Date: 11/8/17 3:56 pm
From: Tim Helentjaris <tnhelentjaris...>
Subject: [AZNMbirds] San Rafael Grasslands
One of my annual pleasures is to get to the edge of the San Rafael Valley before dawn in the winter and watch for the Short-eared Owl and NORTHERN HARRIERS skimming along the grassy slopes to the north. Dipped on the owl this morning, probably as the grasses were soaked from the rain the previous evening but was able to welcome some of the winter sparrows. And the moisture probably helped there as just after sunrise, many birds were all sitting up on the nearby fences trying to dry off.

After waiting at the northwest entrance for a while to see the owl, I decided to head east along the main road. Hadn’t gone more than 200m before I saw a lot of bird activity, feeding in the road and along the nearby fence to the north. Stopped the car, and got out with my scope, letting things settle down a bit. After wading through just a lot of EASTERN MEADOWLARKS and VESPER SPARROWS, I was going to move on but as I turned around, just behind me on the fence was a very whitish sparrow, very obviously different from the muddier VeSp's. Got the scope on it, and it was a beautifully-plumaged BAIRD’S SPARROW, which remained in this position for well over 15 mins, giving me a lot of time to examine it and compare it to the description and photos in the sparrow guide book, probably my best looks ever. Very white below with sharp, contrasting black stripes on the chest, very yellowish face with two obvious ear spots, and an ocherous line along its crest, flanked by thin black lines, with this much time, even I could feel confident in this identification. Soon it was joined by another bird, a second BAIRD’S SPARROW, and then a third bird, but this one was different, most notably with a very whitish crown stripe but with same yellowish cast to the face, a GRASSHOPPER SPARROW. Wow, what a great opportunity to study these two species right next to each other on a nearby fence out in the open, how often does that happen? While engrossed in their observation, I was distracted by a very emphatic “tu-tu-tu” from overhead, and looking up, I saw three GREATER YELLOWLEGS flying just overhead! They were soon followed by a couple more, all originating from the large stock pond just to the north. Something I wasn’t expecting.

This was the highlight of the morning, but I back-tracked a bit and worked the roads north and south from this entrance intersection. Not too much of interest, one WHITE-TAILED KITE to the north, plus two more widely scattered to the east later on. On the plus side, the stock ponds seemed well-watered. I then worked the main road first to the east and then turning to the south towards Lochiel. At one point, headed back west to look for some longspurs and did find a small flock of nine CHESTNUT-COLLARED LONGSPURS, my only observation of the day, but then I only worked this northern end of the valley and the last couple of years in our surveys, we have found more of them beside tanks closer to the border. Saw fewer sparrows later in the morning and I have to say, the numbers were not impressive but maybe it’s just early in the season? I also did not find many on the fences after the early success and my guess is if you’re coming down specifically to look for BaSp and GrSp, it would probably be best to get there at dawn and work the nearby fences to the road. This seems to be my most successful strategy in this area.

One last note, at several times during the morning, I saw pairs of COMMON RAVENS engaged in spirited acrobatic flights and am assuming it is that time of the year and they are engaged in courtship? Anthropomorphizing a bit, I’m thinking she’s putting him through the paces and seeing if he can keep up, is interested, etc. Fun to watch.

Tim Helentjaris
Tucson, AZ

“We have an unknown distance yet to run, an unknown river to explore.”
- John Wesley Powell

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