Wednesday, 12 November 2014

MEGA: Hawaii's First Spotted Redshank!

You know the saying "Go big or go home"?  Well, I defied that by going big, then going home.  I was in Hawaii visiting friends and enjoying its amazing natural and not-so-natural history from October 24th to November 8th, and boy did I ever make it memorable!

On November 2nd, I was hiking the incredible Pu'u O'o Trail off the Saddle Rd. that traverses the Big Island between Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa.  I had the good fortune of bumping into Jack Jeffrey - a well-respected ornithologist and photographer in Hawaii - and he mentioned the Kona Wastewater Treatment Plant is a great place to search for migrant waterfowl and shorebirds.  There is almost an irony in this recommendation, as Jack's central focus is native forest birds.  Regardless, I immediately decided it was a place I wanted to visit.

Despite seeing some of the incredible native forest birds that are too gawdy for words, I found there was also something equally incredible about seeing migrant waterfowl and shorebirds, ones I see here on southern Vancouver Island, way out in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.  How they manage to find terra firma when the nearest major land masses are thousands of kilometres away is beyond me.  That was the major stimulus for following Jack's advice to hit up the Kona Wastewater Treatment Plant on November 3rd.

The treatment plant is not open to the public, but birders have graciously been allowed to venture around the facility, staying outside the chainlink fence.  Janean and I ventured in and followed a dirt road onto a dyke that offered a good vantage of the wastewater treatment ponds.  Scanning the edges of the ponds, I found many of the expected Hawaiian marsh birds: Hawaiian Stilts, Hawaiian Coots, Pacific Golden-Plovers, Ruddy Turnstones, Sanderlings, and a few Wandering Tattlers.  Additionally, I spotted a lone Cackling Goose that has apparently been a long-staying uncommon bird, plus a single Lesser Scaup.  I also spotted a large wader in the corner of the furthest back pond on the left (i.e., southwesternmost).  The heat haze was horrid and I figured it must be a Greater Yellowlegs, which would be a pretty good bird.  I tried my best to get good looks from the dyke, but the heat haze was too strong.  I got distracted by a small tern flying over the ponds and my attention was focused on it for a while.  Even my views of the tern were unsatisfying, but I managed to ascertain that it was a Least Tern.  A look on eBird confirmed that a juvenile had been reported there within the past month and since then I have learned that Least Terns actually bred in the area.

Coming from the wet Hilo side, the dry Kona heat not only made the viewing conditions difficult, but it spurred me to move on because Janean is quite fair-skinned.  Oh... and we were at a wastewater treatment plant in Hawaii.  How fair is that?!?  I gave one last look at that large wader and just had to shrug.  "Probably just a Greater Yellowlegs" I thought, but there was something that didn't sit right with me about it.  The legs seemed quite bright even through the haze.  I knew I would be coming back to Kona on the last day and I would have the whole afternoon to explore the area.  Janean is very accommodating and said I could go back on our last day.

November 7th was our last full day and we weren't scheduled to fly until 12:50 a.m. on the 8th.  We worked our way towards Kona in the morning, heading north from Ka'u.  We had a fairly leisurely morning, including stopping in for a nice coffee and using some WiFi, so we didn't get to the treatment plant until noon.  Janean said she would rather just relax in the car so she didn't feel like she was rushing me - what a lucky guy!  I marched out to the dyke and set up the scope, hoping the "vog" (volcanic fog) would cut the haze.  The large wader was in the exact same spot, but the heat haze still hampered views.  I scoped around quickly for anything else unusual and then focused back on the wader.  It moved up out of the water and onto the black plastic lining, which provided a much better contrast to evaluate the legs.  I thought "Man... those legs are glowing!"  I packed up the scope and decided that I had to get closer to see if there was any chance it was the outrageous thing I thought it might be.

