Monday, January 4, 2016

2015's Two Cents-A Year Recap

2015's Birding was much different than the previous six years I've spent birding.  2009 was the year I took this hobby to the extreme, and by the extreme I meant it became my life.  The years of 2009-2014 didn't see a lot outside of birding in my life.  In 2015, that really came to a change.  I finally had a year when birding was an option, not a "requirement".  With birding this year, less became more for me.  On many of my days off this year, I found myself not birding.  And in a funny way, I still landed in the Top 10 for Arizona Birders for most species recorded, as well as in the top 2 for the most species recorded in Maricopa County.  Those statistics are such that I don't care about for myself, but it is interesting.  I birded a lot this year, but at a much better pace than in previous years.  Less was definitely more.  I have come to know some great people through birding, some I have known before 2015 and others I just met this year.  Birding is something fun to do while hanging out with these great people.  Even if the bird life is boring, good company can make up for that in seconds!  This is my favorite post to do every year, the annual year recap post.  Read along for the most exciting adventures I encountered in 2015, the birds I saw in 2015, the best memories that were made in 2015, the major goals I had for birding in 2015, and the Top 15 favorite birds I had in 2015, all of which made this year another fun one to be out in the field (or sea) birding...

The first 8 months of 2015 saw me take birding slow as previously mentioned.  I only went on trips I really wanted to and chased after birds that I really wanted to see.  The rad, bad, and birds you think of as "brutally awesome" are what stole the show in 2015.  Looking at birds who live out at sea and searching for birds that are active primarily at night are what I am talking about.  The final months of the year saw a change in my work schedule that would require me to work six days on a lot of weeks from 1 P.M. to 9:30 P.M.  With me being an early riser so much of the time, that schedule change led me to do a lot of birding over those months during mornings before I would have to go into work.  The schedule change made me look like an obsessive birder again.  Good birds came along throughout 2015, and I have now written my annual year recap post that I have decided to now make a tradition every year.

A wise owl once told me that birding is supposed to be fun and nothing short of fun.  Why not live that up?  All serious "requirement" birding in 2015 was basically thrown out the door.  Yeah I wanted to get new birds and keep nice lists, but this year was all about the adventure, with many owls behind me to back that goal up...

Starting out 2015

Every year seems to start off with interesting waterfowl.  For the last several birding years, mine sure has!  There are usually a few uncommon ducks in midst of the common.  The first birding outing I partook in came after work as I made a trip up to Lake Pleasant to look at two Black Scoters and one White-winged Scoter, as well as a single Red-breasted Merganser in midst of a raft of Common Goldeneye.

Eurasian Wigeons spend the winter in the greater Phoenix area in small numbers.  When one is found, it is always in the company of American Wigeon, who are in large numbers.  Once a Eurasian Wigeon is found, it usually spends it's winter in the exact spot, with accompanying American Wigeons. 

Small songbirds who love drab fields can also be found at the beginning of the year.  Songbirds such as Longspurs.  In the vicinity of Caleb Strand, were nearby McCown's and Lapland Longspurs, who were reliably present for awhile.  The Lapland Longspur was a big deal for me, as it was the first one that I got to photograph after having distant scope views in previous experiences.

In Maricopa County, other enjoyable birds who are around in the colder months at the beginning of the year include Ferruginous Hawk, Cedar Waxwing, Sage Thrasher, and Fox Sparrow.

The first major score of the year came on January 28th, when Caleb Strand found my first Maricopa County life bird (Maricoper) of the year, a Greater Pewee.  I was sick as a dog that day, but I still hopped in my truck and hunted down the Greater Pewee with Caleb!

In early February, Caleb Strand and I teamed up for a February Big Day in Maricopa County, where we had over 100 species during the day.  Highlights included Evening Grosbeaks, Cassin's Finches, Golden-crowned Kinglets, and a Brown Thrasher at Gilbert Water Ranch.  One of my favorite highlights was seeing an American Robin, Evening Grosbeak, and Cedar Waxwing all drinking from the same water source.

My buddy Dominic Sherony and I went on an adventure to the Santa Cruz Flats in pursuit of the neat birds that can be seen there.  How about some Sprague's Pipits and Mountain Plovers?

A Break from Birding

Birding had taken a positive toll on my life in most ways in the last several years.  On the negative side, it had taken up almost all of my time.  There was nearly two months of this year where I didn't bird at all from February through early April.  I took that time to catch up on a lot of other things in life that I have missed over the years because of my birding obsession.  This year, birding went from being my life to one of my favorite things to do.  A hobby, that's right!  During the break, I did take time to look at this Long-eared Owl.

American Gold and the Wallestads

On April Fool's Day, my buddy Josh Wallestad from Minnesota came down to Arizona.  Buddy Gordon Karre and I teamed up and helped Josh and his son, Evan, find birds in southeastern Arizona as well as central Arizona.  With pressure on Gordon and I, we helped Josh and Evan find close to 30 life birds over the course of the few days that we birded.  Gordon and I helped Josh get life birds like Painted Redstart, Northern Beardless Tyrannulet, Broad-billed Hummingbird, and more. 

On March 31st and late, Gordon Karre and I owled the heck out of Madera Canyon and got these looks at Whiskered Screech-Owl.  It was fun, but we had serious business to attend to the next day in getting Josh and Evan looks at the Elegant Trogon..

On April Fools Day, Gordon and I led an eager Josh and Evan Wallestad up Madera Canyon on the Super Trail.  It didn't take long to find Josh and Evan's biggest target of the trip, the Elegant Trogon.  We were extremely lucky to get the Trogon as fast as we did.  One can look for days or hours without seeing one.  Gordon and I loved the sight of the bird, but inwardly, we were relieved!  Gordon, Josh, Evan, and I made a great team.

The remainder of the time with the Wallestad's was about owls.  Evan found a Great Horned Owl pair at the hotel they were staying at, and I showed the Wallestad's both Western Screech and Elf Owls in Maricopa County later that night on April Fools Day.  The owls would lead to some big aspirations as my main focus in 2015's birding...

My first life bird of 2015 came when Louis Hoeniger found an American Golden-Plover at a farm pond in Phoenix.  After I chased this bird and missed it, I realized I didn't look hard enough because it was seen on the very next day.  Luckily, I was able to chase it right away on the following day and I was able to get good looks at the bird on my second attempt.  Several times I was able to get very close to it.  Getting official life birds in my home county is always a blast.  American Golden-Plovers are one of the longest migrants, as they fly thousands of miles every year.

