On most of my days off, I love to go birding, especially in places where there aren't a lot of people. It reflected a lot on my life during the year. While I love others and have many loved ones, more often than not I'm at my best when I'm alone and out birding and exploring. 2018 held true to that, as my best expeditions and goals were met by solo pursuit. I've never liked to be around lots of people for long periods of time. The everyday fray of work and life requires me to go birding, to go explore, and to escape civilization and most people. I'd go crazy without it. The 5th exhausting day of work before my "weekend" couldn't ever come fast enough. I'd be fast out that door as I'd swipe my badge out. Leaving work in temporary abyss, I knew it would be me exploring under-birded country for two days, most often me and the birds. Truth be 100% told, I freaking loved it. At the same time on the flip side, 2018 was one where I had some epic experiences with fellow birders, family, and friends. We explored lots and birded together. Without my heavy desire to be a solitary dude much of the time, the main goal of my year would have been impossible to reach.
Birding The Year Called Twenty Eighteen
On January 1st, I started 2018 off by birding my patch closest to home, which is the Glendale Recharge Ponds. Glendale is usually a fun place to bird, and was a good place to start off the year. At the patch the main highlight was a Bald Eagle as well as a patch lifer in a Black-and-white Warbler.
|1.1: A Bald Eagle at Glendale Recharge Ponds|
|1.2: Black-and-white Warbler at Glendale Recharge Ponds|
I chased birds all around Maricopa County to start the year off, as I wanted to do a "Big Month". That resulted in me making some people think that I was doing another Maricopa County Big Year. Despite what it appeared to be, I couldn't be more opposed to doing another Big Year. My Maricopa County birding soon after that wasn't very impressive. I lost a lot of interest in my home county in 2018. The grounds of it became too familiar. I knew that I'd eventually need to come up with something different, because I was bored of Maricopa County. I'm still bored with it as I write, unless a rarity I don't have shows up. In the early going, I did see a ton of awesome birds in Maricopa County. Prairie Warbler, Louisiana Waterthrush, Eastern Bluebird, Barrow's Goldeneye, Lewis's Woodpecker, and Black-throated Green Warbler were some to name a few.
|2.1: Louisiana Waterthrush at Lower Camp Creek|
|2.2: Prairie Warbler at Saguaro Lake|
|2.3: Black-throated Green Warbler at Base and Meridian Wildlife Area|
|2.4: Lewis's Woodpecker in Verrado|
|2.5: Eastern Bluebird at Bushnell Tanks|
|2.6: Barrow's Goldeneye at Lake Pleasant|
The interests then shifted to the epic and was all about owls for awhile. Freaking awesome owls. What I wanted to do was see a lot of owls, as well as show people a lot of owls. I formed an owling team with Jeff Ritz and Dara Vazquez to show them some of my owling techniques. It was something I enjoyed doing, and we started out with seeing a handful of Western Screech Owls along the Salt River. A defining trip then came with going to Minnesota with birding legend Janet Witzeman. We met up with Josh Wallestad and his family for a four day trip to pursue Janet her lifer Snowy, Great Gray, and Boreal Owls. A Snowy Owl provided by Jeff Grotte outside of Minneapolis started the first of three days off in the right direction. This Snowy Owl was hanging out close to a highway, which made for easy viewing. Once at the Wallestads, we would get some sleep before heading to Duluth. I'll never forget asking Janet if she wanted some extra sleep and have her immediately respond back, "Tommy, we didn't come here to sleep". Gosh! I love Janet. Driving to Duluth the second day we hoped to find Janet her Great Gray and Boreal Owls. The day was sunny and close to perfect, according to Minnesota residents as they examined most winter days. With dozens of folks looking for owls and with Boreal Owls on top level alert, the crowds couldn't find one Boreal. Jeff Grotte even formed a group on Messenger that must have consisted of 50 owlers who were out looking, including Josh and I. We knew they were in the area due to their irruption year, it was without doubt. After the 1000th cruise, Josh and I were glad that we did put Janet in position to get great looks at three separate Great Gray Owls. The regal Great Gray is my favorite of the North American Owls, and it is one every birder dreams of seeing. A snowstorm hit Duluth in rapid action on the third day. It concerned me, but Josh put things in a better perspective that snow storms could push hunting Boreal Owls in closer to the road. Josh couldn't have been more right, and as we got in the car to drive, a Boreal Owl had been found an hour away in the famous Sax-Sim Bog. We made our way in that direction without hesitation in midst of an increasing snow storm. I'll never forget the storm we drove through. The skies looked gloomy, dark, and depressing as they stood out and shadowed every stand of trees and any upcoming scenes. When the snow then started to rapidly fall in a variety of sizes, it decreased the darkness of the skies and made that darkness seem like a peaceful place. The green conifers were then covered in snow. I'll never forget it as long as I live, it was a mesmerizing sight. Things got better as a life long dream of mine came true as a wolf emerged in the road in front of us in the impounding snow and gave us a few seconds of thrill before slinking off into the woods. It was the wolf that had my attention as we pulled up to give Janet her dream of seeing a Boreal Owl. The Owl hunted and perched in front of a large crowd of pleased folks, and one lady did a snow angel in celebration. I eventually got my mind on the owl after the wolf distracted me, and Josh, Janet, and I had completed our primary objectives. Another Boreal Owl later in the day along Lake Superior in Duluth added even more to the fun and successful trip. I also had one lifer on the trip, American Black Duck, for what it's worth..