I skirted the facility to the left of the entrance and got to a place that was much closer and hopefully still offered a view of the bird.  I set the scope up and started scanning... no dice.  I figured it was just out of view, so I waited a minute and checked again.  There it was... creamsicle orange legs just screaming "Hey dummy... my shanks are red!"  I started to piece together the other features I knew off the top of my head: the basal half of the bill's lower mandible was reddy-orange, the overall colour was tan-brown with the speckled pattern reminiscent of a yellowlegs, it had white supercilia and dark lores, and the neck down to the belly had a tan wash, including blurry streaking on the upper chest.  There was something else I was supposed to look for... right, redshanks are supposed to have a white wedge running up the back, in the same vein as dowitchers,  I watched the redshank as it bobbed its way along the edge of pond.  I was hoping the Hawaiian Coot would be curious enough about the foreign visitor to peck at its legs.  Instead, the noisy activity of a nearby Hawaiian Stilt caused the redshank to make a short flight.  As its wings opened, the white patch was revealed up the back and, to separate it from Common Redshank, it lacked broad white trailing edges on the wings.  I was looking at a juvenile SPOTTED REDSHANK!!!  I guarantee I was muttering expletives to myself and I was certain this was a mega rarity for Hawaii.  I wasn't sure exactly how good it was, but I knew it was going to cause a stir.

When you're close, there's no doubt about its identity! (Photo: Eric VanderWerf)

Excellent shot showing the white between the wings (Photo: Eric VanderWerf)

White supercilium and dark lores showing well here (Photo: Eric VanderWerf)

So, I had just seen a Spotted Redshank in Hawaii and I had no idea what magnitude the rarity was and I wasn't sure who to contact.  My only attempts to contact locals failed, so I did the next best thing: social media.  I contacted Jeremy Kimm and asked him to put the word out on the ABA Rare Bird Alert page on Facebook and anywhere else relevant.  He did just that and the more relevant page he got it on was the Hawaii Birdwatching group on Facebook.  From there, enthusiastic local birder Lance Tanino grilled Jeremy K. for more details.  It was, after all, a Hawaiian first - that's when I truly grasped the weight of the sighting.  I called Jeremy to get all the information out in a prompt manner and this convinced Lance and also Jean Campbell that they should be there first thing in the morning the next day.

I was grateful to Lance and Jean because they got down there and photo-documented the bird.  My camera was out of commission, so I wasn't able to document the bird.  They both managed to obtain tangible evidence that it existed and soon more Hawaiian birders were making the trip to see this far-flung Asian shorebird.  Similarly, I must thank Eric VanderWerf for supplying the photos he managed to obtain, as they make this entry less bland!  This is conceivably the rarest bird I have ever found: a state first!  I have had two provincial second records (Ross' Gull and Painted Bunting) and one third record (Lesser Nighthawk) for BC, but never a first.  What a thrilling event and one hell of a way to end my first trip to the Hawaiian Islands!

Saturday, 18 October 2014

I'm Not Getting Rusty...

Well... this is hardly the resounding post I should be putting together to break the silence.  I was away working for six weeks without internet and then I was back in Victoria for a whopping four days before heading up to Fort McMurray for a few weeks.  I have been back in Victoria for just over a week now and I'm finally starting to feel like I'm settled back in.

I have been sneaking in little birding excursions when I can and this morning was rather productive.  With a Red-throated Pipit reported along Puckle Rd. near Martindale Flats last weekend, I thought I would see if I could sift through some pipits.  I arrived at the fields at around 8 a.m. and there was a light veil of fog hanging over the fields.  This was a little discouraging as it reduced the visibility, but I could hear pipits out there.  I pulled to the side of the road, grabbed my scope, and did my best to find tail-bobbing birds popping up from furrows in the soil.  While doing this, I noticed blackbirds and European Starlings flying in from the northwest and landing on the wires.  I gave them a quick scan because a Rusty Blackbird was reported in local flock a few days earlier.  My mind was set on pipits at this time, though, so I quickly went back to trying to pick out a Red-throated and among the Americans.  After half an hour or so of looking and listening to the same group of American Pipits, I decided it was a bust.

As I headed back to the car, I noticed Eurasian Collared-Doves were at the edge of one of the fields with the starlings and blackbirds.  I moved the car closer to the action and shortly after parking a truck pulled up.  Jody Wells, a birder I had bumped in to once before at Tod Creek Flats, provided good company as we scanned through the blackbird flock and small groups of sparrows dropping down to the ground along a fence line.  While chatting with Jody, I said he should let me know if he ever finds any interesting birds during his walks.  He said he wasn't as intense with the birding as others, but he has come across some interesting birds.  One sighting he recalled in particular was three Yellow-headed Blackbirds on Saanichton Spit.  I was impressed - that's my spot and I certainly haven't found one there!  At that point, I mentioned there was supposed to be a Rusty Blackbird around and it could well be in the flock we had in front of us.  Well, wouldn't you know it... I couldn't dig out the Rusty Blackbird, but I did find a first-year male Yellow-headed Blackbird!  I got Jody on the bird and we both marveled at the brilliant yellow patch on its chest when it turned the right way.

