Thousands of Sandhill Cranes!

Whitewater Draw Wildlife Area is where you will find sandhill cranes roosting. Yes! and between November till March it is possible to see thousands of them! Let’s not forget though, other birds winter here too. This property was once a cattle ranch; however, since 1997 the Arizona Game and Fish Department has maintained the wetland habitat.

My future goal is to visit when I can capture the birds at sunrise and sunset. It is more a photography goal than birding one, and I hope I am up to the challenge. Results will be shared in a future blog! For now, here are some of the birds I saw on a recent visit:

And of course, sandhill cranes:

Patagonia Lake State Park, Arizona

Two weeks ago I finally walked the birding trail at Patagonia Lake State Park. I was searching for an elegant trogon and while not successful in seeing one there were plenty of other birds!

A canyon towhee was one bird I thought, now you look a bit different from others so let me photograph you! It was wonderful for the bird to sit on the branch and allow me to photograph it. Other birds like the bridled titmouse were all over the place before I could get a decent photo. But the verdin won the movement contest! With all of its moving around I could only capture a photo while the bird hung upside down! I almost missed one bird. I saw some action at a spot. I took a photo even though it was the back end of what I guessed to be a wren. Fortunately its eyebrow is in the photo to know it is a Bewick’s wren!

Canyon towhee
Bridled titmouse
Verdin
Bewick’s wren

Plenty of woodpeckers were in the woods. I felt like it was practice in determining is it a Gila woodpecker or a ladder-backed woodpecker?

I saw this next bird and was not sure what it was till I arrived home to enter it into Merlin Bird ID, love that app! I captured a photo of an Eastern phoebe!

Eastern phoebe

Another little bird I have not seen in awhile is the next photo: ruby crowned kinglet.

Ruby crowned kinglet

And finally a bird I knew as soon as I saw it…hermit thrush! Always wonderful when I can actually identify a bird on the spot of observing them!

So many birds on that birding trail and the creek near it, along with an entire lake to check out. I saw 15 different bird species during the 2.5 hours on the trail. It is a great day trip for any time of the year! I’ll be back!

Travel in the Age of Covid-19 & Birding

There would have been no other time I would consider a drive of 2.5 hours to a site, spend 3 hours there, and then drive home, yet that is happening in my world these past months! I am doing my part in wearing a mask, physically distancing from others and trying to get our world back to what will be a new normal. As a result, my travel is a long day trip, with hopes of learning and seeing something new since that has always been my goal when traveling anywhere in the world.

My latest adventure took me to the Riparian Preserve at Water Ranch in Gilbert, Arizona. The town of Gilbert made a commitment in 1986 to reuse 100% of its effluent water and by 1999 the Riparian Preserve was developed. It encompasses 110 acres of land. Seventy acres of the land have 7 recharge basins filled on a rotating basis with treated effluent to then percolate into the aquifer for future use. There is an observatory, 4.5 miles of trails, various vegetative zones, plenty of birding opportunities, a compass course, and one side of the property borders the eastern canal of the Salt River Project where people were bicycling and walking.

Some basins had no birds, some had no water and some basins had hundreds of birds. I loved walking the entire place. My goal was to check out this place and see the birds. I saw four birds new to me in Arizona: roseate spoonbill, least sandpiper, American avocet and snowy egret (notice black bill, black legs and yellow feet) … photos follow:

My most exciting time during my visit was watching a female belted kingfisher and a great egret (notice yellow bill). I discovered the egret looking to the sky and I wondered what it was watching; then I discovered it saw a belted kingfisher. I had never seen this happen before so I was amazed! The belted kingfisher would fly over the way from a good distance from the water’s surface and then literally dive-bomb into the water, catch a fish and fly off … unless it missed and then in a few minutes you could see it happen all over again. The bird returned. I was fortunate to get the photos I did since this bird had to be diving at a huge speed. Then I was wondering if I could anticipate where it would hit the water’s surface and get that photo … probably not … what a photo it would be! The bird did not return so I never had a chance at my guessing game.

Great egret, scroll back and see the difference to the snowy egret.

I saw 31 different birds. Two birds I had not seen in years: long-billed dowitcher and black-necked stilt … so I will include them here.

