Thursday, October 19, 2017

More Than You Know


Perhaps a little too close to the arches in Cabo San Lucas
Fall break each year is a spiritual commitment to myself as I exit from this routine life to reflect.....on life.  


Last year, I took you to Monterey, CA with Debi Love Shearwater.  This year, we are heading to sunny San Jose del Cabo in Baja California, Mexico. 



This whole trip was based on a crazy happy hour we had a couple months back. So I blame it all on the tequila:)  I was with friends Lori and Tami talking about taking a trek to the baja Mexican pennisula. And so it happened.  

Ruddy Ground-Doves are the common doves in San José next to the White-winged Doves
So we began to plan.  We got a beautiful Airbnb in the sleepy town of San José del Cabo. 


As a birder, it's important to get a place close to where you are intensively birding.  Our place was located along the Riparian area making it SUPER easy to wake up and bird.  
To make things sweeter, this historic building was situated along the beautiful riparian area known as Estero San José, a birder's paradise. From the blue dot down to the beach, it's excellent habitat for many birds which include a few endemics. 

a nice example of a Ruddy Ground-Dove
I had been studying this area for three particular birds, the endangered Belding's Yellowthroat, a subspecies of Northern Cardinal(Santa María) and the Gray Thrasher.  We kept our eyes out for a random Xantus's Hummingbird but as I pieced my research together, I figured this hummer would be hard to spot in this location right now.  Knowing the habits of our hummingbirds here, I suspected the Xantus to be in the foothills of the mountains or along farm/ranch areas.  We did check out golf resorts and hotels with flower gardens but we didn't spot a SINGLE hummingbird species while there.  I suspect the behavior is a cross between a Costa's and a Broad-billed Hummingbird. 

a cooperative Sora
In the picture below, you'll see a mountain range behind the town.  This is where the recently split Baird's Junco, a relative of the Yellow-eyed Junco, and the Xantus's Hummingbird hang out. Other specialties include several subspecies that will most likely be split down the road like the American Robin and the Northern Pygmy-Owl. While doing the research, I found that all the Baja endemics can be done easily by birders in one full week but I didn't have that much time. Plus we were there to have fun.  And we did:)

a small kettle of Turkey Vultures hang out in a section of the Estero of San José del Cabo
So my only focus for this trip was the riparian area in San José del Cabo. Our first bird was the Gray Thrasher.  It looks like a cross between the Curve-billed and Sage Thrashers.   

the endemic Gray Thrasher
To find this bird is to understand the word "thrasher".  Thrashers are active in the early morning and right before sunset. The weather in Baja California is so hot and muggy right now.  So at sunset, before our beer fest, we walked along the cooler mesquite lined path of the estero and found these birds in great numbers feeding along the path with Cactus Wrens. They prefer desert scrub and sure enough, that's where we found them.  For my birder friends, this thrasher isn't as skittish as a Crissal or LeConte's. BUT having birded the estero throughout the weekend in both the AM and PM hours, I found that they were most visible during the evening hours (at least for this time of year). And I can understand why!  It was HOT and disgustingly muggy!

One of many Orange-crowned Warblers seen in the estero
That was a fun lifebird and even though my friends are not birders, they had fun playing detective:)  Last month, San José del Cabo was hit with a hurricane and the riparian area was torn up pretty well.  In fact, a chunk of the bridge and main highway were destroyed. So we carefully birded around the exposed metal joints and dangerous steep cliffs.  We discovered a warbler sanctuary!  It was SO birdy! The warbler show was incredible.  I also believe the whole world's population of the Scott's and Hooded Orioles winter in Baja.  They were EVERYWHERE.  Instead of flocks of robins, there were flocks of Orioles.  Impressive! They are permanent residents of Baja and summer residents of AZ. 


As we got closer to where the ocean meets the mouth of the river, I noticed more birds.  The trails were in better shape and we were able to navigate into really nice birdy areas. 


Common Gallinule
Common Gallinules were present and far outnumbered the American Coots. Rails were everywhere and getting photos of them were near impossible. 



The hurricane cut away a huge swath of land.  Clumps of dead vegetation which included concrete chunks and fallen trees littered the riparian area. 



