Sunday, 20 April 2014

Alcatraz, San Francisco, April 2014

A family holiday in San Francisco gave me the excuse to put down my binoculars and camera for a short while and broaden my range of interest. From a focus on the wild-side, I turned to a fascination for incarceration. Actually, Alcatraz was a treat for my son who has developed an interest after an Alcatraz-based zombie computer game found its way into his hands. Thus, an early start found us on the ferry across to “The Rock”.

Since this is a bird-based blog and not a zombie shoot ‘em up, I will concentrate on the outside of the prison. After all, I had brought my camera, “just in case”. Most information sites mention that the island is a protected area and go on to highlight a few bird species that breed on Alcatraz; Western Gull, Brandt’s Cormorant, Snowy Egret, Black-crowned Night-heron and Pigeon Guillemot. All were easy to find and each showed evidence of imminent breeding.

A formation of Brown Pelicans flew across the bay as we walked along Fisherman’s Wharf towards Pier 33, boarding point for the Alcatraz ferry service. Western Gulls were extremely common, to the exclusion of all other gulls as far as I could see.

A few Double-crested Cormorants and Western Grebes were seen on the ride out and Pigeon Guillemots swam around the landing stages when we arrived.

The prison was closed down in 1963 and has provided a safe breeding place for birds ever since. It was named island “de los Alcatraces” in 1775 by Spanish explorer Lt. Juan Manuel de Ayala for the large numbers of seabirds breeding there, but it is commonly thought that he was referring to the Western Gulls rather than the gannets that are a better translation, or the pelicans preferred by some.

Western Gulls are still prolific on the island. They could be seen along the roof and many were seen on the rubble fields that used to be the officers’ housing and parade ground.

A path runs down the side of the island that looks back towards the city. Along here, a heronry holds Black-crowned Night Heron and breeding Snowy Egrets.
Geranium, or is that pelargonium flowers, attracted Anna’s Hummingbirds.

A flat gravelly expanse at the bottom of the slope serves as a nesting area for the Brandt’s Cormorants which were displaying their white dorsal and neck plumes and showing off with their blue skinned throats.
From the island, there is a good view of the waters of the bay.

Surf Scoters were seen towards the Golden Gate Bridge, but for the bridge itself, we had to wait for better viewing conditions. A large number (perhaps 150+) of Western/Clark’s Grebes were seen. They were loosely associated rather than flocked together, but I was unable to establish which species I was looking at from the distance. Both species are common on the bay, so quite possibly both species were represented here.

Bird list for Alcatraz;
Canada Goose 2, Mallard 3, Western Grebe 3, Brandt’s Cormorant 60, Double-crested Cormorant 3, Brown Pelican 8, Great Blue Heron 1, Snowy Egret 8, Black-crowned Night-heron 4, Western Gull 200, Pigeon Guillemot 25, Anna’s Hummingbird 3, California Towhee 4, White-crowned Sparrow 8, House Finch 6.

Alcatraz can only be accessed through Alcatraz Cruises. Tickets cost $30 as at April 2014.
Departures from Pier 33 run every 30 minutes from the “early bird” sailing at 08.45. The last outbound ferry sails at 15.50 with the final return trip at 18.30. Visitors can return to the mainland on any ferry.

Visit the dedicated USA and Canadapage for more posts from San Francisco, including; Golden Gate Park, Sutro Baths and the Nudist Beach.

Birding, Birdwatching, San Francisco, California.

Friday, 11 April 2014

Boyce Thompson Arboretum, Phoenix, April 2014

The Boyce Thompson Arboretum is situated about 45 miles west from Phoenix on Highway 60 towards Globe, just before Superior. It is a delightful place to spend some time with spectacular scenery and a superb collection of plants from desert regions of the world. eBird’s Hotspot Explorer gives a list of 249 species seen at the arboretum from 1085 checklists submitted, so my list of 27 seems paltry in comparison.
During the winter they do not open the gates until 08.00, so I had managed to use up the remainder of my “Tonto Pass” at Coon Bluff to while away the early hours. 

My first job was to check out the Turkey Vultures. There was a great many of them circling even at this time and there was a chance that I might find a Zone-tailed Hawk amongst them.
Not this morning, but the grapevine carried news of a Broad-billed Hummingbird to keep a look out for. The main trail describes a loop around an outcrop of rock and I was advised to follow the trail in a clock-wise fashion from the hummingbird feeder at Google Earth ref; 33 16 46.38N 111 9 30.42W. The whole circuit was probably less than a mile and a half.

