In my history as a birder, I've had plenty of days with high species counts. Some of them have been all day affairs, and others have been key times of the year during migration when birds are literally everywhere. I'll provide a few examples. On May 11th, 2010, I went on a huge route on the eastern part of Maricopa County, covering it's many habitats, from lowland deserts to pine forests. The day also included a city park we all know as Gilbert Water Ranch. Does that strike a bell? The day resulted in my highest count ever, as I recorded 123 species. I was working on a Maricopa County Big Year, so I was trying a lot harder to get more year birds than anything. Although it was a big day, it wasn't an official "Big Day". Another time when I was trying to increase my Yavapai County list last year on April 20th, 2013, I birded the Prescott area extensively. That day resulted in 119 species, all within a short radius of the town of Prescott. Prescott is another area where one could attempt a Big Day. I've had plenty of days when I've reached over 100 species while comfortably birding. I did do a location Big Day once at Tres for 13 hours, and that resulted in 102 species. But this time, I wanted to do an official "Big Day", starting in the first hour of the day, and ending close to the end of the day. I had wanted to do a Big Day like this for years, but never got around to it. Big Days are intimidating, and are always more tempting to back out of than to actually do. I've usually found myself backing out, and this time, I'll admit, I almost backed out again. But I reminded myself, "Hey dude, you've wanted to do this for so long, don't pass up the opportunity!". So I made the choice and forced myself to go, and it was an incredible day, one I won't forget. This Big Day was to fall completely in Maricopa County and it's diverse habitats, from desert to pine forests.
Big Days take a lot of planning. I wrote out my plans and schedule for the day on paper of all the places and times I was going to visit, start-and-leave, etc. I was going to have to stick to my schedule if I was going to be successful. In order to be successful, you need to value every minute of the Big Day, and if you get your targets ahead of time, move on to the next spot. Any "extra" minutes are valuable. I'm not trying to sound mean, but if your doing a Big Day, avoid other birders as much as possible. Conversation is a time killer. Unless they are pointing you to a key species, keep it short. Don't waste a ton of time on one bird. Chances are, you'll run into it later in the day. Plus, every birder has a stupid miss or two or three or four or even five on a Big Day. Also, have your gear ready, to save time. If you stop at a stoplight and realize your pants are unzipped, zip them up on while waiting at the stoplight rather than zip them up when you arrive at your next destination. Or in other words, get your scope and tripod ready at a red light rather than setting up a scope and tripod when you arrive at your destination. Then you can just run out and see birds immediately. Trust me, every minute, every second, every move matters when you do a Big Day!
Late on April 20th, 2014, I went shopping late at night between 9 and 10:45 P.M. I was shopping for food and supplies, cause I was going for a Big Day! I ended up leaving home just before mid-night and I arrived at my destination the next day at 1 A.M. My Big Day had officially begun in classic form-ugly and early! I couldn't believe that I was out that early, and yet alone, actually attempted this "Big Day". When you really think about it, it takes a complete freak to be out this early and looking for the earliest of the early birds.
As you can see, I was at the Coon Bluff Recreation Site, which is part of the Lower Salt River Recreation Area on the Tonto National Forest. The Salt River is spectacular for it's birding, and is vital for one attempting a Big Day in Maricopa County. I started the day off by night birding at Coon Bluff, which is one of the best night birding areas to be found in Maricopa County. Coon Bluff hosts easy-to-hear and good numbers of Elf, Great Horned, and Western Screech-Owls, as well as Common Poorwill and Lesser Nighthawk. It didn't take me long at all to get the "Big 5". Coon Bluff is beautiful at night, and feels like a "chorus" with these awesome nightbirds. Within 30 minutes, I heard all five, and I was tired. I had my goal here already, but I'm not a birder who only cares about the list by any means. The action of it all is what's really the best, and seeing the birds is very important. This turned into a long two hour search, because I wanted to see the action, not just hear it. Elf Owls were calling from numerous locations, only a moron would ignore that and give it a quick tick. But not me, I was crawling up and down the mountainsides and walking along mesquite and saguaro cactus lines in pursuit of the tiny Elf Owl.
