Friday, May 9, 2014

The Maricopa County Big Day Sequel

After I did my last Big Day in Maricopa County a few weeks ago, I figured out a better route once I had the experience.  Sometimes it takes doing something once to notice a better way to do something.  After I did my first Big Day, I was itching to do another one once I found that better way.  And on May 8th, 2014, I decided to go for it.  Magill Weber and I had chased down a mega Arizona rare Sharp-tailed Sandpiper the night before.  I was already up late that night, and with not as much sleep as I would like before attempting another Big Day, but I didn't let it stop me.  As with any Big Day, it takes a lot of planning, and I put a lot of planning into my efforts for this one.  I needed to start strong!  And I would have Magill Weber join me from 8 A.M. to 3 P.M., and great pair of eyes to have along!  The weather was the real M.V.P. in planning this day.  85 for the high, no wind, partly cloudy at times.  That equals perfect and no excuse to not attempt this Big Day at a key time of year.

So on May 8th, I woke up at 4:20 A.M. and left from home at about 4:50 A.M.  Instead of doing the run from 6 to 10 A.M. at Gilbert and Chandler, I figured, why not do Tres Rios Wetlands and Glendale Recharge Ponds during that time frame?  It would have to be a much better alternative.  I took some pictures today and didn't have a lot of time for photography, but there are some everyone ;)

5:20 A.M.-I had my first good highlight of the day, a Burrowing Owl sitting on a telephone wire as I was on my way to Tres Rios.

5:30 A.M.-7:55 A.M.  Tres Rios Overbank Wetlands-every Big Day needs to start out strong.  Is there a better place in Maricopa County to rack up a big list of species quickly that is better than Tres Rios Overbank Wetlands?  I don't think so!  This location is full of birds, and I even had 102 species in on one day here in December of 2012.  It's a phenomenal spot, and was the perfect place to start my Big Day off.  I arrived at 5:30 and didn't put my notebook down until I left.  In May, there won't be as many species here as there are in December, but anytime during spring migration will likely still result in a good number.  My goal for Tres Rios was 80 species.  After my great buddy Laurence Butler recently came here and racked up an impressive 81 species in 2.5 hours and set the bar high, I set my goal because of that reason.  Could I have similar results as Laurence?  Hopefully.  As I got to Tres Rios, birds were everywhere.  The sunrise and peaceful sounds of the birds make Tres Rios a relaxing place at the same time.  Hordes of White-faced Ibis were flying south and over my head as I started the day off at these extensive wetlands.

My list started to grow very quickly, and I was in a good mood.  Some of the night birds had had their share of being awake, and it would soon be time to go to sleep.  This young Great Horned Owl was certainly a grouch.  He wasn't mean, he was just grouchy.

I then started to get a plethora of swallows, and even a swift I wasn't expecting.  Bank, Tree, and Barn Swallows were key species I wanted in this family, and I got them quickly.  I was starting to get on a very good roll, and I was on pace for my goal of 80.  Four Vaux's Swifts later, I was pretty shocked!

My pen never stopped writing, and highlights were many at Tres Rios.  On this day, Common Gallinules were quite showy!  The shy Least Bitterns weren't.  I didn't detect a Least Bittern until the last 30 minutes of the day.  While they usually are easy by at least hearing their harsh kuk-kuk-kuk call, I had one fly by me.  Phew!

Highlight after highlight came at Tres Rios.  Cinnamon Teal.  Ring-necked Duck.  Ruddy Duck.  Neotropic and Double-crested Cormorants.  American White Pelican.  Great and Snowy Egrets.  Green Heron.  Bald Eagle.  Virginia Rail.  Sora.  Spotted Sandpiper.  Lesser Nighthawk.  Gila and Ladder-backed Woodpeckers.  American Kestrel.  Western Wood-Pewee.  Dusky and Pacific-slope Flycatchers.  Warbling Vireo!  Verdin.  Black-tailed Gnatcatcher.  MacGillivray's, Wilson's, and Yellow-rumped Warblers.  Yellow-breasted Chat!  Green-tailed Towhee.  Chipping and Brewer's Sparrows.  2 late Lincoln's Sparrows!  White-crowned Sparrow.  Northern Cardinal.  Black-headed Grosbeak.  Lazuli Buntings.  Blue Grosbeak.  Red-winged and Yellow-headed Blackbirds.  Bullock's Oriole.  Even a surprise in a Lawrence's Goldfinch at the end of Tres Rios!  And of course, the Lesser Goldfinch ;).  I got back to my truck at 7:55.  As you read, there were a lot of highlights, and I was missing an easy one.  Black Vulture!  I had one Turkey Vulture during the walk.  With the cooler temps, the Black Vultures were an hour late, and I couldn't wait around for them.  I counted my total for the Tres Rios start off, "1,2,3,4,5.....40.....60.....80".  80, great!  It was a good way to start off my day, and thanks to Laurence Butler, I set the goal high.  And Laurence edged me out, 81 to 80.  

