Friday, April 3, 2015

Panning for American Gold

Today was a great one in my birding hobby, I got a life bird.  This life bird came after I took a two day birding trip after taking a big break from birding.  Despite the break, this life bird came at a good time.  And I did say to myself that life birds in my home county or new birds in my home county are an exception.  This bird came as a result of disappointment before celebration.  On April 2nd, 2015, birder Louis Hoeniger found an American Golden-Plover at a pond on 87th Avenue and Mobile Street in Phoenix.  The pond is very close to the famous Tres Rios Wetlands.  After Louis put the word on the bird out, I chased the Plover that very night, and I arrived at the pond before it got dark out.  I looked but I guess I didn't look nearly as hard as I should have.  Time wasn't on my side either, as I had about thirty minutes of daylight left on the clock.  The Plover eluded me on this first attempt.

Luckily, Susan Fishburn, Babs Buck, and Steve and Joan Hosmer came to the pond this morning on April 3rd and were able to relocate the Plover at 6:40 A.M.  As I woke up at 7:30, I checked my iPod email and saw a report from Babs stating that they had seen that the bird was still present!  I quickly got my stuff together and made the thirty minute drive to the pond.  At first, it took me awhile to relocate the bird.  After scanning the pond carefully for twenty minutes, I then spied the Plover through my scope.  And it was quite distant at first.

I didn't waste any time and got as close as I could to the Plover, which is now my first official life bird of 2015, and in my beloved Maricopa County.  (The last time I lifered in Maricopa was in December of 2013).  This species seems to be a lot more skittish than other plovers and is certainly more skittish than the Killdeer.

But it did give me several up close views with the camera during my two hour study period and it gave great scope views for most of the observation.

Whenever I get a life bird, I really like to study it's behavior and go over it's field marks.  

For this species, a good field mark to start with is the bird's dark head cap that contrasts strongly with it's white supercillum.  

One of this bird's cousins, the Black-bellied Plover is ruled out because of this bird's slimmer body build, shorty bill, small head, and pale gray underwings in flight.  The Black-bellied Plover has black axillaries (a birder's term for armpits) that are noticeable in flight.  The pale underwings immediately point to a Golden-Plover species.

The pale gray color of this bird points overall to American Golden-Plover over Pacific Golden-Plover.  These two species were once considered as a con specific Lesser Golden-Plover.  Since the split, both have been recorded in Arizona as vagrants, with Pacific being the one thought of as most rare.  A key factor to separating these two species from each other is wing length.  When perched, the American Golden-Plover typically shows a much longer primary projection past the tail than the Pacific Golden-Plover does.  Even though this bird supports American in every way, shape, or form by it's entirely pale grayish plumage, it's fun to practice looking at these field marks.  American will show four primary tips past the tertials while Pacific will show three.  As I was able to approach the Plover closely, I was sure to take a picture to show it's primary tips.  One, two, three, four, I declare a Golden American day!

The American Golden-Plover is a remarkable long distant migrant, with most of the population flying directly from Canada to South America in fall.  They prefer pastures and grassy areas to mudflats.  This bird's spectacular migration distance even started a romantic conversation between two young birders that would be an epic-romance-to-be in the birding movie, The Big Year.

I've wanted to see one of the Golden-Plover species for quite some time now, so today was very fun during my observation time.  A huge thank you to Louis Hoeniger for finding the bird and to Susan, Babs, Steve, and Joan for re-finding it after my poor scanning efforts on my first search.  I thought that this pond would be a good shorebird spot during the first time I visited this place earlier this year.  Well, I guess it's already a good spot now with this remarkable discovery...


  1. Looks like you guys had some quality time together! Congratulations on the sweet lifer, and a nice nice Maricoper to boot.

  2. Congrats on a lifer in Maricopa County no less! I am impressed with your diligent study of birds, carefully going over the field marks. You set the bar high!

  3. Congrats on a new lifer and thanks for sharing some great photos and some key identification tips.