Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Recap 2017: The Year of Exploring

It only happens once a year, but this is one of my favorite posts to write.

2017 was an incredible year of birding.  It was hardcore, but yet, simplified at the same time.

There were some incredible birds involved, and a ton of exploring.

2017 officially took me outside of Maricopa County for a significant amount of time, finally...

Gila County, as well as Greenlee County, became my great buddies.

But Maricopa County still came through with some incredible birds.

2017 was one to remember.  I set goals, but they were fun goals.  They weren't stressful goals or goals that had a certain number that I had to reach.  I tried my best, and that's all that mattered when it came down to the end of 2017.  I chased some birds, but I found a whole lot more!  Some species provided incredible memories.


At the beginning of 2017, my birding goals were written, and they will be shown here exactly how they were written.  The results will be shown too, and the results will be written under each goal in red.

"1.  I want to explore more, more, and more.  Maricopa County a ton, other counties a lot (but not a ton), and other states some.

I would say the goal reversed itself.  I birded other counties a ton, Maricopa County a lot, and Wisconsin some.  

2.  I want to gain five more Maricopers this year.  A Maricoper is a Maricopa County life bird.  If Yellow-rumped Warbler is split into two like anticipated, I could take some extra time off for searching ;)  Anyways, 390 would be exciting to hit this year.  My Downy Woodpecker search that I want to do may have to wait a few weeks due to snow and mud everywhere after recent storms of rain and snow.  Maybe this is the year I'll finally get that dumb Mexican Whip-poor-will in Maricopa County.

I did gain five Maricopers in 2017 by the end of the year.  However, I deleted two birds off of my Maricopa County list:  Eastern Wood-Pewee and Cave Swallow.  My official Maricopa County list stands at 388 species to date.  But I did gain 5 new ones in 2017 ;)  And none of them were a Downy Woodpecker or Mexican Whip-poor-will.

3.  I want to see more Owls.  Owls outside of Arizona especially...

I did see plenty of Owls in 2017, but none outside of Arizona.  This goal ended up fifty fifty.  My owl highlight came from a lowland Northern Saw-whet Owl at Gilbert Water Ranch.

4.  I want to hit over 100 species in La Paz County, Mohave County, and Greenlee County.  Then, I'll have 100 species in every Arizona County.

I made trips to all three of these counties, and passed 100 in each.

5.  I want to gain get over 200 species in two other counties this year in Arizona.  I have 183 for Pinal for one of them, and the next highest is Coconino at 138 and Gila at 137.  I think Gila can be doable.  Then I'd have 8 Counties in Arizona with 200 species or more. 

It didn't take me long to find 200 or more species in Pinal and Gila Counties.  I now have 227 in Pinal.  I found Gila County so awesome that I expanded that list from 137 to 274.  I became obsessed with Gila.  And Greenlee County joined the 200 club as I grew obsessed with that County too.  I now have 200 species of birds in 9 of Arizona's counties.  

6.  I wanna see a Jaeger.  It doesn't matter which kind, I want to see a Jaeger.  They are some of the coolest birds.  I wanna see a Jaeger.

Epic fail.  I didn't see any Jaegers.

7.  I wanna pioneer bird and find my own epic hotspot, find a good bird at that hotspot, and get other birders to start birding that hotspot.

I did find some awesome spots within Gila County that became eBird hotspots.  I don't know if I got very many people to join me though...

8.  I don't want to do any sort of Big Year.

Success!  I didn't do any freaking Big Years, but I did bird my butt off.  I submitted more eBird checklists than I ever have, and constantly explored Gila County to build my county list there, but it wasn't a Big Year.

9.  And last but not least:  There's been Rose-throated Becards reported the last two years in Arizona.  A pair of them are being seen NOW.  It's about time I should chase one of them...."

It took me two trips, but I finally got to see those Rose-throated Becards.

Lifers gained and lost in 2017

In 2017, I gained eight life birds.  A life bird is a new bird that one sees for the very first time.  Life birds can go along way.  There is an official life bird, which is the first time a bird is seen anytime and anywhere by a birder.  Other lifers can be restricted to within a state, county, or even a favorite local birding spot (a.k.a. a patch).  This will be my official first records of eight different birds.  Those eight species were White Wagtail, Common Crane, Rose-throated Becard, Mourning Warbler, Canada Warbler, Blackburnian Warbler, Black-billed Cuckoo, and Prairie Warbler.

