Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Here and There Birding

Sometimes you just have to eek out the birding where you can. With everything else going on this past weekend, I did not have specific birding opportunities. My eBird checklists were embarrassingly "Incidental." The 10 month-old certainly has the right sleeping habits for birding--down by 6:30pm and up at 5:30am, but his needing a first nap by 8:30, plus still being rather demanding of attention, limits how far I can take him afield. Some kids are happy for hours in the stroller or hiking pack. He is not one of them; there's too much to taste out there.

Lately I have been taking BB Jr. to Granada Park, a decent sized urban park with a couple duck ponds, some transplant pine trees, and desert scrub. It's served as a stop-off spot before for winterfowl, notably during a 5-MR challenge a couple years back. Having recently become very opinionated about small city parks, I now choose it as our family park of choice because of its comparative birding potential and water fountains that don't smell like pee.
BB Jr. likes it too but he's pretty easy to please if he can get down and move around.

  (He got un-stuck eventually)

There's an old mesquite tree near the playground/sandbox area, and last Saturday it was quite the little hot spot for migrants. The blooming mesquite attracted bees and many other insects, which in turn attracted Yellow, Black-throated Gray, Townsend's, Wilson's, and Hermit Warblers, plus the usual residents and the largest Warbling Vireo I have ever seen. Returning the next morning with my crusher, I was disappointed to observe almost no activity in the same spot--such is the caprice of migration I suppose. 

Image result for granada park playground
Photo courtesy of

However, B's Bs is made of sterner stuff and does not give in to despair, at least not for like 15 minutes or so of sustained adversity. Granada Park is also one of the best places to see Rosy-faced I have often relayed to out-of-town emailers getting in touch with amusing nervousness about when and where they'll be able to see these birds. They nest in the palms at Granada in large family groups, and they will also forage in lower bushes, sometimes even on the ground.

This was the first time I had seen them feeding in/on the fuzzy white creosote seed capsules. Tough birds eating a tough plant...there is great continuity here (though purists may point out that creosote is a hearty native and Lovebirds are a hearty invasive). Presumably the Lovebirds do the creosote a solid by way of pollination and seed distribution, and the creosote does the Lovebirds a solid by being eaten by them. This would seem a less one-sided relationship than that of gators and Egret chicks. Most of the carnage I see at Granada Park has to do with some dog-walker's poop-scooping glove malfunctioning (not pictured).

Sunday afternoon we celebrated a tri-generational Mother's Day, which was well and good, especially because perfectly cooked beef tenderloin was involved and the sides I contributed didn't suck.
Also cool was finding a Cactus Wren chick, recently out of the nest but not yet fully fledged. It was skulking and scurrying along the planters while parents supervised. They all blew a gasket when I approached the bird of course, but after I got to live out my 'bird-in-the-hand' field biologist fantasy all was quickly restored.

I will be finishing out my last week of work and its aftermath through this weekend, finishing out a 7-year tour of duty in AZ education. Although there is plenty yet to do for the move, there will be more than incidental birding in the couple weeks to follow. There must be, or I shall explode.

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Making the Wrong Impression: A High Watermark

Birding and blogging about birding: it can cover many topics, most of which are positive and encouraging. Typically finding and appreciating birds makes up 99% of bird blogging content, and rightly so. But, especially as birding expands, there are elements of common culture that develop, emergent values that turn into characteristics that turn into traits that come to define the group. While much of this culture grows healthily, with expanding and sharing information, a culture must also be pruned and critiqued. Things must be said 'No' to, to protect cultural integrity (yes, even birding can have this too). Butler's Birds is thus wading into the iconoclastic and caustic realm of birding blogging: criticism.
Tempers will be raised. Feelings will be hurt. Enemies will be made. But it must be done for sake of the culture. Today I am saying 'NO' Watermarks.

Related image
Image copied from (In case you couldn't tell). Bilious, isn't it?

Watermarks (aka Copyright stamps)...this has been touched before on other blogs I am sure, but would like to take it upon myself to expound ad nauseam and with great redundancy (it's what I do best) about this practice. Buckle up for a rant dear readers, an internet rant!
No doubt you too have noticed this subtle, soft, but nefariously creeping phenomenon on the photo sharing groups and other social media. It is an invasive force that comes in the wake of affordable and more available digital photography, and now this blight is spreading far and wide over the interwebs, corrupting hearts and minds and ruining otherwise perfectly mediocre photos (even great photos) with a cheap commercial stamp.

