Sunday, May 22, 2016

The King of Thick Highlights at Hassayampa

The Hassayampa River Preserve near Wickenburg is always an awesome place to go birding at.  I usually see something very cool whenever I am visiting the location.

The endless cottonwood and willow riparian galleries are not only a rare habitat in Maricopa County but they are filled with amazing bird life.  One such example is a local Gray Hawk population that numbers in double digits.  Gray Hawks are rare in Maricopa County outside of the Hassayampa River.  A bird that isn't rare in the County is the Yellow-breasted Chat.  Their calls and songs fill the preserve.

Hassayampa has recently became "the spot" to see Broad-billed Hummingbirds in Maricopa County.  There are at least four of these hummingbirds at the Preserve that I can think of.  Once considered casual in Maricopa County, Broad-billed Hummingbirds are growing very fast in numbers in some areas.  Here is a male Broad-billed that was frequenting feeders within the Preserve.  What a cool looking bird!

The double call notes of the Summer Tanager is a very common sound along the river.  Sometimes it's all one hears.  The caller will sometimes come into view, followed by his lighter yellow counterpart.

Hooded Orioles also bring in excitement, and are usually seen right near the Preserve's entrance and visitor area.  A male was sitting up high here, but was obviously noticeable.

Bullock's Orioles too.....

A cool draw to me at this time of year at Hassayampa are the Kingbirds.  Along the Mesquite Meander Trail, a pair of Tropical Kingbirds have begun building a nest.  Like the Gray Hawk, the Hassayampa area has it's own population of Tropical Kingbirds. This is the usual location to see this flycatcher in Maricopa County, although they have been found elsewhere on occasion as a breeder or rare winter visitor.

One of my best encounters here during these visits I made was not from a bird, but was from my first ever Desert Tortoise.  These turtles are epic!  As I was hiking up a trail and was taking a quick break, I looked up the trail to see the turtle walking down the trail and in my direction.  I decided to sit there, and the turtle proceeded to walk right past me.  At times we were less than a foot away from each other, and I was the one who didn't budge!

Here's a video of the Turtle as I viewed him to show how great this experience was.

I mentioned days here didn't I?  Yup.  After I got home last Friday I thought I didn't miss any major highlights.  Turns out I did.  The next day, Melanie Herring found a Thick-billed Kingbird along the Mesquite Meander trail and in the same area as the Tropical Kingbirds.  Sometimes both species were in the same tree!  I was kicking myself and I probably walked right by the Thick-billed.  The Thick-billed Kingbird would be a new Maricopa County bird for me, and it's just an awesome bird in general.  I wanted to see it badly!  In the past, Thick-billed Kingbirds bred at Hassayampa and were mainly along Mesquite Meander within the known preserve limits from 2003 to 2008.  They stopped the year I really got into birding.  After Melanie found the bird, I saw that many others got to see due to it being the North American Migration Count on May 14th.  I was elsewhere in the field, but I did get off of work the following afternoon at 2 P.M.  With Hassayampa having it's last day of closing at 5 P.M. for the season, I would have about two hours of Kingbird searching.  I felt good about my chances on Sunday the 15th, since others had seen it earlier in the day.

Well, my two hour search didn't produce that highly wanted Kingbird.  I may have seen it after turning a corner to see a Kingbird flying away.  Thinking it was one of the two Tropical's that were present, I only looked to see the two Tropicals sitting together in the same tree this mystery Kingbird flew out of.  To be honest, I was very bummed out about missing this one.  With the Hassayampa Preserve going back to it's summer hours after this day, it would force me to wait and try for the Kingbird on Saturday.  Perhaps I was just there at the wrong time of day.  For the bird sticking around, however, and with the area it was hanging out in, however, history for Thick-billed Kingbird here was on my side!  The bummer was lifted in a lot of ways on my way out a minute before closing time at 4:59 P.M..  I looked up in a mulberry tree to see my first male Rose-breasted Grosbeak.  This is a striking bird, and I've only seen two females in my past.  Wow!

When Saturday, May 21st came around, I was ready to look for the Thick-billed Kingbird for the second time.  This time I felt hope was really on my side as Sean Fitzgerald and Tyler Loomis found the bird the day before on Friday.  With this species formerly breeding here in the past, I've always hoped they would return.  I was ready to see it in Maricopa County, and I wanted it badly.

