Wednesday, May 10, 2017

My Colorado Birding Debut: The Pawnee National Grassland

Hey Readers!

     I am writing to you from my home in Fort Collins, Colorado which is a little over an hour north of Denver.  I moved here from New River, AZ in early March and have been enjoying the cool weather, clean air and beautiful scenery whilst also acclimating to higher elevations and much more unpredictable weather patterns than what I've experienced before.  The charismatic Black-billed Magpie is common here and always a pleasure to see and I've also enjoyed finding 3 lifers (all of which were first seen in my yard) soon after moving: Black-capped Chickadee, Blue Jay and Common Grackle.  Overall, this move has been smooth and I am very excited to share the story of my first birding trip in the state of Colorado. 

     The plan: head to the Pawnee National Grassland in Weld County, Colorado in hopes of finding the Sharp-tailed Grouse which have been lekking there over the course of the past month.  I also decided to search for Mountain Plovers further south and then end the day at the well-known Crow Valley Campground looking for early migrants.  At 4 am, my Dad and I left home and set off for the town of Hereford which we accessed by driving north into Wyoming, cutting across east and, then, heading south back into Colorado.  While driving through Wyoming I picked up my first 9 birds for the state.  I hope to spend a good deal of time birding Wyoming in the future considering my home's relatively close proximity to the state line.  

     We arrived at Hereford around 6:30 and soon found Weld County Road 136 which we followed east for 2 miles before entering suitable habitat for grouse.  Our chances for finding this elusive gamebird were not too good.  It was May 5th (approaching the very end of their lekking season) and we were about 45 minutes late to witness the actual lekking activity.  We drove east along WCR 136 stopping to glass every suspicious form in the grassland around us.  Around 7:15, we were approaching the base of Pine Butte when I caught a glimpse of a lone Sharp-tailed Grouse!

After watching this unique gamebird for several seconds, it burst up from the ground in sputtery flight and vanished out of sight.

The Sharp-tailed Grouse's namesake - its sharp tail - is evident in this shot.
After searching the immediate area for any other grouse, we decided to move on to the next spot that has proven reliable for the species.  We encountered a number of other grassland birds on the way.

Grasshopper Sparrows were common throughout this habitat and I heard at least 9 singing while following WCR 136.

A few Lark Buntings foraging in a stubbly corn field were enjoyable!
A recently-arrived migrant Western Kingbird
A Lark Sparrow.  This bird incorporates low grating notes into its song which is quite un sparrow-like in my opinion.
A fierce predatory songbird, the Loggerhead Shrike.
A few of the Pronghorn Antelope that were common throughout the Pawnee National Grassland.

     Upon reaching the easternmost extent of WCR 136, we traveled along WCR 111 and found 3 Burrowing Owls which flushed up from the grass and then dove back down into cover.  Having succeeded in finding our target, the Sharp-tailed Grouse, my Dad and I drove back to Hereford and took WCR 390 southeast towards Keota.  Just before Keota, we turned west onto WCR 100 and traveled not more than a half mile before we noticed another birder who was scanning the grassland with his binoculars.  We stopped and introduced ourselves.  Turns out, he was there looking for a recently reported Cassin's Sparrow but missed it.  He also mentioned that he had just seen two Mountain Plovers a little further up the road!  As the man suggested, we traveled up the road just before where its intersection with WCR 99 and found one of the Mountain Plovers in an abandoned prairie dog town! 

Since the plover was too far away to be photographed by my 300 mm lens, I took these shots through a spotting scope using my iPhone.
The plover spent a significant amount of time sitting.  Perhaps it was incubating eggs?
     Although I searched diligently for the Upland Sandpiper, I did not find it.  More than likely, it had migrated on from this location.  Apart from the very awesome Mountain Plover, Burrowing Owls were another interesting species and seemed to be inhabiting the abandoned prairie dog burrows.  Moving on from this spot, we took WCR 390 south and then traveled west on State Highway 14 to Briggsdale.  On the north side of the highway is Crow Valley Campground which is also a part of the Pawnee National Grassland.  Crow Valley is a very well-known birding destination in Colorado and has a history of fantastic eastern vagrants.  I was very excited by the possibilities here.  

Riparian areas like this are among my favorite birding habitats.
  Not long after exiting our vehicle, my Dad and I noticed a few birders who were craning their necks to look up into a tree.  Of course, I headed over to find out what they had.