While doing a little bird-group browsing on the FB this past Sunday, I noticed with great chagrin that a critical threshold had been passed in one of my local groups. More than half of all the posted photos had some sort of watermark on them. More than half.
Conceding that some watermarks were classier than others, with better fonts and icons, almost all of them still amounted to the same, "Henry Hangerman Photography" or the more ambitious titles "Nature's Bounty by Debbie." And almost all of them were images I scrolled by with only a cursory glance. Obviously I can't post them here...for fear I get sued or something.

Here's a nice picture of a Red-Headed Woodpecker. I am proud of it. It bugs me that the image quality is degraded by like 25% by blogger's upload. It does not need a watermark a la "Natural Creations by Laurence."

Keep in mind that watermarks always detract from the aesthetic and the viewing experience. Even conceding that some are less obtrusive than others, watermarks never add value or beauty to the image. Especially in the context of nature photography, it is a stamp of artificiality, an interruption of the experience. If your picture is worth a thousand words...then you do not need to cheapen it with words.

More often than not, I see watermarks malingering on relatively nice photos of relatively common birds snapped in relatively ubiquitous areas--a Great Blue Heron fishing near a pond, an Oriole perched near a glistening orange, a Meadowlark standing sentry on a fence post, etc.
It begs the question, begs it so strongly I now shout it out to the internet void: Dear photographer, what are you trying to accomplish by compromising your image???


1) Are you seeking free promotion/advertising?
Very rarely do I see watermarked photos being shared. I would conjecture that among real connoisseurs and artistes, they're shared less frequently because, you know, there's a crappy watermark on it. We're not talking about graphics and photos that are being used in mass marketing campaigns. We're talking about amateur photography, and looking at a watermark as a way to grow a personal brand is redundant as it is counter productive.

2) Are you seeking image protection?
Watermarks just do not do this. For someone intent on stealing graphic content, watermarks are just about as easy to remove as they are to put on. A watermark might make an unscrupulous blogger think twice about copying an image, but I doubt this is a very common problem. Remember also that your image is still one of many thousands of the same subject on the internet, even if it is of the highest quality, and it is now on the internet, the most public and an unregulated market available. Most of us amateurs are not having our images stolen, and when I've heard of professional images being stolen, those images were actually watermarked!
Now I am not saying you shouldn't try to protect your work or images--I have a disclaimer at the bottom of my blog too, and borrow images with permission and while citing the source. But with image protection being so rarely and so badly served by watermarking, it's not worth the collateral damage.

3) Are you seeking to look more professional or high-end?
Most professional level photos I see cite the photographer, settings, etc. outside of the image, not as an overlayed graphic. Almost all watermarks I see look amateurish to me, and I also am an amateur! I shouldn't even notice with my untrained eye right!? Watermarks unavoidably insert a commercial element into the picture, which necessarily detracts from the idea of nature photography. While this is sometimes a necessary evil for professional photogs doing some advertising, this is never the case in photo-sharing groups, where your profile is next to the image anyway. Is anybody cashing in on their facebook bird photos?? If so, please share and I will sell out immediately and recant all of this.

**I will insert the caveat here for professional photographers, people who take primary income from the collection, marketing, and sale of their image rights. These are not the people I see filling birding groups with 'watered down' images.

Nice Varied Bunting right? It's a great photo of a great bird, not one that pops up much in North America nor on the blogosphere. Now do a google image search for Varied Bunting, and behold roughly 500,000 other equally good or better photos (and plenty of Indigo Buntings to boot). I am glad mine is not impinged by a watermark. 

Reemerging from the weeds of why/why not to watermark, let's look at the principles behind capturing and sharing nature photos. Realize this, dear fellow amateur photographer: even if your picture is awesome, it is still likely a dime-a-dozen within the larger context of the internet.
However, it is also a unique capture that was special to you and you wanted to share it. Do not forget this core intention Even if it's not a crush, even if it wouldn't make Ansel Adams take up birding, it is something you created from a place of goodness.
When an image is branded with "David Davidson Nature Captures" or "© BJ Kowalski" you have watered down your image and actually made it less special, less effective in sharing an experience of cool nature stuff. The image becomes about self-promotion instead of nature-promotion, and is that really why you're posting?
If you are simply looking for likes and praise, then save it. That drives people away. It amounts to attention-seeking spam and will also make people less likely to engage with anything there-related. They will disengage from you and from the forum. That is selfish.
Keep your image as you keep the memory and the experience of its making in your heart. Keep it special and share it with integrity.