 It took me up towards the lake where a pair of Pied-billed Grebes backed away as I approached. The Hooded Mergansers were not shy. They were later seen mating, so their minds were possibly on other things. Reeds by the pool held a Marsh Wren while the bushes around held the inevitable Phainopepla and a Bell’s Vireo, whose song I was now becoming quite familiar with.

The trail headed up and over the rise and down into a very picturesque canyon on the other side. A stream flowed along the bottom of the cliffs, spanned by a charming suspension bridge. 

A Lincoln’s Sparrow was seen from the bridge while a hawk sat up high on a plant stem, but refused to turn around to be identified. A Red-tailed Hawk flashed past shortly after and I made the assumption that they were one and the same bird.
Looking back, I should have been more diligent in checking the cliffs as a Golden Eagle had been seen in the area.

My highlight of the day came near the herb garden. I had stopped to watch a female Anna’s Hummingbird feeding from the flowers here and watched as she buzzed up to a nearby bush, hovered momentarily then alighted at a nest.

Two hungry bills shot out to vie for food and she obliged by inserting her long bill down their throats. Her throat made a pumping motion as if she was regurgitating for her young.
The lowlight of the day came in the form of an Empidonax flycatcher. It made no sounds and the only notable feature was a quick flick of its wings as it settled after flying out for an insect. I say lowlight because I hate to find birds that I can’t identify and I include most Empids in that bracket. But I managed to get a photograph and was able to eliminate all of them, so I started again. I have entered Hammond’s Flycatcher as that is what my gut tells me, but the lower mandible is all orange suggesting an erstwhile Western Flycatcher. Any help will be gladly received.

Towards the end of the walk, I managed to get a picture of a Northern Cardinal and couldn’t help but notice that it seemed brighter and longer-tailed than I was used to seeing.

Bird list for Boyce Thompson Arboretum; 27

Hooded Merganser 2, Pied-billed Grebe 2, White-winged Dove 1, Inca Dove 1, Anna’s Hummingbird 5, Costa’s Hummingbird 1, Broad-billed Hummingbird 1, Gila Woodpecker 1, Hammond’s Flycatcher 1, Bell’s Vireo 4, Common Raven 1, Violet-green Swallow 5, Verdin 5, Marsh Wren 1, Curve-billed Thrasher 1, Phainopepla 6, Lucy’s Warbler 4, Yellow-rumped Warbler 4, Abert’s Towhee 6, Song Sparrow 1, Lincoln’s Sparrow 1, White-crowned Sparrow 5, Northern Cardinal 6, Great-tailed Grackle 2, House Finch 5, Lesser Goldfinch 20, House Sparrow 10.

Sharp-shinned Hawk 

The arboretum opens at 08.00 until May when the gates are flung wide at 06.00.
There is a $10 charge for entry and the parking is free.

Visit the dedicated USA and Canadapage for more posts from Phoenix.

Birding, Birdwatching, Phoenix, Arizona. 

Wednesday, 9 April 2014

Riparian Reserve at Gilbert Water Ranch, Phoenix, Apr 2014

An hour of evening light allowed me the chance for a quick visit to the Riparian Reserve at Gilbert Water Ranch. Such a quick visit would not usually warrant a separate post except that I managed a nice picture of a Coyote, which doesn’t happen often enough.

The reserve is a dynamic system of changing water levels and active management. The pond that had been full of waders on my last visit was nearly empty, yet a grassy meadow had turned into a marshy haven for ducks.

A shallow pond looked to have been dredged and an Osprey platform had been planted on a newly built island.

Bird list for Riparian Reserve at Gilbert Water Ranch; 33
Canada Goose 2, Gadwall 1, Mallard 18, Cinnamon Teal 2, Northern Shoveler 15, Green-winged Teal 20, Ring-necked Dick 14, Gambell’s Quail 4, Pied-billed Grebe 2, Double-crested Cormorant 20, Turkey Vultuere 1, Cooper’s Hawk 1, American Coot 15, Kildeer 4, Black-necked Stilt 4, Least Sandpiper 80, Long-billed Dowitcher 30, Eurasian Collared-Dove 1, White-winged Dove 1, Collared Dove 6, Inca Dove 3, Black-chinned Hummingbird 1, Anna’s Hummingbird 4, Northern Rough-winged Swallow 6, Verdin 2, Northern Mockingbird 8, Curve-billed Thrasher 12, Abert’s Towhee 8, Song Sparrow 1, White-crowned Sparrow 4, Red-winged Blackbird 5, Great-tailed Grackle 15, House Finch 6.