|3.1: Dara and Jeff meeting a Western Screech-Owl|
|3.2: Snowy Owl near Minneapolis, thanks to Jeff Grotte|
|3.3: Great Gray Owl hunting|
|3.4: Great Gray Owl perching along highway in search of prey|
|3.5: Snowstorm owl, guess who?|
|3.6: Answer: Boreal Owl in Sax-sim Bog, MN|
|3.7: Yours truly, Janet Witzeman, and Josh Wallestad at the Boreal Owl showdown|
|3.8: Janet and Josh in midst of a Boreal Owl "blizzard"|
Back in much warmer and sunnier weather, Caleb Strand and I teamed up with Mark and Ellen Brogie several times. One trip took us to Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, where we would search for and strike out on Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl. Mark's jokes made up for any missed birds. Another trip took us to southeastern Arizona. Caleb and I played detective for Mark and Ellen as we found them their lifers of Rufous-capped Warbler, Sinaloa Wren, and Black-capped Gnatcatcher. We got incredibly lucky with each bird target that we had. A Sinaloa Wren that is elusive 99.9% of the time was sitting out in the open for us as we started looking for it. The Brogies would return the favor for us as they drove us over to Patagonia Lake State Park to give Caleb and I our first ever looks at a Carolina Wren. And it, too, popped out immediately. The Wren is common in the east, but not so much in Arizona.
|4.1: Rufous-capped Warbler in Florida Canyon|
|4.2: Sinaloa Wren along Santa Cruz River|
|4.3: Carolina Wren at Patagonia Lake State Park|
|4.4: The Brogies!|
One of the year's biggest trips was a spring trip to southern Arizona with Josh Wallestad and Steve Gardner. Being from Minnesota, such a trip couldn't have been more exciting for Josh and Steve. Josh is funny. His goal for the trip was Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl. The agenda was all about FEPOS at first. But once we started birding and after a failed four hour search for the owls at Organ Pipe, Josh gradually decided to fall in love with southeastern Arizona specialties more and more. I didn't complain, and neither did Steve. Josh put FEPOS aside, and this resulted in us having a heck of a trip to southeastern Arizona. We all lifered on the mega rare Fan-tailed Warbler, and among Steve and Josh's biggest highlights were Elf Owls, Slate-throated Redstart, Rufous-backed Robin, Mexican Chickadee, Montezuma Quail, and many more. I had one lifer, Josh had 18, and Steve had close to 40. Heck, the Fan-tailed Warbler walked around in front of us on Rick Taylor's lawn. Josh's only owl left for the United States is Ferruginous Pygmy, how cool would it be if his 19th owl came in 2019? Maybe it will! This time span had some other highlights too. Mount Ord with Dara was a blast. A Golden Eagle she was wanting to see gave us about three hundred reasons to celebrate it's quick appearance over a ridge line. Jeff, Dara, and I owled more and it led them to seeing their first Elf Owls. It was at that Salt River again too where we enjoyed the world's smallest owl. Gordon Karre and I explored Slate Creek Divide and not only encountered Northern Pygmy-Owl and a handful of other Maricopa mountain birds, but two Arizona Black Rattlesnakes that made for two good terrifying screams. Gordon and I each took a turn for the two outbursts.
|5.1: Me, Josh, Steve. The Birding Band.|
|5.2: Montezuma Quail pair that provided an epic show|
|5.3: The lawn bird in a Fan-tailed Warbler. Not bad for an ABA Code 4...|
|5.4: The highly sought after Slate-throated Redstart|
|5.5: Mexican Chickadee in Chiricahuas, the only range in Arizona where one can see the species. Best spot to see this species in the U.S. also.|
|5.6: Evening Grosbeak at Mount Ord|
|5.7: Elf Owl at Lower Salt River Recreation area|
|5.8: Arizona Black Rattlesnake at Slate Creek Divide|
The most exciting aspect about Maricopa County birding for me today are the high elevation forests and slopes within the Mazatzal and Superstition Mountains. While I thought my Matzatzal explorations were thorough, it turns out I still have a lot of ground to cover. I realized that while I hiked through some back country solo and found pockets of Douglas fir and pine stands that I had never found before. It came from an area south of Slate Creek Divide, and an area that has limited birding knowledge. Dusky-capped Flycatchers were a highlight. One day Dara and I climbed up into an area well west and slightly north of Slate Creek Divide and looked down into some expansive forested slopes and drainage canyons dominated by Douglas fir. All was in Maricopa County, and in an area near where Felipe Guerrero had a pair of Montezuma Quail about 500 feet in Gila County away from Maricopa County. It's an area that needs more exploration, and I'm quite curious about what may be in the canyons, which also haven't been explored. We didn't get down in the drainage areas, but before the climb we were glad to meet a singing male Red-faced Warbler. In the past, Red-faced Warblers bred at Slate Creek Divide, and after our sighting, more were found a few days later. While Red-faced Warblers didn't breed at Slate Creek this year, birders are hoping they will return to breed again after a long absence and regrowth after a few devastating man-created fires. Near home, Caleb and I took upcoming birder Jared Conaway to the Glendale Recharge Ponds and Desert Botanical Garden. Glendale hosted a variety of birds as usual and the Botanical Gardens gave us a Flammulated Owl that had been found earlier and Dara kindly showed it to us. Seeing a Flam in the lowlands was a first for me. I soon became obsessed with Gila County's Sierra Ancha Wilderness. Three trips were taken there where I teamed up with Caleb, Walker, Dara, and Jeff. It all started when Caleb and I found a pair of Spotted Owls. We all enjoyed the owls, except for Jeff when I took him up there. Thankfully for Jeff, he would see Spotted Owls later in the year to make up for our strikeout on a three hour search. As Jeff and I drove down a rugged road through the woods, we had a different kind of fun cross our paths. A tree blocked the road, and in order to get to the spot where we'd search for Spotted Owls, we'd have to drive over the tree with one side of my truck. I did say we looked for the Spotted Owls for three hours, didn't I? Anyways, it was a good laugh, and my truck held strong, even making it up to Aztec Peak later in the day, the highest point in the Sierra Anchas. Back in the lowland heat, Caleb and I struck out on a Kentucky Warbler at the gorgeous Dateland in Yuma County. But The Boy did find a good rarity in a Baltimore Oriole.
