Monday, June 24, 2013

More From the Great Basin

When you are outside all day, every day, you will run into cool stuff. Because we are camping in remote areas and doing our research on birds and butterflies, we are outside constantly. The benefit is that eventually most of those "harder to find" birds will show themselves at one point or another. A few days ago, while out on an afternoon stroll, Kevin found a female Sooty Grouse (Dusky doesn't make it into the Sierra Nevada mountain range where this was photographed). We have been hearing a lot of Sooty Grouse, but this is the first one I got to see.

Sooty Grouse
Then, Kevin struck again with news of some Lewis's Woodpeckers in a canyon he had just surveyed. After completing our butterfly surveys, we all spent the afternoon watching three adult Lewis's Woodpeckers feeding young at a nest. It was amazing watching them hawk for insects to feed their young. I haven't seen many of these birds, so it was an awesome experience for me!

Lewis's Woodpecker en route to nest
I had yet to get a picture of a Green-tailed Towhee (one of the most common breeders out here... guess I've been lazy), so when this one popped up right in front of me, photographing it seemed like the right thing to do.

Green-tailed Towhee
I also have photos and voice recordings of a Gray Flycatcher, but that will have to wait until I have better internet.

Three more closer to 500! And with a three or four day weekend coming up, Kevin and I are heading to the California Coast! Santa Barbara is our destination. Hopefully I can clean up a few more California specialties. Island Scrub-Jay comes to mind...Our break starts Thursday or Friday, so check back soon.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

The Kern River Valley!

As the last round of butterfly surveys came to an end, I got lucky with a few species of birds I had yet to photograph. Clark's Nutcrackers are always around, but are usually in the tops of trees very far away. At Virginia Lakes, California, I had a few birds that were very cooperative.

Clark's Nutcracker
Another bird I picked up at the end of the survey round was Mountain Bluebird. I don't see a lot of them out here, but this one was pretty tied to a meadow where we were camping.

Mountain Bluebird
Then it was off to the Kern! Kevin Welsh and I had 3 days off, so we drove to the Kern River Valley where we stationed in Weldon, CA. I worked here about 6 years ago so I know the area pretty well. What we had planned to be an all out birding extravaganza quickly turned into a "bird for a few hours in the morning and then hang out by the river" trip. The valley is so hot that by 8am the birds quickly become quiet and the heat rises. It is intense.

We camped at a place that was a little shady, especially with the Black Widow spiders that were crawling around our tents, but we survived. On our first day of birding, we started at the Kern River Preserve.

As soon as we stepped out of the car, the valley birds greeted us. Nuttall's Woodpeckers were seemingly everywhere. I believe this is a young bird with the red near the front of the crown. Ladder-backed is ruled out by the solid black upper back (and range).

Nuttall's Woodpecker
The hummingbird feeders were teeming with activity. Both Anna's and Black-chinned were fighting over perches.

Anna's Hummingbird
The Western Bluebirds that nest at the preserve had already fledged their young. They were all over the property, some still showing their offspring how to forage.

Western Bluebird
A walk down the trail yielded an Oak Titmouse. We saw these in a few different locations during our trip. Juniper Titmouse doesn't make it to the valley.

Oak Titmouse
At the Canebrake Ecological Preserve, we hoped to pick up Tricolored Blackbird. I had seen them here three years ago, and they were very easy. However, no couldn't pick one up this time. This was my go-to spot, so I was getting worried! We did pick up a California Towhee though.

California Towhee
By this time, all activity died down. It was HOT! So, off to the mountains we went. One of my favorite spots to visit when in the valley is north of Kernville. The Trail of 100 Giants, as it is named, is a great area to see giant Sequoia Trees. There are some real monsters in there! While this is reason enough to visit the trail, the birds are top-notch as well.

I have never visited the trail without seeing White-headed Woodpeckers. This time was no different, and we even found two nests right along the path.

White-headed Woodpecker
Another of my targets was Red-breasted Sapsucker. The ones in the Great Basin are mostly hybrids, so getting one at the trail would be ideal. We had a few fly by, but it took a while for one to pose.

Red-breasted Sapsucker (southern form)
On my last visit three years ago, I saw singing Hermit Warblers along the path. This time we heard a few, and one even came down from the canopy! My best looks ever at this species.

Hermit Warbler
We also had a Hammond's Flycatcher pair calling, but not singing and I was unable to get any pictures or sound recordings.

We had dinner at the Kern River Brewery in Kernville with my former boss and a few friends before calling it a night.

In the morning, on our last full day, going on a tip from my former boss, we looked for Tricolored Blackbirds. We finally found a flock of blackbirds that all appeared to be Red-winged at first. We strolled around, keeping a close eye on the foraging blackbirds. Finally, we got on a Tricolored in flight. Then another. Finally, one landed and started calling a strange, raspy call.

