Sunday, August 17, 2014

On This Day in History on Tommy D's Birding Expeditions: The First Time For Everything

I was walking around and birding at Gilbert Water Ranch with my brother Tyler on August 17th, 2009.  It was very early in the morning, and we were planning to bird the Ranch for a few hours before it got too hot out.  On that day, 5 years ago from today, I had a feeling that we were going to find something good at the location.  Now Tyler isn't a birder, but for some reason, I seem to have luck on finding cool things whenever he is around.  On this day five years ago, Gilbert Water Ranch was very birdy and there were many different species around.  An elderly lady came up to us in an anxious way and said, "Hey, guys!  Look over there, at those Crane things!!".  She was referring to Great Blue Herons.  And for some reason, I wasn't thinking and just said, "Oh, those are Great Blue Herons, they are everywhere".  The lady seemed embarrassed and said, "Oh", and walked away.  Tyler then said, "Wow Tommy, your a jerk, you should've acted more into what she was telling us".  Truth be told, I didn't mean to sound like that to that poor lady.  It just happened.  She came running up to us out of the blue and I didn't know how to react, and that sentence came out of my mouth.  I felt horrible, and I wished there was someway I could have come across better.  But it was over and the lady was a mile away within seconds.  I thought I probably jeopardized my chances of having a good morning, because I was now on a guilt trip, a road a real jerk would never walk down.  Just someone who didn't know how to react.  Minutes later, my guilt trip would quickly be forgotten about....

2009 was the year when I got "serious" about birding.  From 2000-2008 I was in the early years of my birding career, and it was just one of my many hobbies.  I would bird every year on White Mountain vacations and several times around Phoenix, it was never a consistent thing.  But 2009 came around, and a series of unfortunate events in my life led me to become obsessed with birding.  Every day off of work was a chance to see a new life bird, I had a lot of life birds that year.  And some of those life birds were birds that are considered to be very rare in Arizona.  Some of these birds included Tennessee Warbler, Little Blue Heron, and Red Knot.  All of these birds came to me by reading reports on the Arizona Listserv and me making chases to see them.  I found it to be awesome that birds could travel long distances beyond their normal range, and I loved chases.  Chases were my favorite.  After awhile, I wanted to find a nice and extremely rare Arizona bird that everyone would want to chase, just as I was chasing other peoples' finds.  I complained about my desire to my birding friend Melanie Herring.  Melanie laughed whenever I brought it up and said, "Buddy, your out all the time, it's only a matter of time before you find something good".  I found a female Broad-billed Hummingbird at Tres Rios, which was my first local rarity.  It wasn't good enough though, and I wanted something very big.  I longed for it and I studied my field guide daily to prepare for that possible rarity.  Although it was a few months after I complained to Melanie about wanting to find my own crazy Arizona rarity, August 17th wasn't too much of a wait.

Little Blue Heron at Gilbert Water Ranch in May 2009, found by Brendon Grice.  One of my first rarity chases.

As Tyler and I were still walking around at Gilbert Water Ranch and I was still on a guilt trip, a group of waterbirds caught my eye that were off of the trail a short distance.  The Gilbert Water Ranch is a big place, and walking around it's ponds and many trails comes close to four miles of hiking.  As a walked off of the trail, I saw White-faced Ibis, Snowy and Great Egrets, and Great Blue Herons (or cranes) foraging together.  Right from the start, I saw something weird in the group when I looked.  It wasn't like any of the other birds, it was a Wood Stork!

I knew right away that the Wood Stork is a very rare sight in Arizona.  I immediately started to take video of the bird.  Tyler was standing and waiting for me on the trail, and I called for him to come down to where I was.  I told Tyler about how rare the Wood Stork is for Arizona for several minutes.  It was hard to contain myself, and after my sales pitch to Tyler about how cool this rarity is for him to enjoy too, he just simply said, "oh, wow, a stork".  Tyler then walked back to the main trail, but he was very happy for me that I discovered something rare.  I guess if you aren't a birder, the Wood Stork probably looks like a very dull and very ugly bird.

