Birds, despite wind and dark overcast sky, smell of rain on the air, and black clouds sitting on the mountains

February 28, 2015
Sharon and Chris, two friends from Ontario, who had arrived last evening, chose to sleep in this morning, so I went out, as I often do, on my own.  They'll be staying with me for three weeks so they will have many opportunities to join me.  Great lovers of wildlife, they maintain feeders, especially during cold winter snowy months, for many bird species.

Will I get any birding done this morning before it rains?  That was my main thought as I left home around 7:15 headed for Coon Bluff Recreation Area on the Lower Salt River.  
After skimming past some road closures (Lost Dutchman Days parade at Apache Trail) and Usery Pass Road (blockades being removed after an "event" - biking or running) so that I arrived at my destination and started birding at 7:50. 

When I pulled into a very full parking lot at Coon Bluff, I realized that I had done something I rarely do.  I had gone to a popular camping spot on a weekend!  It's wonderful that families take their children camping and it looked like the children and parents had been up long enough to have already completed breakfast - good smells hung in the heavy air. Families sat around lazy campfires. 

The sky was growing darker so I left my camera in the car and walked toward the wide dirt road that leads to the river and the bluff.  I hadn't gone far when an Ash-throated Flycatcher flew directly in front of me across my path, and perched on a mesquite branch about five feet away from me at eye level.  How do these birds know?  With camera in the car, I had no option but to "just" fully enjoy the flycatcher's presence.  We made and held eye contact for several full minutes before it flew off.

The Vermilion Flycatcher males were perched and singing.  What a cool sound!  It's a difficult bird for me to photograph; its black mask usually hides its black eyes.  But what a gorgeous red and brown bird it is!  This photo was taken last year.

Another sighting was Gordon Karre, a birder friend!  He was getting into his car at the parking lot when I retrieved my camera about an hour and a half after I had begun.  He was guiding some guests from Washington who were delighted that he could share some of our Southwestern specialty birds such as the Vermilion Flycatcher.

Many of the overnight campers were packing up to leave so I birded the large site for a little over two hours.  A good number of swallows (Northern Rough-winged and Violet-green) were flying over the river and mesquite bosque.  Several Common Ravens were flying back and forth across the river to a cavity in the high bluff rocks.

Other sightings of note were:  1)  Two trees full of Red-winged Blackbirds - most of them females; and 2) A flock of Cedar Waxwings in an old leafless mesquite tree, some perching out in full view and others known only by their high-pitched voices heard from within many clumps of mistletoe.
Female Red-winged Blackbirds (some, pale first summer plumage)
Closer look at female Red-winged Blackbirds

After leaving Coon Bluff, I drove west along the Bush Highway to Granite Reef Rec Area.  Standing on the bank of the river, I could see out in the distance, five ducks.  Even at that distance (which I share with you below), the male aided my identification.
Five Bufflehead (1 male; 4 females)
Buffleheads: Mostly white male with black contrast; gray-brown female with oval white patch
Looks like the gentleman is working on his moves!

I also stopped at Phon D. Sutton Rec Area on the way to Granite Reef but it, too, was full of campers - the RVing kind.  So, I checked out the river below from one spot before heading to Granite Reef which was not crowded at all.  Clouds continued to gather and when I left there at 11:15, I wasn't surprised when a few rain drops sprinkled my car on the drive home.  So I really lucked out to have birded rain-free for over three hours.

* * *

Gilbert Water Ranch, Maricopa County, AZ

February 26, 2015
It was such a beautiful day that after a morning appointment, I headed out to Gilbert Water Ranch even though it was getting very late for spotting good birds.
Just a twenty-five-minute drive from home, I was able to arrive by 11:00 a.m., a time when I'm often departing the riparian area after several hours of birding.
While song birds go quiet around mid-day and are difficult to find, waterfowl generally stay on the water but with heads tucked making identification a bit tricky.

Name these ducks!  (pair of Cinnamon Teal)
 Some birders are expert at identifying sleeping waterfowl.  I'm not one of them!  But I found lots of other birds in this lush riparian area.

