Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Searching for Plovers and Pipits

A few times every year, I like to venture south to bird at the Santa Cruz Flats in Pinal County.  The Flats are a great birding location, and are the only reliable location in Arizona to see wintering Mountain Plovers as well as Crested Caracaras year round.  Besides those two species, a handful of other birds are around and are present in the area, which harbors a variety of different habitats.  Recently, my buddy Mark Ochs found a Sprague's Pipit in the area which has caused a big stir and many birders to come and search the area in hopes of finding this bird.  I recently made a trip down to the Flats with my friend Dominic Sherony, who is back for his annual three months that he spends in Arizona.  Starting the day off with a Dominic sighting was a great kick-off!

Our two main targets were Mountain Plover and Sprague's Pipit.  We started off with looking for Mountain Plovers.  Luckily, we didn't have any problems finding them.  At first there was a smaller flock of 9 birds, and that quickly grew to 44 when more of them flew in from the south.

Seeing and studying these Mountain Plovers was a lot of fun.  I believe this is only my fourth observation I have ever had of the species.

Mountain Plovers then seemed to be everywhere.  Some were hallucinations from the mad parade, while others were clearly, Mountain Plovers.

This is a bird I haven't seen in Maricopa County yet.  Maricopa County has good habitat too, I think I'm due for a Maricopa County Mountain Plover soon...

In the area was also a pair of Burrowing Owls....

After finding Mountain Plovers, our next target and search was for the Sprague's Pipit, a small and elusive grassland bird.  This was my main target bird of the day, especially since I had only seen one Sprague's Pipit in my entire life prior to this attempt.  After Mark Ochs originally found the first Sprague's Pipit, Kurt and Cindy Radamaker and Caleb Strand decided to walk up the fields and they kicked up five more Sprague's Pipits, plus Mark's Sprague's Pipit.  Dominic and I were hoping to see these birds, well, at least one of them well.  We started to scan the grass for any movement as well as watch for any pipits that were about the be flushed up.  Once flushing a few birds, we saw where one of them landed..

It was our target, and we enjoyed looks at the Sprague's Pipit feeding, walking, and running through the dense grass.  Finding it in our camera viewfinders was an entirely different story!

The Sprague's Pipit may look like a streaked and drab big-eyed little bird to anyone, but for the birder, it is one of those birds that make this hobby fun.

As we continued to walk through the fields, we had at least six Sprague's Pipits as well.  We even had five of them flush in the same area as Kurt, Cindy, and Caleb all had a similar number together.  It was great to study the Pipits behavior, flight, and calls.  

Walking through the grass and fields with sneaky Sprague's Pipits was a fun thing to partake in.

We searched for other birds also, including the eastern warblers in the American Redstart and Black-throated Blue Warbler spilling over from last year.  We had the redstart but didn't have any luck with the Black-throated Blue Warbler.  A Summer Tanager that was found last year was also still around.  These birds are wintering, yes!  The only photograph I was able to get of anything was of a nice Vermilion Flycatcher.

After exploring throughout the Santa Cruz Flats area, we stopped at Arizona City Lake on the way home.  We found two drake Wood Ducks as well as this Greater White-fronted Goose.  Dominic said that this was the closest he has ever been to this goose species.

It was a great day of Pinal County birding at the Santa Cruz Flats.  Thanks to Dominic for an awesome day!

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Birding 2014-My best year in birding yet?

At the start of every birding year, things start off pretty drab.  Month-by-month, things get better as the year goes on.  But by the end of the year, one will have a lot to remember and to be proud of.  When the Northern Goshawk begins it's life, it starts off too as a plain brown-looking hawk.  But as a year goes by, it turns into something that looks freaking cool....

As were just now into 2015, I think it's that time now to reflect upon the previous year for birding in 2014.  2013 was a great year, and I wrote a summary to recap the year's best and awesome birding experiences at about this time last year.  In 2013, I set a personal record for myself and recorded 377 bird species throughout the state of Arizona.  I got a bit carried away that year, I will admit.  2014 was different.  I went birding a lot, but that came at a much more relaxed and intentionally focused pace.  In 2014, it was one of those years where I really felt like I was blessed a lot more with birding a lot less than the previous year.  Major highlights were numerous, and that consists of three list categories, which I'll explain shortly.  2014's birding had everything from standing with a Skimmer flock on the bay, seeing an unexpected Mexican vagrant in Phoenix, finding my most wanted bird in my home county that seemed to be extirpated, seeing a foreign rarity that required a three hour chase after work, seeing my first seabird, confirming breeding for a species that hasn't been confirmed for breeding in Arizona in years, attempting two Big Days. exploring another far Arizona county in-depth, and of course birding with awesome people.  Here's a long post and summary for the year, fasten your belt and come along for the ride!

Major Highlights

Major highlights are broken into three categories for me during any year and they involve getting a new species for those categories.  The three categories are lists, and additions to these three lists make a birder like me but a smile on my face.  The first list is my overall life list, and this will show what life birds I got in 2014.  There were quite a few of them, but most of them came from a trip to a region I haven't been birding in much..and it's not in Arizona.

Tommy's 2014 Lifers

Every birder craves life birds, I sure do.  I have a long way to go to reach seeing every breeding North American bird as my lifelong goal.  Going into 2014, I had 433 life birds for my life list, most of which have come from my home state of Arizona.  But that list will grow too slowly if I don't leave the state, so it made sense to go to southern California with my buddy Dominic Sherony to get a handful of life birds!  Some surprises were to come in the life bird category in Arizona also.

1.  Tricolored Blackbird-My first life bird of 2014, seen on February 27th in Jacumba, California.  Jacumba is a known spot for this species, and Dominic and I had a great time observing them.  (Lifer # 434)

2.  California Thrasher-Lifers in soCal with the name "California" in front of them were freaking awesome!  While searching for Tricolored Blackbirds at Jacumba, Dominic and I also stumbled across this California Thrasher on February 27th.  (Lifer # 435)

3.  California Towhee-Oh yes, another California specialty!  While driving on the I-8 towards San Diego on February 27th from Jacumba, Dominic and I stopped at a place called Kitchen Creek Road, which hosts chaparral and oak habitat for more potential life birds.  Just like our resident Towhees, California Towhees are also quite boisterous.  (Lifer # 436)

4.  Wrentit-Following the Towhee on Kitchen Creek Road, I got very lucky and was able to add one of my most wanted birds for the trip very quickly, the Wrentit.  This bird is unique and is in it's own family.  For a species that is a major skulker, it wasn't so skulk-like for me.  After detecting the bird by hearing it singing in the chaparral, I followed it and was able to get some awesome views of it!!  (Lifer # 437)

5.  California Quail-yet we say again, California!  Yes!  Driving further up Kitchen Creek Road on February 27th, Dominic and I heard a covey of California Quail that were very elusive.  I wasn't able to get a picture of the bird.  However, ducking under the thick brush, I was able to see a few of the birds for a brief moment and see their key field marks.  (Lifer # 438)

6.  Oak Titmouse-In the oak habitat along Kitchen Creek Road that day on February 27th, Dominic and I didn't have trouble locating the Oak Titmouse, California's counterpart to our Juniper Titmouse.  The two species have different vocalizations.  (Lifer # 439)

7.  Brandt's Cormorant-On February 28th, Dominic and I woke up to rain and high winds in San Diego.  That didn't alter our birding plans though by one feather, and we hardcore fought the weather to find more awesome birds for soCal and my life list.  Driving along the coast gave me my first ever look at a Brandt's Cormorant.  (Lifer # 440)

  8.  Pelagic Cormorant-Seconds after finding the Brandt's Cormorants on a rock, we spied another cormorant species just feet below and another life bird for me-a Pelagic Cormorant!  It was really neat to see two cormorant lifers on the same rock.  (Lifer # 441)

9.  Black Turnstone-In southern California, some of the birds that I was very excited about were the coastal shorebirds.  Fortunately, some of the region's birders put on the California birding listserve where these species were being seen.  After the cormorants, Dominic and I went searching for the shorebirds on February 28th.  The first of the potential four for the trip and my life list was the Black Turnstone!  (Lifer # 442)

10.  Wandering Tattler-After the finding the Turnstone that day on February 28th, Dominic and I went over to La Jolla in San Diego to a place where the Wandering Tattler had been reported.  After a downpour of dense rain, Dominic spied the Tattlers, which was a very highly wanted bird for me coming into the trip.  (Lifer # 443)

11.  Royal Tern-This was my fifth life bird on February 28th and my 11th in only two days of birding.  It was seen from La Jolla Point.  I had probably seen plenty of them earlier in the day, but the wind made things very difficult.  It finally calmed down in the evening, and we were able to see many birds flying over the Pacific to close to day out.  (Lifer # 444)

12.  Black-vented Shearwater-My first ever true seabird!  Dominic and I signed up to go on a pelagic birding trip out of San Diego on the 28th, but it was cancelled due to bad weather.  Thankfully, we were able to see these birds from shore flying over the ocean at La Jolla Point, where we were joined by a crowd of birders including big names such as Paul Lehman, Gary Nunn, and Guy MaKaskie.  The shearwaters were too far out on the water for any chance of photographs, but I was able to see them fine through a scope.  It was a good way to start March 1st!  (Lifer # 445)

13.  Nelson's Sparrow-After getting the Shearwaters to start off the 1st, I was in for a day full of lifers.  Dominic and I found out about a few Nelson's Sparrows being seen at San Elijo Lagoon shortly north of San Diego.  Paul Lehman gave us excellent tips on finding the birds.  These eastern sparrows are rare but annual in this region, and it was one I wasn't expecting to see on a trip like this.  The high tides brought the sparrows higher than their usual haunts, and we were rewarded with excellent views. (Lifer # 446)

14.  Allen's Hummingbird-After successfully getting the Nelson's Sparrow at the Lagoon, Dominic and I decided to hike some of the trails in the area in search of California Gnatcatcher.  Yes, another Cali bird.  We didn't find any Gnatcatchers in that area, but Dominic spied my third life bird of the day on March 1st, an Allen's Hummingbird.  This was a neat bird to get, which is resident in the area unlike it's similar Rufous cousin. (Lifer # 447)

15.  California Gnatcatcher-Since Dominic and I couldn't find the California Gnatcatcher at San Elijo Lagoon, we went to Mission Trails Regional Park instead to search for the small songbird.  Fellow Arizona birder, Diane Touret, gave us a location she found to be excellent for the Gnatcatcher.  Dominic and I decided to head to the immediate spot.  Within minutes, score! (Lifer # 448)

16.  Black Skimmer-Later in the afternoon on March 1st, Dominic and I were once again back in the San Diego city area and we were looking for Black Skimmers and other birds in Mission Bay.  The Skimmers were giving us a hard time at first, but I scoped the bay and was able to see the flock way in the distance and over a mile away.  Dominic and I had to plan a careful detour, and stopped at several coves before we found the correct cove that the Black Skimmers were in.  Once we found the cove and then the birds, it was one of my favorite highlights of the trip and it was one of my favorite lifers of 2014.  This one deserves two photographs, a bird portrait and a selfie of me with the birds.  A strange strange bird, but an awesome one!  (Lifer # 449)

17.  Surfbird-Minutes after enjoying the Black Skimmers, Dominic and I rushed over to Mission Beach to search the jetties for shorebirds.  We were primarily looking for the Surfbird, but we did see a few Wandering Tattlers along the jetty line also.  Within minutes, we were able to find the Surfbirds and we ran up and down the shoreline in Sanderling fashion as the tide would come in and out.  It resulted in us getting close views of the Surfbird, and a very neat shorebird at that!  This bird was a milestone type of bird for me, my 450th lifebird.  Dominic was thrilled about the milestone, and he kindly treated me to a swordfish dinner that night!  What a day March 1st was, and there might be room for one more on that day.... (Lifer # 450)

18.  Bay-breasted Warbler-March 1st really had a good taste of a variety of birds, and Dominic and I were seeing a variety of birds throughout the day besides the life birds.  What really made the day fun as a closing statement before we headed northbound to Orange County was a search for a Bay-breasted Warbler.  The San Diego region is excellent for finding eastern vagrants, and this rarity was really favoring several trees in a business area.  Dominic and I went and quickly found the bird, and it capped off an excellent day, full of 7 life birds.  (Lifer # 451)

