Lesser Sand-Plover

Lesser Sand-Plover

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Mongolia and Mexico Comes to Arizona

Needless to say, it has been a very unusual year for birds in Arizona.  Earlier this year a Pine Flycatcher was discovered in southeast Arizona, which was a first for this species in Arizona, but even more astonishing is the fact that it was also a first record for the United States.  Then in September Hurricane Newton arrived by moving up the Gulf of California from the Pacific Ocean and made its way over the desert into southeastern Arizona, where it fell apart.  But in its wake, it left many pelagic (ocean) birds that did not belong in the desert.  Many of these species had never been recorded in Arizona.

Now to the Mongolia connection to this post.  In October another new discovery was made in the northern part of Arizona.  Thanks to Jason Wilder and Chuck LaRue, they discovered a new bird for Arizona at a small mud pond in Coconino County.  This pond is actually named Round Cedar Lake, but in my humble opinion, it is far from being a lake at least at this time.  Maybe in the past it was a larger body of water, but not this year.  These 2 birders discovered a Lesser Sand Plover.  This a bird that is native to Asia; where it breeds in Siberia and winters in eastern Africa, southern Asia, and southeastern Australasia.  It has bred in Alaska, but that is rare.  The few sightings of this bird generally occur on the west coast and almost never found inland.  But this one found its way to Arizona and put itself in the record books for the state.  The scientific name of this bird is (Charadrius mongolus), hence the Mongolia connection. 

Birding buddy Tommy D. and  I, hatched a plan to try for this bird.  Tommy got off work that night around 9:30 pm.  So I met him at his place when he got home and we headed north at night and arrived in Flagstaff a little after midnight.  Grabbed a few 'zzzz's', and then headed out to the spot early the next morning.  When we got there, we were greeted by several other intrepid and serious birders of Arizona so we knew we were in good company.  Many of these had driven from Tucson, which was about a 6 hour drive.

And this place really did make me think we were in Mongolia, or at least a bit reminiscent of what I think parts of Mongolia might look like.

And finally here is the prize of this search. What a charismatic little bird!  This was a life bird that was not even on my radar based on its range.  It is amazing what one can find in the state of Arizona.  It is 3rd on the list of states with the most species of birds in the United States, behind only California and Texas.  

 Yes, the Lesser Sand Plover is in this photo as well, but you have to look a little harder, in the lower left quadrant.  Has its back to us to show how easy it blends in.

What was interesting was that at one point a Peregrine Falcon flew in and landed on the far side of the pond for a drink.  During this time the Lesser Sand Plover just froze in its tracks without moving.  The Peregrine eventually took flight and our prize bird survived without being a target for a meal.

A very distant Peregrine Falcon

The Mexico connection to this post constitutes the sighting of a Groove-billed Ani in Maricopa County.  This species is not as rare in the United States as the plover, but it is relatively scare in Arizona.  Its range covers much of southern Mexico and on into Central America.  It is fairly common in the summer in southern Texas.  There have been sporadic reports of this bird in Arizona over the years, and to my recollection the last verifiable report was at Sweetwater Wetlands near Tucson in 2012.  That bird was a lifer for me back then, although I did not get great looks.  In 2015 I spent several days in Chiapas, Mexico and this bird was quite common and I got much better looks than my sighting in Arizona in 2012.

Well this bird at Veteran's Oasis Park in Chandler turned out to be quite photogenic for many.  It was nice to see that so many people were able to find it and see it, as it was a lifer for many, including Tommy.

This was my first photo and I thought it was going to play hard to get, but subsequent photos will show that was not to be the case.

 Sunning itself with its feathers on the back raised to warm its body.

And finally, a close up of the grooves in it bill which is the the reference to its name.

What a couple of really great birds to chase.  The Lesser Sand-Plover was a lifer and the Groove-billed Ani was a very good bird to add to my Maricopa County list.  Wonder what the next awesome bird will be that shows up in Arizona?

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Back-door Lifers

Been quite a long time since my last post which featured the unexpected Wedge-rumped Storm-Petrel, which was an incredible new bird for Arizona and Maricopa County as well, and most importantly a new lifer for me.  Living in Arizona for over 10 years and vigorously birding for the last 6 or 7 years, I have gotten to the point that there are not a lot of regular Arizona birds that I could get for lifers.  The two that remain are the Ducky Grouse and the Black Rail.  Both are secretive and both are located on opposite sides of the state from each other in totally different habitats.  Dusky Grouse I have tried everal times and have dipped on it every time, but it will probably make its view to me when I least expect it.  The Black Rail is so secretive that very few people have actually seen one in the state.  They are most often heard.  I have been told by someone that a Black Rail could be standing 3 feet in front of you and it would practically be invisible.  