|6.1: Red-faced Warbler at Slate Creek Divide|
|6.2: An expanse of forested terrain and canyons to still explore in Maricopa County...|
|6.3: One of several pockets of Douglas fir and pine stands I found that I hadn't seen before|
|6.4: A lowland Flam|
|6.5: Spotted Owl, Sierra Anchas|
|6.6: Spotted Owl pair, Sierra Anchas|
|6.7: Jeff taking in an overlook at the Sierra Anchas|
|6.8: Me and Caleb at Glendale getting ready to look for shorbs, pic by Jared|
Sometimes it feels really good to tell someone off. That is exactly what I did in the Chiricahuas. Janet Witzeman, Laurie Nessel, Gordon Karre and I were just having fun, and were just sitting a little off the road. Well, some folks considered the road to be the one and only. While we sought out shade under a huge tree right off the road and weren't harming any habitat, the guy who challenged us soon left after I told him off. And you know what, it felt great. The four of us had a blast that day, and we had a lot to enjoy and talk about. Especially under that huge, shaded, freaking tree. We even missed our main target of the trip and one that would be a lifer for Janet, the Slate-throated Redstart. But we didn't care, we still had Elegant Trogons and Lucifer Hummingbirds and great company. And we laughed a lot about the dork who was overly ethical to the exact foot and measurement. Another memory I have right after the Chiricahuas is one with Caleb and Dara. The three of us walked through a lush canyon surrounded by conifers, oaks, and sycamores while walking along a perennial stream. Birds were everywhere, and birds were abundant. Not to mention other wildlife as we descended down well into lower reaches in elevation from where we first started on our navigation. We rushed towards the sound of this enticing bird song once we heard it sound off. Scanning the trees, the bird popped into our views and revealed itself as a Tropical Parula. It was a lifer for all in our trio. The Parula is one we won't get to see often, and it is a striking warbler to say the least. Also making the way onto the list was a handful of other birds that included rarities in Tufted Flycatcher and Flame-colored Tanager. Sounds awesome right? Yeah, for sure. This canyon and a few other canyons we covered lie inside southeastern Arizona's epic Huachuca Mountains. Anywhere below these mountains throughout Arizona's dominant landscape was a true hell fest. Heat was hard to tolerate, and any birding trips done in the desert would have to quickly end or ascend into the mountains once again. In a day of Gila County birding, Caleb and I found Rufous-winged Sparrows in their northernmost limit, and we even hung out with a recently fledged Cooper's Hawk that had left it's nest. And yeah, we went up into the high elevations of the Pinal Mountains shortly after to bird in the coniferous mountains.
|7.1: Gordon Karre, Janet Witzeman, and Laurie Nessel at Cave Creek Canyon in Chiricahuas|
|7.2: Lucifer Hummingbird|
|7.3: Elegant Trogon in Cave Creek Canyon|
|7.4: Tufted Flycatcher in Ramsey Canyon, Huachucas|
|7.5: Apache Spiketail, Huachucas|
|7.6: Tropical Parula, Ramsey Canyon, Huachucas|
|7.7: Flame-colored Tanager, Huachucas|
|7.8: Babysitting a Cooper's Hawk|
|8.1: Hannagan Meadow, Greenlee County, Arizona|
|8.2: One of many meadow areas in Hannagan Meadow|
|8.3: American Three-toed Woodpecker near Hannagan Meadow|
|8.4: Two young Northern Pygmy-Owls along the Blue River|
|8.5: Two Mexican Gray Wolves in Hannagan Meadow. Eagle Creek Pack: collared male 1477 and un-collared female (Naomi is her name for now)|
|8.6: Black Bear at Rose Peak, Greenlee County|
|8.7: Harkness's Dancer along San Francisco River|
|8.8: Common Black Hawk at Lower Eagle Creek|
After my wilderness trip, it was back to the normal of going back to work and the undying heat outside. On my first day off after the trip, the unexpected showed up at Hassayampa River Preserve, Maricopa County's first ever Ruby-throated Hummingbird found by Mary McSparen. The report was quite surprising, and luckily, I had the day off to chase and enjoy the bird, who showed nicely many times for me in the time I spent there. One day after I got off of work, Walker and I went on an afternoon trip down and back to southeastern Arizona to obtain killer looks at Five-striped Sparrows that had become reliable for many birders. It was only my second ever look at the species, and was a big upgrade from the first looks that I had. Also in southeastern Arizona I took a big trip to look for odes which was a memorable trip. During the trip, my first ever Fulvous Whistling-Duck showed up at a wastewater treatment plant and I got to see it a few times during the mentioned trip and another trip after striking out on a Yellow-green Vireo.
|9.1: Maricopa County's first Ruby-throated Hummingbird at Hassayampa River Preserve|
|9.2: Five-striped Sparrow at Box Canyon, SEAZ|
|9.3: Fulvous Whistling-Duck in SEAZ|
It took me until much later in the year to realize my main birding goal for 2018. Perhaps the Greenlee County exploration aided to what came next for me. When 2018 started, I wanted to continue birding Gila County regularly, but the year started off differently than I anticipated. Gila County was put on hold after I had birded it extensively in 2017 and had many memorable trips to go along with it. I don't know what happened, but I got lazy and opted towards interests outside of birding for the first few months of the year, and it took me away from Gila. Rufous-backed Robin was a bird that I didn't go after, one that I would have loved to see in the county. But the right time came around for me and the under-birded region once again, and I grabbed it this time by force. As Rufous-winged Sparrow in the hot desert and a flyover Common Nighthawk on the way back from the White Mountains were my additions for Gila in 2018, I planned to add many more over the course of my upcoming journey. I led my new interest off by looking for shorebirds at the beginning stretch of shorebird migration at Roosevelt Lake. The north and south sides of the massive lake held good situations for shorebirds on my first trip, and to a point of letdown, I couldn't come up with a family member of my quarry better than a Killdeer. Searching and working for birds was not easy, as the summer still scorched up to it's maximum effect. Going around and around the first time in my Gila County searching wasn't a memorable one, but what it did was motivate me to come right back and try it all over again.