The flock was rather restless and Jody noticed that they all put up after a Mourning Dove darted in towards them.  They must have mistaken the swept back wings for a Merlin that we'd seen zip by earlier.  Eventually the Yellow-headed Blackbird ended up on the road near the very end of Puckle Rd., surrounded by Red-winged Blackbirds, European Starlings, a few Brown-headed Cowbirds, and a smattering of Brewer's Blackbirds.  I crept my way up to the flock and maintained a healthy distance to take some record shots.

First-year male Yellow-headed Blackbird with three Red-winged Blackbirds

Easily the best look I've had of a Yellow-headed Blackbird in Victoria!

Another familiar face, Barry McKee, rolled up as Jody was heading off.  I managed to get Barry on the Yellow-headed Blackbird and he snapped one shot with his camera before it flew, likely rejoining the flock on the fields.  This was only my second self-found Yellow-headed Blackbird for the Victoria checklist area and I would gladly take that over a Rusty!  This sighting paired with seeing a couple of familiar faces made for a great morning.

I just looked back through the BCVIBIRDS archive and learned that my first self-found Yellow-headed Blackbird was almost two years ago to the day.  I went to the Vantreight bulb fields on October 19, 2012, the day after returning from a work trip, and found a female Yellow-headed Blackbird in a large blackbird flock off Wallace Dr.  I guess mid-October is a great window for uncommon icterids!  Is it too much to hope for a grackle?

Tuesday, 8 July 2014

I Heard It Through the Kiwi Vine...

A few weeks ago, if you'll recall, I managed to see my first Clay-coloured Sparrow in the Victoria checklist area.  I even made brief mention of the next five species I anticipated to add as I work towards 300.  Well, you can pretty much guarantee it won't work out the way you anticipate and I pretty instantly derailed my list.

On June 24, Ann Nightingale headed over to Livesay Rd. where Bullock's Orioles were first noted four days earlier.  Not only were the orioles still around, but a song rarely heard in Victoria was being repeated in the backdrop.  Luckily Ann recognized the repeated "che-bek" phrase as a singing Least Flycatcher.  Unfortunately for me, I was working in the interior and heading to Valemount for four more days of work.  Even worse, the trail went cold the next morning after it put in a brief appearance.  It wasn't reported over the next two days and I figured it was yet another Least Flycatcher that had slipped through my grasp due to my absence from the Victoria area.

The Newells are a persistent bunch and they not only checked in on the orioles on June 28, but they also decided to check around the kiwi farms near the intersection of Martindale and Welch.  Surprisingly enough, they relocated the Least Flycatcher singing around the kiwi farm - awesome!  I was finishing up my work that day and had a day of natural history mayhem planned for the next day down in the Okanagan.  I wasn't about to rush back to Victoria for the Least Flycatcher, but I made sure to stay updated on its status.  After a morning in Princeton and Manning Park on the 30th, I was bound for Swartz Bay on the 6 p.m. ferry.  While on the ferry, I read an update from Mike McGrenere saying that he had the Least in the morning.  I wanted to pop in to drop off some Okanagan cherries to my dad, but I planned to make it quick so I could put in a bit of time before dark trying to hear or see the flycatcher.  I mentioned it to my dad and he wanted to join me, so we hopped in my work truck and we headed on over to the kiwi farms.  I am fortunately very familiar with Least Flycatcher due to the areas I work, so I stood still and just listened.  It took a minute, but I heard a distant "che-bek" at the far end of the kiwi farm on the south side of Martindale Rd.  We tracked the bird down to the row of poplars at the south side of the farm.  I popped just inside the row of poplars along the road and managed to see a little empid with obvious white wingbars high up in one of the poplars.  It wasn't the best view, but it was most definitely my first Least Flycatcher in the Victoria checklist area!

My dad didn't really get a great view of the bird before it flew to the north end of the farm.  I listened for it to sing again and determined it was half way down the north line of poplars.  Then it stopped singing for a bit and when it restarted, it was over in the kiwi farm kitty corner to us.  We crossed over to it and there my dad was able to briefly observe the Least as it sat on a drooping kiwi vine about 10 metres away at eye level.  What a great bird to add and it didn't quite make my cut for the top five next expected species.  It was pretty close and I debated putting it on over Pink-footed Shearwater and Long-tailed Jaeger because I don't do much in the way of "pelagic" birding here.

