Local Birding, Pinal and Maricopa Counties, AZ

December 11, 2017
This month always arrives with its preset agenda. And, I'm always trying to carve enough time for some good birding...which I've managed to do, so far.

This blog will highlight photographs of some of the best birds I've seen at the Riparian Preserve at Gilbert Water Ranch (2 visits); a scouting bird visit to Lost Dutchman State Park in preparation for my monthly bird walk on Wednesday, Dcember 13th; and a two-hour visit to the Higley & Ocotillo ponds.

NORTHERN PINTAIL  (Drake); Gilbert Water Ranch  -- above and below

GREEN-WINGED TEAL (Drake); photo above and below; Gilbert Water Ranch

ROSY-FACED LOVEBIRD foraging with RED-WINGED BLACKBIRD at Gilbert Water Ranch 

Some unseen raptor must have been stirring the birds up and off the seven ponds. Canada geese were in the air repeatedly.  I love the challenge of catching them in flight.

CANADA GOOSE (two above photos)

Up, up and away. . . before settling down on a different pond. 

On Sunday (12/10/17), I visited Lost Dutchman State Park in Apache Junction for about 90 minutes but earlier than my scheduled Bird Walk on Wednesday that will begin at 9:00 a.m. Thus, the PHAINOPEPLA were almost a no-show. They stay down until the sun comes over the Superstition Mountains. The warmer it gets, the more insects the birds will find. By waiting, the PHAINOPEPLA, a flycatcher, increases its chances for a healthy breakfast. Since I was about to leave when the sun showed up, I spotted only one PHAINOPEPLA, too distant for a photo.

With blustery winds between 5 & 10 mph, I was lucky to photograph any birds. They dive down under the bushes, into the tangles below trees, and just find hidden spots in the washes to stay out of the breeze and out of sight.

The "drip" is always worth checking out, especially on a day when bird sightings would be scarce.

GILDED FLICKER (male); above and below
When its yellow underwing is not visible; its copper-colored head provides ID as opposed to the gray head of the Northern Flicker

The two photos below are of the same species of bird: ROCK WREN. Note the difference the light plays in each. 

This first photo was taken when the ROCK WREN perched up on the sign for Jacob's Crosscut Trail with nothing but space all around us. Even though it was partly cloudy, this light photo is often how the bird actually appears...very light and gray.

At other times, like when I approached the parking lot as I finished up, this ROCK WREN was at a picnic table platform surrounded by shrubs. Here, below, the same species looks very brown. We learn early on that color is NOT the best way to identify our birds.

From Lost Dutchman State Park, I headed southwest to the Higley-Ocotillo Ponds in Mesa.
A Eurasian Wigeon had been reported seen there on Saturday and I thought I'd take a look at the ponds -- only one of which held water, the one stretched out parallel to Higley Road. It's a large pond but being rectangular, running east and west, I was able to observe all but the most distant birds on the south edge with just my binoculars. I could have walked around to get a closer look, but the winds kept getting heftier and by the time I left, they were blowing at a steady 10 mph, stirring up the water just enough to add a touch of diffculty I didn't want.

MALLARDS were the most numerous duck, but there was an overall abundance of waterfowl. NORTHERN PINTAIL are always a pleasant sight just by nature of their physical and color design.

NORTHERN SHOVELER were not close to where I was birding but a RED-TAILED HAWK flew over the east end of the pond stirring the shovelers into the air where I counted about 150.  

Two tall GREAT BLUE HERON stood out in the fairly shallow pond. This was my favorite:

GREAT BLUE HERON (with Northern Shoveler in background)
GREEN-WINGED TEAL look almost velvet to me so I looked for as many as I could find.

GADWALL were present but not nearly as many as AMERICAN WIGEON, of which there were very many. While I had been hoping for my target bird to be a drake (male), I settled on a brown-headed Wigeon as a female EURASIAN WIGEON, a rarity, but occasionally seen on our winter ponds. The drake AMERICAN WIGEON show a wide white stripe from beak to the crown of their head through a gray face. The duck between them is the wigeon with a brown head, (unlike the gray head of the female American Wigeon) which I concluded was the female EURASION WIGEON. It was not really all that hard to pick her out among the many AMWI that were constantly snapping and chasing her.

