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Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Birding Around the Phoenix Area

Once we woke up and started birding in Arizona, it was very apparent we were in a different climate with a whole new host of birds! While we had started seeing new things along the way, here it felt like every species we saw was different from back home. 

Time to look even more closely everywhere! No longer just yellow-rumped warblers flitting around in the trees, but verdins as well

Our first stop of the day was to Zanjero Park in Gilbert where there is a burrowing owl nesting habitat. I knew this was a city park and had seen from people's photos they got quite close to the owls, but I wasn't prepared for anything like this! The owls were using the pipes just off the sidewalk as burrows, visible here as the little lumps on the left with poles marking and numbering each one (click to see a larger view) - maybe 30 feet off the path at most? It's amazing to me that they just sit there and watch while people, bikes, and dogs go right on by!

People have reported as many as 14 owls there before, but we were thrilled to see 2.

Next stop was the Riparian Preserve at the Gilbert Water Ranch, which has a series of ponds you can walk around. It's not surprising that this oasis attracts a lot of wildlife, including not just waterfowl but all kinds of birds! For starters, it was a great place to get photos in the sunshine of many species we've only seen in the gray weather this year back home.

But it didn't take much looking to start seeing species we don't get back at home, like one of my personal favorites, the black-necked stilt.

And for some reason these two species often seem to go hand in hand, as another pond also had the American avocet. So fun playing with reflections in sunny blue water!

There were many places to sit near the water partially obscured by vegetation where, if you were patient enough, even the more skittish species would start to approach.

Long-billed dowitcher
I wouldn't expect to have added in the neoptropic cormorant as a life bird in the middle of the desert, but there they were!

And while watching these guys, a juvenile black-crowned night-heron flushed from the bush above them!

To the careful observer it was more than just birds enjoying the water ranch, too; occasionally darting across the paths were these desert cottontail.

After a break for lunch we headed to the Desert Botanical Gardens, where even this time of year the heat of the afternoon was enough to make the birds more scarce. We thought it was hot, though it was probably cool to the locals - maybe close to 80? It was bizarre for us to see butterflies pollinating flowers in February!

We did end up finding a few avian species, but it would have been worth the trip just to see one of my desert favorites - the cactus wren.

It had been more than 10 years since my last trip to Arizona, but it used to be at least an annual trek when my grandparents on my dad's side were alive. While originally from Germany, they ended up spending much of their lives in Scottsdale, which is also where my dad graduated from high school and, later on, my parents would meet and live for the first few years of their marriage. So, somewhat unexpectedly, there are some Wieland roots in Arizona, and was a bit nostalgic to be back. It felt fitting to make a visit to my grandparents' memorial which I hadn't seen in person before.

When I made a similar trip for my grandparents on my mom's side a few years ago, I got a life bird, and I was surprised when the same thing happened again here - after visiting the memorial a vermilion flycatcher flew into a nearby tree.

Thank you for the life bird, Omi and Opa!
Perhaps it was due to the cooler late afternoon, but the birding was actually better here at the memorial gardens than it had been at the desert botanical gardens! A couple of mute swans have apparently made their home here for many years; the light and everything else was perfect for this photo - except the feather on its beak!

When you get a roll birding, whether it's seeing lots of new things or trying to reach a target number of species for the day, it's easy to get a bit trigger-happy. A memorable moment my dad and I often recall is when we were doing a Big Day and light was fading and we were just short of our target and we thought we saw a western screech-owl that turned out to be a robin. I was guilty of the same thing when the last bird we saw of the day flew from a tree and I called out, "Zone-tailed hawk?!" No - the photos would prove later it was "just" a dark morph red-tailed hawk. That's part of what makes birding so fun, though, is the never knowing what you'll see. In a new area you're likely to see all kinds of new things, but it was a good reminder that some of the regulars are still around, too.

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