|10.1: The southern stretch of Roosevelt Lake. White Pelican flock on sandbars.|
I'll never forget how serious I took Gila County after that first go around. I told some of my close friends about my new found passion for the county, and it was one that would exceed my passion that I had for it the previous year. As I was sitting at 276 birds for the County, I wanted to work towards 300. I didn't think I'd have a chance at that number before 2018 was over. A change was needed in my life after not having a main birding goal for 2018 up until this point, and once I realized it, I couldn't stop myself from going full force. I knew that Gila County and the next months would be my project that would define my birding life for the year. Without letting the previous week of mundane shorelines discourage me, I went right back out to that gigantic lake again to look for shorebirds. While I didn't have numbers that popped out immediately, I did add my first Wilson's Phalarope and Semipalmated Plover to my Gila list at various stops along the lake. They aren't rare birds or anything, but getting them after missing them felt great. At work, my schedule worked out that I would have Wednesdays and Thursdays off. It was something that worked for me and my new pursuit for Gila County. As the next "weekend" would approach, I planned to go on a two day trip to locations, and would bring along supplies and enough food for a camping trip. This plan would help me save more money in the long run and would be more fulfilling for the drive with extending a trip by a day. It was time to go hardcore. A few days before my next trip, I knew that Jeff, Dara, and Laurie were scouring the Pinal Mountains in their highest elevations, birding, and enjoying the range. Dara sent Caleb and I this text of an interesting hawk with a photo attachment, "Guys, what do you think of this Swainson's Hawk". When I looked at it, I knew it wasn't a Swainson's Hawk, and I knew I wanted it for Gila. Jeff had spied this hawk, and between the three of them, they managed to find a second hawk. With Jeff being a raptor expert, he called the bird out in the field on the second. Picture Jeff simply looking up with gaudy music playing behind him and saying, "Hey, look, a Short-tailed Hawk". Their trio managed to find two of the rare hawks, suggesting breeding for the scarce but expanding species in Arizona. As I stared at the photograph for a long time at work, I knew where I was starting off my camping trip in the following days. They had found an epic bird, and it was one I knew I needed to have. On top of that, they had Spotted Owls in some canyon in the range, those awesome Pinals. When I made my way up to Pinal Peak a few days later, I had an annoying mix of sun and clouds. It hurt my eyes to look up as I was searching for the birds. After about four hours of walking back and fourth in my search of a relatively short distance, the clouds cleared and the weather became sunny. I noticed more raptors, the first being Turkey Vultures, starting to lift up and soar in thermals. Every raptor like thing in the sky caught my attention, and before I knew it, I saw the one. One of the Short-tailed Hawks ended up right over my head, and I had some epic looks at the rare bird as it not only soared but swiftly dropped in elevation and dove down into lower elevations. I quickly let Jeff and Dara know that I re-found their bird and huge thank yous went out to them. The Short-tailed Hawk is one of the best birds I've seen in Gila County, and on a funny note, is one of the only birds I've chased in Gila County. Gila is too under-birded. From the Pinals I went to Roosevelt Lake before heading up to the Mogollon Rim area to Valentine Ridge Campground to camp out for the night. I loved camping in the high elevations just below the Rim, and at night, I heard the sounds of Saw-whet and Northern Pygmy-Owls, as well as Elk. When I woke up, I got my target for that area in Montezuma Quail that I heard giving ghostly calls in the surrounding hills. After a few attempts, I couldn't get to a spot where I could actually get in position see a Quail (as far as I know). I went to many beautiful spots that day in the high country below the rim. A lot of it was to search for American Three-toed Woodpecker, which is scarce in Gila County on slopes immediately below the rim. I wasn't successful. One stretch of driving back I was going 70 mph in a 65 mph lane when up above the rim. My camping stuff came loose and I was scared my stuff would fly out. I didn't exceed 70 because of that. But yet some idiot still found reason to tailgate me to the tail for a few miles even as I was going 70. As they passed me on my turnoff to Woods Canyon Lake, they gave me some dumb taunting obnoxious look as we briefly paralleled each other. I don't think my middle finger has ever gone up any faster to someone.. At least the Woods Canyon Lake turnoff is in Coconino County and not in Gila County, and I left my lifer "gesture while driving" behind me. I went back down into the scorching valley of Roosevelt Lake again to conclude my trip, and there weren't any good highlights, perhaps middle finger birding karma.
