Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Any Maricopers Left To End 2014?

This year for birding has been great so far.  After today, there's only 1 day left until 2015.  We are 27 hours away from 2014 being history.  What an incredible year it has been too!  I've added 25 birds to my life list this year.  21 of those additions were from my California trip at the end of February and beginning of March and four have come from Arizona with a scarce owl, a foreign miracle, and two eastern passerines.  On an Arizona scale, I've added 7 birds to my state list in 2014 (so far, unless something crazy shows up tomorrow).  Those Arizona lifers have been the four life lifers as well as three local and scarce breeding state birds in Apache County.  Something that I have been the most pleased with this year though have been the additions to my Maricopa County list.  Those who know me know that I care more about my Maricopa County more than any list, even my life list.  That says a lot about how passionate I am about finding new birds in my home county, and this year I have added 8 fantastic additions bring that list up to 366.  None of them have been official life birds, but they really feel like it.  Those eight birds this year have been Harris's Sparrow, Williamson's Sapsucker, Northern Saw-whet Owl, Spotted Owl, Flammulated Owl, Varied Thrush, Painted Bunting, and White-eared Hummingbird.  It's been a year to remember.  I was content with my eight additions without a super strong push to get another Maricoper to close out 2014, but I have had the feeling since the White-ear that something else would come in.  While I was at work, an influx of a potential life bird in the Fulvous-Whistling Duck showed up at a few locations southwest of Phoenix.  These ducks are hit-or-miss and I came up empty after three different chases after a third observation was made in a few days.  That's how some birds are.  And then another potential Maricoper was reported, one that usually stays for a day and leaves.  I laughed at the report as I sat at my work desk two days ago thinking there's no way the bird would stay for me.  Getting a ninth addition certainly felt like the road less traveled, I wasn't expecting it to happen.

On Sunday, Melanie Herring reported a young Crested Caracara in the Arlington Valley along Arlington Canal Road.  This is a bird that I have had yet to see in Maricopa County, I have chased two of them previously and haven't been able to relocate them.  Crested Caracaras are annual in Maricopa County with usually several birds showing up in the southwestern part of the county.  Although they are annual, they show up and go quickly.  They are rarely cooperative for chasing.  You either have to find your own or be in the area when one is reported or have work off to be able to chase once the report comes in.  For this species, I haven't had any luck with the trio of scenarios.  After Melanie's report, several other eBird reports came in from the same day.  On Monday, I was then surprised to see that Justin Hopkins reported the bird in the same area.  I thought that it may be hopeful.  Today then came, and when I got out of work after a discouraging shift that I would like to be my last at the facility, I decided to chase the Caracara.  I hit the Arlington Valley at 3:30 and my spirits were lifted when I saw the young Caracara flying south across Arlington Canal Road once I got into the Valley.  It wasn't very close, but I had clear and identifiable looks as it headed south into the distance.  Regardless, the trip was already a success, and the Crested Caracara finally made it's way onto my Maricopa list.  

The Caracara dropped out of view to the south, but I decided to scan and wait patiently.  Many Black Vultures flew by also to the south to roost in the tall tamarisks for the upcoming night.  

After scanning, I then got very lucky and relocated the Crested Caracara in the area that it flew down into.  It was walking and foraging on the ground and would also commonly perch on a dirt berm.  The bird was very distant and I was content with decent scope views.

Today was also the Christmas Bird Count for the Gila River, and this bird was a good get for the count (which someone else got to see it earlier in the day before I).  I didn't want to get closer to the Caracara and drive onto private property at first, but the land owner saw me and gave a friendly wave.  So off I went, and closer to my Maricopa Caracara at that!

This is a bird I have always loved and one that I haven't seen a whole lot of.  I get mixed thoughts about this bird when I look at it though.  To start off, it's very strange but very awesome at the same time.  It walks around in the grass, on dirt roads, or on berms-making it quite the comical scavenger.  And it's a "falcon" that looks more like a hybrid between a vulture and an eagle.  I've seen them three times prior to this in Pinal County's Santa Cruz Flats, but this bird was the closest I've gotten to be to one as well as the best I've been able to photograph of one. 

