On November 16th, I had the gut to go out to the Lower Verde River and search throw the riparian forests at the Box Bar and Needle Rock Recreation areas. I had eastern warblers on the brain for this trip, especially some of the more regular ones that show up such as Northern Parula and Chestnut-sided Warbler. As a week had nearly passed since my last year addition for November, I was hoping to get back into the swing of things. Box Bar had me bored to tears, and Needle Rock did at first too. As it was nearing noon at Needle Rock, I was tired and exhausted and I was getting ready to throw in my effort and go home to sleep. I was standing along a point at the Verde where I couldn't really go any further unless I wanted to swim down a rapid river. Despite my tiredness, I realized there was a mixed flock of birds feeding. One low forager caught my attention, and woke me up..
Northern Parula, welcome to the Maricopa County Big Year of 2016! One of my favorite warblers...
The remainder of the 16th was spend further exploring the Verde and Lake Pleasant. My tiredness caught up to me on the way home, where I had to pull off the road to sleep for about 40 minutes. I felt like a new creation when I woke up, and I woke up to a text from Susan Fishburn talking about a Groove-billed Ani being found. After going online and scouring eBird, Facebook, and the Listserv, I couldn't find anything about an Ani. Susan than sent me an email that came in from Jim Burns, that apparently made it to only a few people subscribed to the Listserv, and it didn't actually make in onto the Listserv itself. Jim Burn's friend found and photographed a Groove-billed Ani at Chandler's Veterans Oasis Park on the previous day on November 15th around noon. I re-forwarded his message to the List, and it officially made it through that time. As Groove-billed Ani is a great rarity in Arizona, it would undoubtedly bring in a crowd of birders. For me, it was a potential life bird, which would be new for me in all categories. At this point I didn't matter that it could be my 317 Maricopa County year bird, I wanted it for a life bird. My search would be put on hold though, as November 17th feel on a day that I had to work in the morning. As I worked, I got a text from Gordon Karre just after 7 A.M. that the Ani had already been relocated. Reports came through in the morning from plenty of excited birders who were seeing this spectacular rarity. I made plans to chase the bird after I got off of work at 2:30 P.M. Would my chase be successful?.....
I arrived at Veterans Oasis Park in Chandler around 3:20 P.M. where I found Jeff Ritz in the parking lot saying that he was searching for several hours without any luck. Knowing that Groove-billed Ani can be sneaky and secretive, I still had my mind in a positive frame thinking that I was going to see the bird. Jeff and I joined forces and started searching, and we were quickly joined by Mark Ochs, Tyler Loomis, Babs Buck, and Laura Ellis for the remainder of the day. The Groove-billed Ani started off by giving us a long search. The six of us circled the large basin's vegetation many times of where the Ani had been seen the most. This was at the northeast side of Veterans Oasis Park. Many raptors were flying around throughout the afternoon, and they were probably keeping birds down. As the light was fading gradually, Tyler's eagle eye came through, spying the Ani. I was behind the group when I heard Mark say, "Ani! Tyler's got it!". We all quickly walked up to see the Groove-billed Ani quietly and calmly foraging in dense hop bushes around the perimeter of the northeast basins at the park.
Our 1.5 hours of searching prior to our sighting became awesome in a split second. The Groove-billed Ani put on a show for us while sneakily foraging and feeding through the dense hop bushes while regularly perching relatively out in the open.
Groove-billed Ani is a casual visitor to Arizona, usually in either the summer time frame or in the late fall time frame. Maricopa County has had it's records over the years, with the last being in Gilbert Water Ranch in 2005. In the last five years, southeastern Arizona's counties have had several Groove-billed Anis and Apache County's Wenima Wildlife Area even had a discovery. Before Gilbert Water Ranch, one had been found at Dean and Beloat Riparian Area in Buckeye as well as Tres Rios Wetlands. My Grandpa, who loved nature and birds, even had the Tres Rios vagrant pointed out to him while he was on a walk there in either 2000 or 2001. I'm glad it was now my turn to see this bird, one that I've been hoping would show up one of these upcoming years. It became my 531st life bird overall, most importantly my 382nd Maricopa County bird, and least importantly (but still epic), my 317th Maricopa County Big Year bird.
The Groove-billed Ani is easily told apart from others as an Ani by it's short parrot-like bill and black coloration. The very similar Smooth-billed Ani will probably never occur in Arizona. The Groove-billed Ani, although very similar looking to Smooth-billed, has more skin around it's eye, more noticeable parallel "grooves" on it's upper mandible which Smooth-billed Ani won't show, and Groove-billed Ani also has a straighter and less-angled shape of a lower mandible than Smooth-billed Ani does. Groove-billed Anis feed on a variety of insects, seeds, and fruit in dense bushes within riparian and brushy areas and it my also be found in scrubby countryside. This bird is gregarious in it's normal range, and travels in family groups, where birds will help each other find food.
Our Groove-billed Ani must have wandered away from it's family or needed it's own adventure. It acted tame around us and gave us a "front row" ticket to the show. Behind the Wedge-rumped Storm-Petrel, this bird is easily my 2nd favorite out of the 7 additions I have now added to my Maricopa County life list this year (others have been Hudsonian Godwit, Black Skimmer, Blackpoll Warbler, Thick-billed Kingbird, and Wild Turkey).
What else will Maricopa County bring for me in 2016? I know there will be more year birds. 7 Maricopers this year has been more than expected, I can't ask for anymore (although another one would be epic!).
How much did I really enjoy the Groove-billed Ani? Well, on Friday, November 18th, I had to go back to Chandler's Veteran's Oasis Park to enjoy it again with another crowd of birders...