|11.1: Semipalmated Plovers at Roosevelt Lake|
|11.2: Short-tailed Hawk starting to make some acrobatic moves|
|11.3: Short-tailed Hawk soaring above me in the Pinals, what an epic bird|
|11.4: Red Crossbill just below the Mogollon Rim|
|11.5: Roosevelt Lake can look awesome in any weather condition..|
The next birding/camping trip came the following week, and was centered around Roosevelt Lake again with some birding around Payson. After having limited success in the previous three weeks at the lake, my commitment really payed off. The first day of birding Tonto Creek and Roosevelt Lake gave me Gila firsts of Black Tern, Red-necked Phalarope, Long-billed Curlew, and a small oriole that turned out to be an Orchard Oriole! (thanks Caleb) I was pumped up as the day concluded and had success at Roosevelt, where I also camped out. The East Verde River north of Payson caught my attention on the second day of the trip, as well as several other spots near Payson. I scouted locations for future trips, and didn't find anything to scream about before returning to Roosevelt Lake again. By this time, I was tired once I got to the same old lake again. I couldn't help but take a one hour nap. When I woke up, I started birding and I found a rare Reddish Egret dancing along the shore. I was shocked and wasn't expecting to find this species. A lame celebration dance was executed on my part at sight of the egret, who's foraging efforts really do resemble some sort of dance. After enjoying the rarity for a good amount of time, I went to the mudflats at the north shore of the lake to look for shorebirds. A rare Semipalmated Sandpiper added even more to the fun. As the trip concluded, I reached 6 additions for Gila County, all at Roosevelt Lake! When I went home for the next 5 days before another return camping trip to the county, I studied a lot of maps and wanted to bird the San Carlos Reservation during one of the two days that I would have. This particular tank caught my eye on the reservation, which was just northwest of the town of San Carlos, labeled as "Tufa Stone Tank". The Tank looked big and promising according to maps, and although I was unsure of it, I wanted to make a point to stop at the spot and see what it held. As my trip began for the next week, I started off and camped at Roosevelt Lake. The Vaux's Swifts, passerine migrants, and uncommon shorebirds I hoped for didn't show up during this visit. As I camped at Roosevelt Lake again, I had the San Carlos Reservation on my mind, and that mysterious tank lingered in my mind more than others. A variety of possible trips ran through my mind on that second day, but when I woke up, I went to San Carlos and headed toward the tank. The tank was easy to access, and when I pulled up, I saw that it was full of water and had healthy surroundings. It seemed quiet at first, but as I entered the tank, I discovered that it was a secret birding mecca, one that hadn't been birded before. Almost immediately, I found a wanted Gila bird of mine along the shores of the largely aquatic tank, a Northern Waterthrush. Working my way around Tufa Stone Tank, I was overwhelmed by an abundance of birds, way more than I thought would be there. Water was deep enough for diving ducks, the shoreline was great for shorebirds, weedy areas surrounding the tank held abundant sparrows, willow stands in spots held abundant migrants, tall amaranth added fun, and stands of mesquite desert surrounded the area. It was similar to falling into some hidden world, and I was in disbelief in how awesome it was. I was stupid enough to spend only two hours there, even though my list exceeded 70 species and a second Northern Waterthrush in that amount of time. The San Carlos spots I visited following Tufa: San Carlos River, Talkalai Lake, a few tanks, San Carlos Sewage Ponds added up to adding my third Northern Waterthrush of the day. On my way home I went back to my favorite Roosevelt Lake spots to scan, again...
And I couldn't wait to tell the birding community about TUFA STONE TANK...
|12.1: Orchard Oriole at Roosevelt Lake|
|12.2: Beavers at Roosevelt Lake|
|12.3: Snowy and Reddish (!) Egrets at Roosevelt Lake|
|12.4: Semipalmated Sandpiper, Roosevelt Lake|
|12.5: Huge flock of White-faced Ibis at the southern stretch of Roosevelt Lake|
|12.6: Me parked above Tufa Stone Tank|
|12.7: Tufa Stone Tank|
|12.8: Tufa Stone Tank|
|12.9: Northern Waterthrush at Tufa Stone Tank|
|12:10: Bald Eagle on a neat perch at Talkalai Lake (also on San Carlos Reservation)|
The birding community took big interest in Tufa Stone Tank once I publicly talked about it. For the next week, which would be the fourth consecutive week of me camping out and taking two day trips to Gila County, I went straight back to Tufa Stone Tank to spend a lot more than two hours at the site. I ran into Janine McCabe there, and she had taken great interest in the spot after I mentioned it. Janine and I split up and would call each other when we'd find interesting species. Tufa once again delivered, and I got four new Gila birds in the four hours spent: Vaux's Swift and Greater White-fronted Goose on the expected side and Dickcissel and Grasshopper Sparrow on the rarer side. The Dickcissel and Grasshopper Sparrow were great to find, which already brought my Gila list to 293 species in a little over a month of hardcore birding campouts. I searched San Carlos Lake and Roosevelt Lake (again) that day after my second exploration of Tufa Stone Tank, confirming it's continuing emergence as an awesome birding location. After camping out at Roosevelt Lake, I spent another second day at Tonto Creek and Roosevelt Lake. My Gila first Lark Bunting crossed my path at Tonto Creek as well as another Northern Waterthrush and Dickcissel, and the Reddish Egret popped up again at Roosevelt Lake. Reading over this probably sounds like I'm obsessed with Roosevelt Lake. I pretty much am, and birding it on consective days and weeks was a good way to give good data for eBird and see trends in bird movement. This summary has to be more brief, but I could go on for paragraphs about the birds of Roosevelt Lake, my favorite Gila County patch. The next week was similar to the previous, and I knew that it was going to be another kick butt Gila County birding trip. It was back to Tufa Stone Tank and the San Carlos Reservation I went. For a third consecutive week, Tufa Stone Tank was the MVP. Instead of Most Valuable Player, I'll call it Most Valuable Place. At least I thought so. Scouring the tank gave me two more Gila lifers: a first year Common Tern as well as a Clay-colored Sparrow in midst of a large sparrow flock. The Dickcissels and Grasshopper Sparrow continued, and another surprise was my second ever Cassin's Sparrow for Gila County. I birded Talkalai and San Carlos Lakes too. At San Carlos, my world soon turned upside down at the sight of a distant Jaeger on the lake. San Carlos Lake is huge, and is encompassed by Gila, Graham, and Pinal Counties. While I was scanning from Pinal County, I looked north into Gila County to catch sight of the Jaeger. I watched it for a few minutes. It stayed in one spot, lifted it's wings once, and I got the impression of a Parasitic Jaeger. My stupidity and excitement of never seeing a Jaeger took over, and I tried to navigate around to the side of the lake that I saw it on. That was an epic fail too. I lost the Jaeger for the day, and I was convinced that it wouldn't be present for the next day. In midst of parasitic-ing (is that a word?) myself, I somehow drove off the road and got stuck in deep sand. I was screwed, and explaining my location to a towing company was very difficult. The state of panic I was in was not fun. I couldn't help but blame the Jaeger. But out of nowhere came a friendly Indian couple, and they were glad to help me and pull me out of my mess. As dark approached and as I left San Carlos, the kindness of the couple left a huge impact on me. Driving into Globe, I was relieved to see civilization after planning to sleep aside my truck that should've been stuck overnight. I wanted to empty out my wallet and start handing out cash to people. Once accepting the gift of generousity and being haunted by the Jaeger, I went to camp out at Roosevelt Lake. I was positive that the Jaeger was gone after failing to relocate it, so I enjoyed my Gila first Black-and-white Warbler the following day at Gisela, as well as a lot more of, you know it by now. .................. Lake. A few days later, Babs Buck, a group of David Stejskal, Molly Pollock, and Mark Stevenson, and several other birders went out to San Carlos Lake, and reported a continuing Jaeger as Parasitic. I knew where I was going first for another two day camping trip to Gila County, once again..
