Sunday, January 8, 2017

Agricultural Land Birding

Between Christmas and New Year's, I had the pleasure of being a part time birding guide.  What made it more pleasurable was the fact that I had gone birding with them before and it is more of a birding adventure with friends; definitely not strangers and not ax murders!  (Inside joke!)   Brian and Larry DeAtley Ellyson had come to visit Arizona for the holidays.  They were escaping the cold of Ohio and had sent me a list of some of the life birds they were hoping for.  After perusing the list, I quickly told them that a trip to the Santa Cruz Flats in Pinal County would be be a good place to start.  
Early in the morning on December 27th, we departed south and met up with Judith Ellyson in Eloy.  We then headed south into the area known as the Santa Cruz Flats as it is known among all the birders in Arizona.  The target birds that were on the list were:  Ferruginous Hawk, Prairie Falcon, Mountain Plover, Lark Bunting, and Sprague's Pipit, which had all recently been reported from there.  That, plus the fact that a couple Rufous-backed Robins and a Ruddy Ground-Dove had been reported there recently as well. We spent the day traversing the many roads that link this area together and in the end we were able to check off 3 life species for them; Lark Bunting, Mountain Plover, and the best find of the day was a Sprague's Pipit.  The SPPI was a bird that I had only seen once before and never photographed.  They are loners and amazingly difficult to spot and get good looks most of the time.  This one was foraging in some dry grassy fields and would pop up to show itself to us for great scope and binocular views.  Then it would duck down in the grass and disappear and stick its head up again several feet from where we last saw it.

Sprague's Pipit

Obviously, I was not on the ball and taking photos of the other lifers we saw.  However, I did capture a few photos of some of the other birds we were seeing on our rounds.

 Black Vulture

 Cooper's Hawk

 Crested Caracara

 Crested Caracara

Red-tailed Hawk - dark morph

Since we had failed to get the Ferruginous Hawk and Prairie Falcon, Brian and Larry joined me on another trip a couple of days later, but this one to the Buckeye/Arlington areas west of Phoenix.  This time we were much more successful as we found a Prairie Falcon and had good scope view of it.  We also found 2 Ferruginous Hawks; one was the normal light colored hawk and one was a dark morph.  According to Sibley's Guide, the dark morph make up less than 10% of the total population.  The photos below were not taken on that day, but were instead taken on January 8, 2017. when I visited that area again with birding friend Muriel Neddermeyer.  The photos of the dark morph is quite likely the same bird and is was found in the same general area.  The light morph might not be since it is much more common and there might be several of the light morph out in that vicinity.  

 Ferruginous Hawk - dark morph

 Ferruginous Hawk - light morph

We also came upon a fairly large flock of Mountain Bluebirds foraging in an alfalfa field which yielded them another new life bird for them.  If I remember correctly, they got about 6 new life birds on this trip to Arizona.  Next visit will result in harder to find birds, whenever that might be. 


Sunday, January 1, 2017

A Maricopa Big Year

If you are a birder, you already know what a Big Year is all about. However, for those readers that are not sure, a Big Year is a commitment from a birder to try and list as many species of birds that one can find within a calendar year in a selected location.  That person can set their parameters on various things such as geographic limitations, species or families of birds, etc.  Since I retired about a year ago, I decided that I would try to complete a Maricopa County Big Year, thinking I would have more free time on my hands.  Prior to 2016, the highest number of species reported in 1 year in Maricopa County was 313 and was accomplished in 2011, by good friend Tommy DeBardeleben.  

Prior to 2016. my best count was 246 species in Maricopa County for a year.  With that number in mind, I set a goal of 275, maybe 280, for the year as that would be quite an increase for me.   What's more, is the fact that I only wanted to count ABA countable birds and not the exotics that are sometimes found and counted by many others.  These exotics include birds that are most likely escapees from bird collections or birds that have been brought in to a community but have not established themselves as a viable breeding population in the county and are not native to the county.  Most of these exotics that were reported by others during the year, but not by Tommy or me, were Mute Swan, Mandarin Duck, Yellow-collared Lovebird, Nanday Parakeet and Monk Parakeet.  Although, I did see most of these birds during the year, I did not add them to my Big Year list.

I had a lot of encouragement from a few people.  A couple of them, Tommy DeBardeleben and Caleb Strand, were confident I could conceivably hit the 300 mark. I was a bit doubtful of that number, but kept pushing on through the year, and believe it or not, I did  hit the magical 300 number and then some.  My final total count was 312; not a county record, but still a number I can be proud of for the time being.  Previous county record was Tommy at 313, but he shattered that record this year at 330!  So I am pleased with currently having the 3rd highest total, but I also know that records are meant to be broken, so I know it will some day be surpassed.

