Saturday, April 29, 2017

For a Hoot, Go A Mile

We must have heard that a dozen times on this trip. "To get to the (fill in the blank), go a mile up the" . . . canyon or road or trail. On three occasions, the mile paid off in owls. 

I already told you about my big 600th ABA bird - the Mexican Spotted Owls at Beatty's Guest Ranch in Miller Canyon. To get to them, we had to hike up the trail about a mile - and I do mean UP. 

Mexican Spotted Owls
To get to this crazy little owl, we had to go up Cave Creek Canyon road, past the turn off for some other road and over the little bridge. We were told to go EXACTLY a mile from the bridge and look for 2 Sycamore trees that hang over the road. The first tree has 3 holes in it. It isn't that tree. It's the other tree. I swear, this could have been my mother talking. Anyway, we followed the directions and viola - Whiskered Screech Owl.

Whiskered Screech Owl
I nicknamed her Cross-eyed Mary. She just kept looking at us with those crossed eyes. 

Today, we hiked up Ramsey Canyon. This is a canyon that it part of The Nature Conservancy and has a Nature Center unlike the other canyons.  The volunteer at the nature center told us that we might find a trogon if we hike up to the top which was, you guessed it, about a mile. The trail was really nice for about 1/2 mile then of course it got steep. I sent Lori and Tara ahead. Connie bailed early. I dragged my fat ass up slowly. We made it to the area where the trogon would be but never heard or saw the bird. Another couple was there and showed us an owl instead. Bonus -  this little Northern Pygmy Owl just sat there and allowed us to snap some pretty nice photos. 

Norther Pygmy Owl
Check out the paws on this bird. They are over-sized! You know what they say about owls with big feet . . . 

For this next owl, we didn't have to go a mile. This one has a nest just outside of the visitor center at San Pedro House. We did have to go twice to see her sunning herself in the morning light. 

Western Screech Owl
Rounding out our owl odyssey, we were treated to these Great-horned Owl babies right in the parking lot of the Portal Cafe where we had a great lunch. 

Great-horned Owl baby
Including the Elf Owl that we saw on our first night, this turned out to be a six owl trip. Not bad for the Bird Nerds. 

Friday, April 28, 2017


Birders have lists. You know that already. What you might not know is that there are MANY different kinds of lists. There is the life list which is the total number of birds seen anywhere. My life list is currently at 1175 which means that I've seen about 10% of all bird species on the planet. 

Then for American birders, there is the American Birding Association or ABA list. This is the total number of birds seen in North America. Obviously, there are fewer than 10,000 bird species in America. Only 900 or so have been seen here and of that, only 750ish have been seen more than once or twice. Many birders try to see 750. I've been trying to get to 600 for a while now and finally did it on this trip to Arizona. And, the bird that broke the mark was pretty cool too - Mexican Spotted Owl. Here he is congratulating me (not).

Mexican Spotted Owl
Number 600 could have been this Red-faced Warbler which I saw on the same hike up Miller Canyon but it was number 601 just because of the order of the list in eBird. 

Red-faced Warbler
But the Spotted Owl hit the mark and I'm glad. My 300th bird was also an owl - Snowy Owl at Stone Harbor Point many years ago. 

The owl took some effort to see. We had to go to Beatty's Guest Ranch in Miller Canyon and hike up, up, up to the spot. The friend that we made in Madera Canyon - Edna from New Jersey gave us great directions. She told us to look for the split rock the size of two vans and then go down the little path, put our butts up against another giant rock and look up. Damn if they weren't right where she told us.

Spotted Owls
A pair of Spotted Owls just sitting there like nobody was around. Meanwhile, they are probably the most popular Spotted Owls in the country. They must be visited over a dozen time each day by crazy birders like me. Good thing they don't seem to mind. 

Only about 150 more to go . . . looking forward to the adventure. 

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

3 Days Home - Then Off to Arizona

Honestly, I barely had time to do my laundry and re-pack my suitcase last week. Connie, Lori, Tara and I are now in southeast Arizona on vacation. Of course, we are birding like crazy. We spent a few days in Tubac to be near to Madera Canyon. On our first evening, we went into the canyon to find owls and succeeded. Madera is home to 4 (or more) species of owl including this little gal - Elf Owl.

Elf Owl!
She nests in a telephone pole on private property but luckily, the guy who lives there is gracious enough to invite birders into his yard each evening around 6:30 to watch for the owl to appear. She made her appearance at 7 PM and hung out in the hole for 15 minutes before taking off for the night. Wow.

We also saw a very rare bird family the next day. Black-capped Gnatcatchers only nest in this area of the US and we were fortunate to see this male.

Black-capped Gnatcatcher
The bug isn't for him. It's for his baby which we also got to see up close. Cute little guy huh? 

Lori made our accommodations for the trip and she did a great job. We rented a house in Tubac that had a great little yard and was close to the Anza Trail. We spent time watching some really great birds including this jet black Phainopepla. 