The Wood Stork was in Pond 4 and when I found it was on the path that goes between Ponds 3 and 4.  Pond 4 was dried up for the most part, but there was a large pool of water that attracted a lot of the water birds that the Wood Stork was a part of.  The Wood Stork was standing still when I first found it, and then it started to actively feed in the water.  Wood Storks have a very interesting way of feeding, and they feed by sticking their bill in the water and moving it back-and-fourth while foraging at the same time.  I stood there in amazement at my first ever real discovery of an Arizona rarity, and the first lifer Wood Stork of my life.

I remember after a few minutes of observing the Wood Stork, I wanted to get the word out.  I called my friend Brendon Grice, who visits the Water Ranch a lot.  He was very amazed at the news he got and he arrived on the spot within twenty minutes of receiving my phone call.  Brendon quickly started to get a series of amazing photographs that added to his collection of birds he had photographed at the Water Ranch, which was over 200 different species just from that one place!  He sent a picture out to the public and the word went out about the Wood Stork at Gilbert Water Ranch.  The Stork was very cooperative for us while we watched it for over an hour.  It sat there, fed, and waded the entire time.  After that hour, the heat was horrible and the Wood Stork actually kicked up and flew over to another basin at the Ranch.  We followed it and kept progress of the bird before it was time to leave.  By this time, about ten birders had already come to Gilbert to see the rarity.  As I looked around, I noticed that Tyler had disappeared.  I didn't know where he went, but as I looked way across the Ranch on the picnic tables underneath a shady ramada, there was Tyler, lying on one of the tables.  He said, "Geez, how long are you guys gonna look at that thing for.  It's just a Stork, I guess I just don't get it".  When I explained the record situation of Wood Stork to Tyler of how rare the bird was in Arizona, he understood the excitement about it a little more.  Tyler was also shocked that I had such a blessing even after being a jerk.  The thing was, I wasn't trying to be a jerk.  The words just slipped out!

The following days saw a lot more of the Wood Stork at Gilbert Water Ranch and a lot of birders throughout the state of Arizona came to see the bird.  I was very grateful that I found it.  Melanie texted me:  "Now, this find has got to make you feel happy about what you were wanting so bad!".  I was happy if I would never find another rarity again, this find was satisfying.  The Gilbert Wood Stork stayed at the Ranch for over 3 weeks, and during that time, I made five trips out there and was able to enjoy the bird further.   Status wise, the Wood Stork used to be a regular post-breeding visitor to the nearby Salton Sea in California and the Lower Colorado River.  It has declined dramatically.  Since 1990, there have only been 5 Wood Stork reports in Arizona, with the last one being the bird I discovered in Gilbert in 2009.  I think Arizona is probably due for another one?  Hopefully.

I used to keep a field journal of all of my trips and observations.  Now I have eBird and blogging.  I stopped keeping a journal in the fall of 2009 shortly after I found the Wood Stork.  The day of the Stork did get a long entry.  It was interesting to go back through my notes and read an actual recap that I wrote of the day.  On a word-by-word summary of the Stork day at Gilbert, here is my write up:

"Today, I went out early to Gilbert Water Ranch, in which Tyler joined me.  We left around 4:30 in the morning, and arrived at Gilbert an hour later at 5:30.  Little did I know but I ended up having the best find of my birding career yet.  I started off the morning by seeing several decent birds, but all were expected and nothing was out of the ordinary.  Around 7:20 and a list up to 45 species, I was around Pond 4 when I saw that several White-faced Ibis were present.  As I looked I could see them pretty well (I was between ponds 4 and 5) we headed over to the path that goes between Ponds 3 and 4.  A lot of vegetation was very thick along Pond 4, as I was wanting to get a better look at the Ibis and eventually I found an opening that went to the edge of Pond 4, which was dried up a lot, but was partially full.  I looked at the Ibises and next to them were several Great Blue Herons alongside many Great and Snowy Egrets.  Among the Egret mix, I noticed an odd bird that was about the size of a Great Egret.  Right away with my naked eye-I could tell it was none other than a Wood Stork!  From the start I knew the Wood Stork was rare-documentation type rare, so I was very excited.  The Stork stood there at first, and then started to walk around casually, and then feeding.  Tyler was at my side right when I saw it, and he thought it was cool about me having a bird this rare.  Now this Wood Stork was a juvenile, who had more of a lightly colored head (adults heads are very black, and scaly like a vulture).  The identification was distinctive and no doubt a Wood Stork, large light bill, overall white on it's body, and black on it's wings.  After a few minutes of watching the Wood Stork, I called up my friend Brendon Grice, who I've birded with before.  He's photographed over 200 species here at Gilbert Water Ranch, and I knew the Wood Stork was one he has never had before.  He was excited to hear about it, and twenty minutes later, he arrived and took some incredible pictures of the Stork.  Several other birders and photographers came during this time, and were able to see the Stork, who didn't seem to mind human presence at all.  Before Brendon arrived on the scene, the Wood Stork walked very close to me, and was in pursuit of food.  They have an odd way of feeding, often with their bill hanging open.  We watched the Stork for well over an hour's time, who still stood among the Egrets, no minding human presence.  Brendon and I even walked closer to the bird where the vegetation was thick, and it still didn't mind that we were there.  At about 9, the Stork flew away, and minutes later, we saw that he was hanging out in Pond 5.  That was the last I saw of him for today.  Also, besides the Wood Stork, I came across several other cool birds, with one being a Hermit Warbler, a new one for me for the Gilbert Water Ranch.  The Black-bellied Whistling-Duck was still in Pond 5 alone as usual.  Several Peach-faced Lovebirds were present throughout the time here, as well as a few Lazuli Buntingss.  Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs were both present, and I also had a Solitary Sandpiper.
When I got home, I submittted photos to AZFO, and when Mike posted Brendon and my pictures, he stated on the documentation report that the Wood Stork has been seen five times since 1990 in Arizona, so I was extremely lucky and blessed to have found this bird, a lifer by-the-way for me.  And really my first "real rarity".  The Wood Stork is mainly found in Florida, where they live in swamps.  Like the juvenile today, most Wood Storks who wander to Arizona are juveniles.  Definitely my rarest find yet as a birder, and I'm very proud to have found it!" 

I have found a few rarities of my own after I found the Wood Stork.  Rare birds are rare to find, that's for sure!  I do hope to find more.  If I do, I sometimes wonder what the next one will be......        And remember, if someone comes up to you who is excited about a bird, never casually say, "oh yeah, they're everywhere".  Hang in there and act like the bird is cool, no matter what it is.


  1. Super cool, Tommy. That's quite a memory to own. That rarity hunting gets in your blood. Speaking of Wood Storks, we just had another one show up this summer - only the third MN bird ever. Two in a year - unbelievable!

    It's true that we should never dismiss the excitement over common birds by the non-serious birders; I think we're all guilty of being bird snobbish now and then. Sometimes to get people interested we have to show them the flashy, common stuff like Bald Eagles and orioles. When a bunch of us were looking at the Wisconsin Garganey this spring a local lady drove up all curious about what we were doing. When we told her about the extremely rare bird, she did her best to be helpful by telling us there were a bunch of pelicans further up the road. I just nodded and thanked her for the information.

    1. Thanks Josh! I'll never forget that day, and I'll never stop rarity hunting. That is crazy that you had another one show up this year, that is unbelievable. Maybe it'll be a good year for them here in the southwest too. It would be awesome to see one at some lake in MN!

      I was so mad at myself because I've never been snobbish and that just slipped out. Usually I just say "Oh cool, thanks!" like you did about the Pelicans.

      And Garganey, Wow! That is super cool you had that show up there, that must've been a very exciting day of birding getting to see a mega like a Garganey.

  2. Awesome post!!! It's awesome looking for and sometimes even finding rare birds! The first rare bird I ever saw or found was a Rose-breasted Grosbeak near my house, both the bird and I were confused.

    1. Thanks Caleb! Rose-breasted Grosbeak is awesome, and you've found quite a few good rarities since then too. TEWA :)