Monday, July 18, 2016

A Double-sided Birding Miracle on One Crazy Day

Ever since I got back from Minnesota's epic birding, I haven't been out to suffer in Phoenix's heat very much at all for birding.  There was one recent jaunt I went on to see a Yellow-billed Cuckoo, but that was the only birding that took place since June 15th when I was looking at a Pileated Woodpecker in Minnesota.  I've been taking it easy and have been passing up long road trips in order to save money for that final owl for T.O.B.Y.  I've been catching up on some other aspects in my life during this time and I can't complain.  And then all-of-a-sudden, the birding rampage can hit when your least expecting it.  On this recent Friday, July 15th, I had some evening plans and planned on being at my house until those plans would take place.  But when Duane Morse reported two Black Skimmers just west of Buckeye at the Lower River Road Ponds at 11 A.M., I was out the door in less-than-a-minute and was speeding to get to the Lower River Road Ponds.

I couldn't believe what I read, but all I knew was that I wanted to see a Black Skimmer in Maricopa County!  Black Skimmers are epic birds, and I have seen them in San Diego, California.  I called my good buddy Caleb Strand who lives in Buckeye and I asked him if he wanted to come with me.  Caleb quickly said yes and forty minutes later, the two of us joined forces and headed west to the ponds.  It was great to be birding with Caleb, and we were both hoping that this duo of Black Skimmers would be present for us when we got there.  As we got into Palo Verde and turned onto Lower River Road, we could see two vehicles parked alongside the pond with people looking.  That was a good sign!  As we pulled up to the ponds, Caleb and I saw the birds flying around within seconds.  The chase was successful.  Melanie Herring and Barb Meding were the two ladies there with the two vehicles, and the four of us enjoyed the rare sight of not only one, but two Arizona Black Skimmers!

As we started to enjoy the two birds, the Black Skimmers were very active and would circle around the pond.  Several flights resulted in the birds flying right by where we were standing!

As you all can see by the photographs, that the Black Skimmer is a bizarre bird.  This tern-like seabird is rarely found inland away from coastal beaches and bays.  The Salton Sea in California is one such exception.  Black Skimmer is one of three Skimmer species that are found in the world, and it is the only one that is found in North America.  With it's black-and-white coloration and odd bill which has a much shorter upper mandible than lower mandible, it is a unique bird in North America.

The diet of the Black Skimmer consists of small fish that are usually about five inches long.  When hunting for such small fish, the Black Skimmer shows off it's unusual feeding style that adds even more to how bizarre it is already.  This bird flies low over the water with it's bill open.  When it's trying to catch it's prey, the lower mandible barely touches the surface of the water.  Once a small fish makes contact with the Skimmer's lower mandible, the upper mandible instantly closes in on the small fish.  Because of this hunting tactic, the Black Skimmer can hunt at night or very low light on a regular basis!

Black Skimmer is very rare in Arizona, with just over ten records.  Several of those records have come from Maricopa County at places such as the nearby Gillespie Dam (in proximity to Lower River Road Ponds) and at a large pond in Chandler.  Most Skimmers that show up in Arizona are juvenile birds as expected, but these two Skimmers were an exception due to the fact that they were an adult pair!

There wasn't a major storm along any of the coasts during this time frame, so who knows why this adult pair of Black Skimmers decided to come to the Lower River Road Ponds in Maricopa County, Arizona.  They were both very tired and exhausted as they were panting.  The two birds rarely closed their bills, and they would often sit on the pond banks as much as they would fly around the ponds.

Thanks to Duane Morse for finding these incredible birds.  Duane also found the Maricopa County first White-eared Hummingbird that spend close to two weeks in his Phoenix yard.  Caleb and I enjoyed these birds for about 40 minutes before I dropped Caleb back off at home.  After I dropped Caleb off, I decided to sunburn myself up and watch the Black Skimmers for about two more hours.  Many birders stopped by to also enjoy the rare occasion.  I enjoyed many binocular views of the birds, but I also snapped away.  Here's a selection of photographs that I obtained during my two stops at Lower River Road Ponds.

The Lower River Road ponds have produced some incredible rarities over the years.  Luckily, I got to be a part of this one.  As the ponds produced my 378th Maricoper in the Skimmers, they also produced my 375th Maricoper in the Mountain Plover.

Through the end of the day, birders kept coming and coming to see the Black Skimmers after I left.  These types of birds can be unpredictable how long they may or may not stay.  On this Friday the 15th, everyone who chased the Skimmers got to see them, including my buddy Kurt Radamaker.  Kurt zipped down the the ponds after he got off of work and got there later in the day.  After enjoying the Skimmers, Kurt decided to check a few other ponds in the area, including a few ponds that were on a farm along the Old US Highway 80 just south of Lower River Road.  As this farm was on private property, Kurt had to scan from the road.  And then Kurt found another miraculous bird on these ponds, a breeding plumaged HUDSONIAN GODWIT!  The Black Skimmers were good enough for my entertainment, but when Kurt called me to tell me he had found a Hudsonian Godwit, I thought I was going to explode.  The Godwit is even rarer than the Black Skimmer in Arizona.  However, this was later on the 15th and there was no way I could make it back out to the Palo Verde area before dark.  Kurt went and got a few lucky birders who were looking at the Skimmers and took them a short distance to see this remarkable Godwit.  This certainly wasn't the first time that Kurt has found miraculous birds like this either!  I could only hope that it would stick around through the following morning...

