Monday, January 11, 2021

The First Surprise of 2021

On January 9th, 2021, the first big surprise for birding showed up near me at Glendale Recharge Ponds.  Darryl Montgomery discovered a Least Grebe right out in the middle of Basin 2.  The news of the bird was mind blowing, and it was a species I never thought I'd see at Glendale.  For Maricopa County, it was only a second county record.  The first was at Sun Lakes in 2013, which I was fortunate to see.  With this Least Grebe, it becomes the second record of it's species in 8 years to reach Maricopa County, and both birds have been in open water situations.  These records have resulted in the Grebes being away from their usual haunts that include water bodies and ponds that have plenty of cover within debris and reeds.  It seems like a Maricopa County Least Grebe would much more likely be found at Tres Rios or anywhere else that has reeds and thick cover.  If it made it this far north, how about going a little bit further to Palm Lake at the Hassayampa River Preserve?!  Anywho, this bird was awesome and put on a show for many happy observers during January 9th when it was present as a one day wonder.

Saturday, January 2, 2021

20/20 Vision: The Birds in the Middle Of It All

2020 will go down as a horrible year for everybody on earth in many ways.  It was a tragic and constantly challenging period of time.  As we roll into 2021, a lot of the hardship still remains from 2020.  Covid-19 is still among us in high capacity, and way too many people have already lost their lives.  I never thought of having a year of social distancing from others and not being able to participate in what we once considered everyday and routine activities.  The combination of different hardships took it's toll on everyone.  

But for me and many others, we have the fortunate hobby and escape of birding to be thankful for.  Birding is something we can do while social distancing, as birds and the rest of nature continued to live on and be a powerful force in midst of the constant struggles of humanity.  I'm always thankful for birding, but this year was a constant reminder of how great it is.  2020 still had many roads to drive down to discover neat birds.  In this annual year summary I love to write, I'll do my best to explain that.

"When the path is beautiful, let us not ask where it leads"-Anatole France


2020 was one of the best years I've had in my birding "career".  The amount of great birds that showed up during the year was overwhelming and there was rarely a break in action.  In midst of a global pandemic, more people than ever were out birding and discovering notable birds for themselves.  It reminded me that there are pros and cons with about everything life throws at us.  One of the biggest cons I've lived through in my life brought out some of the biggest pros for birding.

In 2020, I had a lot planned for myself.  A lot of it had to do with birding, and a lot of it didn't.  When the pandemic hit, it changed many things around.  With birding, 2020 was complex but straightforward.  I decided to bird Navajo and Coconino Counties a lot more than I had before, and they became additions to the Arizona counties I have 200 or more species in.  Gila County was put on hold for most of the year, and after three years of not birding Maricopa County much, I birded Maricopa County a lot.  The best birding that I did in 2020 was take a 16 day trip to the Northwoods, which was the northern parts of the states of Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Michigan.  It was a solo trip for me, and one that I had always dreamed of taking.  I got to roam across the three states at will, and the quality of birds seen made the trip one of the best times I've had in my life.  One night I camped out in northern Minnesota.  The sound and smell of cracking campfires, families laughing together, Barred Owls calling, and Common Loons haunting the lakes with their chilling sounds reminded me of how much good is still in the world.  


There was always a good bird to chase in 2020.  I still can't believe the quantity of things that showed up.  2020 was the year of the warbler for me.  Warblers have always been a favorite family of mine, but this year they highlighted the show.


Just how crazy was 2020?  Well, for me I got 9 Maricopa County additions.  If someone predicted that I would get 9, I would've laughed.  In 2018 and 2019 I got 2 Maricopa lifers apiece.  I predicted 2-3 in 2020.


2020 also had too many top notch highlights.  I'm not complaining either.  It made my top ten favorites for this year challenging to assign though.  Many birds I would think would easily have a spot didn't make my top ten. Here's some examples:

My first lifer of the year was this Worm-eating Warbler.  It was one of my 9 Maricopa County lifers too, and it was a great bird to start the major highlights off with of 2020.  

I had always wished I had seen a well-known Streak-backed Oriole at Gilbert Water Ranch that had wintered for a few years just prior to me joining the Arizona birding community.  Luckily, a female built a nest at Hassayampa River Preserve and was cooperative.  
Caleb found this Laughing Gull at Hidden Lake.  Good grief, what a good bird to get for Maricopa County after the previous ones that showed up were one minute wonders.  
Caleb spied this Scissor-tailed Flycatcher near Gila Bend, another great bird for Maricopa County.  I remember screaming "yes" at the top of my lungs like it was yesterday, not mid-September.
This Northern Jacana had hundreds of birders chasing it, myself included.  It had been 12 years since one had shown up in Arizona, and it was the first time I was able to chase one.  What an epic bird it is.

