Sunday, November 23, 2014

A Long Wait for a Long Search that would end up...

I hate it when something rare is found in Maricopa County that I don't have for Maricopa County and I am unable to chase it.  If I hear about the bird, chase it right away, and it leaves before I get there, that's one thing.  But to have to work double shifts for many days at work in a row and to find out about that rare bird at the beginning of the string of work days is awful.  I recently had a situation like that happen, and until Saturday, November 22nd I had to wait until what seemed to be forever until my schedule would line up to visit the Hassayampa River Preserve.

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!

After hiking through the Mesquite Meander Trail at Hassayampa, Caleb and I decided to try the River Ramble and Lyke's Lookout areas again.  We decided to go back to the area where Caleb discovered the Varied Thrush.  At this point, I was still on the lookout, but as I was getting somewhat tired, my mindset shifted to neutral and I wasn't as alert as I was earlier in the day.  This is when rarity searching can become very dangerous.  When the mind goes to neutral and completely relaxed, it's probably not as alert to what's around and what's not as the early morning mind would be.  But I guess I'll never know for sure, I only know what birds I've detected, not the birds I've missed.  Heck, perhaps the Varied Thrush was simply perched behind a tree we walked by and was really only feet away from us?  At this point in the day, I was just glad to be out birding and having a good time.  Caleb and I had many good serious birding conversations going.  I'll admit, once we got into Varied Thrush "country" I was so tuned in with our conversation that I wasn't paying attention to movement like I should have been.  Luckily, Caleb never stops paying attention.  As we were talking, Caleb exclaimed, "Mr. Tommy!  I have the Thrush!".  I turned and looked to see Caleb with his binoculars raised, and after he located it once, he quickly located it again.  He pointed out a branch to me that the bird was on, and when I scanned, I quickly got on the Varied Thrush!  Boy was I shocked, I wasn't thinking we were going to get on it this late in the day.

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.  

As Caleb and I viewed the Varied Thrush from the junction of the River Ramble and Lyke's Lookout Trails, the bird was very active and was moving around constantly.  It was probably getting it's final snack in for the day, as it was getting later in the afternoon.  When Caleb first spied the bird, it was about 2:30 P.M.  We left the Thrush and Caleb had to get back to John for their trip back home to the south.  I birded with Caleb back to the visitor center and said bye to him and John.  At this point I still had about an hour of birding left, and I decided to go right back to looking for the Varied Thrush.  The first Varied Thrush I saw was a female bird at Boyce Thompson Arboretum last year in December.  This one was much more special because it's a striking adult male and it was in my home county.  As I searched the area I was having trouble re-finding the bird.  The clock was quickly ticking, and as I started to leave the dense cottonwoods along the Lyke's Lookout area, I saw movement from a bird flying in the trees.  I looked up and saw that it was the Varied Thrush, and it was much closer this time!

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.

I was very thankful and blessed to get this chance to see and document this rare Arizona bird in Maricopa County.  As I mentioned earlier, this is a Maricopa County life bird for me, which I commonly refer to as a "Maricoper".  It's my 364th bird for Maricopa County overall, and my sixth addition to my county list for 2014.  For a quick recap, the first five additions to that list for me this year have been Harris's Sparrow, Williamson's Sapsucker, Northern Saw-whet Owl, Spotted Owl, and Flammulated Owl.  The Varied Thrush and Harris's Sparrow are the only statewide additions added to the list this year so far.  The three owls and Williamson's Sapsucker aren't rare in Arizona but they are in Maricopa County, where they are very rare and local.  It felt great to get a new Maricoper, and the quest and search now begins for Maricoper # 365.  What will it be?!  There are some rare and local grassland birds to search for in the near future.  Maybe one of them will be my next addition, or it can also be a very rare statewide rarity of some sort.  After all, it's November and almost December, the two best months of the year for rarities to show up in numbers in Arizona.  I also had to wait so long to attempt a shot at this bird, 9 days after the discovery.  It was a pain-in-the-butt waiting, but once the search was successful, it made it much more awesome.  Hopefully I'll find my next Maricopa County lifer and won't find out about one just as I'm about to work three twelve hour work shifts in a row.

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.


  1. You got some awesome photos of that thrush Mr. Tommy!!! Thanks for the encouregment it means a lot! I am glad you got better looks after we left. Now you need those grassland birds! You also got really good photos of the wren. I had a blast!

    1. Thanks Caleb! Super super THANK YOU for the awesome bird. I had a blast, it was awesome birding with you as usual!

  2. Congrats on the new Maricoper! That must have been excruciating waiting so long to search. You're a better man than me when you say it doesn't bother you if you chase in timely manner and the bird gets away before you get there. Just had that happen as I lost a county bird of the ocean variety. It stings.

    Anyhow the Varied Thrush is a great bird, as is the Rufous-backed Robin. Good thing you had Caleb to guide you!

    1. Thanks Josh! It was horrible waiting. To me, it is for sure better to instantly hear about a rarity and miss it than being cooped up inside while it continues and then have it leave later before you get a chance to even chase it.

      I'm lucky Caleb was with me, otherwise my Maricopa list would still be Varied Thrush-less.

  3. That's awesome guys!

    I tried for that bird Sunday before was a bust, as always. I've chased and dipped on Varied Thrush 4 times now...dare I call it the N word??

    1. Thanks Laurence! I hope you'll get a VATH this winter sometime. Perhaps it'll pop up at the most epic time and Butlers Birds will have an epic story on the blog. But with the high amount of chases without the bird, you can call it whatever you want!