And this stunningly red Vermilion Flycatcher that perched in a tree then on the wall of our yard. 

Vermilion Flycatcher

Vermilion Flycatcher
We saw this Say's Phoebe flitting around and then sitting on a nest. They have a beautiful salmon color belly. 

Say's Phoebe

Say's Phoebe Nest
And this Gila Woodpecker was busy feeding nestlings. 

Gila Woodpecker Nest
It wasn't all joy. We missed the Elegant Trogon for the 4th or 5th time. We heard it calling but despite 2 days in the canyon, never got to see the bird. We also witnessed a really bad fire that started in Box Canyon by a stupid guy shooting guns at exploding targets in the very dry desert. What was he thinking? The fire has spread across 20,000 acres and still moving across Arizona. Sheesh. 

Friday, April 21, 2017

Other Colorado Wildlife

Of course, we saw more birds than Grouse and Ptarmigan. In fact, I added 11 life birds on the trip. Todd got 4 which is good for him. We found iconic western species including 100+ Western Meadowlarks singing their R2D2 songs.

Western Meadowlark
And beautiful Stellar's Jays in the mountains.

Stellar's Jay
We found this Yellow-headed Blackbird in the marsh.

Yellow-headed Blackbird
And this little Rock Wren.

Rock Wren
On the lake, we saw 100+ American White Pelicans. They are pretty easy to spot but not usually close enough for a photo like this.

American White Pelican
Here is one of the life birds for me. McCown's Longspur which is a tiny sparrow-like bird that runs around in the grass. Very difficult to spot unless it runs across the dirt road like this one did.

McCown's Longspur
It is always a joy to find Rough-legged Hawks. This one perched on a fence post.

Of course, there were other critters too. We were surprised to spot this Red Fox wandering along the side of the mountain road. Look at the long fur - alot different than the foxes in our yard.

Red Fox

Furry Fox
It is the big game that was really cool. Like these Bighorn Sheep.

Bighorn Sheep

Chewing on Grass
And the Pronghorn too. These were the animals that I really wanted to see. We saw a few that were very far away or close but then bolted when they saw us (Pronghorn are the fastest animal in North America) but these 2 didn't seem to mind our cameras snapping photos.



Thursday, April 20, 2017

Our Non-Chicken Chicken Trip

Birding in Colorado in April is well known to birders as the "Chicken Trip" . In this case, we are referring to Prairie Chickens which do a breeding dance on "leks" that warrants National Geographic TV episode. There are 2 species of Prairie Chickens - Lesser and Greater but the "Chicken Trip" also includes 4 species of Grouse which also do the displays - Gunnison, Sharp-tailed, Dusky and Greater Sage Grouse. Nature tour companies run trips to Colorado for 10 days to see all 6 species plus other Colorado birds. Todd and I did it in 4 days.

I admit, the agenda that I set for our Colorado trip was ambitious. I think Todd was worried but the itinerary actually worked out great. We now refer to our trip as the Non-Chicken Trip since we saw all of the Grouse but neither of the Prairie Chickens. We cut out the chickens due to the location of those leks being really far away. We would have needed 2 more days to get to those. Plus, the chickens can actually be found in other states.

We started our grouse trip in Gunnison located in the southwest part of the state where there is a very rare Gunnison's Sage Grouse. Gunnison is the only place in the world to see this grouse and the wildlife rangers are very strict about viewing the lek. There are a million rules:

  1. Arrive 1 hour before dawn
  2. Park in designated spots (NOT ON THE ROAD!)
  3. No headlights
  4. No talking
  5. Stay in your car
  6. Remain at the lek until all birds are finished displaying

With all of these rules, you would think that the birds would be really close and skittish. Turns out, this was our view. I had to use red arrows to point out the birds. The ridge was 1 kilometer away.

Gunnison Sage Grouse lek
The birds started displaying at 6 AM. By 6:45, we were bored. The wildlife office told us that they would be finished by 10 AM. Good thing neither of us are rule followers. We left at 6:45!

On to our next quarry - Dusky Grouse which can also be seen near Gunnison at the Black Canyon park. Although many birders find the Dusky here, they usually do not see them displaying since these birds do not use a lek. When we arrived at the canyon, we ran into a birder who we know from New Jersey - Tom Johnson. Tom is an excellent birder and a professional tour guide. He had 2 vans of birders looking for Dusky Grouse and found one on the side of the road. Todd and I stopped to view that bird and found 2 more further up the road. Then we found this guy actually displaying. You can see the red air sacs on his neck and the yellow eyebrows.

Dusky Grouse display
Later that day, we headed north to Hayden in search of Sharp-tailed Grouse. We found a hotel and headed out before dawn again to get to the lek that another Jersey tour guide located a few days before. It paid off. We saw a few Sharp-tailed grouse but didn't see them displaying.