19.  Nuttall's Woodpecker-Dominic and I birded Orange County, CA on March 2nd and we started at Huntington Central Park to search for the established and ABA countable Nutmeg Manikins.  We struck out on the tiny Makikin, but we did find a few Nuttall's Woodpeckers.  The Nuttall's was my 19th lifer of the trip. (Lifer # 452)

20.  White-headed Woodpecker-Dominic and I spent the last day of our soCal trip in the beautiful San Jacinto Mountains in Idyllwild, CA on March 3rd before heading back to Phoenix.  In the conifer-filled mountains here, one of our main targets was the White-headed Woodpecker.  The woodpecker was a highly wanted lifer of mine.  After arriving on the night of the 2nd and hearing a White-headed once, we woke up early and found one quickly.  It's a beautiful bird, and it was one of seven individuals that we got to see!  (Lifer # 453)

21.  Mountain Quail-The Mountain Quail was my final and 21st lifer of the California trip.  Dominic and I drove around a lot and walked through appropriate habitat for a few hours hoping to turn the bird up.  The attempt resulted in a heard only of several Mountain Quail.  I do count a heard only as a life bird, especially for a bird that is hard to see like the Mountain Quail.  Are looks desired?  Of course!  (Lifer # 454)

22.  Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl:  After getting 21 life birds in 5 days of southern California birding, I was craving another lifer.  On May 2nd, Magill Weber and I decided to take a drive south from Phoenix down to Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument to look for my final and 13th needed owl in Arizona, the endangered Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl.  This is the most reliable location in Arizona to find this species, who once ranged as far north as central Arizona in Maricopa County.  Magill and I got very lucky and we were able to locate an owl, an epic life bird at state bird for Arizona! (Lifer # 455)

23.  Sharp-tailed Sandpiper:  On a random May 7th, an Asian shorebird decided to show up north of Flagstaff at a location called Rimmy Jim Tank.  Jason Wilder found a Sharp-tailed Sandpiper in adult plumage, and it really caused quite the stir in Arizona.  This species is accidental in North America outside of fall migration where it is annual, and it is indeed unprecidented in Arizona during spring.  The state has had a few records, but this one was by far the craziest.  Magill Weber and I went on another chase together after I got out of work.  We drove through a cold Flagstaff and arrived 30 minutes before dark at Rimmy Jim Tank to successfully land the Sharp-tailed Sandpiper.  It was a great life bird for me, and a great state bird for both of us! (Lifer # 456)

24.  Baltimore Oriole-A Baltimore Oriole may be extremely common in eastern North America, but I still have yet to bird in the east.  Not ever.  A beautiful adult male showed up at Sweetwater Wetlands in Tucson and it's surrounding area and it stuck around for a long time.  I wasn't planning on chasing it at first, but when another rarity showed up, I decided that it would be cool to kill two birds with one stone.  Steve Hosmer and I went to Sweetwater Wetlands on December 8th, and we quickly found the stunning male Oriole.  (Lifer # 457)

25.  Black-throated Blue Warbler-A Black-throated Blue Warbler also showed up in the time frame that the Baltimore Oriole did, and it was about an hour north of Tucson in Pinal County's Santa Cruz Flats on private property.  Scanning had to be done from the road.  It was also on December 8th, and Steve Hosmer and I headed over to search for this eastern warbler after we found the Oriole. After two hours of looking, we got lucky and I spied the bird hopping around on someone's house and patio.  There were about ten other birders present besides Steve and I, and it was a great way to find such a cool and nice-looking eastern warbler.  The looks and photos were distant, but everyone in the crowd was happy with the sighting!  (Lifer # 458)

The final tally for official life birds added to my list was 25, bringing my total from 433 to 458.  It was a great year for bringing home these such birds, and only four of them came from Arizona.  Before I get to my second category of major highlights, I'll say that I want to treat myself to one out of state birding trip per year.  This year may result in another southern California trip to tackle that highly coveted pelagic birding trip that I wasn't able to go on last year.

Arizona Additions in 2014

The second major highlight category comes from birds that I added to my Arizona state list in 2014.  Like 2013, I did explore a lot of new areas in 2014, and I added seven birds to my Arizona list to bring my total to 427 species from 420 at the start of the year.  Here are those seven birds, and some of them you have already seen on the life bird highlights.

1.  Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl:  This bird was seen on May 2nd, 2014 at Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument in Pima County by Magill Weber and I.  It was a state bird and a life bird, so it was really a double check!  Here's another photo of this fantastic bird.  (Arizona # 421)

2.  Sharp-tailed Sandpiper:  Jason Wilder found this mega-rare bird for Arizona on May 7th, 2014 north of Flagstaff by about 30 miles at Rimmy Jim Tank.  Magill Weber picked me up after work and we made a 3+ hour drive up and a 3+ hour drive down from the spot.  We had killer looks at this awesome vagrant, and it was another double check (State and life).  (Arizona # 422)

3.  Pine Grosbeak:  On July 25th, 2014, I had just arrived in Greer, Arizona for my annual family vacation in Apache County's White Mountains.  Birding friends Gordon Karre, Chris Rohrer, and Magill Weber also came up to the Whites for several days of birding.  They joined me for a few days and on the 25th, we went up to the Sunrise Ski Area to search for several Pine Grosbeaks that had been reported in the area.  Pine Grosbeak is thought of as being very rare in the state of Arizona, and they have bred in the White Mountains before, but it had been a long time.  As we got to the reported spot, we immediately heard Pine Grosbeaks calling and found a few of them for ourselves!  It was an epic bird to add to our state lists!  I have more to say about this bird later in my post.  (Arizona # 423)

4.  Black-billed Magpie:  During the weekend where we found the Pine Grosbeaks, Chris, Gordon, Magill, and I also tried for Black-billed Magpies at the very northeastern tip of the state at Teec Nos Pos.  We drove over 12 hours in the car that day only to strike out on the birds.  But Gordon and I still had a strong will in us to get that bird for our state list, and we drove all the way back to Teec Nos Pos on September 29th, 2014.  Luckily, we had multiple Black-billed Magpies, and it was actually the very first bird we saw as we arrived in the area!  (Arizona # 424)

5.  California Quail:  My fifth addition came as a heard only at the Sipe White Mountain Wildlife Area with Gordon Karre, Susan Fishburn, and Babs Buck-a California Quail.  Although not native to Arizona, these quail have been introduced in the White Mountains and have become successfully established in the wild.  As we were on yet another exploration in Apache County, we all added this bird to our state list, one that was a lifer earlier for me in the year in southern California.  We heard the California Quail on November 29th on a steep slope up from the wildlife area.  (Arizona # 425)

6.  Baltimore Oriole:  Steve Hosmer and I went to Tucson's Sweetwater Wetlands to get this fine looking bird on December 8th, another double check (lifer and Arizona both).  (Arizona #426)

7.  Black-throated Blue Warbler:  On the same day as the Baltimore Oriole, December 8th, Steve Hosmer and I also chased a Black-throated Blue Warbler.  It was an adult male, a stunning eastern warbler I had always wanted to see.  The location was at the Santa Cruz Flats in Pinal County, and we stood on public road and looked onto private property for the eastern warbler.  After two hours nearly went by, I spied the warbler hopping around on the roof of a house, the house's Christmas lights, and then the patio.  It was a crazy sequence, and it made the other birders who were chasing the bird very glad.  As people were climbing into their cars to go elsewhere, I got lucky and spied the warbler at the last second! (Arizona # 427)

Additions to my Maricopa County List

For those who know me well, know that I care about my Maricopa County list more than any other list.  2014 really brought in more bird than I expected I would get for that list.  For the most part, I get more excited about getting a new bird for Maricopa County over an official life bird.  It might sound nuts and it probably is, I just really enjoy birding in my home county.  I call Maricopa County additions Maricopers.  Here are my additions for that list:

1.  Harris's Sparrow:  After getting my first ever Harris's Sparrow in Tucson on December 31st, 2013, I gladly welcomed it to my Maricopa County list as my first Maricoper in 2014.  This bird was found by Jim Burns at Mesquite Wash along Highway 87.  My client Tim and I were able to re-find this rarity on March 11, 2014, and it was a life bird for Tim.  (Maricoper # 359)

2.  Williamson's Sapsucker:  The Williamson's Sapsucker is one that is hard to find in Maricopa County, but is probably annual in the County's higher elevations.  I had been looking for this woodpecker in the County since 2010, and when my brother Tyler and I found one in the pine forest of Mount Ord on April 18th, 2014, it was a great reason to celebrate and also a nice bird to reach a new set of 10 with 360.  This Williamson's Sapsucker is a female, which looks entirely different from the male.  Ironically, I found two more Williamson's Sapsuckers during the year: one a male at Hassayampa in November and another female at Mount Ord in November.  (Maricoper # 360)

3.  Northern Saw-whet Owl:  Kurt and Cindy Radamaker are bird magnets, and they seem to find good things wherever they decide to bird.  On the North American Migration Count, Kurt and Cindy found a fledgling Northern Saw-whet Owl on Mount Ord along the beginning stretches of Forest Road 1688.  It had been the first time I have heard of any of the forest dwelling owls in the county since I first started getting into Maricopa birding.  With directions from Kurt, I headed up to Mount Ord late on the night of May 12th, where I met up with Tim Marquardt.  Tim and I got lucky, as we heard a strange call.  As we got close, it turned out to be the young Saw-whet!  Things got even better when we discovered that it had a sibling nearby also.  (Maricoper # 361)

4.  Spotted Owl-The sighting of the Northern Saw-whet Owls made me thirst for the other two forest owls I needed for Maricopa County.  One of my most wanted birds for Maricopa County had always been the Spotted Owl.  Kurt gave me hope with this bird, as he ran into a Spotted Owl researcher at Slate Creek Divide who had a few Spotteds calling back and fourth.  He didn't tell Kurt where, but we were assuming it was the Gila County stretch of Slate Creek.  On May 14th, Kurt Radamaker, Tim Marquardt, and I all went up to Slate Creek Divide in hopes of finding a Spotted Owl.  As we were up there for a few hours and were needing to head back home, a Spotted Owl started calling at the last second.  We looked down into a Maricopa County drainage where it was calling from, and we located the bird sitting on a dead snag.  Kurt was able to get his scope on the calling Spotted Owl in the drainage which is full of Douglas fir, and it was history from there.  The observation was breathtaking, and is one I will never forget.  This picture is horrible, but it is the Spotted Owl sitting on the snag.  (Maricoper # 362)

5.  Flammulated Owl-After going five years of searching for the potential Maricopa County forest dwelling owls, that quest ended on June 5th at Slate Creek Divide.  Tim Marquardt and I met up again at Slate Creek Divide late on June 4th to do more owling.  As the quest continued into the early A.M. on the 5th, we heard our last owl that we needed, a Flammulated Owl in a stand of pine trees!  This bird is very hard to see (yet alone photograph!), but we got under the calling bird several times and saw it fly from tree to tree three different times.  I didn't make it back to Slate Creek during the year after that night, which I do regret.  I hope the Flam Owl will return next year.  This photo shows the stand of ponderosa pine that this bird frequented.  (Maricoper # 363)

6.  Varied Thrush-After going nearly six months without a Maricopa County addition after the madness in the Mazatzal Mounts (Mount Ord, Slate Creek Divide), I got lucky on November 22nd at the Hassayampa River Preserve.  During the prior week, Caleb Strand found a Varied Thrush in the Preserve along the River Ramble Trail.  Due to work circumstances, I was unable to get to the location for over a week after his initial sighting.  Despite chases and searches from others, I didn't have my hopes up about relocating this rare thrush.  Although it wasn't a lifer, I really really wanted it for my Maricopa list!  Caleb decided to bird at the Preserve that day too, and we teamed up for a half day of birding.  As it was getting later in the afternoon, Caleb delivered and spied the Varied Thrush.  It was a nice male, and this neat bird put on a great show for me!  (Maricoper # 364)

7.  Painted Bunting:  On November 27th, Thanksgiving Day, I was heading southwest of home to Caleb Strand's home in search of yet another Maricopa County lifer that Caleb had found a few days earlier-a female Painted Bunting!  Caleb has an impressive patch that he birds at by his house, and he has found many great birds there.  This was another example.  Caleb found the Bunting in a patch of weeds on private property, and we went to the spot.  After waiting for about an hour, the bird flew into the patch and we had amazing views of it for about thirty minutes.  The lime-green bird blended in perfectly with it's surroundings! (Maricoper # 365)

