Saturday, September 24, 2016

Eastern Warblers who find Maricopa County

It's that time of year in Arizona birding when things can be really exciting when one thinks about migration.  I'll use this month, September as an example.  It is a good time for Sabine's Gulls and Jaegers to be passing through in migration over lakes and large water bodies, it's a good time to find rare shorebirds on crappy dairy ponds, it's a good time to be finding shorebirds on short grass fields who are rare to our state, and it's a good time to find eastern songbirds that a drawn to migrant traps such as isolated stands of trees or riparian area.  September marks the start of fall migration, and it's also fun in October and November.  While I was birding with Sean Fitzgerald recently at Morgan City Wash, Sean spied a Red-eyed Vireo working the willows and staying high.  I couldn't photograph it, but it was an awesome rarity to see and only the second I have ever seen in Arizona and Maricopa County.  And it came after a successful Gray Catbird chase, in which the Gray Catbird was found by Troy Corman.  So stuff is really moving through right now.  One day can be dead in a riparian woodland, and the other can be full of life without a dull moment.  One exciting day came on September 15th, Caleb Strand's birthday.  I wanted to celebrate Caleb's birthday by birding with the boy himself.  And we went back to Morgan City Wash, hoping to find the Gray Catbird and Red-eyed Vireo again, as well as anything else we could have possibly been lucky with.  We found the Gray Catbird quickly and had a few brief glimpses of it, but we couldn't relocate the Vireo.  The Vireo would be a lifer for Caleb, and I was hoping we could celebrate his 17th with a lifer.  Birds were everywhere in Morgan City that day, but we couldn't find any further rarities despite searching and birding hard.  Word than came into the Listserv from Dale Clark at about 11:10 A.M., that he had found a Blackpoll Warbler in a line of cottonwoods at a pond in Chandler.  Caleb and I decided to take our time heading out of Morgan City Wash, and then we would drive for about an hour and fifteen minutes to reach the location where Dale saw and photographed the Blackpoll Warbler.  Dale mentioned that access would be difficult in ways to see the warbler, as the pond was fenced off and birders would have to stand behind a fence and look about forty feet in front of them for the small bird.  Caleb and I didn't let anything stop us, and once getting back to my truck, we made a beeline for Chandler.  This Blackpoll Warbler was important.  It would be a life bird for Caleb and a Maricopa County lifer for me.  Once Caleb and I arrived on spot, close to 2 P.M., we searched through a few cottonwoods around the pond at Gilbert and Chandler Heights Road in Chandler before checking the cottonwoods where Dale had the bird.  We were surprised because the cottonwoods the warbler was in was full of nesting cormorants.  I didn't think the Warbler would be in there.  After focusing on the cottonwoods, I spied the Blackpoll Warbler quickly.  It was Caleb's lifer and his 341th Maricopa County bird, and it was my 381st Maricopa County bird.

The Blackpoll Warbler was in first-fall plumage, a plumage that can be quite confusing for birders.  With it's appearance, the other warblers involved that look similar to it in this plumage are Pine and Bay-breasted Warblers.  With good looks, the streaked back of the Blackpoll Warbler is a good field mark, as shown in the above photograph.  Actually, I'm too lazy to write up the explanation of field marks right now for this bird.  My buddies at Arizona Field Ornithogists describe it much better:  "The general structure and plumage characteristics eliminate all species but Bay-breasted Warbler, Blackpoll Warbler and Pine Warbler. Pine Warbler can be eliminated by the distinctly streaked back, white tips on the primaries, and relatively short tail. The characteristics of this warbler that support Blackpoll Warbler over Bay-breasted Warbler are: the white undertail coverts that contrast with the greenish-yellow flanks, the streaked sides on the greenish-yellow breast, gray sides of the neck, and the pale coloration of the legs and feet. In addition, there is no chestnut coloration at all on the sides of this bird, which is sometimes present in fall Bay-breasted Warblers".
With that being said, I focused on this bird's yellow feet, which is a classic field mark for Blackpoll Warbler.  Caleb even got this thing in the scope several times.

The funny and awesome thing is, a week before this Blackpoll Warbler appeared, I was watching a Storm-Petrel in Mesa.