Tricolored Blackbird
We also tried again for Lawrence's Goldfinches, but struck out. It was time to go take a swim and a nap by the river. When we came to, it was lunch time. We ate some pizza in Kernville, then went back to the river. We pretty much spent the rest of the day either at the brewery or the river. Even picked up a new year bird, American Dipper, flying up the rapids.

On Monday (6/17), we only had a half day to hang around. Instead of birding, we slept in and then went tubing down the Kern River. It was a relaxing float with a few rapids thrown in. It reminded me of how much I love being on the water. We made the 5 hour drive back to Hawthorne, Nevada to get ready for surveys the next day.

The surveys went well, on a private military mountain that is very well maintained. I even added two more photo birds; Say's Phoebe and Chukar. Chukar usually stay high on the rocky cliffs, but this time they had young.

A mother Chukar
Say's Phoebe

I have a few more days off coming up at the end of the month and Kevin and I are planning a trip to the California coast. I might end up with a lifer if I'm not careful...

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

The Great Basin- Nevada and California

For the past couple weeks, I've been working on butterfly surveys and my grad project in the Great Basin of Nevada and California. The birds and butterflies have both been spectacular! This area is host to a whole new suite of birds that I had yet to see this year.

Some of the more common birds out here are Mountain Chickadee, Spotted Towhee and MacGillivray's Warbler. They are in seemingly every canyon we survey and are very vocal.

Mountain Chickadee

MacGillivray's Warbler

Spotted Towhee
Swifts are tough birds to get a decent picture of. White-throated Swifts can be seen flying high around the steep canyon walls. I had the opportunity to watch as some descended early one morning.

White-throated Swift
There is plenty of Sage out here, the preferred nesting habitat of Brewer's Sparrows. They are also abundant. However, I have yet to see a Sage Sparrow...

Brewer's Sparrow
We pass by the Bridgeport Reservoir just across the border from Nevada. This place is loaded with close grebes. I think this is a much "cleaner" Western Grebe than the one I posted about earlier.

Western Grebe
Because some of the canyons are high in elevation, we are treated to Cassin's Finches regularly.

Cassin's Finch
Below are more of the regular breeding birds that we run into while camping or out surveying.

California Quail

Virginia's Warbler

Western Meadowlark

Canyon Wren (with nesting material!)

Western Scrub-Jay

Sage Thrasher

Lazuli Bunting
While driving to a new field site the other day, this Golden Eagle was soaring above the little-used road.

Golden Eagle

One of the coolest birds (in my opinion) that I have seen while in the basin is this Calliope Hummingbird. It was patrolling a small area of aspens, but would always return to this same perch. I never see many Calliope Hummingbirds, and finding this one in the "wild" away from feeders was very cool!

Calliope Hummingbird (male)
I've only had one day off since I've been here, but used it to visit Mono Lake with the rest of the western Great Basin crew. Here I added California Gull and Virginia Rail.

California Gull

Virginia Rail
I have two more days of butterfly surveys this week. Kevin and I will leave right after field work on Friday (6/14) and head for the Kern River Valley of California. These are old stomping grounds for me. My first field job was with the endangered subspecies of Willow Flycatcher that nests in the valley, so I know the area well. We will have two full days to go birding. Hopefully another update soon(ish).

Also, I recently learned that there is another birder doing a "photographic big year" this year! He is at least 20 species ahead of me. Just the kick I needed to get myself in gear, and I'm already looking into pelagics... The above pictures will be posted to the Flickr webpage when I get better internet.

Sunday, June 9, 2013


I'm rushed for time, so will update the Flickr page and an update with pictures from Nevada soon. Cheers!

Arizona- Final Few Hours

May 27th, 2013- Our last few hours in Arizona. After camping along Proctor Road, we drove up to check out Madera Canyon. On the way I heard a Varied Bunting singing along the road. These birds are stunning, especially in the morning light!

Varied Bunting
Madera Canyon was quiet, so we didn’t spend much time there. However, on our way out, we heard a Botteri’s Sparrow singing. This was another bird I figured I would miss. It sang from the fence and allowed stunning looks! It was also accompanied by a few Black-throated Sparrows.

Botteri's Sparrow

Black-throated Sparrow
We had one more stop to make as we worked our way north to Nevada. We stopped at Encanto Park, a place I had seen Rosy-faced Lovebirds. The ABA checklist committee recently decided they are established and now countable. It didn’t take long to find our target, and my 700th ABA area bird. This was a huge milestone for me. I just wish it wasn’t Rosy-faced Lovebird, but what can ya do.

Rosy-faced Lovebird

It was time for Kevin and I to start driving toward Fallon, Nevada which was a solid 12 hour drive. A whole new suite of birds were waiting in the Nevada mountains.