I don't have any audio files or photos to support this blog entry, so I will have to make up for it with a photo extravaganza soon.  Photos would have been miserable anyways due to the low light conditions.  Knowing this is a new Victoria bird for me, I will do the standard update on my progress towards 300 species in the checklist area.  The Least Flycatcher is my 294th species and it was actually a tiebreaker for me to jump back ahead of Jeremy Kimm.  I probably fretted at his progress over the past few years as he quickly closed the gap and then momentarily passed me.  At the same time, I knew he was adding species I hadn't seen and it was only a matter of time before I recouped those losses.  Mission accomplished!  If that sounds extremely competitive, it's actually all in good fun.  We congratulate each other genuinely when we add new birds to our Victoria checklist and JK even prods me to hurry up and get my Grey Jay already.  I think we both enjoy the friendly competitive edge and schoolyard maturity taunting.  So... bring on the next one!

Monday, 7 July 2014

Just Behrly...

Just over a week ago, I finished up work in Valemount and had to drop a coworker off in the Vernon area.  With Janean off camping, I figured it would be nice to take advantage of the fact I was already in the Okanagan area and spend the next day and a half enjoying the natural history of the southern interior.

After dropping off my coworker, I made a quick dash south and completely forgot how busy it would be during the Canada Day weekend.  I had trouble finding accommodations in Oliver, so I kept going to Osoyoos and eventually managed to find somewhere that was not excessively expensive.  My plan for the next morning was to get up and head to Road 22 to see if dragonflies were cruising the irrigation channel.

When I got there it was still a little early, so I continued on to Black Sage Rd. and realized the area sported an abundance of antelope-brush.  I had a feeling the area was Haines Lease Ecological Reserve due to provincial government signs indicating it was a management area.  If I have an area I can just wander without worrying about trespassing, I am happy.  Off I went in sandals... into the sage, antelope-brush, cheatgrass, and cactus.  After a couple minutes, I marched back to the truck and replaced my sandals with hiking shoes.  I always underestimate how effective cacti and cheatgrass are at transporting themselves from just the slightest brush of a foot.  The shoes made it a bit more comfortable, but I still had hundreds of cheatgrass  seeds embedded in my shoelaces and socks and cacti were embedded in my soles and adhering to my pants.  So why was I putting myself through this treacherous foot gauntlet?  The relatively intact antelope-brush community hosts a butterfly that has a very limited range in British Columbia: Behr's Hairstreak.

I spent hours roaming around a slope covered in antelope-brush and, despite finding dozens of Grey Hairstreaks, a few California Hairstreaks, a couple Common Sootywings, and several amazing robberflies, I just couldn't connect with Behr's Hairstreak.  I have seen one before, but it a very brief sighting at the Osoyoos Desert Centre a few years ago.  I have been told the desert centre's parking lot is one of the best places to see them due to the abundance of yarrow in the garden.  I am stubborn and wanted to get it in a more natural setting.  Haines Lease has a good supply of its host plant (antelope-brush), but I feel it was lacking nectar plants.  Pretty much all of the yarrow I encountered was already dried out.  I was happy I explored this location despite missing my target.  I even scrambled up onto the rocky slope above the antelope-brush community and got one heck of a surprise from a Western Rattlesnake!  This encounter happened so quickly that I didn't manage any photos, unfortunately.  Instead, I can offer shots of a Grey Hairstreak, Common Sootywing, and a Brown-spotted Range Grasshopper.

This dark little skipper patterned with white spots on the forewing is a Common Sootywing

Several of the Grey Hairstreaks were in pristine condition and this is one such individual

Thanks to James Miskelly, I have this identified as a Brown-spotted Range Grasshopper (Psoloessa delicatula)

I decided that I had to abandon my search for Behr's Hairstreak.  Between my time at Haines Lease Ecological Reserve and another little patch of antelope-brush further northwest on Black Sage Rd., I had dedicated enough time to one species.  I cut decided to shift my focus to Dark Saltflat Tiger Beetle (Cicindela parowana), which is currently only known from one location in Canada.  For this species, I headed out east of Oliver.  I didn't have the exact location for it, but a description of the area that I did my best to figure out.  I later found out I wasn't quite in the right spot.  I was having a hard time finding good tiger beetle habitat, so I was sticking to a dirt track that occasionally had some looser, sandier soil.  Based on a report chronicling the search effort for Dark Saltflat Tiger Beetle in recent years, I thought I should be looking around alkali flats.  I got on my phone and used Google Maps to look for any water features that might have an alkali edge.  From my little iPhone screen, I found one spot that looked like a decent candidate.  I drove a few kilometres on the dirt track and ended up at a little watering hole that seemingly gets used by horses.  This wasn't looking too promising.