What I did not plan on, were the rarer migrants that occasionally show up within the state, and lo and behold, 3 of these birds did just that and what was more amazing were that they showed up in Maricopa County, which makes it all the more special.  The first was a Blackpoll Warbler that was found by Dale Clark in Chandler one day.  As quickly as I could get away, I made a beeline to the spot and arrived to find one other birder there that had just photographed it.  I quickly looked to the tree where it was reportedly hanging out and I could not believe how easy that bird was to see with my binoculars and take note of the field marks.  Then I decided to try for photos and by the time I lifted my camera to the spot, it had disappeared and was not seen again that day and when I tried again the next morning with several other birders, it was not seen ever again.  So I was the last person to see it, but alas, I missed out on photos.  That was the first of 4 new life birds that I have added since the Storm-Petrel.

Number 2 took place on October 10th.  With a report of a Lapland Longspur in the eastern part of Scottsdale on some agricultural farm lands, I knew that I had to make an attempt to find it.  And I knew that it would be a difficult search.  So early the next morning, I headed to the location and not surprising, I ran into Tommy D also out searching for this bird, so we headed to the spot that was given to try our luck.  While searching with scopes and listening very intently for its call, several more birders joined us, so that goes to show how special this bird can be.  While scanning and looking through all the Horned Larks and American Pipits that were in great numbers, we did hear the rattle of this bird fly over at one time, but could never find it in the fields.  Finally most people departed after not seeing it except for 3 of us and we hung around on a different road for about 30 minutes longer and were discussing that we were probably going to take off as well, when I turned around and looked across the road in front of my car and lifted my binoculars, saw a longspur next to a pipit and I quickly got the other 2 birders on them.  Luckily, I was able to get some photos before it flew away with the pipit and then eventually scared away by a Merlin that had flown in.  Getting the Lapland Longspur and photos of it as well, really made my day!

 Lapland Longspur

 The blurred bird in front is an American Pipit

Horned Lark (wanted to throw this in for something a bit more common)

About 5 days later, I noticed a post on a Facebook page that Tyler Loomis had discovered a Palm Warbler at Tempe Town Lake.  That place is less than 20 minutes form my house and even though it was late afternoon, I hopped in my car and headed out.  Yes, I had to endure a little rush hour traffic, but I got there in time to see this bird in the waning light of the day.  I hastily took some mediocre photos in the last light of the day with the ISO bumped up real high.  This was life bird number 3 in this short time span.

 Palm Warbler - early evening light

Was not happy with my photos, so I decided to go back again the next morning to see if I could refind it, but I also remembered that experience with the Blackpoll Warbler where it disappeared fairly quickly.  So I did not have very high hopes.  What a surprise to find that Tommy D had the same idea as well, as I ran into him again at this spot.  Took us a few minutes, but we re-found the Palm Warbler and this time the lighting was so much better.  I really enjoyed watching the behavior of this bird and its constant tail wagging.  

Tommy looking for the Palm Warbler

 Palm Warbler the next morning in better light

The last one that I want to mention, is the Black Rail.  Last weekend, AZFO (Arizona Field Ornithologists), held their annual meeting in Yuma, Arizona.  And Yuma is the best place to get the Black Rail in Arizona.  I attended and on Friday I had the luck of joining one of the Friday afternoon field trips and during that time, our leaders showed us the best spot to 'hear' Black Rails and they also mentioned that the month of March and a bit of early April is a better time to be hearing them.  I decided that I would get up early and head out on Saturday morning and try my luck.  What I figured out, was that it was hard to find that spot in the pitch black of the early morning, but I eventually found it and parked and then stood out in the dark listening for rails.  Great Horned Owls were calling from 4 different spots and when I clapped my hands in the dark, Virginia Rails and Sora were quite vocal.  Also heard heard Least Bitterns and Ridgeway's Rails calling.  I noticed the mosquitoes were a bit bothersome, and then glanced down at my legs to find them covered with them.  I started swatting them and found that I was leaving blood splatters on my legs.  About this time another car pulled up and lo and behold it was a couple of young birding marvels, Caleb Strand and Joshua Smith, both of which I had spent a lot of time in the past doing some birding together.  We continued to stand there listening to all the other rails and finally we heard the telltale call 'Kee-kee-der' and so I lucked out and added another new life bird.   While adding life birds by sound only is a little frustrating, sometimes, that is all a person gets which tells them the bird is there.  I can also say that I definitely donated some blood for this bird!  Would I like to actually see a Black Rail?  Of course!!!!  And a photo would be awesome as well.  It may not happen in my lifetime, but one never knows with birding what might make an appearance sometime in the future!

This gave me 5 new life birds in Arizona in less than a 2 month time frame.  Slowly but surely, I am creeping to that 700 mark!   


Sunday, September 11, 2016

The Eye of the Hurricane

Living in Arizona, I figured I might not ever be affected in any kind of a dramatic way by a hurricane.  Yes, there have been hurricanes in the eastern Pacific off the western coast of Mexico at times, but most that form, usually tend to keep moving west and out into the Pacific Ocean.  A few had veered north and east, and usually lose their punch very quickly when making landfall.  And even fewer times, those that did, created some precipitation in Arizona, but the storms were seriously downgraded before they hit the state.  