The eight brought my list to 538 species.  The White Wagtail and Common Crane were two crazy Arizona vagrants that hundreds of birders saw.  Ajo was the haunt of the Wagtail and Mormon Lake was the haunt of the Crane.  Both species I did  not expect.  Rose-throated Becard was one that was somewhat overdue for me, but it was a thriller getting to see a pair along the Santa Cruz River near Tubac.  A Wisconsin family trip gave me three warblers:  Mourning, Canada, and Blackburnian Warblers, as well as a heard only Black-billed Cuckoo.

As a result of a species lump with Thayer's and Iceland Gull, the two remained as only distinct subspecies under the species, Iceland Gull.  I saw both subspecies in 2016 in Duluth, Minnesota, which were two separate species at the same time.  Lumps aren't as fun as splits.

Gila County

In 2017, Gila County became my main birding goal.  I explored the county A LOT, and I loved every second of it.  I submitted over 300 eBird checklists for Gila County, and I constantly took it upon myself to get myself out there.  Among the locations I explored were Roosevelt Lake, sections of Tonto Creek ranging from adjacent to Tonto Creek Fish Hatchery to the north to Tonto Basin on the south, Pine Creek Canyon, the Pinal Mountains, San Carlos Lake, Talkalai Lake, the San Carlos River, the Gila River between the Christmas Recreation Area and Winkleman, and perhaps my favorite of all, the Sierra Ancha Mountains.  I was everywhere in Gila County.

In Gila County, I started the year off with 137 birds on my life list, and I ended it with 274 birds on my Gila life list.  It was great to explore Gila that much that I was able to surpass 250 in a county for the first time outside of Maricopa.  I ended up with 266 species for the year for Gila County in 2017.  The biggest highlights of rare birds I personally found in Gila were Greater Scaup, Sabine's Gull, Herring Gull, Caspian Tern, Broad-billed Hummingbird, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Eastern Phoebe, Eastern Bluebird, Brown Thrasher, Golden-winged Warbler, Chestnut-sided Warbler, Swamp Sparrow, and Varied Bunting.  Sabine's Gull, Broad-billed Hummingbird, Eastern Phoebe, Eastern Bluebird, Brown Thrasher, and Golden-winged Warbler may be first Gila County records.  My favorites of these rarities were Golden-winged Warbler and Eastern Bluebird.

The funnest event in Gila County happened when I was on a camping trip in the Sierra Ancha Mountains.  I was looking for owls and Mexican Whip-poor-wills, especially the latter.  After some trying, I heard a Whip-poor-will close by and was able to find it sitting on a slope.  These night birds use camouflage to perfection most of the time.  Luckily, I somehow spied it.  The Whip-poor-will let me get close to within feet, thinking that the whole time I didn't really see him.  But I did, and the Whip-poor-will didn't know that I saw him until I stroked it's back two times.  He looked at me as if saying, "What in the heck are you doing?".  On my third stroke, he flew off.  This came after about ten minutes of sitting with this bird.  I actually PET a Mexican Whip-poor-will!  I laughed in disbelief a lot on my way back to camp that night...

Maricopa County lifers gained

My goal was to get 5 Maricopa County life birds in 2017 (Maricopers) and I got exactly none other than....five.  Those five birds were Royal Tern found by Dale Clark in the Riggs and Price Roads area by Sun Lakes, a Prairie Warbler at Gilbert Water Ranch found by Jon and Carolyn Grainger, a Blackburnian Warbler found by yours truly, Muriel Neddermeyer, and Tracy McCarthy at Gilbert Water Ranch, a Brant at Glendale Recharge Ponds found by Melanie Herring, and a Pine Warbler found at the Salt River's Pebble Beach Recreation Site by Brian Ison and Katie Gooby.  Two crazy water birds and a trio of warblers was a fun way to grow five more in Maricopa County, my most important goal for listing.  I want 400 someday!  My overall list for Maricopa now stands at 388 species.  I removed two from my list due to what I feel are two birds I wasn't able to document correctly:  Eastern Wood-Pewee and Cave Swallow.