Possible female Eurasian Wigeon, second from right
The color marking on the two American wigeon on the left also show a white cheek, when it is usually more gray as in the one on the right with the coloration I'm accustomed to seeing.
The Eurasian Wigeon drake has a very rufous head with a golden stripe while the female has a warmer brown head color than the drake.

After taking those photos, I looked around the pond and the grounds and found some more birds of interest. WILSON'S SNIPE are striped and colored to match the mudflats with dead growth. Hard to see, but their dagger bill is distinctive.

WILSON'S SNIPE (two above photos)
To cap off my visit, two separate GREATER ROADRUNNERs showed up. In the photo below, the bird was busy foraging in the grass to the right of it, but my presence made it look across the canal toward me.

The GREATER ROADRUNNER below played hide-and-seek with me, only I didn't chase it. It was coming up over the berm of the dry lake on the north side of the road/trail. When it saw me, it went back down. I stayed put waiting to see where it would come up again. It was close enough to catch the photo below.

All in all, another good day in the field despite the wind. As usual, you can check my eBird posts by clicking on the links below.

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View this checklist online at http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S41015322

Arlington Agricultural fields area, Maricopa County, AZ

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Together, Lois Lorenz and Hinde Silver headed west on I-10 with me early. Having visited this area with various Audubon groups, I figured it was time for me to learn my own way around out there so I had set an agenda. With help from Lois on spotting birds from the passenger seat and from Hinde in the back seat holding my directions (plus the AZ topigraphical map), we managed to enjoy a delightful day.

Arriving before sunrise at the Lower River Road Ponds, I was able to catch the Super Moon just about to set. My camera had been in the trunk as we drove south on AZ85 while we watched it slowly drop behind one mountain range after another in dramatic fashion. Photos below are less dramatic but still indicative of the moon-set's sentient power.

Super Moon setting on 12/3/17

With the sunrise just beginning, we focused on many dark birds out on the pond that challenged us with shapes and sizes. A good exercise but I was really glad when enough light arrived to confirm or dash my field notes! 

Lois and Hinde are both good spotters - and "counters" for my eBird data entry for our visit. My spotting scope helped us determine that the large SNOW GOOSE's two smaller companions were ROSS'S GOOSE with a very small black marble-like eye set in a very white face on a rounded head. It also has a short pointy bill.

Cormorants populated the pond in great numbers -- probably greater than the 150-count we listed, but they were constantly in and out of the air and down and up from diving in the water. We listed them as a mixed flock of DOUBLE-CRESTED and NEOTROPIC CORMORANT.

AMERICAN WIGEON dominated the duck species. GREATER YELLOWLEGS were foraging around the edges of the pond, up on a little berm above it, and flying overhead from time to time. 

Our eBird list for Lower River Road Ponds is posted below.

For our next stop, I had chosen Hazen Road (from Tommy Debardeleben's birderfrommarciopa website), not far from the ponds we were leaving.

Could not imagine a better start on Hazen Road than Lois's spotting a FERRUGINOUS HAWK perched on a distant utility pole structure. I stopped quickly for photos, quietly and slowly moving forward bit by bit. Did not challenge it into flying; we knew what we were viewing and didn't need to see it in flight to make that determination of this light morph adult FEHA.

FERRUGINOUS HAWK - Adult Light morph  (above and below)

As you can see from the photos, this raptor is distinguished from a Red-tailed Hawk by its pale head, light supercilium (eyebrow), its all-while front, and feathering on its legs.

Not long after viewing that gem (not nearly as common as Red-tailed Hawk out in the ag fields), we came upon a flock of dark birds flyng into a green field.

Spend enough time in the field and you soon learn you need not see this bird's "white face" to identify it. How many species do you know that look like this in flight?