The time spent today observing the Caracara was a great way to end the day, and probably to end the additions to my Maricopa County life list for 2014.  Although this bird is annual and hit-or-miss, finally landing birds like this can feel more rewarding then the ones that are more rare but cooperative.  I wasn't expecting to get this bird at the end of this year, but it's a great story to tell, as this year of 2014 as been.  A huge thanks goes out to Melanie Herring for finding this bird!  She has found a lot of great birds that have been key for my Maricopa County list besides this one.  In the future, finding Caracaras in Maricopa County will probably be a scarce event for me.  Although finding them is certainly on the road less traveled, I'm now pleased to say that it's a road that I have now driven on....

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Miracle Bird Day!

On December 13th, this past Saturday, I had returned home after a tiring day of scouting for a Christmas Bird Count.  As I started to settle down for the night, an eye-raising post came onto the listserv from birder Duane Morse about a White-eared Hummingbird in his front yard coming to a feeder in the South Mountain area in Phoenix!  I was beyond shocked, and I didn't really know what to think at first.  Duane said the bird was a young male on the post, and I hadn't really studied up on younger White-eared Hummingbirds much.  I was overly tired that night and had family plans the next day in late morning, so I was in the mood that happens rarely-I wanted to just ignore the rarity.  When Sunday came around, I wasn't thinking about the hummingbird much.  It seemed to good to be true!  Duane had reported the bird from his yard, so I was a little hesitant to email him about it because it is his home.  I studied pictures of younger male White-eared Hummingbirds, I had that "duh Tommy, you idiot" moment.  It's just as distinctive as the adult male.  By this time, it was too late to see it by the time Monday and two full days of work came around.  I that the pictures were of a stunning bird, and I was still just as shocked when the email came through, and then Duane showed me pictures.  It just didn't seem like it could possibly be true, but it was!  A new Maricopa County record.  And I was dying to see it and was kicking myself that I didn't email Duane and attempt to see it early on Sunday morning prior to proceeding with family plans.

I emailed Duane on Monday, and I asked him if the bird was still around and if I could look at it on Wednesday if it was still around.  Duane answered me back shortly, and kindly told me I could make a visit.  Things got even better when Duane said that the White-eared Hummingbird was actively guarding the feeder and was chasing off any other hummingbird competitors.  When hummingbirds do this, it's a good sign they will stick around for awhile!  I had two painful twelve hour work shifts to get through, which set the stages for me to attempt my first views of this miraculous Maricopa County rarity once they were over with (and I was tempted to call in on both days).  My plans for the chase was secured when Duane said the bird continued through Tuesday night.  When I woke up this morning, I was off on the road before I knew it.  I left early and arrived somewhat early, and poked around until 7:15 came around.  At 7:19, I got to Duane's yard near South Mountain park, and I heard a call note from a hummingbird that sounded very different than what I usually hear.  It came from a creosote bush that Duane said the bird highly favored throughout the day, and I new it had to be the bird.  A hummer then flew out of the bush and landed on the hummingbird feeder.  It was the White-eared Hummingbird!  As it was starting to get light outside, it was still very dark for my camera.  In the camera's eyes, it was still nighttime.  The hummingbird quickly flew back to the bush after a brief drink at the feeder.  It sat in view, and I was able to get a shot off of my earliest sighting.

The White-eared Hummingbird started chasing away every other hummingbird competitor, and he was fierce.  Birder Sean Fitzgerald arrived shortly after I did, and the two of us enjoyed views of the bird.  While it took a long time for it to get light enough for daytime-looking-pictures, we watched the bird up close and coming to the feeder time and time again.  Wow!  White-eared Hummingbirds breed in fir, pine, and oak forests in their normal range.  Some of that range does include southeastern Arizona, where I have seen three adult males coming to feeders at the base of Miller Canyon on Beatty's Guest Ranch.  But no, we weren't even close to being in this birds normal habitat.  As I looked around, there was desert landscape in every surrounding yard in the neighborhood and South Mountain Park was right behind us.  How bizarre!

