave the trail and bushwhack.  Still in the end, the close ups of the top half of this Phainopepla was far better than any of the previous pictures I had of this species. All in all I probably spent 30-40 minutes stalking this guy.
Another nice close up of the Pahinopepla peeking out over the brush, Butcher Jones Trail, Superstition Mts, Phoenix, AZ; 12/23/2011.
Phainopeplas, which I like to refer to as the "black cardinals," like mistletoe berries and are common year round residents in oak foothills and mesquite lowlands of Southern California, Arizona and Nevada, stretching even further south into the Baja Peninsula and other parts of Mexico. They will migrate a bit further north into Cental CA and Northern AZ in the summer but mainly will stay put in the extreme Southwest.
Next weekend I will feature other photos of land birds from my hike on the Butcher Jones Trail.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Western Grebes and other water birds at the Butcher Jones Trail, Superstition Mts, AZ

A view of Saguaro Lake from the Butcher Jones Trail, Superstition Mts, AZ; 12/23/2011.
Whenever we visit Phoenix, I always love hiking in the Superstition Mountains in the Tonto National Forest, but when Val's Step-Dad introduced us to the Butcher Jones Trail, I loved it even more. It is a picturesque trek that follows around Lake Suagaro which is a breathtaking sight, mirroring the cobalt blue sky, in the middle of the earthtones of the Sonoran Desert (Above).
A colorful vista of the Sonoran Desert, Butcher Jones Trail, Superstition Mts. AZ; 12/23/2011.
Not only is it a beautiful area to hike in, it also serves as a great habitat for both land and water birds. It was over two years ago during my first visit to this area, that I broke in my then brand new Canon Rebel T1-i. When I was able to capture a series of pics of an Osprey pulling a fish out of the water, I knew I had brought my nature photography to a new level (for me anyway) and made it doubly fun and more rewarding.

On this post I will feature some of the Water birds that were present at Suagaro Lake during our two hour hike (it was two hours only because I dawdle looking for birds).  Water birds that I identified were: Great Blue Herons, American Coots, Buffleheads, Greater Scaups, Mallards, Gadwalls, Ring-billed Gulls, Pied-billed Grebes, and a new Lifer for me, hundreds of Western Grebes.

The little white dots on the lake are Western Grebes, Butcher Jones Trail, Superstition Mts. AZ; 12/23/2011.
As I was at the highest point of the trail I saw hundreds of small white dots on the lake (Above). Initially I figured they were Gulls or perhaps even White Pelicans. It was difficult to judge the size of these birds on the vast lake.  Even through my 500mm Sigma with a 1.4 extender on, I couldn't make out what they were.
A somewhat blurry photo of a Western Grebe which was quite far out across
one of the inlets of Saguaro Lake, Butcher Jones Trail,
Superstition Mts. AZ; 12/23/2011.
As I descended from the high point gradually reaching the shores of the bay (large enough for float planes to land and take off from), I noticed a small group of three Grebes. I knew they were long-necked Grebes but I wasn't sure if they were Westerns or Clark's. A couple of them flew off and joined the large group of "white dots" further out on the lake.  Soon a couple of the "white dots" flew in and landed near the lone Grebe that was still in the bay. I figured then that these were all the same species. Sure enough, later while examining my images of the day, the profile of most of the "white dots" seemed to fit with the Grebes that flew in. There were probably some Ring-billed Gulls in the mix, but the vast majority of the water dance were the Grebes. Also after looking up photos of Grebes, it was fairly easy to identify these as Western Grebes (Above).  They fit the description perfectly" long neck with white throat and black nape, long narrow pointed yellow bill, dark red eyes. Their Black "cap" covers their eyes like a mask. They have white undersides and dark back and wings, giving way to a lighter grayish tail. They became my 6th new addition to my Life List so far on this 5th day of my week long trip to Arizona.  Like its name, Western Grebes are a westren bird, ranging north into Canada's Alberta, Manitoba, and Saskatchuan Provinces during the summer, and staying as far south as Colorado, Utah and Nevada. During the winter they will migrate along the Pacific coastline, south to the Baja Peninsula and to inland lakes of Arizona, New Mexico and far western Texas. They will stay year round in the higher mountain altitudes of California and Mexico.

