Sunday, November 27, 2011

Searching for 'Spurs

I admit it, my blogging has suffered lately as it falls further down on my list of priorities.  I have made a personal resolution to post more, and I have a draft post half-written about my recent revisit to the Arizona Strip!  In the meantime, since I had a very nice morning of birding, I thought I'd jot a few lines about the experience of looking for longspurs (Spoiler: it's more than a few lines).

The most expected species of longspur in the LCRV (and across Arizona) is Chestnut-collared.  I picked up 2 or 3 migrant Chestnut-collars earlier this fall, all heard giving their distinctive "kiddle-diddle" call.  I knew the other three species would be much more difficult to pick up.  Lapland is rare anywhere in Arizona, but they probably occur annually in the LCRV.  McCown's, on the other hand, winters in southeast Arizona and turns up semi-regularly in central Arizona, but it is casual in the LCRV.  Smith's has not been recorded in the LCRV at all, although it has turned up at the Salton Sea.

Two days ago, while birding with Paul Lehman and Barbara Carlson, we made a stop at some fields in the Mohave Valley that were recently plowed and covered in Horned Larks.  This is the perfect situation for Lapland Longspur--and not bad for McCown's, either.  Both species prefer bare ground (Chestnut-collared and Smith's prefer grass).  So today, dreaming of 'spurs, David and I returned to those fields ready to spend a day staring at dirt and gray birds.  We arrived at the fields around 10:00 and soon saw swarms of larks.  Driving down a few farm roads, we positioned ourselves in decent light fairly close to some lark flocks, and we began to scan.

My strategy for longspur searching goes something like this:
1. Find a field with a bunch of horned larks
2. Listen when the larks fly for longspur flight calls
3. Scan through foraging larks, looking for, well, anything that's not a lark
4. Look through flying lark flocks for longspurs flashing their distinctive tail patterns

It turns out that all those points have their challenges.  The Mohave Valley hasn't had large lark flocks until recently, when a number of the fields were plowed or harvested.  Listening for longspurs in a flock of larks can be the best way to find them, but of course you're trying to ignore the many little lark calls and hoping to pick out a rattle (which all four species do), the "kiddle-diddle" of Chestnut-collared, or the "pink" of a McCown's.  It takes some practice to pick out 'spurs visually, whether the birds are flying or feeding.  They tend to hunch down while they feed and hide behind clumps of grass or dirt.  In flight, the flocks twist and turn, but there's the chance to catch a glimpse of a distinctive tail pattern (all four species are different).

I was focusing on point #3, scoping through a lark flock looking for streaky skulkers, when a few birds flew in to join the flock.  As one of these birds banked, I saw a black-and-white tail with more white toward the body and a dark tip.  It wasn't a good enough view to tell if it was a McCown's or Chestnut-collared, but it was a longspur tail.  The bird soon came out from behind a clod of dirt and I noted a broad buffy supercilium with a hint of darker auriculars, a fairly plain face pattern.  Then it turned and I saw rufous lesser coverts: a McCown's Longspur!  David was able to see it and we studied the bird for a few minutes before the flock took flight and reshuffled.

David then walked down the road to scan another field full of larks, while I stayed to scan the same flock.  After a few minutes, another 'spur walked across my field of view.  This one was streaky, much streakier than the McCown's.  As it walked I noted a dark border to the auriculars and rufous greater coverts, and I called to David that I had a Lapland Longspur!  He ran up but the flock reshuffled before he was able to see the bird.  We continued scanning, hoping to spot it again, and soon David said that he had a Lap.  Looking in David's scope, I saw a different bird than the one I had seen--a much brighter individual with a black breast patch.

Within 20 minutes we had seen three longspurs, a Lapland and a McCown's!  We ended up staying for another hour, until the wind picked up and I couldn't see objects as single images anymore.  As lark flocks flew overhead, we heard short rattles of longspurs, and David saw a Chestnut-collared to add to the day's list.  Not a bad way to spend the morning!

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The Arizona Strip, v.2

With the mid-November chill in the air, it was time for a second visit to the Arizona Strip!  Why go again in mid-November?  Well, mostly to look for Black-capped Chickadees in Colorado City.  I was also hoping for wandering non-breeders to show up on Mt. Trumbull, such as Williamson's Sapsucker, Downy Woodpecker, and Golden-crowned Kinglet.  Then there's the influx of Ferruginous Hawks that happens in winter in northern Arizona, with birds from further north replacing the scarce breeding population that I missed this summer.  Of course, rarities are always a possibility, and November is a great time to find rarities in Arizona!

