Sunday, December 14, 2014

'Tis The Season: The Most Wonderful Time of the Year

December is a great time to be birding in Arizona.  When birding is out of the equation, it's also the best time of the year.  Things start to rapidly cool down, people are finally out and about, and there's just an awesome feeling in the air.  I can't get enough of Christmas lights and fun Christmas programs such as Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer (which I have watched twice already).  Friends hang out and host fun gigs, and everyone with the exception of the cardiac-arrest shop-till-you-drop people are trying to make the "real" best out of Christmas.  And birding is quite similar.  Eastern and pacific vagrants start to show up throughout the state in seemingly good stocking stuffer numbers, which every birder loves to either discover or chase.  Christmas Bird Counts fill the calender also, which is a great thing to participate in.  Scouting for Christmas Bird Counts is a busy task too, as hard core birders try to have the best counts as possible.  These counts are a great way to find cool birds as well as have the chance to hang out and bird with awesome people.  Around Phoenix, whether there are rare birds or not, the December weather is the best out of any month of the year!

I've had fun days here-and-there lately for birding.  Most days are spent sitting on my butt at my hospital job.  There aren't any good birding spots that I know of in the hospital parking lot.  Rock Pigeons and Great-tailed Grackles are present in high numbers.  I always think it's great to see a pile of Pigeon feathers in the lot, because I know that my buddy is back.  He hangs out on the roof of the hospital, looking for the helpless pigeon.

American Kestrels are around in high numbers everywhere right now.  In your reading this, take a look outside and you might see one.  For such a common bird, it's one that is always a treat to see, and it is the second falcon to lead this post off.  Kestrels perch on funny things sometimes.  This one says, "do I look like a freaking Osprey?"

One of my more recent trips came on this past Monday, which was December 8th, 2014.  I took a trip with my friend Steve Hosmer south of Phoenix to Tucson's Sweetwater Wetlands as well as Pinal County's Santa Cruz Flats.  We were chasing two birds, both of which would be lifers for me from the east:  Baltimore Oriole at Sweetwater, and a Black-throated Blue Warbler at Santa Cruz.  Steve and I chose to go to Sweetwater first to look for my life bird and his state bird.  Once at Sweetwater, I spied the Baltimore Oriole within ten minutes of arrival.  As Sun's broadcaster Al McCoy would say, "Shazzaaammm".

The Baltimore Oriole was far away at first, but Steve and I still had good binocular looks and then great looks through Steve's scope.  And then we were able to get closer to the Oriole, with much better views.  This bird was stunning, and I was very glad I was able to add it onto my life list!

Sweetwater Wetlands has harbored many many many many many rarities during it's history.

Winter season hosts raptors and waterfowl in abundant numbers in Arizona.  Northern Shovelers and Red-tailed Hawks are two perfect examples.

Immediately after Sweetwater, Steve and I were heading back north up to Pinal County's Santa Cruz Flats in pursuit of the Black-throated Blue Warbler.  The Warbler was found on private property within the Flats from a public road, so when Steve and I got there there were other birders birding from the road but looking onto private property.  It had been found a week or two earlier, and thanks to Magill Weber and Muriel Neddermeyer, they relocated it and prompted our trip and attempt at this beautiful eastern warbler.  A handful of birders were on the scene as expected other than Steve and I:  Babs Buck, Barb Medding, Laurens Halsey, Lindsey Story and her father Dick, Brian Walsh, Larry Norris, Doug Jenness, Keith Kamper, and more.  The warbler wasn't cooperative during most of the search.  Several other birds such as an American Redstart, Acorn Woodpecker, Summer Tanager and "Western" Flycatcher were good side kicks.  After two hours of waiting with some of the birders listed above, we were about to move on and search the Flats more and would then come back to try for the warbler again.  Luckily, as people were getting in their cars, I took a last-second scan at the house on the property, which had some berry bushes around it.  A small bird caught my eye foraging on a branch and then on the house itself!  It was the Black-throated Blue Warbler!

No, this isn't a good picture and I wasn't trespassing to get a better one.  The binocular views were quite good.  Most of the birders had gotten back to their vehicles but quickly came running to the sound of my voice once I spied the warbler.  The warbler started to jump around on the house and even the Christmas lights that were hanging down from the roof!  Sadly, it flew before I could take a picture of the Christmas light sequence.  You'd have to see it to believe it, but I swear it happened.  The warbler was singing Jingle Bells too.  

Everyone was very happy with me that I spied the bird, and I was glad I was able to spy it for everyone.  This was one of the stranger occurences I have had when getting a life bird, but one of the more awesome ones too.  The Black-throated Blue Warbler is one of my favorite warblers.  Seeing an adult male like this in it's splendor was an epic treat.  A great life bird to get, and I hope I'll be able to get a good picture if I get lucky to come across one again.  The Warbler spent some time hopping around the old house on the property and human made structures leaning up against the wall.  Food source must have been good there, because the Black-throated Blue Warbler was joined by many other songbirds.  This is another horrible picture, but the warbler went inside this old crevice and came out of another hole up a few feet higher!  This picture shows the nice blue back rather well...

