Saturday, December 31, 2016

Maricopa Madness: Christmas Presents

The Big Year is now over with.  It's pretty crazy as I write right now on December 31st.  I'm exhausted and I haven't had time to write posts since my last, but there have been some incredible birds around Christmas that were really early Christmas gifts as well as a Christmas gift.  Here is the final post from the Maricopa Madness series, and after this, there will be a long recap post.

What has been cool about this year is that my Maricopa County Big Year was secondary behind TOBY.  I've been blessed to attempt two Big Years in one year.

On December 14th, the Salt and Verde River CBC took place.  Many birders counted birds and surveyed the area.  Gordon Karre and I had plans to bird on Mount Ord for the 15th and then take a boat tour that covers a good distance of Saguaro Lake, a lake that has much more to it than what is seen from the typical recreation areas.  However, late on the 14th I got an email from Sean Fitzgerald saying a waterthrush was found at Coon Bluff Recreation Area at the Salt River by Brian Curtice.  Sean noticed that it was a Louisiana Waterthrush.  Louisiana Waterthrush is a mega rarity in Maricopa County despite the fact that it shows up in southeastern Arizona annually.  In Maricopa County's known birding history, it has had 3 previous records of LOWA, all from Seven Springs Recreation Area.  Gordon and I quickly changed plans from Mount Ord to Coon Bluff and we arrived right at dawn.  Ryan O'Donnell beat us to the spot and was already searching for the warbler.  The warbler was quiet at first, but once it started to get light out, Ryan and Gordon started calling me in their direction.  As I made my way over, the Louisiana Waterthrush could be heard calling, and it eventually popped into view.  I was stunned to get this Maricopa County lifer, my Big Year 326 and Maricopa County lifer 383.

The Louisiana Waterthrush is very similar to Northern Waterthrush, but has an unstreaked plain white throat, pinker legs than Northern, buffy areas on flanks, and a long white supercillum that widens up at the end near the bird's nape.  This waterthrush put on a show for us a few times.  Like Northern Waterthrush, it forages along water edges while constantly pumping its tail up and down.  After Ryan, Gordon, and I enjoyed the LOWA for awhile, Sean Fitzgerald enjoyed it with us too.  What an incredible bird to see in Maricopa County!

In June this year and over my summer vacation to Minnesota, Josh Wallestad and I enjoyed LOWA on their breeding grounds.  I'm grateful to have one now in Maricopa County!

On December 18th, two year birds showed up.  One was an Eastern Phoebe at Needle Rock Recreation Area that was discovered by Anne Leight, and the other was an American Bittern found by Justin Jones at Morgan City Wash.  On the 19th I went after both, and the only thing I got out of the two were a few calls from the Eastern Phoebe.  It was a very windy day and the wind made things challenging and kept birds down.  But I was glad to hear the Phoebe, which was my 327th bird of the Big Year.  I missed Bittern for the sixth time this year when I couldn't relocate Justin's bird at Morgan City Wash.  The Verde River where Needle Rock is did have highlights during that time period of a family of River Otters as well as a Black-and-white Warbler.

On December 21st, Gordon Karre and I set out on a long trip to a remote area named the Vekol Valley.  The Vekol Valley lies southeast of Gila Bend and it takes a long time to drive out this way from Phoenix.  On top of that, the area has heavy drug running and can be very dangerous.  In 1996, David Griffin discovered Rufous-winged Sparrows in this area, as this remote corner of Maricopa County holds appropriate habitat for the species and it is like a small piece of their grassy mesquite habitat in southeastern Arizona.  In 2013, John Arnett took me to this area and there were 2 of my Maricopa County first Rufous-winged Sparrows.  Because the species is primarily a resident throughout their range, Gordon and I were hoping that we would find some.  As we walked through the grassy mesquite habitat, it took us about an hour before we got lucky and found our source.  It was my 328th bird for my Maricopa County Big Year, and it was only the second time I have seen this bird in the County.  It was Gordon's first for Maricopa.  We were thrilled that we eventually counted six Rufous-winged Sparrows and we had no doubt that there were more of them in the Vekol Valley's appropriate habitat.

On December 22nd, Caleb Strand found a Rough-legged Hawk near his home in Buckeye.  I sped over to look for it.  5.5 hours later I still had no luck and it was dark outside.  2 White-tailed Kites were a very nice consolation.