 A male Bufflehead on Saguaro Lake, Butcher Jones Trail, Superstition Mts. AZ; 12/23/2011.
(Above) is a photo of one of the several Buffleheads that were closer to the shore than the Western Grebes. Other photos below:
Saguaro Lake, Butcher Jones Trail, Superstition Mts. AZ; 12/23/2011.
A male Ruddy Duck, Saguaro Lake, Butcher Jones Trail, Superstition Mts. AZ; 12/23/2011.
A female Ruddy Duck, fanning its tail, Saguaro Lake, Butcher Jones Trail, Superstition Mts. AZ; 12/23/2011.
A Great Blue Heron, Saguaro Lake, Butcher Jones Trail, Superstition Mts. AZ; 12/23/2011.
Tomorrow I will feature some of the land birds that I found along the Butcher Jones Trail.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Birding in South Mountain Park, Phoenix, AZ

A view of "the valley" from the rugged terrain of the National Trail, South Mountain Park, Phoenix, AZ; 12/23/2008.
One of our usual places to hike when we are visiting Phoenix is South Mountain Park (Above), which boasts to be one the country's largest municipal park, featuring over 16,000 acres and over 50 miles of trails for hiking, horseback riding and mountain biking. This is the park where I saw my first Loggerhead Shrike, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, and Says Phoebe, long before I became a more serious birder.
Cactus Wren, South Mt. Park, Phoenix, AZ; 12/22/2011.
Our latest hike at South Mountain, didn't yield a lot of birds, as I didn't see many during the first half hour of the hike, then we dropped into a ravine and birds appeared all over the place, such as the Cactus Wren (Above). Other birds that finally emerged were a Northern Mockingbird, Says Phoebes, Black-throated Sparrows, White-crowned Sparrows (which were probably the most numerous of any single species during my week in Arizona), House Finches, House Sparrows, a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, and ny favorite of the day, a Rock Wren (below).
Rock Wren, South Mt. Park, Phoenix, AZ; 12/22/2011.
The Rock Wren (Above) was only the second one I have ever seen. The first being in Utah in June of 2009. Other photos of birds from this particular hike are below:

Black-throated Sparrow, South Mt. Park, Phoenix, AZ; 12/22/2011.

Curve-billed Thrasher, South Mt. Park, Phoenix, AZ; 12/22/2011.
Northern Mockingbird, South Mt. Park, Phoenix, AZ; 12/22/2011.
Jack Rabbit (Yes I realize it's not a bird), South Mt. Park, Phoenix, AZ; 12/22/2011.
Says Phoebe, South Mt. Park, Phoenix, AZ; 12/22/2011.
White-crowned Sparrows, South Mt. Park, Phoenix, AZ; 12/22/2011.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Abert's Towhee at the Arizona Botanical Gardens

An Abert's Towhee hanging around the Arizona Botanical Gardens, Phoenix; 12/21/2011.
While visiting the Arizona Botanical Gardens in Phoenix, I kept hearing a rather loud rustling in the desert brush. I knew there was a bird scratching around, but it was difficult to spot through the thick brambles. In one such instant, while I was peering through the brush, suddenly this long-tailed good-sized bird popped out, raised its tail high and jumped up on a nearby wooden bench (Above). It was an Abert's Towhee. After this, I saw several more skulking around the brush. Like many birds, they feed off the ground by scratching away dead leaves. The interesting thing is they don't paw at the ground with one foot at a time like most ground-feeding birds; instead they use both feet smultaneously by leaping forward and scrape away the dead leaves with a sudden lunge backwards to expose the bare ground underneath where they hope to find seeds and insects. This odd jumping behavior was very comical to watch, but definitely explained all the scratching noise coming from the underbrush. This one particular had its tail raised high and I assumed it was also part of their typical behavior, but I researched several sources and could not find any mention of raised tails as a specific behavior for these Towhees.
Another photo of the "high-tailed" Abert's Towhee.
Abert's Towhees are found mainly in Arizona, but also just across its state borders into parts of neighboring states: California, Nevada, and New Mexico. They do not migrate and stay year round in this small geographical area.
The only other time I saw an Abert's Towhee was in Phoenix sitting on a neighbor's fence two years earlier; 12/29/2009.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Arizona Botanical Gardens - Birds & Insects