These fledgling Great-horned Owls were just finishing their molt into adult plumage!
     Although every species of warbler evaded me during my time here, I did find some other good migrants.  Chief among these were 4 Swainson's Thrushes in the riparian area.  Swainson's may be differentiated from Hermit by their buffy faces and olive brown (as opposed to reddish) tails.  A couple Eastern Downy Woodpeckers and Spotted Towhees were also foraging nearby.  While traveling along the Birdwalk Trail, I heard a Melanerpes-esque "Churrr" call and was surprised to find a Red-bellied Woodpecker perched on a tree trunk!

     To those of you who don't know me, I am a big fan of woodpeckers.  Their unique physiology, habits and life history intrigue me and I really enjoy every new species I see.  This Red-bellied Woodpecker was the first of its species reported this year at Crow Valley Campground.  As is typical of many woodpeckers I've dealt with, this one decided to be a scumbag and hide from me on the opposite side of the tree trunk.  Also, there was a stream running between me and the bird, so I couldn't easily sneak around it for a better view.  Because my Dad went back to the parking lot to let the other birders know what I found, I was able to show a few people the woodpecker before it flew into a thicket and vanished for the remainder of my time there.   

One of the Swainson's Thrushes I saw.
An American Kestrel soaring up high.
     Crow Valley Campground is a good location for Brown Thrashers (the only thrasher species native to the Eastern U.S.).  Having already seen this bird as a vagrant in Yavapai County, Arizona last year, I was interested in seeing the species in its native range.  When I returned to the parking lot area from the Birdwalk Trail, I heard a mimid's song and followed the sound to its source: 

The Brown Thrasher I was hoping for!
     By this time, bird activity had died down significantly and I decided to move on.  One bird that had eluded me throughout the day was the McCown's Longspur.  This bird and its close relative, the Chestnut-collared Longspur, dwell in the arid grasslands of north-central Colorado where they are typically uncommon - fairly common.  I was honestly quite surprised not to have seen any that morning.  Because I didn't want to waste my efforts and head home without any longspurs, I decided to ask an elderly birder who was sitting at a picnic table for his advice.  Fortunately, he knew of a spot nearby.  In fact, this location was only 2 miles north of Crow Valley!  Driving north from Crow Valley, we turned left onto WCR 96 and began our search.

This Thirteen-lined Ground Squirrel was fun to see.  They are small and very fast rodents.
     After traveling west along WCR 96 for about a mile, we came upon an interpretive kiosk with information about the area and its wildlife and decided to stop for a while.  Soon after exiting the vehicle, I heard a two-note buzzing song that struck me as being something different.  After hearing it again, I was convinced that it had to be a Brewer's/Clay-colored Sparrow (I was hoping for it to be the latter considering that I haven't seen that species).  As I was walking over to where I heard the song, a small sparrow flew up from the grass and perched on the fence.  I quickly lifted my binoculars to my eyes to see a Brewer's Sparrow; not the one I was hoping for, but a fun bird nonetheless.  But then, I noticed another sparrow perched next to it on barbwire.

A striking Clay-colored Sparrow!
     I was very excited to have found a Clay-colored Sparrow and was surprised by its well defined markings.  It can be difficult to separate drab individuals from boldly-marked Brewer's Sparrows.  The gray back of the neck and contrasting white facial stripes were two of the primary field marks that helped identify my bird as a Clay-colored. 

     From this spot, we continued a little further along the road.  My Dad pointed out what seemed to be a stock tank on the north side of the road and we decided to investigate the area in hopes of finding longspurs attracted to the water.  Sure enough, it was a stock tank.  However, it was dry.  Luckily, there was a pool of water in a shallow depression just to the side of the tank which held a group of 5 Mallards.  I also found a Killdeer nearby.  It's interesting to find waterbirds in a completely desolate grassland habitat.  The presence of water is what makes that possible.  As I walked back to the car, I noticed a group of small songbirds flying down to the pool.  Their rattling calls gave away their identity before I could even see them. 

McCown's Longspurs!

Within seconds, the little songbirds flew away and out of sight.  A short, but sweet first experience with the species.  From here, we drove back home to Fort Collins.  As this was my first actual birding trip in Colorado, I am very satisfied with the birds I found and am pleased that my identification skills haven't deteriorated too terribly since moving from Arizona.  I am also very thankful that my Dad was able to do this with me.  We had a great time together.  I am extremely excited for my future here in Colorado and look forward to future birding experiences.  Who knows where I'll go and what I'll find? 