|13.1: Tufa Stone Tank still exists...|
|13.2: Greater White-fronted Goose at Tufa Stone Tank|
|13.3: Dickcissel at Tufa Stone Tank|
|13.4: Greater White-fronted Goose leaving Tufa Stone Tank with Janine getting some photographs of it|
|13.5: Grasshopper Sparrow at Tufa Stone Tank|
|13.6: Lark Bunting along Tonto Creek|
|13.7: Two Ospreys within a close proximity at Roosevelt Lake|
|13.8: The rare Reddish Egret continuing at Roosevelt Lake|
|13.9: Roosevelt Lake|
|13.10: Common Tern at Tufa Stone Tank|
|13.11: Black-and-white Warbler at Gisela|
|13.12: Clay-colored Sparrow at Tufa Stone Tank|
My next trip had the Parasitic Jaeger as number one. I decided to count my observation as that species based on what I saw on it's wing pattern and impression of size. But that factoid was crap based upon the fact that I wanted a good look at it. After starting off at Tufa Stone Tank for awhile, I went straight to San Carlos Lake in hopes of getting a better look at my Jaeger. After scanning for awhile from one stop, I went to another stop overlooking the lake, and there the Jaeger was. It was a dark Jaeger, one that was harder to identify than light morph Jaegers. I stayed with it until I got to watch it fly. With my lack of experience with Jaegers, it was a complicated and challenging study for me. Most looks I had responded to Parasitic Jaeger, especially with the central tail feathers. There were a lot of birds that congregated off of a spit of land, ducks, gulls, shorebirds, terns, the jaeger, you name it. As the Jaeger went away for awhile, I saw a few terns feeding off the landspit. I climbed down for a better vantage point, and true to Jaeger nature, I hoped that it would come in to steal prey caught by the terns or the gulls. My strategy worked out well, and before I knew it, the well named Parasitic Jaeger flew right up to where I was standing and it harassed the heck out of the Common Terns who had worked for their catch. The Jaeger took it right away, and it's close encounter with me left me grateful beyond words. As the Jaeger chased the Common Tern beside me, the Common Tern almost sounded like a monkey being murdered. After a few flybys, the Jaeger sat fairly close and ate it's parasitic catch. From then on, rain poured down for the rest of the day and I wasn't able to bird much further before settling down at Roosevelt Lake to camp out for the night. The following morning came early, well before sunrise. I was craving the mountains, and I was craving that American Three-toed Woodpecker for Gila. I was also craving to experience rutting Elk that were mostly in evidence by the sound of their eery but majestic bugles. The slopes below the Mogollon Rim off of Colcord Road northeast of Payson was my bet to get both the Woodpecker and the Elk. From the start, I had no problem hearing loads and load of Elk. At one point, I crossed paths with a massive bull in a thick stand of timber. As I tried to photograph him, I also crossed paths with a swarm of mosquitoes. Shortly after, the wanted woodpecker sounded off and also drummed. Following the sounds, I finally caught up with my Gila Three-toed Woodpecker after a handful of attempts. The fun of county birding! More of Payson and Roosevelt Lake concluded my trip without further highlights, but this particular trip of getting the Jaeger and Woodpecker as key birds was one to always remember.