On December 23rd, I went to Lake Pleasant after work for about an hour and a half.  It was rather dull at the lake with not much of interest.  As I was about to leave, I went up to Two Cow Cove Road and looked down in the cove to see a large flock of Common Goldeneye swimming into another cove.  I knew something good was with them because they were quickly swimming out of sight.  As I quickly got my scope on them, I saw one of them with a black back and a dark "spur" that extends down from the shoulders.  The black back had a narrow row of white spots/small stripes that were surrounded by black.  As the bird lifted it's head, it had a perfect white crescent in front of it's eye.  Right then and there I knew I had a Barrow's Goldeneye!  This duck was my 329th bird for Maricopa County Big Year and was my Maricopa Life bird # 384.  After I relocated the flock and was getting in position to take pictures, the flock flew off.  And sadly, Mr. Barrow's hasn't been relocated since.  This duck is very rare in Maricopa County and had three county records prior to mine, as Janet Witzeman told me about their records in Maricopa County.

On Christmas Eve another crazy rarity showed up and it was one that would be a life bird for me, a Black-throated Green Warbler.  This warbler showed up at the US 60 Rest Area along the Hassayampa River south of Wickenburg.  The Black-throated Green Warbler was very cooperative for birders on the 24th, and I couldn't make it because I was celebrating Christmas with my family that night.  I had friends texting telling me to get over to the rare eastern warbler, but I waited till Christmas morning.  I arrived at the spot on Christmas Day close to 8 A.M., where I joined forces with Janine McCabe and Steve Ganley.  Steve is someone who has a higher Maricopa list than I do.  Luckily, the warbler made a quick showing for us for about ten minutes before it would disapear and not be found again.  For me it was my 385th bird for Maricopa County, my 330th bird of the year for Maricopa, and for my life list, my 532nd bird.  Thanks to Janine and Steve, they detected the bird while I was checking the opposite side of the rest stop at the Hassayampa River.

Black-throated Green Warblers are eastern warblers that favor coniferous forests.

This warbler is similar to our Townsend's Warblers of the west.  Black-throated Green as dull olive on it's aricular region on it's otherwise bright yellow face.  What really nails this warbler down is the yellow going across it's vent.  Some of these pictures I snapped really nail the identification down, and the yellow in the vent is always diagnostic for Black-throated Green Warbler.

The Black-throated Green Warbler was just about as good as any Christmas present I could have asked for!

Owls have made a few good appearances to close the year out, reminding me of TOBY.  I found a Long-eared Owl at Morgan City Wash and I also showed my Aunt Tracy, Aunt Gretchen, and Uncle Larry a few Western Screech-Owls at night during an awesome birding day I took them on to the Salt River.

This past week has had hardcore birding involved.  I reached a milestone for myself on Christmas Day when I hit 330 birds, a number I never thought I'd reach when I first started birding Maricopa County actively.  Since December 25th, I didn't add any year birds and the final total for this year is 330.  What an awesome year it has been for me in Maricopa County.  My last birding of 2016 came today on a strike out chase for a Rufous-backed Robin at Lower Camp Creek.  I got soaked from the rain, but it was worth it!

As this year is over and the Maricopa County Big Year of 2016 is over, the next time I bird it will be in 2017.  Stay tuned very soon for a big summary of this Big Year!

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Maricopa Madness: The Push to 325

I've been exhausted lately.  Days and days have been spent in the field for my Maricopa County Big Year.  I'll go birding before work and I'll go birding after work.  I'll bird all day on days off.  We last left off with my additions of Northern Parula to the Big Year and then a remarkable discovery at Veterans Oasis Park in Chandler, my lifer Groove-billed Ani.

About a week after the Groove-billed Ani excitement in Chandler, Gordon Karre and I made a trip up to Slate Creek Divide on November 23rd to try and find some key high elevation birds for our Maricopa County Big Years.  Yes, that's right, Gordon is doing a Maricopa County Big Year too.  We found plenty of key birds.  A painful miss was a heard only woodpecker that was very likely a Downy Woodpecker.  How likely?  Well, the only other thing it could have been was a Ladder-backed Woodpecker.  There have been a few times where I have found Ladder-backed Woodpeckers in higher elevations, even higher in elevation that at Slate Creek Divide.  Although we couldn't find the likely Downy, the Douglas fir stands at Slate Creek harbored my 318th year bird in a flock of Golden-crowned Kinglets.