My good friend Gordon Karre and I made plans to bird the Hassayampa together on this Saturday for the four hours that the Preserve was open.  Gordon and I were joined by Joshua Smith and his dad Garth, Dale Clark, Babs Buck, Lois Lorenz, and Julie Clark.  The eight of us headed over to the Mesquite Meander Trail quickly in pursuit of the Thick-billed Kingbird.  I was very anxious about wanting to see it.  Once on the trail, it took us less than ten minutes to get to the spot where the Kingbird was being seen at most often.  Looking up at the familiar trees, I could already see the Tropical Kingbird pair as soon as we arrived at the location.  And then the Thick-billed Kingbird started calling, and it started calling loudly!  It was very close to us.  At times, the loud voice of the Thick-billed Kingbird made it sound closer than it really was at times.  With many pairs of eyes scanning, Joshua Smith got his eyes on the Thick-billed Kingbird first.  I was very glad to look up and see it sitting on an exposed branch on a bare top of a tree.  The Kingbird vocalized often before being chased off by the two Tropical Kingbirds.  I forgot to check my camera settings before firing off shots of the Thick-billed Kingbird and I didn't get anything.  It was very frustrating, until the Kingbird came back twenty minutes later...

Joshua Smith has a good eye, and he spied the Thick-billed Kingbird flying into another set of cottonwoods further down the trail.  As we rushed over to the spot, the Kingbird started calling again.  Gordon managed to spy the bird through a "window" in a tree and this time, I had my camera settings right!

See how massive the Thick-billed Kingbird's bill is?  It's a well named bird.  In the United States (ABA area), southeastern Arizona is the main location to see this highly local species.  It is a sought after prize for many out-of-state visitors.  The fact Maricopa County has had them breeding at the Hassayampa River Preserve is a big thrill and that this one has appeared for many to see so far.

As the Kingbird switched positions, it then sat in a more open perch, where eight birders gathered around to enjoy it for a long time as it sat there contently.  The bird often preened itself and would call at times too.  Hearing the bird call was awesome, and the vocalizations it gave were very loud.  It almost sounded like the Thick-billed Kingbird was using a microphone.

The eight birders left the Kingbird sitting there.  After it flew off for a long time earlier, it then became that cooperative.  Gordon mentioned that without it's vocalizations at times, the bird would be very hard to locate, and he was right!

We had at least 5 Tropical Kingbirds on the day, but there was a good chance there were seven individuals.  A third pair couldn't be confirmed for sure, but that number was highly likely.

There were many swallows and some White-throated Swifts flying over the Palm Lake Trail when our group made it up there after Mesquite Meander.  In midst of them was an uncommon to rare migrant, a female Purple Martin!  She really stood out like a sore thumb with her much larger size.  The White-throated Swift was the one I was able to get a photograph of.  None of these birds are easy to photograph..

As we continued down the path along Palm Lake, a couple pointed out a Kingbird to us and said, "Here's the Tropical Kingbird up here".  I looked and saw that it was the Thick-billed Kingbird!  It was the Thick-billed Kingbird or another Thick-billed Kingbird, we can't be certain.  If it was the same bird, it was quite a distance away from where we were originally seeing it at.  In the near future, it's definitely worth checking the area for two birds.  This time, we all got a much closer look at it.

Gordon and I eventually covered the rest of Hassayampa on our own and saw many more birds in the four hours that we had to bird there.  Certainly some eventful three outings for me at the Preserve.  Thanks to everyone I birded with and to those who reported the good birds present during this time.

The Thick-billed Kingbird was the second addition to my Maricopa County list this year to bring that list to 377 species.  Speaking of 376, I haven't blogged about that one yet.  I will get to that in a near future blog post in an adventure that took me to a remote side of Maricopa County that I have never been to before.  I'm also behind in many blog posts, stay tuned for several others coming along also.  Last, TOBY will resume next weekend as I pursue my 18th North American Owl of the year.  With Flammulated Owl coming as my 17th species as of a month ago, I've had almost a month of my normal Maricopa County birding.  Stay tuned.


  1. TBKI was awesome! I was so glad to see you and Gordon again and also to meet some other birders for the first time. Shame I missed that Purple Martin!

  2. Great post and a great write up with details on the different species! Definitely a worthwhile trip!