Saturday, March 22, 2008

Scientist and Soldier Birds

One of the reasons I was excited to go the Phoenix this March was the opportunity to look for a couple of bird species I had not run across yet. Despite birding for better than 25 years, mostly in the states west of the Mississippi, there are still a few species I have missed finding here and there. This time it was two thrasher species and fortunately there was one spot where I might find both species a bit west of Phoenix.
The two species were the LeConte's and Bendire'sThrashers. The LeConte's Thrasher was named after John Lawrence LeConte, a noted entomologist who specialized in beetles but also was a well-rounded naturalist interested in birds (the LeConte's Sparrow was not named after John Lawrence but instead was named after his cousin John). Bendire's Thashers were named after Charles Emil Bendire, a German-born United States soldier naturalist who became interested in natural history a bit later in his career but amassed a large collection of eggs and bird specimens obtained while stationed in various stations throughout the west. The LeConte's in particular was a species I had missed a couple of times in other places and really wanted to see.
Early Friday morning found me navigating through Phoenix traffic heading west on I-10. After one missed turn in the dark I found the junction of the Salome Highway and Baseline Road - the spot I was directed to to look for both of these species. About 10 minutes before sunrise (0630 in Phoenix) I headed into the saltbrush and mesquite to see what I could see. LeConte's Thrashers are know for being hard to find because they tend to run through their saltbush habitat and are not often found perched where the might be easily found. However, during the breeding season in February and March the males become much more conspicuous when singing on their territories. This year the spring rains came early and my local contact thought they might be done singing by the time I arrived. He was right. I only heard one thrasher singing in the mesquite as the sun came up and it didn't seem right to me to be a LeConte's. Then, in the gathering light there was movement - a streak across the ground to my left towards the rising sun.

It certainly looked like a LeConte's to me but having not seen one before and after reading all the accounts of how difficult they were to find when not singing, I wasn't quite sure. I had found the bird without finding a singing bird first and it seemed too easy for it to be the elusive LeConte's. I followed the bird as it foraged among the saltbush and as the light got better I could tell it was indeed the bird I was after. As I watched the thrashers scoot across the open ground with their tail cocked in the air looking for a quick bite of spider, scorpion, or whatever was on the menu that morning, they reminded me of a Roadrunner or a prehistoric bird whose wings seemed a bit superfluous for much of the day. The only time I saw one use their wings was when they dashed into the lower branches of a satlbush, only to emerge on the far side, running again.

The bird I had originally heard singing in the mesquite in the near dark was still singing and had now been joined by a Northern Mockingbird. It was time to find out what it was. As I got close I could see the bird singing in a dense patch of branches and what-do-you-know - it was the other thrasher I was looking for - a Bendire's.

I watched this bird for a short while too and then wandered around a bit more hoping for more looks at the LeConte's. By the time I left to head back to town and catch my flight I had found two LeConte's and one Bendire's for sure. There may have been as many as four LeConte's running through the saltbush at this site though and at one point I had both LeConte's and Bendires in my binoculars at the same time.
I would love to come back to this spot and work at getting some better photos of the LeConte's Thrashers and spend some more time watching them dart over the ground as they foraged through the saltbush.

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