One of my best self-found birds this year was this Blue-winged Warbler in Navajo County.  It was a new Arizona bird for me too, one that is pretty rare.
Arizona's first chasable Clay-colored Thrush was an incredible find in southeastern Arizona.  
Another state bird I got that was incredible was this American Tree Sparrow.  It showed up at a remarkably more southern location for Arizona than most records.  Levi and I joined forces and got great looks at this bird in southern Yavapai County at Badger Springs Wash within the Agua Fria National Monument.  
I got my first look at Black-billed Cuckoo in Michigan on a fun and secluded trail.
Toward the end of the year, I stood out in a field in Maricopa County after dusk with Jeff, Mary, Dara, and Ronnie.  We got lucky and had a Short-eared Owl fly by, and it was part of the Gila River Christmas Bird Count.  The look was brief and photographs weren't possible for us, but it was awesome.

This totals 10 birds that should be in the Top 10 (I would think), but didn't make my top 10.  Gosh, it really shows how great this year was for birding.

My Top 10 for 2020:

This list comes from a variety of things.  Birds in the top ten include birds that are rare, birds that have incredible impact on me in some sort of way, or birds that aren't the rarest but call for me to take a big adventure in order for me to find them.  I'll count them down from 10 to 1.

#10.  Cape May Warblers in northern Minnesota:

During my two week summer vacation to the Northwoods, warblers filled the trees in abundance.  After landing a few lifers in the warbler department, I only had one more to land.  That remaining one was Cape May Warbler.  In the ABA area, it was also the last regularly occurring warbler I needed.  With living in Arizona, I've seen all the rare Mexican warblers too.  With there being 55 Wood Warblers/New World Warblers in the ABA area, the Cape May Warbler became by 54th.  The one I have remaining is Golden-crowned Warbler, which is primarily a vagrant to Texas.  Cape May Warblers were common in thick stands of spruce in northern Minnesota, and they were beautiful and a fun bird to celebrate.

# 9.  Great Gray Owl in Sax-Sim Bog, Minnesota:

Owls are my favorite family, and Great Gray Owl is my favorite owl.  On a rainy overcast day on my vacation, I went to Sax-Sim Bog.  I got lucky and looked up Admiral Road to see this majestic bird.  It didn't care about my presence, and I got to spend about 40 minutes with it up close.  When people came after the 40 minutes, we all watched it together for 40 more minutes.  These people were represented by 3 different states (4 if you include me), and 2 of those states came very far to bird Minnesota.  The excitement they showed was awesome, and it ended up being fun to share the sighting too.

# 8.  Connecticut Warbler in northwest Wisconsin:

Connecticut Warblers are notoriously difficult and may require many adventures for birders to catch a glimpse of one.  They are reclusive, often walk slowly on or near the ground, and are most often found by the song of the male.  Dense bogs are the primary habitat of this large warbler, and getting through the habitat is often impossible.  Thankfully, many birds breed in different habitats.  Connecticut Warbler does too, even though the dense bogs are the favorite of the bird.  In Wisconsin, I found out about a place where they bred that wasn't a bog but resembled the habitat of a bog.  The difference was that one could walk through the habitat.  It didn't mean the Connecticut Warbler wasn't going to be challenging.  On the first morning of my vacation, I tried for Connecticut Warblers.  One male started off my trip very well, and it was good to see a warbler I had wanted to search for for a long time.  

# 7.  Crescent-chested Warbler in the Chiricahua Mountains, Arizona:

So far in my birding years, rare Mexican warblers I've been lucky enough to see here in Arizona have been Rufous-capped Warbler, Slate-throated Redstart, and Fan-tailed Warbler.  The remaining bird in that department was Crescent-chested Warbler.  It wasn't without some effort though.  I chased the bird several times without any luck and narrowly missed getting to see it each time.  When three of them were reported in the Chiricahuas this year, I figured this was my time to see them.  There was a pair and a single male, and each day before I got to go the male was reported to sing at dawn.  When I went I drove up on a night after work, camped out, and woke up in the mountains.  Me and many others waited and the bird sang early.  When it got light enough, the birds put on a show for the crowd.  It was great to catch up with this stunning warbler for the first time, and to watch the pair forage for several hours.  In the coming weeks they attempted breeding, and there turned out to be a total of 5 birds in same area on the western flank of the Chiricahuas.  

# 6.  Canada Warbler at Gilbert Water Ranch, Arizona:

Canada Warbler is quite the rarity in Arizona, and many birders have had trouble getting them in Arizona.  They are challenging to find in the state, and are one of the rarest eastern warblers.  I saw many of them on summer vacation, and they were always enjoyable.  When Chris and Holly found one at Gilbert Water Ranch, it was crazy.  I chased it right away, and missed it.  It was a bummer, but Caleb relocated it the next day.  On another chase after work, the Canada Warbler was obliging for many after being too elusive on the first day.  It was great to see it, and it was one I had always wanted to see very badly in Maricopa County.  Many birders were there to enjoy the warbler with.  Ironically, Caleb and I found our own Canada Warbler a few days later at the Verde River.