I forgot that the Ridgway's Rail and Least Bitterns can be found down there. I really tried for photos of a Least Bittern but it snaked its way into the reeds quickly before my camera could focus.  The Ridgway's Rail could only be seen with binoculars at the far edge of the river.  We couldn't get closer because of the hurricane damage on the path.  In fact, we had to be careful with the loose ground near the edges of the river.  If the ground had given out, I probably wouldn't be drinking my coffee and writing to you all now because my arm or leg would be in a cast:) 


a Turkey Vulture perches on some fallen trees from last month's hurricane in San José
Between the beers and laughs, we walked and did quite a bit of exercise. There was ONE bird that I wanted more than anything else on this trip. I studied the endangered Belding's Yellowthroat a lot.  It looks similar to the Common Yellowthroat that is found throughout much of North America. I searched inside of reeds and lumps of wet vegetation for these birds.  Having memorized their calls, I located two pairs. And then we went to work.....

female Belding's Yellowthroat
And I shouldn't just say "I".  I went over the calls with my friends and we spread out creating a network for this tricky to photograph bird.  The Belding's Yellowthroat is endangered because it is a true endemic of the Baja pennisula(this area is mostly desert and the bird requires wetland/riparian habitat).  Why is it endangered?  Housing development. Similar to Florida and the Florida Scrub-Jay, this bird faces an uphill battle as the real estate market booms in the Baja.  As humans manipulate the limited water resources for their own needs, this bird's habitat is disappearing.  Thankfully, the Estero San José is a protected sanctuary for this bird and many others. 


So to understand the word "Yellowthroat", birders KNOW that any warbler that carries the name, Common or Belding's Yellowthroat, will be difficult to photograph. I thought I'd have difficulty with the ID on these similar looking birds but here's what I learned. 1. We had both Yellowthroats at this location.  However, there were more Belding's present. 2. These warblers are very vocal and it helped us zone into the area where they were feeding. Their call is different and sorta reminded me of a wrenish rattle. I was able to successfully record the male calling. We were able to watch these secretive warblers with our binoculars.  3. They are overall very YELLOW.  The male has a black mask similar to its relative the Common Yellowthroat.  But it was their call and deep yellow coloring that caught our attention.  We observed one pair in a nesting territory for about a half hour.  After that, we went to an all you can drink event on the beach to celebrate our success and um....enjoy our vacation. 

Don't do it guy!  The current is TOO STRONG!
Our next day was a mini pelagic on the ocean. I overdressed once again because I needed pockets for my equipment.  At one point, I nearly passed out. It was 95 degrees with a high humidity rate. 

Some fun cliff diving in Cabo San Lucas at Pelican Rock
While my friends enjoyed the pelagic, I counted birds along the fascinating rock formations.  My particular study was focused on Blue-footed Boobies and Magnificent Frigatebirds.  BUT it turned out that my observations would mostly be on the Frigatebirds and Ospreys.  We found the Boobies but only for a second. 

This Osprey watches over all of us during our pelagic
Then something very "spring breaky" happened to me.  I don't know how to explain it because it was a moment.  One of those PURE moments.  The kind that makes a person feel complete joy and sadness all at once. Otherwise known as bittersweet:)

A Wandering Tattler flies into view for a few seconds
As we were coming back into port, I heard one of my favorite club tunes from this year, More Than You Know, carried across the waves.  I searched for the source of the music and discovered two young men overlooking the ocean as if they were kings of the world. And for a brief moment, I felt like I was in my 20's again with that same bliss/naiveté.  Twenty years later, I was saying hello to my old self.  And then our boat docked and it was over. 

Striped Shore Crab
For the rest of our trip, the song played over and over in my head.  I tried to process why this moment had affected me so much.  Thanks to my friends, we were able to talk it out.  Life experiences shape us and make us who we are.  But there is something very beautiful about innocence. So thank you Tami and Lori for helping me connect the dots. 

