Tuesday, October 31, 2017

When Maricopa County Birding Explodes

I haven't birded in Maricopa County as much lately this year.  It seems kinda weird for me to be saying this, and yet, writing this too.  Birding in other counties, especially Gila County, have outnumbered my birding reps in Maricopa County this year.  Exploring is a blast, and it's fun dissecting other counties.  Especially ones that are under-birded, such as Gila County and rarely explored Greenlee County.  Although fun, those counties fade when the idea of a new Maricopa County life bird comes into play.  Because I've spent the last eight years of obsessively birding Maricopa, it's been fun doing Gila County as well as others.  Most of the time, I rarely find a new bird for Maricopa, but when I get that chance...

Earlier this week, word came out that a Prairie Warbler was at Gilbert Water Ranch on Wednesday, October 25th.  The bird was announced on an online forum later on Thursday night, October 26th.  I was amazed by the sighting and photographs, but then I was irritated, because I would have a work shift that wouldn't allow me to get to the bird until the evening of Friday, October 27th.  And when October 27th came around, it was about 7:30 A.M. in the morning when Caleb Strand texted me that it was continuing.  The Prairie Warbler continued throughout the day for many birders and I had to go through work annoyed and wanting to get out there as soon as possible.  Things didn't help when the time had finally come and Brian Johnson told me the bird hadn't been seen in over two hours.  A 50 minute route turned into much longer on the freeway because of an accident.  By the time I got to Gilbert Water Ranch, I had about 20 minutes of light left before it would get dark.  I found my friends Brian Johnson and Muriel Neddermeyer, and they both were waiting in hopes of the bird to show back up.  This was not a good sign for me.  I was angry for the drive and the little time I had left to look.  Since Brian and Muriel were stationed where the bird was being seen at most, I decided to walk further south just "in case".

Truth be told, birders are an interesting bunch.  I'll throw myself on the line for this one.  There was a younger couple taking pictures along the trail, I'll call them John and Jennie.  They had a baby.  I walked by them determined, with tunnel vision, I didn't say anything, and I can remember John looking at me seemingly thinking something along the line like, "Wow, what's with this dude.  He is geared up.  It looks like he has to document some emergency".  After I walked by them and continued past Brian and Muriel further south, it then came to that time where John and Jennie would cross paths with Brian and Muriel.  At this point and time, Brian had just spotted that coveted rarity, the Prairie Warbler.  Seeing that John and Jennie were right there with their child, Brian said, "Don't be alarmed, but I have to yell to my friend".  And perhaps everyone at the Water Ranch heard the scream, "TOMMY!!!!".  As John and Jennie kept walking south past Brian and Muriel and towards my direction, they saw me sprinting by, in my gear and looking more psychotic then ever.  I may have heard John say to Jennie, "Wow, what kind of geek club is this".  Whether he said it or not, they may have thought it.  And honestly, I was laughing brutally at the way I must have looked to these people after the fact.

It didn't matter after my sprint, because I was with Brian and Muriel, and we were all staring at the Prairie Warbler.  It emerged for us at "the buzzer" and the three of us were now in a great mood.  For Muriel and me, it was a life bird overall.  Prairie Warblers are an eastern warbler, mainly in the southeast of the United States.  They prefer brushy and old fields and other open areas.  Adult birds are striking.  In Arizona, this warbler is very rare, and the last known Prairie Warbler in Maricopa County was in the winter of 2005.  Ironically, it wintered for a several months and it was also at Gilbert Water Ranch.  While adult Prairies are unmistakable and striking, first year birds aren't so much.  And this Prairie was a first year.  While first year Prairies aren't as striking, they still have distinctive field marks.  The semi-circle under the bird's eye as well as the side streaking and lack of strong wingbars are other good marks to go by.  This bird is also very yellow below.  Muriel, Brian, and I didn't get any looks or photographs to really brag about as the lighting as quickly fading, but we were content!

The Prairie Warbler became my second addition to my Maricopa County list for the year of 2017, with the first being Dale Clark's epic Royal Tern.  Prairie Warbler was my 385th Maricoper.  Brian Johnson was clutch on this bird, as he spied it with hardly any time left on the clock.  Thanks to Brian and if it weren't for Brian I would have had a frustrating drive home, and then a definite return to Gilbert Water Ranch on the following day.  Here is a Prairie Warbler celebration selfie taken by Muriel!

After our sighting, Muriel and I had minds that thought alike.  The Prairie Warbler was a life bird for her, too.  We both wanted to see it in better lighting, get more extended views of it, and we also wanted to get better photographs.  So we both came back on Saturday, October 28th.  And we both ran into each other and got to the parking lot at the same time.  As Muriel and I worked our way over to the Warbler spot, we ran into Robert Bowker, who had just photographed the bird minutes before we got there.  For the next hour, it was more of a waiting game.  Birders were flocking to the spot.  Everyone was waiting for the Prairie to appear.  Conversations were lit up to shoot the breeze.  One conversation was about warblers.  I remember saying, "Blackburnian Warbler is my favorite warbler".  As we waited, the sun was starting to really hit the Prairie Warbler haunt and we were thinking it would emerge in any moment.  I was walking back and fourth and so were many other birders.  Muriel was with me often, and we went back to the exact spot where we saw the Prairie Warbler the previous night.  A warbler caught my attention who was flitting around and feeding in that exact spot.  Expecting it to be the Prairie, I lifted my binoculars to not see a Prairie Warbler, but to see another rarity and new Maricoper, a Blackburnian Warbler!  My favorite warbler at that!  I was stunned, and I couldn't believe what I was seeing.  Before I had a good look at this Blackburnian Warbler, which was a first-fall bird, I had a brief glimpse of it before I had THE LOOK at it.  The first half-second of the sight had me thinking Townsend's Warbler, but when it popped out into the open I immediately exclaimed to Muriel, "Get photos of this bird, quick!!!".  We both got photos.  Mine were crap, and Muriel's were good.  I couldn't be more thankful that I had Muriel there with me.  She is an excellent photographer, and really documents things well.  Her picture gave us immediate proof without any doubt that a Blackburnian Warbler had crossed our paths.  We made the birding crowd around us aware of the new arrival, as well as the online birding forums.  And sadly, the bird wasn't seen again.  As this Blackburnian Warbler was my 386th Maricoper and was also my first in Arizona, it wasn't a life bird.  Blackburnian Warbler is my favorite warbler because of the striking breeding plumaged males of the species.  Go back to a recent blog I wrote, called Wisconsin Warblers, to see that fun!  Here is what I managed of the Blackburnian, which I consider to be dumb luck and truly being in the right place at the right time!