While Caleb and I watched this awesome rarity, we had Sean Fitzgerald and Chris McCreedy join us.  We stood on the sidewalk and watched the warbler from the behind the enclosed fence.  McCreedy got some crazy shots of the warbler.  Here's a picture of the famous cottonwood where the Blackpoll Warbler and Neotropic Cormorants join forces and here's a picture of the three epics I watched Warbler with.  Happy Birthday Caleb!  Big thanks to Dale Clark for the amazing find on this bird.

The four of us got lucky to see the Blackpoll Warbler.  Shortly after we left, it was seen one last time by Gordon Karre.  It flew out of the cottonwood and elsewhere, never to be seen again...

Morgan City Wash has become an easier place to access without a ton of bushwhacking like I was used to before.  This has made it possible for me to visit the location on a regular basis.  Right now, I'm obsessed with Morgan City Wash and I can get there in about 40 minutes.  It's one of the closest great hotspots to home.  With the rarities that have been there in the past that Troy Corman has found at will, I've been fortunate to see some over the years.  Because Morgan City Wash is easier to access, I will visit it a lot more often this fall in search of eastern vagrants.  I went there on this recent Thursday, September 22nd.  I got lucky and found this Magnolia Warbler.  Fall migration for me is on!  Time to get serious!  Need I say more...

Monday, September 12, 2016

A Small Piece of Newton

A tidal wave of the-unheard-of occurred in Arizona birding this week.  Yeah, birders were aware of the possibilities of it, but when those possibilities actually showed up, people were in disbelief.  Before this week, I'll be 100% honest, I had never heard of a Juan Fernandez Petrel before.  With me being the ABA birder that I am, I guess I wouldn't have any reason to know much about a Juan Fernandez Petrel.  It's had never been recorded in the ABA area before, despite a rejected sight record in Oregon.  But Hurricane Newton hit, and birder Brian Gibbons looked up from his yard in Tucson, Arizona, to see an odd seabird flying over his home.  Brian was smart and snapped as many pictures as he could rather than try to identify it with binoculars, and it resulted in being a Juan Fernandez Petrel, a seabird and Gadfly Petrel species that breeds on an island off of the coast of Chile.  Only a storm so violent could be possible to blow a species I've never heard of before into Arizona.

Hurricane Newton formed in Guatemala and it's path swept into the Gulf of California, and the storm pushed it's way violently up through Mexico and extended into southeastern Arizona and southwestern New Mexico.  When the news of the storm was brought about, birders were alerted to keep an eye out for potential sea birds that were possibly going to be blown in by this storm.   With a combination of moisture, warm waters, and high wind speeds, the combination of this system brought forth this Hurricane, which moved abruptly at speeds of about 90 miles per hour.  The effects of the storm hit Arizona on September 7th, 2016, in the afternoon.  While birders were encouraged to keep their eyes out for birds in southeastern Arizona, I was thinking about what else could be blown into Arizona other than the possibility of seabirds, which honestly seemed like a remote chance to me (seabirds that is).  Caspian Terns showed up in Tucson.  Big deal, who cares about Caspian Terns.  But when I was on my way home from work at about 2:30 P.M., I got a notification from the Listserv that someone reported a Storm-Petrel south of Tucson at Amado Wastewater Treatment Plant.  I didn't know what to do.  There was a chance I could gather my stuff and rush to the spot on a 2.5 hour one way drive.  The thought of traffic held my longing back, and I figured traffic would be horrible on the way there, and more than 2.5 hours.  I made a dumb choice and went to Glendale Recharge Ponds, just "in case".  What I didn't know was that I was making a big mistake.  Caleb Strand then told me shortly later that Laurens Halsey was then at Amado and was reporting more than one Storm-Petrel of at least two different species, as well as a fly-by Shearwater.  Even then, I was still stupid and proceeded onto Glendale when I could have made it to Amado before dark.  I assumed the shearwater was the expected Sooty Shearwater in Arizona when such storms hit, and I thought the Storm-Petrels would be something more common that are observed in southern California waters with high frequency.  My mind wasn't with researching the hurricane and what birds could be associated with it.  When reports came in and field observations were dissected later, I saw that these Storm-Petrels were mostly an Arizona first and ABA rare and Code 4 Wedge-rumped Storm-Petrels.  There were also Least Storm-Petrels, which have been in Arizona before as a result of a hurricane.  Both of those were potential life birds for me.  The Shearwater that Laurens had fly by turned out to be a Wedge-tailed Shearwater.  That is another Arizona record as well as a Code 4 rarity of the ABA area.  The Wedge-tailed Shearwater shows up only occasionally in California's ocean waters.  When I found this information out I was kicking myself that I didn't go after these birds.  Glendale had a circling Pectoral Sandpiper that night, who didn't know where to land because water levels were too high for shorebirds.  What a crapshoot I chose.  Multiple Storm-Petrels were showing up around Tucson and Green Valley and lucky birders who chased them to Amado were blessed with fantastic views.  Tyler Loomis and Magill Weber, fellow Phoenicians, made it to the site without a problem and left at about the same time I could have left.  And then there was Brian Gibbons.  Brian saw a few Storm-Petrels near his house before seeing the astounding sight of the first Juan Fernandez Petrel in the ABA area.  In Tucson, Arizona!  I still can't believe it.  It has to be the best bird that has been found as a yard bird in the history of ABA birding.  Once I read the news, I was hoping that some of these Storm-Petrels and seabirds would stay put or would show up the next day in southeastern Arizona as a chasing result.  I called my good buddy Gordon Karre up and we made plans to chase the birds together.  Gordon had a chance to chase the birds too on the afternoon of September 7th, and like me, he passed up on it.  We were hoping for a treat the next day.  And we were both kicking ourselves for not going on the original day.