I hopped out and started searching the dried edge for tiger beetles and the wetter areas for interesting plants or puddling butterflies.  Nothing.  I then continued to walk down the dirt track.  As I walked along, my eyes were drawn to a dark spot on the flat-topped flower cluster of a yarrow plant.  It was a butterfly and the combination of its size and brown tone stopped me dead in my tracks.  Behr's Hairstreak!  I had given up on finding one, but that's often how it goes.  This stunning hairstreak cooperatively nectared from flower to flower on the yarrow.

Behr's Hairstreak is easily one of my favourite butterflies in British Columbia - what a beauty!

I should really end with the Behr's Hairstreak as it was really the high point of the day.  Unfortunately, I am a sucker for chronology and, after enjoying the above Behr's plus another individual that was a little more worn, I had a cooperative California Hairstreak.  Yarrow is such a great nectar plant even if it is rather weedy, and it's also what the California Hairstreak was using for a nectar source.  I may have spent my entire day searching for two main targets, but it was a very rewarding day and I hope you enjoyed ride-along narrative.

This California Hairstreak had the most vibrant markings of the four that I saw over the course of the day

Wednesday, 11 June 2014

This fella got a Spizella

The inevitable happened again while I was away working.  I am a sucker for punishment, so I still follow what's going on in Victoria while I'm away and let's just say the last two weeks were hot.  First, during the Metchosin Bioblitz a homeowner photographed a male Hooded Oriole at their feeder.  I probably would have moped a little more if this bird put on a good show, but no birders were able to enjoy this bird.  The next week, both Eastern and Western Kingbirds were all over the place and then Jeff Gaskin had a Black Phoebe in the midst of all the kingbird mayhem near Blenkinsop Lake.  Finally, an inconspicuous report was mentioned in the transcript for the Victoria Rare Bird Alert: a possible Clay-coloured Sparrow singing near the Vancouver Island Technology Park.  If the latter was identified correctly, that would be three birds I have never seen in Victoria.  Painful!'

I got home on the evening of June 7 and planned to get out the next morning to try to connect with a good bird or two of my own.  First, however, I thought I would follow up on the possible Clay-coloured Sparrow that received no further mention on BCVIBIRDS or the rare bird alert.  I drove past Quick's Bottom and towards the Vancouver Island Technology Park at around 8:30 a.m.  Having just worked for nearly three weeks up in Fort McMurray where Clay-coloured Sparrows are a dime dozen, I was confident I would easily pick out a Clay-coloured Sparrow if it was still around singing.  I rolled the window down in the car and cruised along slowly.  Within seconds of putting the window down, I heard the distinct "bzzzzz bzzzzz bzzzzz" of a Clay-coloured!  The idea of that species being exciting after coming back from a play where they're abundant is somewhat absurd, but this species was long overdue for me in Victoria.  Maybe relieved is a better description of how I felt.

To put this bogey bird in perspective, let me relate it to Brewer's Sparrow - the other rare Spizella that occasionally turns up in Victoria.  Brewer's Sparrow has fewer than 10 records on Vancouver Island, while Clay-coloured Sparrow has been recorded likely more than 20 times.  I have been fortunate enough to see two Brewer's Sparrows in Victoria, thanks to the sharp ears of Ian Cruickshank both times.  This unlikely discrepancy is due largely to typical windows these two species show up in the region.  Brewer's Sparrow is often found in the spring, and that is certainly the case for the two birds that Ian found that I was able to capitalize on.  Clay-coloured Sparrows, on the other hand, typically show up in the late summer or early fall in the Pacific Northwest.  I just seem to get unlucky with absences in the fall when Clay-coloured Sparrows show up.  Lucky for me, this Clay-coloured Sparrow decided to break the mould and set up a territory on a tiny shrub-dotted knoll in Layritz Park!