This Verdin was very vocal in the Arizona Botanical Gardens, Phoenix; 12/21/2011.
We had another wonderfully warm visit to the Botanical Gardens in  Phoenix last December, during our winter break from school in the much colder climate of northern Illinois. I always love this place, not only for the fantastic plant life cultivated here, but also because it is a great attraction for birds. One of the colorful Southwestern birds that can be found hanging around these Gardens is the Verdin (Above). Verdins can be found throughout much of the south and west of Arizona as well as south eastern California and southern New Mexico, much of the western half of Texas as well as most of Mexico.  They are pretty much year round residents of these areas without much migration.
A good look at the small red shoulder patch of the Verdin, AZ Botanical Gardens, Phoenix; 12/21/2011.
Verdins are entirely gray (of various shades) with a striking yellow head and a small red patch on its medium coverts (shoulders - Above).  I saw more Verdins during my week long visit to Arizona than I remember seeing in all my previous visits all together. But this could be because I am getting better at recognizing them.  Other birds that I Identified at the Gardens were: Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Inca Doves, Anna's Hummingbirds, Northern Mockingbirds, Curve-billed Thrashers, Cactus Wrens, European Starlings, House Sparrows, House Finches, Mourning Doves, Gambel's Quails, Abert's Towhees, and Great-tailed Grackles.
This Queen's Butterfly was a good representative of the many "live" insects found in the AZ Botanical Gardens, Phoenix; 12/21/2011.
The Arizona Botanical Gardens is also a host for much insect life, as shown in the picture (Above) of the Queen's Butterfly, which is often mistaken for a Monarch Butterfly.  Not only are these Gardens known for their living creatures, but they also are famous for their Art Installations. We were lucky to be there when David Rogers' "Big Bug" exhibit opened to the public. This was an extra treat as this talented artist used twigs and wood to create large replicas of bugs that would be found in the Arizona desert. (Link of the Phoenix's East Valley Tribune's article about the exhibit is below):
David Rogers creation of "Daddy Long-Legs" at the AZ Botanical Gardens, Phoenix; 12/21/2011.
"Daddy Long-Legs" (Above) is an example of one David Rogers' creations in his art installation. More pics of his buggy artwork and of other birds that I photographed while at these beautiful gardens are below:
The attack of the giant ants, AZ Botanical Gardens, Phoenix; 12/21/2011.
A better look at one of David Rogers' Ants, AZ Botanical Gardens, Phoenix; 12/21/2011.
A detailed look at the Ant's walnut eye, AZ Botanical Gardens, Phoenix; 12/21/2011.
The intricate mosaic-like colors of a European Starling sitting on a Suagaro Cactus, AZ Botanical Gardens, Phoenix; 12/21/2011.
The "Assassin Bug", AZ Botanical Gardens, Phoenix; 12/21/2011.
There were an abundance of Cactus Wrens taking up residence in the AZ Botanical Gardens, Phoenix; 12/21/2011.
The "Damsel Fly", AZ Botanical Gardens, Phoenix; 12/21/2011.
Anna's Hummingbird, AZ Botanical Gardens, Phoenix; 12/21/2011.
The "Dragon Fly", AZ Botanical Gardens, Phoenix; 12/21/2011.
A Curve-billed Thrasher, AZ Botanical Gardens, Phoenix; 12/21/2011.
The "Grasshopper", AZ Botanical Gardens, Phoenix; 12/21/2011.
The "Lady Bug", AZ Botanical Gardens, Phoenix; 12/21/2011.
Another of the flock of European Starlings, AZ Botanical Gardens, Phoenix; 12/21/2011.
The "Praying Mantis" sporting much Holiday Spirit, AZ Botanical Gardens, Phoenix; 12/21/2011.
The same Anna's Hummingbird from (Above), AZ Botanical Gardens, Phoenix; 12/21/2011.
One of the more spectacular "Big Bugs" was the "Spider" creation, AZ Botanical Gardens, Phoenix; 12/21/2011.
A close up of the "Spider", AZ Botanical Gardens, Phoenix; 12/21/2011.
Another Cactus Wren, AZ Botanical Gardens, Phoenix; 12/21/2011.
I hope you enjoyed the photos from our visit to the Arizona Botanical Gardens in Phoenix. As you can see, it's a reat place to do some birding,, see some great desert plant life and occaissionally see some beautiful artwork.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Las Cienegas National Conservation Area, AZ