There is an Elf Owl in the picture, but it's very blurry. I was thrilled just at the sight of the bird. Despite the fact I did get to see the Elf Owl, I haven't seen much of them in my life, so I decided that I wanted to get the complete Elf Owl fix. And they were easy to find, and vocalized on their own. One doesn't even need to use playback most of the time when searching for these tiny owls. And by the way, the Elf Owl is the smallest owl in the world. Despite it's tiny size, the Elf Owl is really quite the loudmouth! During my Coon Bluff dark exploit, I heard at least five Elf Owls, and saw three. While walking around in the darkness, many Javelina were also walking through the desert around me and the night was also filled with the eerie howls and yelps of the Coyote. I'll admit, I was creeped out at first, but once I got in the game, I got over it. And no coyote or pig messed with me, if they did, I think they'd be on the losing side. But back to the Elf Owls, some of them were very close. One landed next to me, but gosh, shooting photos in the dark and holding the flashlight isn't easy. The first shot below is good, but the one I wanted of the little Elf Owl looking at me came out blurry. Ahh!
I even found a cactus a very vocal Elf Owl was calling from. His voice sounded extra hollow. Out of the 10 holes in the cactus, I found the right one, only because the bird flew out of it. But while the Elf Owl was calling and sitting still, he never poked his head out of the cactus. Before I knew it, it was almost 3 A.M., and I knew I needed to get to bed and get sleep. I was scheduled to wake up at 5 A.M. and leave by 5:15. The Elf Owl search was completely carrying me away! But as I was about to head back to my truck for shut eye, the cactus Elf Owl had left his hole and was calling lower from a mesquite. I slowly walked up to the singing bird, and had wonderful looks and good pictures at this amazing bird!
I got back to my truck at 3:15 and then woke up at 5:00. During that time, I never really slept, it was more of a "rest" and "snooze". A pair of Western Screech-Owls and a Common Poorwill were very close to me, and I wish I would've searched for them as I write this now, for I never fell asleep. Before 4 A.M., a Vermilion Flycatcher even broke into song. Once it got close to 5:00 A.M., many of the songbirds broke into a dawn chorus. It was beautiful to listen too! This included Northern Cardinals, Ash-throated Flycatcher, my year's first Brown-crested Flycatcher, as well as my year's first Bullock's Oriole. As I drove out of Coon Bluff at 5:15, my list for the day was up to 16 species.
I made a quick stop at Granite Reef Recreation Area to try and pull out a Crissal Thrasher-no luck. As I made my way south through Mesa and into the Gilbert and Chandler area, I spied a Harris's Hawk on a light pole overlooking Power Road. The Harris's Hawk isn't always easy to get on days such as a Big Day, so I was thrilled. As I was driving, I was thinking that luck really seemed to be on my side, at least so far!
In any big day, there are many enjoyable birds, and then there are some that you see for the list, that aren't so enjoyable. The crap birds were accounted for within minutes of my next stop starting at 6:11 A.M., such as the "elegant" Great-tailed Grackle.
This came from Veteran's Oasis Park in Chandler, the first of four stops in the Chandler/Mesa/Gilbert area in a four hour time span. Veteran's Oasis Park is good for Yellow-headed Blackbirds, Burrowing Owls, raptors and sparrows in adjacent fields, and every-once-in-awhile, Black-bellied Whistling Ducks. But other than that, I completely hate this park. I find it extremely boring, unless there is a very rare bird present (which still hasn't happened here yet I don't think?)
Neighborhoods line the western border of Veterans Oasis Park, and I got my first Gambel's Quail and Curve-billed Thrasher of the day vocalizing on house roofs and fences. Score!
The Park is home to Burrowing Owls, as I mentioned before, with human planted homes. But sadly, vegetation has grown around the homes, so, the birder can't even see the owls now, unless they get lucky. I didn't get lucky. But I did get to see two of my hopefuls, the Yellow-headed Blackbirds and my first Black-bellied Whistling-Duck of the year!
I finished up with Veteran's Oasis Park at 7 A.M., giving me 49 minutes in the park I hate. I don't know why I hate it here, I just do. The park actually treated me well, with 44 species in the 49 minutes. That's almost a bird a minute. Other highlights I had included Cinnamon Teal, Ruddy Duck, Green Heron, Black-crowned Night-Heron, Western Kingbird, Wilson's Warbler, Lark Sparrows, and several Green-tailed Towhees. The towhees weren't cooperative for photos, sadly.
The above photo shows four, maybe five, large and goofy Black-tailed Jackrabbits at the place I stopped after Veteran's Oasis, which was the Higley Road Ponds in Gilbert at 7:08 A.M. The Higley Road Ponds consist of four large basins, and are often a draw for shorebirds and other waterbirds. Two of the basins were filled with water during my visit. One of them had good shorebird habitat.
There were shorebirds at Higley, but not as many as I was hoping for. In doing a Big Day, you need help from a few extra migrant birds besides the main expected and default species. At Higley, I didn't get much, only 7 shorebird species. The best were a few Wilson's Phalaropes, which waded and spun with an American Avocet flock.