Owls! Owls! Owls!  An Obsession with Owling

After the southeastern Arizona trip, I resumed with my break from birding.  Even though I didn't miss the constant field trips at all, I did miss getting out.  I was trying to save money.  I was still enjoying other things.  And then owling kicked in.  I became obsessed with owls and owling practically overnight.  This happened when Dominic Sherony contacted me about owling for Flammulated Owls.  We didn't get a chance to look for Flams before Dominic had to return to New York, but he had still yet to photograph and see much of Western Screech-Owls.  On one April night, we ventured out to Coon Bluff Recreation Area on the Lower Salt River and enjoyed plenty of Western Screech-Owls as well as the world's smallest owl, the Elf Owl.  I enjoyed the night so much that I decided to spend my birding time during the day as owling at night for a few months.

I enjoyed owling to high degrees, that I told everybody about it, wherever I went.  One night, I brought a group of 12 people out to Coon Bluff with me.  These folks were nurses from work and their family members.  It was super cool to show these awesome people their first owls in the wild.  Elf and Western Screech-Owls provided up close views. 

The owling is rad.  And this is just the start of what's to come with owls in 2015..

Southern California

At the beginning of 2015, Gordon Karre and I made plans for a trip to southern California to bird that area with the main focus being on a pelagic birding trip outside of San Diego.  The land birding was fun, but the sole purpose of the trip was on sea birds.  I especially wanted to see an Albatross.  The first day in soCal resulted in birding in bays and wildlife refuges.  The first day was full of rain, and Gordon and I used umbrellas while birding (a new birding protocol and approach).  We each got two new lifers apiece on the trip, Gull-billed Tern for both of us as well as Yellow-crowned Night-Heron for me and California Gnatcatcher for Gordon.  Up close views of Snowy Plovers and Least Terns were incredible.

My First Ever Pelagic Birding Trip...and Time Out at Sea

There's a first time for everything.  For the case in San Diego on Gordon's and my birding trip, that was to go out on sea.  I had never been out at sea, and that was half the fun.  And of course I wanted to see plenty of the unique birds that solely call the open ocean waters home.  I took this cool boat, the Grande.

The ocean is an epic experience. The Grande took many birding passengers 30 miles out on the ocean, where seabirds made many appearances.  More than anything, I wanted to see an Albatross.  I didn't care what species of Albatross, I just wanted one.  By the end of the day, I had 10 lifers on the boat trip.  Some of them included Sooty Shearwater, Pink-footed Shearwater, Black Storm-Petrel, and Rhinoceros Auklet.

Brown Boobies, Western Gulls, terns, and more were seen often throughout the trip, as well as whales and dolphins.

 On the pelagic, my most wanted bird was an Albatross and Gordon's was a Tropicbird.  We were also hoping or a Jaegar or Skua.  None of those birds had shown up by the final stages of the trip.  I really wanted an Albatross, more than words could say.  In the book, America's 100 Most Wanted Birds, by Steven Mlodinow and Michael O' Brien, they describe the high Albatross desires for birders perfectly:  "To many, albatrosses are the quintessential pelagic birds.  A sighting of any species, even the fairly common Black-footed, often elicits shouts of excitement and cries of joy.  The Laysan Albatross, being rare in our waters, creates an even greater ruckus".  This described my mind perfectly.  There came a point on the pelagic where I had to pee badly, and when I got to the room and was about to pee, I heard them scream over the intercom and I knew it had to be an Albatross.  I didn't even have time to pee and I ran out to the deck to find out a Black-footed Albatross was coming in.  The views of that were incredible, and I didn't think it could be topped until a Laysan Albatross flew in a minute later.  The Laysan Albatross is a mega-rarity on San Diego waters, and it was only the 2nd or 3rd County record for San Diego.  Gordon and I witnessed something truly spectacular, and Albatrosses are one of my favorite bird families after this experience!  I just wanted one, but hey, two Albatrosses in a minute were one of the best things I've seen in my times of birding..

A Case of a Tufted Temper and the Flammulated Fever

In mid-May, a Tufted Flycatcher was found in Ramsey Canyon of southeastern Arizona.  This is a mega-rarity in North America, and it is what birders refer to as a Code 5.  Shockingly, there was a second Tufted Flycatcher present with the first one over the rumor mill.  The day after the Tufted Flycatcher was found, I headed down to Ramsey Canyon with my friends Gordon Karre, Magill Weber, and Chris Rohrer.  After a long hike to where the Tufted Flycatcher was being seen, we ran into a crowd of over twenty other birders.  Among the crowd was Andrew Core, and he said the flycatcher had come in shortly before we got there.  As we waited, I heard the bird and got the crowd on the bird as it flew in.  The ooohs and aaahs were ear piercing over the tiny flycatcher, and it felt good to be successful on a chase that consisted of a 3.5 hour drive along with a 3 mile hike.  

When the flycatcher flew off, Andrew Core and I stood of to the side to talk about the bird.  We weren't being loud, but one old hag of a lady thought we were.  She started calling us names, saying we were disruptive, and she also said we had no ethics or etiquette because we were talking during a time when "no one should be talking".  At first, Andrew and I nicely told her to stop but when she kept going, we didn't put up with it.  A remark I made to her in front of the crowd sent her scowling back up Ramsey.  Chris looked like he wanted to murder her, and Gordon was trying not to laugh.  The lady never did come back, but the Flycatcher did.  Getting Code 5 rarities and life birds call for major celebrations!  Gordon, I, Magill, and Chris have had some awesome times in the field the four of us.  And there did end up being two Tufted Flycatchers in Ramsey Canyon.  They even built a nest!

Towards the end of May, the owling obsession was back in full swing.  This time, I was longing to get looks and a photograph of a Flammulated Owl.  This bird is easy to hear, but tough to see.  I was lucky to have Kurt and Cindy Radamaker with me, and the three of us teamed up and headed north of Phoenix to the conifer-filled Bradshaw Mountains near Prescott.  We would owl at the Kendall Camp Trail.  It didn't take us long to hear a Flammulated Owl, and less than an hour after dark, we hit the jackpot and visually had a Flammulated Owl sitting above us.  As we followed the bird after it flew away, we relocated it again.  It was right above our heads this time, and the three of us had killer looks at this tiny forest-dwelling owl.  For the three of us, it was a first time look at this species, and a chart-topper for the 2015 bird rankings.