Later that day on the 23rd, a Ruddy Ground-Dove was reported at Celaya Park in Tempe by Dave Hawksworth, a visiting birder from New Mexico.  While Gordon's house was only minutes away from this park, he went to investigate the report and found there was a Ruddy Ground-Dove present on the 24th, which was Thanksgiving Day.  I rushed to the park and Gordon kindly waited for me to get there.  Just before I got there, a group of kids playing basketball flushed the Ruddy Ground-Dove.  Gordon was furious.  With basketball being an equally big passion of mine as birding is, I couldn't get mad at the ballers.  While waiting, Dave Hawksworth joined us and soon after, Inca Doves started to fly to the ground.  Eventually, the Ruddy Ground-Dove joined the Incas and became my 319th bird of the Big Year.  Thanks Dave!

In Mesa on November 26th, Jack Sheldon found a Harris's Sparrow coming to his yard to feed at his feeders.  On the 27th, Gordon Karre, Barb Meding, and I all got permission from Jack to look for his sparrow.  With me having to be at work by 1 P.M., I chased the sparrow after 11 A.M. which would only give me 30 minutes to look.  Jack and his wife were very accommodating to us and kindly let us peek over their wall.  Several neighbors of Jacks became very concerned and were considering calling the police as I learned later.  But with 10 minutes left on the clock, the Harris's Sparrow made it's appearance to be my 320th bird.  It was awesome, thanks Jack!

You might be wondering what happens on days in between of when I get year birds.  You can consider those days as searches and strikeouts.  Still good birding though!

As December rolled in, the first excitement came on the 2nd.  A Tundra Swan was reported in Sun City West, and Melanie Herring found a Ross's Goose at Lower River Road Ponds near Buckeye.  Ross's Goose was the last easy bird I needed for my Big Year.  I decided to make a loop out of Lower River Road Ponds and Sun City West after work that day.  Arriving at the Lower River Road Ponds, it didn't take me long to find the Ross's Goose, who was with 2 Snow Geese.  It's fun to save a bird with the number of 321 later in the year like this Ross's Goose.

The Tundra Swan was interesting to say the least.  It showed up at a golf course in Sun City West and was hanging out with a golf course pet Mute Swan.  I didn't know what to think of the Tundra's origin, but I did not think it was wild at first, not even a slight chance.  However, both of it's hallux were intact and I also remember having a Tundra Swan in this area several years back.  The one several years back was said to be wild by Sun City residents, as it would stay the winter and leave in the spring.  Turns out this bird is that same bird, and the residents said it had just returned for the winter again, and it leaves in spring.  Thanks to Chris Rohrer and Magill Weber, they were able to lock down this information.  This bird seems like a wild bird so I decided to count it, even though it is very used to people.  A lot of winter waterfowl will eventually become used to people when they winter here.  But this is flat out weird..

On December 3rd, Troy Corman found a Hooded Warbler at Seven Springs Wash and it was a nice adult male bird.  With me having work the next day on December 4th, I decided to go for the warbler before work where it would be one of my longer chases during the Big Year on a work day.  Ironically, I was about to walk down Seven Springs Wash in the previous week and I decided not to.  The Hooded Warbler is one I had only seen once in my life prior to this chase, and it was a female at Morgan City Wash in 2009.  The first Hooded Warbler eluded my camera, which made me want to see this bird even more and get a photo of it.  I walked through the canyon at Seven Springs Wash slowly and because the sunshine hadn't hit the area where the warbler was on my way down the canyon, I would walk back up canyon and move even slower when birds would become more active.  This technique worked out well for me as I discovered my 323rd year bird for Maricopa County, a Pacific Wren!  The tiny bird was located by it's distinctive double-call notes, which sound reminiscent to that of a Wilson's Warbler.

Pacific Wren seems to be a lot more rare in Maricopa County than the extremely similar Winter Wren that it has recently been split off from.  I've found 4 Winter Wrens this winter and this Pacific Wren was in no doubt overdue.

While the Pacific Wren had made my trek, I was still hoping to find the Hooded Warbler.  I moved up the wash as slow as I could and listened carefully for it's call notes.  When I came across a loud spring of water flowing through the wash, I had the feeling to walk away from the loud noise.  As soon as I got away from it, I heard the call note of the Hooded Warbler!  I rushed in the direction of the call and was able to spy the bird.  I performed my own victory dance before getting down to business.  While the Hooded Warbler turned out to be very skittish, it took me awhile to finally snap a few pictures of it.  This sighting was epic for me, as I hadn't seen a Hooded Warbler since the year of 2009.  Thanks Troy!