This sea lion attempts to sleep but the crabs taunt him
So yeah it was a weird experience.  How the hell does one go from dance party aficionado to birder?!!!  I like me now but sometimes I wish I could be footloose and fancy free for just a moment. But that would require late night parties and staying awake:) That's too much work!

an ancient looking Brown Pelican 

Anyhow, I love Anthony Burdain from the various food networks and his constant search for secret local culinary delights. One night on our way back from Cabo San Lucas, I smelled something really good. I saw many locals all gathered at this hole-in-the-wall restaurant in a random neighborhood outside of the historic San José del Cabo district. The kitchen was run by a smiling Celia Cruz type and I had a feeling that this place was something special. The next night, we went back to investigate and I asked our waiter what was it that everyone came to their restaurant craving.  He laughed at first and then realized I was serious.  The next thing I knew, he brought me the most delicious PAPA RELLENA.....a stuffed potato.  And. It. Was. Good!


My heart lit up again.  I felt the fire rekindle inside of me.  I missed my Mexico.  I've missed it so much.  I missed being around fun and wonderfully polite people who just chat! Where it's okay to say "hi" to a complete stranger and not have the other person think you're insane.  I had forgotten how incredibly rude some Americans can be.......no.  That's wrong.  I haven't forgotten how rude Americans are.  I had become immune to it!  I hate where this country is right now. It's embarrassing. I hate the hatred and division this so called clown has created between Republicans and Democrats. And here's a little personal observation.  While on my flights, everyone I sat next to began talking about this idiot.  I swear to the gods that I never brought up the topic.  I didn't want to...but I've got this strange presence that allows people to open up to me.  They needed someone to listen.  And I listened.  The US is not in a good space right now. 


And in Mexico? Well, they would start talking about this cheeto puff as well!  As an unofficial ambassador, I reminded them that he doesn't speak for most of the country.  Then I switched the conversation to birds:)  

Magnificent Frigatebird
We watched the pirates of the air, the Magnificent Frigatebirds, glide and dive trying steal food from each other.  One day, I will see one of these birds in Tucson.  And when I do, I will be ready with my camera. 

Spotted Boxfish
Normally I'm not into fish but the fish around the waters of the Baja Pennisula are stunning!!!!  While I was sitting on our boat, I looked down and observed several colorful species coming up to the surface of the water. 


Color is everything. Mexico IS color.  There is color in the food.  With her people. With her culture.  In the language.  In her wildlife.  It inspires me and many many others.  Mexico recharges my battery and reminds me why our neighbor to the south is pretty awesome. 


We had a blast.  This crew in the pic above is awesome.  They are genuine, down-to-earth, and know how to vacation properly.  Work out/bird in the morning.  And then, explore! And have a good time.  I needed this trip more than I knew. 


Here are my checklists in case you are interested in exploring the San José del Cabo area which includes the birder's paradise Estero San José. From the airport, San José is about 20 minutes away.  Don't pay the 50 bucks they quote you inside the airport! It's cheaper taking the busses or a taxi outside the terminal! Have courage and you will have saved yourself money! People will pester you.  Just get out alive with your luggage! As for Cabo San Lucas. It's about 45 minutes away by bus or taxi. For 2 bucks, catch the Ruta del Desierto bus from San José.  But bring plenty of water to stay hydrated. Alcohol doesn't count:) Cabo San Lucas isn't for everyone.  If you want quiet, stay in San José or at the resorts that lead up to Cabo San Lucas.  In a year or so, I'll plan my next trip back to the town of Todos Santos and schedule a visit to the Sierra de la Laguna area of the mountains for the rest of the endemics. 



For the reports on California/Pacific Coast birds, Baja Endemics, and waterbirds for the month of October from Estero San José, click here(Day 1) and here(Day 2).
For the pelagic birds from Cabo San Lucas, click here.  Life doesn't wait.  In the next couple weeks, we're going to get our cold on.  Stay tuned for more......




Wednesday, October 11, 2017

The Hardest Decisions


Red-eared Sliders
With the cooler temps arriving and a new fiscal year of bird planning, the month of October brings me to a very personal space. I often find myself alone on the trails deep in thought remembering what it's like to walk in cooler temps.  The sweaty summer temps begin to vanish and are replaced with "chillier" temps.  Over the past several weekends, I have had to make some difficult choices. 

Botta's Pocket Gopher
I ran across this quote, "Sometimes the hardest thing and the right thing are the same." After my Grandma passed away this summer, many personal decisions were thrown into question.  My lifelong quest to understand birds, both new and old alike, took a turn.  Normally, I would target areas for new birds and go with other birders.  It has been a lot of fun and I know we'll continue to do so again.  But, I have other friends who are non-birders. My Grandma reminded me that I can't ignore that part of my life. One of my favorite trips last year was a trek out to Monterey, CA where I had the opportunity to bird AND spend time with good friends.  It was the perfect balance between birding and chilling out. 