Male Clay-coloured Sparrow singing from the top of a Scotch Broom shrub at Layritz Park on June 8, 2014

As you can see, this bird was cooperatively content singing his heart out from the tops of shrubs within its territory.  Not only did I snap off a few photos, I have been exploring the use of my camera as a means of recording songs and calls of birds.  It works surprisingly well!  If you have a digital camera that allows you to take videos, you can record the bird singing or calling and then extract the audio file using software.  For this I use the free VLC Media Player and it works perfectly for my purpose.  Once you extract the audio recording, you can upload it to a site like xeno-canto and it provides you with a nice little sonogram that can be embedded into something like a blog.  How convenient is that?  Here is the recording of the Clay-coloured Sparrow from Sunday morning:

I am not sure how much content I actually post on my blog about the actual "art" of birding, but I think the above qualifies as a little tip for modern birding.  Do whatever you can to document a bird.  There will always be cases where a bird legitimately can't be well-documented, but I think we're getting to a point where the majority of the rarities should have some form of presentable evidence.  If you hadn't thought of the above, give it a try with even some regular species.  If you need assistance with the conversion of your movie file to audio, drop me a line and I'll see if I can walk you through it.  I am new to this, too, but it is a rather effective way to document a bird that is very skulky, but regularly vocalizes.  For example, what if by some outlandishly glorious twist of fate you found a Yellow Rail giving its "tick-tick... tick-tick-tick" calls from a wet meadow on southern Vancouver Island?  Do you think you're going to see it and get photos of it?  Maybe you can lure it out with playback and get lucky, but probably not.  I would now be inclined to switch my digital camera to video mode and start recording in hopes that it picks up the calls.

If you don't think documenting rare birds is important, you should have a read through a very recent piece on the ABA blog by George Armistead by clicking "here".... here.  That was a weird way to do that.  Anyways, don't take that article personally.  There will always be birders that don't understand that we all get something different out of this hobby.  I find it very helpful when rare birds are documented and I am grateful when I receive an e-mail about a rarity that is accompanied with some sort of tangible evidence.  Do I really care if someone hasn't photographed a vagrant?  In the end, no... not really.  Depending on whether it's the first documented record of that species in the province or even in the local checklist area, it may or may not get accepted due to a lack of proof.  That doesn't mean it didn't happen, but rather it greatly diminishes the critical evaluation of the identification by a records committee.  Okay, that's all I plan to say about that because I have now strayed off topic farther than the Clay-coloured strayed to end up in Victoria.

Let me just wrap this up with a little update.  First, the bird is still, as of June 11, singing up a storm by the small rocky knoll at Layritz Park near the Vancouver Island Technology Park.  And finally, the Clay-coloured Sparrow was the 293rd species for me in the Victoria checklist area.  I am still clawing my way up towards 300 and hopefully I'll be able to inch my way up a little more this year.  This and Say's Phoebe were two species that continually sat in my top 5 next expected birds to be added, so I'll have to revisit that list and adjust it now that they're knocked down.  Feel free to help me out by timing your rarity discoveries with my arrivals back in the Victoria area!  Lark Sparrow, Dusky Flycatcher, and Grey Jay are my top three, so I just need to think about what's next after that.  Maybe Pink-footed Shearwater and Long-tailed Jaeger?  Yes... consider that a wish list.

Sunday, 18 May 2014

Bullseye at Buckeye

Before heading down to Arizona, I had some targets I was hoping to catch up with that I had missed on previous trips to the southwest.  Bendire's Thrasher and Gilded Flicker were two such targets and I knew they were both denizens of the sparse Sonoran desert shrublands around Phoenix.  I figured this would be a great way to kick off my trip because these two species would be harder to find as I ventured south into canyon country.

If you've been down to Arizona and had Bendire's Thrasher as a target, I have a sneaking suspicion you know about the "Thrasher Spot" where Baseline Rd. meets the Salome Highway, approximately 15 kilometres west of Buckeye.  If not, let's just say the title that has been bestowed upon this area is very apt.  The "Thrasher Spot" was less than an hour's drive away from the airport in Phoenix, so after landing in the late afternoon on April 12 I picked up a rental car, grabbed some supplies, and headed west.