Juvenile Black-crowned Night Heron
The long-legged wading birds always fascinate me.  This one is a male American Avocet in the process of getting its full mating plumage on the neck and head; it will turn very russet.  Notice the slightly up-curved bill.  The female's bill has an even deeper up-curve.

The Pied-billed Grebe has its mating bill stripe--the source of its name.

Along the trails Globe Mallow was blooming.

Dowitchers, usually in flocks, probe the mudflats for food.  They move slowly and methodically.  These are Long-billed Dowitchers that are more often found along fresh-water ponds than salt water.

Long-billed Dowitchers foraging
For me, the photo of the day was getting all five Hooded Mergansers in the same frame!
The two males had been busy bathing and the females were in and out of overhanging bushes along the edge of Pond 2 - another new location for them.  The photo of the three females in the group definitively shows that all are female; there is no young male with a thinner darker bill that, otherwise, resembles females. 

I managed to see 44 species and many, many birds in two and a half hours. There were also many, many people out walking themselves or their dogs, and there were also a number of "snow birds" trying their hand at learning the birds they were seeing.  Photographers, I noticed were  as scarce as the songbirds.  Lighting and bird activity had declined since the early hours of the day.

For me, it was another good day of birding!

* * *

Hassayampa River Preserve, Maricopa County, AZ

February 25, 2015
My birding adventure today led to Hassayampa River Preserve near Wickenburg, AZ.   This rare spot has been protected by the Nature Conservancy for twenty-five years and its Visitor Center is open with the support of many volunteers. Lore suggests that Hassayampa is an old Indian word that means "river that runs upside down."  Much of the Hassayampa River does flow below surface but at the Preserve, it flows above ground providing a lush riparian habitat of cottonwoods, willows, grasses, and mesquite for birds and animals.

An hour's drive from home got me to the spot for meeting my birding friends.  Steve and Joan Hosmer and Susan Fishburn were coming from different directions but we each arrived early and were soon on our way to Wickenburg in Steve & Joan's car.  Since the Preserve doesn't open until 8:00 a.m., we stopped at the Rest Area, about a mile south of it, to take a look at the nicely flowing Hassayampa River area including its bushes and trees for birds that dared to come out in the cold.  For a February day in Arizona, 37 degrees is very very cold! 

The gate to the Preserve was open when we arrived several minutes early and we were able to start birding as soon as we got out of the car.  A calling hawk in the distance, Steve identified as a Gray Hawk. Yay!  A first for this year!

Our target birds were:  Red-shouldered Hawk and a Varied Thrush, a rare visitor from the Northwest.

We headed for the River Ramble Trail where reports indicated the Varied Thrush had been seen most often.  Before we even reached the trail, we heard the "kee-yurr" call of the Red-shouldered Hawk.  We took a few more steps and heard a response "kee-yurr" from the opposite direction.  The Red-shouldered Hawks called back and forth several times at that point and we would hear them calling again later.

When we reached the tributaries of the Hassayampa River, we broke into two groups to bird the east and west one separately.  The plan was to use a whistle to communicate.  One blow on the whistle meant the bird was in sight.  
Branch of the Hassayampa River 
Sometimes, we just stand and listen for birds.  And, watch the action in every direction.  

Joan and Steve
 When, after two hours, no whistle had been blown, we took a break and followed some other trails. I decided this Vermilion Flycatcher was photo-worthy.

There's a trail that makes a nice circuit around Palm Lake.  Everyone but me saw two Hooded Mergansers there, but after I took the above photo, my birding friends were no where to be seen.  I turned left toward the Lake; they had turned right so we met again later at the far end of Palm Lake.  They had also stopped by the Visitor's Center where they heard that the Varied Thrush had been seen as recently as 45 minutes previously by people in the parking lot!  Can you believe that?  
Steve, Susan and Joan
We checked grassy plots around the outside of the parking area to no avail; then walked again the same route we had covered earlier in the morning.  But the Varied Thrush remained a "no-show". Altogether, 33 species were tallied in the four hours we spent in the small developed area of the Preserve's 600 acres.  By the time we headed home again, the morning cold had given way to a spring-like temperature in the 60s.  It was great to spend the morning with these top-notch birders!

