Saturday, December 26, 2015

Birding on Christmas

We had no plans for Christmas this year. In the past, we'd traipse down to the town where my husband's mother used to live to spend the holiday with her and, at some point, I'd zip over to a sibling's house to visit with some of my family. With my mother-in-law gone, we opted to stay home for the holidays for once.

Except, at the last minute on Christmas Eve before retiring for the night, we decided that spending Christmas Day out birding (aka "bird-watching") would be a fun way to celebrate. In the months since my husband's mother died, we've been out birding quite a bit. It has proved to be a restorative activity, one that gets us out into natural areas and directs our focus toward something other than memories, frustrations, and endless planning for the future.

To successfully find birds, you have to be fully present in the moment, watching for the slightest movement in the trees, on the ground, or in the skies, and listening for the faintest call, flap of wings, or tap of a woodpecker's bill against a tree's bark. To identify a bird once found, you must catalog a multitude of details, such as the bird's size, shape, color, behavior, and location.

Our plan was to visit half a dozen locations finding as many different species as we could in one day. Hardcore birders often schedule a "Big Day" with official rules, reports, and a competitive spirit, during which they will record as many different species as possible in a single 24-hour period. We are not hardcore birders. We had no desire to get up super early to find lots of owls nor to spend the entire day driving hither and yon to a wide range of habitats in order to find more species. We wanted to have fun and see whether we could pick up all the various birds we'd been seeing over the past couple of weeks when we'd birded in each of these areas on separate days.

Our efforts were hampered by the weather. Christmas Day turned out to be cold, overcast, and windy - less than prime conditions for finding birds. We missed quite a few birds we'd found easily within the last week but such is life. There are no guarantees, no matter how good you think your plan may be. And we thought our plan was pretty good. We'd been in each of these areas recently and even found some of the rare birds (Baltimore Oriole, Rufous-backed Robin, Northern Parula) reported in the local Rare Bird Alert on those visits. But, alas, with the poor weather and less time available for each area, we missed the rare birds and some easy ones, too.

All in all, though, we were happy with a total of 66 67* species when we called it a day at 4 pm. Yep, we're such lightweights that not only did we not get up in the middle of the night, we hung up the binoculars before the sun even set. Okay, that's not entirely true. We did sit in our warm living room and watch our feeders until it was too dark to see just in case anything new showed up in our own yard.

The habitats we visited included urban and rural areas around northwestern Pima County (Tucson, AZ): dry and wet washes, the lower foothills of a mountain park, an urban lake, and wetlands created from treated wastewater. While the quail seed block and suet feeder in our yard attracts birds, there were no species in our yard not present in other locations.

After spotting a pack of 4-5 coyotes trying to catch something in a big bush at our very first stop, we hoped it would also be a good mammal day. In the past few outings, we'd seen a raccoon stalking coots at the wetlands, a bobcat at the same wetlands carrying a dead cotton rat, and another bobcat unsuccessfully pouncing on something in the mountain park. We've seen deer and javelina on occasion both near our home and in the mountain park. But, alas, we struck out on any other mammals yesterday. Blame it on the crappy weather!

Without further ado, here is our 2015 Christmas Day bird list in taxonomic order:

Snow Goose (dark morph)*
American Wigeon
Northern Shoveler
Green-winged Teal
Ruddy Duck
Gambel’s Quail
Pied-billed Grebe
Neotropic Cormorant
Double-crested Cormorant (immature)
Great Egret
Snowy Egret
Green Heron
Black-crowned Night-Heron
Cooper’s Hawk
Harris’s Hawk
Red-tailed Hawk
Sora (heard only)
Common Gallinule
American Coot
Sandpiper Sp.
Rock Pigeon
Eurasian Collared-Dove
Mourning Dove
Greater Roadrunner
Great Horned Owl (heard only)
Costa’s Hummingbird
Belted Kingfisher
Gila Woodpecker
Ladder-backed Woodpecker
American Kestrel
Gray Flycatcher
Black Phoebe
Say’s Phoebe
Vermilion Flycatcher
Common Raven
Bridled Titmouse
Marsh Wren
Bewick’s Wren
Cactus Wren
Black-tailed Gnatcatcher
Ruby-crowned Kinglet
Hermit Thrush
Curve-billed Thrasher
Northern Mockingbird
European Starling
Orange-crowned Warbler
Yellow-rumped Warbler
Green-tailed Towhee
Abert’s Towhee
Rufous-winged Sparrow
Black-throated Sparrow
Song Sparrow
White-crowned Sparrow
Dark-eyed Junco
Northern Cardinal
Red-winged Blackbird
Yellow-headed Blackbird
Great-tailed Grackle
House Finch
Lesser Goldfinch
House Sparrow

*Edited to add dark morph Snow Goose which we didn't originally write in our notes.

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