Trip Lifers:

1. Sharp-tailed Grouse
2. Mountain Plover
3. Swainson's Thrush
4. Red-bellied Woodpecker
5. Clay-colored Sparrow
6. McCown's Longspur

Godspeed and good birding to all of you,

- Joshua

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Birding The Flats and a Little More

Hey Readers!

In early February, I went birding with Caleb Strand and Laura Ellis - we had plans to visit an under appreciated riparian area at Sasco Road and also the well-known Santa Cruz Flats (both of which are in Pinal County, AZ).  Caleb and I discussed possible birds and routes at length before the trip.  I was very excited by the possibilities in store for us.  A number of interesting bird species had been recently reported in the area and those included Crested Caracaras, Mountain Plovers, a Rufous-backed Robin, a Ruddy Ground Dove, Sprague's Pipits and a Lousiana Waterthrush!

While getting breakfast north in northern Pinal County, we encountered a massive flock of Brown-headed Cowbirds!
While heading towards Sasco Road, we passed thorough some agricultural areas.  One of these areas was an eBird hotspot - Red Rock Feedlot.  Species of interest included a Sharp-shinned Hawk, Prairie Falcon, nearly 100 Lark Buntings, a Yellow-headed Blackbird and many Brewer's Blackbirds.  

This exotic African-collared Dove (much paler than its Eurasian counterpart) was interesting.

A Sharp-shinned Hawk (note pencil-thin legs and dainty proportions). 

Soon after passing Red Rock Feedlot, we arrived at our destination along Sasco Road - a sizable riparian area dominated by cottonwoods and willows.  Interestingly, this area is actually a section of the Santa Cruz River which flows much wider in Southeastern Arizona.  

Willows are a good indicator of a healthy riparian ecosystem.  They also are attractive to many bird species!
One of the first birds we recorded here was a Barn Owl which flew out into dense cover when disturbed.  Other birds typical of this environment also appeared.  These included Abert's Towhee, Ladder-backed Woodpeckers, as well as Song and Lincoln's Sparrows.

Song Sparrow
Lincoln's Sparrow
As we came upon the riverbank, Caleb and I both heard an odd warbler's call.  It was immediately recognized by Caleb as the Louisiana Waterthrush!  Soon, Laura, Caleb and I all were having decent looks at this excellent Eastern vagrant.  When this bird moved, it bobbed in a very distinctive fashion.  I was very pleased to see this bird as it was my first.

Black-throated Gray Warbler

An immature dark-lored White-crowned Sparrow.

After fighting our way through some tangled riparian understory, we encountered an opening which bordered the river on one side and a grassy field on the other.
We found a Vermilion Flycatcher, Northern Harrier, Green-tailed Towhees and a Merlin in this area.


A second Black-throated Gray Warbler back in the riparian habitat.

Ladder-backed Woodpecker
As we walked between the riparian corridor and an expansive grassy field, we turned up many interesting birds.  An out of season Wilson's Warbler was exciting as were two Pyrrhuloxia, Inca Doves, Common Ground Doves, 4 Gray Flycatchers, a couple Plumbeous Vireos, a Marsh Wren and a singing Blue-gray Gnatcatcher. 

This Great-horned Owl which quietly sat on its nest was our last addition from Sasco Road.
We ended our stop here with 47 bird species.  Moving on, we would explore the well-known Santa Cruz Flats which are one of Arizona's principal locales for grassland species as well as the premiere spot for Crested Caracaras in the state.  While driving to our first actual stop in The Flats, we picked up several Harris's Hawks, 65 Black Vultures and 2 Sage Thrashers.   

Two Harris's Hawks

One of several Sage Thrashers we encountered during the day

Our first stop was at the old house at Baumgartner and Wheeler where a couple Ruddy Ground Doves, a Rufous-backed Robin and a White-throated Sparrow had been reported recently.

Inca Dove
After scrutinizing all of the Inca Doves for Ruddy Ground Doves without luck, we waited patiently for the robin to appear.  Fortunately, it did and we all enjoyed this tropical species from a distance!

Black Phoebe

Northern Cardinal
A Ferruginous Hawk which I noticed as we were driving.

At Tweedy and Pretzer, we looked forward to the possibility of Sprague's Pipits, a drab and somewhat unpredictable songbird species which favor short, stubbly fields.    

The domain of the Sprague's Pipit

Thee fields had been burned recently

The most common species here - the Horned lark

Laura, Caleb and I were glad to see fellow birder James McKay in the field.  We all teamed up against the pipit...  Suddenly, a small bird flew from the edge of the field and produced a distinctive "squeet squeet" call before flying down into the grass again.  That was it!