For a more in depth post, follow the link below;

Visit the dedicated USA and Canada page for more posts from Phoenix.

Tuesday, 8 April 2014

Desert Botanical Gardens, Phoenix, April 2014

The Desert Botanical Gardens in Phoenix are hosting an exhibition of glass in the gardens with pieces by artist Dale Chihuly liberally scattered throughout the site. 

Plan ahead and you may be able to experience “Chihuly after dark”, which I assume, is a reference to an evening stroll with evocative lighting rather than a sudden encounter with the artist in an unlit alleyway.

The pieces are vibrant and interesting of form, but not really my bag. I only mention them as at noon when the desert light is fierce and burns out colour, the installations certainly brightened the place up and brought a bit of vitality to the photographs.

The birds were dull by comparison and I had to emphasise the bright eyes of the Curve-billed Thrasher to die lieblinge der wüste. 

My beautiful colleagues had invited me to accompany them to the gardens, but they had come to appreciate the ambience and plants rather than birds. Even so, they showed a polite interest; after all, who can ignore an Anna’s Hummingbird feeding from flowers?

Trails leading round the gardens brought Mourning Doves, Phainopepla and Gambell’s Quail. A female caught the attention of a male quail and was chased through the flowerbeds as we watched.

A Gila Woodpecker used the metal of a shade cover to drum out his spring message and a male Anna’s Hummingbird treated us to a J-shaped display flight.

There was a butterfly exhibition at the gardens which we visited for an additional $3.50 each. The butterflies were shipped in from Florida and kept in a polytunnel-type structure. It made for easy pictures, but I would have preferred to have seen more examples of Arizona butterflies.

Bird list for Desert Botanical Gardens; 17

Gambell’s Quail 10, Red-tailed Hawk 1, White-winged Dove 2, Mourning Dove 8, Anna’s Hummingbird 5, Costa’s Hummingbird 1, Gila Woodpecker 6, Ladder-backed Woodpecker 1, Verdin 12, Northern Mockingbird 6, Curve-billed Thrasher 15, Phainopepla 20, Yellow-rumped Warbler 1, Great –tailed Grackle 12, House Finch 15, Lesser Goldfinch 1, House Sparrow 8.

The gardens can be found in Papago Park, Phoenix and the following Google Earth ref gives the entrance from the parking lot ( 33 27 44.54N 111 56 40.61W ). Entrance (April 2014) is $22, but a discount can be had with an airline security pass.

A previous post from the gardens can be seen at the link below;

Visit the dedicated USA and Canada page for more posts from Phoenix, including; Madera Canyon and the Riparian Reserveat Gilbert Water Ranch.
Birding, Birdwatching Phoenix, Arizona

Monday, 7 April 2014

Salt River, Phoenix, Mar 2014

The Salt River flows west from Theodore Rossevelt Lake towards Phoenix. It is dammed along the way at a couple of spots before being canalised at Granite Reef Recreation Area to water the southeast suburbs. This post will describe a few stops along the river from Granite Reef, east to Coon Bluff via Phon D Sutton. I had imagined that the first site was bigger than it turned out to be and would keep me there for much longer, but the sites further upstream make an easy and natural extension; so much so that there is no need to make separate posts.

The large red outcrop on the northern shore at Granite Reef can be seen from a long way off and is on reserved territory while the southern shore has a productive mesquite bosque.  The river is wide and slow here as it approaches the dam. I arrived at 07.00 and met Babs, a local birder familiar with the site and she kindly allowed me to walk with her. 

She led me through the bosque to the west towards a patch of standing water that can be seen at Google Earth ref; 33 30 48.27N 111 41 13.14W. Ducks can often be found on this pool if the river is quiet. Ringbilled Duck, Northern Shoveler and Mallard were seen here this morning. A Belted Kingfisher perched on a stump in the water while a pair of Killdeer fed at the edges.

A Western Kingbird was seen perched on a fence that runs along a dry canal and Babs was able to identify Brewer’s Sparrows from their calling on the far side. Back in the mesquite woodland, a tapping gave away a male Ladder-backed Woodpecker.

Babs called up a Bell’s Vireo and two bright, male Bullock’s Orioles were seen in the car park.