Steve and I drove around the Flats looking for other goodies after the warbler excitement.  We did come back for the warbler again and weren't able to find it the second time, but Laurens Halsey did, and it was a nice addition to his epic Arizona Big Year he is doing that is now the current Arizona Big Year record.  Other birds around the Flats included my first Lark Bunting of the year as well as the neat Prairie Falcon.

And then came along a fun scouting trip along the Verde River on December 13th for the upcoming Salt and Verde River Christmas Bird Count on December 15th.  I can't participate in any official count dates this year, but I did help several awesome birders scout the area and get birds for count week.  The Verde River is a fun place to bird, but it is on the Fort McDowell Indian Reservation and we aren't allowed to venture into the Reservations during other times of the year.

I don't stop to look at Lesser Goldfinches very often, but a tree full of them is a neat sight!

I spent most of the day scouting with Troy Corman, Justin Jones, and Marceline Vandewater.  Tom Lewis and Kurt and Cindy Radamaker also joined us for awhile.  It was a pleasure birding with these awesome people and awesome birders.  Here is a shot of Justin, Marceline, and Troy getting ready to find noteworthy count week birds!

Before we arrived to the Verde River, we were rather nervous about the weather conditions, as forecasts said there would be heavy rain most likely through mid-morning.  Luckily, the rain was gone by the time we got to the Ft. McDowell!  During bush-whacking treks along the Verde, we certainly did get our share of high mud levels in places.  Most birders (99 percent) would avoid this mud, but the mud also accesses amazing habitat areas where Troy, Justin, and Marceline have found great rarities in in the past.  If you don't get your feet wet, you won't discover a lot of what's out there!  

As we were in the earlier hour of our expedition in the mud zones, I heard a Red-shouldered Hawk calling from the riparian across the river.  After a muddy crossing, we were able to get around on the cottonwood and willow islands much easier.  We then found a male Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers with great views, which was cool.  It sat low at one point and I was able to have great visuals through my binoculars.  We went further into the habitat and had a Dusky Flycatcher, and we then had a great visual of the Red-shouldered Hawk.  The hawk was perched in a cottonwood at first after we followed it's loud screams for awhile.  It eventually flew up over our area and we had great views.  I was able to snap a few pictures.

The "Shoulder" is a beautiful raptor, and this bird is one than isn't easy to photograph due to it's skittish and low-flying behavior.  When this bird flew up, it gave me the chance to snap the best photographs I have ever had of this species.  Troy exclaimed several times how striking the bird was before it flew up in the air, and once it did, it became a great sighting for all of us!  Moving back along the mud zones that were two feet deep in places, we came upon another section of great habitat, where multiple eastern warblers were found last year.  This time we found a Black-and-White Warbler and Troy found a very rare Pacific-Slope Flycatcher for this time of year.  The Flycatcher was cooperative for Troy and it gave a distinctive Pacific-slope Flycatcher call note so we didn't have to mark it down as a Western Flycatcher spuh.

Also, here's a cool dragonfly that Justin found along the route!  Birds aren't always the only things to look at out there, the world of dragonflies is another awesome thing that requires a lot of searching.  

We are a little over two weeks away from the end of 2014.  What an awesome year it has been for 2014.  I have a feeling there may be several more awesome outings remaining on my calendar to close out this year.  Regardless of what else I see, this year has been great.  


  1. Definitely fun times with lots of great birds found. Sweetwater is great to visit after work. And I'm glad your buddy makes a visit and finds a bit to eat around the parking lot:) Soon our nesting GHOW will be back right outside the window. Winter is definitely the best time of year here!

    1. Thanks Chris! I'm glad you agree that winter is the best, cause it simply is! If I lived in Tucson I would stop at Sweetwater weekly I'm sure. My Peregrine has been a regular visitor lately.

  2. Awesome that you got both the BAOR and BTBW!!! And a great shot of the oriole. I tried for both on Saturday after the rain and dipped on both of them. Might have to try again. Congrats!!!!

    1. Thanks Gordon, it was really fun getting to see both of them! If you try again for them I hope you land both of them. The Warbler seems to be hit or miss.

  3. Wow, Tommy, incredible post! Congratulations on the two beautiful eastern lifers! BAOR is pretty common here, but I never, ever tire of that black and orange brilliance. The BTBW is a choice bird, the kind that can take your breath away. I've only seen one. That's pretty neat that you saved the day for your group by spotting it. Great raptors in this post too.

    2014 has been an incredible birding year for lots of people. I'm thinking of doing a post on my Top 10 birds of the year.

    1. Thanks Josh! The lifers were very fun to see in the field, especially the warbler due to the strange irony.

      I hope you do a Top 10 post for your 2014--I would really enjoy reading it!