The Continued Owling Nights

Someday, I want to write a book on Owling, whether it be in Arizona or across North America.  These birds are epic, and I want to study them in all of their life stages, as well as photograph them too.  My journeys continued out to Coon Bluff Recreation Area on a lot of late summer nights.  The heat got to me at times, but the owls being present made the efforts worth the while.  I came up with goals on photographing Western Screech-Owl and Elf Owl fledglings.  The Elf Owls youngins' ended up being difficult to find, but the young Western Screech-Owls were as friendly as can be..

The Fun of Patch Birding

Two of the birding locations that are closest to me happen to be some of the best in Maricopa County and are two of my favorites.  I'm shouting out Tres Rios Wetlands and Glendale Recharge Ponds!  These two locations are always a given for a good birding outing.  And every year, great things show up at these two locations.  Something awesome this year at Tres Rios was an adult male Painted Bunting that Caleb Strand and Walker Noe discovered on a hot June day.

The gigantic Glendale Recharge Ponds have their share of a variety of waterbirds annually, anything from common to rare.  Spring was highlighted by Black-bellied Plovers, Willet, Marbled Godwit, Forster's Tern, and Least Tern.

Similar to spring, fall also brings great birds into the Glendale Recharge Ponds.  It's always fun to get comparisons with shorebirds, such as this Semipalmated Sandpiper (left) and Western Sandpiper (right).

On the rarer side of things, it's always nice when people like Tyler Loomis come into Glendale to spy scarce Arizona shorebirds such as a Sanderling.

Or when Bill Grossi finds super cool birds such as Sabine's Gulls.  Adult Sabine's Gulls, like this one that showed up at Glendale Recharge Ponds, are stunning.  This adult spent about a week at Glendale, where many lucky birders were fortunate to enjoy it.  

The Spotted Owls of Slate Creek Divide

This year just continues to be dominated by Owls, doesn't it?  One of my biggest highlights of 2015 came when I took multiple trips up to Slate Creek Divide to bird and look for Mexican Spotted Owls.  The Spotted Owl is one of my favorite birds, and to have them in my home county is a huge deal for me.  I did have a goal though, and that was to find the first ever evidence that Spotted Owls breed in Maricopa County.  On three different trips to Slate Creek in 2015, I saw Spotted Owls in the Maricopa County side of the area (which is Gila County also).  On those three different trips, I had three different people with me.  For those three people, they each got to see a Spotted Owl for the first time in their life.  It was awesome.  Right Melissa?  Right Walker?  Right Sean?  They would each nod yes if one was to ask them.  Here are three pictures, one from each of those three different trips.

Sean Fitzgerald's Spotted Owl

Walker Noe's Spotted Owl (This one's name was Tyson)

Melissa Okimoto's Spotted Owl

The company was awesome to have with me on these three trips, and I got the biggest thrill when I spied the Spotted Owls each time and pointed them out to Sean, Walker, and Melissa.  My goal was met of finding the Mexican Spotted Owl as a breeder in Maricopa County on the trip that Walker went on.  We arrived at Slate Creek Divide at night, and even found a Spotted Owl pair just after midnight on the Gila County side of the area.  Tyson flew right up to us and gave Walker a killer look for his first ever Spotted Owl.  On the following morning, Walker and I walked down into the Maricopa County side of the area.  Further into the canyon we bushwhacked into, I spied a blob in a tree.  And it was a fledgling Spotted Owl!  It was accompanied by it's mother, as well as a sibling.  The mother may very well be the Spotted Owl photographed above on the trip I went on with Melissa.  During the trip that Walker and I went on, we documented five Spotted Owls in the area in less than a mile.  The sight of the owls was amazing that day, and more amazingly, we know that they breed in Maricopa County now...

One-on-one with a Saw-whet in the dark...

Every year, my family takes an annual vacation in Arizona's White Mountains.  This area is one of my very favorites, and it is located in Apache County in east-central Arizona.  We stay in Greer every year, and the area is filled with high elevation mountains and birds.  Every vacation, I set goals for myself birding wise.  This year, that goal was to find an adult Northern Saw-whet Owl on the trip.  I looked in dense tree tangles for roosting birds on the first days of the trip, but my goal was resolved on my first night-time owling outing of the trip.  On a back road in Greer, I found my Northern Saw-whet Owl!  

This Saw-whet Owl was the best.  Sometimes God just knows how to answer our prayers, and I was praying for this sequence to happen with this species.  It didn't come easily though.  The Northern Saw-whet Owl flew away from me and my flashlight the first three times I followed it's calls.  By the fourth time, the Owl settled down.  This was after the fact I had to crawl under fences in the dark to pursue the small and fluffy bird any further.  When I caught up to it, the Saw-whet Owl allowed me to get only feet underneath him.  Fifteen minutes later, we were still staring at each other and the Northern Saw-whet Owl seemingly enjoyed my company.  In fact, he never flew away.  I left him sitting there as he was sitting there.  The night also produced three more calling Saw-whet Owls less than a mile apart from each other.  Those Saw-whets weren't cooperative and went down as heard only.  The experience I had with this bird was mind-blowing, and it is one of the best encounters I had in 2015.

Birding in Arizona's White Mountains

Speaking of the White Mountains, I'll say a little more about that trip I went on with my family to Greer for our annual vacation.  Besides the Northern Saw-whet Owl, the White Mountains are known for producing the best high elevation birding in Arizona.  It's the one place in the State to have breeding Pine Grosbeak and Gray Catbirds.  Other birds that birders venture up to the White Mountains for include American Three-toed Woodpecker, Dusky Grouse, American Dipper Pinyon Jay, Williamson's Sapsucker, and more.

