Thursday, March 26, 2009


It's the time of year where practically every bird singing is either a high-pitched note (waxwing, kinglet, creeper, titmouse), or a monotonal trill (junco, chipping sparrow, yellow-rumped and pine warbler coming soon, etc). The seeeeeee-seeeeeeeeee of waxwings quickly drew my ear while we were letting the kids run about in the yard.

A flock of waxwings were foraging in a tree over the driveway with a few scattered berries left. The end of the bill is very slightly hooked:

I managed to capture this one in mid-swallow with the berry distending its crop as it reaches for yet another berry...

While holding a berry, the function of the bill's mild hook to help grip the berries becomes clear.
I've got 2 more night shifts to finish a less-than-fun stretch of 9 shifts in 11 days, hopefully I'll be able to get out farther than my driveway or porch in a few days...

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Purple-pink finches

I chanced to look out at the feeders to see 4 male purple finches on the feeders. While studying them and sketching the head patterns I noticed the white about the lores and base of the bill, a feature I'd never noticed before.
At first I thought that it was just one of the birds growing new feathers, but all of them had it and when I looked back at other pics I've taken in January and November those pics showed the mark as well.

The colors were hard to truly capture. Most of my photos show the bird redder than the pink they were in life and the vague lavender tones don't come through at all. They also had a rich rufous brown to the edges of the secondaries and coverts which also doesn't show as well.

Here one of the birds raised its cap, which they were prone to do, giving it almost a Cassin's like profile. For the sake of argument (or perhaps for some time when I might blunder into one) a Cassin's should show a more narrow bill and more defined finer streaks along the flanks.

Saturday, March 21, 2009


Yesterday I got out down below the house into the river bottom for the first time this spring. On some of the south slopes the first wildflower of the year, appropriately named harbringer-of-spring, was out:

The more traditional harbringers of spring were present in good numbers. This robin was one of a large flock foraging at all levels of the trees in the river bottom.
I watched them for a while hoping to pull something else out of the flock (one rusty blackbird) and was thinking it seemed like they'd be sitting ducks for an accipiter when a sharpie ripped through flushing a sub-group of about 20-3o of them. The hawk didn't look that much bigger than the robins. It closed to no more than 10 feet from the birds and then circled back around overhead above the level of the canopy. I guess the lack of leaves though, gave the robins more time to react.

I also started the Birdathon scouting (ITS NEVER TOO EARLY FOLKS), hoping to try to find a GH owl or Pileated woodpecker nest while there's still no buds. I flushed a great-horned and heard a lot from the pileated pair but couldn't pin them down. The owl flew away across the river and so is a good 75-100 yards away in this pic.

Fox sparrows are one of my favorite early migrants and a few were singing in places. I've still never managed a good picture of one.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Non-horned grebes and white-throated loons

It's spring. Really. That must mean it's that wonderful time of year for transitional grebe plumages!

Two horned grebes were along the South Pier today. This one was feeding along the edge of the pier, bobbed up right beside me and panicked off to a safer distance. It's interesting how as it really digs for speed its wings are so spread that the tertials aren't connecting the wings to the body.

It settled down at a nice distance, still pretty much in full winter plumage:

The other bird was much farther along in its moult, farther than I expected it to be for mid-March and appears to have passed the most confusing period plumage-wise (though both birds are close enough to easily see the bill shape).