8:00 A.M. West Broadway Road-My first Rock Pigeon of the day, as well as a Common Raven.  I was up to 83 species.

8:20 A.M. through 9:05 A.M.  Glendale Recharge Ponds-I arrived at the Glendale Recharge Ponds at 8:20, set up my scope equipment, and quickly walked out to the basins.  This was a vital stop during the Big Day and was my best chance for having a super duper number by the days end.  Magill Weber was already out there, and she was having some shorebirds and ducks that I needed.  She was also joined by Jeff and Shirley Ritz.  Jeff even had a tern early in the morning, a small tern. was probably the Least Tern I have been hoping to see all spring.  As I arrived, the basins were full of birds as usual, and Magill was a huge help!

Because I was in a rush, I didn't get to photograph really.  Too bad now I don't have more to show off from this awesome location.  But 15 new day birds came piling in during the 45 productive minutes I spent here.  Lingering waterfowl, a gull, and a handful of shorebirds.  Welcome to the Maricopa County Big Day Horned Lark, Long-billed Dowitcher, American Avocet, Wilson's Phalarope, Red-necked Phalarope, Western Sandpiper, Semipalmated Plover, Ring-billed Gull, Marbled Godwit, Northern Shoveler, Gadwall, American Wigeon, Blue-winged Teal, Green-winged Teal, and Lark Sparrow.  Thank you Glendale for recharging my list to 98.

9:20 A.M. through 9:30 A.M.  Magill's neighborhood and Encanto Park-Magill and I went down her street and Encanto Park to get a few species that we needed that really like urban settings.  We added Inca Dove, my 100th bird of the day, a Northern Mockingbird.  Number 101 was a Rosy-faced Lovebird.

9:50 A.M. through 10:00 A.M.  Tempe Town Lake-In Maricopa County, Tempe Town Lake is a very reliable and almost definite location to see Brown Pelicans.  As we arrived at the Tempe Marketplace, we quickly saw the Brown Pelicans, my 102nd bird of the day.  A few Western Grebes nearby became 103.  The Pelicans are very easy to see, even from a far distance.

An adult Bald Eagle even sat in the marsh area of the lake, probably looking for a coot to devour.

10:30 A.M. through 10:40 A.M.  Red Mountain Park in Mesa-Here we were after a reliable Bendire's Thrasher who loves to hang around people.  It didn't take long for us to find him.  He flew across the lawn and volleyball courts, and he even sat on the grill and picnic tables.  For my 104th bird of the day, all Magill could say about it was, "what a stupid bird".  I guess this Bendire's Thrasher is pretty stupid.   It defies what normal Bendire's Thrashers are really like.  Would that make this one a traitor?

10:58 A.M. through 11:18 A.M.  Granite Reef Recreation Site on the Lower Salt River Recreation Area-After stopping at a gas station and buying Salt River Day Use passes, Magill and I went to Granite Reef Recreation Site, the first of several stops along the Salt River for the next two hours.  Granite Reef and the rest of the Salt River is a must visit if one is attempting a Big Day in Maricopa County.  The Bronzed Cowbird agrees with me on that one!

At Granite Reef, I added 7 species to my list to bring my total to 111.  Brown-creasted Flycatcher, Western Kingbird, Lucy's Warbler, Gilded Flicker, Bronzed Cowbird, Ash-throated Flycatcher, and Bell's Vireo.  The Salt River is always a scenic place to visit!

11:25 A.M. through 11:55 A.M.  Coon Bluff Recreation Site on the Lower Salt River-Magill and I were greeting by another new day bird as we arrived to Coon Bluff, the awesome Vermilion Flycatcher, which was bird 113 of the day, after my 112 bird, the Curve-billed Thrasher.  

Coon Bluff is an area with a dense mesquite bosque and attractive surrounding desert.  I added added five more birds here to bring the list up to 118, which were Bewick's Wren, a late surprise in a Belted Kingfisher, Cooper's Hawk, Black-chinned Hummingbird, and Cactus Wren.