During the White Mountains trip, I also started a project for my website.  That project is called, "Birding in The White Mountains", and it is a guide for birders visiting the White Mountains.  The purpose is to help users find both birds and birding hotspots within the region.  I traveled around the Whites relentlessly on the trip to do research and put the guide together.  Because the White Mountains cover a huge geographical area, this guide is a work in progress.  Even though there are years left to complete this project, I was able to get a good amount of work done towards it.  The guide on my website can be viewed at the link here:

Change in Schedule, Change in Birding

With work this year, I had worked almost all morning shifts from 6 A.M. to 2:30 P.M. throughout the year's duration.  I liked the schedule.  Birding wise, if someone found something rare or unusual in the morning, it would give me an option of chasing it later in the day if I wanted to.  A few times I would work night shifts.  Because my boss Jennifer liked it when I worked at nights, she decided to move me to working nights almost exclusively for my schedule.  My hours would be from 1 P.M. to 9:30 P.M.  I had even started to like the night shift, even though the hours were strange.  However, this change would give me mornings to be free.  With me already being a morning person, there's no way I would want to sit in my apartment and wait for work.  So here came Tommy D, back to his usual birding self.  At the start of this new trend, a Northern Waterthrush didn't hesitate to welcome me back!

The majestic Great Horned Owl was stoked too that I was back on a regular basis..

And then came a day when Susan Fishburn and I met up at Glendale Recharge Ponds in September to chase the Sanderling.  The Sanderling was one that Susan needed for the Big Year she was attempting in Arizona.  We quickly got that bird, and Susan said, "Hey Tommy, want to go down to Southeastern Arizona".  My answer was yes and Susan and I made a trek down to Willcox to look for rarities there as well as some of the canyons in the Huachuca Mountains.  A stop at Willcox turned out to be surprising.  Susan and I found a very-rare-in-Arizona Red Knot working along the edge of Lake Cochise.  This bird is a casual visitor in Arizona, mainly during fall.  It was also cool because it was the first time I've personally found a really good bird in the famous southeastern Arizona.

After our discovery of the Red Knot, we headed down to Hunter Canyon in pursuit of a mega-rare Slate-throated Redstart that had been discovered and staked out by many lucky birders.  It took over an hour, but it was well worth the wait as the Redstart appeared across the canyon from Susan and me.  It was a year bird for Susan (her third that day) and was a lifer for me.  I wasn't able to photograph that spectacular Slate-throated Redstart, but others were able to.  Here is a link to that particular bird's photo documentation on the Arizona Field Ornithologists website:  

The above picture is of the well-named Yellow-headed Blackbird.  This picture was taken at Becker Lake Wildlife Area in the White Mountains.  I went up to the White Mountains for a recent weekend with my good friends Mark Ochs and Gordon Karre and we took part of the annual Arizona Field Ornithologists (AZFO) State Meeting.  It was the 9th annual meeting.  Long weekend short, there were field trips on Friday for birders to participate in, the state meeting all day on Saturday with presentations, discussions, and quizzes, as well as field trips on Sunday morning.  Mark, Gordon, and I participated on field trips that went to Lyman Lake State Park, Concho Lake, Wenima Wildlife Area, and Becker Lake Wildlife Area.  There were good birds present, and I added six new birds to my Apache County List:  Greater White-fronted Goose, Neotropic Cormorant, Green Heron, Red-necked Phalarope, Dickcissel, and Rufous-crowned Sparrow.  Below are photographs of the Neotropic Cormorant and Green Heron.  Poor photos, but new Apache County birds!

After the AZFO meeting and returning back to Phoenix, I really had the chance to bird and search for the eastern vagrants that I have always wanted to see in Maricopa County that I haven't yet.  I found myself staring at willow and cottonwood groves a lot...

Because of camera issues that I was having, smaller songbirds were hard to photograph.  But raptors weren't.  In these riparian woodlands I enjoyed a Merlin, Peregrine Falcon, and a young Gray Hawk.

2015's Final Three Months:  Full of Epic Birders and Birds

The final three months of 2015 were incredible.  As indicated above, I spent a lot of it with amazing people and many amazing birds were seen also. October began with an awesome life bird that I have always wanted to see.  While working the Box Bar Recreation Site along the Lower Verde River, I found my first ever Red-eyed Vireo.  This bird is quite the rarity in Arizona.  It is always fun to find rarities of my own, and not only was it a life bird, but it was my 370th bird of Maricopa County!  My goal of finding an eastern vireo or warbler that I didn't have yet in Maricopa County was also completed.

During this time, I met and spent a lot of time birding with Melissa Okimoto.  Melissa is awesome, and she started birding in May of this year, especially in Maricopa County.  In just over a half year's worth of her first year in being new to birding, Melissa had over 215 species in Maricopa County, which is incredible!  I'm glad to have met Melissa, and I've enjoyed seeing her see many birds.  Here are just a few of the awesome birds Melissa and I saw together in 2015.

In October, Josh and Evan Wallestad came back to Arizona on a second family trip that would include some more birding.  Gordon Karre and I took them back to southeastern Arizona, where we had another epic time of birding with the Wallestads.  During this time, my camera was a shot in the dark and I wasn't able to get anything in the way of photographs.  But I will say that we had awesome birds in Hunter Canyon of the Huachuca Mountains, including Josh's main target in a Rufous-capped Warbler.  In fact, I experienced a very positive form of stress that day.  In just minutes, three of Josh's targets appeared within consecutive minutes of each other with overlapping time frames.  We didn't know what to look at.  Male Scott's Oriole?  Northern Pygmy-Owl?  Rufous-capped Warbler?  I guess the warbler wins.  Josh did write an amazing blog post on the trip up Hunter Canyon, check it out here:

On November 15th, things got exciting when Melanie Herring found a Heerman's Gull at Glendale Recharge Ponds.  It was already going to be a good day because my favorite band Disciple was in town, but getting a Heerman's Gull before the concert made it an epic day.  The Heerman's Gull was a Maricopa County life bird for me, and it was one I was really wanting to see after I missed one a few years ago, also at Glendale Recharge Ponds.

The picture above of the Heerman's Gull is a terrible one because it was taken through a scope.  If you read previous posts of mine, it would be known that my main camera broke and there was a wide gap between then and when I got a new one.  I did take my scope with me to a lot of places, and I learned how to take pictures using my iPod and sticking it through my scope or even my binoculars, in digi-photography form.  Some of the birds I photographed by using this method were some nice rarities in Maricopa County:  Pacific Loon (found by Joshua Smith), American Golden-Plover (ironically my second of the year, found by Darrel Wilder), White-tailed Kite, Red-breasted Sapsucker (found by Diana Heron), and Rusty Blackbird (found by Melissa).  