A red-throated loon was diving off the end of the pier out in the murky water where the river empties into the lake. A decent breeze and 3-4 foot waves did not make it easier to grab photos. I'd really like to see an actual red-throated bird. I can't tell if I can imagine a single red feather coming in on the mid-throat at the edge of the bill shadow or it's just an artifact of lighting. Sibley says that they attain breeding plumage sometime in April so hopefully I can find an advanced one in a couple weeks.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Ross's Geese Galore

This afternoon I drove down into the south county to look for widely reported white-fronted geese. The first place I stopped was the 3 Oaks ponds where it was quickly clear that there was a group of snow geese (about 25 total) but no white-fronteds. I started counting the snow geese and out popped the little guy towards the left side of the image:
This certainly appears to be a Ross's goose to my eyes. It's obviously much smaller (smaller bodied even than the Herring gulls) with a rounder head, shorter thicker neck, and much shorter bill without the deep convexity at the bill base that the snow geese are exhibiting. With closer inspection the blue bill base and very limited black along the cutting edges of the bill can be seen. As always, the pics at this site are limited by being shot through a chain link fence (though perhaps its presence is re-assuring to the birds and allows closer approach).

I called Tim about the bird and after I re-located white-fronted geese at a Galien farm pond he decided to swing down and try to pick the birds up. By the time he arrived at 3 Oaks, all the geese were gone, but he swung through the Scottdale plains on his way back (which I had also driven through on the way home), and in an impressive display of one-ups-man-ship, called me a few hours later that he had a mixed flock of Snow and Ross's Geese there about 6 miles from my house. He had counted 14 Ross's, and I independently also pulled the same number out of the flock. He had noted earlier that when the flock was more widely dispersed that the birds seemed segregated into pairs. When I arrived the birds were coalescing into a sub-flock amidst the 40 or so snows. You'll have to take my word for bird #12, though I'm personally surprised that as many of the birds are quasi-confirmable in one shot as it is; they spent the bulk of their time dozing or grazing. (The full resolution image is much better).
Now, assuming that Ross's are still write-up birds in Michigan, you'll have to excuse me while I go work on my homework...

Friday, March 6, 2009

A few Arizona leps

Well, now that I'm home in (mercifully) sunny Michigan I had a chance to look up a few of the butterflies I ran across in Arizona. I forgot my Kaufman guide so wasn't really sure what they were.

The first is a Texan Crescent, this one landed directly in front of the blue mockingbird thicket. Per they book they appear to be pretty common from about west Texas, across New Mexico and into Arizona. It ranges into the southeast less commonly.

Next up is an (appropriately named) Funereal Duskywing, the first duskywing of any sort I've encountered.

Finally is a hairstreak. I had high hopes for this one given that there's tons of hairstreaks and I was in habitat and location that's about the opposite of SE Michigan. Unfortunately it's one of the chipping sparrows of the butterfly world, a common species that essentailly encompasses the entire continental United States in its range...

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

A few more Arizona images

Gambel's quail are a charismatic species I've always associated with Arizona. The males tend to be quite vocal with a variety of contact calls in addition to their classic Chi-CA-go "song." I've always been surprised that what must be one of the more delicious members of the local avifauna would be so vocal, but maybe coyotes and foxes would home in more on scent...

Roadrunners are another charasmatic desert bird. In this pic with the long black and white tail drooped down you can appreciate more that they're actually giant cuckoos. For whatever reason the birds this year in Arizona were far more tolerant of people than birds I've seen before in Texas.

This is a less than stellar pic of a black-chinned sparrow photographed from a distance at midday foraging in a Manzanita bush. I initially thought it was a pink-sided junco until I put the scope on it and realized it had a heavily streaked brown and black back.

Ferruginous hawks apparently like the irrigated fields with short green grass or wheat to hunt gophers in. This one was being mobbed by RW blackbirds and flew up alongside the car for a few seconds before alighting on a utility pole (on a surprisingly overcast morning).

Finally one of my favorite sparrows, the sage sparrow, which hopped up into the same mesquite that the LeConte's thasher was in while I was sitting on the ground behind the scope. I'd never before noticed the tiny white central spot that's just above the bill between the lore spots. I was initially taken aback somewhat that this spot was at the intersection of 2 pretty busy (for being out in the sticks) paved roads. Since I managed to get out of sight of the road in fairly featureless sage washes and mesquite lines it was good that I could return based on the sound of the traffic since I didn't realize how far I'd come while I was zero-ing in on the thrasher (though I could also have just walked right towards the sun and that would have taken me back to the road).