Tracy McCarthey was another one of the birders on site.  She had a brief look at a warbler she thought to be a Townsend's before Muriel and I had the Blackburnian, but once she saw Muriel's photograph, she knew it was the Blackburnian she had seen.  When Tracy saw it, it was a little further south than where Muriel and I saw it.  When Muriel and I lost it, it kept foraging and heading to the north.  Two new Maricopa Warblers for me 14 hours apart was ridiculous and a sequence that may never happen to me again..

Dozens of birders were at Water Ranch throughout the day.  Right after Blackburnian made it's brief appearance, out came the Prairie Warbler.  Every birder who came that day got to see the Prairie, as it put on a show.

My buddy Mark Ochs came for the Blackburnian and we spent a lot of time searching for it and we hung out with a lot more of our friends.  Dara Vazquez added to the rare warbler fun when she found a Northern Parula!

Outside of these two incredible warblers for Maricopa County, the County has had a lot of awesome birds in the last few weeks.  I will highlight some of them!

Verrado is a spot that is really picking up with birding, thanks to birder Lyndie Warner.  Lyndie has found this place to be a migrant trap, and it certainly is.  Rufous-backed Robin, Varied Thrush, and Lewis's Woodpeckers.  Mark and I made the trip on a break from the Blackburnian search to get these awesome birds.  Sometimes the Rufous-backed Robin and Varied Thrush were seen feeding in the grass side-by-side!

Here is a big clan of birders enjoying the two rare thrushes.  Yours truly documented the birders at this upcoming birding area in Verrado.

My friend Laura Ellis has a backyard in Avondale that is good for birding.  Laura has water features in her yard, many different bird feeders, as well as a lake behind her house.  Recently, she has had two awesome rarities in her backyard.  The first one was a Golden-crowned Sparrow.  The sparrow is a good bird to find anytime and anywhere throughout Arizona.  Then a Dickcissel showed up, which is a big surprise for a yard bird!  Both birds stayed for a good amount of time, and Laura kindly hosted many many birders at her house so they could see her two rarities.  I was one of them, thanks Laura!

Before I went to Verrado on the trip to chase the Varied Thrush, Lewis's Woodpecker, and Rufous-backed Robin, I went a week before that to see the Rufous-backed Robin when it was first found by Lyndie.  The Robin was cooperative for me during the first time I saw it.  After looking for the bird for about thirty minutes, I found it foraging alongside a neighborhood street.  It allowed me to get close and I also got to study it's flight calls when it flew around.  Hearing the Rufous-backed Robin was neat, and it was the first time I got to study any vocalizations of the species.  Here's some photographs from that outing.

The Glendale Recharge Ponds always put up some sort of a good show.  Here's my spark bird with my birding obsession, the Osprey.  If it weren't for the Osprey, I don't know if I'd be a birder!

When a Peregrine Falcon shows up, it usually means turmoil for the shorebirds and ducks.  For me, the Peregrine pursuit can be fun to watch.  After all, it is nature.  Unless there is a rare bird I'm trying hard to find, I don't mind a Peregrine flying around and terrorizing the bunch.  The one photographed below is a juvenile Peregrine of the Tundra race.  This race sure is cool looking!

A Black-bellied Plover had also been frequenting the ponds for some time!

Also recently I enjoyed a few Long-eared Owls somewhere in Maricopa County.  These guys are fun to see, but because they are a very sensitive bird, I will not say where they were seen at.  They do not like people, including me.

Maricopa County is huge!  What other birds are lurking and waiting to be found around the corner?!...

Sunday, October 1, 2017

In The Company of Swainson's Hawks

Does it seem weird to have about 400 hawks in front of you at once?! Something spectacular that I recently saw while birding was a huge "kettle" of migrating Swainson's Hawks. While driving in Pinal County recently, I noticed these raptors gathering over fields that were being plowed. The plowing actions result in making it easier for these hawks to get their desired prey, which in the Swainson's Hawk's case, it would be insects such as grasshoppers. These amazing raptors can migrate up to 14,000 miles one way, in both spring and fall. The migration journey can last up to two months! Northerly breeding range goes north to Alaska, and southerly migration routes extend south to southern Brazil or Argentina. While Swainson's Hawks are most often solitary on breeding grounds, they form huge flocks or "kettles" on the migration journey. This hawk has three different color morphs, making it a variable bird in it's appearance. I've enjoyed this event live in the field a few times prior to this time, but this time was the best out of them all!  Here is a set of the photographs I took, which took place earlier in September.