One of the funnest days I had during this time frame was taking Caleb Strand out for the day in early December.  Caleb worked tirelessly on a Maricopa County Big Year for this year, and on the day before I took him out, he put himself in a good position as he got his number up to 297 species.  Because there were a lot of rarities present on the east side of Maricopa County, I felt that we could hit three species he didn't have for the year to lift his number to 300 species, which was his personal goal.  Good birding was on our side as we added the Red-breasted Sapsucker, a Dunlin, and a Cackling Goose to Caleb's list to reach his goal of 300 species.  For Maricopa County Big Years, Caleb became the second birder ever to reach 300 species or more in Maricopa in a single year.  And Caleb wouldn't stop there at 300 either, he would only continue to climb the ladder.  In a very funny way, the best and rarest bird of that day by a mile was one that Caleb found and didn't even need for the year, which as an adult Harris's Sparrow.  It was only the 3rd Harris's Sparrow of my life, my second for Maricopa County, and my first of an adult.  I had to use my scope and iPod to get a picture of this beauty!  Caleb is an awesome kid, and an incredible birder.  I was glad to have been along on the trip and see him achieve his goal of 300 species.  

This time frame also turned out to be incredible for adding birds to my Maricopa County list, one of which was a life bird and a state bird.  In late November, I got a call from Tyler Loomis and Tyler had some good news.  He had found 3 female Purple Finches at Gilbert Water Ranch.  I made a beeline down to the area and met up with Tyler,where we started to search for Tyler's earlier discovery.  Patience paid off 1.5 hours later, as a female Purple Finch popped up and give both of us some good looks.  It was a first time of seeing the species anywhere in Arizona for me.  The Purple Finches were extremely difficult for me to photograph, so I don't have a photo to show of those particular birds.  But, here are some of Tyler's photographs at the link below on the Arizona Field Ornithologists website:

Not long after I helped Caleb Strand with his Big Year by taking a Big Day in Maricopa County to do so, I got a call from Caleb Strand:  "Mr. Tommy, I found a Yellow-throated Warbler at Tres Rios!".  Minutes later, I was in my truck and heading down to Tres Rios Wetlands to meet up with Caleb and Joe Ford.  Caleb had heard an odd call well off the trail in private property.  Despite the fact the cottonwoods this bird was in were over 100 feet away, Caleb was able to see that it was a Yellow-throated Warbler.  He even called it in once to get superb photographs.  Once I got to Tres Rios, I ran up to Caleb and Joe Ford, and Caleb had a scope set up to view the Yellow-throated Warbler.  It wasn't long Caleb had the rarity in the scope for me, which was my 2nd Yellow-throated Warbler in Arizona and most importantly, my first for Maricopa County.  I was more impressed with how Caleb found the bird than the bird itself I think.

On Black Friday, I ordered a new camera, which is was the T5 Rebel by Canon through a steal-of-a-deal.  Before I knew it, my pictures were being taken through an actual camera again.  The Tres Rios Yellow-throated Warbler above was taken by this new camera, and so were some neat highlights such as Aleutian Cackling Goose, my first ever photograph of an adult male American Redstart, and a Northern Parula.  

During this time Susan Fishburn and I spent a lot of time together chasing birds for Susan's awesome Arizona Big Year.  There was one stretch that we birded together for three consecutive days.  For those three days, it was summed up for three new year birds for Susan's Big Year.  She had been everywhere during the year and had done an awesome job on seeing many birds, and I enjoyed birding with Susan a lot during the year.  She was closing in on an impressive 390 species by the time this trip was all said and done.  In case anyone is wondering, the Arizona Big Year record is 413, set by Laurens Halsey in 2014.  For this trip, Susan and I went all the way down to Santa Cruz County to chase a Least Grebe and more.  Due to many different birds we were chasing and with there still being a lot of ground to cover in the day, we found the Least Grebe and had to dip on some of the others.  The Least Grebe is tiny, as it's name indicates.  

Susan and I then chased a few rare Rough-legged Hawks at Santa Cruz Flats to strike out on them.  Even though we struck out, I will say that Susan went to Mormon Lake and got to see one there after this day.  It was good we were at the Flats and not in far southeastern Arizona, because Melanie Herring found six swans in the Arlington Area in Maricopa County that seemed to be a good bet for Trumpeter Swans.  With it being a potential first in Maricopa County's history and with it being a life bird for both Susan and I, we left Santa Cruz Flats immediately and went to see the Swans.  We found Kurt and Cindy Radamaker looking at them when we arrived.  The sight of the swans was impressive.

Because Caleb Strand missed out on the Swans by a few minutes, Susan and I went to quickly pick him up.  I found it amazing that I was birding with and being in the same car with someone who was attempting an Arizona Big Year and with someone who was attempting a Maricopa County Big Year.  The Swans were a potential life bird for Caleb too, and the amazing find by Melanie was extremely awesome for the three of us.  When we got back to the fields, the birds were still present and we had great views of them.  I snapped over 200 pictures altogether.  Regardless, these birds would also be Caleb's 303rd bird of his Maricopa County Year!

Because swans are one of North America's top identification problems (especially immature birds like these), expert birders didn't know what species it was.  Kurt Radamaker and I put in hours of studying Trumpeter and Tundra Swans and were constantly confused about their identity, even though we leaned towards Trumpeter.  Most experts thought Trumpeter, although they couldn't say for sure.  A week after the discovery, Melanie then documented distinctive head-bobbing behavior out of these swans as well as getting distinctive vocalizations on tape.  Both of these documentations showed that these birds were Trumpeter Swans!  A great rarity in Arizona, and a first time ever in Maricopa County.  Melanie always finds great birds, and she has certainly found a lot of great ones for me throughout the years.

