Tuesday, June 25, 2013

My Top 15 Finds In My Arizona Birding "Career" So Far

I started my birding career when I was a little kid just over 13 years ago.  June 18th, 2000 was the date when I started at Goldwater Lake in Prescott.  So it's been just over 13 years.  Despite the 13 year fib, I've only been a "serious" birder for 5 years.  What's a serious birder?  Hmmmm.....I eBird.  I take notes.  I find and document rarities.  I participate in county listing.  I read the rare bird alerts daily.  I chase rarities.  I make friends with other birders.  I attempt big days.  I did two big years.  I write Maricopa County guides online to help other birders.  I keep field notes for every place I stop at.  I do over half of my birding by ear.  That's a serious birder for ya!  But not really, if someone really enjoys birding, they are a serious birder.  Please do ignore that crazy list.  For the first eight years of my birding, I was pretty oblivious and clueless to most of what was really around me.  I only went birding during camping trips and a few times around my home in the Phoenix area every year before I "really" got interested in the hobby.  I was clueless about all the migrants that could show up around home.  When I went to the desert and saw a Western Tanager in August I thought I was seeing things.  I said, "what's this doing out of the forest, I just saw one in Greer?".  In all the items I listed above for being a "serious birder", I never started until 5 years ago.  Before those 5 clueless years, I did have fun, but the true fun began when I realized this hobby could be a treasure hunt:  a treasure hunt anytime and anywhere!

So with birding, I went from dumb and un-informed, to not super intellegent (spelling?) but alert and informed.  When I got "serious", I started to recognize that I could see several hundred species of birds in my home county alone, and yet alone, if I went to southeastern Arizona and beyond, I could get even more.  My previous life list from Greer, Arizona camping trips and three Phoenix area birding trips a year could be bumped up from 200 to 300 in a year or so.   I thought, "WOW...I think I can really have success in this hobby".  And then the Arizona Rare Bird Alert/Listserv came along.  I knew about the bird alerts, and it took me years to figure out how to look at it.  It was hard to find, it's not like I could have googled "Phoenix Rare Bird Alert" or anything like that to find the forums.  Once I found the listserv, I was hooked.  I read every report, and was able to find what seemed to be an endless amount of species.  I soon studied MIGRATION, something I didn't know much about before 2008, and I realized how many species pass through and what time they do.  It sure was exciting to find out this information, and the amount of lifers I started to get who were migrants were mind blowing.  Hammond's Flycatcher...WOW!  I started to finally get a real understanding about when and where birds will be present.  I then literally memorized all of the birds that have been found in Arizona, and when and where each species breeds and is present.  And then a report came into the listserv one afternoon about a Tennessee Warbler at the Gilbert Water Ranch.  This bird is rare in Arizona, and is from eastern North America.  I thought, wow, I want this bird.  I went and saw the warbler and had a new calling:  "Gosh, I want to find a crazy rarity like that!".  I started to study rarities, and then I started to find some of my own.  No, it wasn't a Western Tanager in the desert that was "rare because it wasn't in the forest", but they were real rarities.  Well, most of them.  Some birds occur regularly all year but are hard to find, and may be just as hard to come across as a rarity would be.

Rarity hunting is one of the most exciting aspects to birding, and it is certainly one of my favorites.  Finding a first state or even county record can make a birder's dream, or one that's just rare and way out of it's normal range in general.  For birders like me who haven't been back east, "eastern warblers" and strays from the east are very exciting.  Finding a bird that is rare on a county level is very fun too, or a first breeding record for an area.  It may be something elusive that might be found by chance, such as an owl that might not be a "rarity" but is very hard to find.  In this segment below, I am summarizing my 15 favorite "Rare Finds" below.  This doesn't just have to do with the bird record wise, but it also has to do with ironic situations and how lucky the finds are.  Now that I'm a serious birder and know about most species and what's been found in Arizona (both regular and rare), and I've had my share of finding rare birds, birding is always a fun thing.  To me it's about enjoying God's creation, getting outdoors, having fun, and learning something new.  And finding and seeing rarities is always a fun thing.  But the definition of rare means rare, and in most outings, I won't find something rare, so don't ever just focus on rarity hunting to get enjoyment out of birding.  It's all fun, common and rare.  But in this write-up, I will summarize my top 15 finds of my birding "career" in countdown format.  Most of them are real rarities in Arizona, and others aren't rare record wise but were crazy finds.  So these sightings have come from the last five years of my birding!  Read along!

# 15:  Who gives a flying fart?

On May 12th, 2012, I went to Tres Rios Wetlands during the Spring Migration Count for Arizona.  I wasn't thinking I was going to find anything out of the ordinary, but a large Cantopus flycatcher caught my eye.  It looked interesting to me, like a Greater Pewee like interesting.  I was stoked because I had never seen that species in the county.  It had the right field marks for the species, and I recorded it in my notebook.  The downside was that I did have a brief look at the Pewee without a picture, but it didn't strike me as anything else.  I reported it to the list and soon after I got emails from several people saying how a Greater Pewee is unprecedented in the lowlands, such as the 1000' Tres Rios.  I felt somewhat stupid and decided to retract my sighting, even though I did see all the right field marks.  The next day on May 13th, 2012, I went to the Hassayampa River and stopped at the Roadside Rest Area just south of the Hassayampa River Preserve.  I was still annoyed about the Pewee, more so at the fact I probably sounded like I was crazy.  When I was walking along the river at the roadside rest, a bird caught my eye.  It was a Dickcissel.  This bird has a bizarre name and it even has a callnote that's even more bizarre.  It's callnote sounds like a human's fart and the call is mainly given when the bird takes flight.  When I whipped out my camera, the bird of course flew away, "farting" as it went.  After the frustrating sequence of the bird farting and flying off, I saw that it landed in a patch of numerous weeds along the river.  I managed to sneak up on it and get a few good pictures.  The bird ended up staying for the morning.  Dickcissel is a rare bird in Arizona, mainly known as a rare but annual fall migrant in the state.  It is accidental any other time of the year in Arizona, and was unprecedented in Maricopa County during the spring before this bird that I found with only a few historical spring records in all of Arizona.  So this was a crazy find, and a Greater Pewee was definitely more likely than finding a Dickcissel.  Who gives a flying fart about the Greater Pewee I thought I had?  After this sequence, I believe it was a Greater Pewee.  A migrating "highlander" needs somewhere to land.  Would this Dickcissel give a flying fart about landing in the high country if it was migrating over?

Status of species:  Rare but annual fall migrant throughout Arizona.  Accidental at all other times.

Ironic statement:  It was after I was questioned about a less rare bird.  This was even more rare.