One needs to bear in mind that Maricopa County is a large county in geographic area.  In fact it is the 15th largest county in the United States, and larger than 4 of the US states.  While it is not on the scale of an Arizona state big year, it still requires traveling a lot of miles to many spots where the birds can be found, and sometimes, it takes more than just one trip to finally find the bird that is being reported.
15Maricopa CountyArizonaPhoenix9,224.27 sq mi (23,890.7 km2)9,203.14 sq mi (23,836.0 km2)
The above graphic is courtesy of Wikipedia.


Now lets move on to some of the highlights of the year.  My 246th bird of the year, which tied my previous record, was a Spotted Owl on April 29.  Great bird for the tie, and new bird that I had never recorded before in Maricopa County.  This species is endangered and protected and can be hard to find.

Number 255 was one of the more colorful birds, a stunning male Painted Bunting, that I was able to photograph at Tres Rios Overflow Wetlands on May 7.

On May 21, I made a trip to Hassayampa River Preserve to look for a Thick-billed Kingbird that had been reported.  This was also a new county bird for me as well.

In mid July, 2 species of rare birds were found in the county and the day that they were spotted and posted, I happened to be in Madera Canyon and heading to Sonora, Mexico, the next day, and I was a bit frustrated to miss out on these 2 species.  I knew that the Black Skimmers that were found would not stick around as the habitat is not suitable to them.  The other bird was a Hudsonian Godwit (#264) which is even rarer and surprisingly it was still here about a week after I returned.  I was able to add this bird to my list and my 'life' list a well on July 20.  It was on private property and was a bit distant, so the photo opportunity left a little to be desired, but who cares when it is a life bird and a county bird!

A visit to Mt Ord on August 24th netted me my 274th bird, a Calliope Hummingbird.  This was another bird that I had not seen in Maricopa County in the past, and the sighting was even more special since I found it on my own and was not chasing someone else's report.

Number 275 was a another bird that I was out of of the county when it was reported.  I was on a birding trip to the White Mountains in eastern Arizona with birding friends, Muriel, Babs, and Chris, when a Tricolored Heron was reported at the Gilbert Water Ranch.  It seemed to be a long ride home, but we got back in time on August 28th to locate it.  Really did not have to hurry as this bird remained at this location for weeks.

Bird number 277, was a bird that I do not think anyone in the state even had it on their radar as a possibility of showing up in Arizona, let alone Maricopa County.  On 7 September, Hurricane Newton, moved into the state from the Pacific Ocean by the way of the Gulf of California and it broke apart south of Tucson.  It brought with it many pelagic (sea) birds that rarely see land.  While the greatest number were reported in southern Arizona, one remarkable one made it as far as Mesa and found a city pond to reside on just a few minutes from my house.  Wedge-rumped Storm-Petrel was not only a new bird for the state of Arizona but obviously one for Maricopa County as well.  It was a life bird for myself and dozens more that made it out to visit it on that special day.

Number 280, which was my original target number, was a Clay-colored Sparrow, a bird that eluded me over the years in Arizona and Maricopa County. Added this one on September 27 and followed up that bird a few day later on October 2 with a Long-eared Owl (#282).

Number 287, was also a life bird for me in the county, a Lapland Longspur on October 11.  The bird gods must have felt sorry for me as this bird landed on a dirt bank about 10 yards from my car, just as I was thinking of leaving.

4 days later, on October 15, Tyler Loomis discovered a Palm Warbler at Tempe Town Lake.  This would be a 'lifer' for me as well and I rushed out to see it briefly in the fading daylight.  The next morning I went back to relocate it and got much better views and much better photos.

Incredibly, in November a Groove-billed Ani was found at Veteran's Oasis Park in Chandler.  This was another totally unexpected bird to make its appearance in the county.  I was out there the next day to locate it and add to my list for the year.  This was number 297 on November 17, and I was knocking on the door on that magical 300 number.  

A trip to Slate Creek Divide with good friend Tommy, on November 23, got me 4 new species that pushed me over the 300 mark.  Number 300 was a Mountain Chickadee.  The next day was Thanksgiving day and I followed up on report of a Ruddy Ground-Dove (#303) in Tempe which was not far from my house.  I was able to locate it and was able to wait around until Tommy was also able to get there and add it to his list as well.

Number 304 was a handsome looking Harris's Sparrow on November 27 in the back yard of Jack Sheldon, who graciously allowed Tommy, Barb Meding and myself to peek over his back yard fence to see it and photograph it.

A Tundra Swan was number 305 at a pond at a golf course in Sun City West on December 4.