12:05 through 12:13 P.M.  Goldfield Road to Goldfield Recreation Site on the Lower Salt River-Magill and I went here to search for Harris's Hawk and Black-throated Sparrow.  I was missing the sparrow and wanted to avoid an embarrassing miss.  We didn't get it here, but we did get the other target of the day and my 119th, the gorgeous Harris's Hawk.  HA HA!!

12:15 P.M. through 12:25 P.M.  Blue Point Recreation Site on the Lower Salt River-This was a great stop.  Rock Wrens are usually non-existent vocally at this time of year and Magill and I tried for them without success as we played tapes and looked up on the towering desert hillside overhead.  No luck on the wrens, but we did have 2 new day birds!  White-throated Swifts overhead (120!) and those Black-throated Sparrows (121).  The swifts were a bird I was thinking I would miss on the day.  What a great stop.

12:35 P.M. through 12:55 P.M.  Saguaro Lake Recreation Site-Magill and I came here to search for any gulls, terns, grebes, or lingering waterfowl.  Hundreds of Western Grebes were on the waters, but we did manage to find a good Clark's Grebe in the bunch!  #122.  We also found another day bird and another grebe, which was the Eared Grebe, my 123rd bird species of the day.  Luck was really starting to be on my side for this Maricopa County Big Day, and the fun was only getting started!

1:30 P.M. through 2:52 P.M.  Sunflower off of the Beeline Highway (Highway 87)-We arrived at Sunflower and walked down the Old Beeline Highway, which was very productive for birds and many new additions to my day list.  I added a new bird right off-the-bat, a Hooded Oriole.

Walking down the Old Beeline produced 16 more new birds for the day, which brought my list up to 140.  My old record was 133, so I broke that record right around 2:10 P.M.  It felt great.  Many birds were active and everywhere, especially migrant Lazuli Buntings, Western Tanagers, and Black-headed Grosbeaks.  Birds added to the list during the visit in order (this whole post is in order!) were Gray Vireo, Violet-green Swallow, Western Tanager, Common Black-Hawk, Bushtit, Summer Tanager, Zone-tailed Hawk, Cassin's Kingbird, Juniper Titmouse, Western Scrub-Jay (134-record breaker), Scott's Oriole, Costa's Hummingbird, Canyon Wren, Bridled Titmouse, Rufous-crowned Sparrow, and Canyon Towhee.  Common Black-Hawk and Zone-tailed Hawk were two huge targets here, and we quickly got both of them.  The "Zonies" are very noisy, and it's obvious when they have a nest around.

3:05 P.M. through 8:00 P.M.  Mount Ord-Mount Ord was my last big stop during my Big Day.  With 140 species on my list, I knew that Mount Ord was going to be the dynamite I would need to finish the day strong after starting strong.  Magill and I went to the lower corral first, where we had two targets: Black-chinned Sparrow and Crissal Thrasher.  We quickly got the Black-chinned Sparrow, my #141.  There were even four Northern Mockingbirds at the corral, and they frustratingly imitated the call of our other target, the Crissal Thrasher.  After getting excited, we realized it was a mockingbird hoax.  After 10 minutes of looking at Black-chinned Sparrows on the corral, Magill then had to head home for teaching a class. She really wanted to go up to Ord, but still had a great day and was going to let me know her total later on after having a super big day too!

From the chaparral and juniper slopes of the road to Mount Ord, I then went to the ponderosa pine and oak domintated summit of Mount Ord, which is over 7000'.  In Maricopa County, this is the high country, and the forest birds really thrive here.  And today, Mount Ord turned out to be dynamite!

As I drove to the top, a Hermit Thrush (142) flew across the road.  Once parking and getting out, my list climbed rapidly.  Spotted Towhee, House Wren, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Black-throated Gray Warbler, Plumbeous Vireo, Hepatic Tanager, Grace's Warbler, and then my 150th bird of the day, a Painted Redstart.

The pine and oak birds kept coming and coming.  I then added Hairy Woodpecker, a migrant Hammond's Flycatcher, White-breasted Nuthatch, Western Bluebird, a migrant Cassin's Vireo, Virginia's Warbler, Olive Warbler, and Broad-tailed Hummingbird.  My 159th bird was unexpected and was an awesome surprise.  A Lewis's Woodpecker.  This is one of my favorite woodpeckers, and to get one like this on my Big Day made things extra special.

The birds still weren't done!  My 160th bird of the day was a nice Townsend's Warbler, which was followed by another migrant, a Gray Flycatcher.  #162 was another special one, which was a pair of Pygmy Nuthatches.  I had these two nuthatches the last time I was on Ord, and they were utilizing a hole in a dead tree.  This time, one was bringing the other food!  I'd say we have a Maricopa breeding pair of Pygmy Nuthatches, sweet!

