Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Clean Sweep In Arizona, December 1 and 2 on My Way to Alaska

I flew to Phoenix, Arizona on my way to Alaska.  For this short visit to Arizona, my target species were Le Conte’s and Crissal Thrasher, Sagebrush Sparrow and Rufous-backed Robin.  I arrived in Phoenix, Arizona from Columbus, Ohio, December 1 at about 1:30 pm about one hour later than scheduled.  Originally, my second flight from Las Vegas to Phoenix was scheduled to leave at 10:30 am but was delayed until 11:25 am.  I had heard from my friend Neil Hayward that it was colder than expected in Phoenix and north to Cameron Trading Post for the Rufous-backed Robin; therefore. I dressed for colder weather than normally expected for Phoenix, AZ.  However, it was warmer than I expected, and I took off my long-johns before picking up my rental car.  Getting the rental car also took longer than expected.  With all the delays and being very tired from very little sleep last night, I changed my plans to first going to The Thrasher Spot at Baseline Road and Salome Highway south west of Phoenix early next morning to try for LeConte's and Crissal Thrasher and Saltbrush Sparrow, and then drive the 3.5 hours to Cameron Trading Post north of Flagstaff to try for the Rufous-backed Robin.  If this plan worked out, I would leave for Anchorage, Alaska to try for the Dusky Thrush and then join John Puschock, Neil Hayward and Bill Pierce in Adak to try for Whooper Swan and other rarities and then go to Nome for McKay's Bunting before returning to Arizona.  I fell asleep very early after getting food for an early dinner and got some much needed rest. 
I got up early and arrived at Baseline Road and Salome Highway a little before 8:00 am.  Sunrise was at 7:30 am, and I wanted to be there by sunrise, but my need for rest delayed my departure.  There are two websites that give good instructions about where to look, www.birderfrommaricopa.com under The "Thrasher Spot" at Baseline Road/Salome Highway and www.aztrogon.com by Stuart Healy, Western U. S. Bird Guide, where one can download a pdf document, Le Conte's Thrasher near Buckeye.  I started walking through the low and sparse sage brush, maybe creosote, bushes the best area to look for LeConte's Thrasher.  At first, I saw only White-crowned and Sage Sparrows from a distance, but finally heard Le Conte’s Thrasher singing softly apparently from a distance.  Eventually, as I got further from the roadside I started hearing the distinctive call notes of Le Conte's Thrasher and then a singing Le Conte's Thrasher.  Soon, I found the apparent Le Conte's Thrasher sitting up on a low tree, an apparent creosote bush, singing.  As soon as it saw me, it dropped immediately to the ground and disappeared.   I searched the area where the Le Conte’s Thrasher disappeared and soon heard a Le Conte’s Thrasher calling, a whistled single note, “tweeep.”.  As I moved slowly toward the calls, a gray streak shot out of the bushes running full tilt like The Roadrunner in cartoons.  It was a Le Conte's Thrasher.      Welcome to the world of Le Conte’s Thrasher!  Eventually, I was able to follow the Le Conte’s Thrashers from a distance and see them running away and sitting still to check out the source of disturbance to their territory.     I was eventually able to get closer looks by walking slowly and stopping and looking.  The LeConte's Thrashers are curious and will often stop to look around and give reasonable views.  I was able to get some photos.  See below.

Le Conte’s Thrasher is a very light gray with light brownish tinges on the back, a long black tail with white on the outer edges (sometime at least depending on wear), has whitish throat, breast and belly with tawny undertail coverts and is very secretive and spends significant amount of time on the ground running from bush to bush.   I am including more photos of this secretive and hard to photograph bird.  At first, I obtained very distant views of Le Conte’s Thrasher with tail up running away see photo below showing the tawny undertail coverts. 
Le Conte's Thrasher, running away, showing tawny under tail
Le Conte's Thrasher, tawny under tail, still running away
very abraded tail, edges worn off, leaving pointed tail feathers
Occasionally, a LeConte’s Thrasher would stop to look around to check out what flushed it.  See photos.  (Note:  This bird is still in molt.  The abraded tail feathers on which the white edges are worn off leaving a very pointed tail feather and the central shaft.  See photo above.) 
Le Conte's Thrasher, curious about me,
very gray on upper parts, dark tail
Eventually, I was able to get some distant photos of LeConte’s Thrasher perched on a low sagebrush bush.   See photos below. 
Le Conte's Thrasher,
light gray upper-parts, whitish under-parts, long bill, dark eye, long dark tail,
tawny under tail 
Le Conte's Thrasher
Finally, I found a cooperative LeConte’s Thrasher sitting up and singing in an apparent creosote bush.  It also appeared that there may have been a pair setting up territory, because I saw two birds chasing each other.   See photos (note abraded tail feathers) below.
Le Conte's Thrasher, singing
note abraded tail feathers
Le Conte's Thrasher, singing
While I was stalking the Le Conte’s Thrashers, I heard a Crissal Thrasher calling giving a two or three noted “toit toit toit” call.  I tried to find the Crissal Thrasher, but was unsuccessful.  Crissal Thrashers are very secretive, probably our most secretive thrasher, and I never got a look at a Crissal Thrasher.