Other shorebirds included Black-necked Stilt, Killdeer, Western and Least Sandpipers, as well as Long-billed Dowitcher. All three teal species were also present, which turned out to be a big plus on my Big Day. The Higley Ponds are usually good for passerine migrants also, but the only migrant I detected was a Yellow Warbler. I spent 32 minutes at Higley, from 7:08 to 7:40. Up next was an 88 minute stop, starting at 8:00 A.M. exactly at one of Maricopa's very best birding locations, Gilbert Water Ranch!
Gilbert Water Ranch is always full of birds, any visit! I was hoping to add a lot to my day list here. April 21st is a date one would think migrants would be abundant at Gilbert Water Ranch. As I started birding, the regular birds were enjoyable to see.
I was seeing plenty of birds at Gilbert Water Ranch, but not the host of needed migrants as I was hoping for. There were hardly any migrants at all, it was very disappointing. There wasn't any variety of swallows, vireos, and warblers that I was hoping for. Heck, I didn't even hear a Lesser Goldfinch whistle till I was about to leave. But I did get American Wigeon, Rosy-faced Lovebirds, and a few key migrants-MacGillivray's Warbler and Lazuli Buntings. I saw more of these little rat looking things than migrants.
Gilbert was slow, and it didn't give my Big Day the extra boost that I was hoping for. But nevertheless, always a great spot to visit! I left Gilbert at 9:28 and I arrived at my next stop, Mesa's Red Mountain Park, at 9:45.
Red Mountain Park has interesting desert habitat on it's perimeters as well as a fishing lake that is surrounded by riparian habitat. I came here to check for any lingering waterfowl, as well as looking for my main target, the Bendire's Thrasher. Surprisingly, this Mesa park is very reliable for Bendire's Thrasher. They are quite accustomed to people here, and sing around the fishing lake. I've had them on the light poles above the walking path. When I arrived at 9:45, I heard a Bendire's singing the second I opened my truck door. I looked up and immediately saw the Bendire's. Bingo!!
How cool is it that Mesa has such a reliable location for this species?! Maricopa easterners don't have to travel all the way southeast to Salome and Baseline to see their Bendire's Thrashers.
Eleven mintues later, at 9:56, I was heading back north to the Salt River. From 6 to about 10:00 A.M., I made those four stops in the Gilbert/Mesa/Chandler area. In those four stops combined, I had 69 birds. This is a low number in my opinion, and is one I feel I would usually get about 90 species during this time frame of the year. But no, there weren't many migrants at all. Migrants are strongly needed, and they just weren't numerous at all. At this point in the Big Day, my number was up to 80 species.
My next stop was at the Granite Reef Recreation Site of the Lower Salt River Recreation Area, at 10:08 A.M. This has often been a treasure chest for bird sightings. As I started birding here, I started to have some luck immediately. Granite Reef is often a good bet for seeing Bronzed Cowbirds. Despite the horrid Brown-headed Cowbird that I can't stand and hate, I actually really love the Bronzed Cowbird. It's freaking cool!
I then looked up and saw my first Bald Eagle of the day, who was relentlessly soaring above it's nest in the area. I wondered why it was soaring so much.
I then ran into Lindsay Story and her father Dick, and they pointed out to me that the eagle nest watchers were banding the young Bald Eagles. Lindsay let me look through her scope, and there was a nest watcher up on the nest and studying the young one. It was pretty cool to see! But the adult Bald Eagle was sure upset though. As the young Bald Eagle was being banded, the young Phainopepla watched in horror, "So glad I was never banded as a baby--phew".
Meanwhile, the mesquites and riverside riparian at Granite Reef had some birds. I added several new birds to my daylist, which included Bell's Vireo, Black-tailed Gnatcatcher, Common Gallinule, Summer Tanager, and this female Ladder-backed Woodpecker.
I stayed at Granite Reef for 40 minutes, from 10:08 through 10:48, before heading on to search more of the Salt River. The surrounding scenery near Granite Reef is beautiful. This includes the view of the Salt River with Mount Ord in the background. Lovely. And hmmm....Mount Ord?
I then arrived at my day's original starting point, Coon Bluff, at 11:00 A.M. This is another beautiful location along the Salt River. Heck, it's all beautiful!
Coon Bluff produced two for the day list, Gilded Flicker and Black-throated Sparrow. It was amazing to see it in light after walking it in the dark! As I drove around, I couldn't believe that Elf Owls were so numerous in the mesquites and surrounding desert. And now, they were sleeping in the holes, and having bad dreams about a strange dude looking at them with a flashlight. It was for sure a horrible daymare.