|14.1: Parasitic Jaeger at San Carlos Lake|
|14.2: Parasitic Jaeger chasing down a Common Tern|
|14.3: The steep road up towards the Mogollon Rim to search for my Gila County Three-toed Woodpecker|
|14.4: American Three-toed Woodpecker, barely in Gila County!|
|14.5: Red-necked Phalarope at Roosevelt Lake|
I found myself back at Tufa Stone Tank and the San Carlos Reservation again to start a day off for the fifth week in a row. The place became my addiction. This time what was more rare than any bird was that I had company with me, Jeff and Dara. They really wanted to see Tufa Stone Tank, and especially a Parastic Jaeger. Tufa held it's usual abundance of birds, including continuing Grasshopper Sparrow and Dickcissels. Vaux's Swifts overhead were fun, and a big highlight came from a three way lifer for us in a Mohave Rattlesnake. We had a little too much fun with the snake. Heading up to San Carlos Lake we stopped at the Sewage Ponds to run into Chris Benish. Chris had bad news, stating he saw the Jaeger head off for the hills. On the flipside, my Gila lifer Pyrrhuloxia appeared at the ponds. The looks weren't great, but as I showed Dara and Jeff while overlooking San Carlos Lake, we realized the cardinal species was a Pyrrhuloxia. It was kinda cool, the Pyrrhuloxia became my 300th species for Gila County, a goal I didn't think I'd reach before 2018's end. My friends and I searched and scanned for the Jaeger, and it wasn't to be seen again. I even got my truck stuck in sand for awhile. It was my second time in two freaking weeks of having it happen to me. Thankfully, Jeff and Dara didn't have cameras on to capture the fit I threw. But with Jeff's guidance, I managed to drive out after twenty minutes of being stuck. After Dara and Jeff went home, I continued exploring tanks further north on the San Carlos Reservation. These tanks are surrounded by grassland habitat as well and some higher elevation forests. While most of the tanks didn't have water, I liked the potential of the area to go along with a large flock of Pinyon Jays. I stayed in that remote area of Gila County for the rest of the day, and camped underneath a starry sky at Jones Water Campground. The next day I was exhausted and prevailed through the Winkleman and Gila River area, followed by scanning my favorite locations at Roosevelt Lake. Rain hit up the forecast on the next week following a hurricane that held potential to bring seabirds into Arizona. The seabirds never came as the hurricane's power dissolved, and after sticking close to home, I made time for another Gila camping trip on the second of three days off. I birded Roosevelt, camped out at Roosevelt, and then spent time at the northeastern part of the county near the tanks where I birded the previous week. Senecca Lake caught my attention the past week after a brief scouting stop. It has a lot of potential, and after starting my day off there and several hours later, I couldn't come up with any major highlights. Birding Jones Water Campground and Timber Camp Groupsite was next. They are enjoyable spots, and this random riparian wash I've birded in the area is too. As I intended to spend my entire day birding, I finally lost my spark around noon. I finally reached my point of exhaustion for my Gila County camping trips. It was my eighth consecutive week of doing the crazy trips, and I had finally reached my point of, "enoughs enough". I couldn't go any further into the day, other than head home and crash. The eight week ride was one of the funnest birding goals I've ever completed in my life. My Gila life list went from 276 to 300 species during that time, and I put myself in the position to get 300 species for the second time in a county. Almost all of the time was spent solo other than the plans with Dara and Jeff and running into people several times. I found myself craving humanity a little more after all the trips. The birding in Gila didn't stop there by any means, only the camping trips did. What an awesome two months it was...
|15.1: Lots of grassy stuff at Tufa, can you spy the Grasshopper Sparrow?|
|15.2: Vaux's Swift going over Tufa|
|15.3: Mohave Rattlesnake at Tufa Stone Tank|
|15.4: My 300th Gila County bird, a Pyrrhuloxia|
|15.5: The grasslands surrounding the other tanks on the San Carlos Reservation|
|15.6: Coues' White-tailed Deer at Senecca Lake|
|15.7: Hybrid Red-naped X Red-breasted Sapsucker at Jones Water Campground|
I soon found myself busy with more of life outside birding. The Phoenix Suns season was starting soon. Family get together events were coming up. I had expenses to make up for. My Gila County expeditions became a day trip once a week rather than consuming all of my 2.5 days off of work per week. I'd still hit up a lot of my favorite spots during the time I had, especially riparian areas along Tonto Creek such as Bar X and Gisela, and of course, Roosevelt Lake. The San Carlos Reservation became too far after awhile. One day I got two Gila lifers to go past an even three hundred: American Redstart at Tonto Creek and an overdue Horned Grebe at Roosevelt Lake. As cooler times quickly came, so did some of those winter birds. I went out to the grasslands and tanks of that northern part of the San Carlos Indian Reservation to get my first Chestnut-collared Longspur for Gila County. The cooler fall weather also brought in a Winter Wren to Tonto Creek adjacent to the small town of Gisela, another Gila life bird. One day Maricopa County kicked in and provided me a new Maricopa County life bird, one that was unexpected, which was an Iceland Gull. Melanie Herring found the bird at Lake Pleasant, and I teamed up for it the next day with Jeff, Dara, and Laura Ellis. Jeff spied the bird the hard way was it was barely peaking it's head up over a rock. We ended up getting great looks at the rare gull, a Maricoper for all of us (lifer for some), and we got treated to a boat tour by the epic Mary McSparen and her husband Chris. A few more Gila County day trips were taken at the end of fall for me. One trip was to scout the town of Young and it's grasslands. While it's likely an epic place for birds, the private property in abundance make it an awful place for birding. More trips were taken to Tonto Creek and Roosevelt Lake. My last Gila lifer for 2018 was a White-throated Sparrow that I found at a pocket of vegetation at Roosevelt Lake, my 305th species for the county.
|16.1: American Redstart at Tonto Creek|
|16.2: Winter Wren at Gisela|
|16.3: Winter Wren trying to look big|
|16.4: Iceland Gull at Lake Pleasant|
|16.5: Iceland Gull at Lake Pleasant|
|16.6: White-throated Sparrow at Roosevelt Lake|
|17.1: Black-legged Kittiwake at Arrowhead Lakes. A screenshot, I still haven't uploaded my actual photos.|
What a year 2018 was. I'd like to thank everyone I've mentioned on here. A few bigger shoutouts too: Big thanks to Josh for joining and helping Janet and I on our trip to Minnesota. Thanks Caleb for being my birding mentor and buddy who'd be curious about all my birding trips throughout the year, especially on my many solo Gila County trips. Thanks Caleb, Dara, and Jeff for the several times you birded with me in Gila County to share some of my biggest current birding passion with me. Thanks Amaranthe for keeping me awake on the road trips with your awesome genre of metal. And now for the fun part of this post, here are my favorites, quick glancers, and top tens of the year!
