Wednesday, September 24, 2014

On This Date in History on Tommy D's Birding Expeditions: A Golden Surprise

I woke up early in the morning, five years ago from today-on September 24th, 2009.  In 2009, it was my first "real" year of birding on a regular basis in Arizona.  I had many birds I was after on a regular basis, and I learned an extensive amount of information every time I went out in the field.  The path I chose for this day was at the well known Gilbert Water Ranch.  At this time of year, migration is usually in full force for the fall, and Gilbert Water Ranch is a location where one can commonly find high numbers of different species, with many of those being migrants.  I felt that Gilbert Water Ranch was a good place to find such high numbers, and I felt like it was a good location to harbor a lifer or two.  Back in 2009, I had many life birds that I got on a regular basis, especially since I was only a casual birder from 2000 to 2008.  I was hardcore when I would bird of course before 2009, but it wasn't very often that I was motivated to bird on a regular basis.  Once I got wrapped up into this epic hobby, every day got more and more exciting.  And at Gilbert Water Ranch on September 24th, 2009, I would have several amazing highlights, including a golden surprise that felt like finding actual gold.  Read along and join the fun to find out about my "Golden Surprise".

Fall migration.  You gotta love it if your a birder.  I was on my way to Gilbert Water Ranch and was pondering the possibilities of what may be present that would be notable or new for my life list.  During this time, my days off of work were spent birding and during the days that I was working, I would commonly come home and study field guides.  My work was cut out for me, but in 2009, I went from being unaware about so much to being aware of most of the birds that may be found in North America.  I've never become a hardcore expert to this day by any means, but in that year and since then, I have worked harder and harder to become a better birder.  While some birds are tough to identify, I'm happy to say that I can narrow it down quickly to a couple species to reach my conclusions much faster.  In the 2009 days in fall during study time, I commonly studied the Peterson Field Guide to the Warblers of North America along with a plethora of other birding books.  Over all of the others, the Warblers guide had more of a spine crack.  Warblers have always intrigued me, and when I bought the Peterson Book, I took getting to learn that family to heart more than a lot of the other families of birds.  To me, I always tried to plan on finding as many warblers as I could and attempting to identify them correctly.  It was fun, and I shouldn't be saying "it was", because it still is fun.  I still have a lot to learn just about this numerous North American family.  And of course I studied up on the other families too.  When I was out in the field, I found that this fun "homework" I was doing really payed off.  And when September 24th, 2009 came to a close, I was proud to say my hard studying really payed off a few times in the field and would prove to be vital.

I arrived at Gilbert very early that morning, before the sun came up.  And from the start, migrants were everywhere!  For those who haven't been to Gilbert Water Ranch in Gilbert, Arizona, it's a birds and especially a migrating birds paradise.  It suits a variety of different birds, from big to small, from huge to tiny, from long-billed to short-billed, from fat to skinny, and cool to uncool.  In other words, all birders love Gilbert Water Ranch and so do all birds!  There are 7 large basins within the vicinity that have fluctuating water levels, a fishing lake, and created riparian habitats around every basin.  With this combination of habitats, there is always a combination of birds.  To be honest, September 24th had so many birds it overwhelmed me!

It didn't take long for me to get my first life bird of the day, which came from two Stilt Sandpipers probing in one of the basins.  Warblers were everywhere, especially Orange-crowned, Yellow, Nashville, MaGillivray's, and Black-throated Gray Warblers.  I even came across a Red-breasted Nuthatch along one of the trails.  While this species is a conifer lover, they will sometimes have invasive years of going low into lowland habitats.  Seeing a Red-breasted Nuthatch forage in a mesquite tree was very odd.

The day then got very interesting quickly as my field notebook was filling up with birds rapidly.  As I was on a path that goes between Basins 1 and 2 of the Ranch, I walked into a camping area that one uses for boy and girl scout troops regularly.  This spot has great habitat, and it was filled with birds.  There are observation blinds here overlooking Pond 2, as well as benches, a fire place for camping, as well as a trashcan.  Thick brush and trees are also in this spot.  As I was searching for birds, I caught sight of a low foraging warbler that would change the rest of my day.  The warbler was concealed for most of the time, but for a few brief seconds, it made a semi-good appearance, and that semi-good appearance had me jumping out of my shoes.  The warbler was yellowish overall on it's front from it's upper breast down to it's belly, it had white undertail coverts, and then it's back and wings were a greenish-blue color.  I was jumping when I saw this combination, because I was thinking I had an eastern warbler, one that is rare in Arizona.  The bird continued to forage, but I never saw it's face, and I never saw it's standout black eye that gives the bird a standout look.  What was going through my mind came directly from the hours of time I had devoted myself to studying the Warbler field guide from the Peterson Field Guide Series that I had purchased.  I knew I had  a Prothonotary Warbler in the thick brush, and it left without giving me the decent look that I was hoping for.  I waited for twenty minutes without a resurface from the Warbler, and it was very frustrating.  With that brief of a look and even though I noted the bird's distinctive field marks, I asked myself, "Should I wait to count it as a life bird?".  I went through my mind again at the information that I learned from studying up on warblers and realized how distinctive a Prothonotary Warbler is.  Even though I had good looks at a few distinctive field marks without seeing the whole bird, I was also proud of myself for being able to reach the conclusion that I did.  And I decided to count the Prothonotary Warbler and wrote it down in my field notes.  I had gone from little boy to big boy, 6th grade to junior high, D+ to C-, all with one bird.  Gosh, I was glad that I had been doing my studying.  And gosh, I was still angry at the same time that I didn't have a killer look at the bird, my "lifer" Prothonotary Warbler.

Courtesy of the Peterson Field Guide to Warblers of North America.

There were other birds that needed to be searched for at Gilbert Water Ranch.  I looked out into one basin, and it was completely dry.  I saw a small bird out there, pumping it's tail in bogey dance fashion.  As I took a look at it through my binoculars, I realized it was my third lifer of the day, an American Pipit.  I was celebrating the look as if it was the only American Pipit I would see in my life, but I can now say: "Tommy you little dummy, your gonna see thousands of those things every year from late September through April in Arizona".  But the first bird is always the riot, and I really do enjoy seeing abundant American Pipits to this day to be honest.  I also came upon a big flock of warblers in a tree along the west side of the Ranch (Prothonotary was on the east side).  Most of them were Orange-crowned Warblers, but there was an Arizona rare Tennessee Warbler in the bunch!  I couldn't get a good picture off of the rarity, but I saw it well through my binoculars and I counted it.  Now, at Gilbert Water Ranch in March of 2009, birder Michael Moore found a Tennessee Warbler that I was able to refind and photograph.  It was actually my first rarity chase.  And to this day, I still have two Tennessee Warblers in Arizona, both from Gilbert in 2009.  With two eastern warblers under my belt for September 24th, 2009, I was safely able to say that my day was productive.  And my overall list for the morning was 81 different species, my best day list for Gilbert Water Ranch I have ever had to date.  But gosh, I needed to see that Prothonotary Warbler way better than I did!

I had it worked together in my plans to give the Warbler another shot after a patient wait and phishing-blue-in-the-face effort I gave the first time.  When I arrived at the camp spot, I didn't feel like I had the heat anymore.  The heat as in weather had become a huge factor, and it was sucking my energy away and was destroying my birding heat.  As it was getting much later in the morning, the variety of 81 different species at Ranch were starting to hunker down.  I went to the brush where I had the warbler and sat and stared and stared and stared.  The campspot had the rocks I was sitting on and brush in front of me, with the bench, trash can, and fire place behind me.  I started phishing, and the birds kept quiet.  It didn't seem like luck was on my side anymore, so I was deciding to call it quits.  My last option was the old heave-ho (basketball beyond half-court shot) and hail mary, which in birding is known as playback.  I got out my iPod and opened the birding application up, and I started to play the song of the Prothonotary Warbler for a few minutes.  As I stared and watched the brush in front of me, there was no Prothonotary Warbler.  Gosh, I was thinking the hope was done.  But then I glanced over my shoulder and looked behind me, and I caught movement from something on the trashcan.

I turned around and saw that there was a bird standing on the trashcan, and as I looked, I saw that it was the Prothonotary Warbler!  And it was right out in the open!  I was amazed and didn't believe what took place.  As I got my camera, the warbler flew off of the trashcan (darnit!), but it then flew up into an overhanging mesquite tree over the trashcan.  I managed to get video and video grabs of this rare-in-Arizona warbler, and it was a heck of a way to end my day at Gilbert Water Ranch.  This Prothonotary Warbler is a female bird.  Despite the fact that it is still striking, a male would be even more striking.  In swampy areas of the east that are surrounded by thick woodland, the Prothonotary Warbler makes it's breeding home.  It has been given the nickname, "Golden Swamp Warbler".

I left the Ranch as one happy birder that morning, which actually turned into an early afternoon.  When birders sit around the campfire or dinner table and tell crazy birding stories, this is one that often comes to mind when I share my stories.  This is certainly an all-time favorite story of mine.  And for the learning process that we all have as birders, a good lesson for this story is to study and study and study our field guides as often as we can.  We never know when reading a sentence out of a field guide can come in wonderfully handy the next day.  It helps to study a certain species or two extensively every day.  If you multiply that two by 365 days, than you can easily gain good knowledge for most of North America's fine avian life in only a year.  I have learned a lot since the Golden Surprise and I learn something new every day as a birder since then and will never stop learning.  The moral of this story shoes to study your field guides, because it may come in handy when golden surprises appear.


  1. That was some day - two eastern warblers is incredible. Your studying, patience, and persistence all paid off with the Prothonotary! I have only seen a Prothonotary once - a gorgeous male. They are typically only found along the Mississippi River in the very southeastern corner of MN.

    Your passion to be a life-long learner of birds is admirable and inspirational.


    1. Thanks Josh!

      It was one of my better days of being out in the field, especially after having the Prothonotary emerge from the "dead" like it did. I sometimes am still shocked when I think about that day and all of the birds that were at the Ranch! That is cool that you have Prothonotary Warblers in MN, that must have been awesome to see the male. For sure one of the coolest warblers!

  2. Great story Mr. Tommy!!! It's just so funny that you had the bird on the trash can behind you! I will have to start studying my guides.

  3. Thanks Caleb! I try to study my guide daily, it comes in handy after awhile :)

    The trashcan Prothonotary is one of my best experiences, and I doubt that sequence will ever happen again!