Number 306 was a Ross's Goose on the same day in the Buckeye/Arlington area.  The next day I traveled to Seven Spring Wash to try and locate a Hooded Warbler that had been reported by Troy Corman 2 days earlier and re-found by Tommy the day before.  Tough bird to photograph, but quite a stunner, so a bad photo is better than no photo of this bird.  Number 307 was in the books.

Number 308 was a Long-tailed Duck that showed up at the Glendale Recharge Ponds on December 11.  To my knowledge it is still there, which is very remarkable.

A Louisiana Waterthrush (#309) was discovered on the Salt/Verde CBC on December 14 and Tommy and I was there early the next morning, December 15th to look for it.  This is a great bird and one that I had only gotten a brief look at in the past near Tucson.  But this time I got better looks and also photos of a species that is rare for Arizona.

On December 21 Tommy asked me to join him to travel to a remote corner of Maricopa County to try to locate a Rufous-winged Sparrow.  This is a bird that is fairly common in the correct habitats in southeastern Arizona, but almost unheard of in Maricopa County.  We had success in finding this bird and it came in on my list at number 310.

Tommy had reported a pair of White-tailed Kites in the Buckeye area on 22 December, so I headed out there the next day and was joined by Caleb Strand.  Caleb was quick to find one in his scope and get me on it and later we got to see both of them 'kiting' about the fields.  That was number 311 for the year.

My final bird for the year, #312, was a Pacific Wren on December 28.  I returned to Seven Springs Wash, where the Hooded Warbler was hanging out.  Tommy had a reported a Pacific Wren there on his original trip, but I had dipped on it when I went the first time.  Since this is a bird that kind of stays put for the winter, I knew there was a good chance it was still there.  This time, luck was on my side when it called out and I instantly recognized its call.  When it came out into the clear, it gave me lots of good looks and chances for photos.  

Taking on a Big Year was a great learning experience for me.  I knew going in that I would have dedicate most of my time to chase every rare or uncommon bird that was reported.  It is a very time consuming endeavor and many came at the most inopportune time.  Even when chasing, many chases ended up fruitless and were very disappointing and frustrating.  A good example is chasing the Franklin's Gulls that were being reported on Tempe Town Lake.  It took me 5 trips to finally find one, only to find a flock of 15 of them about 2 weeks later at Glendale Recharge Ponds.  But more often than not, the chases ended in success and when they did the experience was quite exhilarating.  During the year I was able to add 5 new lifers to my life list which is quite an accomplishment for a county in the middle of the state.  And even more astounding, I added 30 new species of birds to my Maricopa life list!  

Must close by mentioning that Tommy was a motivational person in my quest and he offered a lot of encouragement along the way.  Mr Caleb, was also instrumental in assisting many times and also felt that I had a chance to break the 300 mark.  Being able to document more than 300 species, excluding all the exotics, is not an easy task in Maricopa County.  Anyone wanting to attempt this in the future has my full support and well wishes!  As for me, I will probably not complete another Big Year unless it is a small one with very limited parameters such as a 'patch' or specific location.     



Saturday, December 17, 2016

More Maricopa Birding

The more time that I spend birding in Maricopa County in Arizona, the more I begin to appreciate the birding diversity and what can be found.  It is a large county in area and covers a very diverse number of different ecological habitats.  For those readers that are not aware, yes, I am doing a Maricopa County 'Big Year'.  Final numbers will be released in January of next year in a separate blog post.  I plan on recapping some of the highlights and point out some of the incredible birds that can occur in Maricopa County.  Included in this post are a few of the great birds that have been added in just the month of December.

 Reports of a Tundra Swan returning to a golf course in Sun City West was intriguing to a lot of birders, and after some great sleuth work by friends Chris Rohrer and Magill Weber, it has become clear that this bird is most likely a 'wild' bird and not a captive bird as it has returned several years in a row.  Not really unexpected at this time of year, because Prescott, AZ, almost annually has Tundra Swans that overwinter in their surrounding lakes.  Why this Tundra Swan returns to the same location to hang out with one of the captive and tame Mute Swans is a bit perplexing, but it apparently has found a safe winter haven at this golf course.

 Tundra Swan

Tundra Swan dwarfing an American Coot

The Mute Swan is much larger than the Tundra Swan and it is also fairly tame, looking for handouts from humans.  It also approached me fairly quickly and came closer to me than the Tundra, which seemed to be a bit more cautious.

Mute Swan

Mute Swan - Close-up showing how tame it was

This pond also had a few Hooded Mergansers, and I never pass up a chance to photograph one of these beauties.

Hooded Mergansers - male and female

From this location and while I was in the western part of the valley, I headed out to the Buckeye/Arlington area to see if I could locate a Ross's Goose that had been in the company of 2 Snow Geese at Lower River Ponds.  Turned out to be an easy find, but at the distance where they were roosting, scope views were the best I could do to confirm the ID of the ROGO.  Never saw what spooked all the birds, but whatever it was, just about everything took flight and that is when I was able to get better looks and also a couple of photos.