As we waited for better light, Sean and I talked birds and watched this epic discovery.  Besides the hummingbird feeder itself, the young White-eared Hummingbird was feeding off of flowers from the creosote bush.  Other hummingbirds rarely had a chance to enjoy anywhere near the creosote, and the feeder was the danger zone.  The White-eared Hummingbird had the others terrified in his chases, and at times, the 1,000,000x speed chases wound up skimming our heads.  If any of these birds made contact with my eye, it would be gone.  Once it got lighter up, we got to have better photo chances at the hummingbird as he came and came and came and never let up in the two plus hours of observation.  There was one time when the hummingbird was somewhat tolerant of another....

But other than that, this bird rolled solo on the sugar!

"This is mine.  Stay away!"

The two plus hours of observing this miracle rarity went by very fast, I never grew tired of this Maricopa County White-eared Hummingbird.  I'm still shocked as I write this that this bird is now a part of the County list.  Here are just a few more views I had of the bird throughout the observation.

The White-eared Hummingbird is my 366th bird for Maricopa County, and certainly one of the best I have ever had in the county.  This is one we may never get again, so my urgency to get this bird was very high.  It is also the eighth addition that I have added to my Maricopa County list this year, and it is certainly one that I never would've expected to show up.  Those ones are the best!  Last year, I also had eight additions to my Maricopa County list.  With two weeks left in the year, I would think that this will be my final addition for Maricopa lifers, but who knows?  The hero of this story is Duane Morse, who I am very grateful to for allowing me to see his discovery and mind-blowing yard bird.  I didn't get to meet Duane while I was watching the bird, but hopefully I can thank him in person someday as well.  What a year it has been so far, and this bird has probably taken over as the top bird for my 2014 rankings.  Cheers to White-ears!

After the hummingbird, I still had some more birding left in me.  Gilbert Water Ranch!  I had only been to Gilbert Water Ranch twice before this time today earlier this year, so it was going to be a treat.  Several rarities have been a Gilbert lately too, including a Brown Thrasher.  The Brown Thrasher is a skulker and one that doesn't prefer to venture out into the open world, and many views have to be in this manner.

I was initially happy with my first views and twig lined picture above, but then the Brown Thrasher became a little more cooperative.  I was just happy I got to see it.  Brown Thrashers are rare but annual in Arizona, and this this was my third, my second for Gilbert Water Ranch.

The Brown Thrasher eventually came hopping over my head by only five feet and then flew over my head to another side of the trail as I stood there still.  Wow!  

A White-throated Sparrow Sean found earlier in the week was present further down the trail, but this Swamp Sparrow was much more cooperative for my camera!

Sean also informed me of a neat Cinnamon Teal X Green-winged Teal hybrid in Pond 4 at the Ranch.  I was able to find that also.  The one target I missed at Water Ranch out of 4 was a Fox Sparrow, which I still don't have for 2014.

Birding at the Water Ranch was a great way to wrap up a memorable day such as this.  Who knows how long the White-eared Hummingbird will continue?  It's interesting to think about right now..

Sunday, December 14, 2014

'Tis The Season: The Most Wonderful Time of the Year

December is a great time to be birding in Arizona.  When birding is out of the equation, it's also the best time of the year.  Things start to rapidly cool down, people are finally out and about, and there's just an awesome feeling in the air.  I can't get enough of Christmas lights and fun Christmas programs such as Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer (which I have watched twice already).  Friends hang out and host fun gigs, and everyone with the exception of the cardiac-arrest shop-till-you-drop people are trying to make the "real" best out of Christmas.  And birding is quite similar.  Eastern and pacific vagrants start to show up throughout the state in seemingly good stocking stuffer numbers, which every birder loves to either discover or chase.  Christmas Bird Counts fill the calender also, which is a great thing to participate in.  Scouting for Christmas Bird Counts is a busy task too, as hard core birders try to have the best counts as possible.  These counts are a great way to find cool birds as well as have the chance to hang out and bird with awesome people.  Around Phoenix, whether there are rare birds or not, the December weather is the best out of any month of the year!

