Rich Ditch's Photography Blog

February 11, 2014

Rare Birds of North America by Howell, Lewington, & Russell

Filed under: Birds, Boyce Thompson Arboretum, Gilbert Water Ranch, rarities, reviews — richditch @ 2:06 pm
Rare Birds of North America

Rare Birds of North America

I’ll admit right away that I’ve got a fondness for books, and especially for those about birds. So I’ve accumulated a decent library made up of of a variety of field guides new and obscure, books covering families of birds like sparrows and warblers and hummingbirds and shorebirds, bird-finding guides to places all over the U.S., encyclopedias and other collections of related material.

Once in a while a book stands out from all the others, and Rare Birds of North America by Howell, Lewington, & Russell is one of those. I can’t imagine a serious birder who would not want to own a copy of this beautiful and useful book.

The dust jacket flyleaf gives the stats:

  • covers 262 species of vagrant birds found in the United States and Canada
  • features 275 stunning color plates of occurrence by region and season
  • provides an invaluable overtire of vagrancy patterns and migration
  • include detailed species accounts and cutting-edge identification tips

All this in a clean layout on quality paper of over 400 pages.

I spent my first night with the book skimming through, looking at species I’ve already seen in the field, and the species I’ve chased and not been lucky or skilled enough to see. I’ve even read about the exact birds I have viewed in some of the distribution accounts in the book. For the record these I’ve already seen in AZ are:

Eared Quetzal, Plain-capped Starthroat, Berylline Hummingbird, Rufous-backed Thrush (aka Robin), Aztec Thrush, Rufous-capped Warbler, Flame-colored Tanager, Streak-backed Oriole, Baikel Teal, Blue-footed Booby, Northern Jacana, Nutting’s Flycatcher

And those I’ve seen elsewhere in the U.S.:

White-winged Tern (DE), Whiskered Tern (DE), Wood Sandpiper (CT), Spotted Redshank (NY).

There might be more that I missed. But that’s only 16 species out of the 262 covered in the book so I’ve still got 246 more to go!

I’ve posted  about Rufous-backed Robin before: from the Gilbert Water RanchBoyce Thompson Arboretum, and Anthem north of Phoenix. And about Northern Jacana. And even about Baikel Teal.

But I can’t find any previous posts about the Streak-backed Oriole that returned for three winters at the Gilbert Water Ranch, so here are some of my favorite shots of that bird.

Streak-backed Oriole

Streak-backed Oriole

11/24/2005, Nikon D70, Nikkor 300/2.8 AF-S plus TC20E (2x), ISO 200, 1/250th sec @ f/10

Streak-backed Oriole

Streak-backed Oriole

11/24/2005, Nikon D70, Nikkor 300/2.8 AF-S plus TC20E (2x), ISO 200, 1/200th sec @ f/10

Streak-backed Oriole

Streak-backed Oriole

12/25/2006, Nikon D70, Nikkor 300/2.8 AF-S plus TC20E (2x), ISO 200, 1/100th sec @ f/9

Streak-backed Oriole

Streak-backed Oriole

10/21/2007, Nikon D200, Nikkor 300/2.8 AF-S plus TC20E (2x), ISO 400, 1/400th sec @ f/8


January 22, 2013

Maricopa County’s First Least Grebe

Filed under: Birds, digital benefits, light, rarities — richditch @ 1:37 pm
Least Grebe

Least Grebe

Nikon D300, 300/2.8 plus TC20E III (2x), ISO 1600, 1/160th second at f/5.6, tripod

The thrill of birding for most people is the chance to see rarities – birds with a limited range and/or small numbers that aren’t seen every day. Vagrants are birds that show up far outside their normal range and are the cause for great excitement within the birding community.

A Least Grebe (Tachybaptus dominicus) discovered on Saturday 1/19/2013 in the Sun Lakes community of Chandler, AZ is such a bird. Birders wanting to add this species to their Life List normally need to visit the far reaches of the Rio Grande Valley in extreme south Texas where this primarily Mexican species breeds. So a report of one on the southeast edge of Phoenix brought out active birders at dawn the morning of Sunday 1/20/2013.

I was among them, following the standard procedure of chasing a reported rarity as soon as possible to maximize the chances of seeing it. There is no guarantee that a vagrant will stay around, and there’s also a worry that access to the place where a rarity has been seen will be lost when someone does something stupid to anger whoever controls the place.