It was a long day, but worth it! Thankfully people of Gilbert had foresight in reusing the wastewater. There is little doubt Arizona will have a water crisis in its future unless basins around our homes collect rainwater to water our landscape, water tanks are connected to rain gutters, and other plans are developed so our rivers will someday flow again. May we be reminded of the words from Theodore Roosevelt, “The wildlife and its habitat cannot speak, so we must and we will”. Thank you to all who do his/her part.

It’ll Take a Lifetime!

How many things do we put our mind and body into wanting to accomplish even if the “thing” would take a lifetime? Continued education on many subjects has always been of interest to me, just as my dedication to the many thousand tennis strokes, hundred pickleball strokes and other activities I wanted and needed to learn. In college I thought my basketball and field hockey skills would be fantastic if only I took a lifetime working on them! Instead, we pick and choose what and where we wish to put our energies. For me, at the moment, it is to learn about birds and bird photography. (To this day my basketball and field hockey skills are not good.)

I was thinking about things that seem to take forever to actually happen … does everything require a lifetime!?! I had been on the trail and people would always ask, did you see that bird or did you see this bird? No wonder it is a life list to record the birds you see … it’ll take a lifetime! Are my birding skills getting better? Am I at the best locations and at the best time to see certain birds? My very early morning hours where when I was younger and needing to be at work. Now do I really need to be up with the birds? I guess I need to dedicate myself to the process and get up early too! Or may be not.

Thank goodness I discovered the other day that an early morning rise was not necessary to see a bird I have been looking for the last few weeks. It was 3:30pm, late afternoon in my book. Besides enjoying the birds I saw few human beings, another plus! A cinnamon teal made an appearance.

Cinnamon teal

A bird usually heard from the cattails and never seen was now dipping its head into the stream’s water. The bird is a sora!

sora

But the bird everyone else observed the last few weeks and I had never seen in my lifetime was the wood duck. I visit Sweetwater Wetlands whenever I am on this side of town and I look for these birds. I could only envision their beautiful look from what I had seen on postcards and field guide books. With each person asking if I saw the bird, I was determined that my sighting will come. It did and it was late in the day, not like 7:30am as others mentioned was the time they had seen the ducks.

Wood ducks swim away.

Black-crowned night heron flew in so the wood ducks swam away. What a fortunate sighting for me and it did not take a lifetime!

Black-crowned night heron.

I think the Audubon bird life list is about 9,000 birds. There are some people who travel the world looking for specific birds to add to their list. I remember one woman wanting to see a California condor while she was on a hiking trip I was guiding at Grand Canyon National Park. The following week she was flying to the west coast of Africa to see some of the 150 birds not yet on her life list. (She did see the condor.)

I saw 100 birds along the Amazon River in Peru in 2017. I wonder where I have the list of them; maybe in my travel journal? And what about the birds seen before I started my current life list? I understand I can add historical sightings… hmmmm…maybe I will. I have to be sure to add in the Eastern USA common loon I saw in the late 1970’s. I hiked in 4 miles to an Adirondack lake just to find and to see that bird. It took a few times before I did see the bird, but it was worth it. All the other times I had only heard the loon’s haunting call while I was tenting on an island in another lake. And now I see some loons do winter in Arizona, yet they do not have the call of the loon as the one on the east coast. Interesting. With all the birding done in my lifetime so far, I may be lucky to record 300 birds? Who knows, but when I read about people viewing thousands of birds, wow! I have a lifetime yet to fill, so I best get going!

Warblers!

Do you know how many warblers there are!?! In this SW USA area and those also migrating through, I count more than 20 warblers. It is no wonder I am overwhelmed when trying to simply identify one! Thankfully a good photograph allows me the chance to narrow down which of the many warblers I am actually looking at in the moment.

I am looking at the bird thinking, is it rufous-capped, blue or yellow headed? Actually I am not thinking any of that because I do not even realize the warbler’s head comes with such variation. Instead I am focused on whether the bird is red or yellow faced with a split eye-ring or not and if its eyebrow is narrow white or tapering pale yellow. Only if I have my binoculars focused on the bird at the right angle may I even see any of that, while wishing I had my camera focused too to capture a photo.

A townsend’s warbler, according to the field guides, “actively gleans insects from the canopy” so for the photographer it means the bird will be bouncing around in the tree and it may be possible to get a clear photo. This warbler is one of the easier ones to identify because I relate its look to one wearing a black mask. The field guide states “dark ear patch outlined in yellow”. A hermit warbler is another warbler migrating through our area. Recent genetic studies show the hermit warblers are being absorbed by townsend’s warblers. When entering ones bird sighting into eBird the hybrid is an option, and here I had just learned the 2 birds so I am sure to not know if I am even seeing a hybrid!