I've had fun days here-and-there lately for birding.  Most days are spent sitting on my butt at my hospital job.  There aren't any good birding spots that I know of in the hospital parking lot.  Rock Pigeons and Great-tailed Grackles are present in high numbers.  I always think it's great to see a pile of Pigeon feathers in the lot, because I know that my buddy is back.  He hangs out on the roof of the hospital, looking for the helpless pigeon.

American Kestrels are around in high numbers everywhere right now.  In your reading this, take a look outside and you might see one.  For such a common bird, it's one that is always a treat to see, and it is the second falcon to lead this post off.  Kestrels perch on funny things sometimes.  This one says, "do I look like a freaking Osprey?"

One of my more recent trips came on this past Monday, which was December 8th, 2014.  I took a trip with my friend Steve Hosmer south of Phoenix to Tucson's Sweetwater Wetlands as well as Pinal County's Santa Cruz Flats.  We were chasing two birds, both of which would be lifers for me from the east:  Baltimore Oriole at Sweetwater, and a Black-throated Blue Warbler at Santa Cruz.  Steve and I chose to go to Sweetwater first to look for my life bird and his state bird.  Once at Sweetwater, I spied the Baltimore Oriole within ten minutes of arrival.  As Sun's broadcaster Al McCoy would say, "Shazzaaammm".

The Baltimore Oriole was far away at first, but Steve and I still had good binocular looks and then great looks through Steve's scope.  And then we were able to get closer to the Oriole, with much better views.  This bird was stunning, and I was very glad I was able to add it onto my life list!

Sweetwater Wetlands has harbored many many many many many rarities during it's history.

Winter season hosts raptors and waterfowl in abundant numbers in Arizona.  Northern Shovelers and Red-tailed Hawks are two perfect examples.

Immediately after Sweetwater, Steve and I were heading back north up to Pinal County's Santa Cruz Flats in pursuit of the Black-throated Blue Warbler.  The Warbler was found on private property within the Flats from a public road, so when Steve and I got there there were other birders birding from the road but looking onto private property.  It had been found a week or two earlier, and thanks to Magill Weber and Muriel Neddermeyer, they relocated it and prompted our trip and attempt at this beautiful eastern warbler.  A handful of birders were on the scene as expected other than Steve and I:  Babs Buck, Barb Medding, Laurens Halsey, Lindsey Story and her father Dick, Brian Walsh, Larry Norris, Doug Jenness, Keith Kamper, and more.  The warbler wasn't cooperative during most of the search.  Several other birds such as an American Redstart, Acorn Woodpecker, Summer Tanager and "Western" Flycatcher were good side kicks.  After two hours of waiting with some of the birders listed above, we were about to move on and search the Flats more and would then come back to try for the warbler again.  Luckily, as people were getting in their cars, I took a last-second scan at the house on the property, which had some berry bushes around it.  A small bird caught my eye foraging on a branch and then on the house itself!  It was the Black-throated Blue Warbler!

No, this isn't a good picture and I wasn't trespassing to get a better one.  The binocular views were quite good.  Most of the birders had gotten back to their vehicles but quickly came running to the sound of my voice once I spied the warbler.  The warbler started to jump around on the house and even the Christmas lights that were hanging down from the roof!  Sadly, it flew before I could take a picture of the Christmas light sequence.  You'd have to see it to believe it, but I swear it happened.  The warbler was singing Jingle Bells too.  