Lucky for me the bird was still there, and the local residents were friendly and inviting of visitors. We learned from one of the residents that “this little duck” as they had been calling it had been around since before Christmas. (This reminds me of the Northern Jacana that had been hanging out at a gold course in Casa Grande, AZ for months before a birder discovered it and spread the word).

Least Grebe and Mallard

Least Grebe and Mallard

Nikon D300, 300/2.8 plus TC20E III (2x), ISO 1600, 1/125th second at f/5.6, tripod

This shot showing the grebe confronting a drake Mallard is a good comparison of size. The Sibley Guide to Birds gives 9.5″ length, 11″ wingspan, and 4 ounces as the size parameters for the Least Grebe – those dimensions are smaller than those of the ubiquitous Mourning Dove!

The pond where this grebe is hanging out has no covering vegetation along the edges which is surprising. The other places this bird has occurred in AZ over the years have all had lots of edge cover that made viewing difficult. The open conditions meant clean photography, but the small size of the grebe and the size of the pond made it difficult to get much of an image even with my 300mm and 2x optics. I also had to deal with low light levels because the pond is shaded by buildings and large trees. SO, I was shooting at ISO 1600 with the lens wide open to get even modest shutter speeds like 1/160th second. And I still had to do some severe cropping to come up with these images.

Least Grebe

Least Grebe

Nikon D300, 300/2.8 plus TC20E III (2x), ISO 800, 1/320th second at f/8, tripod

By waiting for a higher sun to put more light on the pond I was able to reduce the ISO 800 and stop down one stop, but that also put the grebe in harsh light.

This is the third Least Grebe I’ve seen in AZ since 1994, and the farthest north in the state. When I recover from the cold I’ve been battling since this day I plan to return for more photos – if the bird is still there and if birders and photographers haven’t worn out our welcome.

January 4, 2013

Rufous-backed Robin at Gilbert Water Ranch

Filed under: Birds, favorite places, Gilbert Water Ranch, rarities — richditch @ 9:08 am
Rufous-backed Robin at Gilbert Water Ranch

Rufous-backed Robin at Gilbert Water Ranch

Nikon D300, AF-S 300/2.8 plus TC20E III (2x), tripod, ISO 400, 1/200th second @ f/8

I was delayed a couple days in starting my 2013 Year List (a tradition among birders for as long as I’ve known), only getting out to the Gilbert Water Ranch on the afternoon of Thursday, January 3. I spent two hours making a clockwise loop beginning at the parking lot on Guadalupe, taking me past pond 1 (where I looked for a Canvasback reported 12/31/12 that I couldn’t find), and pond 2 (where I couldn’t find neither the Winter Wren nor the recently discovered Northern Parula at Honeybee Point). I had better luck at pond 5 where the three Hooded Mergansers rom the past few days were still hiding under the overhanging brush, and at pond 7 where the Common Merganser was active as far from the edge as possible. That got me to 42 species – a good start on my Year List.

As I reached the paved walk around the freshwater pond on my way back to the parking lot I paused near a small wet area under dense brush that I think of as “the swamp” since it sometimes holds a Common Yellowthroat. The first bird here was deep in the tangle of branches and facing away, but that was perfect to see the rusty color on the back that meant it could only be a Rufous-backed Robin! I only managed two usable shots of the bird through the tangle and couldn’t get it to come out in the open.

This is a species from South of the Border that shows up in small numbers in Arizona almost every winter. I always look for one at my other favorite spot in central AZ – Boyce Thompson Arboretum – and see one there about every 2-3 years.

But this was my first for the Water Ranch, and a new bird for the cumulative list now over 270 species. It is probably the same bird reported by Steve Ganley in the same general area on 12/15/12 – it didn’t give Steve enough of a view to be sure of the ID so he reported it as a possible Rufous-backed Robin. Since neither Steve nor I know of any fruiting trees here we are surprised that the robin is still hanging around; we just wonder if it has been in this same small area all along.

Rufous-backed Robin area

Rufous-backed Robin area

I used my old iPhone to take this shot of the brushy tangle where the robin was seen in case others wish to look around for it. This is on the west side of the paved walkway. There’s plenty of places for a shy bird like this to skulk between the walkway and the fisherman’s pond so it is probably worthwhile to poke around a bit.

