Monday, December 24, 2012

If This Is The End Of The World - I'll Take It!

As the world was supposed to end on December 21st, Kathie and I decided that we wanted to end it birding! It just seemed fitting somehow. It was also perilously close to Christmas so we were both feeling rather as if we were playing hookie from all the endless array of tasks that awaited us at home. In order to salve our consciences we picked a location close to home that would only take us half a day instead of our usual mega dawn to dusk trips!
We arrived at Lakeside Park at 8.30am which may seem way too late to all you hard core birders but it was a chilly winter morning in the desert and there was also a stiff breeze blowing so we felt that the birds would be hiding out until the sun warmed things up and we weren't wrong. There were numerous dog walkers and some hardy fishermen around the park when we arrived. In the water were masses and masses of coots and a few American Widgeons. As we drove up a mixed flock of blackbirds and grackles took to the air but it really was too chilly for much else to be out and about.

We put on our layers and strolled down to the waters edge. There were a handful of Mallards cruising around with the widgeons and on the far bank a Great Blue Heron was fishing for breakfast. 

Other than that there wasn't a whole lot happening and the wind was not too friendly either. We decided to drive round to the other side of the park where there was a little more shelter from the wind and see what we could find there. It was a good call, our first sighting was a little American Kestrel, all puffed up against the chilly air.

As we walked down towards the waters edge a flash of red caught our eye, a Vermillion Flycatcher was on the move. Not as vibrant as some, this looked like a young male who was working up to his full magnificence. We found him delightful none the less.

And he seemed to find us quite intriguing too as he flew in closer to where we were sitting to check us out.

There was a Western Grebe sleeping peacefully on the water with its head tucked snuggly in its feathers to keep out the morning chill.

Slowly the sun was beginning to reach out and warm the earth.

The coots seemed glad of the warmth and began squabbling and bustling about, calling raucously to each other across the water.

As we walked around the lake to a line of small mesquite trees I spotted someone sleeping in the branches.

An immature Black-crowned Night Heron. Our excited chatter soon alerted him to our presence and he kept a very close eye on us from his cosy hide out.

While we were watching the night heron the Great Blue Heron flew in and tried several times to land in the same mesquite tree. He is such a big guy and the tree was just not substantial enough to support him so after a few ungraceful flaps and some irritated squawks he flew off to a bigger willow across the wash. He tried to land on the tiniest of branches right at the very top of the tree as if he were a Verdin! Needless to say this led to a great deal of flapping

And wobbling

And flailing about

Before he finally managed to stick his landing.

I got a very hard stare for having the audacity to photograph such an inelegant moment.

It was time for us to turn back. As we walked back under the row of little mesquite trees we spotted another Black-crowned Night Heron snoozing away above our heads, this time a mature adult in the dramatic black and grey plumage.

Now the sun had beaten back the morning chill and the bushes around us were suddenly alive with bird calls and fluttering little bodies.

One strange looking bird had us puzzled for a while but Kathie knows her stuff and she eventually worked out that it was an immature Bronze Cowbird.

One species that Kathie really wanted me to see was a Lark Sparrow. Now I have to confess I am not usually very impressed with sparrows, they tend to fall into the 'LBJ' category with me. That and the fact that many of them are really difficult to distinguish from one another!
Of course I should have trusted Kathie when she told me that these little characters were worth seeing. When several of them flew into a bush in front of us I could see exactly why she found them so appealing.

What is not to love about that pretty little face. A new bird species for me!

As we strolled back towards the car there were three Killdeer on a nearby playing field. By this time we thought we were done for the morning and were just commenting on what a nice 'End of the World Birding Trip' we'd had. Little did we know that we had one more big surprise in store for us.

Kathie noticed a small raptor perched way up in a eucalyptus tree and initially we thought it was the kestrel that we had seen earlier. I can always tell when Kathie is excited by a bird sighting, her voice goes up an octave! Well sure enough her tone changed and I knew we were onto something special as I raised my binoculars and was a little puzzled not to see the familiar facial markings of the kestrel.