I met Gordon at his house in Mesa at 4 A.m. on Thursday, September 8th.  After making a wrong turn, I took Alma School Road to his house and I was right on time, fortunately.  We made our way down south to Amado WTP, which was our first stop.  Reports of Storm-Petrels were coming in in all areas from the previous night from southeastern Arizona.  Tucson, Eloy, Patagonia, Green Valley.  David Vander Pluym and Lauren Harter drove down to SEAZ from Lake Havasu late, and they even found a Wedge-rumped Storm-Petrel suffering under a light in a parking lot.  They got it to a rehab facility for wildlife, where other Storm-Petrels were being turned in too.  When hundreds of seabirds get blown into the interior landscapes outside of the ocean during hurricanes, most of them do not survive.  After a drive of over two hours, Gordon and I pulled into Amado, where we found Sean Fitgerald and no Storm-Petrels or other seabirds.  From there, we went to Patagonia Lake State Park were Chris McCreedy had found several Storm-Petrels the night before that consisted of Wedge-rumped and another species.  Gordon and I met up with Lauren Harter and David Vander Pluym, Mark Stevenson, Molly Pollock, Laurens Halsey, and Jon Mann at Patagonia.  Other than a few Common Terns, Patagonia Lake was empty and deprived of any sea birds.  As we got out of Patagonia, our group was made aware of a Wedge-rumped Storm-Petrel that had been found at Benson Wastewater Treatment Plant by Larry Norris.  With Benson being an hour away, we all piled into our cars and headed northeast to Benson.  Before Benson was accessed, we heard that the Storm-Petrel either left or died somewhere, because it was not being seen.  A bummed-out looking Sean Fitzgerald beat us to the spot and he scanned the place well and wasn't able to find the bird.  We hung out in Benson for about an hour just in case.  Lauren did spy a nice-looking Black-bellied Plover on a golf course in Benson while we looked over the many ponds there.

Laurens Halsey reminded me I still needed the Plastic Eagle Owl for TOBY!

I was feeling that we missed our chances completely to see any of these wandering sea birds.  I guess you live and you learn.  Shortly after heading back west towards Tucson from Benson on 1-10, we got word of something much more astounding, and also something that was very annoying.  James McKay reported to the Listserv that he had a Storm-Petrel in Mesa.  In none other than Mesa!  None other than Maricopa County!  None other than 10 minutes away from Gordon's house, where the trip got started.  I can't describe the anxiety I felt when I read what I did, but Gordon and I started speeding back to Mesa, and we had over two hours of driving ahead of us.  What was a Storm-Petrel doing in Mesa?!  We never really even had to leave Maricopa County!  I can't believe I'm talking about Maricopa County and a Storm-Petrel in the same sentence...