I can identify a Wilson’s warbler, red-faced warbler and maybe a yellow-dumped warbler, but then I am more than stumped with any others. I remind myself not to give up. I will continue to look for warblers and take notice of each rump, undertail, flank, throat, eyebrow, eye-ring, and face with hope of identifying more of them. In the meantime, I am happy with the townsend’s warblers recently migrating through our local mountain forest for me to see, identify and photograph!

Townsend’s warbler

Visit San José de Tumacácori

Tumacácori is a park preserving a Spanish mission ruin where you can also walk to the Santa Cruz River and two trailheads of the Juan Bautista de Anza Trail on the park boundary. During this COVID pandemic, rules are listed at the entrance and certain areas, such as visitor center, are not open. Yet one can walk the property and feel its history.

Tumacácori is one of 24 missions founded by Father Eusebio Francisco Kino, an advocate for the O’odham native people and spreader of the Catholic faith. As the O’odham people rebelled against Spain a military post was built in Tubac for Spain to protect its interests. Plenty of history to be understood and realized here and fortunately the National Park Service has an informative pamphlet available to help one understand it.

Walking the property, you’ll see fruit trees at the heritage orchard, water ditch, the church built during the 1800’s, a cemetery, lime kiln and courtyard. I also spent time in front of the place where there is a butterfly garden. A “monarch waystation” with flowers which truly attract many butterflies this time of year! This is a park worth visiting and I am sure when the visitor center is open to show displays and videos it will even be better.

Here are some photos from my visit:

The mission church and grounds at Tumacácori.
Another view of the church and Santa Rita Mountains beyond.

Peña Blanca Lake, Today & Past

Eighteen miles northwest of Nogales, Arizona is a man-made reservoir originally built in 1957 by the AZ Game & Fish department. It sits in the Pajarito Mountain foothills of Nogales and was a new adventure for me the other day. Everything was lush green and it did look like a thunderstorm was to descend on this 3800 foot area, but I wanted to see what was there!

It is only about 10 miles west of the exit where I had been on Interstate-19 and a good paved road. Beautiful scenery as I drove into the Coronado National Forest to visit this lake.

Few people were there which was wonderful for me as long as the rain did not start. I hiked part of the trail on its west side and saw fishermen on the reservoir’s edge in a couple of locations. With a “hello” wave everyone was able to do what they wished. A rest room is at the main parking lot; nothing else except at picnic areas there are tables.

I walked the trail and saw some birds. As usual I snapped some photos to be pleasantly surprised when home to identify new birds. I knew goldfinch and vermilion flycatchers, but was surprised by the other birds.

Now I will have to return to this lake and try for better photos as the last 2 birds were new ones for my life list! What a surprise to identify them now!

I always research an area to learn more about the place. October 2008 the reservoir was closed for 8 months to drain it. They discovered sediment on its bottom contaminated with mercury and the fish were picking it up, passing it through the food chain. A major concern, I would imagine, as fishermen enjoyed fishing there for trout, sunfish, bass and catfish. An environmental company from Phoenix put three 14-thousand pound pumps to run non-stop for 30 days to drain the lake. Forest Service officials estimated it would take 8 years for the lake to refill itself. As of my visit in 2020, yes, the lake looked full so the rainfall in the area was most helpful.

So of course one should ask, how did the lake become contaminated? In the 1800’s there were mining operations. In 1999, three mining sites were cleaned up south of the reservoir with the mine tailings, waste rock, making their way through the watershed to the bottom of the lake. The mercury contamination needed to be addressed and this was how it was done.

Beautiful lake and fishermen are here too.

Was I Surprised!

Just when I thought it was time to call it quits on my birdwatching … the sky was darkening where I had been so I left, the wind was blowing in another place so my photography would be less fun, and I was getting tired of driving. I thought I would make one last stop before heading home.

When I pulled into the Historic Canoa Ranch parking lot I saw people with their binoculars zeroed in on something. I also saw people carrying their zoom camera lens to the area. My luck told me just get out there, see what was going on and worry about the right camera lens later. If there was a bird it was sure to fly off by the time I get there! Or maybe not!?!