Following December 4th and already having 4 year birds to start December, the reality of the game set in as I searched and searched for more year birds throughout the entire following week without any additions.  In places I have been to lately, awesome birds were found.  A few days after I was on Mount Ord, Charlie Babbitt found a Downy Woodpecker in the same area I was birding.  Jeff Ritz found a stunning Lesser Black-backed Gull at Glendale Recharge Ponds, the closest hotspot to my home.  It didn't stick around very long.  On Saturday the 10th I went to Lake Pleasant, but windy conditions made viewing difficult and I didn't have a lot of patience.  Caleb went there later in the day and found a Long-tailed Duck flying south over the lake!  I wondered if I had overlooked the duck earlier in the morning.  Long-tailed Duck is a species that dives a lot, and with the constant waves that were created by the wind, it would be very hard to pick a bird like that out.

Something crazy happened though on the 11th, and several Long-tailed Ducks were found in Arizona.  Luckily Louis Hoeniger was at Glendale Recharge Ponds and he discovered a Long-tailed Duck there in Basin 5.  Ironically, I got to see my first ever Long-tailed Duck here in 2013 on Christmas Eve, in the same exact basin.  I was at work when the bird was found, and fortunately, the bird was still there when I arrived to become my 325th bird!  The Long-tailed Duck is quite the stunning duck, especially an adult male.  This one at Glendale dove constantly, and would only surface for about 3-5 seconds before diving under water for longer periods of time.  Thanks Louis!

As I write here on December 13th, I have roughly 18 days left in 2016 to add more birds.  330 would be a great number to hit, but at this point, I will say that 325 was what I've been shooting for.  There's a lot of hardcore birding left, and there is a lot of potential for many more birds.  Stay tuned for more..

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Maricopa Madness: The Big Year's New Groove

My Maricopa County Big Year this year has been a blast.  It has also been tiring.  My work schedule makes it possible for me to bird on days that I have to work.  Most of my shifts are from 1 P.M. to 9:30 P.M., which gives me time in the morning to get a satisfying amount of birding in.  Add that in with two days off and were looking at some intense stuff.  Most days I take my work clothes with me birding and go straight to work from the field.  It gets tiring, but if I want to succeed at a certain goal I have in mind, I have to go all out.  This is a new groove that is hard to stop doing, even if I want to stop doing it.  As October saw a plethora of birds find me and my Maricopa County year list at an exciting and rapid pace, the November pace has slowed down...a lot.  I had a goal going into November to rack up at least 8 year birds for my Maricopa list to bring that total to 320.  Last post I had added Winter Wren, Fox Sparrow, and Golden-crowned Sparrow to get the number to 315 after breaking my previous record of 313.  I've been hoping to add more and more, but I've been striking out a lot lately too.  This is a stage in the game where things will be very challenging, and the "easier" additions are diminishing.

On November 16th, I had the gut to go out to the Lower Verde River and search throw the riparian forests at the Box Bar and Needle Rock Recreation areas.  I had eastern warblers on the brain for this trip, especially some of the more regular ones that show up such as Northern Parula and Chestnut-sided Warbler.  As a week had nearly passed since my last year addition for November, I was hoping to get back into the swing of things.  Box Bar had me bored to tears, and Needle Rock did at first too.  As it was nearing noon at Needle Rock, I was tired and exhausted and I was getting ready to throw in my effort and go home to sleep.  I was standing along a point at the Verde where I couldn't really go any further unless I wanted to swim down a rapid river.  Despite my tiredness, I realized there was a mixed flock of birds feeding.  One low forager caught my attention, and woke me up..

Northern Parula, welcome to the Maricopa County Big Year of 2016!  One of my favorite warblers...

