10 September 2015

Painted Redstart at Gilbert Water Ranch

Since I moved to Arizona a few weeks ago, there is one spot I've birded more than any other: Gilbert Water Ranch.  This park, about the size of a large city block, became famous in the U.S. birding scene a few winters ago when a Baikal Teal was found there.  But in general it's just a very birdy spot--an oasis in the city for a variety of species, from shorebirds, to waterfowl, to warblers.  This time of year, in fall migration, a solid birding effort by an experienced birder can result in over 80 species in a few hours.

The Gilbert Water Ranch, in Gilbert (near Phoenix) Arizona, hosts dozens of migrating bird species each spring and fall in addition to its dozens of resident species.

Part of the reason I've birded this spot so much lately, in addition to its abundance of birds and proximity to my home, is that two of my new birding friends, Sean and Tyler, bird here a lot.  They've graciously included me in their birding activities, which has been a big help to me in getting to know the birds of the area.  While I don't struggle with identification issues very often any more, I still have a lot to learn here about status and distribution, and birding with them has taught me a lot about which birds are expected and when in this area.

Yesterday I visited the Gilbert Water Ranch on my own, after missing a great morning with Sean and Tyler the day before.  I took the chance, since I was by myself, to "calibrate" my estimates of species counts by counting every individual of every species as I went.  It's a tedious process, but it results in very accurate data for eBird, and I think it also forces one to improve their birding skill by critically identifying each bird, not just the groups that are likely to have something rare in them.  This practice paid off yesterday, in the form of a locally rare warbler.

I was scanning the back side of a pond for rarities among the Long-billed Dowitchers, and just as I wrapped up and turned around I noticed a warbler flitting about in a tree right behind me.  It was such a distinctive species that even with poor views I would have identified it instantly: it was a Painted Redstart!  This species is a specialty of mountain canyons and riparian zones of the southwest, and seeing it at a lowland location like this is pretty rare.  I got several nice photos of the bird, a memorable addition to my patch list and a nice way to get a new county bird!

The Painted Redstart is a rare species at low elevations like the Gilbert Water Ranch.  This was only the third record from this heavily-birded location, and the first in four years.

Distinctive, brightly patterned, and obliging - it doesn't get much better than that!

02 September 2015

First Month as an Arizonan

Last weekend marked the end of my first month living in Arizona, and it's been a great month!  Stephanie and I have spent a lot of our free time exploring our surroundings and getting to know the local flora and fauna.  We've also been fortunate to have several different visitors in my first month here, so we've had some great partners in our wanderings.

First, Stephanie's parents came to visit.  We took them camping one weekend to the Whetstone Mountains, an under-explored part of southern Arizona's Sky Islands.  We found my first Western Diamondback Rattlesnake, along with a healthy population of chiggers!

We also took a half a day to explore South Mountain, the largest municipal park in the US.  It is also home to an endemic form of the Chuckwalla, but we didn't see any on this trip.  We did see some cool old mines, several more rattlesnakes, and some great views of the city.

Before Stephanie's parents even left, we had another visitor in the area.  Andrew came down to Arizona to help teach a herp course, so I took a few days off with him at the end of it to do some birding and herping of our own.  We explored the Santa Rita Mountains, the Tumacacori Highlands, and other remote locations near the border with Mexico.  We each found several lifers, including this Black-capped Gnatcatcher (new for both of us) and this Long-nosed Snake (new for me).

I've also been trying to get to know the local naturalists and biologists of the area, including going birding at popular hotspots with new local friends.  It has been a blast getting to know the local species well, and searching for rare vagrants.  I chased this Sabine's Gull, a locally rare species, with my friend Jason.  Even when there are no rare birds to be found, you never know when you'll get to experience a really cool moment, like this Coyote desperately hunting some ducks at the Gilbert Water Ranch.

In total so far I've already found several lifer birds and lifer herps, and I've learned a lot about local insects, plants, and other natural history.  Watch this space for more as I continue to explore Arizona!