8.  White-eared Hummingbird:  The rarest and most-unexpected Maricopa County bird of the year showed up in the front yard of birder Duane Morse, at his hummingbird feeder.  When Duane said he had a immature male White-eared Hummingbird in his Phoenix yard, I was beyond shocked and thought he was maybe confusing the bird with a female Broad-billed Hummingbird.  After communicating over emails, I found out Duane did indeed have this rarity in his yard.  A first ever Maricopa County record and a heck of a bird for the United States in the winter.  Luckily, after two long days of work, the White-eared Hummingbird was still around and Duane was friendly in letting birders come to his yard.  It actively defended the feeder against all other hummingbirds, and I spent two hours observing him.  Not only was it my rarest Maricoper of 2014, but it is one of the best I have now had for my Maricopa County list ever.  (Maricoper # 366)

9.  Crested Caracara:  After a horrible and discouraging day at work on December 30th, I decided to chase a Crested Caracara that had been reported in the Arlington Valley and discovered by Melanie Herring.  I had chased a Caracara that Caleb found earlier in the year without luck.  In Maricopa County, Caracaras are annual during the year but don't stay in one place very long.  But this one was different from the rest, and it was reported on consecutive days.  Work was so bad that I needed something to cheer me up, and God blessed me with a successful chase!  When I got to the Arlington Valley, there was the Caracara, flying over the road and to the south.  After I relocated the bird, I took a farm road and got very close to this strange but yet awesome-looking bird.  It was my final addition to my Maricopa list in 2014, and it was a great closing for the year.  (Maricoper # 367)

The Maricopa County additions were probably my most enjoyable for the year.  Huge thanks to Jim Burns, Kurt and Cindy Radamaker, Tim Marquardt, Caleb Strand, Duane Morse, and Melanie Herring for finding or helping me find these new Maricopers!  For 2015, I hope to have several birds to talk about in each category, once again!

2014 in a Nutshell

This section of this recap post will recap what I was able to do in birding month-by-month in 2014, as well as a few special categories for the year that will describe goals accomplished, crazy encounters, rarest find of the year, etc.


In fall of 2013, I started my own guiding business that I named Tommy's Birding Expeditions.  The start of 2014 was full of guiding before I eventually quit the business after spring.  The first rare bird that I was able to see in 2014 was a Eurasian Wigeon in Peoria by Arrowhead Lakes.  This stunning bird is often a bird I chase earlier in the year.

Eurasian Wigeon in northern Glendale

With the many tours I was giving to my clients in January on scheduled days off of my normal job, I was doing great and my clients were happy.  On one weekend, I went 9 for 9 on targets one of my clients wanted.  Thrashers, woodpeckers, lovebirds, and these Western Screech-Owls to name a few!

Western Screech-Owls at South Mountain Park

One of my rarer finds of 2014 came early, when I found a Cackling Goose of the "Aleutian" race.  This was the first known time of this subspecies being found in Arizona, and I found it at Thunderbird Blinds Viewing Park in Glendale.

"Aleutian" Cackling Goose walking about on a Glendale golf course

2014's Main Goals

Every year, I have some sort of goal in Arizona.  For 2014, my goal was to explore a lot more around the state in areas I haven't been to yet and to explore a county in depth that I haven't explored yet.  I took several trips out of Maricopa County to explore new areas in different counties.  This included Graham County (Mt. Graham and it's surrounding lowlands), several Yavapai, Navajo, and Gila County locations, and then a lot of Apache County.  The goal was crushed when Gordon Karre and I took several trips to Apache County from its duration from north-to-south four different times during the year.  We gained a lot of knowledge about this far away area, one that is a treat to explore.  We had Susan Fishburn and Babs Buck also join us on one of our trips and they were great company.  On our Apache County expeditions, Gordon and I found our state first Black-billed Magpies and California Quail, a Sanderling, Sabine's Gull, a Long-eared Owl, Common Tern, and many more.  My list for the county has climbed to 217 species after the trips with Gordon (over 40 additions on the trips!) and Gordon is getting close to 200 for himself in the county.  Apache County is beautiful and diverse, and we really explored it at our best.  And our best is still a small portion of what can really be found in this spectacular and under-birded area.

Gordon Karre searching and searching and searching Lyman Lake for interesting birds.  Lyman Lake became one of our favorite Apache County birding locations, where there was highlight after highlight.

Sanderling at Lyman Lake State Park

Sabine's Gull at Lyman Lake State Park

Luna Lake near Alpine, Arizona

Long-eared Owl at Benny Creek in Greer, Arizona

Bald Eagles overlooking Becker Lake

A three-in-one at Concho Lake.  Left to right:  Baird's Sandpiper, Western Sandpiper, Least Sandiper

Black-billed Magpie at Teec Nos Pos, Arizona.  The very far northeastern section of the state of Arizona

Canyon De Chelly National Monument.  One of the prettiest places in Apache County and all of Arizona

Bald Eagle sitting on ice at Big Lake in November

Susan Fishburn, Babs Buck, and Gordon Karre at the grasslands surrounding Becker Lake in the early late November A.M.  We were searching for Longspurs, where we found a flock of Chestnut-collareds.  


February was mostly about guiding.  During that month, I led clients to Thrashers, Sage Sparrow species, Rosy-faced Lovebirds, and more.  One of the most important things I discovered during that month was that Bell's Sparrows seemed to like a different habitat than Sagebrush Sparrows.  When Dominic Sherony and I were at the Thrasher Spot, we noticed that numerous Bell's Sparrows seemed to like areas with condensed saltbush habitat, while Sagebrush seemed to like more open saltbush habitat.

Bell's Sparrow at Thrasher Site
Sagebrush Sparrow at Thrasher Site
During this month I also had the pleasure of showing Richard Crossley, Tom Reed, and Tom Johnson around the Arlington area and Thrasher Spot.  I was constantly birding in this area.  Whether showing out of state friends or clients birds, it always seemed to be strongly in the interest of Thrashers!

Crissal Thrasher at Thrasher Site

At the end of February, Dominic Sherony and I ventured to San Diego for my first ever birding trip to the area.  It was to be full of life birds.  Closing out the final two days of February, I saw an interesting mix of 11 different life birds in California (see top of post).  This included Wrentit, California Thrasher, Tricolored Blackbird, Royal Tern, and more.  I couldn't get sick of the amazing Heerman's Gulls all along the coast during the trip's first two days!

Heerman's Gull at San Diego coast

Look above and behind you:  My best encounter of the year!

Ever feel like your being watched?  Watched by the bird you are longing to see?  Or perhaps by something else?  My best encounter of the year came when Gordon Karre and I took a trip to Graham County's Mount Graham area.  It was a very exciting trip, because neither of us have explored Graham County much, and it was my first ever visit.  The drive up to Mount Graham has many perks to it.  These perks include a vast forested region from 6000' to nearly 10,000' that we were able to access.  We found ourselves looking for Spotted Owls in Arcadia Canyon, where they had been reported earlier.  The pine, oak, and fir canyon was very dense and shady, and was a perfect location for a Spotted Owl or two or three (three was what we saw reported).  We started to slowly search and we were starting to slowly fail at finding a Spotted Owl.  As luck had it, I turned around to see a hatch-year Spotted Owl behind us.  We had walked right past it!  It really showed how easily these birds can be missed and how still they can sit and blend in with their surroundings.  Gordon and I enjoyed the Spotted Owl at an unbelievable close range, and even got in "selfies" with this fine bird.  It was by far my best encounter with a bird this year!

Spotted Owl at Arcadia Canyon in the Pinaleno Mountains in the Mount Graham Area


True to the write-up of the major highlights in 2015, one would know that I started off March very well.  The first three days continued into the southern California trip, where I was able to obtain 10 lifers while searching and birding the region hard with my buddy Dominic Sherony.  Whether highlights on the California trip came from gulls, terns, woodpeckers, or any southern California specialty, it was one to be remembered.  There were so many things to do and birds to be seen on the trip that Dominic and I didn't know whether or not to take the elegant turn or the royal turn.  I guess there's times in life you have to take both if the opportunity presents itself...even if they may be heading in opposite directions.

Elegant Tern (left) and Royal Tern (right) at Seal Beach in Orange County, California.  Which way do we tern?

Once home from California, March was very straightforward.  I went back to my guiding business and real work on most days, but a few times I was able to get out into the field and bird.  The main highlight was my first Maricopa County lifebird of the year, a Harris's Sparrow at Mesquite Wash.  Dominic Sherony and I explored Prescott, and we had many neat highlights, including great looks at a Pacific Wren.

Pacific Wren in Prescott, Arizona
Ending March also reflected a huge goal of mine to be conquered in 2015, to explore more of Arizona!  One day, I explored two new locations with Steve and Joan Hosmer, Susan Fishburn, and Babs Buck.  The first one was the New River Nature Reserve, a promising riparian area in the north-central reaches of Maricopa County.  We then ventured north into Yavapai County for my first ever visit to the Agua Fria National Monument.  It was cool to see two new locations in a day, but to be quite honest, our year's first Gray Vireo stole the show!

Gray Vireo at Agua Fria National Monument

Birding:  Funny, Hilarious, Comical, Having a Great Time?

People often think of birding as something very serious.  To some people, that is the case.  These type of folks are no different than chess geeks in the local high school club.  They have their own birding alphabet, and don't crack a smile, even when they find something good.  They don't lighten up, even when they let a load loose.  They are boring to be around.  But if you enjoy something, why not have fun when doing it, right?  Most of the birders I hang around like to have fun during the day.  Boy I sure do!  As my good friend Mark Ochs always says, "What's the point of birding if you can't have any fun.  If your not gonna have fun, don't even waste my time".  Mark is the founder of the classy birding group collectively known as the Phoenician Kingbirds.  The original three members of the group are Mark, good friend Gordon Karre, and myself.  Since then we have gotten others to join the flock.  Requirements aren't hard, one takes their birding gear into the field, has a great day, and wears a Burger King crown.  We've done this many times on trips, and we've gotten mixed emotions from folks who happen to run into us.  Adults usually think were strange, and little kids love us.  But the bottom line is we are having a great time, and if the birding is terrible, it's still a great trip!  The Phoenician Kingbirds continue to dot the Arizona maps, and 2014 showed some key examples.  For example, one trip took us down to Tucson.  Chris Rohrer joined our flock.

The Phoenician Kingbirds left to right: Chris Rohrer, Gordon Karre, Mark Ochs, Me
Mark is always looking to add more members to the group.  We represented our flock in a rarity chase to Tucson, where we found both Laurens Halsey and Andrew Core searching for two rarities: Tricolored Heron and Yellow-green Vireo.  Laurens had a record breaking Big Year in Arizona, and he finished with a remarkable 413 species!  Mark wanted Andrew and Laurens, two of the biggest names in Arizona birding, to wear the crowns.  They agreed they would wear them ONLY if the birds were seen.  I don't think they thought they would get to see both birds, but two target birds later, on went the crowns.  Out of the six birders present, only three got to see the Vireo (I didn't), but it ended with a much more memorable Phoenician Kingbird conclusion.  I am a very serious birder and I do take this hobby very seriously, but it's also great to have fun at the same time.

Laurens Halsey and Andrew Core:  "At least we got the birds, right?"


April is always a very fun month in Arizona Birding.  Many of the high elevation breeders begin to arrive or have just arrived.  That excitement is never forgotten.  I decided to start off April the right way by birding in Yavapai County's Bradshaw Mountains after a slow start to April.  You can't beat Red-faced Warblers and Painted Redstarts.  Not ever.

Painted Redstart in the Bradshaw Mountains in Yavapai County

Red-faced Warbler in the Bradshaw Mountains in Yavapai County

As April continued, it turned into routine trips to riparian forests, large ponds for shorebirds, and a trip up to Mount Ord with my brother Tyler.  I got my first ever Williamson's Sapsucker in Maricopa County at Mount Ord along with other neat birds such as Black-chinned Sparrows.  Laurence Butler and I also had a hawk-watch at Hassayampa River Preserve, including the sighting of the handsome Gray Hawk.  Our theme of the day was Hawks Only.