Gray Hawk
So during that time in Wisconsin, I began to think about all my friends and family everywhere around this world that I haven't seen in a LONG time.  When a birder birds with other birders, they look for birds 24/7.  Okay, maybe we stop for a bite to eat, but it isn't for long.  There are birds to be found!

Red-naped Sapsucker
It's so much fun and it's an addiction.  When a birder finishes one trip, they begin to plan another and often with their birding pals. With these past years of travel, I've been hardcore birding and not taking the time to enjoy the other side of these treks with my college friends, etc. This is where it gets to be a tricky balancing act.  

Lesser Long-nosed Bat
I've gotten so used to birding with my bird pals that I've forgotten how I used to travel before my birding days. Margaritas over birds? Oooooh yes:) Each of us tells one another that it's okay and that we understand.  But deep down, we wish we were there with each other exploring new habitats for birds and other wildlife.  One part of me feels guilty while the other tells me that I cannot deny the part of "just being". Somehow I have to moderate my birding addictions. My non-birding friends remind me that I am human and that it's okay to sit on the beach and enjoy the waves. HOWEVER, the birder inside of me tells me not to waste the opportunity.  So I carefully study my target birds and strategize. 

Willow Flycatcher
Here are several examples that have shaped my decision making this year.  At a happy hour, after a few margaritas with friends, we decided to head to Baja California for break.  There are birds there but it's mostly about enjoying the beach and.....um....drinks:) 

a male Painted Bunting along the DeAnza Trail
My Mexican mother turns 70 years old this year in the ancient Aztec stronghold of Tlaxcala.  This is a very personal trip.  I don't speak much English on these trips because not many people speak English there. And to be honest, I never know how to plan for these visits because it's Mexican. Schedules are meaningless:) And that wouldn't sit well for many of my birding friends. You can't plan anything because everything changes on a daily basis! This is usually a trip I do alone. It's the one true place that I can be me.  In Mexico, I become a free spirited gypsy.  There's nothing like waking up and drinking a little coffee outside with your friends speaking Spanish. Here in the US, my life is a factory every day. So for me, not having an agenda is something quite special. 

a female Painted Bunting
And there's so much more to it all. It takes careful planning to achieve my goals each year. Next year, I am hoping to hit the 1000 lifebird mark. But as I have birded more and more every year, I have discovered that these journeys into unknown spaces must have heart to them.  It can't be solely about the birds.  My life will always revolve around birds but it's the heart of the journey that will tell this story of 10000 birds and anchor me as I head into unknown waters. 



I cannot live my life waiting on tomorrow because I know that tomorrow may not happen.  So living and enjoying life is more important than material wealth.  I have found that if I deny my birding side, I get depressed.  But if I deny everything else, it all feels empty.  Life has to have meaning and purpose.  


American Kestrel
While I wait for the next big trek, I stay close to home to take careful observations of my desert birds. This has been very rewarding. 

A female Anna's Hummingbird feeding from a cloud of insects
So when I'm not birding, I'm often researching new areas. Or we're having fun somewhere in town. 


When this year began, I had lost my footing.  While it was a financially tight year for me, I was still able to budget several birding treks with my friend Gordon to the Pacific Northwest and Costa Rica. I can now say that I've finally paid off some major debt known as the "STUDENT LOAN". As I get closer to the end of this year, I see a new chapter beginning in my life. It'll be one where I am with friends, both birding and non-birding alike, family and my other half as we globe trot into new places.   

Black Vulture
 For now, I have scheduled several important treks to visit people I haven't seen in a LONG time.  Several themes that I'll explore over the next year include questions like, how does a young person become a birder? Are there pyramids buried under three large hills in central Tlaxcala? And in an area that I've studied around those hills, will I find the Transvolcanic Jays? With my Jedi skills almost complete, can I find a Dusky Grouse on Pike's Peak near Colorado Springs with my family?  These are just some of the things I'll be exploring as I plan for next year.  Next week kicks off the new season of Las Aventuras.  Until next time....

