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.
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
Here are a couple of scenic photos that show the remnants of Hurricane Newton and the lingering storm clouds.
Baboquiviri Peak from Patagonia Lake.