It was well after dark when I arrived and I should have been tired, but I am always very excited about the prospects of new critters when I travel.  My plan was to sleep in the car, but I figured I should cruise the roads for a while looking for snakes and also scope out a good quiet spot to park for the night.  It was fruitless for the first half hour, so I hopped out and set out on foot for a bit.  Finally, I struck some form of pay dirt with a kangaroo rat!  I managed to get quite close and snapped some photos that allowed identification: Merriam's Kangaroo Rat.  The only other kangaroo rat I had seen before this was an Ord's Kangaroo Rat on a sagebrush plateau near Plush, Oregon.

Merriam's Kangaroo Rat (Dipdomys merriami)

After my jaunt in the desert, I still wasn't tired so I continued cruising the roads for a while.  Eventually this, too, payed off.  As I drove along, I noticed a snake on the other side of the road.  I quickly turned around and sprang in to action with my headlamp and camera.  It was a rattlesnake!  I took a couple quick record shots and then decided I wanted to try to move it off the edge of the road.  I had nothing to do that with, though.  I managed to get it to move a short ways just by stepping on the road as close as I felt comfortable doing so.  When it moved, it was winding along sideways.  Hmmm... what does that?  Oh right... Sidewinder!  I had a little photo session with it and in a way it reminded me of an Eyelash Viper.  When I saw my first Eyelash Viper, the modified scales over the eyes - the "eyelashes" - were mind-blowing and I had to be mindful that I was dealing with a venomous snake and not let excitement obscure my judgement.  The Sidewinder also has scales above its eyes - the supraocular scales - that are raised and give a horned appearance, so it also sometimes called the Horned Rattlesnake.  The venom on a Sidewinder is apparently mild as far as rattlesnakes go, but I still maintain a very healthy respect for any venomous snake.  I enjoyed the Sidewinder at a safe distance and now you can safely view it in the comfort of your home.

Sonoran Desert Sidewinder (Crotalus cerastes cercobombus)

This angle shows off those raised supraocular scales of the Sidewinder

I didn't have any more sightings of interest that evening and I managed very little sleep that night.  Regardless, when the sun's up and you're in a new place, you find energy.  I am not sure why, but I opted not to start right at the "Thrasher Spot".  I thought perhaps it was all good habitat, but that was not really the case.  I still had a nice start to the day as I birded a little dry wash that had some lusher shrubs.  I quickly tallied some of the expected desert species, including Verdin, Abert's Towhee, Northern Mockingbird, Lucy's Warbler, Black-tailed Gnatcatcher, Gambel's Quail, and Ash-throated Flycatcher.

Ash-throated Flycatcher in a Palo Verde shrub

Black-tailed Gnatcatcher also in Palo Verde

The absence of thrashers in the first patch spurred me to head back to the car and make my way back around to the proper "Thrasher Spot".  I was scanning fence posts and powerlines along the way and I was rewarded with a thrasher on a wire.  At this point, I should point out that I really should have gone somewhere to see Curve-billed Thrashers first because I thought I was looking at a Curve-billed Thrasher.  It's a bit of a spoiler, but I wasn't even sure I had seen a Bendire's here.  It wasn't until I saw my first Curve-billed Thrashers elsewhere that I had a feeling I was looking at Bendire's at the "Thrasher Spot".  Rich Hoyer confirmed this for me later by saying "There are no Curve-billed Thrashers there."  I have a much better eye for it now and you can even see the fine streaking on the chest of the very first one I saw on the wire.

The shorter, straighter bill now looks very obvious to me on this Bendire's Thrasher, and those fine streaks can be a little inconspicuous but they're showing well on this one.

In behind the thrasher, I heard the call of a flicker.  I managed to track down the source sitting on the top of a power pole.  The flicker had a very plain tan head and then it flew right over me to reveal yellow on the flight feathers: Gilded Flicker!  So, although I didn't know it at the time, I had both of my targets knocked down very quickly!  I watched the flicker land on a distant saguaro cactus, so I beelined across the desert to get to it.  Along the way, I was momentarily distracted by a blob near a shrub.  I glassed it and was surprised to see it was a Great Horned Owl.  The flicker was my target, though, so I continued making my way towards the big saguaro it had landed on.  I was still a fair distance away when it flew, but it went right by me again so I had great looks as it passed over.  Back to the Great Horned Owl... but where did it go?  I could see an American Kestrel diving at something just on the other side of a small rise, so I started to head over in that direction.  Then I saw the most amazing sight.  I'll just show this one because words won't do it justice.