The birds of the day at Coon Bluff will often include numerous Vermilion Flycatchers and abundant Phainopeplas in the mesquite bosques. The Phainopeplas are everywhere in sight! It really is quite impressive to drive down Coon Bluff Road and see these handsome birds.
I spent 20 minutes at Coon Bluff, and I then arrived at Blue Point Recreation Area along the Salt River to try for some of the desert birds I was missing. I quickly got a Cactus Wren, one I still needed, and a nice surprise with a nice Black-throated Gray Warbler. 18 minutes were spent at Blue Point, from 11:30 to 11:48.
Up next was a 45 minute stop at Saguaro Lake and Butcher Jones Recreation Area, from noon to 12:45 P.M. This is one of the most scenic reservoirs in all of Arizona in my opinion. And Butcher Jones has a great mesquite bosque.
I added a few new birds at Saguaro Lake, Western Grebes and Eared Grebes. The birds weren't close enough for me to check for a few Clark's Grebes that were likely mixed in. Also, there weren't any gulls at all on the lake. Very shocking! Up in one of the surrounding cottonwoods, this Bullock's Oriole was very nice to see.
The Lower Salt River Recreation Area proved to be a key area for my Big Day. I stopped at 5 of the sites along the area, and it produced 54 species today. At this point in my Big Day, I had 95 species, which I thought I would be well over 100 by this point. Without cooperative migrants, it's really hard to get those super high numbers.
Up next was birding along hotspots along the Beeline Highway for the remainder of the day. Mesquite Wash was my next stop for a very short duration to check on a Barn Owl nest under the bridge. As I got to the spot, I discovered that the nest had been taken over by two Common Ravens. Rather disappointing, but the Ravens were on the other hand a new bird for the day. I stayed at Mesquite Wash from 1:00 through 1:20.
With 96 species down for the day and two more important stops, I figured the final two stops were going to have to be very good for me to finish good. Regardless, the attempt and day was worth it. The Elf Owls were worth it alone to me. Up next was a visit to a very pleasant location known as Sunflower. Sunflower sits at 3,500' in elevation is is sycamore riparian habitat surrounded by juniper filled hills. Many neat birds are to be found here, such as Common Black-Hawk, Zone-tailed Hawk, Gray Vireo, Scott's Oriole, and many more. When I started birding at Sunflower at 1:40 P.M., the highlights came piling in. It started with this Hooded Oriole.
Vocal Cassin's Kingbirds were another highlight, and new bird for the day!
Walking down the Old Beeline Highway, the road through Sunflower, really produced a lot of new birds for the day. These included Dark-eyed Junco, Cooper's Hawk (#100), Gray Vireo, Canyon Wren, Yellow-breasted Chat, Hutton's Vireo, Costa's Hummingbird, Western Scrub-Jay, Juniper Titmouse, Chipping Sparrow, and Scott's Oriole. I was now close to 110 birds, and I still had one more area to go. Plus, I was missing many birds. No Zone-tailed Hawks were seen along Sunflower, and I still needed the common Red-tailed Hawk and American Kestrel for the day too. Where were they!!??. At this point, I was tired, very tired, and I was just deciding to enjoy the remainder of the day, rather than to search hard for these birds. Whats the point when you have the surrounding beauty of Sunflower to enjoy!
I still had one more bird I needed to really look for at Sunflower, the Common Black-Hawk. The Black-Hawks nest here annually and they can usually be seen from the road. When I was driving back, it didn't take me very long to find a Common Black-Hawk, sitting on it's nest!
I stopped birding at Sunflower at 3:00 P.M., where it was then on to my last and favorite destination of the birding day, Mount Ord. Mount Ord is also vital for doing a Maricopa County Big Day, because it is a high elevation area in the county with pine/oak forests at 6-7000'. I recently found my 360th Maricopa County bird at Mount Ord, a Williamson's Sapsucker a few days ago. And now, I was back at Ord, completing a Maricopa County Big Day. I arrived at the lower slopes of Mount Ord at 3:10 P.M. The lower slopes consist of chaparral and juniper habitats. They are good for Gray Vireo, Black-chinned Sparrow, Scott's Oriole, and a variety of sparrows. From the lower slopes of Mount Ord to the higher conifer forests, the entire mountain is gorgeous and scenic.
It didn't take me long to find my first Black-chinned Sparrow lurking in the chaparral.
As I heard Gray Vireos and Black-chinned Sparrows singing in the lower slopes, I tried for Canyon Towhee and Crissal Thrasher also without success. As I moved up higher, I finally saw my first Red-tailed Hawk of the day! YEEEAAAAHHH! I then arrived at the entrance of Forest Road 1688 around 3:55 P.M. The ponderosa pines were now towering over my head. I spent the next two plus hours birding here, where I had a lot of highlights and new birds for the Big Day.