While searching for Le Conte’s and Crissal Thrashers, I saw quite a few Sage Sparrows in the area.  Satisfied that I had added Le Conte’s Thrasher and Crissal Thrasher (heard only), I concentrated on identifying the Sage Sparrows and finding a Sagebrush Sparrow.  Sage Sparrow has been split into two new species, Sagebrush Sparrow and Bell’s Sparrow.  I had seen Bell’s Sparrow, near Ukiah in northern California at Cow Mountain Wildlife Area back in the fall.  I found several Sagebrush Sparrows with streaked backs, rather thin malar stripe along the throat, very white underparts with some but not much streaking and with a short whitish supercilium.   See photos below.  
Sagebrush Sparrow
fine streaking on back
Sagebrush Sparrow,
fine streaking on back, thin malar streak along throat
Bell’s Sparrow, in comparison, has much wider malar stripes along the throat, very gray head and mantle, more streaking along the sides and unstreaked back.   See photos taken within the known range for Bell’s Sparrow near Ukiah, California at Cow Mountain Recreation Area, showing the very wide malar streak along the throat, the extensive streaking along the sides and unstreaked gray back.
Bell's Sparrow,
heavy malar mark/line, streaking along sides
Bell's Sparrow,
gray head and back, unstreaked back
At about 10:30 to 11:00 am, bird activity slowed down and I headed north to Cameron Trading Post north of Flagstaff to try for Rufous-backed Robin.  It was almost a 3.5 hour drive from The Thrasher Spot at the intersection of Baseline Road and Salome Highway.   I stopped to pick up lunch and buy gas just outside of Flagstaff.  See photo. 
Snow capped mountains in Arizona.
Must be Flagstaff
I arrived at Cameron Trading Post about 3:20 pm.  See photos of Cameron Trading Post, the garden and the Russian Olive Trees outside the brick wall surrounding the garden.  I found the garden area where the Rufous-backed Robin was hanging out around to the right.  The garden is surrounded by a brick wall.

Cameron Trading Post, garden around to right
garden, corner where robins hang out to right of motel between trees
Russian Olive trees outside the brick wall
I found the Rufous-backed Robin by 3:30 pm.  That’s quite amazing given the usual shyness of this bird.  It was hanging out with a flock of American Robins.  My first views were obscured by branches, because the bird tended to perch inside the bushes.  See photo below.
Rufous-backed Robin, being secretive
"I can see you, but you cannot see me!  Oh yes I can!"
I discovered that the Rufous-backed Robin and the American Robins were flying into the Russian Olive trees outside of the brick wall surrounding the garden.  Consequently, I hid around the corner of the motel by an entrance outside the wall and waited for the Rufous-backed Robin to come back outside the wall to feed.  The Rufous-backed Robin came to a nearby branch to get some russian olives, resulting in these very good photos showing the yellow bill, the gray head with no white around the eye, the long streaks on the throat, the rufous back and wing coverts and the white extending to the lower breast in a point.
See photos below.
Rufous-backed Robin,
gray head without white around eye, long streaks on throat, rufous on back
and wing coverts

"Hmmm.  I wonder if this russian olive would be better with russian vodka?"
Rufous-backed Robin
with russian olive

Rufous-backed Robin,
rufous back and wing coverts
Rufous-backed Robin,
Rufous back and wing coverts

Whoa!  Feeling a little tipsy now! Who spiked these russian olives?"
I left Cameron Trading post at about 4:30 pm and headed back to Phoenix.  Tomorrow, I will be flying to Anchorage, Alaska to try for the Ducky Thrush, and if successful, will fly out to Adak to try for the Whooper Swan and any other rarities that might turn up there.  After that I head to Nome to try for the McKay’s Buntings seen there recently by Neil Hayward.

Le Conte’s Thrasher, Crissal Thrasher, Sagebrush Sparrow and Rufous-backed Robin raise the total to 708 + 2 (White-cheeked Pintail and Common Redstart).


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