Juvenile northern jacana

With the best of intention for physical distancing and wearing a mask, I slowly approached a woman to ask what everyone was looking at along the shoreline of the lake because I saw nothing. With specifics from her, there it was … a juvenile northern jacana! My last birding stop resulted in another bird on my life list! WOW!

I did not have my big zoom lens so I creeped around to find a good location for a photo with a smaller zoom. One of the photos actually caught a look at this bird’s extremely long toes. It continued to casually hang out and no one bothered it which was wonderful to see!

I left the birdwatching to get home and read more about this bird. Apparently for this bird’s size it does have extremely long toes and in the field guide it says the bird may stay around for awhile. Cool; others may happen upon seeing it too!

Bird Documented in a Photo!

Most birds I observe are flying by so quickly I only see their overall body shape. I consider myself an advanced beginner birder. My challenge, and goal set for myself while bird watching now, is to catch sight of the bird’s head, specifically its eyebrow and eye ring. For some birds it will be the difference in being one bird or another. I am improving in noticing beak, wing bars or not, and tail shape, but have to look closer and faster to see more and then picture it all as I consult my field guide book.

The other day another bird watcher, 6 feet away from me due to Covid-19 physical distancing, told me I was looking at a MacGillivray’s warbler. I would have loved to add the bird to my life list, so I asked how do you know it is that bird, I only see its rear end? Notice its split eye-ring. Even as I used my binoculars the bird kept its rear end toward me so I saw no eye ring. I knew I would never be able to identify this bird from its tail end, so I did not add the bird to my life list.

This past month I have seen birds, photographed some, and later identified them thanks to Cornell Lab’s eBird and Merlin Bird ID. Female birds are often drab-looking and it is difficult to catch subtle differences between species. Other times I know I am looking at a new bird and yet I have not perfected the note-taking necessary to remember what it is I am looking at, so a photograph is my go-to method of capturing my sighting.

Digital cameras are fantastic! Years ago I used to budget money to purchase film, more money aside to develop the film, and finally more money to print some of the photos. Now-a-days I can take hundreds of photos on an SD card. I look forward to the time at home to see what looks like a good picture and to delete many other photos.

Here are a couple of birds I observed, photographed, and when home I used Merlin Bird ID to help me identify these two different species of female hummingbirds.

When bird watching you always need to be ready. All of a sudden I saw a bird I knew I had never seen before and it was so cute! I had to capture a photo of it and later discovered with Merlin Bird ID it was a pygmy nuthatch.

Pygmy nuthatch

While looking through all my photographs, I discovered another bird that looked different to me. Unsure of what this drab female bird would be, I put the photo in Merlin Bird ID and it identified as a blue-throated mountain gem. I knew these blue-throated hummingbirds were in the area, but during my observations I was looking for the blue throat of the male. The female is not so colorful, but I did notice an eyebrow or facial stripe I had not seen before, so I snapped a photo or two. I also listed the bird in eBird for my life list, yet received an email questioning if I did see the bird.

Blue-throated mountain gem, female.

The blue-throated are the largest hummingbirds species in the US and I waited to hear back from eBird staff to learn if they agreed with the Merlin ID. Fantastic news, yes they agreed with the identification! I am so thankful to have had the photo and now have also learned how to add my photos to eBird!

No doubt, bird watching and bird photography are lifetime hobbies. In time I can only improve with patience while learning both skills. Wish me luck!

Bird Loves Water!

My escape to the mountain forest provides me with relief from the hot dry desert temperatures. Thankfully within 25 miles I can be at a higher elevation with a 30 degree cooler air temperature!

I like walking along or in a creek bed in a wooded area with my tripod, camera and binoculars. It is fun despite any little black gnats wanting to bother me. I am looking for birds. I capture a few photos of birds in trees, but my best are when I find a puddle of water in a creek bed. Today is one of those days!

In the tree sits a female black-throated gray warbler. (I learn its identification later in the evening when I do my research.) Water is below the bird. Other birds flew in and out of this area, but what will this bird do? She seems to look my way to see what I am going to do. So we both wait.

Finally she flies down to the water and again seems to be watching me, or so I think! No one else is around and she can enjoy the water.

Now for some bird fun in the water! I love it, but should have also changed my shutter speed to something faster to catch those water droplets in mid-air and the feathers flying all over, but instead I enjoy the bath time activity! Bird watching took priority over my photography.

Finally a chance to jump back onto a branch and relax!

I hope she had as much fun as I did!