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Las Aventuras: Arizona Sparrows

A beautiful Baird's Sparrow taken in the pristine San Rafael Grasslands near Patagonia
Continuing with Arizona birds, I thought I'd focus on sparrows today.  And only sparrows(because there are a lot of them!) This is a group of birds that will challenge beginners.  While some are easy to ID AND find, there are others that are quite the opposite:) I won't be including towhees or longspurs or those Lark Buntings:)  This is one of my favorite groups of birds and this past week was an exciting one for birders in Southern Arizona.  But more on that later.....


Today we'll look at the common and rare sparrows found in Arizona during both our summer and winter months.  Let's start with the Baird's Sparrow.  This is a secretive wintering sparrow found in the grasslands of Southern Arizona.  While it is common within its habitat range, it's a difficult bird to view due to its mousy nature in the grasses.  I spent a weekend with a group of sparrow researchers to learn about this particular species.  It was fun and very rewarding to aide in their research. Birders sometimes have difficulty separating this sparrow from the Grasshopper sparrow.

a plain Savannah Sparrow near Sonoita, AZ
In fact, a lot of people groan at sparrow ID.  But over the years, I have really come to love this group of birds and their habitat.  Another wintering sparrow in Arizona is the Savannah Sparrow.  There are many subspecies of this bird and often birders are confused at first by the majority of Savannah Sparrows found here.  Their lores aren't as yellow(or no yellow!) as their subspecies counterparts.  Look at the photo above to get a better idea. 

Grasshopper Sparrow at the Cienagas Grasslands
Also found in the same wintering grassland habitat as the Savannah and Baird's Sparrows are the Grasshopper Sparrows.  They can be secretive as well during the winter months. But during the summer months, they are much easier to spy on their breeding grounds. Arizona is home to Grasshopper Sparrows all year round.  We have a specific subspecies(Ammodramus savannarum ammolegus) that lives here.  It's a bit darker than its subspecies counterparts. However, in winter, two subspecies can be found together in the grasslands making it a fun study session.

Rufous-winged Sparrow at St. Gertrudis Lane near Tubac, AZ
Sparrow ID can be challenging, but this is what makes birding a lot of fun! Understanding a sparrow by their call, movement, and knowing their habitat can help make ID'ing the bird easier. 


Rufous-winged Sparrow near Amado, AZ

Thought to be extinct many decades ago, the Rufous-winged Sparrow is a sparrow found in only a small habitat range in the Sonoran deserts of southern Arizona and the northern state of Sonora. Today, these sparrows are doing very well as their numbers appear to be growing again.  Recognizing habitat was a major factor for saving these sparrows, a plan was put into place to keep cattle grazing out of certain areas. In 1936, the species began to recover and today they can be found once again in good numbers around washes, grasslands, mesquite forests, etc. This is a sparrow that birders specifically look for here in Arizona as it cannot be found in other states around the country.  It is what we call an endemic to Arizona.

Chipping Sparrow along the DeAnza trail
Chipping Sparrows are common and widespread across the country.  Here in Arizona, Chipping Sparrows can be found all year round at the right elevation.  During the winter months, MANY Chipping Sparrows can be found around the state wherever there is water, grass and some trees:) They seem to enjoy the forest's edge. 

Black-chinned Sparrow near Mt. Ord
Black-chinned Sparrows are beautiful.  This is an easy one to ID but finding them can be difficult.  For example, trying to find one in Pima county is tricky.  They are found in a very specific habitat and elevation around places like Mt. Lemmon and Florida Canyon.  These sparrows become an easier spot up in the Phoenix area around places like Mt. Ord. When ebirding, be careful not to confuse the similarly named Black-THROATED Sparrow with Black-chinned Sparrow.  I've done that more than once:)

Lark Sparrow at Lakeside Park, Tucson, AZ
Lark Sparrows are another easy and widespread sparrow for Arizona.  During the winter months they are found in many of our hotspots in large groups.  What's cool about this bird is that it makes a buzzing fan noise that sounds like an insect. 


Rufous-crowned Sparrow at the Patagonia Rest Stop
One of the largest sparrows is the Rufous-crowned Sparrow.  It's also very common and widespread in the right areas all year round.  Sometimes from a distance, I think I am looking at a Canyon Towhee until I get closer. 