* * *

Green Boulder Hike (Lost Dutchman State Park)

February 22, 2015
Not specifically a birding day, I needed to get my body into hiking shape again and chose Green Boulder at the face of the Superstition Mountains as my destination in Lost Dutchman State Park.
After parking at the Saguaro Day Use area at 7:30 a.m., I walked west to Siphon Draw Trail, then south (upward) to Jacob’s Crosscut (east) to pick up Prospector’s View Trail.  Thus, I enjoyed a birder-paced trek on a gradual incline up to Green Boulder at 2580’ elevation, a climb of 580 feet.

From the beginning birds and early-blooming wildflowers were all around me. I spotted an American Kestrel on top of a distant saguaro and tried for a photo.  

Penstemon and Brittle Bush
 As I trekked higher, the breeze turned to wind and bird songs changed.  No longer was the Black-throated Sparrow with me; it was now a Rock Wren singing.  When I reached the top of the trail at Green Boulder, a Canyon Wren’s cascading song greeted me.  Also here, was a Canyon Towhee that showed itself for me as I paused for a drink and to enjoy the view.

Canyon Towhee
Looking back toward the campground at the State Park, I snapped this photo showing how it is tucked between the Superstition and Goldfield Mountains.

At the top of the trail, I took time to stretch my knees (grasping an ankle and pulling the lower leg up behind me, heel to buttocks).  The descent looked much steeper than I recalled!  But, this was training my body so I went for it.  Next time I’ll use the walking stick that lives in my car!  Not only was it steep, the path downward started out with loose gravel and buried rock.  Yikes!  Balancing my binoculars and camera in my hands, I then needed to balance my body through this rather daunting (for me) part of the descent.  When I finally reached a somewhat flat portion in the middle of the steep drop, I lifted my binoculars once more to look back up above the Superstition Mountains. This time I saw four White-throated Swifts flying about up there.  (Had been hoping for a Golden Eagle!)

As I dropped down to a more gradual and safer part of the trail, I smiled at the tinkling sound of Black-throated Sparrows.  I was back in their territory.  Then, I heard a Black-tailed Gnatcatcher, one of my favorite birds.  I glanced around and noticed it sitting out on a bare limb of a bush.  I hadn’t even called it and there it was.  I watched it for a while and it didn’t move, daring me to go for the photo op.  I did!  Notice how its mostly black under tail has some white ovals on it.  (The Blue-Gray Gnatcatcher’s under tail differs in that it is mostly white underneath with a black stripe up the middle.)

Black-tailed Gnatcatcher
 From this location, I also took a photo of hikers coming up the trail.  

As you can see, the trail would soon become quite safe and I reached my car two hours from start time.  Not only was it a good hike; it was good birding as well!

* * *

Higley and Ocotillo Road Ponds, Gilbert, Maricopa County, AZ

February 21, 2015
With so many birding choices available to us in the greater Phoenix area, I decided to check out the ponds that lie on the east side of Higley Road between Queen Creek & Ocotillo Roads.  Using the SanTan Freeway (The 202 South Loop), it was, on my odometer, an exact 5-mile drive south to the ponds.  BUT, the median does not allow a left turn, so it's necessary to continue south to the traffic light at Ocotillo where a U-turn will bring you north to the ponds on the east side of the road.  [See Tommy DeBardeleben's site for super directions to many sites in Maricopa County:]

The ponds, once rather isolated, now have community developments on the north and east ends.  But it certainly doesn't seem to bother the waterfowl that fill the ponds. 
One of five of the "Higley Ponds"
Access to the ponds
Where these man-made ponds serve as the end stage of a community's water treatment plant, they are often laid out in large squares or rectangles with berms around them for high-water control.  Roads for maintenance trucks are laid out on the berms providing a good walking route for birders.  Thus, being slightly elevated above the water line gave me great spotting scope views of the many ducks and shorebirds.  

