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 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 - 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.
A Painted Lady kept me occupied during my wait.
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.
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.
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
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.