Overall Lifers gained: American Black Duck, Carolina Wren, Fan-tailed Warbler, Tropical Parula, Fulvous Whistling-Duck, Parasitic Jaeger, Mexican Duck (split from Mallard)
|Since I forgot to include a picture of the American Black Duck...|
Maricopa County Lifers: Ruby-throated Hummingbird, Iceland Gull
Gila County: I went from 275 species at the end of 2017 to 305 species at the end of 2018. 31 additions during the year, and every year from here on out Gila County will be a category, as I enjoy it just as much as I ever have enjoyed Maricopa County.
Arizona additions: Carolina Wren, Fan-tailed Warbler, Tropical Parula, Ruby-throated Hummingbird, Mexican Duck (split from Mallard), Fulvous Whistling-Duck, Parasitic Jaeger, Iceland Gull
Favorite moment of 2018: Seeing two subspecies of Gray Wolf. One was one of the subspecies in the north, probably the Eastern Timber Wolf subspecies. The other was my very favorite, getting to document two Mexican Gray Wolves in Hannagan Meadow, Greenlee County, Arizona. They are the Eagle Creek Pack. I've recently read that Mexican Gray Wolves may be North America's most original wolf subspecies...
Favorite trip of 2018: Tie between Minnesota in winter with Josh and Janet, as well as my solo Greenlee County trip
Most exciting place to bird in 2018: Tufa Stone Tank
Place I birded most in 2018: Roosevelt Lake, yeah....
Top 10 Birds of 2018
10. American Three-toed Woodpecker in Gila County: In county birding, some of the birds that may be common in parts of Arizona might be scarce elsewhere, resulting in limited numbers in a county. Example: Spotted Owl in Maricopa County. Three-toed Woodpecker provided that fun in Gila County, and was that scarce but resident county bird that was a blast to find and land just below the Mogollon Rim off of Colcord Road.
9. Reddish Egret: One of my favorite personal finds I've had in Gila County. I found it later in August and it continued through the end of November at the latest. It was truly my buddy, and it was reliable for most of the birders who chased it and looked for it.
8. Iceland Gull: Heck of a bird for Maricopa County, found at Lake Pleasant. Thanks Melanie!
7. Tropical Parula: Well worth a big hike, this bird was the spark to go on one of my favorite hikes taken in 2018, and I went with Caleb and Dara. This Tropical Parula summered in Ramsey Canyon, and we went on a day that Ramsey Canyon Preserve was closed. We hiked to the spot from Carr Canyon, and it was a long but awesome hike. On top of the Parula, we also got to see Tufted Flycatcher and Flame-colored Tanager in the canyon, making an eBird list that was dominated by ABA rarities.
6. Ruby-throated Hummingbird: One I didn't think I'd get in Maricopa County in 2018! This bird was a one day wonder at Hassayampa River Preserve. Thanks Mary!
5. Fan-tailed Warbler: Mega awesome. Whitetail Canyon in the Chiricahuas. Thank you Rick Taylor. Josh, Steve, and I saw this bird walking on Rick's lawn from the car before we got out to start birding. Not only was the Fan-tailed Warbler impressive, but so was the yard and all of the birds it attracted.
4. Great Gray Owls: Josh, Janet, and I saw three different Great Gray Owls on one day in the Minnesota winter. I saw one Great Gray before these ones, and with it being my favorite owl as well as one of my favorite birds, seeing them earns a well placed spot on any the top ten. One of the Great Grays we found we found ourselves, which was fun to achieve.
3. Boreal Owls: My first adult Boreal Owl sighting was epic, but brief. The trip to Minnesota gave me great looks at two adults in daylight (one continuing into night where we used flashlights), and were Janet Witzeman's lifer. Great to share these sightings with Josh and Janet. Boreal Owls irrupted into Minnesota during winter in the earlier months of 2018, which is caused by crashing rodent populations further north due to extremely harsh winter conditions. It gives birders plenty to be excited about, but on the flip side, it's not good for the birds.
2. Short-tailed Hawk: As Gila County has become my main birding passion over this last year, I've hardly had any birds to chase within the region because birders are really scarce in it. But when Jeff, Dara, and Laurie found two Short-tailed Hawks in the Pinal Mountains, I immediately chased the hawks on my next day off. Not only was the rare raptor the best bird I've chased in Gila County, but it is one of the best birds I've seen in the County. Winning the chase was truly rewarding when one of the Short-tailed Hawks made it's epic appearance. Thanks Jeff, Dara, and Laurie!
1. Parasitic Jaeger: Since I had started birding, I had always wanted to see a Jaeger. It never mattered what kind out of three species, I wanted to cross paths with one of them. Especially with close views somewhere in Arizona. The San Carlos bird easily wins the bird of the year. After I saw the bird way off about a mile in the distance and couldn't get an ID on the bird, I was upset that I blew my chances with it by trying to navigate the lake to attempt getting closer instead of keeping an eye on it. Turns out the bird continued and as I was back at San Carlos the next week and waiting along shore, the Jaeger made several close passes by me. It was awesome to find it in Gila County, and it really capped off my Gila County goal for 2018 of exploring and finding my own birds.
Concluding this post, 2018 was a fun year for birding. It was more simple than previous birding years I have had. I don't know what's in store for my birding in 2019. There will be some awesome birds, and some awesome goals and trips to meet and take. I do have a project in mind that I want to attempt. But a project is a project, and this one I have an idea for will take a long time to write and create. I guess I won't say what it is yet, because as badly as I want to create this new project, it will be just as difficult to start and finish it. It will probably take more than a year to complete. I will say that for 2019, I hope to take some awesome trips to states I haven't birded in yet, and I hope to keep birding Arizona's under-birded, especially in Gila and Greenlee Counties. Thanks all you readers for reading along, and cheers to your birding in 2019.