Among the hundreds of ducks on the ponds, I was looking for one or two Blue-winged Teal.  Before leaving home, I reminded myself to name each and every duck I saw and to try to see each duck in the water.  How else would I find a needle in a haystack, so to speak?   That also made it easier to count the great numbers of some species like Northern Shoveler (95 of them) because I would count them pond by pond.  I stayed focused on using the spotting scope to the point that I saw no raptors overhead but heard flocks of ducks lifting off from one pond or another from time to time.  Here, all the ponds are not visible simultaneously like they were at Glendale Recharge ponds yesterday.  

By the time I birded the first two ponds beyond the parking area and rounded the road to the north, I immediately noticed how open the two large ponds to the east looked.  Since my last visit in September 2014, many invasive plants and trees (tamarisk or salt cedar) had been removed.  In the past it was difficult to find an opening from which to bird the two eastern ponds, but not today.  They were wide open and I was able to bird them both from one viewpoint at the north end of the canal.

Northern Pintails preening on the southeast pond
No matter how often I look at ducks, I can still be puzzled by how they present themselves.  A Northern Shoveler with its head tucked under its wing for a wee nap, shows all white breast with some black on top.  Oh, so you're a Shoveler, okay, and the counting goes on.  Northern Pintail have excellent lines and I enjoyed viewing them - all 55 of them.  I counted 30 Gadwall and 11 American Wigeon.  It was when I was looking at my favorite little Green-winged Teal and a few Cinnamon Teal that I came upon the duck I couldn't place. AH HA!
I looked long and hard at this bird because it was not exactly what I had in mind; I wanted the male Blue-winged Teal but what I found was the female.  Not being anywhere near expert in my identifications, I had studied last evening  and knew what to look for.  And, as I looked through the scope, the primary marks were there: the dark eyeline from bill to nape, its white eye arcs and the partial white crescent at the base of its bill.  Yowzer!  I managed to find the "needle".   This wasn't a Life Bird; I had seen and photographed Blue-winged Teal in past years and since today's bird was too far out to even consider a picture, I've posted this one from Gilbert Water Ranch two years ago.

Female Blue-winged Teal

As I was leaving the area on the roadway shown above, a man in a white truck who had driven into the property soon after I had parked, drove out with his two unleashed dogs running behind his slow-moving truck.  They were on a parallel road separated from me by a canal.  It was obvious the Australian cattle dog or blue heeler was interested in knowing what I was doing so it raced forward to a bridge across the canal and ran toward me.  Its owner kept calling it back (the other dog obeyed); I kept my eye on the one running hell bent toward me but just stood my ground and stared at it without saying a word.  As it got closer, it decided it didn't want to take me on after all. The dog slowed down, then stopped within about four feet of me, gave me one last look, and ran back to the truck and jumped in.  Good riddance.   But I'm still wondering what vibe I was giving off that turned the dog around!

Each day is different in the field!

* * *

Glendale Recharge Ponds & Tempe Town Lake

February 20, 2015
Today had been set aside to do some target birding.  I reached Glendale Recharge Ponds about 16 miles west of Phoenix just as the sun was rising.  Carrying my spotting scope, camera and binoculars, I walked up into the "pedestrian only" area from the East parking area just as clouds moved in front of rising sun.  Yikes!  Another gray day.  Well, BIBBIDI-BOBBIDI-BOO!  I had already seen a Prairie Falcon perched along the entrance road so I was feeling lucky, sunshine or not.  I just won't take many photos.

These six large rectangular ponds attract a multitude of rare birds.  The birds I wanted to see weren't really rare, but also not common in the Phoenix area:  Dunlin, Western Sandpiper, and Lesser Yellowlegs.  The ponds, laid out in an open grid are easy to access and the clouds would at least provide shade since there are no trees.

As sometimes happens at these recharge facilities, some of the ponds are drained and allowed to dry out.  Pond 5 was the one with the most water and most waterfowl.  A Dunlin is a sandpiper that is just a bit stockier and larger than the "peeps" (Least Sandpipers) that run around the edges of the water and fly off in synchronized flight like sparkling little BIBBIDI-BOBBIDI-BOOS!  But scoping each flock of these sandpipers, I came up empty each time for Dunlin.  The sandpipers were up in the roadways poking around in the gravel much of the time so my access to them was great.  