Gray Hawk near Wickenburg, Arizona

Black-chinned Sparrow at Mount Ord

With the exception of a few other birding trips before the end of April, my main highlight consisted of a gigantic Big Day I attempted on April 21st from 1 A.M. to 9 P.M. in the eastern half of Maricopa County.  Because Maricopa County is very diverse in it's many habitats, I had a shot at an excellent species list.  Sadly, I didn't reach my goal of 150 and only reached 133 species.  It wasn't without a lack of effort, the bird diversity wasn't as high as I was hoping it would be.  The time was still great as it took a freak like me to be out at 1 A.M. photographing Elf Owls in the desert to start the day before ending the day with no Owls late in the P.M. in the forests of Mount Ord.

Tommy DeBardeleben, a freak starting his first real birding Big Day
Elf Owl (the world's smallest owl) at Coon Bluff Recreation Area

The Hard Lesson Learned in 2014

This is a topic I obviously hate, but it's one that I assume will help me in the long run.  And that lesson involves protecting your birding gear.  Whether it's your camera, your scope, binoculars, or field guide, it's in the best of all interests to preserve them.  I'm usually a very careful birder when it involves my equipment, until one day when I ventured to Slate Creek Divide to search for rare Maricopa County birds with Tim Marquardt.  Slate Creek is a very treacherous location, and there are hazards everywhere.  Hazards are rattlesnakes, bees, bears, poison ivy, and then the worst, places to slip on in a thick habitat selection where bushwhacking is the only where-about.  I had my camera tucked away in it's case for most of the exploration, but during the worst part of the hike, I was stupid and forgot to put it away.  After one bad step, I slipped and fell.  I didn't get hurt, but my lense struck a rock as I fell and got screwed up.  No, it wasn't broken, but it got jammed up and after I made a beeline home I went to a camera shop.  Estimates on getting it fixed were $150 at a minimum.  A new lense in the shop wasn't a pretty penny, and was $300.  That is a lot for me to spend, but I couldn't go without my camera.  I found myself wanting to gag when I slid my debit card through the pay machine, I didn't want to spend the money either.  A Magnolia Warbler was reported nearby and was present for several days at the Desert Botanical Garden.  I went to see the Warbler and said, "Hey, when your about to gag, go stare at a Mag!".  And if your reading, please remember to take the time to preserve your expensive birding equipment at ALL times....

Magnolia Warbler at Desert Botanical Garden


In 2014, May was probably the best month overall for birding.  It was filled with life birds, Maricopers, nice migrants, and another crazy Big Day!  When I thought of the best time frame for the year, May often came first in mind.  To start off the month, I went on two chases with Magill Weber to look what would be for both of us two state birds, and for me, two life birds as well.  The first trip took us south to Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument where we successfully found the Arizona endangered Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl.  Not long after the owl excitement, we both went north of Flagstaff on a random afternoon to chase an accidental Sharp-tailed Sandpiper that was found by Jason Wilder.  The Sandpiper is accidental anywhere in North America in spring, and it was only Arizona's fifth record.  Where on earth did it come from?!

Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl at Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument

Sharp-tailed Sandpiper at Rimmy Jim Tank in Coconino County

The Glendale Recharge Ponds brought in amazing shorebirds in awesome breeding plumage.  Headlining the show was a Dunlin, a surprise Stilt Sandpiper, and female Wilson's Phalaropes.  Shorebird migration is always something to enjoy in Arizona during the month of May.

Dunlin at Glendale Recharge Ponds

Stilt Sandpiper and Wilson's Phalarope at Glendale Recharge Ponds

Wilson's Phalarope at Glendale Recharge Ponds

May is also probably the best month of the year to do a Big Day.  I needed to do another Big Day in Maricopa County, the first one left a bad taste in my mouth.  Team Sapsucker, a group of expert birders from Cornell University, team up once a year to attempt a Big Day and attempt 300 species in a 24 hours time period.  The team's plans this year was to do southeastern Arizona to southern California.  As Mark Ochs and I were birding at Mount Lemmon that morning, we were shocked to run into Team Sapsucker!  The Phoenician Kingbirds and Team Sapsucker meeting for a random minute was a great memory, and it was great to see part of the widely advertised team working on their big day!

Mark Ochs and Team Sapsucker
Team Sapsucker were short of 300 species, but they did put up an incredible tally in my opinion.  And then my second attempt at a Big Day came.  With a change in itinerary, visiting different locations in the first half of my day, and owling later at night, I did much better.  After visiting almost every Maricopa County habitat in it's diverse limits, I recorded my all time best-in-a-day 168 species from the previous Big Day of 133.  I had Magill Weber to help for some of the day, and she finished with 130 species.  The list was amazing at the end of the day, and I saw desert birds like Bendire's Thrashers and forest dwellers like Hepatic Tanagers.

Bendire's Thrasher at Red Mountain Park in Mesa

Hepatic Tanager at Mount Ord
After the Big Day, the remainder of May was primarily consumed with searching the Matzatzal Mountains at Mount Ord, Slate Creek Divide, and the Four Peaks Wilderness Area for scarce birds that I had always wanted for my Maricopa County list.  Tim Marquardt and I teamed up to search for those birds that consisted of Northern Saw-whet, Spotted, and Flammulated Owls, as well as Mexican Whip-poor-Will.  After Kurt and Cindy Radamaker found a Northern Saw-whet Owl fledgling on Mount Ord, Tim and I returned to find it.  Nights later, Kurt joined Tim and I for a Spotted Owl search at Slate Creek Divide.  With only minutes left on the clock, a Spotted Owl revealed itself.  It was amazing that I saw two of these birds in what was a span of three days after going several years without finding one!  We tried for the other two targets without luck, but it wasn't without a huge effort.  Dusky-capped Flycatchers continued to breed in the area for another nice highlight.  Both of us expanded our knowledge of the Matzatzal Mountains, Maricopa's high country!

Slate Creek Divide's Douglas fir slopes

Big Big Days...

Every birder attempts a Big Day in their lives, every serious birder that is.  In 2014, I wanted to attempt one Big Day.  After attempting that one, I enjoyed the challenge so much that I needed to add an encore.  The first effort was full of effort but lacking the bird diversity I expected.  Taking place at the end of April, I started a day out at 1 A.M., owled Coon Bluff on the Salt River, got an hour of sleep, and then spent the day birding before ending the day at 9 P.M.  The daylight on that day after early A.M. owling started in Gilbert and Chandler, then continued onto a Mesa park, followed by a visit up and down the Salt River, a search at Sunflower, and then the close out in the forests of Mount Ord.  I visited most of the habitats in Maricopa County and I was hoping for 150 species only to come up 17 short of that goal.  For the distance covered and time spent, I felt like I had to work my butt off just to get 100.  The hundred mark was met once I first got to Mount Ord.  I spent the night at Ord after being too tired to drive home.  The last living creature I saw that night was a flashlit Gray Fox, not the Owls I was hoping for.  I was disappointed at the numbers, but certainly not the twenty hour effort I gave.  It did turn out to be a rookie experience, and every first experience with something gives us that much more of a chance to learn from it and do better on the next attempt.  I photographed this young Phainopepla that day.  He represents me in Big Day years, young and un-experienced.

Phainopepla at the Lower Salt River Recreation Area
And then it came again, another Big Day, and I felt like I had a smarter game plan going into this one and I even had Magill Weber's pair of eyes for half the day!  Mid-May, here I come.  I decided to sleep at my own place on the day of my second Big Day, because I didn't need to get up earlier to start.  At 5 A.M., I left home rather than 12 A.M.  I started on the west side of Maricopa, birding Tres Rios Wetlands, Glendale Recharge Ponds, and Encanto Park.  I had 100 species just after 9 A.M., so I knew I was off to a good start.  It was then onto Tempe and Mesa to add Brown Pelican and Bendire's Thrasher.  Following Tempe and Mesa was the Lower Salt River Recreation Area, which was vital.  The Sunflower area was next, in which I had 140 species by the time I was finished with Sunflower, already beating the lousy 133 from the first Big Day.  Mount Ord turned out to be dynamite, jumping my list to 166 species before I went to Coon Bluff for my final stop and final owl additions to bring my list to 168 for the Big Day.  It was my finest day of species count birding by far.  The solution was mixing the west and east sides of Maricopa County together, and replacing Veterans Oasis Park, Gilbert Water Ranch, and Higley Road Ponds on the east side of Maricopa in Chandler and Gilbert with west side Maricopa locations Tres Rios Wetlands, Glendale Recharge Ponds, and Encanto Park.  It was a night and day difference.  The second Big Day included more surprises, such as a Lewis's Woodpecker on Mount Ord.  Both days were memorable, and I wonder if I will attempt a Big Day in 2015?

Lewis's Woodpecker at Mount Ord, one of my best finds of the Big Day


June started off with more visits to the Matzatzal Mountains to look for the scarce Maricopa County birds I needed.  Tim Marquardt was there to join me.  At Slate Creek, we turned in a lengthy owling search into a good one as we heard our third and final high elevation Maricopa County owl we needed, a Flammulated Owl!  The bird called a lot and we even saw it fly from tree to tree on three different occasions.  No photos were obtained but we saw it well in flight and heard it plenty of times.  I was amazed that I had the three owls in three weeks after going five years without getting one of them.  Even though Flam was camera-difficult at night, this Common Poorwill and House Wren weren't..

Common Poorwill at Slate Creek

House Wren at Slate Creek

I left Maricopa County once in June, as Magill Weber and I went to Miller Canyon in southeastern Arizona to Miller Canyon in the Huachuca Mountains.  Southeastern Arizona is always a great visit, and we scored on all three of our major target birds that consisted of Northern Goshawk, Spotted Owl, and White-eared Hummingbird.  Besides the awesome three, the day was full of classic specialties that are found within the region.

Northern Goshawk at Miller Canyon

Spotted Owl at Miller Canyon

White-eared Hummingbird at Miller Canyon

After several trips to the Mazatzals and the southeastern Arizona trip, I kept things very local and very early in the Phoenix heat.  Luckily, the Baseline and Meridian Wildlife Area is closeby, and the location hosts several awesome birds in the summer months.  In this time frame, there are five neat species I was wanting to see and photograph which were Great Horned Owl, Barn Owl, Least Bittern, Yellow-billed Cuckoo, and Ridgway's Rail (formerly Clapper Rail).  I called this group of birds the "B and M Big 5".  And by the end of June, I had four of them seen and photographed.

Mazatzal Madness

With the exception of a small portion of the Superstition Mountains (where I haven't been yet), all of Maricopa County's high elevation forest habitat is found in the Mazatzal Mountains.  This mountain range is under-birded but is still birded regularly, especially at the conveniently accessed Mount Ord.  For a serious county birder like me, I view the Mazatzal Mountains as something extremely important and special.  In 2014, I explored it more than I ever have before, and I discovered new things in this mountain range.  I found out new things about Slate Creek Divide, the Four Peaks area, and even Mount Ord.  There is even yet another area in the range near Slate Creek Divide, which was accessed from Forest Road 201 (main road up to Slate Creek Divide) and is found off of another road which is called Forest Road 25.  By taking the Arizona Trail from the end of Forest Road 25, I was able to find yet another attractive stand of Douglas fir in the County, which actually wasn't anywhere near the county line (like all of the other places have to be).  Like Slate Creek Divide, I had to access the Douglas fir by bushwhacking down yet another thick drainage.  The hike was well worth it, and the stand of Douglas fir ran for close to a mile.  It was proven to be a productive spot once I had several pairs of Dusky-capped Flycatchers in the drainage and I was able to find a nest too.  Out of the four forested areas in the Mazatzals:  Mount Ord, Slate Creek Divide, the Forest Road 25 area, and in the Four Peaks Wilderness Area; all of the locations had Dusky-capped Flycatchers found in them during the year!  It amazed me.  As I mentioned before, Tim Marquardt and I teamed up for many expeditions, especially with owling at night at these locations.  One of the more interesting trips we went on was an overnight camping trip up into the Four Peaks Wilderness Area.  Once at Four Peaks, we went north from there about eight miles to access Pine Mountain, a pine and oak covered mountain in Maricopa County on a north-facing slope.  We accessed this habitat, which was very thick and hard to navigate, by a convenient drainage.  This location was one that is hard to access due to rough roads, but it's also one that should be visited more.  In a day's and night's worth of birding, Tim and I detected two pairs of Dusky-capped Flycatchers, and then night highlights of Northern Saw-whet Owl, Elf Owls at a high elevation in ponderosa pines, and several Western Screech-Owls.  A day is not enough time to study this area, which seems to be very promising.  The main goal of the Mazatzal explorations was to find the three forest owls (which we successfully did), and the Mexican Whip-poor-will (which we successfully didn't).  These searches led us to discover plenty of owls with the Whip-poor-will still being wished for.  For these visits in May and June to this mountain range, our main highlights from owling attempts produced altogether 4-5 Northern Saw-whet Owls, 2 Spotted Owls, 1 Flammulated Owl, 5-6 Elf Owls, 3-4 Western Screech-Owls, 2 Northern Pygmy-Owls, and several Great Horned Owls.  I hope 2015 will repeat some of the same, as I plan to bird this wonderful mountain range again during these key months.