Greenlee County

Greenlee County was the other county that I explored a lot of in addition to Gila County.  Pinal County did take up some trips in 2017's early going, but that was to explore some new locations as well as get to 200 or more in Pinal.  Like Gila County, I became obsessed with Greenlee County also.  Greenlee is the second smallest county in Arizona by size, but it has the least amount of people for human population.  It is also by far the most under-birded county in Arizona by a landslide.  Numbers are just over 260 species for the county list by what I was able to find.  In 2017, I made 4 trips to Greenlee County, with 3 of them being hardcore birding trips.  I wanted to make many more trips, but Greenlee County is a very far drive for me.  Those trips were made possible by Gordon Karre, Caleb Strand, and Joshua Smith.  In those trips, I recorded 196 species in Greenlee County in 2017, and it brought my overall Greenlee list to an even 200 species and it was the 9th county in Arizona I have reached 200 or more in.  Greenlee has Chihuahuan desert scrub at 3500' to spruce, fir, and pine forests at 9400'.  It's a diverse county that is very under-birded, and then there has probably been a lot of it that has never been birded.  That is why I love Greenlee County.  Highlights of birds found in my parties on the 4 trips included Wood Duck, Montezuma Quail, Mississippi Kite, Northern Goshawk, Gray Hawk, hundreds of Sandhill Cranes, Downy Woodpecker, American Three-toed Woodpecker, Dusky-capped Flycatcher, Eastern Bluebird, the county's first Yellow-eyed Junco found by Caleb Strand, Golden-crowned Sparrow, White-throated Sparrow, Swamp Sparrow, and Rose-breasted Grosbeak.

I enjoyed Greenlee County so much that I decided to write a guide on Birding in Greenlee County on my website.  Check it out:  Birding in Greenlee County

The best encounter in Greenlee County was one that was unexpected.  One that I never thought would happen the way it did.  At Seep Spring Canyon in February, Caleb Strand, Joshua Smith, and I were walking through the woods and were about to cross a creek.  At that time, we were all joking around, carrying on, and Caleb (The Boy) was screaming and yelling as he was crossing the creek.  He turned around and was screaming something, when I looked just past Caleb to see a Northern Goshawk sitting there.  That's right, it was just sitting there.  The three of us enjoyed this bird at point blank range for more than just a minute, it was like ten to fifteen minutes.  And the Goshawk just sat there.

The Northern Goshawk has a reputation of being a fierce, elusive, and always awesome.  For that reason, it is my favorite bird.  It is a hard bird to find, and it's every birds worst nightmare.  This Gos was very kind to us.  It left it's perch after the show but then went close by to another perch.  We thought it wouldn't act this fearless of us again, but we were wrong.  I never thought I'd get in a picture (aka selfie) with a Northern Goshawk.  It must be a Greenlee County thing....

Arizona lifers gained

In 2017, I got to get 9 additions to my overall Arizona list.  Those nine species were White Wagtail, Common Crane, Golden-winged Warbler, Rose-throated Becard, Yellow-throated Vireo, Royal Tern, Prairie Warbler, Blackburnian Warbler, and Brant.  My Arizona list now stands at 450 species.

Something cool to be a part of

The Birds of Phoenix and Maricopa County, Arizona.  Third edition.  By Janet Witzeman and Troy Corman with Birding Areas by Tommy DeBardeleben and Laurie Nessel.  It was an honor to be a contributing author with these awesome people who I look up to!

Glendale Recharge Ponds additions

The Glendale Recharge Ponds are what I consider to be my patch.  A birder's patch is the location that is closest to them or the one they visit most often.  That location has always been the Glendale Recharge Ponds for me.  It is a great "patch" to have!  I added 15 species to my location list for Glendale Recharge Ponds, and they were Reddish Egret, Common Gallinule, Cactus Wren, Northern Waterthrush, Brown-crested Flycatcher, Hooded Oriole, Blackpoll Warbler, Hermit Warbler, Yellow-breasted Chat, Red-breasted Nuthatch, Sage Thrasher, Virginia's Warbler, Brant, Cackling Goose, and Tundra Swan to bring my Glendale total to 226 species.  The best bird was the Brant by a mile.  A Blackpoll Warbler, a personal find by me, was also very fun.  I hope continue adding new birds to my patch in 2018.