On 2015's final days, I found myself wanting more and more of the Trumpeter Swans ever since I saw them on the initial day of Melanie's discovery, which was on December 19th.  The swans covered a large area, and they were very unpredictable to where they would be.  In fact, the birds weren't seen for five days after Mel's discovery, and they were then located by Jay Taylor on Christmas Eve.  Birders enjoyed them on Christmas.  The day after Christmas, I searched for them only to have them show up less-than-an-hour later after I had to head off to work.  Luckily, they were in the hands of Melanie, where she obtained her amazing videos to help document the swans further.  I came back to the area again on December 27th, hoping again, to find the Trumpeter Swans.  Once again, they were a no-show, but I did find Melanie at the Lower River Road Ponds, where she got the swan videos.  The Trumpeters would come to these ponds during their daylong activities at times.  Melanie and I talked and were hoping the swans were flying in.  Instead, we had a different surprise, who came flying on in.  It was a shorebird I've wanted in Maricopa County for a long time, and one that was in very surprising habitat for itself where it was flying around and landing.  Can you name it by this picture?

I spied the bird, but if it weren't for Melanie being at the Lower River Road Ponds, I wouldn't have stopped there in the first place unless the large swans were on the water (which would be noticeable in a heartbeat).  Melanie is a good luck charm.  The bird flew past us calling, landing for a few seconds behind our trucks, and then flew across the street shortly to our north before we had good looks at it in complete shock.  I said, "Melanie, that's gotta be a Mountain is a Mountain Plover!".  The two of us couldn't believe it, and to me, it almost felt like an unreal way to get a Maricopa County lifer.  It was handed to me, and it was also a milestone number for that Maricopa County list of mine...375.  

Big, Big, Big Years

My final outing of the year came on December 31st.  I met up with Susan Fishburn again to try and help her achieve her Big Year goal of coming in first place in Arizona.  I was stoked, and I was anxious!  It was extremely exciting for me too, and I can't say how much I wanted Susan to win.  Not only were we hoping for first place, but we were also hoping for yet one more bird so Susan could reach 390 species for Arizona in 2015.  I knew just the bird that would help us out in that direction, and that was the Northern Saw-whet Owl.  Thanks to Felipe Guerrero, we were able to find an area where Northern Saw-whet Owls had been a week earlier.  After enjoying a few birds in Prescott before it got dark out (Tundra Swan and Winter Wren were a few of them!), we started to owl at last light.  When it was close to 5:50 P.M., we heard that Northern Saw-whet Owl we were hoping for.  The Owl turned into two or three more owls to bring that total up to a probable four, but at least three birds.  We heard a variety of different vocalizations from the owls, which was a cool learning experience.  Susan and I came close to seeing them several times as we followed their calls for over an hour in the twenty degree darkness, but the owls turned out to be skittish for my flashlight.  One of the times Susan was behind me, it was the only time the owl sat in front of my flashlight.  I got excited and raised my voice for Susan to come, and the owl spooked and flew off.  Regardless if the bird was seen or heard, Susan was more than happy.  We celebrated her accomplishment on the way back to Phoenix over McDonald's and talking about the many memories she had during her incredible Arizona Big Year.  I was blessed to participate in not only Susan's Big Year, but Caleb Strand's Maricopa County Big Year too.  Both of them are awesome birders and good friends of mine.  I got to be with Susan when she claimed her chart topping 390 species in Arizona, and I also got to be with Caleb when he achieved his Big Year goal of 300 species as well as when he got his final bird in Maricopa for 2015, the Trumpeter Swan, reaching 303 species.  Thank you Susan and Caleb for the adrenaline rushes, I'm glad I was a part of both of your Big Years.  Here are a few eBird screenshots showing Susan and Caleb's Big Years on the Arizona state and Maricopa County rankings.

For me, I couldn't think of a better way to end 2015 than to end it by going Northern Saw-whet Owling.  After all, most of my major goals in 2015 had to do with owling, and it turned out to be fitting with my last birding outing of the year being an owling one.  These incredible birds took a lot of 2015's trips and time, and I plan to continue more owling efforts in 2016.  In 2015, I saw and photographed 11 out of Arizona's 13 owl species.  Short-eared Owl and Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl were the two I missed (I didn't even try for the Ferruginous), but I'm hoping to try for them in 2016.  I'm going to close the main part of this recap off by showing those 11 owls.  Up next is a summary of my life birds for my three favorite list categories, as well as a Top 15 Countdown for my 15 favorite birds of 2015.  


2015:  Additions to My Life List

At the start of 2015, my life list stood at 458 species.  19 additions to that list has brought that number up to 477 species.  Of the 19 species, 14 came from southern California, and the other 5 came from Arizona.  

1.  American Golden-Plover 

2.  Yellow-crowned Night-Heron

3.  Gull-billed Tern

4.  Black Oystercatcher

5.  Black Storm-Petrel

6.  Scripp's Murrelet

7.  Sooty Shearwater

8.  Cassin's Auklet

9.  Pink-footed Shearwater

10.  Ashy Storm-Petrel

11.  Rhinoceros Auklet

12.  Black-footed Albatross

13.  Laysan Albatross

14.  Red-crowned Parrot

15.  Purple Finch

16.  Tufted Flycatcher

17.  Slate-throated Redstart

18.  Red-eyed Vireo

19.  Trumpeter Swan

2015:  Additions to my Arizona (State) List

At the start of 2015, my state list for Arizona sat at 427 species.  Six additions to that list gave me 433 species for Arizona.

1.  American Golden-Plover

2.  Tufted Flycatcher

3.  Slate-throated Redstart

4.  Red-eyed Vireo

5.  Purple Finch

6.  Trumpeter Swan

2015:  Additions to my Maricopa County, Arizona List

For those who know me well, know that my Maricopa County list is my favorite.  Yes, even more than my life list.  There's something awesome about birding in your home county and adding new species to that list.  Last year, I thought eight additions to my Maricopa County list was incredible for me.  For this year, I had a surprising eight more additions, six of which came after October.  At the start of 2015, my Maricopa County list sat at 367 species, and with the eight additions, it has now been brought up to 375 species.

1.  Greater Pewee-Thanks Caleb!

2.  American Golden-Plover-Thanks Louis!

3.  Red-eyed Vireo-My discovery!

4.  Heerman's Gull-thanks Melanie!

5.  Purple Finch-Thanks Tyler!

6.  Yellow-throated Warbler-Thanks Caleb!

7.  Trumpeter Swan-Thanks Melanie!

8.  Mountain Plover-My discovery

Counting Them Down:  The Best of 2015

For every year recap, this section is one of my favorites.  It breaks down my Top 15 birds of the year.  A lot goes into each ranking.  The rankings aren't based on how rare a bird is by any means, it's based on situations and experiences also.  Some of the birds near the top may not be the rarest, but they are certainly the coolest.  The coolest birds are what birding is all about, and those birds are what I focused on a lot during this year.  Making this Top 15 was not easy, and a lot of great birds are being left out.  I could go with a Top 20, but I don't want to break tradition.  There were five other birds (and they know who they are!) who could have also made this countdown easily.  Every single bird on this list was extremely awesome to me, keep that in mind!  And honestly, 15 through 5 are all very close.  It took very careful consideration and thought for the number placements.  Are you ready for the countdown?  Here we go!