As it turned out, I saw little that I had hoped for, but did see a few less-expected species.  Birding will surprise you every time!

Our plans went through several forms.  We had planned on going November 11-13, but the weather called for rain, which does a nasty number on the Strip's dirt roads.  The 19th and 20th provided less time and windier weather, but staying dry (and out of the ditches) was a big bonus.  Barbara Carlson, a friend from San Diego, decided she wanted to join us at the beginning of our journey to look for Chukar.  A wrench came into those plans when a Harris's Sparrow turned up at Catfish Paradise, about 30 minutes north of Lake Havasu City!  Since it would be a state bird for all three of us (Barbara, David and I), we decided to start at dawn at Catfish instead of leaving earlier.  The Chukar, we figured, would still be wandering by late morning.

Catfish was perhaps birdier than I've ever seen it, with flocks of Red-shafted Flickers, plus one rare Gilded Flicker!  The Harris's Sparrow never materialized, unfortunately, and we left after about an hour of poking through every tamarisk and patch of arrowweed in the place.

The drive to the Strip from Lake Havasu is a long one, taking about four hours to get back into Arizona after driving through California and Nevada to get around the Grand Canyon and Lake Mead.  We arrived in Lime Kiln Canyon in the Virgin Mountains hoping for Chukar, a partridge introduced to the western United States.  They had been seen recently in the area, but despite much climbing around and scanning distant hillsides, none materialized for us.

With two dips already for the day, we parted ways with Barbara, feeling a little down.  David and I continued on to Beaver Dam, where Barbara and Paul Lehman had recently found a White-throated Sparrow on the golf course.  It's always a bit nerve-wracking walking into a golf course pro shop to ask permission to bird the course!  To our amazement, though, the slightly confused-looking lady behind the desk told us it should be fine, and would we please sign this release to rent a golf cart!  Declining her generous offer, we wandered around the course on foot.  A few birds were about but the hoped-for Zonotrichia flocks were meager, and no rarities were seen.  Strike three!  Our one highlight was a Bobcat sunning itself in the afternoon sun, more or less oblivious to any danger from us.

Next, with a short detour through Utah, we pointed the car south toward Mount Trumbull.  In the faint evening light I scanned fenceposts for Short-eared Owls, but the drive proved uneventful.  Arriving at my favorite campsite on Mt. Trumbull, the car's temperature gauge read 37--pretty chilly for a couple of desert dwellers!  Nonetheless, we bundled up and took a walk under starry skies, listening for owls.

Dawn, looking toward Mt. Logan

The next morning, the temperature gauge didn't budge from 37, and the skies were overcast.  Since we didn't have enough time to hike Mt. Trumbull (and it didn't seem worth the effort in any case), we tried the drive up Mount Logan, stopping periodically at likely birding spots.  It was on this road that I got the magic 300, my goal for my Mohave County Big Year, in the form of a flock of 13 Wild Turkeys in the road!

Not exactly a rarity for #300, but it is very local and hard to get in the county, besides being fitting for Thanksgiving-time.

Overall there were plenty of birds to see, the most interesting to me (besides the turkeys) being Cassin's Finches and lots of juncos: Oregon, Gray-headed, a few Pink-sided, and a handful of birds that looked like Red-backed but with paler bills.  We eventually reached the top of the road at Mt. Logan, where a lovely viewpoint overlooks the Strip to the northwest and Mount Trumbull.

The view to the west from Mt. Logan
Before long we decided it was time to go, if we wanted to bird Colorado City before heading home.  We stopped at a few tanks along the way but found the birding slow overall.  The welcome highlight was a Rough-legged Hawk flying over a tank about 10 miles south of Colorado City!

Rough-legged Hawk.  Photo by David Vander Pluym.
Colorado City itself is a strange place.  Its existence and the habits of its population are interesting topics, but perhaps for another blog!  The small town is situated among red rocks, with the green ribbon of Short Creek running through it.  Located directly on the Utah border, the riparian habitat there can turn up some good birds, especially Black-capped Chickadee, our target bird.  After covering the area for a few hours, we weren't able to turn up any chickadees, but we did find a rare Yellow-shafted Flicker and a county bird, Varied Thrush!

Varied Thrush.  Photo by David Vander Pluym.
Although this trip didn't produce the species we had hoped for, I did manage to get several county year birds, and enjoyed some good birding, nice scenery and great company!