 Ross's Goose in the middle with 2 Snow Goose

 Ross's Goose with 3 Snow Goose

Ross's Goose on the right with 2 Snow Goose

A drive through the agricultural lands out there is always prudent to see what else might be found.  At this time of year, the raptors are some of the stars with Red-tailed Hawks being the most numerous Buteo.  Here are a couple of photos that show the stark diversity in appearance of these raptors.  They can fool many novice birders due to their extreme differences in appearance, especially in western United States.

 Red-tailed Hawk - dark morph

  'Harlan's' Red-tailed Hawk - light morph - incredibly this is the 9th year for this hawk to return to the same place for the winter in Arlington

  On the day that I was exploring out west, birding buddy, Tommy DeBardeleben, was following up on a report of a Hooded Warbler that was discovered by Troy Corman the day before.  He was able to locate this bird and he proceeded to provide very good instructions on locating it in Seven Spring Wash.  This is not a place for a lot of people to undertake without a lot of hiking experience and some surefooted hiking abilities; no marked trail in a canyon with rocks and flowing water.  The Hooded Warbler is a bird that I had only seen once before and that was in May 2014 at High Island, Texas, and it was a fleeting glimpse at that.  I was not sure what my chances were in locating this one, but surprisingly, it was the 4 species of bird that I found on this trek.  I caught a glimpse of it and followed up with a view in my binoculars to make sure it was the right bird.  It quickly disappeared around a bend in the stream, but I cautiously followed and got a another quick view and was only able to get this horrible shot of it.

Hooded Warbler - the crappy first photo

Then I lost it and could not relocate it, however, I kept moving downstream looking for a Pacific Wren that Tommy had also discovered (but I was not so fortunate).  Finally, I returned back up the stream and when I reached the spot where the Hooded Warbler was originally seen, I decided to sit and wait awhile to see if it would return.  Sure enough,  about 15 minutes later, it did return,  Still kept its distance downstream, but this time I got a little better photos.  Would have like to have gotten better, but I can live with these photos.

 Hooded Warbler

A Painted Lady kept me occupied during my wait.

Painted Lady

About 5 days later, birding phenom, Caleb Strand and Laura Ellis, had a Long-tailed Duck fly by them at Lake Pleasant.  Did not think that it was chase-able at this point, but incredibly, Louis Hoeniger, then reported one the next day at Glendale Recharge Ponds.  Strangely, the first time I had seen this duck was at the exactly the same location on December 24, 2013, and it was a one-day wonder.  Then this past June, while in Wisconsin, I had the pleasure of seeing a stunning male, but it was far away and in some fairly turbid water, making it impossible for photos.  I headed out to Glendale Recharge Ponds within 30 minutes of the notification.  Once there, it did not take long to locate it, although it spent more time submerged and foraging than above the water.  This one was even better looking than the one from 3 years before.

Long-tailed Duck

On December 14th, I took part in the Salt/Verde Rivers CBC.  At the end of the day, one of the teams reported a Northern Waterthrush at Coon Bluff along the Salt River.  Well, this bird actually turned out to be a Louisiana Waterthrush, which is rarer, but very similar in appearance.  Tommy and I quickly made plans to try for it the next day.  We arrived early and found Ryan O'Donnell already at the spot also looking for it.  With 3 of us looking and listening, we definitely had improved our odds of finding it.  Eventually, Ryan spotted it and we followed it around to several of its favorite spots, but always staying a bit secretive and hard-to-get.  We were all getting mediocre photos of it during this time, so when it finally decided to do some foraging in the sunlight, it presented us with much better photos.  Ironically, I had only seen this species once before in southeastern Arizona and it was a fleeting glimpse of it when Tommy, Mark Ochs, and I took a trip on December 14, 2013.  That encounted was also 3 years ago.  I had never photographed this species until now, so this was a redemption viewing for me.  I liked these results so much more.

 Louisiana Waterthrush

A couple other photos from this location consist of an American Pipit, perched in an unusual spot at the top of a tree, and a Spotted Sandpiper also along the same water edge as the Louisiana Waterthrush.  Incidentally, the sandpiper and the waterthrush, both dip and bob their rear ends as they forage.  Quite an interesting behavior trait to observe at the same time on 2 different species.

 American Pipit in a tree - a rather rare perch for this species

Spotted Sandpiper

What more will I be able to add to my Maricopa list this year?  Maybe nothing, but the month of December is not over and who knows what might show up in the last couple of weeks.  Only time will tell.