The next sparrow is a rare wintering Clay-colored Sparrow.  Now, they aren't common, but they're also not uncommon.  The bird will always be flagged on ebird.  If you have a camera, make sure you can get a pic of the cheek patch to help distinguish this bird from the similar looking Brewer's Sparrows.  It's a very subtle difference but an important one if you want to add it to your Arizona list. To make the ID even harder, the bird usually doesn't make its buzzy call like it does during the summer months.  Brewer's Sparrows at the beginning of their winter migration have fresh new plumage that can look bright like that of the Clay-colored Sparrow.  So cheek patch and divided crown are important field marks for this sparrow. 

A rare Clay-colored Sparrow at Bartlett Lake Marina, Maricopa County.  Often seen during the months of September and October passing through the area to their wintering grounds.  And sometimes one of them stays for the winter. 
The next sparrow loves desert hillsides.  It's also on most birders MUST SEE list for Arizona.  It's rather common in its habitat range BUT the habitat is tricky and usually requires a full day drive to the border.  I have taken many birders to find this species and I have to admit that it's fun but the rocky terrain is much to be desired. Common in a place called the California Gulch during the summer, ABA listers hope to see this bird in its breeding habitat on the hillsides. Now, this species does hang around all year in smaller numbers along the watering holes BUT they are trickier to find.  So for the summer trek, bring a good vehicle and lots of water!


Five-striped Sparrow in the California Gulch
Another favorite of mine is the Lincoln's Sparrow.  This sparrow has a finely streaked breast with a bit of yellow coloring around the malars to help with the ID.  It's common in Arizona all year round.  These sparrows winter in Southern Arizona around riparian areas and can be found up in places like Greer during the summer months.

Lincoln's Sparrow in Greer, AZ
These next birds are FUN!  But they can be tricky.  They are also present all year round but during the winter months, they are mousy and difficult to find. Many do migrate south, but a couple stay here. During a wet monsoon season, they are very vocal and active EVERYWHERE in the grasslands. 

Botteri's Sparrow at Empire Ranch in Pima County
The most common sparrows in the grasslands during the summer are the Botteri's, Cassin's and Grasshopper sparrows.  It's also the best time to get great observations of them. Study their calls and behaviors and you'll have NO problems.

Grasshopper Sparrow at Empire Ranch
A plain sparrow, the Brewer's Sparrow, is common and widespread along washes and farm areas.  During the winter months, they are often seen on fences near sorghum fields or dry washes with grass. 

Brewer's Sparrow on the Santa Cruz Flats
The striking and gorgeous Black-throated Sparrow is a common sparrow to the Sonoran Desert.  It's a bird that people want to see. The Black-throated Sparrow is an easy sparrow to ID and considered by many as one of the elegant ones:) It lives here year round. 

Black-throated Sparrow in Portal, AZ
A rare sparrow, the Golden-crowned Sparrow, might be found every great once and awhile mixed in a group of White-crowned Sparrows.  They aren't that common in Arizona and are indeed rare.  Even more rare than the Clay-colored Sparrows. To find them, find flocks of White-crowned Sparrows and carefully go through each and every bird. Who knows?  Maybe you'll find one. 


Golden-crowned Sparrows are rare in Arizona but with a lot of effort, a birder COULD find one. This was taken in Portland, OR
So let's head back to similar looking sparrows found in the same habitat at the same time.  If you haven't had much experience between a Botteri's or Cassin's Sparrow, they can be confusing.  It took me awhile to understand both these birds.

A Rootbeer delight!  The Botteri's Sparrow
So here's the skinny.  The Botteri's Sparrow(above) is a warm chocolaty color with a dash of lemon on the edge of their wings.  It has a ball drop call but it takes awhile to get to the ball drop:) Also, it's bill is quite large when compared to the Cassin's Sparrow.

A beautiful Cassin's Sparrow at the Cienagas Grasslands
The Cassin's Sparrow is PLAIN.  Sometimes there is a debate. Who's plainer, the Brewer's Sparrow or the Cassin's Sparrow?  And that's always an interesting conversation.  Or not:)  I find them all fascinating.  Why?  Well for one, the male Cassin's Sparrow LARKS during the monsoon season to attract a female.  See video below. 