It's a Merlin! She exclaimed with undisguised delight in her voice. This is a very special bird for anyone to see but had an extra relevance to us as it was the very first bird we saw together when we first met back in 2009. What are the chances? A relatively rare bird and here we are being treated to another opportunity to view it together. Needless to say we were both extremely happy.

We watched it for several minutes before it flew off, swooped round and landed in another tree to join its mate. Double delight - not one Merlin but two. It doesn't get much better than this. We decided that this was the best End of the World ever!

There was nothing we could possibly see that could top that so we made our way back to the car and headed back to catch up on all those pre-Christmas chores we had been avoiding.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Another Perfect Birding Day

On the west side of Tucson there is a water treatment plant that has created a wonderful wildlife area. The treated water is pumped into drainage ponds where the natural plantings continue to filter and clean the water. I don't know if someone has a slightly sarcastic sense of humour because this place is called Sweetwater Wetlands and yet there are signs everywhere reminding people NOT to drink the water because it is treated sewage water after all! That being said it is a great birding spot with lots of mature trees, wandering pathways and a great mixture of aquatic vegetation and open water.

Kathie and I decided last week that this would be our latest destination for a birding jaunt, our decision was slightly skewed by the fact that a rare Ani had been located there on a fairly regular basis for the last couple of weeks. But to be honest, neither Kathie or I were too bothered about seeing it, we both just enjoy being outside and all the birds are a treat.
We set out early as this Ani apparently has quite a specific daily routine and is most often seen early on. It was another perfect November morning in the desert, pristine, azure blue skies and a slight chill in the air. We pulled into the little parking lot and it was clear that this was a popular place with people 'in the know!' Lots of serious 'birding' types strolling around festooned with binoculars and cameras, no one talking too loudly, just quietly going about their business. Our first treat was right beside the car park, a very obliging Solitary Sandpiper that can pretty much be relied on to show on this little stretch of water. There were birds calling all around us and I could tell this was going to be a great birding trip.

I shan't try to give you a bird by bird account of the day because it would just take way too long and although you might think that there are a lot of photos in this post, trust me, this is only a tiny fraction of the pictures I took! I couldn't resist this picture of a little Pied-billed Grebe lit from behind to create a magical, fluffy full body halo.

There were numerous Harris Hawks perched around the area looking so smart in their dark charcoal and chocolate brown plumage, these two were picture perfect even on full zoom.

There were masses of water birds and the lighting and vegetation reflecting on the water just created a magical scene.

There were lots of Coots swimming, sleeping, preening, bathing and calling back and forth.

 While I was having fun playing with the reflections of this Pied-billed Grebe on the water I began to get the distinct feeling that I wasn't watching the birds but that the birds, or should I say, a bird, was watching me!

I wasn't wrong...........this Harris Hawk was perched in the trees behind us giving us the kind of stare that only a hawk can.

It wasn't until I looked at my photos later that I spotted the evidence of it's last meal attached to its beak.

Anyway - back to the water birds.

Moorhens cruising back and forth across the water were so hard to get a shot of, I had forgotten how fast they paddle! I think Kathie was quite amused by my constant muttering at them as I missed shot after shot.

There were Shovelers all around

and although we know that their hefty beaks give them there name, its not until you see this impressive tool opened up that you get to realize just how big it really is!

Is there anything more beautiful than a Cinnamon Teal catching the sunlight?

I don't think so.........

There were lots of birds flitting in and out of the vegetation, most of which I completely failed to get any decent shots of. I did catch this Yellow-rumped Warbler when it briefly popped out from amongst the reeds

But lets be honest, it is far easier to photograph birds on open water. How could I resist this sweet little Ruddy Duck busily preening?

There we go - all tidy and ready for her close-up.

Then back to playing with reflections

Which way up?

Did we see the Ani? No. Did it matter? No. We had a wonderful day, saw 45 different species, took a lengthily tea break in the shade of a tree, laughed, walked, enjoyed the weather and each others company. What more could we ask for? Nothing, it was a perfect birding day.