After pinpointing the bird's location far out in one of the burned fields, this is the best photo I could manage.
Feeling satisfied with the scope views we had, we all decided to head back to our cars.  Across the road, there was a small pond which held Mallards (both Northern and Mexican intergrades), several Common Mergansers and a Great Blue Heron.  Moving on, we would try hitting spots that are known to be good for Crested Caracaras.

Another Sage Thrasher - one of the most photogenic birds I've ever known

We spied a flock of Common Ravens soaring on the thermals over the pecan grove on the right.
Mixed in with the ravens were Crested Caracaras!!!

There were even more on the ground.

Really an odd falcon, caracaras act more like vultures and even feed on carrion.

We spied this singing Bendire's Thrasher on on way out of The Flats.

We spent some time debating a course of action to end our day with.  We all agreed that a trip to the Sweetwater Wetlands in Tucson was in order.  We were hoping that the continuing male Baltimore Oriole would show for us.  I was very excited that we decided to head into Pima County as I still needed some easy birds from there.

American Coot

A striking male Ruddy Duck


Northern Shoveler

Pied-billed Grebe

A colorful male Green-winged Teal

In addition to the species which you just saw, we recorded Cinnamon Teal, a Snowy Egret, Northern Harriers, two Common Gallinules, 10 Marsh Wrens, several Orange-crowned Warblers and Common Yellowthroats.  Perhaps most exciting of all were the crazy numbers of rails...  12 Virginia Rails and 11 Sora!  What we do to elicit a response from rails is clap our hands loudly over a reed bed.  For some odd reason, rails just have to call when this is done.  We actually set Pima County's high-count record for Virginia Rail.

After an exciting stop at the Sweetwater Wetlands, we decided to make one last stop for the day.  Reid Park was that final destination.  Only a few days earlier, I had visited the park after attending Tucson's Gem and Mineral Show with my Mom and brother.  I enjoyed fantastic looks at a male Wood Duck and also saw the continuing Summer Tanager.  Since I had seen both birds before and I kinda understood the park's layout, I felt I could could get Laura and Caleb some new Pima birds.  Once at Reid, we carefully scanned through all of the waterfowl on the ponds and found goodies such as a Northern Pintail, Redhead, Lesser Scaup, Common Merganser, Canvasbacks, pure and intergrade Mexican Mallard and our precious Wood Duck! 

The Northern Pintail

The male Mexican Mallard is on the right

A Sharp-shinned Hawk

We found a one-winged Neotropic Cormorant which was perfectly fine with people!

One of the Canvasbacks

The magnificent Wood Duck.
It even whistled for us!

A nice male Redhead

Our female Common Merganser

American Wigeon

The only Double-crested Cormorant we saw at Reid.  It was significantly larger than the Neotropic Cormorants around it.

A sleepy female Lesser Scaup

Reid Park is an excellent location for Black-crowned Night Herons.

An domestic Swan Goose

A Cooper's Hawk showing off its fluffy white undertail coverts.

Woah there!  This domestic goose is  pretty aggressive...  But why?

Oh.  I see now; his mate has a nest full of eggs!

A striking adult Black-crowned Night Heron with an ornamental white plume running down its back.

Domestic Geese; it's good to be able to distinguish wild Snow and Ross's Geese from these.

A Mexican Mallard intergade at top with a male Northern Mallard.  Note the limited green coloration on his head.

This immature Black-crowned Night Heron gave us quite the stare...

One of many male Vermilion Flycatchers scattered across the park.

We covered a lot of ground at the park and found other interesting species such as Northern Flickers and Western Bluebirds.  There had been a Zone-tailed Hawk at the park, but we never found it.  As we were on the way back to the car, we heard a soft "Pit-tuck" come from a nearby tree.  It was the Summer Tanager!  I had better look and photos of it here than the last time.  Caleb and Laura also enjoyed seeing this bird in during the Arizonan winter (contradictory, eh?).    

One-winged Neotropic Cormorant waves goodbye!

It's been quite a while since this trip transpired.  I am usually pretty good at posting soon after a trip, but something life-changing has happened.  I am moving to Colorado in a week!  Almost all of my time has been spent packing, selling furniture and moving boxes!  I do have one more Arizona post to make (and it's going to be insane) and I will try to complete it before I move.  

Trip Lifers:

Crested Caracara
Sprague's Pipit
Louisiana Waterthrush
Rufous-backed Robin

Pinal County List: 135

Pima County List: 111

Godspeed and good birding,

- Joshua