I've been exhausted lately. Days and days have been spent in the field for my Maricopa County Big Year. I'll go birding before work and I'll go birding after work. I'll bird all day on days off. We last left off with my additions of Northern Parula to the Big Year and then a remarkable discovery at Veterans Oasis Park in Chandler, my lifer Groove-billed Ani.
About a week after the Groove-billed Ani excitement in Chandler, Gordon Karre and I made a trip up to Slate Creek Divide on November 23rd to try and find some key high elevation birds for our Maricopa County Big Years. Yes, that's right, Gordon is doing a Maricopa County Big Year too. We found plenty of key birds. A painful miss was a heard only woodpecker that was very likely a Downy Woodpecker. How likely? Well, the only other thing it could have been was a Ladder-backed Woodpecker. There have been a few times where I have found Ladder-backed Woodpeckers in higher elevations, even higher in elevation that at Slate Creek Divide. Although we couldn't find the likely Downy, the Douglas fir stands at Slate Creek harbored my 318th year bird in a flock of Golden-crowned Kinglets.
Later that day on the 23rd, a Ruddy Ground-Dove was reported at Celaya Park in Tempe by Dave Hawksworth, a visiting birder from New Mexico. While Gordon's house was only minutes away from this park, he went to investigate the report and found there was a Ruddy Ground-Dove present on the 24th, which was Thanksgiving Day. I rushed to the park and Gordon kindly waited for me to get there. Just before I got there, a group of kids playing basketball flushed the Ruddy Ground-Dove. Gordon was furious. With basketball being an equally big passion of mine as birding is, I couldn't get mad at the ballers. While waiting, Dave Hawksworth joined us and soon after, Inca Doves started to fly to the ground. Eventually, the Ruddy Ground-Dove joined the Incas and became my 319th bird of the Big Year. Thanks Dave!
In Mesa on November 26th, Jack Sheldon found a Harris's Sparrow coming to his yard to feed at his feeders. On the 27th, Gordon Karre, Barb Meding, and I all got permission from Jack to look for his sparrow. With me having to be at work by 1 P.M., I chased the sparrow after 11 A.M. which would only give me 30 minutes to look. Jack and his wife were very accommodating to us and kindly let us peek over their wall. Several neighbors of Jacks became very concerned and were considering calling the police as I learned later. But with 10 minutes left on the clock, the Harris's Sparrow made it's appearance to be my 320th bird. It was awesome, thanks Jack!
You might be wondering what happens on days in between of when I get year birds. You can consider those days as searches and strikeouts. Still good birding though!
As December rolled in, the first excitement came on the 2nd. A Tundra Swan was reported in Sun City West, and Melanie Herring found a Ross's Goose at Lower River Road Ponds near Buckeye. Ross's Goose was the last easy bird I needed for my Big Year. I decided to make a loop out of Lower River Road Ponds and Sun City West after work that day. Arriving at the Lower River Road Ponds, it didn't take me long to find the Ross's Goose, who was with 2 Snow Geese. It's fun to save a bird with the number of 321 later in the year like this Ross's Goose.
The Tundra Swan was interesting to say the least. It showed up at a golf course in Sun City West and was hanging out with a golf course pet Mute Swan. I didn't know what to think of the Tundra's origin, but I did not think it was wild at first, not even a slight chance. However, both of it's hallux were intact and I also remember having a Tundra Swan in this area several years back. The one several years back was said to be wild by Sun City residents, as it would stay the winter and leave in the spring. Turns out this bird is that same bird, and the residents said it had just returned for the winter again, and it leaves in spring. Thanks to Chris Rohrer and Magill Weber, they were able to lock down this information. This bird seems like a wild bird so I decided to count it, even though it is very used to people. A lot of winter waterfowl will eventually become used to people when they winter here. But this is flat out weird..
On December 3rd, Troy Corman found a Hooded Warbler at Seven Springs Wash and it was a nice adult male bird. With me having work the next day on December 4th, I decided to go for the warbler before work where it would be one of my longer chases during the Big Year on a work day. Ironically, I was about to walk down Seven Springs Wash in the previous week and I decided not to. The Hooded Warbler is one I had only seen once in my life prior to this chase, and it was a female at Morgan City Wash in 2009. The first Hooded Warbler eluded my camera, which made me want to see this bird even more and get a photo of it. I walked through the canyon at Seven Springs Wash slowly and because the sunshine hadn't hit the area where the warbler was on my way down the canyon, I would walk back up canyon and move even slower when birds would become more active. This technique worked out well for me as I discovered my 323rd year bird for Maricopa County, a Pacific Wren! The tiny bird was located by it's distinctive double-call notes, which sound reminiscent to that of a Wilson's Warbler.
Pacific Wren seems to be a lot more rare in Maricopa County than the extremely similar Winter Wren that it has recently been split off from. I've found 4 Winter Wrens this winter and this Pacific Wren was in no doubt overdue.
While the Pacific Wren had made my trek, I was still hoping to find the Hooded Warbler. I moved up the wash as slow as I could and listened carefully for it's call notes. When I came across a loud spring of water flowing through the wash, I had the feeling to walk away from the loud noise. As soon as I got away from it, I heard the call note of the Hooded Warbler! I rushed in the direction of the call and was able to spy the bird. I performed my own victory dance before getting down to business. While the Hooded Warbler turned out to be very skittish, it took me awhile to finally snap a few pictures of it. This sighting was epic for me, as I hadn't seen a Hooded Warbler since the year of 2009. Thanks Troy!
Following December 4th and already having 4 year birds to start December, the reality of the game set in as I searched and searched for more year birds throughout the entire following week without any additions. In places I have been to lately, awesome birds were found. A few days after I was on Mount Ord, Charlie Babbitt found a Downy Woodpecker in the same area I was birding. Jeff Ritz found a stunning Lesser Black-backed Gull at Glendale Recharge Ponds, the closest hotspot to my home. It didn't stick around very long. On Saturday the 10th I went to Lake Pleasant, but windy conditions made viewing difficult and I didn't have a lot of patience. Caleb went there later in the day and found a Long-tailed Duck flying south over the lake! I wondered if I had overlooked the duck earlier in the morning. Long-tailed Duck is a species that dives a lot, and with the constant waves that were created by the wind, it would be very hard to pick a bird like that out.
Something crazy happened though on the 11th, and several Long-tailed Ducks were found in Arizona. Luckily Louis Hoeniger was at Glendale Recharge Ponds and he discovered a Long-tailed Duck there in Basin 5. Ironically, I got to see my first ever Long-tailed Duck here in 2013 on Christmas Eve, in the same exact basin. I was at work when the bird was found, and fortunately, the bird was still there when I arrived to become my 325th bird! The Long-tailed Duck is quite the stunning duck, especially an adult male. This one at Glendale dove constantly, and would only surface for about 3-5 seconds before diving under water for longer periods of time. Thanks Louis!
As I write here on December 13th, I have roughly 18 days left in 2016 to add more birds. 330 would be a great number to hit, but at this point, I will say that 325 was what I've been shooting for. There's a lot of hardcore birding left, and there is a lot of potential for many more birds. Stay tuned for more..