Dickcissel at Hassayampa River on May 13th, 2012

# 14:  Short-tempered in the High Country

In May of 2011, Jim Koptizke and I found a Swainson's Hawk in the high elevations of Slate Creek Divide that we identified initially as being North America's north-most ever Short-tailed Hawk.  I even had a dream of finding Maricopa County's first ever Short-tailed Hawk in Maricopa County's Mazatzal Mountain range.  We saw this bird was in Gila County slightly however, and I was mad that it didn't fly into Maricopa County.  I already had a "Shortie" on my state list, so it wasn't as cool as finding it in Gila County, which already has a record in the Pinal Mountains.  The fact we had the northernmost record got me going.  The rest of our party saw the brief video I got of the bird and sided with us about the bird being a Short-tailed Hawk.  After I reported it to the listserv and submitted pictures to AZFO, I realized it was a Swainson's Hawk, which I had fears of in the field all along.  Embarrassing!  After writing a retraction to the listserv, I hoped I would never had another negative Short-tailed/Short-tempered situation like that again.  Earlier this year, in May of 2013, I was birding with Lauren Harter, David Vander Pluym, Bobby Wilcox, and Morgan Jackson in the Chiricahuas in extreme southeastern Arizona.  We were looking for high elevation birds in the high country, included hopeful looks at Mexican Chickadees, which would be a lifer for me.  In hours of looking, we didn't see any chickadees and I was angry inside.  I was expecting them.  But times when the expected doesn't happen in birding, the unexpected does.  Short-tailed Hawks have bred in the Chiricahuas a few times, and when we were at Barfoot Park, I look up and spied....a Short-tailed Hawk.  It was a great bird for everyone and was a state bird for Lauren.  And I was still fuming mad the chickadee wasn't around.  I wanted a Chickadee more than a Shortie if I had a choice, but the hawk was a great find.  A flock of Mexican Chickadees were seen by us the next day though, so I did get it eventually on the trip.  Hopefully I won't have a short temper the next time I see a Shortie!

Status of species:  Very rare in Arizona, but is increasing.  Has breed in Barfoot Park a few times in the Chiricahua Mountains.

Ironic Statement:  I didn't get an expected Mexican Chickadee during my hardcore chickadee search, but yet found a rare Short-tailed Hawk.  Plus it was good for me to find this bird after goofing it up before.

Short-tailed Hawk at Barfoot Park in Chiricahuas on May 3rd, 2013

And I promise in the rest of this countdown narrative, the pathetic word "retraction" isn't used again!

#13:  Not one Shrike-out at Mormon Lake

On March 30th, 2013, Dominic Sherony and I took a trip north to Flagstaff.  We were after several targets, including Rough-legged Hawks and Evening Grosbeaks around Mormon Lake and whatever else would show up.  It was a day of great success, we found a Rough-legged Hawk, the Evening Grosbeaks, as well as a Golden Eagle and flocks of Franklin's Gulls and American White Pelicans on the Mormon Lake waters. There seemed to be good birds everywhere, but one appeared in the figure of a shrike on a juniper tree as we were standing on the overlook.  I remembered a Northern Shrike had been seen here in previous years.  Because it is rare and was a lifer for me, I quickly got Dominic's scope and looked closer to see it was in fact a Northern Shrike!  Right when we wanted to get closer, the bird took off and didn't return.  We looked for awhile without success and then went elsewhere.  We decided to return to the overlook a few hours later in hopes of relocating the shrike.  After patiently looking, we decided to head back home.  Right as we got back on the road, the Northern Shrike flew across the road in front of the vehicle and back over to the direction of the overlook.  We both freaked out and quickly headed back to the overlook.  After walking down a rocky bluff the shrike flew down towards, we relocated the bird and I was able to get a few decent pictures.  It was a wonderful bird to see that I wasn't expecting at all.  Unexpected lifers can be the best of memories!  

Status of species:  Rare and declining in Arizona as a winter visitor; never seen in the state reliably anywhere.

Ironic statement:  We weren't expecting to find this bird.  When we were about to leave, it happened to show up again by flying across the street in front of us as we were driving home, almost telling us not to leave.

Northern Shrike at Mormon Lake Overlook on March 30th, 2013

# 12:  What was supposed to be a Pygmy walk....

Well, the date of this post goes back to almost six years ago.  This is the only one that I am cheating on to the theme of "the last 5 years".  It's just a little sidetrack.  Another word for little is Pygmy, keep that in mind.  On July 27th, 2007, my family and I were on our annual camping trip to Greer, Arizona, where we were staying at Rolfe C. Hoyer Campground.  This was our tradition every year, and the area of Greer is what really kicked off my hobby in birding.  It was getting to be later in the day on this date of July 27th, 2007, and my Dad started to cook dinner for the night.  My sister Tiffany and I were both bored and we asked Dad if we could take a hike to the nearby Benny Creek.  Since dinner was starting to be cooked, my Dad said to take a quick walk and be back in less than an hour.  As every birder knows, less than an hour really is rushing for a walk.  I was still glad to head down to the Benny with Tiffany.  Along with Clark's Nutcracker's, a Coyote, and a few deer, a small perched bird caught my eye at the base of a ponderosa pine tree.  As I looked with my binoculars, I saw that it was a Northern Pygmy-Owl!  This was the first time I had ever seen this owl, which is roughly the size of a sparrow.  Tiffany and I walked right under the tiny owl and observed it for the majority of the time we had.  Northern Pygmy-Owls are diurnal owls, which means they are active by day, and they are most often located by when they call.  This bird was a recently fledged bird, and it wasn't calling at all.  Locating a Pygmy-Owl by not hearing it's voice or following a mobbing flock of irritated songbirds who hate owls is pure luck.  There ended up being two more young owls in the same area, indicating that the species bred along Benny Creek.  Not bad for a Pygmy hike, eh?  

Status of species:  Northern Pygmy-Owls are uncommon residents in coniferous forests throughout much of Arizona.  They call often during certain times of the year, which gives birders a great chance of finding them.  If they don't call, they are very difficult to find.  

Ironic Statement:  This bird was found by chance, and not by voice.  A tiny owl in a big forest is like finding a needle in a haystack.  Since this bird, I've seen many Pygmy-Owls.  But all of them have been calling birds.

Northern Pygmy-Owl at Greer's Benny Creek on July 27th, 2007

#11:  A Dusky, dark, and mournful song to cap off a Slate Creek bushwhacking adventure

In the northeastern part of Maricopa County, the Slate Creek Divide area is one of the better locations to be found.  Good birding is found from the main road, but even better birding is found by bushwhacking in the rugged terrain through one of the area's forested drainages.  My buddy Jim Kopitzke and I explored this drainage in late May of 2010, and as we were walking down the drainage, we found that it had a nice mix of Douglas fir, ponderosa pine, oak, and sycamores.  We instantly thought that this was a habitat replication of the forested canyons in southeastern Arizona.  Jim even said, "Wow, this is far north, but prime habitat for Dusky-capped Flycatchers".  Now the Dusky-capped Flycatcher is a flycatcher who ranges mainly in Mexico, but is found throughout southeastern Arizona in this appropriate habitat.  It has a distinctive song, which is neat but also very mournful, sad-sounding, and gives a "dusky" and dark depressing feel.  Jim and I heard and saw many good birds at Slate Creek, but none that gave mournful songs.  After walking down this drainage for awhile, it forked with another drainage.  We decided to head back.  After our first excursion to Slate Creek, I decided to head back a few months later on my own on August 9th, 2010.  Despite hearing Jim's voice in my head, "Don't ever go there alone", I needed to go anyways.  I felt as if there was going to be a good bird to be found in the drainage.  On my way down the drainage, I had success as I found my first Maricopa County Mexican Jay, Red Crossbill, and Cordilleran Flycatchers.  As I came across the section of the drainage where Jim and I called it quits, I heard a mournful song.  It was just as mournful as a Dusky-capped Flycatchers song, because it was a Dusky-capped Flycatcher!  I walked further and found that there were a group of these depressed birds, and they were in Maricopa County.  There were only a few accidental occurrences of this species in Maricopa County prior to my discovery here.  In order to find these other Dusky-capped Flycatchers in what turned into another drainage, I got turned around in the wilderness. After losing a water bottle and my main route up I knew I had to head back up.  After nearly stepping on a startled Black-tailed Rattlesnake, I luckily found the drainage I came up.  I was glad to get out of the wilderness once I made it out safely.  Jim and I returned to the drainage again a week later, where we found the Dusky-capped Flycatchers easily.  Not only did we find them, but we saw they were also feeding young, making it a first breeding record of the species for Maricopa County!  It was great to find this bird in good breeding numbers outside of their "normal range".  