THE TOP 15 OF 2015

15.  Purple Finch at Gilbert Water Ranch: On November 30th, I had a strong feeling not to go out birding.  Thank goodness I didn't.  After getting a message from Tyler Loomis saying that he found Purple Finches at Gilbert Water Ranch, then I decided to go birding.  It took an hour of looking for Tyler and I to relocate the Purple Finches.  These birds were a state bird for me, which meant more importantly, that they were a Maricoper.

14.  Deep Sea Pelagics: During my first pelagic birding trip out to the ocean, a good amount of the excitement came from the experience and being out at sea for the first time.  I guess I'm cheating a little with this number 14 by putting multiple birds on it.  The expected pelagic birds: Sooty and Pink-footed Shearwaters, Black Storm-Petrel, Scripps Murrelet, and Rhinoceros Auklet were incredible to see!

13.  Slate-throated Redstart at Hunter Canyon:  On a muggy September afternoon, Susan Fishburn and I climbed up into Hunter Canyon to look for a Slate-throated Redstart that had been reported.  After an hour's wait, the bird appeared about 70 feet away from us, well across the canyon.  It was out of picture range, but the sight of this Mexican rarity was incredible.  Slate-throated Redstarts are really starting to show up in Arizona in quite impressive numbers now in recent years after being a complete mega-rarity for many years.

12.  Heerman's Gull at Glendale Recharge Ponds:  Heerman's Gulls are notorious one day wonders in Arizona.  One has to be able to chase one quickly once they are reported or it's not going to happen any time soon for birders.  I've had this gull in Arizona before because of the previously mentioned sequence, but Melanie Herring found my first Maricopa County Heerman's Gull at the Glendale Recharge Ponds in November.  What an amazing sight it was.  I got the report while I was at work, and I was able to successfully chase this unique and distinctive gull, where it remained for the rest of the day.  As history speaks loudly and often, the gull was gone the next day.

11.  Breeding Spotted Owls at Slate Creek Divide:  After seeing a Spotted Owl last year in the darkness at Slate Creek Divide for my Maricopa County life bird, I made it a goal to find one during the day.  In 2015, that goal of finding one on a day roost was completed.  Another goal came to mind, and that was to find evidence that these owls breed in Maricopa County.  Luckily, that hope was answered when Walker and I found and discovered a female and fledged young in July!  It's crazy to me that Spotted Owls breed in Maricopa County, and I was glad to have confirmed it.

10.  Tufted Flycatcher in Ramsey Canyon:  Gordon Karre, Chris Rohrer, Magill Weber, and I jumped in the car and headed down to Ramsey Canyon after a Code 5 and ABA Mega-rare Tufted Flycatcher showed up.  We joined over 20 other birds at the location of the Tufted Flycatcher and luckily, this tiny Mexican flycatcher flew in to please us and the rest of the crowd.  It took us a rough hike in and out of Ramsey in order to see this bird.

9.  Yellow-throated Warbler at Tres Rios Wetlands:  My Maricopa County list for very-rare-in-Arizona Warblers isn't very high at all.  When I got a call in early December from Caleb Strand, "Hi Mr. Tommy!  I just found a Yellow-throated Warbler at Tres Rios!", I ran out of my house and sped up to Tres Rios A.S.A.P.  It was Caleb's eagle eye and super detection talents that led him to discover this bird.  And the funny thing is, I had to view it through a scope the first time we saw it.  Getting a Yellow-throated Warbler for my Maricopa County list was unbelievable...  

8.  American Golden-Plover in Phoenix:  These things migrate up to 20,000 miles per year, with eastbound migrants passing over the Atlantic with a straight flight of sometimes up to 3,500 miles nonstop.  They are incredible birds, and I had always wanted to see one.  When one was found by Louis Hoeninger at a pond in Phoenix, I was very thankful to chase and see it.  They are quite the rarities in Arizona, and ironically, Darrel Wilder found a second one in Maricopa County later in the year.  I went to see that one also!

7.  Red-eyed Vireo at Box Bar Recreation Site:  In September, I started to bird the Box Bar Recreation Site along the Lower Verde River frequently in hopes of finding an eastern warbler or vireo that I had never had in my life or in Maricopa County before.  One of the best approaches to rarity hunting is to visit the same place often rather than go many different places.  After several weeks of this new tactic, my lifer Red-eyed Vireo showed up right in front of my face!  It was feeding on the ground along the Verde River, and then it foraged in willows.  Finding a bird like this on my own was what was most rewarding about the sighting..

6.  Trumpeter Swans in the Arlington/Buckeye area:  Melanie Herring went out to the Arlington Area west of Phoenix and discovered six Swans in the agricultural fields in the area that turned out to be Trumpeter Swans.  Although the identification was thought to be Trumpeter all along, identification with Swans is very difficult.  Thankfully, Melanie re found these birds and got distinctive behavior and vocalizations down on video.  Conclusion-they were Trumpeters!  Luckily, Susan Fishburn, Caleb Strand, and I, were all in the area upon Melanie's initial discovery and we got to see these birds.  

5.  Mountain Plover at Lower River Road Ponds:  As Melanie and I were both looking for the Trumpeter Swans at the Lower River Road Ponds on December 27th, we were surprised when a Mountain Plover flew in and landed near us.  I heard and spied the Plover coming in, and it landed in habitat that was bizarre compared to it's usual habitat choice.  The conclusion to the sighting is that Melanie is a good luck charm!  Seeing the Mountain Plover like this really exaggerated the meaning of "being in the right place at the right time".  It landed at such a high place on my countdown because it came as a complete and lucky surprise and it was also my 375th bird in Maricopa County, a cool number to reach...

To me, the final four of my Top 15 Birds of 2015 were incredible beyond words....