Sharp-tailed Grouse
3 down, 1 to go. Off to Walden to see if we could find Greater Sage Grouse on the lek. We arrived at 8:45 and found only one bird hiding in the sage brush. Reports on the Internet indicated that there were over 100 birds at this lek but we arrived too late. No worries, we found other birds that day and got a hotel room. The next day, we arrived at dawn and found a spectacle of booming grouse on the lek. Greater Sage Grouse as far as we could next to the dirt road. This was the nature show that we came for.

We spent 2 hours watching the display. I shot 2000 photos.

Greater Sage Grouse Lek
I couldn't stop myself. Here are just a few. The males gulp air to inflate balloons in their chest, puff up their necks and display their tails to impress the females.


Like most males involved in impressing females, they often fight. Here are 2 of them squaring off.

Squaring Off
Feathers flying. They beat each other with wings until one runs away.

Meanwhile, the females casually wander around the lek looking for the most impressive male. When the females wander off, some of the males leave the lek or rest for a bit. Here is one resting.

The birds have paparazzi.

The obvious question is: Why did the chicken cross the road? Answer: Sex!

After all of the birders and most of the birds left the lek, this male kept at it. Click the play button on the video.

He was rewarded (if you know what I mean) by this female. Believe me, this photo is the G-rated version. I have X-rated versions too.

Gettin' Jiggy
No romance here. He hit it and quit it. Off they flew into the sage. It was all over before 8 AM.

Done for the day

Monday, April 17, 2017

P-finding P-tarmigans with P-Todd

I finally got a benefit from all of my work travel. My final presentation for this spring was scheduled in Denver on Friday. If you are a birder, you know that April is the best time to visit Colorado to see Grouse and Prairie Chickens so I extended my stay for a few extra days to see if I could find some. Lucky for me, our friend Todd said that he wanted to come along. Yay. I worked on Friday until 2 PM and Todd was waiting for me with the rental car in the Microsoft parking lot.

Away we went on a 4 day journey to see as many grouse as possible. Our first stop took us up to the Rocky Mountains to try to see White-tailed Ptarmigans. We found these Bighorn Sheep beside the highway.

Up and up we drove the winding road until we were above the tree line at almost 12,000 feet in search of the Ptarmigan. I bought a new wide angle lens to try to capture the views.

Loveland Pass
Now, you may not know about Ptarmigans but they are really cool birds that completely change their colors based on the season. In summer, they are speckled brown but in winter, they are completely white. Both colors are intended to blend into the landscape for camouflage. April is neither winter or summer, so we didn't know what to expect if we found the bird.

First of all, look at the landscape photo above again. This is the top of the Rocky Mountains and a vast open space where we thought we could find a few birds the size of softballs. Good luck. We parked the car and started to scan the landscape.

Looking for Ptarmigan
Nothing stood out so we decided to hike out on the snowy slope to see if we could find the birds. I saw something on the slope. Can you see the birds?

How about now?
Softball on the hill
There were 2 White-tailed Ptarmigan feeding on the small patches of grass that were exposed from the melting snow. I told you they were camouflage experts. In this case, the birds were still snow white. The only way that I saw them was because they were moving.

We decided to try to get closer so we hiked down, around and back up the slope giving the birds a wide berth. Remember, this is 12,000 feet up and a really steep slope - with snow! I was huffing and puffing from the thin air. Trying to keep my balance and not end up at the bottom of the mountain. All of this with adrenaline pumping with excitement. We found a spot on the slope about 50 feet from the birds. They never seemed to mind our presence.

Ptarmigans on the slope
They just kept doing what Ptarmigans do. Todd and I were fascinated. The birds were stunning. I snapped hundreds of photos. Yes, hundreds. Todd did the same. We couldn't stop snapping. I will spare you most of them. Here is the male perched on an exposed rock.

White-tailed Ptarmigan
All of a sudden, the female leaves the little grass patch and starts marching across the snowy slope right toward us. She seemed like she was trying to figure out what Todd was doing.

Checking us out
Todd has a better camera than I do and a GIANT lens. He was snapping away until he couldn't focus on the bird anymore. Why? She was too close. (Luckily, my inferior lens was able to capture this shot) She walked up to about 4 feet away from Todd, looked at him and then turned around and sauntered back to her mate. I snapped this photo with Todd's cell phone. You can see his camera lens and his hand as he was saying "Where's she going?" Todd is a good looking guy but I guess he wasn't her type.

P-Todd and his almost girlfriend
You can tell that these birds live in cold climates. Check out the furry feet. You can also tell that they live on steep, rocky slopes. Check out those claws.

Furry Feet
Remember the part about the birds changing color? You can see the very first brown feather of summer coming in just under her eye. In a few weeks, the snow will be melted and the birds will be brown enough to blend into summer.

Although we didn't want to leave, we had to get going. My butt was freezing off and we had a long drive to our next destination in Gunnison. Todd couldn't resist snapping this photo of me with the Ptarmigans as a souvenir.

Reluctantly leaving our friends

What an incredible experience.