Douglas fir slope north of Forest Road 25

Dusky-capped Flycatcher getting ready to feed young in Douglas fir stand north of F.R. 25

Pine Mountain north of Four Peaks

Elf Owl at Pine Mountain


July is always a good month for birding.  The main reason is because my family takes our annual vacations to Greer, Arizona in the beautiful White Mountains, which is one of my favorite birding areas in the state.  We would do that once again this year towards the final week of July.  Before then, I had some other goals to tackle.  After many visits to the Baseline and Meridian Wildlife Area, I finally got to see and photograph the elusive Ridgway's Rail with the help of Caleb Strand.

Another trip was taken to southeastern Arizona, where I joined my great buddies Gordon Karre and Mark Ochs to bird Madera Canyon and Tucson.  We met up with Chris Rohrer once in Tucson and the four of us made a great team.  The birding menu held southeastern Arizona specialties and several rarities.  We saw rarities such as Plain-capped Starthroat, Black-capped Gnatcatcher, and Tricolored Heron, and enjoyed local specialties such as Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher and Arizona Woodpecker.  As the Starthroat came to the feeders, Mark compared the bird to looking somewhat like a Long-billed Dowitcher.  And two dozen folks at the feeders were laughing at the comment.

Sulphur-belled Flycatcher

Plain-capped Starthroat (or Long-billed Dowitcher)

Before the White Mountain departure, Gordon Karre and I took a trip up to Gila County's spectacular Pinal Mountains.  This is a location we want to visit a few times in 2015, it is freaking awesome!  The Pinals are filled with birds, from cool to cooler to the coolest.  These mountains have great habitat diversity, which also means great avian diversity.  This Red-breasted Nuthatch was one of many we saw in the Pinals.

The stage was soon set to go on the best trip of the year, my family vacation in Apache County's White Mountain region.  We stay in Greer every year, and that tradition continued on this year.  The White Mountains always have great birding, and I've been blessed every year with awesome sightings.  This year was one of the best family vacations I had in the White Mountains.  For a few days, I even had Gordon Karre, Chris Rohrer, and Magill Weber join me for some hardcore target birding.  Birders go to the White Mountains hoping to see local birds that are either restricted to the White Mountains or are seen in that region more easier than anywhere else in Arizona.  I think of those species as five main target birds to form what I call the "White Mountain Big Five".  Those birds are Dusky Grouse, Gray Jay, American Three-toed Woodpecker, American Dipper, and the dreaded Pine Grosbeak.  During the trip, I got all five of these birds, and the Pine Grosbeak was a state bird for me and for my buddies who joined me for a few days.  The Gray Catbird is another local breeder in the area, but it has gotten a lot easier over the years to the point of finding one isn't a real challenge anymore.  One of the funnest things about this year's White Mountain trip to Greer was finding and photographing all of the White Mountain Big Five!

American Dipper in Mount Baldy Wilderness

Pine Grosbeak at Mount Baldy Wilderness

Dusky Grouse at Mount Baldy Wilderness

Gray Jay at Mount Baldy Wilderness

American Three-toed Woodpecker at Mount Baldy Wilderness

During the first week of the Greer trip, the other birds around were fantastic too.  Northern Goshawk, Northern Pygmy-Owl, Long-eared Owl, Northern Saw-whet Owl, Red-faced Warbler, and Williamson's Sapsuckers were just a few of the others.  

Great Great Greer

The Greer area is to thank for me being as obsessed with birding as I am.  When I was a young kid, my family and I took camping trips to this small mountain town area annually.  We still continue to do so.  Greer ranges in elevation from 8,400' and over, and has mixed conifer and aspen forests, grasslands, lakes, and rivers.  It is the birders paradise.  Watching Ospreys fish around the lakes here is what sparked my interest in birding and purchasing my first birding field guide.  My birding interest took off on a summer day in Prescott randomly, but it was mildly casual until we went Greer for a family vacation in August of 2000.  I was equipped with a great field guide, and on that trip I recorded nearly 60 species for my first major "birding trip".  From then on, I have loved this hobby.  To this day, I love to step foot into the Greer area with the continuing appreciation I have for the area.  It is to thank for the passion I have for birding, because it really takes an awesome place to spark such an interest.

River Reservoir in Greer, Arizona

Birdwise, many many lifers have come from great great Greer!  Just about every common western forest bird, my first Red-faced Warbler, my first Clark's Nutcracker, my first White-breasted Nuthatch, my first Northern Pygmy-Owl, my first Williamson's Sapsucker, my first Northern Goshawk, and of course my spark bird to get me into birding, the Osprey.  I could go on-and-on about the many first time lifers I have had in Greer and tell many more stories, but this is a recap year post...

Clark's Nutcracker in Greer, Arizona

Osprey in Greer, Arizona


August started off with me having a few days left on my Greer vacation.  I was scheduled off of work one more day than what I asked for so when my family left Greer, I had a strong feeling that I needed to stay in the White Mountains for a few more days.  The Pine Grosbeaks created that vibe, and I had a feeling that I needed to discover more about them up at Mount Baldy.  On my last day in the White Mountains, a trek up Mount Baldy led me to discovering more Pine Grosbeaks, this time with females feeding young.  Having evidence of these birds breeding in the White Mountains was huge, especially since this is a bird that is thought of as being very rare in Arizona!  Much more on the Grosbeaks later in this post...

After the amazing vacation in the White Mountains, it was then back to reality before teaming up with Gordon Karre and taking a trip to Graham County to bird it's many locations and the epic Mount Graham.  It was my first time birding Graham County, and Gordon's second.  We had close to 120 species on our trip, and it was sure cool.  Remember the crazy Spotted Owl encounter from earlier?  That was from this trip.  Once we stepped foot into Graham County, it officially gave me a list in all 15 Arizona counties.

Besides birding in the mountains on the two trips that were taken this month, I did short mornings at the Glendale Recharge Ponds, where I watched neat shorebirds during migration such as these two Baird's Sandpipers.

My Rarest/Best Discovery of 2014

Prior to 2014, it had been at least since before 1993 that Pine Grosbeaks were confirmed breeding in Arizona.  Troy Corman told me these facts, and the Arizona Breeding Bird Atlas Project started in 1993.  Historical breeders were found in the Mount Baldy and Sunrise Ski Area in Apache County's White Mountains.  With having a few observations myself in the area in 2014, I suspected that the birds I was seeing were probably breeding somewhere, especially after seeing a male and female bird together while I was climbing to the top of Mount Baldy on the West Baldy Trail.  I was very curious and wanted to spend more time searching for the species before the trip was over.  I ran out of time, and I then decided to extend my vacation for two more days in primary hopes of finding more information out about the Pine Grosbeaks I had discovered at Mount Baldy.  Regardless, it was great that I was able to find some of them, because Pine Grosbeak is considered to be very rare in Arizona.  My gut feelings proved to be true when I took one last hike up into the Mount Baldy Wilderness in August.  I found not only one, but two family groups of four Pine Grosbeaks each  The two families were a considerable distance away from each other, and each one had a female feeding juvenile birds!  It was an amazing sight, and it was one of my favorite moments of 2014.  I was glad I was able to confirm breeding of Pine Grosbeak in Arizona after a big gap in-between years of activity.

Pine Grosbeaks in the Mount Baldy Wilderness Area about 4.5 miles up the West Baldy Trail # 94.

This is a poor photograph, but the top Pine Grosbeak is a female and the bottom one is an immature.  The female feed this immature bird the berry that is in it's mouth a second or two before I snapped this picture.


After I got home from my summer vacation at the White Mountains and Apace County, there was one thing on my mind.  I wanted to go back!  With the exception of the summer months, I had never had the privilege of birding Apache County at any other times of the year.  Luckily, Gordon Karre had the same cravings as I did too and he was eager to explore more of Apache County.  So Gordon and I teamed up and we went on two long trips to Apache County, one in mid-September and the other in late-September.  Both of our Apache County lists skyrocketed and more importantly, we added data for a very under-birded time frame in the region.  On one trip, we stayed in the White Mountain region but on the second trip we went all the way north to Teec Noos Pos to get our state Black-billed Magpies after missing them in July.  In two days of birding, we covered the long Apache County almost north to south.  But hey, this cool looking bird is worth it, right?!

In the two trips combined, Gordon and I visited areas we have been to before but we also visited just as many areas that we hadn't been to previously.  Birding sites that we visited included lakes, ponds, riparian groves, woodlands, grasslands, and forests.  A variety of amazing birds were seen in the combined trips.  Major highlights included Sabine's Gull (Gordon's first!), Sanderling, Black, Common, Forster's, and Caspian Terns; a Long-eared Owl, huge flocks of Pinyon Jays, Grasshopper Sparrows, and many many more.  Our two favorite places to visit in Apache County during these trips were Sipe White Mountain Wildlife Area and Lyman Lake State Park.  Both locations offered up a plethora of amazing birds.  Because this recap is a broad recap of the entire year, I can't write nearly enough about these awesome trips.  For these trips and any other trips mentioned, they can be found easily by looking on my blog archive.

The trips to Apache County tied up most of my September time, and they were worth every second of it.  I didn't take many trips elsewhere other than Apache County.  However, patch birding is different than other birding and I wouldn't even consider it as being a birding trip.  Patch birding can be fun, and luckily I have the Glendale Recharge Ponds, Tres Rios, and some agricultural areas nearby.  It was fun to see three different egrets together at close range, a Red-necked Phalarope creating a whirlpool, and a Caspian Tern frequenting the ponds!

What kind of Birder are you?

There are a funny group of dudes who have a famous YouTube channel on the internet called Dude Perfect.  Dude Perfect does sport stunts and lucky shots on video for their majority of film, but they do have a funny series titled "Stereotypes".  Such stereotypes may include gym, basketball, fishing, football, etc.  Different stereotypes in each category make light of the many different folks out there.  It gave me the idea of making a film called "Birding Stereotypes".  My friends and I then started to make some videos of our own that illustrated different stereotypes of birding.  The point of the video is to ask the simple question: what kind of birder are you?  Are you the guy who always needs his field guide in the field, are you the lady who can't chase any birds successfully, are you the one who birds by iPod, or are you.....

Harlan the Hawk Lover.  Harlan runs around and proclaims his bird DNA to be entirely "Hawks Only" and is pro-Hawk.  His daily anthem is: Hawks Rule. Hawks Only. Hawks are the best.  A stunning eastern warbler is nothing more than a piece of hawk food.  Is Harlan even a birder, or a hawker?  Regardless, Harlan is a good birder, he's learned all of the other hawkfoods and what they are called by the hours and hours he has spent waiting and waiting.

Pitiful Peter.  All trips and birds and best views and best comfort and choice of time are all centered around one person-and one person only:  Peter.  It's in no one else's mind except for Peter's mind himself.  Peter is comes late to birding tours, knocks over the nests of the most sensitive species so he can get better looks, phishes when the tour leader is only allowed to do so, and gets in the way when others are looking at rare birds because other birders can't have a better look than he ever can.  There are birders out there like Peter.  Which one do you know?

Rob Smith:  The world's foremost birding guide.  We all know awesome birding guides.  Rob Smith is one of those awesome guides who meets the needs of every client he takes in.  

Mr. Playback:  The birder who has to use playback to call in every bird or see every bird.  After all, when birds hear the calls, they'll be in our pockets in just a second.  I'm sure we all know someone like this, right?  

Josephine the unprepared:  With a big trip in the making, one would think that birder Josephine would go prepared.  But at the end of the trip:  she wore shorts in 30 degree weather, forgot her camera battery to document a mega rarity, etc.  Do you know a birder who forgets things like this all the time?  There are some of them out there too.