When I found out from Kurt about his Godwit, I was barely walking into a movie, The Legend of Tarzan, with my Mom.  The movie was great and when it got out, I made plans with Caleb and the two of us would join forces again to search for the HudWit on the following morning when I would pick up Caleb at his house at 5 A.M.  My Mom is awesome and we had a great time at the movie, and we also proceeded to talk about life for 6.5 hours at my Mom's house.  Before I knew it, I said, "Mom, I gotta go get Caleb now to search for that bird".  I didn't get a minute of sleep, and this would be the first time I went over 24 hours without a minute of sleep in several years.  But it was worth it.  As I picked up Caleb, I was pumped and not tired.  We arrived at the lookout area where we would look south into the farm from the Old US 80 and scan a few ponds about 500 feet away through the numerous Black-necked Stilts and other shorebirds.

Not the most ideal of places to be birding scenery wise, eh?  But on the other hand, who cares about what a place looks like if there's a mega rarity involved.  Caleb and I set up our scopes and were about 75 feet from each other to scan the ponds from different vantage points.  My first scan didn't produce anything on it's first pan, but Caleb's did.  He yelled out my name and had the Hudsonian Godwit in his scope!  I ran up to see it, and there it was!

The Hudsonian Godwit was a life bird for me!  It's one I've always wanted to see and one that I did have a chance to chase once in Arizona in Willcox but I opted not to.  As I looked through Caleb's scope before getting my own scope on the bird, the HudWit became my 526th life bird and my 379th Maricopa County bird.  This bird was a breeding plumaged bird, and gosh was it beautiful.  

Because we weren't allowed to go on the private property that the Godwit was calling home, we had to photograph by digiscoping from about 500 feet away.  The scope views themselves were decent for views of the Godwit.

Out of the four Godwits that have been recorded in North America, the Hudsonian Godwit is the smallest.  The Hudwit has dark wings that have a contrasting white wingstripe on them, a black underwing, and a distinctive white and black tail.  In flight, these characteristics are striking.  As you can see, breeding plumaged birds have a dark rufous belly, a gray neck, a long two-toned black and orange bill, and a distinct supercillum among other Godwits.  A few times I got to see the bird fly for a few feet, and it's flight pattern really was striking and stood out, even from 500 feet away!

Hudsonian Godwits breed in bogs within shallow water and around ponds in spruce woods in scattered northern locations.  They chiefly migrate south and north through central North America, but there are number of annual migrants in smaller numbers outside of that range.  In Arizona, this bird is about the 8th potential record, and only the second for Maricopa County.  Because of it's Arizona status, there's no doubt it would bring in crowds of anxious birders!

It may be a very very long time before another HudWit is found in Maricopa County again.  It may be a long time before one is found in Arizona again.  It's one of those rarities in the state that one should chase if they have the opportunity.

Here's a short video I took of the HudWit:

And here's a few more poor digiscoped pictures of the bird.  Just as long as you can tell what it is, right!?

Seeing two extremely rare birds for an Arizona scale both as new birds for me for Maricopa County and Arizona was epic.  And to see them both in less than 24 hours was great and the fact they were discovered on the same day was great too.  The Black Skimmers weren't seen on July 16th after entertaining many on the 15th.  Fortunately, Kurt found the Godwit to prevent disappointment for those driving a long way.  This 18 hour time span of seeing these two bird species apart from one another will go down as one of my best accomplishments for Maricopa County.  My list is getting higher and higher, and birds are growing thinner and thinner.  To have a day like this is great.  Thank you Duane and Kurt.  What a fun ride both birds were.  And thanks to my buddy Caleb Strand for being awesome company on both days while observing both birds.  And for fun, how far away was the HudWit from the Skimmers?  Only 1.4 miles.  The map shows it!


  1. Truly an exciting day, Tommy. Congrats on making that county (and life) list go up even higher! One mega rarity found because of another--that's the Patagonia Picnic Table Effect in action. I love when that happens. Maybe it'll have to be re-dubbed the Maricopa County Effect.

    Did anyone knock on any doors and ask permission to see if it was okay to get closer to the Hudwit? I've gotten permission to get closer to rare birds before; most landowners are pretty open to birders if they ask.

    1. Thanks Josh! It was one of the best birding days (or 24 hour time span) that I've ever had in Maricopa County. To get two high caliber birds like these back-to-back is a rare thing for me. The Patagonia Picnic Table Effect/Maricopa County Effect has happened more than once at both spots...

      We actually thought about asking if we saw the landowner or had a chance to ask. This farm is set up in a way it's hard to see and figure out where we would go to ask. From what I've heard, the farmers who own this farm are for the most part closed off to having people on their property. In Arizona, a lot of those reasons have to do with liability issues.

  2. Most exciting day in awhile! The Hudwit was a a lifer for me as well. Pretty crazy weekend and the rarities don't stop. If you think about it, this year has been full of good birds. And I'm sure we're not done yet:)

    1. Thanks for stopping by Chris! Yes, the weekend was a crazy one. And it's cool that it was a lifer for both of us. The year has been dynamite for birds, and I think your right: We are not done yet!

  3. Great birds - great blog, Tommy! Also like you're musical creation that SF shared with me. Hope you put that in your blog later!

    1. Thank you Babs! I'm glad we both enjoyed the Godwit at the same time, certainly a surprise bird in Arizona. I will be publishing that musical creation sometime soon before my Boreal attempt!