WHITE-FACED IBIS in irrgated field
Two WHITE-FACED IBIS in basic plumage
 (note red eye and lack of white at base of bill present in breeding plumage)
This WHITE-FACE IBIS was foraging alone in a field closer to us
Raptors are abundant over open agricultural fields. At the Lower River Road ponds on a farmer's property surrounded by fields, we had seen an OSPREY, NORTHERN HARRIER, COOPER'S HAWK (2), BALD EAGLE and RED-TAILED HAWK (2).


Driving to our next destination, we came upon a field full of WESTERN MEADOWLARKs.

The air had warmed up considerably since the 49° temperature at our 7:45 a.m. start time. Now headed to Arlington Wildlife Area, we were wondering what birds we might find there.
Among the 28 species we located were:  a LOGGERHEAD SHRIKE that greeted us upon arrival on a utility wire; SORA and VIRGINIA RAIL calling from within the reeds of an unseen long pond of water; MARSH WREN and SWAMP SPARROW also heard, not seen; while two SANDHILL CRANEs were audible before they were visible, so we both heard and saw those stretched-out birds in flight overhead. The GREEN-TAILED TOWHEE is always a nice surprise as was a BREWER'S SPARROW and lots of LARK SPARROWS.

Next stop was the historic GILLESPIE DAM where we ate lunch and watched the few birds present including SNOWY EGRET (4) and AMERICAN WHITE PELICAN (3).

The count list for Arlington was broken into five segments, including the four sites listed above plus an "umbrella" count while traveling from place to place. One of the best sightings that I managed to photograph was a Dark Morph FERRUGINOUS HAWK, not a common bird. Definitely not the Harris's Hawk, but the cinnamon color in its wings had us guessing. (Harris's is almost solidly rufous in an adult).
FERRUGINOUS HAWK (Dark Morph - photographed on Old US80)
 [Its long yellow gape that stretches from beak to below its eye helps with the ID]

Compare this Dark Morph to the Light Morph (1st bird in this blog) FERRUGINOUS HAWK

With temperatures now allowing us to bird into the afternoon hours, we managed to get our fill of species that rarely visit our desert in the eastern stretch of Phoenix.

Just another great day of visiting with the birds (and Birders -- at Arlington Wildlife Area: Susan, Brian and Lyndie).

Click on lists below for more photos as submitted.

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View this checklist online at http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S40894371

Flycatchers, Waterfowl and Critters, Tucson & Phoenix areas, AZ

Monday, November 27, 2017
As you’ve noticed in birding field guides, all our birds (classified as Aves) are organized into categories beginning with a) Orders into b) Families; each family into c) genera; each genus into d) species; and species into e) subspecies. Having learned birds in the field by identifying them in field guides instead of by book-learning (school) means that I don’t always know exactly which category to use when referencing them.

TYRANT birds have always fascinated me and last week I was fortunate enough to catch sight of a quite rare COUCH’S KINGBIRD in Tucson. In addition to our eight North American kingbirds, both the Scissor-tailed and Fork-tailed Flycatcher are in that genus (Tyrannus).

COUCH'S KINGBIRD, its yellow front brilliant in the rising sun
According to Cornell’s web site “All About Birds”:
The scientific name Tyrannus means “tyrant, despot, or king,” referring to the aggression kingbirds exhibit with each other and with other species. When defending their nests they will attack much larger predators like hawks, crows, and squirrels. They have been known to knock unsuspecting Blue Jays out of trees.

The kingbird eats insects but will grab larger available food, carry it back to its perch, beat it down, then swallow it whole. I have yet to see a kingbird do that in the field but I like this bird for its behaviors and handsome appearance.

Rare COUCH'S KINGBIRD, Fort Lowell Park & Pantano Wash, Tucson, AZ

Looking at a range map in your field guide, you’ll notice COUCH’S KINGBIRD is shown only in south Texas, a few states eastward along the Gulf coast, and Mexico. Its range does not show up in Arizona at all; there have been only two prior records of it in the state. Found and photographed by Melissa (Rava) Williams on November 11, 2017, this bird will be the third record if supporting data is approved by the American Birding Association (ABA). Thank you, Rava!  Even though almost two weeks had elapsed since her sighting, the bird had been reported the day before we arrived on November 22nd.