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Mimics and More Mimics

In addition to sparrows, the mimics are also well represented in the desert, in fact the more uncommon thrashers are most easily found in February, as this is the time of year they will sing from exposed perches. They're starting to wind down but they're still easier now than when I was in Arizona in July once before.

This is the curve-billed thrasher, the most common of them, a bird that I've seen multiple times in Texas and Arizona. Note the size and shape of the bill.

Next up is Bendire's thrasher, one of the birds Stuart Healy helped me find. It is very similar to curve-billed but has a shorter, straighter bill. There are also subtle differences of the patterning of the breast not easily seen in this view:

Crissal thrasher is a darker duskier bird, which was another bird Stuart Healy got me into the right area for. There were 2 birds (at least) in this large mesquite field though neither came that close:

LeConte's thrasher isn't really a bird of SE Arizona. I found this bird at a well-known site about 40 miles west of Phoenix. I had to walk about a quarter mile out into the mesquite and sagebrush to get close to the bird which I'd spotted perched up when I was about 200 yards out. It was extremely tame and just sat there for the better part of 20 minutes until its mate appeared with a caterpillar:

Finally we have an extremely poor photo of a Code 5 bird, blue mockingbird. This staked-out bird was found about a month ago on a very birdy oasis ranch abutting the Mexican border. The bird skulked in a thicket working about in the leaf litter like an overgrown thrasher and did not give up views easily. In this pic the blue on the farthest left is the base of the tail. The rump and flanks are visible. The darker blue-black running at an angle are the flight feathers and then the right-most bright blue is the scapulars at the base of the back. Yeah yeah a bit of a stretch, I know:

Monday, March 2, 2009

Great Sparrow Safari 2009

I've been really amazed by how many sparrows winter in what seems to be bleak dry desert. In some areas the flocks that fly up from the roadside are basically continuous.

This little guy is a Brewer's sparrow. In some places they're abundant. In this nice fresh plumage they're very gray overall, much more so than I remembered the couple of late summer birds I'd encountered in the past

Vesper sparrows are present in smaller numbers. One was singing a continuous dry warbling song, very different from their phrased whistled song on breeding territories. Apparently some of the birds have different winter songs according to Stuart.

White-crowned sparrows are abundant, the males are already in full breeding plumage (obviously this is not an adult male):

I've always associated Lincoln's sparrow with moist places so was quite surprised to see one. I've since seen several though. They seemed shier than when up north.

Here's the local song sparrow. It's much whiter in ground color than ours. The brown is also much more rufous (which doesn't show up very well on my monitor with this pic).

Other species I've encountered (so far) include grasshopper, lark, savannah, black-chinned, black-throated, and rufous-winged, in addition to green-tailed, spotted, canyon, and Abert's towhee and pink-sided junco.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

The desert cardinal and goldfinch

Pyrrhuloxia obviously is a tongue-twister of a name. Per wikipedia apparently pyrr is greek for fiery and loxia means curved (referring to the curved culmen (upper surface of the bill)). Wouldn't desert cardinal be a better name?

Anyway, I went to the San Pedro house just outside of Sierra Vista at dawn this morning on a travel day targeting Abert's towhee (seen briefly) and hoping for some good photos and found a flock of pyrrhuloxia coming in to one of the feeders. I mainly focused on the eye candy males ignoring the duller females (and young males?).

This bird is feeding in the massive cottonwood, eating the young buds that will turn into the cottonballs:

I seem to be doing well this trip with lesser goldfinch:

Here's the somewhat plainer female. Sibley draws attention to its culmen also being somewhat curved (or at least more so than an American goldfinch).

I guess I'd argue that this should be the Desert Goldfinch as well, I don't see much that's "lesser" about it, except for size ... unless Lawrence's should get that monniker (hopefully I'll find out this summer).