Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Sharing the Fun!

Like a lot of people, I woke up early the day after Thanksgiving.  But not to find the best bargains, instead to find a rare winter visitor to the San Rafael Valley- Short-eared Owl.  The week before, two had been seen in these grasslands south of Patagonia, AZ.  I saw some cool birds that day, but no owls.  But I've learned that persistence pays off in birding.  So I planned another early morning trip.  This time I invited my friend Geniece.  My non-birder fiance, Gaby, also joined us since she likes exploring new places.  Geniece was so excited about possibly seeing the owls that she went out and bought a book on owls.  This was going to be her first official time birding.  Being a teacher and seeing her enthusiasm to learn, I gave her some homework.  I sent her a list of possible birds we might see and told her to study their field marks, especially the sparrows.

We picked her up at 5:00 a.m. and headed for the grasslands.  We were dressed in lots of layers since it was forecasted to be around 28 degress (F) there and my heater was busted in my truck.  That's cold for us desert dwellers!  We were even armed with hand warmers.  Unfortunately, this $1 version took 5 hours to heat up!

We arrived in the valley near the owl location in darkness.  So I decided to pull over and enjoy the lunar eclipse until we could see better.  After a few minutes, I hopped back in the truck to get us to a better lookout spot.  Suddenly a dark mass appeared in the middle of the dirt road at the edge of the headlights.  "Look!  Is that it?" I shouted.  I stopped and flicked on the brights.  It was hunched down, then quickly sat up straight.  I recognized the shape, but couldn't believe it.  It's eyes shined back at us.  I reached for my camera keeping my eyes on it the whole time.  I noticed the beautiful buffy color around the edge of the facial disk.  Then the Short-eared Owl took flight over the grass.  Wow!  I drove slowly to see if it had been eating something on the road.  There was something small, but I couldn't tell what it was.  We got out of the truck and tried to relocate it in the dim light.  I expected to see it flying low over the grass, but found it making a turn and flapping in the sky.  It was too far away and too dark for a photo.  Geniece couldn't contain her excitement as she looked through her binoculars.  Another birder pulled up and joined us to watch the show. 

Watching owls with Carl Lundblad and the lunar eclipse in the background!
Then we noticed another Short-eared with it!  We watched them for a few minutes before they disappeared out of sight.  We looked at each other in amazement.  So cool!  It didn't even matter that my toes were frozen.  Another birder arrived and scopes were set up to try to find them again.  No luck.  Sorry Chris!  Gaby and Geniece walked back up the road to investigate where the owl had been.  I could hear the astonishment in their voices when they realized it was a fresh pellet.  No way!  I had never found one before.  They wrapped it up to be dissected later.
Enjoying the moment and hoping they return with Chris McCreedy
My pal Arlene Ripley agreed to let me use her fantastic photo of one of the owls taken the day before Thanksgiving:

photo courtesy Arlene Ripley 11/23/11
We could have stopped birding right then and I would have considered it a great day of birding.  But we didn't.  There were still great birds to search for.  Like White-tailed Kite, which had become a nemesis bird for me in Arizona.  And of course sparrows.  We drove slowly and searched the barbed wire fences hoping for a Baird's Sparrow.  We saw lots of Savannah and Vesper Sparrows, but no Baird's.
Savannah Sparrow

Vesper Sparrow
On my previous trip I had seen Grasshopper Sparrows too.

Grasshopper Sparrow
Here is another amazing photo by Arlene Ripley of a Baird's Sparrow taken in the grasslands:
photo courtesy Arlene Ripley 11/23/11
We continued down the road keeping a look out for anything interesting.  Suddenly, I spotted something big perched far off on a fence post.  I stopped and raised my bins.  "I think that's a Golden Eagle!" I exclaimed.  It was.  Even Gaby took a look.  I had only seen one twice before and Geniece was seeing one on her first outing.  Talk about beginner's luck!  And Gaby had never seen an owl or an eagle!  We studied it from the side of the road and noticed a group of ravens on the ground close by.  Were they eating something?  It sure looked like it.  Then a coyote joined them who wanted a piece of the action.  I guessed that the eagle had just made a kill and the ravens and coyotes were cleaning up.

After the coyotes had moved on, we decided the eagle was probably not going to take to the air and show us it's incredible wing span on a full stomach.  So we moved on.
We ran into Carl again who said he had seen a White-tailed Kite where we were headed.  A few minutes later I pulled over to look at a hawk I saw in the distance.  It turned out to be a Ferruginous Hawk.
Ferruginous Hawk
Then we spotted another smaller raptor who started harassing it!  It turned out to be a White-tailed Kite.  It dove from above the massive hawk, who took exception to the attack.  This was incredible to watch!  At one point they were both falling from the sky.  These ladies didn't know how lucky they were to see this. 

Ferruginous Hawk anticipating a White-tailed Kite attack
I wish I had gotten a better look at the kite, I thought to myself.  "No problem," answered the birding gods, "Here are three perched on fence posts for you.  And here they go hunting."  This was getting ridiculous... ridiculously awesome!  The kites looked like hummingbirds hovering in the sky before descending gracefully to pounce on their prey. 

White-tailed Kite hovering
Breathtaking!  I think Geniece was in shock at all these amazing sightings.  I knew I was.  But it wasn't over yet.  We saw a Great-horned Owl roosting in a tree, many harriers, Horned Larks, meadowlarks, and around 150 Chestnut-collared Longspurs circling in the sky.
male Northern Harrier

Horned Larks

Lilian's Eastern Meadowlark (I think)
Here is a photo of a Prairie Falcon I had on my previous trip:

We finished with a gorgeous male kestrel, making it an eight raptor day!  By far a personal best.

This was one of my most memorable birding trips ever.  We saw awesome birds and incredible behaviors.  Sharing this experience with other birders, my best friend, and a rookie birder made it even better.  Birding is Fun!  Pass it on.

- AZ Birdbrain


  1. What an amazing day birding. Sometimes bringing fresh folks with you brings a lot of good karma too I think. My son who enjoys it often brings a lifer for me.

  2. Awesome Jeremy! What a great birding adventure. I could feel the excitement as I read. Bringing along new birders often comes with some incredible birding mojo.

  3. Just jaw-dropping! I would have been way too excited to get the good photos that you did. What a wonderful experience. I don't think I've ever seen a white-tailed kite in AZ.

  4. Thanks, Jeremy! Great post. Great photos. Great day!

  5. Sounds like a pretty epic adventure down there! You guys saw both sides of the birding spectrum: the fast, powerful, and deadly apex predators, along with the delicate and beautiful sparrows and larks.

    Sometimes all the planets align just right for a great birding outing (and I guess it was an eclipse night after all). It must have been fantastic to share that all with some new birders too.

    Thanks for sharing it here.

  6. Wow Jeremey, I could feel my heart speeding up as I read this, what an absolutely stupendous day!!

  7. I so enjoyed reading this wonderful post filled with a terrific narrative and glorious photographs. What a fabulous day of birding you experienced! I bet Gaby became a birder after this awesome adventure. A joy to read this fantastic post!

  8. Thanks for all the comments everyone! I'm glad I could share this awesome experience with you all.