COUCH'S KINGBIRD, Tucson, AZ 11/22/17
Look where this bird perched - up high, on an open limb giving it a great view of food around it. It waits, then sallies forth, catches an insect, brings it back (often to the very same perch) to eat it. Then repeats the action. Since I carry a camera, that behavior is perfect!  (Unlike a 6” warbler that fidgets behind big cottonwood leaves showing only a tail or beak and is rarely still enough to photograph!)

A Life Bird for Hinde Silver who joined me for the ride to Tucson, we expected it might take hours, as others had reported, before we spotted this rare COUCH’S KINGBIRD. Arriving at 8 a.m., we walked Ft. Lowell Park in Tucson until 8:20 when we, along with a Tucson couple who had stopped by to get a “Lifer” before work, spotted it. Big score for them and we were thrilled. 

When I saw the COUCH’S KINGBIRD in Texas the first time, it became “normal” quite quickly as it seemed always waiting for us to pull into a wildlife refuge parking lot each morning. It was vocalizing there but was quiet the morning we observed it in Tucson. More similar in appearance to the Tropical Kingbird than either of our more common Cassin’s or Western Kingbirds, it was still quite a thrill to find and see this Texas kingbird in our own backyard, so to speak. 
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Arizona seems to be having one rarity after the other show up, even if for a day or two. Not always able to get out to see these rarities immediately, I hope for the best but sometimes “dip” (miss out) when I arrive too late. Yesterday, for instance, which would have been just the second day for the Brant and a California Gull to remain at Glendale Recharge Ponds, I arrived 15 minutes too late (7:15 a.m.) to catch the Brant, and the gull was long gone.
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It was also Day #2 for two rarities I wanted to see at Gilbert Water Ranch when Jannie Blok and I began looking for them at 7:15 a.m.the day after Thanksgiving. The SURF SCOTER (ocean bird, as its name implies) was still swimming around in the small remnant pond area of Pond #6 that was just beginning to be filled again with final stage treatment water. To be so close (50’ or less) to an ocean bird is highly unusual so I snapped many photos to document this unusual fresh-water sighting in Arizona. Morning light was not good for this species, but the photos document the sighting.

Also at the edge of this small pond, now extending its boundary with the influx of new water, were two geese that are found infrequently at this location: SNOW GOOSE and GREATER WHITE-FRONTED GOOSE. 
Similar to but different from the barnyard Graylag Goose

Juvenile SNOW GOOSE--not yet completely white feathered
Showing its "grin patch" on lower mandible (helpful ID mark)

These three waterfowl above were our consolation for the now-absent Northern Saw-whet Owl, reported on Thanksgiving Day. 
I also made my 4th attempt at finding the rare Chestnut-sided Warbler in its favorite cottonwood trees (along with other birders), but lacking sufficient time to stay until I got it, I needed to leave after 45 minutes of spotting other good warblers instead.

On a recent visit to Butcher Jones, I saw over a dozen PIED-BILLED GREBE.

Pied-billed Grebe

Back to our day in Tucson. After finding the COUCH'S KINGBIRD so quickly in the morning, we drove up to Sweetwater Wetlands where we found not only the usual birds but the very unusual - not rare - Bobcat!

After letting us walk past it on the other side of the road-wide trail, the Bobcat watched as we moved on.
Far from another trail as we looked over some dry settling basins, we spotted a Coyote.
Coyote in the eastern-most basin at Sweetwater Wetlands
With the arrival of cool weather (mid to high 80s in the afternoon), I've been birding almost nonstop each morning.  Other nifty sightings include:

PRAIRIE FALCON - Rousseau Sod Farm, Central Arizona  [above & below]

Whistling back and forth to this mimic (GREAT-TAILED GRACKLE), for a half hour or so, when we picked up the scope and headed quite a distance toward my car, it flew right over and landed there!
Yesterday, when I missed two rarities at Glendale Recharge Ponds, lots of other birds were present:
It felt wonderful to be able to go out at dawn and stay until I felt like I had documented all the birds and critters I knew at a specific location instead of being driven back to my air-conditioned house to escape summer temperatures that lasted through most of October.

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