The road leading into Las Cienegas NCA, AZ, shows the diversity of this area and its importance as a bird preserve, Sonoita, AZ; 12/20/2012.
On 12/20/2011, I had the opportunity to visit two very large and reputable National Conservation Areas near the Sierra Vista area of southeastern Arizona: the San Pedro Riparian NCA (which I talked about in my past two weekends of posts), and the Las Cienegas NCA (Above). Unfortunately, due to commitments later in the day, I had to cut my visit to the Las Cienegas short. Because my target bird at this area was to try to find a Baird's Sparrow (Below?), and because of the time constraints, we only stayed in the grassland area which is dotted with scrub oak; however, there is more to the Las Cienegas than the grasslands.  It consists of more than 45,000 acres of rolling grasslands and woodlands combined, that connect several mountain ranges; plus the lush riparian corridors following Cienega Creek has water year round and attracts and supports all forms diverse plant and animal life. There are 60 mammals, 230 birds, 43 reptiles and amphibians and three native fish making this region their home. Included in this list are 33 species which are listed as threatened or endangered. See the link below for more specific information: . 

A blurry photo of a sparrow, which looks to be a baird's Sparrow, but I am not completely certain. The ochre coloring of its face looked right, but the shape of the head and bill was obscured by a branch, so it is hard to really be sure. This pic was not taken in the Las Cienegas, but actually taken in the San Pedro Riparian NCA, AZ; 12/20/2011. 
Throughout the hour or so I spent walking along the dirt road cutting through the golden grass of this area, I witnessed hundreds of sparrows (at least I suspected them to be sparrows) flushed out of the grass and taking refuge in nearby brush and small oaks.  However, for the most part, the majority of these birds hid pretty well and kept at a good distance, and didn't afford me much opportunity to get good pics, much less even identify them.  According to the Bird List (Link Below) of the Las Cienegas, there are between 25-30 species of birds that are either sparrows or similar (Longspurs, Buntings, and Towhees) that inhabit these grasslands, and definitely challenged my identification skills. Later in the day, while looking at my photos (which were not of high quality in the first place) I became more and more unconfident in my abilty to identify the birds in most of my images.

Link to Las Cienegas bird list:

A light breast and more washed out facial features tells me this is a Brewer's Sparrow, Las Cienegas NCA, AZ; 12/20/2011.
I'll include some of my better quality photos (which isn't saying much, in this post) with my attempt at identification. I always welcome input from any readers of this blog who would like to correct any of my identifications. (Above) I believe is a Brewer's Sparrow, while (Below) is a Clay-colored Sparrow.
More defined facial features than a Brewer's showed this probably to be a Clay-colored Sparrow, Las Cienegas NCA, AZ; 12/20/2011.
The yellow lores on this sparrow points it to be a Savannah Sparrow; however, its bill might be a bit large for a Savannah, but nothing else about this Sparrow led me to believe it was another species. Las Cienegas NCA, AZ; 12/20/2011.
The two pics (Above) look to be Vesper Sparrows, which seemed to dominate most of my images from the area,  Las Cienegas NCA, AZ; 12/20/2011.

The only bird (other than a Crow) that I believe was not a sparrow is this Longspur which I have identified as a McCown's Longspur. I hope I am correct, Las Cienegas NCA, AZ; 12/20/2011.
Another look at the beautiful habitat of the Las Cienegas NCA, AZ; 12/20/2011.
I will definitely put the Las Cienegas (Above) as a must to visit again - and hopefully soon - so I can do a better job covering this wonderful National Conservation Area, not only getting a second chance to identify the hundreds of grassland birds, but also get to the Cienega Creek and the woodlands to check out the bird species that take up residence there. I am hoping that during my Spring Break in April might afford me this second chance.
Tomorrow and next weekend, I'll feature birds that I found at the Botanical Gardens in Phoenix.