Rare Birds I found in 2017

I had a decent year for personally finding rare birds in Arizona in 2017.  In the rarer category, which would be called review species by the Arizona Bird Committee, I found 4 species, which were:  Red Knot, Golden-winged Warbler, Blackburnian Warbler, and Blackpoll Warbler.  Less rarer species, but still rare, which are called Sketch Detail species, I found some including Sabine's Gull, Least Tern, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Eastern Phoebe, Winter Wren, Eastern Bluebird (Gila County first), Brown Thrasher, Chestnut-sided Warbler, Golden-crowned Sparrow, and Rose-breasted Grosbeak.

A Few More Stories

Here are a few more great stories and highlights from 2017!

-In 2015, I saw my lifer Tufted Flycatcher.  I had decent views and horrible pictures, and a nagging obnoxious lady telling me to shut up because I was whispering with my buddy Andrew.  I needed a better look at a Tufted in 2017.  A rough trek up to Carr Canyon gave me just that.  A Tufted Flycatcher came in very close to me, and for a long time, I had it all to myself.  I got to get some better pictures too.

-I had always wanted to see a Spotted Owl pair side-by-side.  A Northern Saw-whet Owl on a day roost was on the wants list too.  2017 gave me that chance for both scenarios!

-Washburn County, Wisconsin was the place for eastern warblers.  I love eastern warblers.  Everyday I was there I woke up to Ovenbirds, Chestnut-sided and Golden-winged Warblers, and a whole lot more.

-I helped my great buddy, Josh Wallestad, get some key lifers in Coconino County, Arizona.  This included his 17th U.S. Owl, a Flammulated Owl.  It was a victorious search over two nights!    Red-faced Warbler and Williamson's Sapsucker were huge highlights also.  By now, rumor has it that Josh has landed his 18th U.S. Owl...a Boreal Owl...

-My friend Dara found a Tennessee Warbler on a Christmas Bird Count at the Gila River.  I was teamed up with my friends Dara, Jeff, and Katie.  I wasn't with the rest of the group at the moment, but when Dara and Jeff called about the warbler, I rushed over to the spot.  After a muddy walk and sprint over to Dara, I got to see only the third Tennessee Warbler of my life, and get good pictures of the species for the first time.  While standing in the same spot, we also had great views of this Golden-crowned Kinglet.  Perhaps the best photographs I've gotten of a Golden-crowned Kinglet.  It's always great to see two awesome birds while standing in one spot, it sure doesn't happen often.

-In 2017, I also got into odes, collectively known as dragonflies and damselflies, pretty seriously.  About three months of the year, I was traveling around to look for odes.  This happened mainly during the summer months.  It was a fun thing to be a part of, and I will ode on the side of birding at times in 2018.  My first year of oding gave me 80 different species of dragonflies and damselflies.  I was mentored by great buddies Justin Jones and Caleb Strand.  Justin is one of Arizona's best when it comes to odes, and he told me that I'm off to a great start with 80 being logged during my first year.  My favorite ode I saw in Arizona was the Apache Spiketail, which is photographed below.

My Top 10 Birds of the Year for 2017

Every year when I write this annual post, this is my favorite category to write.  It always takes some careful thought about the placements of each bird.  There are always some that are close but don't quite make the cut.  Here are my top 10, starting with 10th place going down to 1st place.

10.  Rose-throated Becard:  I have had several chances in previous years to chase this bird.  After a failed miss to start off 2017 in the winter, I redeemed myself when the birds became a lot easier in the summer.  Rose-throated Becard, it was great to finally meet you!

9.  White Wagtail:  I got out of work one day in the early afternoon, and this Siberian species was reported only two hours away at a wastewater treatment plant in the town of Ajo.  It was a no brainer for me to chase.  I joined dozens of others at what was a second state record in Arizona.  We stood on truck beds and looked down into a few sewage ponds to enhance our enjoyment!

8.  Northern Goshawk:  The tame Northern Goshawk in Greenlee County, maybe one of it's kind.  Selfies were included!  I'll probably never have a calm Goshawk this close again in my life...