The two hour chase back to our home county and to Mesa was probably the longest seeming birding chase of my life.  The time couldn't have gone by any slower.  And luckily, the Storm-Petrel was content at the lake it had shown up in in Riverview Park.  By this time, the many birders who heard of the news were piling into the park.  Magill Weber got on the Listserv and said this Storm-Petrel appeared to be a likely Wedge-rumped Storm-Petrel.  Regardless of what species it was, it was one of the best, if not the best, accidental species ever to show up in Maricopa County.  James McKay really hit the jackpot and thanks to him, this bird's bizarre presence was made known.  I was terrified on the way there that we would miss this bird.  Gordon was too.  Fortunately, Tyler Loomis and Mark Ochs were also at the scene, and they gave us regular updates about the bird's state and presence.  They said the bird seemed in decent shape, and that it was flying around the lake pretty often.  At about 1:46 P.M., Gordon and I arrived at the park.  We could see several dozen birders from the car already peering out onto the water with binoculars, scopes, and cameras at the Storm-Petrel.  I had never been more anxious to see a rarity before than this one.  Even though it clearly wasn't going anywhere, Gordon and I ran out of the car and up to the crowd of birders.  I'll admit I was sprinting.  I could hear people laughing at us and Mark yelling things at us, but I didn't care.  And there was the awesome sight, and also a sigh of relief that the bird was still there for us.  Wow!!

I never thought I'd see a Storm-Petrel on Maricopa County lake waters within a small park.  Good grief!  I wanted to find something to float on so I could go out on the lake and make it seem somewhat like a pelagic.  Gordon and I found ourselves with a long observation ahead of us of this what was indeed a Wedge-rumped Storm-Petrel, which was a part of the influx of Arizona's first ever Wedge-rumped Storm-Petrels.  Many friends were also there to talk to, probably 40 of them throughout the time there.  It was just a great time, and everyone was on Cloud Nine.

Now, about this Wedge-rumped Storm-Petrel.  What exactly is this bird?

For starters, this bird is strictly a pelagic bird and a Mesa, Arizona bird.  Pelagic means that the bird lives most of it's life exclusively at sea.  Only a major storm, such as Hurricane Newton, could miraculously blow this bird into Mesa, Arizona.  So it's been in two major "life zones" in it's life.

What amazes me is that Storm-Petrels are tiny birds and they survive and thrive in the ocean's massive waters.  The Wedge-rumped Storm-Petrel is a very small Storm-Petrel, and maxes out at 6'' in length.  Take a look at this photograph of the Storm-Petrel being photographed at Riverview Park, it really shows how small this bird really is.

All Storm-Petrels are small oceanic birds that are found over open ocean and are almost always far offshore.  The only time they come in to land is at night when they are nesting on islands (which are of course way out at sea).  These birds are fun to watch when they feed, and it almost looks like they are walking or trotting on water.  This is known as foot-pattering.  Food wise, Storm-Petrels feed on plankton and other small prey at the surface of the water.  And there was this Storm-Petrel in Mesa, putting on a show and "foot-pattering" while it searched for food on Riverview Parks's lake.

The Wedge-rumped Storm-Petrel has two subspecies that may actually represent two species in the future.  One of them nests off of the Galapagos Islands, and the other nests off of Peru.  The probably subspecies that was flying into Arizona, tethys, is the one that nests off of the Galapagos Islands.  

Identification wise, the Wedge-rumped Storm-Petrel can be challenging to identify when there are other similar "white-rumped" Storm-Petrels nearby.  The Leach's Storm-Petrel complex (three species) and Wilson's Storm-Petrels can look very similar.  The WRSP's small size is a good indicator of it's identification, as well as it's long extensively white wedge-shaped rump patch, and also the bird's tail that isn't notched to the extent of other similar species.  Here's more photographs of this spectacular rarity for Maricopa County.

While concern was originally brought up about this bird's health, the fact was, it still had a lot of strength.  Many of the Tucson birds that showed up in southeastern Arizona looked very weak and many of them perished.  This Mesa bird flew around the lake of the park often, fed often, foot-pattered often, and it was also very tame and approachable.  There were times that I and many others were able to get within feet of this bird.  Check out this selection of photographs.  At times, binoculars weren't even needed!

I took advantage of the tameness of the Storm-Petrel and I got in a selfie with the bird.  Thanks Muriel Neddermeyer for taking this photo!

Here's another sequence of photos I really like.  While the Storm-Petrel moved around the lake a lot, so did the crowds.  How cool would it be to stand on a bridge and watch this bird.  I would know because I too, stood on that bridge and right over the bird at one point as it actually went under that bridge.

Here's another good one.  This is really what Riverview Park looks like.  The bird is on the left side of the picture, just below the central half.