Status of species:  Dusky-capped Flycatchers are common in spring and summer throughout southeastern Arizona in forested elevations of 5000' and up.  In Maricopa County, this was the first breeding record.  Historical sightings of the species in the Superstition Mountains and Mount Ord were thought to be accidental.  As I made a return trip in May of 2011, the Dusky-capped Flycatchers were still present in good numbers.  After a fire at Slate Creek in 2012, the status is unknown, hopefully they will return again.

Ironic statement:  Finding a breeding record in Maricopa County was very special.  Jim Kopitzke mentioned the species being possible on our first trek down the drainage.  Had we walked a short distance further, we probably would've had the birds on our first visit.  

Dusky-capped Flycatcher in SE AZ (I wasn't able to get photos of the Slate Creek birds)

#10:  A King visits Gila Bend's neighboring and tiny Powerline Trailerpark

Before Jim Kopitzke moved to Oregon (where he is seeing many good birds!), we birded together a lot.  We also found good birds a lot too, and yes, I'm tooting our own horns!  On September 14th, 2010, we both headed out to look for shorebirds at the Glendale Recharge Ponds and the many ponds found southwest of Phoenix that head down from Palo Verde south to Gila Bend.  I was working on my Maricopa County Big Year, and I was really hoping to get a new bird for the year list.  Despite seeing the rare Least Tern and Semipalmated Sandpiper at the Glendale Recharge Ponds, there were no year birds in sight for me, which I was desperately wanting for my big year.  The day was long and heat was horrible.  As we arrived near Gila Bend, we talked about an Eastern Kingbird that had been found 8 days prior to our visit by Mark Stevenson and Molly Pollock.  This was at the Gila Bend Wastewater Treatment Plant.  I knew this bird wasn't around still as others looked for it without success, and their history in Arizona usually results in short stays where chasing is difficult.  My mind was still on shorebirds, which were limited in Gila Bend.  Once we finished the ponds with no new highlights, I was bored.  We continued driving on a road called Powerline Road that was getting to be eight miles west of the Gila Bend Ponds.  As we were passing by a trailerpark along the road going nearly at 40 mph speeds, I spied a kingbird-shaped bird on a powerline (not the road, a real powerline).  From what I saw, it had a "black-backed" and "white-fronted" approach to it.  I yelled at Jim to stop the vehicle.  Jim pulled a quick U-turn and we got out to quickly relocate the bird.  It was indeed a kingbird, and it was black-backed and white-fronted.  It was an Eastern Kingbird, something we quickly forgot about after our original conversation!!  The heat was horrible, and the kingbird was exhausted and shared it's hatred for the heat with us as it never closed it's bill.  Because this bird was over 8 miles away from Mark and Molly's discovery and was 8 days after their find, I consider this to be a different bird in my book.  Can I prove that, no, but the odds are highly in favor for it being a different bird, especially for a species that is highly migratory and rare to find in Arizona.  It is usually un-chase able.  In the end, it was a great find for Jim and I, and I was surprised I even was able to spy and notice it was "Eastern Kingbird" quality.  The bird often flew around the different trailers in the park, where a few Western Kingbirds were also present.

Status of species:  Rare in Arizona, usually one found in the state annually.  They usually aren't a very chaseable rarity.

Ironic Statement:  This proves I have an eagle eye.  

Eastern Kingbird at Powerline Road Trailer Park on September 14th, 2010

# 9:  When "Surfing" occurs on Fountain Hills Lake

On October 29th, 2011, I headed out to explore a riparian area in the town of Fountain Hills.  This riparian area was awesome, and I was hoping it would carry a nice "eastern" warbler to help add to my list for the Maricopa County Big Year I was working on.  There was also the famous Fountain Hills Lake nearby, which has plenty of waterfowl on the lake to search through annually.  When I was all the way out at Fountain Hills, I got a text message from fellow birder Melanie Herring saying:  "Kurt Radamaker just found a Surf Scoter at the Glendale Recharge Ponds!!".  Now, Surf Scoter was a lifer for me, and before I knew it, I was already back at my truck ready to head out of Fountain Hills.  Three Scoters: the Black, White-winged, and Surf Scoters are large, diving, and mainly sea ducks.  All three are rare in Arizona, with Black being the rarest, White-winged the second rarest, and Surf the more regular, but still rare.  Ironically, I had Black first and White-winged second, but still no Surf!  I wanted this bird!  As I started towards Glendale, a thought did cross my mind: "This Surf Scoter in Glendale is likely to stick around, I should check Fountain Hills lake really quick".  I had my scope with me and decided to make a quick stop at Fountain Hills just incase.  There were a lot of ducks on the water, and one of them immediately caught my attention.  It was "Scoter" shaped but had it's head down.  I watched the bird for awhile until it lifted a Surf Scoter head up!!  The ironic shock hit me and I couldn't believe what I was seeing.  It's not like these birds were everywhere, they are still rare.  I went to the other side of the lake where the bird was, and it was joined by another Surf Scoter.  They were behaving weird, and were feeding right by the edge of the lake on lakeside plants a few feet away from me.  I called my friend Brendon Grice up.  As Brendon pulled up and was still a distance away, he could see me across the lake.  Brendon said, "Please don't tell me that is the bird right by you!".  Over the next hour, Brendon and I enjoyed these two Scoters, a lifer for both of us, at close distances.  As I was on my way to see my first ever Surf Scoter, I found my own Surf Scoter.  And the following day, I went to Glendale to see that bird.

Status of species:  Rare in Arizona, but usually Scoter seen most often in Arizona.

Ironic statement:  How often do you find a specific rare bird you are chasing when you are still on your way to see that specific rare bird?