I added 21 species to my day list near the summit of Ord, which was amazing.  It was then time for me to go back down to the level of Forest Road 1688 to try for a few more birds to close Mount Ord out.  Birds were everywhere on Road 1688 too.  A very odd sighting was a migrant push of at least 20 Bullock's Orioles.  My oh my, it is weird to see them in pines!

This young male Scott's Oriole almost looks like an Audubon's Oriole.  Audubon's would never exist in Arizona, especially somewhere like on Mount Ord.  This Scott's is pretty strange though!

On Road 1688, I added birds 163 and 164, a Hermit Warbler followed by an Acorn Woodpecker.  Most of the birds I had on the top were also on 1688.  There were several showy Green-tailed Towhees and I also found a White-tailed Deer.

Mount Ord is my favorite place in Maricopa County, and was also my favorite stop on my big day!

It was now about 7:20 P.M. and when I got back to my truck, I had a surprising bird for my 165th bird of the day.  It was a legit calling Crissal Thrasher close to where I parked.  It wasn't an annoying mockingbird this time!  What an awesome bailout from that bird.  I stayed at Mount Ord until dark, and I got my 166th bird of the day, calling Common Poorwills throughout the lower slopes and up to Forest Road 1688.  As I was driving slowly down the main dirt road of Mount Ord back to Highway 87, I saw an object in the road.  As I looked closer and stopped quickly, I saw that it was a Common Poorwill, right there!  I had my brights on.  As I stopped in front of the bird, he got nervous and hovered for three seconds in front of my lights before flying off!  It was incredible, and was the first time I've seen a Poorwill well.  If I noticed him sooner and stopped a tad sooner, I think he still would have sat right there.  Too bad I don't have a picture of it, but what a great memory.  The up close Common Poorwill is by far the best highlight I had during the day.

8:50 P.M. through 10:15 P.M.  Coon Bluff Recreation Site on the Lower Salt River-I was finally at the last stop of the day, which was my second visit to Coon Bluff.  Instead of light, it was now very dark.  I got out in search of my last two targets, Western Screech-Owl and Elf Owl.  The night was filled with the sound of many bats flying overhead.  The first few minutes were quiet, and I eventually heard my first Western Screech-Owl of the day.  I followed it and had a good visual for a few seconds, until it flew off before I could get a picture.  As usual, Coon Bluff was also filled with the songs of Great Horned Owl and Common Poorwill, as well as the trill of the Lesser Nighthawk.  It didn't take me long to hear my final and 168th bird of the day, the Elf Owl.  Elf Owls serenade birders here on a regular basis, and it was amazing to walk around and look for them.  I did get several good looks at a bird, and cheers goes out to that Elf Owl, for being the final bird of my Big Day, when they were the first bird of my previous Big Day!  This time, I didn't get the best photograph of the Elf Owl, but I still managed something.

As I write now, I have to go to work in less than an hour.  It's been a fantastic two days of birding, from when Magill and I went on our successful chase for the Sharp-tailed Sandpiper, to my Big Day today, where Magill also joined me for much of the day.  Thanks for joining me Magill and helping me find key birds for the day.  And also, Magill finished with 130 species!  And she didn't even go up to Mount Ord.

I don't know when I'll do another Maricopa County Big Day again, but I do know I had a blast attempting the two that I did do.  Big Days are fun, but are also very tiring and require a lot of preparation.  I drove home from Coon Bluff 90 percent asleep.  Good thing I didn't drive off of the road.  I probably walked close to 14 miles throughout the day also!  This Big Day was similar to the first one length wise, but I was much smarter about were to go this time.  On the next day that I attempt a Mariocopa Big Day (probably next spring), I'll abide by this route again.  Wow, what a day!


  1. Good Grief man, 168 is huge!!!
    You really ticked 'em off, I dunno how you could get more species except for vagrants. That's a massive haul!

    I remember us talking about Big Day logistics last year with a sort of east side vs. west side comparison. Combining the two was key, and Tres Rios and Glendale gave the perfect start! That's awesome Tommy. I don't know if Maricopa has an official Big Day record but I'd be pretty incredulous of anything surpassing this.


  2. Thanks Laurence,

    One of the most exhausting days of my life! But it was very worth it. It will probably be quite awhile before I attempt another Big Day. I'll shoot for 180 next year :)