I recently had the privilege of going to southeastern Arizona with my friend, Susan Fishburn, to chase rarities such as Short-eared Owl, Least Grebe, Green Kingfisher, Rough-legged Hawk, and more. Susan is doing a Big Year in Arizona, and I had a day planned out that we were in strong hopes of of landing her more year birds. As any day like this could go-the plan didn't last long and we found ourselves scampering around Arizona by the day's end. Our first destination went as planned, which was an exploration of the San Rafael Grasslands and the Bog Hole Wildlife Area within the Grasslands. We arrived at the Grasslands with over an hour before it got light out in a hot pursuit of any Short-eared Owls. Despite our efforts in a 25 degree atmosphere, the Short-eared Owls didn't make an appearance. From there, it was on to Bog Hole Wildlife Area to try for a Least Grebe that was in a pond within the area. After a scary and needless detour, we found the Wildlife Area and started to walk through the grassland to get there. After never having a good visual of Baird's Sparrow in my life, luck finally kicked in and one landed right in front of my face. I had an amazing binocular view for five seconds, and I managed to get a photograph of the bird flying away.
Out of all of the times that I have been to San Rafael, I still have yet to see a Baird's Sparrow perch on a fence wire. It is the common form of viewing that birding folks have of this Tommy repulsive sparrow. Following the Baird's, Susan and I went down to the pond at Bog Hole and quickly found Susan the Least Grebe for her Big Year. Gosh, this bird is tiny, and it is certainly well named. Out of the seven Grebes in North America, it is probably my favorite, certainly not my least..
Six White-tailed Kites were also in the San Rafael Valley. While they didn't come very close, they did provide some entertainment. They used to be known as the Black-shouldered Kite, I guess both names suit this impressive raptor.
Birding in the San Rafael Valley took Susan and I longer than expected. Over breakfast in Patagonia, we talked about the remainder of the day and we had some big decisions to make. We had a Green Kingfisher at Patagonia Lake State Park to chase, as well as Rough-legged Hawks and a Lapland Longspur in the Santa Cruz Flats. With it being close to noon, the Kingfisher would take a long time and a majority of the rest of the day. We wondered if we would make it to Santa Cruz Flats with any good time left in the day to visually see things. In the process, we enjoyed this Yellow-throated Warbler in the vicinity of Patagonia City Park. It was found earlier in the month and this rarity has been enjoyed by many birders. After getting my first Yellow-throated Warbler in Maricopa County (without any photographs), this one didn't really compare to that one, but was still an awesome sight.
After some careful thought, we decided to head out of Patagonia and head north to Santa Cruz Flats. It was at Santa Cruz several days before where Doug Jenness observed two Rough-legged Hawks, and Susan and I were hoping to get them for her Big Year. The Flats were full of dozens of raptors whether hawk, falcon, vulture, or caracara, but..no Rough-legged Hawks. Despite the disappointment, Crested Caracaras are always awesome to see!
Lightning then struck the Arizona Birding Listserv as Melanie Herring reported six possible Trumpeter Swans, all of juvenile plumage, in the the Arlington Valley in Maricopa County. Melanie is an awesome birder, so Susan and I knew that this was a good report. We immediately made a beeline for Arlington and Buckeye area where the Swans were being seen. After 1.5 more hours of driving, we arrived at the spot in the area along Narramore Road and found Kurt and Cindy Radamaker watching the swans. The chase was successful, and the Trumpeter Swans were right in front of us!
The identification between Trumpeter and Tundra Swan juveniles is one of North America's biggest identification challenges. While we looked at these bird live in the field, all of us certainly got the impression of them being Trumpeter Swans. Susan and I backtracked a short distance to pick up Caleb Strand, and the three of us all lifered on this huge bird. For the time being, we enjoyed these Swans up close.
When the day was all said and done and after birders returned from the field, Kurt Radamaker quickly realized how difficult it was going to be to confirm the birds as certain Trumpeter Swans, because juvenile Tundra Swans can look extremely similar. Kurt emailed experts around the country, and both Kurt and I corresponded on our opinions of the birds. As I did research, I went back-and-fourth between both species as my conclusion, and so did Kurt. For our main impressions during this time, we felt as if the birds were Trumpeter Swans. On the flipside, some of the characteristics matched up with the Tundra Swan too. Trumpeter is noticeably bigger than Tundra, but size comparison is difficult in the field when one species is present. These swans did seem husky and bulky like Superman. The birds also didn't have any pale or yellow spots on any of their lores, which at least some of these six birds should have by now if they were Tundra. The swans also had a long flat bill and a flat forehead to go along with the bill. They were huge! As experts discussed the identification, the consensus favored Trumpeter over Tundra even though these Michael Jordan's of birding couldn't say for sure what species it was. Doesn't that say something about how difficult these birds are to identify?!
Although not a for-certain field mark, most Tundra Swans become whiter by this time of the year. To have six birds like this with only one of them having lots of white on it while the contrary was the other five being a dusky gray-brown, also says something. To be honest, the research was fun, but the in-conclusions were downright annoying.