From the start of the walk down Forest Road 1688, forest birds were abundant from the start, and I was rapidly adding new birds to the list. Grace's Warbler. Painted Redstart. Hairy Woodpecker. Plumbeous Vireo. White-breasted Nuthatch. Spotted Towhee. You name it. I was greeted by a forest warbler that I actually saw earlier today, a Black-throated Gray Warbler. This warbler, a female Black-throated Gray was super awesome and super cooperative!
As I walked further down Road 1688, my sightings still continued to increase.
Singing Virginia's Warblers and migrant Lazuli Buntings were both very plentiful.
As I walked down Road 1688, I watched these two Common Ravens for awhile. This is a really neat bird, and one I don't really take time to look at often. It just hit me how neat they are as I saw this pair. There probably isn't a bird that is nearly as smart as the Raven!
A walk through the pines is at this time of year is never complete until one sees the flashy red, white, and black of none other than...the Painted Redstart!
As I walked down 1688, I was scanning the ridge line of Ord often in case of a raptor soaring overhead. Raptors do often like to soar and utilize this ridge, and I quickly found my Zone-tailed Hawk for the day! And then, seemingly out of nowhere, flew by an American Kestrel, another day first that was way overdue. But those two raptors palled in comparison to two Golden Eagles that came over the ridge and soared high in the sky. The Golden Eagle knows it is out of everyone else's league, so it soars a lot higher than other birds.
What is cool about Road 1688 is that the chaparral and juniper habitat meets the pines in many places, giving the birder a diverse selection of birds to see. As I stopped and phished, I had a lot of action. In came an up close Black-chinned Sparrow.
Another bird that came in was the nosy Blue-gray Gnatcatcher. These birds are very nosy and curious. I see them curiously coming in to any sound that is played, whether phishing, an owl, or even the song of a songbird. The Blue-grays are always along the brushy sections of Ord and are numerous and very noisy. But certainly a neat little bird.
On my way back to my truck on 1688, I then came across this Gray Vireo, whom I detected by his singing. Gray Vireos are numerous on Mount Ord, and they draw in a lot of visitors. For a plain drab gray little bird, they are pretty darn cool!
Many birds were detected on Road 1688 that were new for me for the day. They also included Broad-tailed Hummingbird, Dusky Flycatcher, Black-headed Grosbeak, Acorn Woodpecker, Bushtit, House Wren, Bridled Titmouse, Hammond's Flycatcher, and Rufous-crowned Sparrow.
I knew the top of Mount Ord had more birds to be seen that would be new for my list, but after I got done at Road 1688 at 6:15 P.M., I was too tired for more. I ran into fellow birders Mark and Vikki Gilbert, and I had the privilege to talk to them for awhile. Being too tired to drive home, I decided to camp out at Mount Ord for the night. I still had more birding in me, and I owled in places on Mount Ord for Spotted, Flammulated, and Saw-whet Owls, and also Mexican Whip-Poor-Will. I didn't have any success on any of these species. A Gray Fox did find my flashlight though as I was shining my light in the forest. I drove my truck to the top of Mount Ord and camped. I was asleep at 9:00 P.M., completely exhausted from the huge day of birding, which lasted really for 20 straight hours. And after strong outings to Sunflower and Mount Ord, my final tally numbered 133 species, my biggest day yet! The next day would follow as a morning of birding on Mount Ord. And a few weeks later down the road, I would attempt another grueling Maricopa County Big Day with a slight difference in my approach. Could I break my record of 133 a few weeks later? To read the sequel and second Big Day attempt, click on this link below:
For my huge day, it took a lot of preparation and thought to plan out the schedule and fit everything in. I stopped at 12 different locations throughout the day, one of them twice, so it was really a 13 stop day! Food wise, I bought 3 hoagie sandwiches, a box of granola bars, five bananas, ten more granola bars, a case of water, and fruit cups. And I did have leftovers. I brought a ton of birding equipment, too, of course. It really was a long a messy road trip, but a fun and memorable experience for my first real "Big Day" ever. 133 species is my new record for a single day, something I haven't tried yet too hardcore before now. And with the fact that migrants were slow and I did miss plenty of birds, I think 150 is very possible for a day in Maricopa County. This day was very fun, and the best highlight by far were the Elf Owls. I don't know when I'll attempt another Big Day, but for the record, this was a blast! Oh, and here is the original plan list for the memory...
And one more of the Bird of the Day!
I couple of weeks later, I would attempt a sequel to this Big Day by adding to my route and attempting another Big Day! Read about that adventure here at the link below: