My friend Caleb Strand is an awesome birder, and he finds awesome birds to go along with it. On November 13th, Caleb went on a rarity finding rampage at the Hassayampa River Preserve and I was amazed when I heard his results. Caleb's discoveries came in numerously on his visit, and he found a Rufous-backed Robin, Winter Wren, Red Fox Sparrow, and a highly wanted bird of mine in Maricopa County, the Varied Thrush. I've seen one Varied Thrush in my life prior to this discovery, and I really wanted to get this one because Varied Thrushes are awesome anytime and anywhere and I really wanted it for my Maricopa County list. But there was a problem, my work schedule. Caleb found the birds on a Thursday, and Friday through Sunday at work resulted in three consecutive double twelve hour shifts. On Monday and Tuesday, I was scheduled off, and on Monday and Tuesday, the Preserve is closed. When the Preserve opened back up on Wednesday, I was once again scheduled to work three more consecutive double twelve hour shifts in a row. But luckily on November 22nd, the Preserve and I had matching schedules, and after a week that Caleb had found the Varied Thrush, I was still eager to put in a search for it. Varied Thrushes, a breeder in the northwest in wet coniferous forests, are quite elusive and aren't easy birds to find. Between Caleb's discovery, the Varied Thrush was seen on only one day between his initial sighting and my visit today, and that came on the day after his discovery at a section of the preserve a considerable distance away from where he first saw the thrush. I wasn't worried about that though, I was concentrating on the day that was in front of me. Everyone has different luck in the path they walk, and I was hoping I would be stepping foot in the right direction. One thing was for sure, I would have strong help! Caleb and his friend John Kafer were also coming to bird at Hassayampa when I was going, and we met up and birded together. With the eagle eye as a teammate in the field, I figured we would have a decent chance of relocating the birds.
Things started out interesting. An Evening Grosbeak called from the riparian woodlands as the three of us walked through the Preserve's River Ramble Trail. We went to the area where Caleb discovered the Varied Thrush, which was also very close to the Rufous-backed Robin. Amazingly, Caleb never had seen those species prior to the day he discovered them. And yet, he found both of them within minutes of each other! And also, the thrushes were foraging within feet of each other. As we searched in the area for over two hours, we came up empty. For some reason, I was still optimistic about looking for the Varied Thrush, although I wasn't holding my breath with hopes on seeing the bird. We searched in the area for over two hours and didn't find the Varied Thrush, but I did hear a Winter Wren calling away up the trail. The three of us went after the wren, and we actually had some very good binocular views and I managed to pull of a few pictures of the tiny bird.
Winter Wrens are considered rare throughout Arizona, and because of it's recent split with Pacific Wren, it's status in the state isn't known yet. But since the split, multiple Winter Wrens have been observed in Arizona every year and I think this is the 9th time I've either found or co-found this species in the field. It's the third Winter Wren I've had in recent weeks. As we searched and searched and birded and birded, we weren't finding any rare thrushes. Our strategy took us down further into the area on the Lion Trail, where we checked in case the birds moved down river a little. The Lion Trail had many birds like the rest of the Preserve, but the rarest we had was a flyover Pine Siskin. Caleb and John then took a lunch break, and I stayed at the Preserve for a lunch that I had already brought. and because I wanted maximum field time. Caleb and John returned quickly and John decided to nap, which left Caleb and I to search the rest of the Preserve. Before Caleb joined me, I had found a flock of American Robins along the Palm Lake Loop. I heard a different thrushy sounding "chup" call and I was searching hard for whatever it might be. Within minutes, Caleb looked up and spied the Rufous-backed Robin! It wasn't the Varied Thrush, but it is always amazing to see this Mexican species. This Rufous-backed Robin was my personal third record for Maricopa County, in which one of the other ones was from Hassayampa River Preserve. Interestingly, Caleb's initial discovery of this bird was completely on the other side of the Preserve. It's probably the same bird, but can we be sure? Anyways, it's a Rufous-backed Robin and an awesome bird to see!
Once again, Caleb's eagle eyes prevailed and I had good views of the Varied Thrush through my binoculars and at least diagnostic photos with my camera. Caleb and I followed the bird around for awhile before losing it and then re-finding it again. Varied Thrushes are shy birds, and this bird was very shy and never allowed the two of us to get very close. I saw it well through my binoculars and got identifiable pictures of the bird, which was already enough for me. When I get a new Maricopa County life bird like this one, I'm not picky about getting killer views or killer pictures, I just want to see the bird and be able to identify it as well as get at least a poor picture where folks can tell what the bird is.
The late afternoon light shining down on the area was beautiful, and it added something extra special to the sighting. For about thirty seconds, the Varied Thrush at up and close by, and gosh did I really enjoy it. This bird is rare but annual in Arizona, and there are usually several chase-able birds in the state every year. It isn't as rare as a lot of the rarities, but it is one of those special birds that will make a day anytime or anywhere whether seeing it in Arizona as a rare winter visitor or seeing and hearing it's unforgettable song on it's breeding grounds. I have yet to hear one sing, and I really hope I can someday in the Pacific Northwest. Once the bird flew from this high perch, it then stayed a little lower and I followed it around until it went off the trail. It was still pretty shy of me, but I had excellent binocular views and more good photo opportunities.
To end the post, I want to give a huge thanks and shout out to Caleb Strand! This kid is an awesome and talented birder and if it weren't for him, I still would be Varied Thrushless on my Maricopa list. Caleb is the hero of this post.