Surf Scoters at Fountain Hills Lake on October 29th, 2011 (Brendon took the picture of me with the bird)

# 8:  The only time gold has ever been found on a trash can

This next story seems like a fable but I swear I'm not making it up.  On September 24th, 2009, I headed out to the Gilbert Water Ranch in search of migrants.  I knew I would find a variety of different birds in this time frame of the year.  This was also my first "real" year of birding.  I was learning a lot and studying my field guide daily, and I was especially paying attention to studying eastern songbirds.  The warblers were a group of birds I was really working on in my field guide.  When I got to the Water Ranch, I had success early in finding two lifers, Stilt Sandpiper, and my first of millions of American Pipits that were to come.  Also early I stumbled across a warbler foraging very low in one of the camping areas between ponds 1 and 2.  I knew it was something good, and a nice warbler from the east.  It was rather large, had light blue wings, a yellow body overall, and bright white under-tail coverts.  This combination really only matched the Prothonotary Warbler.  From what I saw, the combination was good enough to call the bird, but I didn't even see it's head or eye.  The sighting felt only half-good, which is usually not good enough for me.  I pished and waited, and the bird never resurfaced after thirty minutes of waiting.  The Prothonotary Warbler is found in swampy habitats in the southeastern part of North America and are often referred to as, the "Golden Swamp Warbler".  They are rare in Arizona but one or two are usually found annually.  Although annual, they aren't very easy to chase.  Also, a few had been found prior to this individual at Gilbert Water Ranch itself.  I decided to leave the spot and bird for a few hours around the ranch.  Plenty of birds were around and I was happy with my list, but I was still torn about the Prothonotary.  I wanted to see it better, especially since it was my life bird!  Before I was going to leave, I decided to sit and wait again at the original spot.  This location is a camp spot, and it even has spots for scout troops to build fires, had benches, and a trash can.  After pishing and waiting, I still didn't see the bird again.  I decided to use playback and play the birds song from my iPod device.  Nothing was happening still as I was still staring at the brush in front of me.  I then turned around and looked behind me, and the Prothonotary Warbler was sitting on the trashcan and was looking very confused.  Once I turned around, it jumped into a mesquite above the can.  I was able to get amazing looks at the bird and managed to get a few pictures.  My day at the Gilbert Water Ranch was complete!

Status of species:  Rare in Arizona, is an "eastern" warbler found in southeastern North America in swampy areas.

Ironic statement:  How often do you turn around to find your target rare bird starting at you from behind with an elevated view on a trashcan?

Prothonotary Warbler at Gilbert Water Ranch on September 24th, 2009

# 7:  A huge bonus found in a small patch of grass

I read the rare bird alert from my iPod at a family gathering on November 6th, 2010.  James McKay had reported two potential lifers for me at Scottsdale's Rousseau Sod Farms, both McKown's and Lapland Longspurs.  The Longspurs are rare in Arizona, with McKown's being annual throughout the state and wintering numbers in Southeastern Arizona, and with Lapland being very rare.  I wanted both birds and headed out to the Sod Farms the following day on November 7th.  After arriving early in the morning, birds were abundant on the grassy fields of the farms.  I wanted the Longspurs, and I wasn't expecting to find any surprises greater than these two species.  The McCown's Longspurs found my scope first of the two targets with a very brief look.  I searched more until I got better looks at several McCown's Longspurs.  As I was looking at these McCown's, I noticed a grassy patch behind them, and there was a bird lurking in it.  As it peeked it's head out, I saw that it was a Sprague's Pipit, which was another lifer for me!!  Sprague's Pipit is a regularly occurring but rare bird in grasslands in Arizona during the winter, but it is very hard to find.  Finding a Sprague's was better than the two longspurs combined.  Something spooked the mixed bird flock and the McCown's Longspurs left.  The pipit looked around for a few more seconds then the others had before taking off with it's towering arching flight.  I thought it was gone, and I was able to manage a identifiable picture.  I had to leave after that and return to the farms later in the day, and was joined by Lauren Harter, David Vander Pluym, and Brendon Grice.  We eventually found the Lapland, my last target of the day.  David then found the pipit.  The Sprague's was shockingly tame, and walked out in the open in front of a crowd that eventually numbered close to 15 birders.  This "bonus" of a bird is one I'll never forget.

Status of species:  Winter visitor to tall grass fields in Arizona, elusive and rarely seen.

Ironic Statement:  While I was looking at my lifer McKown's Longspur in the scope, my lifer Sprague's Pipit appeared in the same scope view behind the Longspur in a grassy patch.  That equals two lifers in one scope view.  

Sprague's Pipit at Rousseau Sod Farms on November 7th, 2010

# 6:  The first time for everything

When I got into Arizona birding seriously in 2009, people finding rarities made me hungry to find a great rarity of my own.  I started to search for such birds whenever I went out, hoping for that first awesome discovery.  On August 17th, 2009, my luck changed around.  I went with my brother, Tyler, to the Gilbert Water Ranch for a mellow morning of birding not expecting anything to happen.   There weren't many birds around that morning, but a Black-bellied Whistling-Duck and Hermit Warbler were nice.  As we were walking along the path between ponds 3 and 4, I saw that there was a mixed flock of White-faced Ibis, herons, and egrets wading in a watered area on the north side of basin 4, which was mainly dry.  I walked out to the edge of the basin to look at the flock, when I large and strange bird caught my attention.  It was white and large with an ivory-colored bill.  I knew right away it was my first good rarity, it was a Wood Stork!  While I was pumped up, Tyler simply said, "Oh wow, a Stork" and kept walking.  After calling Brendon Grice, he was there within minutes to photograph the bird.  The Wood Stork entertained us for two hours in the heat, and after word about the Stork became public, many other birders came to see it.  About a month later, the Wood Stork left Gilbert Water Ranch after many more birders enjoyed it.  Wood Storks were once regular visitors to Arizona, but due to decreasing populations and habitat loss, this bird has only been found in Arizona five times since 1990.

Status of species:  Accidental/Casual

Ironic statement:  Tommy's first mega Arizona rarity!  

Wood Stork at Gilbert Water Ranch on August 17th, 2009

# 5:  A confusing identification on a bird and a very long wait....

On November 9th, 2011, I was working and received a text message from Chris McCreedy saying that he had found a Pacific Loon at the Granite Reef Recreation Area on the Salt River.  The Pacific Loon would've been a lifer for me, and I was tempted to make the evening drive after I got out of work.  The temptation wasn't strong enough as I was too tired to head that far east.  I decided to head out to the Glendale Recharge Ponds instead, which are only 15 to 20 minutes away from home.  When I got to the ponds, a large and young gull immediately caught my attention.  It was something unusual.  It sat in front of me in plain view and offered perfect looks, and I shot video and pictures.  I’ve never been good with gulls, but it reminded me of a Glaucous-winged Gull at a first glance.  After consulting my handheld Sibley in the field, I thought the bird seemed dark for the Glaucous-winged Gulls that were illustrated and I thought it was the more likely Herring Gull.  I even reported Herring Gull to the listserv before I dug in my big gull reference book at home.  Looking carefully in the reference book, I saw this bird looked much more like a Glaucous-winged.  I sent pictures that I took to several gull experts, and when David Vander Pluym was calling me just minutes later, I knew it was something good.  David said it was strongly Glaucous-winged, but my pictures couldn’t rule out a hybrid.  Kurt Radamaker thought the same thing too.  Glaucous-winged Gulls hybridize extensively with other gulls, giving vagrant birds a lot more caution.  The photos were sent the next day on the 10th to many gull experts, where it was crazy.  Some said pure Glaucous-winged, others said hybrid with Herring.  It went back and forth, back and forth, a crazy and mind confusing day.  Glaucous-winged Gull is supposed to have a pale wingtips, but a hybrid would show darker wingtips.  My pictures showed what was nearly perfect for a Glaucous-winged Gull, except for the fact the wingtips looked darker than they should've been, which indicated a hybrid.  There was also a good chance the lighting made things look that way.  Meanwhile, Dave Powell was looking at the bird live, thinking it looked fine for Glaucous-winged in the field.  Kurt Radamaker joined Dave and thought so too.  Two experts had thought the bird looked good, and I was happy with the news as Kurt called me and told me about it, but the gull still had one more test to pass…Paul Lehman’s expert eye.  Paul was on his way down from San Diego for a birding trip, and he wanted to look at the gull to be sure.  Having so much experience with gulls and living in California, Paul was the person to make the final call.  Early morning on the 11th, Kurt Radamaker, Dave Powell, Paul Lehman, and Barbara Carlson looked at the bird and Paul too felt it was fine for a pure GLAUCOUS-WINGED GULL!!  I got the good news from Kurt right away, and he explained how they laughed and said they wouldn’t have taken a second look at this bird, had they been in California!  The word went out and many came to see this rarity (7th state record), who ended up being very cooperative and stayed for two weeks.  My first ever Glaucous-winged Gull was at the Salton Sea in California.

Status of species:  Very rare in Arizona, this was only the 7th state record, with the first 5 coming before the 1980's.  A bird in the early 2000's and my bird came from Maricopa County.

Ironic Statement:  No bird has ever given me a headache until this one came along, but it was worth it for a 7th state record to my name!

Glaucous-winged Gull at Glendale Recharge Ponds

# 4:  A Sequ-gull to a great story...

On November 17th, 2011, I was having a good day for birding.  I went to see my first ever Orchard Oriole at someone's feeder, which was my 302nd bird for my Maricopa County Big Year.  I had two key birds for my county list a few days prior, my lifer Pacific Loon that was number 300 for my Big Year and then my Maricopa County first White-throated Sparrow just minutes later for number 301 for the Big Year, both at Granite Reef Recreation Area.  I was also still on a high from the Glaucous-winged Gull find, which was Arizona's 7th state record.  In fact, I was on my way to see the Glaucous-winged Gull at the Glendale Recharge Ponds to enjoy my discovery while it lasted more and more.  When I got to the ponds, I could see the large Glaucous-winged Gull from the distance as it was perched on a stone structure.  Ring-billed Gulls where also around, and there was also a Ring-billed Gull-like-gull perched directly beside the Glaucous-winged.  I walked up to the gulls and looked at them through the scope.  Of course I look at Glaucous-winged first, and then the Ring-billed, and then something strange hit me.  This gull didn't strike me as a Ring-billed Gull.  It had a small appearance, had a rounded head, a very small thin bill, and a "cute" look to it.  This gull appeared to be another Arizona rarity, a Mew Gull!   I took a picture of the birds together and the gull looked even better for a Mew Gull when I looked at the pictures.  It seemed to crazy to be true, so I left the gulls and decided to walk around the basins because I thought I was seeing things.  A half-an-hour later, I returned to find the gull again.  I had even closer looks, and I knew it was the Mew Gull.  I returned home to call David Vander Pluym to be sure about the identification, and he said it was indeed a Mew Gull!  I quickly got the word out the the listserv, and a crowd of birders enjoyed both of the gulls over the weekend. The Mew Gull isn't as rare as a Glaucous-winged Gull is in Arizona, and is considered to be very rare.  My Mew was only the second ever recorded in Maricopa County.  My first Mew Gull was at the Salton Sea in California.

Status of species:  Very rare to Casual in Arizona, with multiple records from the Lower Colorado River.  Accidental in Maricopa County.

Ironic Statement:  Finding this rarity perched with my previous found rarity was one of the craziest things I've seen as a birder!  I'll never forget walking up on that scene!  

Mew Gull at Glendale Recharge Ponds on November 17th, 2011 (w/ G-W Gull in one picture)

# 3:  Third time's a charm

On April 26th, 2010, I was just happy to see that the Glendale Recharge Ponds had water.  With spring migration in hand, there were bound to be goodies showing up in the waterbird department at the ponds.  But during this last month, starting in mid-March, the six basins were all completely dry.  I checked on them once or twice weekly, and came back disappointed every time.  On April 26th, I pulled up to the ponds, and saw that water was in them.  I didn't even really want to come to the ponds, but I had a gut feeling to.  After making the decision to attempt my first Maricopa County Big Year in 2010, I needed to be as hardcore as possible.  At the ponds there are six basins, and the southeastern-most basin was nearly filled with water and the northeastern basin was halfway full.  I walked to the western basins to find them completely dry.  I didn't see one bird in the water in the basins on my first pass by, but I was grateful that water was in them to say the least.  The waterbirds were going to be abundant in a few days, according to my mind.  When I started to head back to my truck, as soon as I got in view of the southeastern basin, I saw that a large gull had landed in the middle of it.  I've never been good with gulls, and I first noticed it had dark eyes.  I thought at first..."hmmm...California Gull".  But then I noticed the gull had a very dark mantle, almost a dark gray/blackish color.  The words of Troy Corman than rang in my ears, "any gull in Arizona with a dark mantle is very rare".  I took pictures as quickly as I could and then I started to look through my iPod Sibley.  The gull had bright pink legs, the lark mantle of course, a large and thick yellow bill with a red spot on the lower mandible, and was huge.  It was an adult gull, and when I looked at the field marks on Sibley for Western Gull, it lined up with my bird perfectly.  I called Troy up and started explaining what I was seeing.  His first reaction was a surprising toned, "A WESTERN Gull?!".  As I explained it to Troy, he thought the gull was something obviously very interesting.  I made sure to get flight shots of the bird when it was scared up by an overhead blimp.  Thanks to the blimp, those flight shots would later be very important.  I watched the gull until it was nearly dark out, and it continued to stay in the basin.  When I got home and sent the pictures to experts, all immediately said it was an adult Western Gull.  Adult gulls aren't nearly as challenging as other age groups of gulls.  The only other gull that this bird could of been was a Slaty-backed Gull, which was eliminated by the flight shots I took, thanks to the blimp.  I wrote this to the listserv and photo documentation site:  "In this breeding plumage, the Western Gull and Slaty-backed Gull are the only possible birds, but Slaty-backed has never been recorded in Arizona. Both birds have pink legs, rather thick and heavy bills (Western heavier), and both also have broad tertials and a drooping "white skirt" (Sibley) on the secondaries. As shown in the pictures, Western usually has a darker iris (sometimes clear however), while in Slaty-backed it is usually clear to dirty yellow. But based upon these photos, what really nails this down as a Western is the underwing in flight, which has more visible black from below than a Slaty-backed. Slaty-backed would also have noticeable white subterminal spots, something that Western does not display as shown in these pictures".  The Western Gull was then announced as a third state record!!!  Historic records were found in 1946 (which was in Maricopa County) and 2001, with my bird being the third on April 26th of 2010!  Sadly, the Western Gull was only seen by me as it left before the chasers arrived on the following day.

Status of species:  Accidental in Arizona.

Ironic Statement:  Melanie Herring told me that SRP (owners of Glendale Recharge Ponds) had started filling up the Glendale Recharge Ponds on that very day!

Western Gull at Glendale Recharge Ponds on April 26th, 2010

# 2:  I wasn't singing any blue's on December 1st

Sophie the Australian Shepherd was awesome.  So awesome that she was a distraction for me on birding days.  How so?  I would plan to go somewhere far away but would end up playing with her and would lose track of time.  This happened many times.  Whenever this happened, I just settled on going somewhere much closer to home.  On December 1st, 2011, the same thing happened.  I wasn't absolutely needing to go to Hassayampa as I had planned as a priority.  It was the first day of the last month of my Maricopa County Big Year of 2011, which I already had 306 species for the year in Maricopa, where on my previous Maricopa Big Year for 2010, I had 304 species total.  The record was already broken and I was planning on enjoying the last month a little more.  I decided to hang out with Sophie instead of Hassayampa and then go closer to home birding, where I decided on the Hayfield Site of Tres Rios Wetlands.  When I arrived at Tres Rios, it was cold and foggy.  The first hour was quiet and boring, but that changed quickly as I got my eyes on a bright male Bluebird perched in an open shrubby area.  It had a bright white belly and I thought it was something else at for a split second, and then when I realized what I was looking at I jumped.  No bluebirds in Maricopa County have ever had that bright white belly, and when I saw that it had an orange throat and orange sides on it’s neck, that contrasted with the white belly, I jumped even more.  It then flew over me and vocalized, and I took pictures of this bluebird, which had a solid blue back.  I knew I was looking at and listening to an EASTERN BLUEBIRD!  It was cooperative and allowed me to get perfect pictures, as it vocalized a lot.  I was shocked at the sight of this bird, as I knew it was a first record for Maricopa County.  After ten minutes of watching the bird, I lost it after spooking it.  Luckily, Jeff Ritz arrived at Tres Rios and relocated the bird in a big cottonwood grove about an hour later.  The bluebird was cooperative for both of us while we observed it. I went home and birders discussed this was likely the eastern race of Eastern Bluebird, “Sialis”, where the southwestern and pale subspecies “Azure” hasn’t been known to migrate.  Finding a first Maricopa County record meant the world to me!  I returned the next day to hear the Eastern Bluebird once more vocalizing in the cottonwood grove at first light.  It was not to be seen or heard ever again.  The widespread "Sialis" race of Eastern Bluebird is very rare in Arizona, and my record may be the westernmost sighting of this species.  It has never been recorded in California.  If the southwestern subspecies of Eastern Bluebird wasn't in southeastern Arizona, this species would then be a mega-rarity in Arizona!

Status of Species:  Other than the southwestern "Azurre" race of Eastern Bluebird, which doesn't migrate and is found in southeastern Arizona, this species is very rare elsewhere in Arizona.

Ironic Statement:  I shouldn't have been a Tres Rios in the first place, thanks to Sophie the Great.  Because Maricopa County is my main goal as a birder, finding the first county record of Eastern Bluebird was top notch!

Eastern Bluebird at Tres Rios Wetlands on December 1st, 2011

# 1:  A prayer answered...

When I started birding in 2000, the Northern Goshawk became my very favorite bird.  It seemed strange to me that I had a favorite bird picked out without ever seeing that favorite bird.  Due to the Goshawk's elusive and retiring behavior while lurking in dense northern coniferous forests, it is very hard to find.  It is often called the Gray Ghost because of that factor.  The adult Goshawk is a handsome raptor, an overall gray in color.  I wanted to see an adult, where a juvenile bird (brown and streaked) wouldn't be nearly as neat and satisfying.  In 2001, I started searching for the Northern Goshawk when I went camping with my family in Apache County, Arizona's White Mountains every year.  I knew it was going to be a challenge, and a challenge is what I got out of this bird.  Every summer I looked for it in suitable habitats, even possibly seeing one and hearing one on two different occasions.  But I never had luck.  I even asked forest rangers and expert birding sources for advice, and they informed me I was doing the right thing my searching through and hiking in their habitat.  Stuart Healy, one of Arizona's premier birding guides, informed me that Northern Goshawks are usually only seen flying lower, and rarely soaring overhead.  This aspect of the Goshawk's behavior made it seem like a miracle would need to take place for me to see a Gray Ghost.  I would often walk on ridges and scan the forests below for any possible birds flying through clearings briefly.  Eight years had gone by, and I still didn't have a goshawk.  On July 20th, 2008, I found myself sitting in the Mount Baldy Wilderness of northeastern Arizona, hoping for a Goshawk.  I decided to pray and ask God if he could help me find my wanted bird.  As a believer in the Lord, I felt like asking God for things I really wanted would increase my chances with success.  I hadn't really prayed hard about wanting to see a bird before, but I hoped this would work.  When we returned to the cabin that day in Greer, Arizona, I was about to rush into the field for more birding.  I usually had this time reserved for 30 minutes of prayer and Bible reading, and it was a commitment I was striving to keep.  I really wanted to go birding, but decided to read my Bible instead to honor my commitment.  When I was done with my reading, I didn't have as much time and decided to hike a trail called the West Fork Trail # 94 for a short distance, and it was close to our cabin.  The West Fork Trail has some good birding on it, often Green-tailed Towhees and Red-faced Warblers along the first few hundred feet.  A small creek runs alongside the trail for about a half of a mile before it dams up into a small pond.  My initial plans were to walk this trail only back to the pond and then continue onto different parts around Greer to close out my day.  The area leading up to the small pond is beautiful, starting off in ponderosa pines and turning into a mixed conifer forest.  Starting on this trail, one would go south for a fourth of a mile and then the trail would turn to the west shortly after, when the forest got more dense.  Once at this part, mountainside slopes went up on both sides of the creek, one mountainside to the north, the other to the south, making it seem much like a small forest canyon in a way.  By the time I arrived at the pond, I had added a few birds to my day list.  I enjoyed the area around the pond for several minutes before I decided to head back to try more areas around Greer.  The north mountainside had a lot of fallen timber on it and as I just started to walk back, an object caught my eyes that was on top of a large log.  It was a juvenile Great Horned Owl!  I thought to myself, "Wow, an owl, amazing!"  This was only the fifth Great Horned Owl sighting I had ever had, and I wanted to capture it on film.  On previous Great Horned Owl sightings, I was able to get very close without spooking the bird.  This time, I took one step towards the owl, and it took flight.  I was frustrated, but I saw the owl wasn't flying very far.  On my second attempt as I was climbing up the mountain side, I failed to get closer.  Third attempt, same result.  The owl was getting tougher and tougher to follow as I was on the mountainside.  I then heard a loud, "Peeek"!  "Peeek!"  "Peeek!"  It was the call of a concerned American Robin coming from the area the owl flew into.  I followed the robin's calls and came to the scene.  Immediately, I saw the robin in a pine tree and eventually I saw the owl sitting about ten feet above the robin.  Once I had the chance to get a good view of the bird, it took off again quickly.  The robin was still upset and followed the owl, continuing with it's "peeek" calls.  The owl continued to be difficult and I was very discouraged when I saw it fly off further into the wilderness and watching the robin give up, flying back over my head, probably glad that the owl had left it's comfort zone.  Then a Steller's Jay helped me out by calling away.  This was my last chance at the owl, but it outsmarted me again and disappeared.  I was running all over that mountainside, covering directions going north upward, and returning south down to the main trail.  The owl was gone and I was angry.  I felt like I blew an excellent opportunity.  Great Horned Owls had always been pretty cooperative and allowed closer approach before this bird, which this bird was oddly beyond spooked.  I decided for one last try up the northern mountainside again to spook up the owl again, but it was gone, I didn't have any idea where it was, even though it was still close by and out of sight somewhere.  Heading back was my best option.  I was exhausted and out of breath from the chase, and I had more birding to do before the day's end.

As I was heading back down from the mountainside towards the main trail, I heard a very familiar sound, one I was hoping for more than anything else.  It was a loud hawk, a high and piercing scream, "kek-kek-kek-kek-kek".  It was the scream of a Northern Goshawk!  I thought I was definitely hearing things or I was crazy.  I listened again, "kek-kek-kek-kek-kek!"  Again, "kek-kek-kek-kek-kek!"  I wasn't hearing things at all. The sound was coming from the the opposite mountainside I was on, the one to the south, on the other side of the creek.  The gray ghost continued to scream.  By this time I was sprinting through the forest and jumping over logs and rocks in order to get to the spot as fast as I could.  I still had a ways to go.  "Kek-kek-kek-kek!"  The goshawk still kept screaming, I felt like my stakes were high.  I finally arrived to the creek and jumped across, and continued up the mountain that the goshawk was on.  The screams were getting louder and louder.  I was nervous and I was shaking, this was my chance to see a goshawk.  Fear set in too.  I asked myself, "What if the bird vanishes into the forest before I can get a look?"  Two things were going to be the outcome, one, I see the bird, or two, I miss it by a heartbreaking few seconds.  I ignored the fear that was there, I believed I would see the bird.  Once I got closer and closer, I slowed down.  "Kek-kek-kek-kek!"  As I crept up on the noisy bird, I looked up and got my first glimpse ever of a Northern Goshawk, who was on a dead tree that must have been split in half from a storm.  This tree was about twenty feet up.  It was an adult bird, exactly what I had wished for, right in front of my eyes.  I was out of breath, and my views were amazing.  Still nervous and shaking, I tried to film the bird and couldn't hold my camera straight due to my shaking hands.  I walked five feet closer.  The goshawk continued to scream and stayed perched in front of me, despite the fact that I kept on moving closer to it.  I thought, "Why is this bird not bothered at all that I'm so close to it?"  I began to wonder why it was acting this way, and why such an elusive bird was giving me the easiest looks anyone would dream about.  It continued to sit there, and it kept screaming.  Then as I slightly moved, a large bird flew out from underneath the goshawk.  It was the Great Horned Owl!  I had completely forgotten about the owl once I heard the goshawk, and I was shocked the owl came this far over after flying to closeby trees every time I caught glimpses of it.  And it was still very scared of me, and coincidentely flew into the goshawk's territory.  The owl was the reason the goshawk was screaming.  The goshawk was angry and took off right after the owl.  I watched as the goshawk caught up to the owl quickly, striking it multiple times on the back.  The owl landed in another closeby tree and the goshawk once again landed near the owl, looking down on the young bird.  I approached again and got point blank views of the goshawk once again from where I stood.  I couldn't see the owl, but it could see me.  It was still scared of me, and it took flight again, as I never spied it when it was perched.  Once again, the angry goshawk mobbed the owl, striking it hard again on the back.  I hoped the owl wouldn't end up dead.  Even if I wasn't there, I don't think the goshawk would've given up.  It was an amazing sight to see.  I had clear views of two amazing raptors battling at it, from thirty feet away, with eye level views.  After the owl landed once again, the goshawk followed it and perched up about thirty feet high in a pine tree.  This time, I had incredible views of the goshawk, who was literally right above me.  I couldn't believe it was actually happening, I didn't know how to take it all in so fast.  The hawk continued to scream, and every once in a while, would take a glance at me.  For the most part, this territorial goshawk didn't care about my presence, the young Great Horned Owl was much more of a threat.  I was only a "human" who didn't matter, I was in their home.  It was their battle.  I stood under my prize bird and watched it for about five minutes different ways, looking at it through my binoculars, naked eye, and of course taking film.  Finally, I started to relax and settle down, but a slight movement I made spooked the owl, and the goshawk followed the owl wherever it went.  The goshawk struck it on the back, but this time, the owl kept going.  As I watched the two, the owl continued to where I previously saw it on the northern mountainside, crossing the creek.  The goshawk stayed close to it most of the chase, but as the owl flew further, the goshawk didn't fly as fast.  Once the owl was clearly heading to the other mountainside, the goshawk was satisfyed and swooped up to the very top of a tall ponderosa pine tree, which did not cross the creek.  It looked down and probably watched to see where the owl went.  The battle between the two birds was over as the owl went back out of the goshawk's territory.  As I had my eyes on the goshawk, I was going to try to get under it again for more extended looks.  I quickly got my notebook out and wrote "Northern Goshawk" for the first time in my field notes.  My trip was now complete, and to me, so was my birding life list.  After recording the name in my notebook for about a short ten second span, I looked up, and the gray ghost was gone.  That fast!
I went home right away and shared my sighting with my family, who listened to me for years say how much I wanted this bird.  I'm sure they got sick of hearing the word g-o-s-h-a-w-k.  The series of events that unfolded during that hike were no doubt in my head a miracle from God.  If the owl wasn't in those exact places when I was following it around, there would be no goshawk.  It was a series of miraculous events, and it was incredible the goshawk happened to see the owl flying around because I flushed it across the creek into it's territory.  I also was tested when I was about to leave for the rest of the daylight to bird instead of doing my Bible study.  The goshawk to me felt like God's reward for obeying and putting him first, which he blesses us often for doing so.  He gave me way more than what I prayed for when I was resting earlier in the day at the Baldy Trail.  I was amazingly reminded of the Bible Verse in Ephesians 3:20, "Now to Him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us".  This story is one that is constantly a reminder to me of a gift from a God who loves each and every one of us.  There is no doubt in my mind He will pour in more blessings like this for me throughout my life and for anyone who chooses to put their faith in Him.

Instead of going far out into the wilderness for my ideal goshawk search, I got it less than a half mile from my cabin, which blew me away as well.  As I walked into my cabin room after I shared my experience with my family, I entered the video taken from the sighting.  I got nearly five minutes of video, which also has an accurate time code on it.  The time code of the first clip taken was four-twenty P.M., and the last was four-thirty P.M.  I watched the goshawk for ten minutes with the incredible close up views, the sighting I thought was too good to ever happen.  The gray ghost was right around my cabin in the Greer area, and this time, I was finally on the lucky end. 

Status of species:  Uncommon to rare resident of coniferous forests throughout Arizona.  Usually very hard to find.

Ironic statement:  The prayer was indeed answered!  Since then I've only seen one adult goshawk with a very poor look, and three juvenile goshawks.

Northern Goshawk in Greer, Arizona on July 20th, 2008

My first years of my birding "career" have been amazing, and I am very thankful for finding all of these great birds.  I will never forget my first TOP 15!  

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Birding in the remote southeast section of the southwest tip of Maricopa County: Bender Springs and the Vekol

Anytime I can add a new Maricopa County bird to my overall Maricopa County list is a big deal for me.  How about two new Maricopa County birds in a single day?  That is a huge deal!  How about a completely new area to see for the first time with that sequence?  A Maricopa birding freak dreams about days like that!  Days like that are very rare for me, but I had one on June 22nd, 2013.