7.  Mexican Whip-poor-will:  I never thought I'd get to sit with a Mexican Whip-poor-will, yet get to pet a Mexican Whip-poor-will.   This all happened in a night bird search in Gila County's Sierra Ancha Wilderness.

6.  Pine Warbler:  It may be a very common bird in the east and show up in Arizona annually, but this bird was awesome.  This Pine Warbler was seen at the Salt River in Maricopa County.  It was a huge addition to my Maricopa County list, and I enjoyed it with my great buddy Caleb Strand.  My goal was 5 Maricopa lifers in 2017, and this Pine Warbler was that fifth.  Sadly, I couldn't get a picture of it.

5.  Common Crane:  Common Cranes are just freaking awesome.  Arizona's first ever showed up at Mormon Lake while I was in Gila County's Sierra Ancha Mountains.  When I found out about the Crane, I did a 3.5 hour chase to Mormon Lake from Sierra Ancha.  Many birders came that day, including ABA Big Year fantastic woman, Yve Nagy Morrell.  Dale Clark got his 500th Arizona bird that day too..

4.  Prairie Warbler:  This bird was at Gilbert Water Ranch, and it was an overall life bird for me, not just a Maricoper.  I had always wanted to see a Prairie Warbler.  I had to work in the day after this bird was found, and what was a crapshoot of a chase, turned into a buzzer beating sighting before dark as Brian Johnson and Muriel Neddermeyer spied the bird and got me on it just in time.  The stress wasn't needed, because it was back and in great lighting the following day.

3.  Brant:  Right when I was leaving for something that relates to heavy responsibility, I got a call from Melanie Herring about a Brant at Glendale Recharge Ponds, a.k.a., my patch.  I ditched my appointment and was late to my appointment, all because the Brant was much more important.  I still can't believe I got to see a Brant at Glendale, even if it was for only five minutes...

2.  Royal Tern:  Dale Clark found this bird near Chandler at these small ponds he visits frequently.  One of the best birds found in Arizona this entire year, and it was only Arizona's second Royal Tern!!  Dale deserved to find this bird, he's a great guy.  The tern showed up briefly one day and just left that same day, never to come back that day.  A massive storm blew through Arizona.  I didn't think there was a chance it would return.  But when I woke up the next day, I got a text from Dale saying the tern was back.  I rushed over to see it, and many other Arizona birders throughout the state did too.  Heck of a bird, I'm glad it was in Maricopa.

1.  Blackburnian Warbler:  In Wisconsin on our family vacation in June, the Blackburnian Warbler was my biggest target.  The adult male is an epic bird, and I just needed to see one.  Limited time on the trip made things challenging, but thanks to my Aunt Tracy, Aunt Gretchen, and Uncle Larry, I had a vehicle to explore further north in Washburn County than where we were stationed at.  I found a coniferous bog, one I thought looked good for my wanted warbler.  Thankfully, I was right and an adult male helped me out in the limited time I had.  I'll never forget the fiery orange I saw hopping in the spruce tree that day.  In fall in Maricopa County, a non-breeding version of that bird crossed paths with me again.  It was at Gilbert Water Ranch, the morning after the evening I got to see my first Prairie Warbler.  I was standing in the same spot where I was standing for the Prairie Warbler, and this Blackburnian Warbler was then right in front of me while I wanted to try for the Prairie again.  Blackburnian is very rare in Arizona, and it was the one Maricopa life bird I discovered myself along with Muriel Neddermeyer and Tracy McCarthey.  It only stayed for a limited 20 seconds of our observation, and it wasn't seen again by the dozens of birders who came to look that day and in following days.  Not only did the Blackburnian Warbler fire me up in Wisconsin, but it did right at home in Maricopa County, Arizona, too.  For that reason, it gets the nod for my bird of 2017!

Blackburnian Warbler in Washburn County, Wisconsin

Blackburnian Warbler in Maricopa County, Arizona (fall plumage)

In 2018, I don't know what I have for goals yet.  I haven't put serious thought into it.  I do know that I want to once again keep the birding fun.  I still want to do Gila and Greenlee Counties, and explore the under-birded locations in Maricopa County.  Good Birding in 2018!

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