I understand the element of attention. Obviously anyone who keeps a blog or shares photos with a group is hoping to get reactions, feedback, etc. They are hoping they're not only talking to themselves about why not to put watermarks on images...
When the sharing is done well, with good quality and intent, the recognition comes naturally. It does not come because of a stamp on the picture, but because of how the picture or story behind the picture made the audience feel, maybe even how it connected them with the author. The Varied Bunting image was exciting for me because VABUs are gorgeous, that male was singing very close to me, it was a powerful experience, and I wanted to share all of that as best as I could with other people who might appreciate it. The VABU shots did not get me money and it did not get me laid. The memory of that VABU experience is still vivid.

Watermarks do not grow connection; they create a barrier. The watermark inserts an awkward self-awareness, a distracting, passive-aggressive cry of, "Please notice me and remember my name!"
Respect the audience as you respect what you're sharing. Recognize that the audience is there for content, and if the content is good, if it resonates with the audience, then they will want to see what else you have to share. They may even give you a 'Like'.

Image take from The Photography Blog

Sunday, May 6, 2018

Slate Creek Divide: Hearing is Believing

With full relocation to North Carolina now imminent (29 days to departure), there are many lists of things to be attended. Most of this pertains to property management--cleaning, fixing, renting, selling, and fondly reminiscing before trashing, etc.
But there is also unfinished business with the AZ birding scene, a bucket list of birding to-dos before getting trans-continental.

Some of the items are general: birding hard in the Huachucas and/or Santa Ritas again--while some are more specific. I have not yet made attempt at Five-striped Sparrow in AZ, the only resident/breeder lifer yet to pick up here. Most recently I tried to check off the 3rd and last item: get visuals (and a photo) of Flammulated Owl. This little western owl has manifested as 'heard only' for me several times, but always alluded the visual confirmation. Especially considering this species will not be in NC (unlike the similarly evasive Saw-whet), this makes it a near-lifer search while AZ time remains.

Finding Poorwills on the road is not a bucket list item, but always welcome nonetheless, even if they won't make eye contact.

The Flamms can be pretty common above the Mogollon rim and near Flagstaff, but being ever impatient and short-sighted (very bad traits for a birder, btw), I made an attempt for the local, sparse, but potential glorious Maricopa population in the Mazatzal mountains near Slate Creek Divide. The elevation and water drainage here allows multiple species of pine to mingle with Douglas Fir, creating a special mini habitat not found anywhere else in the county, nor anywhere closer to home.

You access SCD via 10 miles of rugged road opposite the Mt. Ord exit from Hwy 87, gaining elevation up through oak scrub to fir and pines. Birder buddy Three Sticks Will and I logged great Sparrows as we ascended the washed out road--Lark to Rufus-crowned to Black-chinned, along with FOY breeders like BH Grosbeak and Cassin's Kingbird. Being behind the wheel amidst treacherous grades and gravel, the camera stayed firmly tucked away.
The habitat around the FR 201 terminus at Mt. Peeley trailhead area also hosts the only known populations of Mexican Jay and Dusky-capped Flycatcher, as well as Red-faced Warbler, in the county, though all was pretty quiet by time we reached the top. With our remaining daylight we headed back downhill to explore some of the washes, always good for turning up cool dead stuff if not birds. In this regard, they did not disappoint.

My guess is the stag broke a leg and/or got stuck in the wash and then drowned. Or a cougar got it and the carcass was washed into the main gully. Or it was brought there as part of a druidic ritual. Or it is the totemic marking of mystic burial ground. Or the deer just nestled down upon its fetlocks and passed on. One of those things. Gnarly.

The wash descent made for a pretty rugged, somewhat bush-crashing hike, and by time we got down to the flatter spillway area it was dark. Although this was not an area we were anticipating our little Owls, we figured it'd be better to poke around here instead of twiddling our thumbs up along the ridge. This proved to be a fortuitous decision, as we soon heard the alarm call of a female Spotted Owl. Not wanting to spook her, we consolidated under on of the larger pines just up the banks of the wash, and almost immediately heard a male SPOW contact call. The call was close...very was coming from inside the house!
The male SPOW was directly above us. Behold, endangered Spotted Owl butt.

The owls proceeded to cavort all around the wash, giving us great visuals at times though I did not get any further photos. I did almost lose my binoculars while trying to balance camera and flashlight on the loose rock in the dark.