It's flight is also unique as the wing beats are shallow and fast.  I might even say Bobolink like.


Sometimes there are sparrows that are seen everywhere and all the time.  Take for example the wintering White-crowned Sparrow.  I watched one take a bird bath at work during my lunch break.  Currently in birder discussions, this sparrow may be split into 2 species, both of which we have here.  Pay attention to the lores, Dark-lored(Mountain) and Gambel's(white). The bird below is the Gambel's White-crowned Sparrow. 

White-crowned Sparrow taking a dirt bath
With sparrows, it's all about the details.  Brewer's vs Clay-colored, juvenile White-crowned Sparrow vs juvenile Golden-crowned Sparrow, Bell's vs Sagebrush, etc.  Sparrows are tricky!  Here is the dark-lored White-crowned Sparrow below.  Can you tell the difference between the Gambel's and Dark-lored?


a dark-lored White-crowned Sparrow Will it be split?
But one sparrow that is easy to ID with its necklace is the Harris's Sparrow.  This is a rare sparrow for Arizona and it is generally seen during the winter months hanging out with.....White-crowned Sparrows:)  Or at least, it likes the same kind of habitat.  

A juvenile Harris's Sparrow at the Bosque Del Apache visitor's center
Now how about a super tricky sparrow species?  The Sage Sparrow complex.  Several years ago this species was finally split into two recognized species.  The most common of the two is the Sagebrush Sparrow found in sparse sagebrush habitat.  To be quite honest, the landscape and habitat for these two birds are not my favorite, but I did what I had to do.  

A Sagebrush Sparrow near Casa Grande, AZ
After the split happened, I attended an AZFO(Arizona Field Ornithology) meeting to learn more about these two species because I had NO idea how to ID the very similar looking Bell's Sparrow from the Sagebrush Sparrow.  It was a good conference and I quickly learned that the Bell's Sparrow has darker throat stripes(malars).  In fact, the malars are darker than their gray heads.  Furthermore, the Bell's Sparrow likes vegetation/sagebrush that is closer together.  Studies were done in both the "Thrasher Spot" near Buckeye and Robbin's Butte. They found more Bell's Sparrows in Robbin's Butte due to the close vegetation groupings.  The Thrasher spot had fewer Bell's Sparrows due to the sagebrush being spread further apart.The Sagebrush Sparrow arrives first and is the last to leave. The Bell's Sparrows generally arrive mid-November and leave early February. So the window for viewing this bird is quite narrow.  Either way, the habitat, especially at the Thrasher spot, looks like something out of a Mad Max movie. 

Bell's Sparrows at Robbin's Butte
I smile every time I hear out-of-state birders talk about our Song Sparrow.  Like the Savannah and Grasshopper Sparrows, our Song Sparrow is different.  It's more rusty red and it's a pretty common sparrow here in Southern Arizona all year.  Now in winter, we can get the other darker subspecies, but if you spot a rusty colored sparrow that looks like a Song Sparrow, you're viewing the Southwestern version of this bird. 

Song Sparrow at Sweetwater Wetlands, Tucson, AZ
Now let's get into some more strange sparrows.  Swamp Sparrows can and do winter here in Arizona.  They are NOT reliable and can be VERY tricky to spot.  But somehow every year, I manage to see or hear one or two in southern Arizona.  Take for example, the Swamp Sparrow below.  While looking for other birds, this little one popped out of the reeds along Patagonia Lake for a nice observation!

Swamp Sparrow at Patagonia Lake State Park
Another sparrow that is always a treat to see (but never location reliable) is the random White-throated Sparrow.  This photo was first taken during my first year of birding. During the winter months, I was birding at Sweetwater with my friend Kathie.  I remember complaining to her about how boring the sparrows were and then I saw this one.  And she got excited.  Little did I know that I found a rare bird!  It was exciting.  First year birder me has grown so much.  Today if I met my former self, I would have slapped my face and screamed, "What's wrong with you?!!! Sparrows are cool!" The reason I said what I said? I couldn't ID them and didn't think I ever could.   