Map for Rufous-backed Robin

Map for Rufous-backed Robin

I’ve grabbed an aerial view from a Google map and labeled it for a better idea of where to check.

November 20, 2012

Chestnut-sided Warbler at Gilbert Water Ranch

Filed under: Birds, favorite places, Gilbert Water Ranch, rarities — richditch @ 9:48 am
Chestnut-sided Warbler

Chestnut-sided Warbler

I decided I mighty as well continue the series of recent vagrant birds, following my posts of Rose-breasted Grosbeak and Orchard Oriole.

Today’s post is a Chestnut-sided Warbler from the Gilbert Water Ranch. This bird was first reported by Steve Ganley on October 24, 2012. I looked for it on my next couple of visits, encouraged by reports from others that it was still in the same general area. But the other reports came from later times in the day than I am normally still at the Water Ranch so on November 4 I decided to stay a little later than I normally do and concentrate on searching for this bird.

I also decided to leave the big 300/2.8, 2x, and tripod in the car to give myself more mobility. This warbler was staying in deeper cover and I suspected my lack of mobility with the large heavy set-up was contributing to my lack of success. So I went with just a Nikon D300 body and the light 70-300 Nikkor zoom and no tripod. I set the lens wide open (f/5.6 at the 300mm end) and ISO to 800 so I would have a better chance in the shade of the tree canopy.

Chestnut-sided Warbler

Chestnut-sided Warbler

That approach worked and I was able to see the warbler around 8:45 am and get a few record shots to document the bird. These are major crops (the top image is only 12% of the frame while the side view is 24%), so coupled with the higher ISO the image quality isn’t up to my usual standards. But it is certainly good enough to show the field marks of this bird and document its presence.

Chestnut-sided Warbler is a common bird in the eastern U.S. but a vagrant to Arizona. This is the third one I have seen here in 18 years: the others were at Rio Salado in central Phoenix, and at Boyce Thompson Arboretum near Superior.

Nikon D300, 70-300 @ 300mm, ISO 800, F5.6, aperture preferred spot metered, hand held

September 4, 2012

Reddish Egret – Another Vagrant in AZ

Filed under: Birds, digital benefits, rarities — richditch @ 6:12 pm
Reddish Egret

Reddish Egret

Nikon D300, Nikkor 300/2.8 AF-S plus TC20E III (2x), tripod, ISO 400, 1/400th second at f/8

Now that September is here it won’t be too many more weeks until the temperature drops enough that I’ll be getting out regularly each week for more bird photography, but it is still hot and I still need a little incentive to get up early and head out. Such an incentive happened this week when a juvenile Reddish Egret was discovered in Gilbert, AZ, about two miles east of the Water Ranch. The report was posted on Sunday, the day the egret was discovered, and there were a few follow up reports later in the day as birders visited the location and got a look.

I headed out early on Monday September 3, reaching the well described location a little after 7:00 am. The Reddish Egret was one of the first birds I saw. There were two other birders with cameras already there and I joined them as soon as I got my gear ready.

Over the next 39 minutes I took 124 shots as the egret moved around. It is hard to remember the days of film shooting when we worried about the number of shots we took! We are now much freer to shoot in bursts (no worry about changing a roll of film after 36 frames when shooting digital on a high capacity compact flash card that holds 400, or 800, or more images even when shooting large raw files).

This image is from the end of my session with this bird, when we had closed distance with each other, and when the background looked the best. The egret is obviously banded (the green band is marked P77, while the other leg shows a metal band with harder to read raised numbers). It was quickly determined that “this juvenile Reddish Egret was banded in Isla Alcatraz, Bahia Kino, Sonora, Mexico on 11 June 2012” according to Eduardo Palacios.

I don’t know the statistics yet on this species in AZ (the web site hasn’t posted any photos or info yet).But this is the fourth Reddish Egret I’ve seen in AZ since moving here in 1994:

  • Snyder Hill Sewage Treatment Facility, August 10, 1996
  • Picacho Reservoir, October 26, 2001
  • Chandler, AZ, December 28, 2008 and January 1, 2009
  • Gilbert, AZ, September 3, 2012

The Chandler bird was included in an earlier post on this blog:

Reddish Egret Chandler AZ

Nikon D200, Nikkor 300/2.8 AF-S plus TC20E (2x), tripod, ISO 320, 1/500th second at f/8


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