Well, this last week, Hurricane Newton, decided to pay a visit to the state of Arizona.  Luckily, it had lost a lot of its punch before it hit the state, and had been downgraded to a tropical storm.  The eye of the storm, with all the rain, seemed to center near the city of Tucson.  A few experienced birders mentioned that this storm had potential to bring in some rare birds that get caught up in the winds and rain, and what really happened was totally incredible.  It brought in a host of pelagic birds, (birds that tend to live their lives at sea in the ocean).  About mid afternoon, some of the birders in southeastern Arizona started reporting storm-petrels, a shearwater, and another odd report from someone's back yard of an unusual petrel.  These birds live their lives at seas, except to come ashore on remote islands to breed.  They had no business being in Arizona, much less finding any kind of habitat that they are used to where they can find food to survive.  Most of these birds were weak and just trying to find any body of water as refuge, and unfortunately, some of the reports were coming in that some of these birds were perishing.  That is such a bittersweet feeling, knowing that many would not survive.  Those that were found alive, were taken in by rehabilitation groups that would nurse them back to health and then release them back on the Pacific Ocean.  

Good friend, Tommy Debardeleben, contacted me to see if I was interested in heading down the next day to see if we could locate any of these rarities, if there were any surviving birds still around.  Of course I said yes in a heartbeat and the next morning, we headed south at 4:00 am.  We arrived at Amado WTP and found other birders already there and so far, nothing had been found at this location.  We then decided to head to Patagonia Lake where more had been seen the day before.  When we arrived at Patagonia Lake we also found more birders that did not find anything here as well.  

It was fascinating to see all the awesome birders that we were meeting!  It was an impressive group, with names of the 'Who's Who' of birding in Arizona: Mark Stevenson, Molly Pollock, Laurens Halsey, Lauren Harter, David Vander Pluym, Shawn Fitzgerald, Jon Mann, and Tommy and myself.  We were all looking for any kind of a rarity we could find, and we then saw a new report of a storm-petrel in Benson which was another hour and 15 minutes away.  We all met up there as well, and by the time we got there, it could no longer be found.  While we were definitely enjoying the birding with all these great birders, we were also a bit disappointed as we had failed to find any of these pelagic birds, and the feeling of a wasted day was starting to sink in.  

Just as we were leaving Benson, a new report came across the list-serve, that James McKay had found a storm petrel in a man made lake in Mesa.  (Huh!?!?!?  That is the place we had departed from at 4:00 that morning!)  That was one of the longest 2½ hour drives that both of us had ever experienced.  Luckily, we had birding friends in the Phoenix area that were at the lake in Mesa and they were giving us frequent updates on its status.  As soon as we got to the park and I stopped the car, Tommy was out and sprinting to the lake.  Took me a bit longer to get my gear together and also run to the lake.  And there is was a small storm-petrel sitting in the water, almost like telling us 'Here I am.  I have been waiting for you to come and see me.  What took you so long?'  How ironic that Tommy and I traveled about 300 miles, just to come back to Mesa and then see this bird about 15 minutes from my home!

Storm-petrels can be difficult to identify with certainty, and the consensus so far was that it was a Wedge-rumped Storm-Petrel, that has 2 sub-species; one that breeds in the Galapagos Islands and another that breeds on some islands off the coast of Peru.  This bird has been reported before in the United States, off the coast of southern California, but no where else.  And we were looking at one sitting a lake in Mesa, Arizona, far from any sea.  This is a small bird at only 6 inches and to me it is hard to fathom something this tiny sitting and floating adrift out in the Pacific Ocean.  From here, I will let my photos tell the rest of the story.

 Wedge-rumped Storm-Petrel

 My attempt at a selfie with the WRSP.  Definitely not good at selfies!

So close to the edge that some did not even need binoculars.  This view also gives one a perspective on how small this bird really is.

This bird was a new bird for the state of Arizona, also Maricopa County, and of course a new life bird for me as well.  Besides this bird being a new bird for Arizona, there were several other new species that were a first for the state as well.  The most bizarre was a Juan Fernandez Petrel that breeds on a single island off the coast of Chile.  It had never been reported in the United States before and one person photographed it as it flew over his yard in Tucson!  Who would have thought that the state of Arizona would record the first ever record in the United States of a pelagic sea bird?  Laurens Halsey also had a Wedge-rumped Shearwater the day before, which was also a first.  

Here are a few other photos that were taken on this momentous day, but they are far less dramatic than Maricopa's first ever and own Wedge-rumped Storm-Petrel.

 Black-bellied Whistleing Ducks at Amado WTP

 Black-bellied Plover at a far distance

 Belted Kingfisher

Greater Roadrunner

Here are a couple of scenic photos that show the remnants of Hurricane Newton and the lingering storm clouds.

 Elephant Butte

Baboquiviri Peak from Patagonia Lake.