Four Great Horned Owl nestlings in a giant saguaro stick nest

This was quite the sight for this Pacific Northwest lad!  I am used to seeing Great Horned Owls nesting in a snapped off Douglas-fir snag, so seeing a large stick nest resting the fork of a saguaro with four owlets under the Arizona sun was amazing.

I made my way back to the car and started driving again and it wasn't long until I was pulled right back over to the side.  This time it was Cactus Wrens that had my interest.  I had a family group near a tall saguaro and enjoy watching them creep around the trunk and investigate holes and so on.  I like having two senses firing, so the male singing on top of the cactus was great.

A classic southwest sight: Cactus Wren on a saguaro cactus

After the first couple of birding in areas near the "Thrasher Spot", I decided to see what the hype was all about.  I made my way to the intersection of Baseline Rd. and the Salome Highway and found a little pull-off.  I spent the next couple of hours walking around the sparse shrubby flats and checking thickets for anything that moved.  I'll hold off on the birds and start this off with some non-feathered critters.

This vividly-speckled lizard is a Side-blotched Lizard, which is much brighter than the ones I've seen in Washington

It took me a while to find the source of the hitch-pitched call I kept hearing - turns out it was a Round-tailed Ground-Squirrel!

A birding couple with their son spotted this Western Diamondback Rattlesnake

This tiny butterfly is one of the smallest in North America: the Western Pygmy Blue

What would a section on the "Thrasher Spot" be without highlighting the thrashers?  I unfortunately didn't come across any Crissal Thrashers there, but I had crippling views of LeConte's Thrashers!  I spent about five minutes standing approximately five metres away from one singing on a shrub.  I slowly shuffled my way up to it and it wasn't phased in the slightest.  I also got to see them do their roadrunner-like dashes between shrubs!  I've picked a couple shots of the very cooperative one to share here.

For a bird a lot of people say is hard to see well, I wasn't going to complain!

The sandy-brown colour makes LeConte's Thrashers perfectly adapted to their environment

I did find a pair of Bendire's Thrashers here that were feeding a young one.  They were actively running on the ground and snapping up insects.  Here is a shot of one that momentarily paused in between forays.

Bendire's Thrasher in its element

I may have missed Crissal Thrasher, but I was surprised to find a relatively late Sage Thrasher.  I worked hard to get some shots of it and the results are not too bad.

Sage Thrasher sitting up on saltbush

Starting my first day at the "Thrasher Spot" near Buckeye was indeed a grand kick-off to my travels in Arizona.  I had two lifers under my belt and had refamiliarized myself with some of the ever-present birds of the arid environments I would be spending the next week touring around.

(Thanks to Rich Hoyer for a couple corrections - I just can't get away with winging it sometimes!)

Friday, 16 May 2014

The Flyest Fly

Well, this will be short and sweet.  I have been getting out with my macro lens and it has really opened up the insect world to a level I had not yet delved.  Because I am new with the macro lens, I am still working on balancing the depth of field and shutter speed to get the best results.  With the depth of field issue, you really need to contemplate which angle to photograph something to have all the relevant features in focus.  I think I like downward-facing dorsal (not a yoga move) and perfect side profile the best so far, but I'll work on this.

At any rate, I lost a couple hours in a patch of grass and weeds yesterday at Island View Beach.  I headed south from the boat launch and eventually popped up onto the quite possibly private laneway.  There was a band of vegetation largely consisting of Common Vetch (Vicia sativa) and Spotted Medic (Medicago arabica) that I stalked through rather meticulously.

The sun continued to lower and the light got duller and I decided to make a couple last meanders.  On one of these meanders, I spotted a little fly that had the most intricate pattern I have ever seen.  I only managed a couple photos and you will see what I mean about the shallow depth of field on them.  Still, you can certainly get a sense of how intricate the pattern is on the fly.  Janean managed to put me in the right area for the identification and I further narrowed it.  It is a fruit fly in the genus Paracantha, which I have a feeling only has one representative locally: P. culta.  I will amend this if I find out there are more species and it can't be identified.  In the mean time, enjoy this outrageous fly and maybe it'll inspire you to refine your search image to a finer scale every once in a while.

Even the eyes on Paracantha culta are patterned - ridiculous!

Look at those wings - truly amazing!