The river was quiet with just a few Ruddy Ducks on the water and Northern Rough-winged Swallows and Violet-Green Swallows flitting above. Babs pointed out a Bald Eagles’ nest in a tree on the far bank and we were able to discern one of the resident pair sitting to the side.  A Sharp-shinned Hawk flashed by a eye-level. A few hundred meters further down the river a patch of reeds provides shelter for Common Gallinules and Green Herons.

Phon D Sutton is located nearly 3 miles upstream as the N Bush Hwy runs. Under instructions from Babs, I wound the window down and drove very slowly along the approach road towards the RV camper area, listening for birds. The habitat had reverted to the default cactus and low scrub.

A Cactus Wren called from the top of a Saguaro Cactus and a Black-tailed Gnatcatcher scolded me from a low bush when I stopped for a picture.
It was beginning to warm up after a chilly start and my thoughts turned to rattlesnakes. A brief walk through the area failed to turn one up, but I was expecting to hear the spine-melting rattle at any moment.
Curve-billed Thrashers were common here with a small flock fighting over possession of a Cholla Cactus.

At the entrance from N Bush Hwy there is a parking area and from here, a path leads into the scrubby habitat. Another Cactus Wren was seen at much closer quarters and an Ash-throated Flycatcher hawked from a lower perch.

A mile further along the highway is Coon Bluff Campground. A rocky outcrop forms a cliff on the east side and runs along the stretch of river. A large island separates the flow and the river is much smaller here than at Granite Reef. I made a brief visit here on the first morning and returned for the early hours of the next morning.

The chilly night gave way to dawn as I reached the campground and the river steamed in the low sun. I birded along the bluff to the left and found Lucy’s Warbler, whose song I became quite familiar with as the day went on.

Tents can be pitched beneath the shade of the mesquite bosque. An unmistakeable Vermillion Flycatcher hawked from the trees and Verdins called sweetly.

A steep, unstable bank leads down to the river which is separated by an island at this spot. The flow is shallow and broken as it passes over rocks in the riverbed. Snowy Egrets and Common Mergansers fished in the steam.

Anywhere there is a prominent perch it seems, there will be Phainopepla. This member of the Silky Flycatcher family sports large white patches in the wings. The patches don’t show when the bird is perched, but catching them in flight is tricky. I had to resort to waiting for one to take off from its snag.

Birds seen; 52
Gadwall 3, Mallard 11, Northern Shoveler 4, Ring-necked Duck 6, Common Merganser 3, Ruddy Duck 8, Gambell’s Quail 11, Pied-billed Grebe 2, Double-crested Cormorant 26, Great Blue Heron 5, Great Egret 1, Snowy Egret 6, Green Heron 4, Black Vulture 5, Turkey Vulture 3, Bald Eagle 1, Sharp-shinned Hawk 1, American Kestrel 1, Common Gallinule 4, Killdeer 2, Spotted Sandpiper 1, Greater Yellowlegs 1, White-winged Dove 2, Mourning Dove 21, Anna’s Hummingbird 10, Belted Kingfisher 2, Gila Wodpecker 6, Ladder-backed Woodpecker 4, Black Phoebe 4, Say’s Phoebe 2, Vermillion Flycatcher 1, Ash-throated Flycatcher 3, Western Kingbird 1, Bell’s Vireo 1, Common Raven 1, Northern Rough-winged Swallow 25, Violet-Green Swallow 2, Verdin 8, Cactus Wren 3, Black-tailed Gnatcatcher 1, Curve-billed Thrasher 16, European Starling 14, Phainopepla 21, Lucy’s Warbler 9, Yellow-rumped Warbler 2, Abert’s Towhee 8, White-crowned Sparrow 18, Red-winged Blackbird 28, Great-tailed Grackle 45, Brown-headed Cowbird 14, Bullock’s Oriole 2, Lesser Goldfinch.

To park at any of the official lots, you will need to display a “Tonto Pass”. This is a self-certified parking ticket that must be bought in advance. It currently costs $6 and is transferable to all the participating car parks for a 24 hour period. All the above sites require that you have your ticket.
It can be purchased 3 miles south of Granite Reef Recreation Area at Bashas Supermarket on Power Road, north of McDowell Rd. There is a Walgreens slightly closer, but this branch does not open before 08.00. Bashas is open from very early.

Visit the dedicated USA and Canada page for more posts from Phoenix, including; Desert Botanic Gardens, Southeasthotspots tour and The Riparian Reserve at Gilbert Water Ranch.
Birding, Birdwatching Phoenix, Arizona