My first White-throated Sparrow at Sweetwater Wetlands
Which bring me to my first sparrow I ever found alone in the wild, the Vesper Sparrow.  Again this is a common wintering bird in the grasslands.  Its nice pink legs, complete eye ring and overall streaky appearance makes this sparrow a relatively easy one to ID.  I reached out for help and called on a friend, master birder Scott Olmstead, who helped me figure out the bird on my own by asking me the right questions.  I'm not going to lie. This bird, which is now a snap to ID, wasn't always so easy:)

Vesper's Sparrow in the grasslands near Sonoita, AZ
The Fox Sparrow is another rare wintering sparrow that ALSO may be split down the road.  Like the White-throated or Swamp Sparrows, I never expect to see one.  And then I do.  They are often found shuffling around in leaf litter like a towhee near grasses and low branches near riparian areas or watering holes. 

My only good photo of a Fox Sparrow from Santa Cruz Island, CA
Now let's talk about the mega bird of the week!  Last week was an epic one. I love sparrows so much and this is one I wasn't expecting to ever see in Arizona, but then I did.  I had to make BIG choices.  I was at work when the report of a LeConte's Sparrow came into the birding newsroom. 


Nothing gets the heart tickin' than a good ol' fashioned sparrow chase.  I paced my classroom like a caged animal.  The problem?  I didn't have my camera!  The sparrow would be a life bird and if accepted by the state record committee, it would be the 3rd time that this sparrow has been seen in Arizona.  So it was a very good bird.  My work was close to the site.  There was no time to go home and get my camera because by the time I would have returned, it would have been dark. 


This sparrow wasn't going to wait around.  There was no tomorrow. It was a lifer, state and county bird.  When a bird meets those three conditions, it's a must go NOW with or without the camera. I rigged my IPhone and binos together to get the shot below. 

IPHONE shot of a RARE LeConte's Sparrow at Dove Mountain Golf Course
It was an exciting moment.  It took us around an hour to locate the sparrow but when the sprinklers went on around the golf course something clicked inside my head.  Sparrows like to bathe in water.  And sure enough, many sparrows were coming out to bathe.  I spotted another birder on the greens who waved over to me.  We met up and soon spotted the LeConte's Sparrow.  It didn't take long before the rest of the birders showed up behind us.  And there we all witnessed a Christmas miracle happen just a few feet away from us.  The sparrow moved closer feeding just a foot away.  No one moved.  No one said a word.  Then a sprinkler went on and spooked the bird off the greens and forced the now wet birders to retreat:)


Nelson's Sparrow along the coast of Maine/this would be RARE for Arizona
Other sparrows that have been reported over time have been a Nelson's Sparrow.  This is one cool bird and it would be a MEGA for this state.  When it makes its call, the sparrow sounds like it's dropping coins in a bucket!  

A Field Sparrow in Dodgeville, WI  But for one to show up in Arizona??!!!  That would be RARE!
Field Sparrows have been reported. That would be a cool one to chase. Again, it would be a MEGA.

American Tree Sparrow at Woodland Dunes in Two Rivers, WI  This is a very rare bird for Arizona in that it should never come this far south.  But one did!
An Arizona birder that most of us know here had an American Tree Sparrow stop by his feeders.  Yeah, that's another epic sparrow. 



If you don't understand sparrows or love them, then look at the amazing places they'll take you. How breathtaking is the scenery behind these people putting up their sparrow nets?  Any day, I get to work with sparrows is a good day


During our winter sparrow count, I met birders from New Mexico for the first time.  Above Dr. Janet Ruth releases that Savannah Sparrow.  And below a young Jason, learns how to band under the leadership of Janet.  Today, he's an expert bird bander!  


If I worked with birds in a job setting, I think that I'd focus my studies on sparrows. In fact, I probably would do a thesis or graduate paper on them. Sparrow research helps us understand how "healthy" a grassland is.  Their numbers, or lack of, help us determine if a grassland region is in good or poor health. This research speaks volumes about the importance of native grasses for these birds. The more sparrow/bird diversity found in a grassland; the healthier the ecosystem. 



All sparrows today mentioned in this post are ABA countable.  And let's not forget the invasive old world sparrow.....the House Sparrow. Sure people call it a "trash bird" here in the US, but we forget that their numbers have critically declined in Europe where they once thrived in great numbers.  Just something to think about.  Never take a bird for granted because tomorrow, they could be gone forever. 



Until next time.....