This epic find has some epic stories to go along with it.  One of the best stories is about James McKay, who found the bird.  I can't say how awesome this find is, and how much I appreciate James for finding it.  Recently, James has been working on his ABA list and has been closing in on that awesome 700 mark.  Well, this discovery was his 700th ABA bird!  I can't think of a better way to get your 700th ABA bird.  Had this discovery had taken place on a Saturday, the park would have been even more packed with birders (and it was already packed).  Here's a picture I snapped of a group of ten, and James is the second from the right.

Storm-Petrels Left to Right:  Shaun Miller, Tyler Loomis, Mark Ochs, Steve Hosmer, Gordon Karre, Joan Hosmer, don't know (sorry man!), Jon Mann, James McKay (thanks James, and congrats James!), Jeff Ritz

For me, this was my 529th life bird, my 440th Arizona bird, and most importantly, my 380th Maricopa County bird.  Every time I get a new bird in Maricopa County, as you all know, it is a huge deal for me.  This is one that was never on my radar, never one that crossed my mind.  While these birds started to show up, Maricopa County did cross my mind in harboring one a few times.  I was never serious in that thought process.  Since October 7th, 2015, I have now gotten 11 new Maricopa County birds, 5 of which have come this year in 2016 now.  This may be the best bird I have for Maricopa County now, and it may be the best bird the County's history has ever had...

I actually had two stints of observing this bird on September 8th.  Gordon and I were with the bird from 1:46 P.M. to about 5 P.M. with loads of other awesome birding friends.  I went back with Gordon to his house to get my truck, and instead of fighting the definite rush hour traffic for the next 1.5 hours, I decided to just return to Riverview Park for more Storm-Petrel viewing and to hang out with more awesome birding friends.  Tyler Loomis, Bryan Holliday, Niccole Kowalski, Joe Neely and I watched the Storm-Petrel until it was after dark, and the last we noted it at was 7:16 P.M.  The bird got very active as the sun went down and it was probably gathering up enough energy to make it's way back home to the ocean.  

So what did Hurricane Newton do with Seabirds in Arizona over the last few days?  Lots!  Here's a recap:

September 7th, 2016: (Thanks to Andrew Core for assembling this information):

20-25 Storm-Petrels were seen and photographed at Patagonia Lake, Amado STP, and Houghton Road and Red Enke Golf Course in Tucson.  Some were seen in yards (2-3) and two were found in roads and parking lots to be taken into rehab.  The species involved were Least and Wedge-rumped Storm-Petrels (Wedge-rumped were new for Arizona).

Laurens Halsey photographed and found a flyby Wedge-tailed Shearwater at Amado, which is an Arizona first and a very rare bird in the ABA.

And of course, the Juan Fernandez Petrel that Brian Gibbons photographed in is yard in southeast Tucson.

September 8th, 2016:

Only one Wedge-rumped Storm-Petrel in southeastern Arizona that was found at Benson WTP.  As mentioned earlier, Gordon and I chased and missed this bird.

Riverview Park, Mesa, Arizona:  Maricopa County's first ever Wedge-rumped Storm-Petrel.  Also the northernmost known sea bird blown in my Hurricane Newton.

September 10th, 2016:

Benson WTP:  A Black Storm-Petrel showed up kindly and spend most of the day and was viewable on a Saturday.  Many folks chased the bird and spent time with it, and I was working.  The Black Storm-Petrel was the fifth pelagic species blown in from Newton.  It wasn't new for Arizona, but it is still a mega rarity at any time in Arizona and many folks were blessed in seeing it.

There's undoubtedly many birds that weren't detected by folks.  

September 8th was a strange day.  There's no other way to put it.  Remember I mentioned I took a wrong turn early in the morning before getting to Gordon's house at 4 A.M.?  Well, I drove right by Riverview Park right around 4 A.M.  It was very strange to be chasing the Storm-Petrel species all over the place in southeastern Arizona, only to have one show up in Maricopa County WHILE we were out chasing the birds in southeastern Arizona.  Gordon and I missed a lot of the excitement on the original night of the birds showing up, and we also missed the Black Storm-Petrel that was reliable for all of Saturday a few days later.  We didn't see nearly as many seabirds as others got to see, but I'll say, we were more than grateful for what we got.  It was especially awesome because our bird was in Maricopa County.  We got a small piece of Hurricane Newton, but some of the smallest things can mean the world!