Everyone was very happy with me that I spied the bird, and I was glad I was able to spy it for everyone.  This was one of the stranger occurences I have had when getting a life bird, but one of the more awesome ones too.  The Black-throated Blue Warbler is one of my favorite warblers.  Seeing an adult male like this in it's splendor was an epic treat.  A great life bird to get, and I hope I'll be able to get a good picture if I get lucky to come across one again.  The Warbler spent some time hopping around the old house on the property and human made structures leaning up against the wall.  Food source must have been good there, because the Black-throated Blue Warbler was joined by many other songbirds.  This is another horrible picture, but the warbler went inside this old crevice and came out of another hole up a few feet higher!  This picture shows the nice blue back rather well...

Steve and I drove around the Flats looking for other goodies after the warbler excitement.  We did come back for the warbler again and weren't able to find it the second time, but Laurens Halsey did, and it was a nice addition to his epic Arizona Big Year he is doing that is now the current Arizona Big Year record.  Other birds around the Flats included my first Lark Bunting of the year as well as the neat Prairie Falcon.

And then came along a fun scouting trip along the Verde River on December 13th for the upcoming Salt and Verde River Christmas Bird Count on December 15th.  I can't participate in any official count dates this year, but I did help several awesome birders scout the area and get birds for count week.  The Verde River is a fun place to bird, but it is on the Fort McDowell Indian Reservation and we aren't allowed to venture into the Reservations during other times of the year.

I don't stop to look at Lesser Goldfinches very often, but a tree full of them is a neat sight!

I spent most of the day scouting with Troy Corman, Justin Jones, and Marceline Vandewater.  Tom Lewis and Kurt and Cindy Radamaker also joined us for awhile.  It was a pleasure birding with these awesome people and awesome birders.  Here is a shot of Justin, Marceline, and Troy getting ready to find noteworthy count week birds!

Before we arrived to the Verde River, we were rather nervous about the weather conditions, as forecasts said there would be heavy rain most likely through mid-morning.  Luckily, the rain was gone by the time we got to the Ft. McDowell!  During bush-whacking treks along the Verde, we certainly did get our share of high mud levels in places.  Most birders (99 percent) would avoid this mud, but the mud also accesses amazing habitat areas where Troy, Justin, and Marceline have found great rarities in in the past.  If you don't get your feet wet, you won't discover a lot of what's out there!  

As we were in the earlier hour of our expedition in the mud zones, I heard a Red-shouldered Hawk calling from the riparian across the river.  After a muddy crossing, we were able to get around on the cottonwood and willow islands much easier.  We then found a male Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers with great views, which was cool.  It sat low at one point and I was able to have great visuals through my binoculars.  We went further into the habitat and had a Dusky Flycatcher, and we then had a great visual of the Red-shouldered Hawk.  The hawk was perched in a cottonwood at first after we followed it's loud screams for awhile.  It eventually flew up over our area and we had great views.  I was able to snap a few pictures.

The "Shoulder" is a beautiful raptor, and this bird is one than isn't easy to photograph due to it's skittish and low-flying behavior.  When this bird flew up, it gave me the chance to snap the best photographs I have ever had of this species.  Troy exclaimed several times how striking the bird was before it flew up in the air, and once it did, it became a great sighting for all of us!  Moving back along the mud zones that were two feet deep in places, we came upon another section of great habitat, where multiple eastern warblers were found last year.  This time we found a Black-and-White Warbler and Troy found a very rare Pacific-Slope Flycatcher for this time of year.  The Flycatcher was cooperative for Troy and it gave a distinctive Pacific-slope Flycatcher call note so we didn't have to mark it down as a Western Flycatcher spuh.

Also, here's a cool dragonfly that Justin found along the route!  Birds aren't always the only things to look at out there, the world of dragonflies is another awesome thing that requires a lot of searching.  

We are a little over two weeks away from the end of 2014.  What an awesome year it has been for 2014.  I have a feeling there may be several more awesome outings remaining on my calendar to close out this year.  Regardless of what else I see, this year has been great.