The Worst Describer in the World:  Max is a good guy, and a great birder.  But he is a horrible describer, and when he finds great birds, he can't ever get the others on the bird.  I think we've all been down this road of being a bad describer.

The Blowhard Expert:  This guy knows everything, and loves to let everyone else in the car know that he knows everything.  He found historic records of all sorts, and apparently was also around when time began.  I know that every birder knows a blabbermouth like the Blowhard Expert.

To watch any of these Birding Stereotypes, go to  This channel has been set up for birders to enjoy and see the many different species of birders there are out there.  After all, it is made by people who love to go birding just as much as you do!  I hope to make more films in 2015.  On a closing note, the picture below shows a group of birders looking at a Red-faced Warbler on the guided Timothy Titmouse Tours.  Timothy Titmouse is on the far left, and he loves those tits so darn much that he had his name changed in 72.  What will Timothy Titmouse bring to his tours?  Visit YouTube to find out!


As October already came in, I had officially decided to stop my guiding business.  I really stopped at the end of April.  Long story short:  Birding is a passion of mine that I enjoy, and I wasn't enjoying it as much when I was guiding and doing it for a  job.  Was risking my passion worth it?  Probably not.  Bell's Sparrow was one of the most popular birds that I did show my clients when I led tours.  Beginning October, I was looking at a Bell's Sparrow solo, and my oh' my, it felt great.

October is a good time for finding warblers.  Eastern ones and mountain ones.

As things got colder up north, that's when Laurence Butler, Gordon Karre, Mark Ochs and I decided to go up to Flagstaff.  We had Cassin's Finches, Evening Grosbeaks, and Lewis's Woodpeckers all in numbers.  Especially the Lewis's Woodpeckers.

The Lewis's Woodpecker numbers were crazy.  We claimed we only had 30 or more, but really, there were more like a million.  It kinda freaked out Butler's Birds a little bit.

At one point in October, snakes decided to make an attempt at stealing the show from the birds.  Whether we saw diamondbacks making love in a bush (not in front of the kids...) or some of us pulling a no-venom out of a bush, snakes really caught our attention.

The snake show didn't last too long, for me anyways.  Gosh, this Phainopepla is freaking cool.

One of the best highlights during October came when I was able to capture this elusive Long-eared Owl in the Phoenix desert.  It took a bit of stalking, but after awhile, I finally won and was able to capture an image of this neat owl.

My adventures then took me to Prescott and Yavapai County for a few days.  The birding up there was awesome as usual.  Highlights included Cassin's Finches at close range and then me lying flat down on my belly to photograph the shy Wood Duck for over an hour at a pond.

To officially close October, I went out and found a nice eastern warbler, an adult Chestnut-sided Warbler at the Box Bar Recreation Site along the Verde River.  This bird is rare but annual in small numbers throughout Arizona, and it is always quite fun to find!

Something to Improve On

By the end of 2014 and for the last third of the year, I set a goal to start taking better field notes.  It's really a simple task that requires a little more effort that is worth the time.  With this new "better field note plan", I recorded more species than I usually have per stop or visit, my numbers of birds are much better, and it really makes me concentrate on my birding more and results in learning a lot of things better also.  

At times in the field, I would even sketch species to help me learn the birds better.  It took all of my strength and effort for some of them, such as this Baird's Sandpiper.  I think this drawing is epic enough to help every birder recognize a Baird's Sandpiper!!!!!!


November began on a good note, as I went to the northern part of Maricopa County to bird the Seven Springs area.  I love this area because it is very under-birded, and it is rarely crowded.  Scenic views can be accessed in places and the birding is great.  Seven Springs Wash can be quite the draw for many birds.  I found a late Painted Redstart that is likely one that has spent the winter in this area as well as an active and curious Canyon Wren.  

Arizona birders know the November is Scoter month.  Every large body of water or pond should be checked for these rare Arizona sea ducks.  During this month, Troy Corman found a single Surf Scoter on Saguaro Lake.  A few days later, I went out there and was able to get the bird that was found by Troy close to shore as well as getting to catch a flock of six more birds way out on the water.  Out of this flock, four of the six Surf Scoters were adult males, and it was a stunning thing to see and a sequence that isn't seen in Arizona very often.

Shooting up north from Saguaro Lake along the Beeline Highway gave me a visit at Mesquite Wash among the places that I was able to stop at.  As I started birding a thick stand of riparian trees in the area, I heard a warbler chip that I knew was something good and something that was pretty eastern.  After some scanning and searching, I looked up and saw the tiny Northern Parula.  This is one of my favorite warblers, and a very good-looking bird at that!

Similar in ways that I explored Apache County in 2014, I explored Yavapai County in 2013.  Yavapai is my second highest birded county I have birded in, and I do enjoy adding birds to that list.  A Yavapai rarity in a few Brown Pelicans on the northern half of Lake Pleasant was an enjoyable example of that sequence.

Later in November, something very awesome happened.  Caleb Strand began to rack rarities up that were seemingly coming in all directions.  Winter Wren here.  Rufous-backed Robin there.  Lapland Longspur over there.  All great birds, but luckily Caleb found two birds that were Maricopa County life birds for me.  In some incredible outings, Caleb showed me a male Varied Thrush and then a female Painted Bunting on Thanksgiving day.

The end of November brought fourth a lot more of my main goal for the year.  Gordon Karre, Babs Buck, Susan Fishburn, and I took a three day trip to the White Mountains in Apache County.  It was a wonderful trip and we were all able to add a significant number of birds to our Apache County explorations as well as hear a new state bird, a California Quail.  Photography wasn't a strong aspect during this trip, but this Loggerhead Shrike was very cooperative.  I then photographed my trio of friends as I was up on a ridge looking for the elusive California Quail.  

The Best Field Guide is......

The Sibley Guide to Birds of North America...hands down.  The best companion anyone can have in the field...this book has made me a much better birder.  David Sibley is tops.  David Sibley is the Michael Jordan of field guide authors.  David Sibley is a Code 5.  David Sibley should be president of the ABA.  David Sibley is my birding hero.  I want David Sibley to sign my freaking book.  David Sibley's guide is the wisest wod of cash you'll spend in your life.  I bought this book on release day.  Print error or no print error, still the best field guide.  Someday, I want to bird with Sibley.  There should be Sibley bobbleheads for birders to place on their dashboards on route to birding destinations.  Thank you Sibley!  For much and more to come.


2014 really did fly by for the most part!  But we still had December to get through, as well as bird some.  December has been a good month for me historically in birding, and I was hoping it would be awesome to close out 2014.  The month of December holds numerous Christmas Bird Counts, and I had to work on every single count date that was nearby to me.  Luckily, I did get to help out with scouting along the Verde River.  Here, birders Tom Lewis, Marceline Vandewater, Troy Corman, and Justin Jones are searching hard for any notable count week birds.

It didn't take us very long at all to find such birds, and a few of them did include a Red-shouldered Hawk and a Black-and-white Warbler.

One day took Steve Hosmer and I south into Tucson and the Santa Cruz Flats.  On this day we successfully chased two eastern vagrants, both of which were lifers for me:  a Baltimore Oriole at Sweetwater Wetlands and a Black-throated Blue Warbler at Santa Cruz Flats.  The warbler was quite hilarious, as he found amusement in playing around someone's house and hopping on Christmas lights.

A shocking surprise then seemed to come on a midnight clear, as Phoenix birder Duane Morse discovered Maricopa County's first ever White-eared Hummingbird in his yard.  Luckily, the bird stayed put for awhile, and luckily, Duane was very nice and let me come and see the bird.  It was the rarest bird in Maricopa County in 2014, and it was a stunning one.  This White-eared Hummingbird, a young male, was active early until late, and would chase off any other hummingbird intruders.

After seeing the White-eared Hummingbird, seeing a rare Brown Thrasher at Gilbert Water Ranch was also very nice.

Before we all knew it, 2014 was coming to a close, and 2015 was about to begin.  Laurens Halsey had his 2014 Arizona Big Year nearly completed, which would end up being a very impressive 413 species.  As it was about to end, I found myself in a down and depressing day of work.  It was a horrible day, and I needed something to cheer me up.  Luckily, Melanie Herring found what appeared to be a reliable Crested Caracara in the Arlington Valley.  I was wanting this bird very badly for my Maricopa County list, and I chased it after the horrible day at work was over.  My mood was quickly lightened up as I got lucky and had the Caracara flying over my truck.  It was a great major highlight to end my year on, and one that I actually needed and not only wanted...

2014:  Was it my best year of birding so far?

Before we get to the year's top birds, I'm gonna ask myself if this is my best year yet and recap quickly my previous years.  2009 was really my real "rookie" year of serious birding.  2010 and 2011 were all about Maricopa County Big Years, and pretty much birding only in Maricopa County.  2012 was mediocre, a few great birds but pretty slow overall.  2013 was about adding to my Arizona state list, working on my own Arizona year list.  And here comes 2014.  With all of the major highlights combined, I had 41 major highlight tallies all together, which was more than I expected.  25 lifebirds, 7 Arizona statebirds, and 9 Maricopa lifebirds.  It was WAY more than I expected.  I explored a lot of new things, and one of my favorite things was finally being able to bird Apache County extensively outside of summer.  With this combination of major highlights, my explorations, and Apache County added on in a very strong capacity, I'm going to say:  Yes, 2014 was definitely my best year in birding.  And plus, I got to see multiples of several of my very favorite birds.  2014 just had way too many great birds in general, and there is nothing wrong with that.  

The Sweet 16 of 2014:  Counting them down to number one!

Before I get to the most important part of this post which is the countdown to the number one bird of the year, I will say picking this selection took time and was very difficult.  2014 had A LOT of very awesome birds.  There were so many good birds that this post needed more than a top ten, and I felt like a top sixteen was necessary as I went through my major highlights and trips during the course of the year.  I have selected a top sixteen, and I will say that numbers that are ranked six through sixteen all could easily be in my Top Five for the year.  It was very close.  As I picked these selections out and was originally wanting to do a more simple top ten, I felt that that wasn't enough.  Sixteen came about because it really had to.  How did I choose the rankings?  I went down the list one bird at a time and asked:  Did I enjoy this bird more than this bird?  What experience was more fun?  Eventually, the number system came about after I made sloppy-looking notes on a piece of paper.  Besides this top sixteen, there were other numerous highlights throughout the year that were very memorable.  Many!  But they all can't make it in, and I have to say that I've been very blessed as a birder.  Just as teams are eliminated in March Madness, the NCAA College Basketball Tournament, I had to eliminate birds to come up with the Sweet Sixteen.  There isn't a Final Four or Elite Eight in this bunch (or is there?).  Regardless, every bird in this countdown came from experiences that took my breath away and had me throwing my fist up in the air!  The countdown features local rarities, mega rarities, annual rarities, soCals, and even one species in the count twice.  Here we go!

16.  It was March 3rd, 2014, and I woke up in a cabin in Idyllwild, California in the high elevations of the San Jacinto Mountains covered with ponderosa pine.  I was after a lifer in this area, and it is one that is very distinctive and unmistakable in it's appearance.  More importantly, it gave me that feel of a bird that is more of a "classic lifer".  A classic lifer is one that one hasn't seen yet and you go to it's range and proper breeding habitat in order to see it.  It's not a vagrant at all, and it's exciting to go to the bird where it should be in order to see it.  Classic lifers come in more than one and really gives the birder the chance to study it's behavior and perhaps sexes, plumages, vocalizations, and more.  I knew in my mind I would see this bird once it got light out.  Dominic Sherony was with me, and it didn't take us long as I thought it wouldn't to find our unmistakable target, whose plumage is unlike that of any other North American bird.  As I looked up on a dead snag, there it was. A white head and otherwise completely black body with the exception of a white base to the bird's primaries on it's wings.  Leading off my Sweet 16 is the White-headed Woodpecker.