After the quality SPOW time we spent the next few hours patrolling the ridge along FR 201 and some of its scion game trails. Near the Mt. Peeley trailhead we had clear audio of Northern Saw-whet Owl, and a few miles down the road logged steady Flammulated calls, but we could never get visuals on either species. The best bird of the night was another heard-only, a Mexican Whip-poor-will calling for a couple of minutes down one of the ravines about half a mile east of the Mt. Peeley trailhead. Although this is good habitat for them, last I heard (years ago) this species had not been recorded in Maricopa County before.

So a bulk of our best birds were heard only, which is bittersweet--much more bitter than sweet really--but by the numbers it was a tremendously successful nocturnal foray, and we were still home by midnight. The most numerous bird after sundown was Common Poorwill, with one bird kind enough to perch on a burned stump instead of the dusty road or out of sight in the manzanita scrub.

I feel like people, myself included, do not spend enough time thinking about how fantastic nightjars are. They are gigantic camouflaged flying mouths, nocturnal avian pac-men and ghosts as well...which actually doesn't make them sound as awesome and hyper-specialized as they really are. With fair flair, it's all about the Warblers and shore birding out east, but I am disproportionately looking forward to getting acquainted with new Nightjars in NC.

Saturday, April 28, 2018

Last Chances in the Choke Chiris

Before Great Black Hawk stole the national scene at South Padre Island, AZ boasted probably the biggest ABA rarity buzz with an absurdly confiding Fan-tailed Warbler and (likely returning) Slate-throated Redstart in the Chiricahuas. I have a proud, or at least prominent, history of dipping on Slate-throated, but the Fan-tailed was gorgeous and seemed like an easy tick. 
Curious to see how Butler's Bird Jr. would fare with longer car rides, since we will be doing some significant road-tripping this summer, the whole family headed for an overnight exploration of the Chiris.

By time we departed, the Fan-tail had not been seen for two days. This was known. What was known later on was that Butler's Birds Jr. does not like riding for more than two hours, and does not like hiking for more than about 30min. in a row, in large part due to being a little big for his carrier and, mostly, because he wants to taste all the rocks. I'll push birding on him but it may be geology that suits his fancy down the road. Pretty cute at any rate.

So, in line with expectations, we did not get to add our names to the list of people of have crushed the Fan-tailed Warbler. Also in line with expectations, we got to spend time with cool Hummingbirds. 

The Fan-tailed was actually being seen on a private residence in the area (what a yard bird!), and with its continued absence we soon relocated to South Fork, which afforded scenery and shade even if it was late in the afternoon for the better birding. The hikers below almost got t-boned by some Coule's Deer crossing the wash. Apparently deer do not habitually look both ways when startled.

The next morning I snuck out early to try for the Pinery Canyon Slate-throated Redstart. This location has hosted one or more nesting birds for the last three years, making Pinery Canyon to Slate-throats what Florida Canyon was to Rufous-capped Warblers 8 years ago--the beachhead for a northern invasion (one hopes). 
Finding the bird still takes some doing, and unfortunately I only had a couple of hours to scan and scour before rendezvousing with the Fam. The bird was eventually re-found that day around noon, but during my time in the area it was windy and the high temp was 37 F! 
This is the 4th time I have dipped on a Slate-throat. 

Oh! this bird get your hopes up!? Yeah, me too, but just another Painted. Who even cares about those anymore...

Why am I sharing this failure on the blog? Seeking absolution I guess. Maybe dipping on birds should just be the new theme. How's this for a new name idea--The Big Dipper: Not-So-Stellar Birding. Marketably clever eh?
Consolation was at least there on the mountain, although it needed to be substantial considering the amount of driving it takes to get up, over, and then down to Pinery Canyon. Some of the morning's first birds were hawk buddies up at 6800 feet and a Tom displaying to a hen off the side of the road.

Yellow-eyed Juncos were typically welcoming and kept the understory pretty teeming with movement, joined by roving rampaging hordes of Bushtits and Kinglets. House Wrens supplied steady background ambiance. 

This time of year, There Will Be Empids. There Will Be Consternation. There Will (probably) Be Blood (because I fall a lot when hiking and birding simultaneously).

I could not really justify dragging the Fam back to Pinery Canyon, up and down the nauseating road and dust to bird where there would not be clear trails, so we flipped ol' Slate-throat the bird and instead headed to the Chiricahua National Monument, because who doesn't love monoliths? 
Turns out rock watching is actually way easier than bird watching. There is much less potential for vagrancy.