This is the first time I've ever had the whole place to myself while birding here.  But, it isn't quiet:  Killdeer are always piping their "dee, dee, deee" while the Black-Necked Stilts are clacking away with their long beaks, "kik kik kik" or when complaining, "kee kee keef".
And, there are muted conversations among the many ducks.  Northern Shovelers and Green-winged Teal seemed most abundant but Gadwall were plentiful out on the water, too.

Such open ponds provide easy access for predator birds.  A Bald Eagle who flew in, perhaps for breakfast, was chased away by an Osprey who had already done some good fishing.  When the big hawks fly over, the ducks on the pond tend to huddle together to make the target look too large for the predator.  If you look closely, you may be able to see several different species in the "huddle".

Mixed species flock of waterfowl 
The Black-necked Stilt is a handsomely plumed shorebird with a long needle-thin bill and bubble-gum pink colored legs.
Black-necked Stilt calling
Close up of Black-necked Stilt
Of the birds I set out to see, I managed to find the Lesser Yellowlegs in one of the drier ponds; there was one at each end of Basin 3.   So, I was feeling fine about the birds I had observed in two and half hours and decided to move on.  As I reached the parking area, this Song Sparrow perched for me.  I post the photo because a Song Sparrow on the East Coast looks a bit different from the ones out here that tend to be more rufous in color.

Song Sparrow
As I headed east toward home, I decided to stop by Tempe Town Lake as I had avoided it for several months because of the holidays and special events that take place there each winter.  It was quiet today; too quiet.  I was looking for a Brown Pelican.  Yes, you read correctly.  We have a Brown Pelican in the desert.  And, you know that that bird is big enough to see.  But did I see it??  It must have flown off while I was searching the opposite end of the lake; someone reported seeing it at about the same time that I was at the marsh end.  I did drive up to the west end of the lake where the pedestrian bridge crosses it.  I searched from there and from the sidewalk along the lake to no avail.  Again, I saw birds that I really enjoy: Ruddy Ducks and Western Grebe for starters.  And, at the marsh end of the lake, I had been studying the Double-crested Cormorants who were joined by many first-winter juveniles on a long sand spit beyond the cottonwood and tamarisk trees.  There must be a rookery nearby.

Pedestrian Bridge; West end of Tempe Town Lake

Double-crested Cormorant
And, the BIBBIDI-BOBBIDI-BOO bird of the day goes to this one:

Domestic Muscovy Duck

* * *

Miscellaneous Local Birding, Pinal and Maricopa County, AZ

February 18, 2015
The past three mornings have been scheduled with non-birding activities, but the weather has been so warm and sunny that I couldn’t resist getting out and about later each day.

This evening (2/18/15) around 4:45 p.m., I decided to check out the owl ears visible in last year’s Red-tailed Hawk nest on the exit ramp from Highway 60 to Idaho Road.  
Away from the highway, I walked the desert where I saw the usual species (Abert’s Towhees, House Finches, White-crowned Sparrows, Say’s Phoebe and a Cooper’s Hawk).
When I reached a point well beyond the nest and about 50 yards from the highway, I walked slowly closer.  

Binocular views were better than the photos, both of which confirmed the owl on the nest was a Great Horned.  This location is in Pinal County.

After two morning appointments yesterday (2/17/15), the spring-like temperatures tugged me outside a little before noontime - not the best time of day for birding.  So, I decided to check out a place known as Electric Park in Mesa in Maricopa County.  It’s a special place along a power easement for high-voltage lines that cut through several neighborhoods.  Most houses have desert backyards made attractive to birds.  As I understand it, the neighbors got together and created the desert habitat that exists across the easement between their houses and below the wide power structures.  Well-worn dirt paths wind through these areas that attract many birds not easily seen elsewhere.  

When I opened the car door, I heard the “special” birds I was hoping to find there -- Rosy-faced Lovebirds.  Well-hidden within a dense Palo Verde tree, the Lovebirds played hard-to-get, so I continued east on the trail to get into a better position for photos should they emerge.  
Until the American Birding Association recently recognized them as an existing sustainable population in the Phoenix area, the birds were locally called "Peach-faced" Lovebirds.