15.  The White-headed Woodpecker was seen on the fifth and final day of a southern California birding trip that Dominic Sherony and I embarked on.  This next bird was seen on the first day of the trip, which was on February 27th.  Ever since I was a young teenager when I first started birding, I always wanted to see this next bird.  Perhaps because it is a strange bird?  Or, perhaps because it's the only bird of it's family that can be found in North America?  Maybe, perhaps, it's the birds super-long tail?  Or maybe it's neat vocalizations that bounce around the California chaparral?  This bird is very common, hard-to-see, and freaking awesome.  Dominic and I stopped at Kitchen Creek Road off of the I-8 to look for this bird.  We found it quickly, and it was cooperative for my camera despite it's skulking and shy behavior.  The number 15 spot on my Sweet 16 goes to the Wrentit.

14.  There's something about bizarre birds that are cool-looking at the same time that make me want to add every single one of them to my life list.  This next bird was another I was wanting to see, which has been found as a vagrant in Arizona on occasion.  As I mentioned before with the White-headed Woodpecker, it is fun to go to the bird where it is found in good quantities.  How about a tern-like bird who has the strangest overall bill one can think of?  The upper mandible of the bill is shorter than the lower mandible.  It helps this bird feed the way it needs to feed.  I'm sure you've all figured out that I'm referring to the Black Skimmer by now.  Dominic and I saw these birds on Mission Bay in San Diego on March 1st, 2014.  They were one of seven lifers that I obtained during that specific day, and were my favorite of the trip (I think).  After we spotted them in the distance of at least a mile away, we found the right cove that they were in.  We then enjoyed the flock of Black Skimmers, and their oddness and cool-looking factor in one really gave me a hard-to-explain appreciation of this bird.  Black Skimmer, you take the 14th spot in my Sweet 16.

13.  One of the funnest aspects of birding is the fact that you can score a game winning shot anytime or anywhere.  You never know when you'll find that epic rarity that will bring in crowds of people.  On May 7th, Jason Wilder of Flagstaff was that lucky birder.  North of Flagstaff is some barren land and home of Rimmy Jim Tank, a cattle pond on private land.  Jason sent in pictures of an odd sandpiper he found at the pond, and right when I looked at the photos on the Arizona Birding Facebook group, I knew it was something very good.  Sharp-tailed Sandpiper came to my mind quickly, and that suspicion was correct as others who are way better than me chimed in on the bird's identification.  Right away, I wanted to see this bird!  This Asian shorebird is accidental anytime in spring in North America, and is then rare-but-annual in North America in the fall.  For Arizona, Sharp-tailed Sandpiper was unprecedented in spring before this and it had four records previously.  In other words, it's a mega-rarity for Arizona and this bird was a nice-looking adult where the other ones have been juveniles in fall (all from Maricopa County too).  I wasn't expecting it, but Magill Weber texted me that she wanted to see the bird and she picked me up after work at 3 P.M. and we successfully chased the shorebird after a 3.5 hour drive.  As we watched the bird, we didn't enjoy it as much as we would've liked too, because Flag was 30 degrees and we didn't have any warm clothing.  For about 15 minutes, the cold didn't seem as bad when the Sharp-tailed Sandpiper was walking about twenty feet away from us!  It was a great life bird to get.  I'm surprised that it isn't higher than 13 on my list, because this is the rarest bird I saw in 2014 records wise on an Arizona scale.  I guess it does say a lot about the remainder of the birds and what they meant to me!  And like I said, this year's race was so close and any of the birds with numbers 6-16 could be in the top 5.

12.  Whenever I get to see my favorite bird, the Northern Goshawk, it is a very special occasion.  And it's something that has happened before, but not very often.  Northern Goshawks are shy raptors who mainly prefer dense coniferous forests as their habitat selection.  Prior to 2014, I had only enjoyed an adult Goshawk once before and all the way back in 2008 and caught a glimpse of one another time.  Over the last few years, a pair of Goshawks have nested in Miller Canyon in southeastern Arizona and the nest site is one that is pretty close to the trail, but is yet a good enough distance away to keep the short-tempered Goshawk away from dive-bombing birders and hikers.  On June 11th, I was craving a nice sighting of a Northern Goshawk.  Magill Weber joined me and the two of us went down to Miller Canyon in pursuit of the Goshawks, Spotted Owls, hummingbirds, and a handful of other southeastern Arizona birds.  Although the birds were many, we both wanted good looks at the Goshawks the most.  The female Goshawk was always being reported as being on the nest, although birders were reporting her standing up and looking over the side of the nest during the mornings also.  Magill and I were hoping for a stand up view of the bird and not an actual "stand up".  After waiting for over two hours once getting to the nest site and looking at the bird's head, it finally stood up and sat on the edge of the nest for over thirty minutes.  Magill and I were joined by a man named George and his son, Andre (an epic young birder in the making, this kid had western bird calls memorized and he's from the east).  George had a spotting scope with him and let us look through his high definition scope many times, where we could see every detail on the Northern Goshawk.  The experience was amazing, and it was very neat to watch this gorgeous bird at a good but yet close distance while being relaxed.  Any sighting of this majestic raptor is tops in my books, and this fine and absolutely sexy female Northern Goshawk takes the twelve spot in my Sweet 16.

11.  Caleb Strand really had his "introduction parade" to the birding community last year when he found rarity after rarity in a short time span that many others got to enjoy.  But one of the rarest had to be kept on a down-low, because it was on private property and it was also close to impossible to explain how to get to the location.  Luckily, Caleb hooks me up with cool things like a female Painted Bunting that he found at a random weed patch on this private property.  Painted Bunting is a bird I've tried for in Maricopa County once before, but struck out on the chase.  It is a casual species in Maricopa overall, and females have been recorded in winter before.  I wanted the bird badly for Maricopa County, and it was one I figured with be a more difficult get.  On Thanksgiving morning before feast-time with my family, Caleb and I chased the lime-green female Painted Bunting.  After an hour of waiting by the weeds, the Painted Bunting came in and gave us a nice show.  Adding this bird to my Maricopa County list was something very special!

10.  For number ten we go to the thick and shady Arcadia Canyon in the Mount Graham Area of the Pinaleno Mountains in southeastern Arizona.  Gordon Karre and I were exploring the Mount Graham area for a few days, and one of our favorite stops was at a canyon called Arcadia Canyon.  It was a very neat place at 6,700' in elevation.  Our main reason for stopping here was to look for several Spotted Owls that were reported in the area on eBird.  We found suitable owl habitat, and started searching.  It was one of those things we felt these owls were watching us.  As we slowly moved down the canyon, Gordon and I stopped and somewhat lost focus of our search.  I then turned around to look up and see a younger Spotted Owl just feet away from where we just were!  We turned around and had amazing looks at the spectacular bird, which as mentioned earlier became my best encounter of the year.  Gordon and I were so close that "selfies" with the owl were obtained.  Number ten, Arcadia the Spotted Owl.  Gosh, what an experience.

9.  Are you ready to hear about another owl?  Hopefully, cause there's still more owls to come on this countdown.  I give a huge hoot about them too.  On May 2nd, I was hoping to see the 13th and final owl I needed for Arizona, the endangered Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl (Cactus subspecies).  Magill Weber and I went to look for this small owl where it is seen the most in the state-the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument.  Organ Pipe isn't the safest of place, and we were really hoping to get a quicker sighting in of this bird.  As luck was with us, we heard a Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl calling and we were able to climb into the canyon where it was calling from.  Luckily, we got our eyes on the bird and were able to get close to it to acquire some amazing views.  It was being mobbed by a handful of small songbirds, but it sat there for us and looked awesome.  This was a bird I was wanting to see for years, and it was great to get one.  It was a fun life-bird to get, one I'll never forget.  It seemed weird to me that I had all of my Arizona owls that I needed for the State, something I had always wanted to do.  I was also used to seeing Northern Pygmy-Owl in conifer trees, so seeing this Pygmy-Owl in desert mesquites seemed very odd.  For number nine, welcome the Ferruginous Pygmy!

8.  Have you ever driven across a huge geographical area in hopes of seeing one particular bird?  And have you ever driven across a huge geographical area in hopes of seeing one particular bird only to miss that one particular bird?  My friends and I sure did!  Chris Rohrer, Magill Weber, Gordon Karre, and I drove nearly six hours north of Greer in July to Teec Nos Pos in search of our state first Black-billed Magpies.  Well, we struck out and it was quite painful.  The most painful thing about it was that we thought the bird would be a given, and my oh my, it was the exact opposite.  Mapquest and we had a misunderstanding too: that Teec Nos Pos was only three hours north from Greer.  So we drove across a long and lengthy Apace County from south to north and then north to south in an entire day.  With this painful of an experience, have you wanted to seek revenge?  Gordon Karre and I sure did!  In late September, we decided to take another long haul up to Teec Nos Pos while on another Apache County birding trip.  The Black-billed Magpie is an awesome bird, and we weren't trying again for just any bird.  As luck would have it, Gordon spied a Magpie right as we pulled up to Teec Nos Pos Wash, a wash where the birds are most likely.  I'll admit I was nervous as we pulled up, because striking out would be crushing to the soul.  But after the first Magpie and a surprising ten-plus Magpies later, we had ourselves an epic new state bird and one of the highest counts for the species in Arizona in quite some time.  The drive up to Teec Nos Pos, Arizona, for the second time on the Navajo Indian Reservation was...worth it.  The Black-billed Magpies land in at number eight, and I can still hear their loud calls in my head!

7.  I do apologize if this post and recap is somewhat redundant in it's organization.  After all, I put a major highlights compilation that summarized my additions to my Life, state Arizona, and Maricopa County lists.  Every addition was summarized, even if it was summarized twice in different categories.  And then came the month-by-month, and most of those major highlights were mentioned...once again.  Finally, now, in the Sweet 16, the birds are in that again.  You can hit me in the face when you see me.  Anyways, here's another repeat story, but I'll describe it differently.  December 30th was a terrible day at work.  People were backstabbing each other so bad I felt like I wanted to take a knife and stick it in my own back.  Might as well right if that was what was really going on?  Anyways, I left the hell hole and didn't want to ever go back and was lucky enough to have a few days off.  But after work, I had a chase to attempt.  There was a shot at finally landing my first ever Crested Caracara in Maricopa County.  This bird shows up annually, but it's tough to get because it never sticks around very long at all.  But this one that showed up in the Arlington Valley was different.  It was found by Melanie Herring, and others reported it consecutive days after that.  And luckily, I pushed that streak to another day, and it was just what I needed in that exact time of my life for my spirits to be lifted up a notch.  The Crested Caracara is one of the coolest birds out there.  I think it looks like a hybrid between a dinosaur, an eagle, and a vulture, it's coolness is hard to describe.  As I was fortunate enough to see and view this bird at a close range after wanting it for such a long time in Maricopa County, it was guaranteed to have high rankings by the time the year compilation was all said and done.  Thank you for saving the afternoon that day Mr. Caracara Vuleagturesaur, you land in at number seven!

6.  In May and June, Tim Marquardt and I went on a rampage in Maricopa County's higher elevations in the Mazatzal Mountains in search for the three forest owls (Spotted, Flammulated, and Northern Saw-whet).  I had searched for these owls many times without any success on just one of them in the previous four years.  Tim started to bird Maricopa County intensely, and we joined forces on these owl prowls.  On the night of June 4th, we met up to owl Slate Creek Divide.  After going the 4th without much luck, the search carried into the 5th, and when we went into a patch of ponderosa pine trees that survived a bad fire in the area, we heard one of our owls calling!  It was a Flammulated Owl, and we were stoked to find it and complete one of our goals.  We heard the owl calling between time frames that morning that lasted from 1:45 A.M to 3:15 A.M.  As we tried to track it down and get visuals, we did see the bird fly from tree to tree three times with good flight views, but we weren't able to get any sort of a picture off.  Getting any of these owls in Maricopa meant the world to me, and that brings the Flam to the sixth spot in my Sweet 16.  For fun, here is a picture of a House Wren that we found while stalking the Flam.  We kicked this bird up off the ground, and he probably didn't sleep the rest of the night.  Not with three voices that probably annoyed him anyway (Tommy, Tim, Flam)...