Melanie found these birds on December 19th, and on the following days the Swans weren't seen. Well, it turns out they cover a large area within the Palo Verde section of the Arlington Area. They are never in one place for very long. Jay Taylor relocated them on Christmas Eve and several birders saw them on the following Christmas Day, where on Christmas they were seen quite easily by most who went out to see them. It's as if the Swans knew it was Christmas. Interestingly, several birders heard the swans giving vocalizations, and said they sounded like Trumpeter Swans. Magill Weber even heard their heh-heh multi-part vocalizations. When I read these reports, I was stoked!
I then set out on a journey over December 26th and 27th during the mornings, I wanted to find the Trumpeter Swans and obtain recordings of them calling. With me loving to bird by ear so much, I wanted to hear the swans vocalizing. Despite careful searching, I couldn't find the swans. But others did, including Melanie. When Melanie found them, they landed in the Lower River Road Ponds. During this time, Melanie documented a constant head-bobbing behavior displayed by the Swans that they display before takeoff. Every one of the six swans participated in the head bobbing that Melanie was able to film. And no, there was no rock music playing, they just like to bob their heads a lot. Interestingly, this is a behavior that Tundra Swans do not show. Yes, Tundra Swans nod their head up and down at times, but not in this constant motion. Melanie then got some vocalizations on film that matched Trumpeter when these birds took off. When birders saw these videos, particularly Phoenix ones who have seen these swans, we all blew our trumpets. While no official releases have been made yet, I don't see this one going down as "maybe Trumpeter" any longer! If confirmed, it will also be a first Maricopa County record, and one of only a handful of records for Arizona. A life bird for me if so also..
Besides, don't they look like Goliath?
See these two awesome kids? This is Caleb Strand (left) and Walker Noe (center). This picture was taken by Dave Noe, Walker's dad, who is also cool. We recently birded and found neat birds on Christmas Eve before all of the cool Christmas activities began.
Remember the magnificent Yellow-throated Warbler that Caleb found through the Tres Rios fence? The three of us caught sight of it as we were at Tres Rios. It was still in the same spot, 100 feet away (maybe more), but for once it was hopping around on the outskirts of one of the cottonwoods. My desperation shots finally showed something...
And actually, one day I somehow got closer to the Yellow-throated Warbler...closer than the 100 foot shots that are shown above...
I recently also saw this Common Ground-Dove..
As well as this Marsh Wren! It's not often Marsh Wrens are cooperative for photos, these are the best I have ever obtained of the species.
It's also impressive to see a large "clump" of Yellow-headed Blackbirds.
Even though on December 26th and 27th when I missed the Trumpeter Swans after wanting to see them further, the trips I took to the Arlington Area weren't without a major reward. On the 27th (yesterday), I ran into Melanie Herring at the Lower River Road Ponds. While we were talking about the swans, a shorebird buzzed past us and was calling. It briefly landed behind one of our trucks. Right away, I had a strong feeling it was a Mountain Plover. Actually, I knew it was a Mountain Plover. The bird then flew away from us and barely across the street, landing on a berm. It was a Mountain Plover!
Mountain Plovers are considered to be very rare in Maricopa County, and if the Trumpeter Swans get accepted as by the ABC that would be my 374th Maricopa County bird, which means this Mountain Plover is my 375th. Yep, it's a Maricoper, one that I have always wanted to see in Maricopa County. Ever since I've actively birded in Maricopa County, this is only the 3rd time I've heard of a Mountain Plover observation. What was more surprising is that the habitat that it landed on and around isn't Mountain Plover-like. This bird seemed lost, and Melanie and I got extremely lucky that it landed here. Sometimes birding comes down to being in the right place at the right time!
A rule of birding often goes like this: "When your looking for a mega-rarity, always keep an eye out for other things, because those other things show up when they aren't the sole focus of the efforts". I never thought in a million years I would see a Mountain Plover by scanning the Lower River Road Ponds! As the Plover stood on the berm, it flushed by a passing car as Melanie and I were trying to get closer. I was able to snap a diagnostic flight view, which was cool because we first saw it in flight as it zoomed by us.
The Plover disappeared again from our sight and we heard it calling abruptly as it flew over the alfalfa field. It probably knew it was lost and out of habitat, and we didn't find it again after that. We were in the right place at the right time, and that sequence was one of the best I've ever had as a Maricopa County birder. Lucky is the word for it! Troy Corman said it was the first Mountain Plover ever for the 35 year old Gila River Christmas Bird Count Week.
This year has been phenomenal for seeing birds, and it has been another excellent year of Maricopa County birding. In 2014, I added 8 birds to my Maricopa County list. I thought that was a lot and was much more than what I expected, and in this year, I also added 8. That will likely be the outcome, unless another amazing rarity is found in these last days of 15'. Greater Pewee and American Golden-Plover were my first two additions to my County list this year, and the last six came from October and after. 5 of those came after November started, these last two months have been crazy. A Red-eyed Vireo came in October, November held Heerman's Gull and Purple Finch, and December has yielded Yellow-throated Warbler, Trumpeter Swan, and Mountain Plover. For every Maricopa County lifer I get, it's always fun to predict what the next will be. Most of the time, the predictions are never close...