4.  Flammulated Owl in the Bradshaw Mountains:  On a night in late May, I met up with Kurt and Cindy Radamaker and the three of us formed an awesome team and went Flammulated Owl hunting in the Bradshaw Mountains, which are just south of Prescott.  The three of us owled hard and after an hour's worth of hunting, we lucked out with views of a Flam!  One of the views we had was of a bird about fifteen feet away from us and point blank views.  While the three of us had never seen Flam beyond heard only and of birds flying from flashlights, these views were nothing short of spectacular!

3.  Northern Saw-whet Owl in Greer:  The main goal of my White Mountain summer vacation was to find an adult Northern Saw-whet Owl.  On July 20th, I went owling right after it got dark out on one of the nights.  I got extremely lucky and heard a Saw-whet calling and I followed the sounds quickly.  After I got my first visual of the bird, it flew off and I pursued it several times before it sat still.  Once it sat still, it continued to sit there and was unafraid of me.  The Saw-whet Owl and I ended up having a staring contest, and I was only feet underneath him.  I crawled under fences and ran through the freaky forest by myself alone at night in order to photograph this bird.  But staring at the Northern Saw-whet Owl in the eyes at the close range was well worth everything else that came with it!

The Top Two occurred only a minute apart from each other.  Probably sounds far-fetched, right?  It certainly does, but it certainly did happen.  They were so great that they stopped the birding crowd dead in there swaying shoes and bodies, as well as interrupting me from having to pee as badly as I can remember.  And the birds were epic enough that I forgot I even had to pee....

2.  Black-footed Albatross over the San Diego County ocean:  A long wait on the pelagic birding trip in May towards the end of the day finally got a spark from the ocean waters as a Black-footed Albatross flew in.  While I was about to pee an urgent pee in the bathroom, I heard the intercom go off, "Black ..... ..... ...".  I couldn't hear what they said over the intercom except that first word that started with black.  After seeing Black Storm-Petrel upon Black Storm-Petrel, I knew they didn't say "Black Storm-Petrel" over the intercom.  I stopped the peeing process and ran back out to the deck.  I asked someone what it was and he said, "Black-foooted Albatross!".  When I got to the deck, I saw this incredible bird flying in.  It landed directly behind the boat and took some of the popcorn that was being used to chum gulls and other seabirds.  The wingspan was huge and this bird was massive.  I'll never forget the sight of it for as long as I live...

1.  Laysan Albatross over the San Diego County ocean:  What could top a Black-footed Albatross in all of it's glory seconds later?  While I was enjoying the Black-footed Albatross on the San Diego pelagic with Gordon and dozens of other birders, the tour leader yelled out, "Laysan Albatross coming in!!!!".  I looked to see the Laysan Albatross flying in to join the Black-footed Albatross and gulls that were following the boat.  The Laysan, just like the Black-footed, followed the boat around for awhile.  Laysan Albatross is a mega-rarity in San Diego County, and it was a county lifer for almost everyone who was on board.  In San Diego County, this was either the 2nd or 3rd record of this amazing seabird.  It's crazy to think with how rare Laysan is on San Diego waters and that I was there to experience it.  While one Albatross was good enough for the trip, I never expected in years that I would get to see two of them like this.  Another Black-footed Albatross showed up to give us three Albatross individuals, and they followed our boat on-and-off for close to twenty minutes.  The Laysan is actually the smallest Albatross in the World, but it is still a large bird.


My other year recaps often had pictures of people in them throughout the post.  This year, I decided to save that for last.  Most of the best birding memories from 2015 for me came from birding with people, and many of them are shown below through these epic times...

That time Mark wanted to somehow bring the Abert's Squirrel back to life

That time Gordon and I thought of a new birding approach-umbrella birding!

That time Melissa and I saw a Crested Caracara

That time when Susan and I climbed up Hunter Canyon to see a Slate-throated Redstart

That time that Gordon, Magill, Chris and I saw a Tufted Flycatcher

That time Gordon and I showed Josh and his son, Evan, the Elegant Trogon

That time Kurt, Cindy, and I saw a Flammulated Owl

That time Caleb, Walker, and I stared at cottonwood trees to look for eastern warblers

That time when Caleb found a Greater Pewee

That time when I braved 110 degree heat with Steve, Barb, Joan, and Susan for a Painted Bunting

That time Nate, Brittany, Mark, and I took our Phoenician Kingbird flock to Mount Lemmon

That time Eric and Skyler went on their first birding adventure-Owling

That time Susan and I went on one of many Big Year Birding trips

That time Walker selfied with a Spotted Owl

That time Walker selfied with a Western Screech-Owl

That time Dominic stood amongst Sprague's Pipits

That time when Mark was trying to clear the lake of any domestic ducks

That time Caleb hit 303 species in Maricopa County in one year!  Congrats Caleb!

That time when Susan and I found Northern Saw-whet Owls at the buzzer late on December 31st on a cold Prescott night to give her 390 species for her Arizona Big Year and for Susan to take first place in Arizona!  Congrats Susan!

That time Melissa and I saw a Louisiana Waterthrush 

That time Mark did bring the Abert's Squirrel back to life

2015.  What a GREAT year!  One of my best birding years yet...

Do you have a birding goal for 2016?  I haven't thought of mine yet, we are only getting started.  Regardless, the birding will be fun in 2016...


  1. That squirrel is going to give me nightmares! Your post is like the plot twist at the end of an epic trilogy! It's full of so many awesome stories, people, and birds. The Laysan Albatross is definitely deserving of the title #1. What a catch! Godspeed and good birding to you...

    1. Thank you Josh! It was an incredible year, it may be my best yet. The Albatrosses both stole the show by miles. Godspeed and good birding to you too!

  2. Finally got around to reading your post and I enjoyed every bit of it! Congratulations on another successful year. Will be interesting to see what happens in 2016. (There is a good chance you might be adding some more special birds to your life list! Hint-Hint!)

    1. Thank you Gordon! I'm glad you enjoyed it, you should write a year recap too. It's awesome that we both enjoyed my Top 2 pitching and tossing on that pelagic boat, both of which were Albatrosses!

  3. Man Mr. Tommy, this post is fly! Congrats on the great year of birding and thanks for including me in it!

    1. Thanks Caleb! It was a great year. Thank you for playing a key role in it, as usual!