If you are enjoying the blog, please remember that the goal of this photographic big year is to raise awareness and pledges for the conservation work that the American Bird Conservancy does in Hawaii. Every little bit helps. See here for more details.

Arizona Day 2

May 26, 2013- Our second and last full day in Arizona. Having birded so hard the day before, I thought seeing new birds would start to get a little tougher. It seems I forgot just how diverse the avifauna is in Arizona during the summer!

We descended from Carr Canyon without seeing much new. A distant back-light Rufous-crowned Sparrow was the only thing of minor interest. We headed for the Ash Canyon Bed and Breakfast where a very well maintained feeding station hosts hummingbirds, woodpeckers, sparrows and more. I always make a point to visit this location when I am in the Huachucas. As always, this place did not disappoint.

The woodpecker diversity consisted of Gila, Ladder-backed and Acorn. I had failed to photograph any of these earlier in the trip, so it was nice to run into them again. 

Acorn Woodpecker

Gila Woodpecker

Ladder-backed Woodpecker
A Canyon Towhee was busy scratching under the feeders.

Canyon Towhee
We had hoped the Lucifer Hummingbirds would show, but it seems they are an evening bird. We decided it was time to move on. There were still plenty of birds to be seen in Patagonia. Along the way, I finally got a Swainson’s Hawk photo. 

Swainson's Hawk

Yet another feeding station, this time in Patagonia, yielded even more new birds. One bird stands out among the others, though. These feeders are famous for their reliable Violet-crowned Hummingbird!

Violet-crowned Hummingbird
 Abert’s Towhees and Inca Doves also patrol the grounds.

Abert's Towhee
At this point, we were about to leave, when we realized someone locked the keys in the car. I’ll give you a hint, it wasn’t me. Anyway, it turned out that this was a “blessing” as it got me to search the surrounding areas for new birds while we waited for someone to pick the lock. This is where I turned up a few new species like Black Phoebe, Bewick’s Wren and Lark Sparrow.

Bewick's Wren

Black Phoebe

Lark Sparrow
When I returned to the car, it still hadn’t been unlocked, so more exploring I did. I finally had a close encounter with a Phainopepla.

I then heard a singing Rufous-winged Sparrow. I thought this to be a very unusual spot for one (basically in the town of Patagonia). I wasn’t complaining, and it was very cooperative.

Rufous-winged Sparrow
An AAA employee finally showed up to pick our lock and we were back on our way. The next stop was the famous Patagonia Rest Stop. I knew there had been reports of Thick-billed Kingbird here, but I wasn’t sure exactly where. It was a small area, we would run into one eventually, right?

Right as we pulled up, Kevin got on a perched young Gray Hawk. It was a bit surprising we hadn’t seen one until this point, but we weren’t exactly in great habitat either. It hung around the hillside the entire time we were there.

Gray Hawk
We walked the entire length of the rest area and came up kingbirdless. We decided to walk along the road on the way back for a different angle. Wouldn’t you know it, perched on a snag not visible from the rest area side, was a Thick-billed Kingbird. Score!

Thick-billed Kingbird

We moved off the road, started walking back, but I stopped dead in my tracks as I heard the unmistakable song of a Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet. It was close. We eventually got the best looks I’ve ever had as the bird investigated our presence. The rest area was good (perhaps too good) to us...

Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet
Patagonia Lake State Park provided similar habitat that we had already been through, but it is always worth a stop. We saw a smattering of Lucy’s Warblers, a few Neotropic Cormorants, and a lot of bovine. I could have done without the latter.

We checked the AZ Listserve earlier in the day and to our extreme surprise, a Buff-collared Nightjar was reported from Proctor Road near Madera Canyon. Since we didn’t have a place to camp picked out, why not camp near the Nightjar. We got to Proctor Road a little early, but that was part of the plan as I still hadn’t seen a Verdin. This just wouldn’t do. I spent a while unsuccessfully chasing down some calling Verdin with no success. Then, while setting up my tent, one came right in to the tree next to me. Go figure.

As darkness fell, night birds began to awaken. First were the Lesser Nighthawks. Next were the Common Poorwills. Then a distant Western Screech-Owl. Finally, the Buff-collared Nigthjar started calling non-stop for the next couple hours. We were able to sneak up on it a few times. Most of the time all I saw was eyeshine, but one viewing was of the bird singing from the ground, lit by a spotlight. It wasn’t super bright, but it was bright enough that I could see the entire bird, including the collar, as it sang away.

This was my 699th ABA area bird. As exciting as that was, one of my worst fears became realized. My 700th would turn out to be an exotic. Worst yet, I had already seen them before they were “established”, so it wouldn’t even really be new. What is the bird you ask? Stay tuned…