Ever since I've gotten into Maricopa County birding (exploring areas and listing as many species as humanly possible in the region), I've always wanted to explore the desert mountains and valleys southeast of Gila Bend.  This includes the Sand Tank Mountains and the Vekol Valley.  Two birds that have mainly a southeastern Arizona distribution have been found in these areas.  One is the Varied Bunting and the other is the Rufous-winged Sparrow.  Varied Buntings have been found annually in recent years by John Arnett in Bender Springs Canyon in the Sand Tank Mountains.  This has included several breeding pairs within a relatively short distance of each other.  The Rufous-winged Sparrows were found in the Vekol Valley singing for the first time in 1995, and were thought to be probably breeding the area, which is rarely explored.  John thought of an excellent idea to lead a Sonoran Audubon Society field trip to this remote and rarely touched area by birders.  Because John is a wildlife biologist and works in this area, he's the primary source for a birding trip out here.  The plan was to focus on searching for these two species, as well as looking for saguaro cactus-nesting Purple Martins, which John has also found out here.  This area is also extremely dangerous, and is inhabited by drug smugglers.  Access is granted only through a permit after watching safety videos.

On June 22nd, 2013, John Arnett led a Sonoran Audubon Society field trip out to these areas.  The group consisted of eight people:  John Arnett, John Saba, Chrissy and Sydney Smith, George Wall, Andree Tarby, Carol Beardmore, and myself (Tommy D).  After we all spent the afternoon and night in Gila Bend on the previous day, we left Gila Bend at 4 A.M. to get to our first destination, Bender Springs, at about 6:30 A.M.  The route of close to 20 miles from the east I-8 exit at Vekol Road and taking rugged backroads to Bender Springs was a very rough drive.  We carpooled in two high clearance vehicles.  John Arnett drove a truck and George Wall drove a Saturn.  In all of my life, this was the roughest road I've been on while in a vehicle. John's truck did the route easily, but George's Saturn had a harder time.  After a few very rough and challenging patches in the road, we all made it safely to Bender Springs Canyon without any injuries, busted tires, or smuggler encounters.

Now Bender Springs Canyon is a beautiful place on the Barry M. Goldwater Range with many surrounding and scenic canyons and mountains. Bender Springs also features a neat archaeological site as well as the official Bender Springs, which is found by looking for a stand of cattails.

Here are a few scenes of the impressive area of Bender Springs Canyon:

This is where John has had breeding Varied Buntings, and I was anxious as ever to get that species for Maricopa County!   It didn't take long for luck to hit us.  John quickly heard a male Varied Bunting singing shortly after our arrival to the canyon.  We walked over to where the sound was coming from, and we eventually found our first pair of Varied Buntings, a male and female chasing each other around on the adjacent slope to our side of the canyon.  John had his spotting scope, and then was able to get the scope on the male bunting, who was perched on a saguaro cactus.  I wish I could've photographed that scene, but it was distant.  Perhaps a cut and crop of two objects on a picture maker would work to replicate the picture?  Walking further down the canyon resulted in more Varied Buntings, including a male that was much closer and more cooperative.  He even landed on a cliff that was overshadowing us.  He didn't realize that he's a bunting and not a wren or a rosy finch.  Here are a few shots I did manage, which aren't bad!

Varied Bunting-a Maricopa County lifer for Tommy D!

The Bender Springs hike included a walk up a mountainside that overlooked the canyon and provided amazing overlooks of the surrounding area (see above).  Here is a look of trail from below.

There were many other birds also present!  Some of the other highlights besides the buntings included a pair of Golden Eagles, a few Prairie Falcons, several Scott's Orioles, and Gambel's Quail.

Golden Eagle-distant

Prairie Falcon-distant

Gambel's Quail-up close and trailside!

Here is Sydney Smith at Bender Springs itself!

Some of the hike was tiring, and some of it was easy.  George Wall and Andree Tarby sat and wildlife watched while the other six of us bushwhacked and rock climbed down to Bender Springs.  This is the time we also had excellent looks of the male Varied Bunting.  George also took a few pictures of us down in the canyon from high above!

George's eyeview:

We finished up in Bender Springs after three plus hours.  The canyon was enjoyable to bird and a wonderful location.  I hope to visit it again!  

After the hike, we decided to take a route through impressive stands of Saguaro Cacti before heading to the Vekol Valley to search for Rufous-winged Sparrows.  We were looking for Purple Martins, who nest in cactus cavities, but we struck out on them.  But we didn't strike out on Harris's Hawks!

Harris's Hawk-distant

When we arrived in the area of the Vekol Valley it was steaming hot and the group was getting tired.  It was time to look for the sparrows.  Honestly, I wasn't feeling like we would have success with the Rufous-winged.  It seemed so long ago that they had been reported, I just wasn't thinking, or expecting at all, that we  would luck out with this species.  We first checked an abandoned and freaky barn where John had nesting Barn Owl in the past.  Walking into the barn, we found that it was abandoned.  We than continued south were mesquite woodlands were to be found.  The group got out and started to bird.  Half of the group got tired and sick of the heat, and went back to the vehicle.  John Arnett, Sydney, Chrissy, Carol, and I continued exploring the mesquite.  A "trail-like" berm went along and above the bosque.  The habitat looked good to me for Rufous-winged Sparrow, but we weren't hearing any despite playback.  In ways the mesquite bosque reminded me of the bosques at Catalina State Park near Tucson, which had nice flocks of the sparrows.  The bosque was thick and we didn't want to bushwhack much in the heat, so we stayed on the outskirts.  We found a mixed flock of birds at the end of the small route we decided to walk, which included a pair of Pyrrhuloxias and Black-tailed Gnatcatchers.  

The side berm along the Mesquite Bosque:

We then started to head back to the vehicles to head home.  John was a few minutes behind Chrissy, Sydney, Carol, and I.  I heard a Black-throated Sparrow singing in the bosque while we walked.  We got back to the vehicles and were getting ready to leave when John ran out of the bosque screaming "SPARROW!".  John had found our wanted but "unexpected" target, the RUFOUS-WINGED SPARROW, right at the last second!!  The bird was singing fortunately when John was walking by, a few minutes behind us.  The group rushed over to the spot, which was a very short distance away from the cars and not as far as some of us walked along the mesquites.  Right when John took us to the spot, the sparrow was heard singing, and it eventually popped out into the open.  We briefly used playback, in which the sparrow was very cooperative and came right to our calls.  While this male was singing to us, another male Rufous-winged Sparrow was heard singing in the background.  John stated how interesting it would be to return to this spot when the monsoons kick up and search for more of the sparrows in the Vekol Valley.  For me, this was the bird of the day, probably because in all honesty, I wasn't expecting to see this bird.  But it shows that these sparrows, just like the Varied Buntings, are probably here every year.  The sighting was also cool because John literally found the sparrows at the last second.  There are clutch finds in the birding too, just as there are clutch last second three pointers in basketball.  A great way to end the trip!

Rufous-winged Sparrow in Vekol Valley-another Maricopa lifer for Tommy D!

Another funny thing is that the line of mesquites along Vekol Road where we found the sparrows is only a mile or so away from Pinal County to the east.  Talk about close!  It was a great trip to be on, thanks to John Arnett for leading a fun trip, to John Arnett and George Wall for driving their vehicles, to all the participants for spying the birds and for fun company, to John Saba for an extra person to cut the cost down for George and I in our Gila Bend room, and to George Wall for giving me a ride to and fro to Gila Bend and back.  My Maricopa County list now numbers 354 species, with 4 added this year in 2013 (Violet-crowned Hummingbird, Least Grebe, Varied Bunting, Rufous-winged Sparrow).  What bird will be next?

And also, George and I found these Black Terns on our way down to Gila Bend at the Lower River Road Ponds on the 21st of June.  Tommy D..out.

Black Terns