The remainder of the 16th was spend further exploring the Verde and Lake Pleasant.  My tiredness caught up to me on the way home, where I had to pull off the road to sleep for about 40 minutes.  I felt like a new creation when I woke up, and I woke up to a text from Susan Fishburn talking about a Groove-billed Ani being found.  After going online and scouring eBird, Facebook, and the Listserv, I couldn't find anything about an Ani.  Susan than sent me an email that came in from Jim Burns, that apparently made it to only a few people subscribed to the Listserv, and it didn't actually make in onto the Listserv itself.  Jim Burn's friend found and photographed a Groove-billed Ani at Chandler's Veterans Oasis Park on the previous day on November 15th around noon.  I re-forwarded his message to the List, and it officially made it through that time.  As Groove-billed Ani is a great rarity in Arizona, it would undoubtedly bring in a crowd of birders.  For me, it was a potential life bird, which would be new for me in all categories.  At this point I didn't matter that it could be my 317 Maricopa County year bird, I wanted it for a life bird.  My search would be put on hold though, as November 17th feel on a day that I had to work in the morning.  As I worked, I got a text from Gordon Karre just after 7 A.M. that the Ani had already been relocated.  Reports came through in the morning from plenty of excited birders who were seeing this spectacular rarity.  I made plans to chase the bird after I got off of work at 2:30 P.M.  Would my chase be successful?.....

I arrived at Veterans Oasis Park in Chandler around 3:20 P.M. where I found Jeff Ritz in the parking lot saying that he was searching for several hours without any luck.  Knowing that Groove-billed Ani can be sneaky and secretive, I still had my mind in a positive frame thinking that I was going to see the bird.  Jeff and I joined forces and started searching, and we were quickly joined by Mark Ochs, Tyler Loomis, Babs Buck, and Laura Ellis for the remainder of the day.  The Groove-billed Ani started off by giving us a long search.  The six of us circled the large basin's vegetation many times of where the Ani had been seen the most.  This was at the northeast side of Veterans Oasis Park.  Many raptors were flying around throughout the afternoon, and they were probably keeping birds down.  As the light was fading gradually, Tyler's eagle eye came through, spying the Ani.  I was behind the group when I heard Mark say, "Ani!  Tyler's got it!".  We all quickly walked up to see the Groove-billed Ani quietly and calmly foraging in dense hop bushes around the perimeter of the northeast basins at the park.

Our 1.5 hours of searching prior to our sighting became awesome in a split second.   The Groove-billed Ani put on a show for us while sneakily foraging and feeding through the dense hop bushes while regularly perching relatively out in the open.

Groove-billed Ani is a casual visitor to Arizona, usually in either the summer time frame or in the late fall time frame.  Maricopa County has had it's records over the years, with the last being in Gilbert Water Ranch in 2005.  In the last five years, southeastern Arizona's counties have had several Groove-billed Anis and Apache County's Wenima Wildlife Area even had a discovery.  Before Gilbert Water Ranch, one had been found at Dean and Beloat Riparian Area in Buckeye as well as Tres Rios Wetlands.  My Grandpa, who loved nature and birds, even had the Tres Rios vagrant pointed out to him while he was on a walk there in either 2000 or 2001.  I'm glad it was now my turn to see this bird, one that I've been hoping would show up one of these upcoming years.  It became my 531st life bird overall, most importantly my 382nd Maricopa County bird, and least importantly (but still epic), my 317th Maricopa County Big Year bird.

The Groove-billed Ani is easily told apart from others as an Ani by it's short parrot-like bill and black coloration.  The very similar Smooth-billed Ani will probably never occur in Arizona.  The Groove-billed Ani, although very similar looking to Smooth-billed, has more skin around it's eye, more noticeable parallel "grooves" on it's upper mandible which Smooth-billed Ani won't show, and Groove-billed Ani also has a straighter and less-angled shape of a lower mandible than Smooth-billed Ani does.  Groove-billed Anis feed on a variety of insects, seeds, and fruit in dense bushes within riparian and brushy areas and it my also be found in scrubby countryside.  This bird is gregarious in it's normal range, and travels in family groups, where birds will help each other find food.

Our Groove-billed Ani must have wandered away from it's family or needed it's own adventure.  It acted tame around us and gave us a "front row" ticket to the show.  Behind the Wedge-rumped Storm-Petrel, this bird is easily my 2nd favorite out of the 7 additions I have now added to my Maricopa County life list this year (others have been Hudsonian Godwit, Black Skimmer, Blackpoll Warbler, Thick-billed Kingbird, and Wild Turkey).

What else will Maricopa County bring for me in 2016?  I know there will be more year birds.  7 Maricopers this year has been more than expected, I can't ask for anymore (although another one would be epic!).

How much did I really enjoy the Groove-billed Ani?  Well, on Friday, November 18th, I had to go back to Chandler's Veteran's Oasis Park to enjoy it again with another crowd of birders...