Other than the expected Towhees and Bewick's Wrens ever-present in mid-elevation oak scrub, the birding was pretty muted at the CNM Park. However, there were many Mexican Jays, and they were very tame. If you want to crush MEJA and see awesome rock formations, go to this place.

Floored by the grandeur!

Friday, April 20, 2018

A Salt River, A Granite Reef, A Big Move

The Salt River, a bastion of waterfowl in the winter and back-floating beer-toting tubers in the summer, is probably the most well-known aquatic attraction in east Phoenix/Mesa, except maybe for Big Surf. the river drains from the Mogollon Rim and White Mountains up north, running 300+ miles with its tributaries through the heart of Maricopa County. The river's size make it a great attraction for waterfowl, especially species that prefer deeper or moving water and won't be found on smaller city ponds. Of course, it also sustains healthy riparian channels that grow out to the surrounding mesquite bosque and other Sonoran habitats in the valley.

There are several points of access in Mesa. Coon Bluff is probably my favorite, given its propensity for Vermilion Flycatchers and excellent nocturnal birding, but Granite Reef is another, well-reputed for its passerine pull-downs, including some regional rarities like Rusty Blackbird.
With the Ides of April passed, it's a good spot to look for migrants, early breeders, and the not-so-elusive Salt River Horses.

The horses are regarded as wild, local treasures by some, feral intrigues by others, and introduced nuisances by yet more. Given they have their own management lobby, I don't know how wild they can really be considered, but their ecological impact is indisputable, and not in a "making the world a better place" kind of way.
The Granite Reef area provides a path through mesquite bosque and then tamarisk and cottonwood, plus views of the river itself. Pretty cool to pick up a late female Goldeneye (nice pic huh??)...

...and then turn to the other shoulder and tick LUWA and YRWA. I guess Lucy's Warbler is like the western counterpart to Prothonotary, as Grace's is to Yellow-throated and Mesquite Bosque is to cedar swamps. They are the only two cavity-nesting Warblers, at least hat I'm aware of in North America, and are extremely vocal. I don't know...still feels like we got short-changed on this one though. Maybe it's just because I haven't crushed them properly.

There are multiple nesting Balds along the river too, in fact one nest we observed had a mature adult, fledged young, and new chick all in view. Alas that all I have to show from recent Baldies are these typical distant fly-by shots, seems to be the new thing for this blog.

If you follow the Granite Reed path west, eventually it runs up to the access-restricted dam, but you can continue around to a canal path, without trespassing, and proceed down to the dry spillway and finally back to the river. This portion of the trail moves through chaparral grass that is good for Buntings later in the year, and the canals sustained impressive numbers and variety of Swallows.

Northern Rough-wings were unsurprisingly numerous, while Violet-greens were surprisingly numerous. We also picked up single digits of Bank, Barn, and Tree, along with the expected Cliff colonies by the dam overpass, making for a 6-Swallow day. Pretty damn special!
Below is a not great, diagnostic photo of Violet-green Swallow. Will I derive praise or satisfaction upon it? No. Will I use it as evidence of a first state record for VGSW at a later point in time? Also no.

We spent most of the day looking up for FOY Warblers, Orioles, and fly-bys on the river, but one of the closest encournters came from getting down (and being super patient) with a Green-tailed Towhee that was equal parts confiding and retiring. No Canyon (unlikely) or Spotted (fair shot) to make for a Towhee quadfecta (w/ Abert's) complimenting the Swallow sextet. From this I conclude that birding gods aren't really into numerology.

Diminutive in stature (smallest Towhee) as it is in behavior, Green-tailed is nonetheless a subtle looker, with notes of Olive and Five-striped Sparrow woven into its grumpy fluff. Perhaps because I see them in chaparral tangles, they strikes me as a bird of the rough and arid west: hardy, understated, and yet beautiful in their specialization. They are one of many birds I shall miss seeing often, as of course I will miss seeing many of the other western and AZ specialties.

Butler's Birds will be moving to North Carolina (look out, Wayne County!) at May's end. It shall be a tumultuous time for birding and blogging. I will be trading out western Wren, Warbler, and Sparrow groups for those of the east, trading mesquite and chaparral for woodlands and salt marshes, not to mention trading out careers and boring stuff like that, but thankfully I will have ol' reliable Mourning Doves, plus friends and family, to steady the ship. Such a move brings much excitement as it does apprehension and, of course, mourning for what is being left behind. At some point there will be Northern Gannets, so that's awesome.