5.  Over the last couple of years, sometimes it gets hard to chase certain birds with my work schedule.  Especially when I had to work twelve hour shifts and didn't get to see any daylight.  The Hassayampa River Preserve has a schedule that is open from Wednesday through Sunday, 8 A.M. to 5 P.M.  During a stretch, I wanted to go to the Preserve to bird so badly but I wasn't able to for over a week because of my schedule, and the Preserve's schedule.  I wanted to go on Thursday, but I had to work and then I had to work three more twelve hour shifts straight through Sunday.  And then I was off on Monday and Tuesday, but the Preserve was then closed on Monday and Tuesday.  After Monday and Tuesday, I had to work three more twelve hours shifts before I was finally off on Saturday, and after eight days spent in vain, the Preserve and I finally had a date where it worked for both of us on November 22nd.  And what was all of this rage about?  Well, Caleb Strand was constantly finding good birds, and he found an epic male Varied Thrush at the Preserve nine days before I was able to even try for it.  Varied Thrush is one of my favorite songbirds in North America, and I had only seen one previously to this one, and it was at Pinal County's Boyce Thompson Arboretum.  That bird was a female, and I had always wanted to see a male.  I don't know what made me more angry:  The fact I wanted the bird so bad, or the fact I couldn't attempt to see the bird for over a week.  I think it was more of the second option.  But on November 22nd, Caleb luckily decided to bird Hassayampa and I met up with him there.  We searched for half the day without any sign of the Varied Thrush, but we did have a Winter Wren and Rufous-backed Robin (which he also found).  In the waning moments of the day, Caleb's eagle eye looked up in the dense riparian forest and spied the Varied Thrush.  I was overjoyed when I looked up and saw it.  I swear the sky could've rained out silver and gold.  The Varied Thrush allowed us to get several good looks and after Caleb left, I was able to relocate it and spend a lot of time up close with it before the Preserve closed.  After being cooped in, it was a great feeling to see the bird once I finally got out!  Coming in at number five is my second ever Varied Thrush and my first in Maricopa County, thanks to Mr. Clutch Caleb.

4.  The Sweet 16 is now down to the Big Final Four.  The competition has gotten harder for who takes that top spot.  I will say that we have two softies, and two that are more hardcore to close out this competition.  The softies were right up there, but didn't have the punch to advance to the championship game.  Their overall rating was a 98 instead of a 99 or 100, that's how close these calls came.  To start the Final Four, we'll start off with one that is a word that I don't like to use much..cute.  And I mean super cute.  As you've all read my recap for this year (at least I hope you have, sorry if you hate me by now), you'll know that the Maricopa County high elevation owls were huge and were very up there on my wants list.  I'll never forget when I saw an email come in while I was at work from Kurt and Cindy Radamaker saying that they found a fledgling Northern Saw-whet Owl at Mount Ord right on Forest Road 1688.  Road 1688 is a classic location in Maricopa County, because it's the easiest transition zone habitat to access in Maricopa County that is close to Phoenix and isn't a bad drive up the area's dirt roads.  To have these owls breeding on that road was something else.  I got in touch with Kurt, and he kindly told me the area they were in.  I met up with Tim Marquardt on May 12th late, and we walked up Road 1688 in search of the birds.  It wasn't long before we heard a weird rattling type of call.  We investigated with a good feeling it was our bird, and it was the young Northern Saw-whet Owl!  It was close to the trail and we were able to get amazing looks and photographs of it.  The original bird then had a sibling nearby, and they eventually joined each other and made begging calls to their nearby parents, who remained out of sight through the season to everyone.  Seeing these epic little owls found by Kurt and Cindy was a huge deal for me, because it was the first of the forest owls that I needed for Maricopa County, and I was happy to finally land at least one of them!  Taking the fourth spot in my Sweet 16 is the Northern Saw-whet Owl on Mount Ord.  A great Maricoper, and it was also the first time I got to see a Northern Saw-whet Owl visually!

3.  The third spot on my Sweet 16 was in a very close competition with the fourth spot (Saw-whet Owl) for this third spot.  But it came down to what someone else discovered and I luckily got to see what they discovered, and then something I discovered on my own that hasn't been confirmed in Arizona for a long time.  Let's go back to the east-central part of Arizona in Apache County, where a lot of the habitat in the White Mountain region is reminiscent of the Rocky Mountains.  Several species have bred or breed only in this part of Arizona that include Gray Jay, Gray Catbird, and the very-rare-in-Arizona Pine Grosbeak.  Prior to 2014, I had never seen Pine Grosbeak in Apache County's White Mountains with 14 years of birding under my belt.  In 2014, it all changed when someone reported Pine Grosbeaks at Sunrise Ski Resort coming to a specific stand of trees more than once.  This was right before my vacation to the area, and once I got up there, I was joined by Magill, Gordon, and Chris and we went to the spot to surprisingly score our state Pine Grosbeaks immediately.  Throughout the vacation, I made trips up to the Mount Baldy area, where some of the best Pine Grosbeak habitat is found.  While hiking with my parents on July 31st, I found 5 Pine Grosbeaks, three of which were feeding together and then a male-female pair.  It was then that I suspected they could be breeding in the area.  Returning to the area on August 4th, I hit the jackpot and found two family groups of Pine Grosbeaks, each with an adult female and three young.  Adult females and immature Pine Grosbeaks can't be told apart in the field, but the reason I knew what they were was because the female was feeding the young.  I was able to confirm breeding for Pine Grosbeaks in Arizona for the first time since before 1993, and it was my best personnel discovery in Arizona for 2014.  Coming in at number three is the Pine Grosbeak!  Pine Grosbeaks are also quite tame, they were only fifteen feet away from me when much of this was taking place!

2.  I love miracle birds!  Birds that show up randomly are some of the best, especially those accidental ones that show up once-in-a-lifetime or once every fifty years.  If the Sharp-tailed Sandpiper showed up somewhere in Maricopa County, I'm sure it would take this spot, the previous spot, or maybe even the next spot.  I like my Arizona list, but it isn't anywhere as cool as seeing something in my home county.  Whether I saw the Sharp-tailed Sandpiper in Arizona (outside of Maricopa) or Oregon, it wouldn't make much of a difference.  This next bird was a close call between the number two spot and the coveted champion number one spot on my Sweet 16.  It fought the entire way to be number one, but in the end, the buzzer beater always wins.  And this bird wasn't a buzzer beater, it was more of a crowd pleaser from the start.  It's a super cool bird though, and it's stats kept it in the game until the buzzer beater bird took the number one spot.  As usual, I had work lined up when I wanted to chase this bird.  Birder Duane Morse reported a White-eared Hummingbird in Phoenix to the Listserve, a young male White-eared Hummingbird.  Before I found out that this thing was legit, I laughed it off and said it was probably a much more likely Broad-billed Hummingbird.  I was mad at myself when I found out I was wrong, and that I didn't investigate sooner than I did.  Two pain-in-the-butt twelve hour work shifts were in my way, and luckily, the bird decided to stay.  Duane had shown me the photos he took, and I was in love with the bird and was burning in vain until I finally had a chance by Duane's generous invitation to see this hummingbird that was coming to his feeder in the front yard of his Phoenix home on December 17th.  And right when I got to his front yard, I heard and saw the young male White-eared Hummingbird, who was a very striking bird.  Throughout the two hours I was blessed to watch this mega-rarity for Maricopa County.  This beautiful hummingbird put on a show and chased off any intruders.  It's a first record for Maricopa County, and is one of the best birds I have on my list for it.  I never would've expected that bird to show up in the County if I started to even go down a list for vagrants.  It was a great bird, and it lands in at number two!

1.  We are finally here, and I'm about ready to present my number one bird of 2014.  It's not the rarest bird on earth, but it was one that was more rewarding and left me speechless than any other.  Oddly, I wasn't even able to really obtain a picture of this bird.  To get in on the minds-eye, I'll do my best to explain this experience so one can visually get a picture of it.  It may come as a shock to some of you readers when you see my top 16 that this is number one.  This bird meant the world to me, and sometimes it seems as if it was a really good dream that happened rather than reality.  I daydreamed about finding this bird in Maricopa County for four years before I got to the late night of May 14th, 2014.  Kurt Radamaker, Tim Marquart, and I drove up to Slate Creek Divide to listen and look for Spotted Owls.  

A Spotted Owl in Maricopa County is one that felt like it would be too good to be true.  I've always looked whether at Slate Creek Divide or at Mount Ord, and have owled at night several times every year without any luck.  For this time, I wondered if there were Spotted Owls in the County or not.  Several fires have hit Slate Creek Divide over the years, which is a place that had had Spotted Owl.  Luckily, on the day when Kurt and Cindy found the Northern Saw-whet Owl, they went to Slate Creek Divide also.  They ran into a Spotted Owl researcher who heard two Spotties at night, and the news was encouraging!  Slate Creek is more in Gila County than in Maricopa County, and we assumed the researcher went down into the easier-to-access Gila County which overall, does have better Spotted Owl habitat.  But Maricopa does have good habitat too, and Kurt, Tim, and I decided to give it a good try.  We started by one drainage and listened for a long time in high hopes and heard nothing.  It was getting late and we needed to head back home.  We had time to stop over one more drainage that is in Maricopa County.  Ironically, the Gila/Maricopa County line is so close at this point that we were standing in Gila County and facing down into the drainage, which is in Maricopa County.  We listened for awhile without any luck.  The sounds of other birds can sometimes make Spotted Owls go crazy.  I decided to play Mexican Whip-poor-will from my iPod, another bird I need for Maricopa.  Nothing called back.  As we were about to give it up for the night, I played Whip one more time.  Right as we started to turn towards the car, we heard a Spotted Owl!  It started calling in the drainage below us.  I ran around and threw my fists in the air, for it wasn't extirpated in Maricopa County as it seemed.  We then looked down into the canyon and started hopelessly flashing our lights that couldn't reach the Douglas firs or light up anything to give a remote prayer at seeing the owl.  I then shined my light up and noticed a dead fir that was somewhat lit up by the lights.  The owl kept calling and calling and calling.  Tim was recording the bird.  I looked through my binoculars while shining the light on the fir and I noticed a chubby blob on one of the snags.  It looked owl-shaped and I said, "Hey Kurt, is that the bird on the snag?".  I positioned my flashlight on the spot better while Kurt quickly looked and he said, "YES!  That's it!  I'm gonna get my scope on it!".  We shined the brights of the vehicle lights in the birds's direction and Kurt got his scope on the bird.  He told me to take a look.  As I looked, there was the owl, with the dark forest of Douglas fir behind him.  He was barely lit up by our lights, but through the scope, it made for a great view.  The Spotted Owl had it's back to me, and it then started calling.  It threw it's head back-and-fourth while executing the notes it needed to carry out, and when it was done, it turned in our direction.  As it turned, the round head and speckled body were so evident.  It then looked right at the scope, and it's eyes briefly looked red as they shined off of the vehicle lights.  As the Spotted Owl looked at us with it's big black eyes, it was something to never forget.  My camera couldn't reach the bird other than a blur.  The Spotted Owl flew in our direction northward at one point and landed in a pine tree that was one foot in Gila County before he flew back into the thick Douglas fir forest back south into Maricopa County!  We got it for both Maricopa and Gila Counties.  As he flew back into the Maricopa Douglas fir forest, he was gone and we didn't hear from him again.  The three of us were stoked at the sound and sight of the remarkable bird, and the experience couldn't be topped for my number one spot on my 2014 experiences.  The Spotted Owl came in right at the last second, and gave me the best buzzer beater I have ever experienced in my birding life.  All I can say is wow when I think about it.  There aren't really any words to describe it!

Slate Creek SPOTTED OWL:  (Insert Picture from Mindseye)

My Goal for 2015

This post has come much later than I intended it to, and I have been working on it for the last several weeks.  2014 was a great year, but it's now behind me and I have the great memories of it to enjoy and think back upon.  For 2015, I have realized what I want my birding goal to be.  2014 was great, but it was also very busy with birding in many different places.  In 2015, I want to simplify things a lot more and focus most of my attention on birding Maricopa County.  After all, my most important list is my Maricopa County life list, and I would love to find new additions.  I want to do more research in the Mazatzal Mountains.  Maricopa County is huge as we all know, and there are still plenty of places that I need to bird where I haven't even been before!  I have a few out of state trips I am wanting to take this year and next year, and I need to start saving more money towards those trips.  So my goal for 2015 is:  To bird Maricopa County for the most part this year at a relaxed pace.  No year list either.  I will say though for a small sneak peak, 2015 has had a few neat birds so far...

As in all years, the beginning of each year starts off very plain and drab before the many highlights pile up before the year's end to result in an awesome year.  As mentioned before, the young Northern Goshawk may look drab in the early stages of it's life, but when it reaches that year mark, it is one of the coolest looking birds on the planet....