Small Inca Doves were also very abundant there. Quite plain with a pale gray scaly feather pattern, the Inca Dove flashes bright rufous underwings when it flies.

Inca Dove 
Feeling very pleased with the birds I had seen and photographed there, I decided to move on to the Lower Salt River to escape the full overhead sunshine and heat in Electric Park.

Instead of parking in the paved area of the Coon Bluff Recreation Area, I pulled off the entrance road at the horse-staging area (for horseback riders to trailer their horses to this wide space).  It was 12:30 when I started birding the mesquite bosque away from the developed picnic and camping area at the end of the entrance road.  After covering the West side of the road, I crossed over to the East and wandered on some of the wild horse trails through those mesquites all the way to the Salt River.  Of the 23 species of birds I spotted, the Vermilion and Ash-throated Flycatchers were the best! 

Female Vermilion Flycatcher
Ash-throated Flycatcher
It’s always a thrill to come upon the wild horses there; I call them the “Coon Bluff Five”.
Today, that band of five were across the river nibbling grass and drinking.

Band of Five Wild Horses at Coon Bluff (Salt River)

Fulfilled by my day’s adventures, I hiked back to the car and home to those avoided chores!

* * *

Gilbert Water Ranch, Maricopa County, AZ

February 16, 2015
Although I might drive hither and yon criss-crossing the state to see birds, I know that one of the best places in the Phoenix area is the Riparian Preserve at Gilbert Water Ranch, just a 20-minute drive from home. 

At sunrise this morning, I met a visiting birding pal there and we got started on the east side so that the sun could be at our backs the rest of the morning.   One of the first great sights for me was the increased number of American Avocets in the small reserve pond at #7.   Some of the males were already in full breeding plumage with burnt-orange neck feathers.  This long-legged sandpiper is a bird to see!  Look at its long blue legs, bold contrasted black and white body and its needle-thin bill, slightly up-curved.

Overhead, an Osprey flew off with a breakfast fish in its talons.  Soon, we came upon a treasure of activity.  My birding companion, Ann, spotted a Belted Kingfisher perched in a mesquite tree. I hadn’t seen it during my past two visits and wondered whether it was still around. Then I spotted a female Wood Duck paddling around with some Northern Shovelers.  That’s new!  I think it’s the first Wood Duck I’ve ever seen there.

Also on this reserve pond were the Hooded Mergansers that previously foraged in a distant pond. There is more water retained here and there is a lot of overhang at the pond’s edge for good cover, so perhaps they have flown over to this one.  At any rate, instead of the previous three Hooded Mergansers at the distant pond, there were, today, five (5) Hooded Mergansers.  Two males were bathing; the females were swimming a short distance out from cover and back in.  I counted three females and two males. I was unable to get clear enough views of the three potential females to determine whether one of them might be the juvenile male that had been over on the distant pond with an adult pair.  I rather think it may be a grouping of two females, two males, and a young male whose ID markers separate it from the female.

Ann enjoyed seeing Abert’s Towhees and the many hummingbirds since neither are present where she lives.  All the hummers turned out to be Anna’s Hummingbirds and she got a kick out of watching the sun light up their red head and gorget feathers.  We found an American Kestrel perched out in the open where it could keep its eye on activity.  This well-known falcon is small, pale and well-marked.  It takes its prey (insects and small mammals) on the ground.

As we walked the wide trails, we found a Spotted Towhee high in a tree!  Spring is in the air; he may have gone high to sing.  

Spotted Towhee

One of my favorite ducks is the Green-winged Teal.

Two males; one female Green-winged Teal

In the fields filled with green growth were Great Egrets; hidden within it were many Killdeer.  Tucked into some tamarisk trees, I spotted an adult and a juvenile Black-crowned Night Heron.

Juvenile, sleeping

I had enjoyed the richness of birdlife at Gilbert Water Ranch once again and was glad to share it all with Ann.

Ann Bancroft