# 5.  Eared Quetzal in the Chiricahua Mountains, Arizona:  

Every birder in Arizona wants to see an Eared Quetzal.  Throw in the rest of the birders across the country too.  One of them showed up in the Chiricahuas while I was on my Northwoods vacation.  I was enjoying my vacation immensely, and the Quetzal was one I didn't think I'd be able to get too serious about.  The bird was seen for a few days before going absent while I was on vacation.  And after a few days of absence, it showed up again.  After working for 5 days, and with here-and-there reports of the Quetzal, I decided to go for the bird on my "Friday" after work.  It had been reported earlier in the day.  I took my camping supplies to work, and was able to drive for 5 hours straight to the spot.  Luck was on my side, and I got to enjoy my first Eared Quetzal up close within minutes of arriving.  It was hard to believe I was looking at this Trogon species while I was looking at it.  After I got to see it for an hour, it went absent for some time before being relocated again.  It was eventually joined by a second bird, and later on in the year, the two Quetzals became very reliable and cooperative to those who chased them.


# 4.  Spruce Grouse in northern Minnesota:

When I went on my vacation to the Northwoods, one of my biggest targets was Spruce Grouse.  These birds can be extremely hard to find due to their silent and slow moving behavior.  Josh and I tried for them one morning without luck, and on the same day, I looked for them all afternoon, without luck.  I had some locations in mind to search, but I knew that hours and hours of searching for these grouse could result with miles of trees to walk through and no grouse.  In the nick of time, Josh told me about a location that was known to be good for the grouse.  I decided to go and walk a short stretch of habitat known to be great for several hours on a brisk morning.  The search was slow going for the first three hours.  I looked on endless logs, tree limbs, and forest floor.  After about 3 hours and 15 minutes, I finally found a male Spruce Grouse.  It was epic.  For the next two hours, I watched this bird as it probably moved for a total of 30 feet.  It gave me a further understanding on why they're as hard to find as they are, and it called for a two hour observation!

# 3.  Black-throated Blue Warbler at Gilbert Water Ranch, Arizona:

On the same day I became an uncle, I also reached a goal that I had always wanted for Maricopa County with 400 species.  The goal was reached with a coopertive and practically tame Black-throated Blue Warbler.  I had almost checked out of birding for the day, but Dara got word of the bird's presence and reported it, and Mark called me immediately to tell me of the report.  It was an awesome day where two great things happened in reaching two milestones.  What was incredible too about the warbler was that it was the first time I had ever gotten great looks at the species.  Over the summer in the Northwoods, I saw a few males.  They were seen further away most of the time and in overcast conditions.  This bird at Gilbert Water Ranch made up for it, and was so awesome that I had to go see it a second time.

# 2.  Yellow-green Vireo at the Hassayampa River, Arizona:

When I took Caleb birding for his 21st birthday, I knew that we had to find something good because of his birthday.  We decided to bird along the Hassayampa River via the Kerke's Trailhead.  Not long into the day, we stopped to investigate a spot with good bird activity.  A vireo flew in right in front of us, and it turned out to be a Yellow-green Vireo.  For both of us, it was a life bird.  It was also the 2nd record of the species in Maricopa County, with the first being 40 years prior to ours!  This mega rarity for Maricopa County took us by surprise, and it is also a statewide rarity for Arizona.  For me, I had chased and missed Yellow-green Vireo four times prior to this in my birding.  Each miss was narrow: one by a few minutes, one a got on the movement but not on the bird while others in my party had diagnostic looks, one by a day (it was seen the day before I went and the day after I went), and another by 15 minutes.  After those narrow misses, it was epic to co-find one with Caleb on his birthday!

 # 1.  Kirtland's Warblers in Grayling, Michigan:

When I planned my summer vacation to the northern parts of Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Michigan, the biggest target of my trip was the Kirtland's Warbler.  After hearing my lifer in Wisconsin in 2016, I really wanted to see get visuals of this species.  These rather large warblers were once critically endangered.  Conservation efforts have restored the species to a 180, and the population is doing well enough that they were removed from the endangered species list.  Kirtland's Warblers still need to be respected despite being removed from the list, as they are still a rare bird with a limited range that is found mostly in north-central Michigan.  For me to see Kirtland's Warblers, I drove about 9 hours one way from Wisconsin to Grayling, Michigan.  The drive there and back were both long (9 hours both times), but it was worth it.  Not long after getting to Grayling, I went to the young jack pine stands that Kirtland's Warblers use for breeding.  The trees aren't tall at all, and it's a strange habitat for a warbler to use as it's sole breeding habitat.  Thanks to habitat management, these warblers have done well again.  It didn't take me long to start hearing the loud songs of the warblers from the young jack pine forests upon my arrival.  I got to see them very well on the first afternoon and evening near Grayling.  The next day, I had more of them.  In about a mile, I detected 15 of them either by sound or sight.  One male near the road was cooperative for me on both days.  Over the two days spent in Grayling, I spent about six hours enjoying Kirtland's Warblers.  It was awesome to me, and easily takes the number one spot this year.  The rebound of Kirtland's Warbler shows that there is still good in the world, and is a perfect example of people caring enough to restore a species.  The world still needs a lot more of that!

For more complete stories from 2020, go back on the Blog Archives.  

Aside from birds mentioned on this post, 2020 still had many more great ones.  

2020's Lifer Categories:

In my birding, I have several "categories" that are big deals for me.  Right now I have four.  They are: Overall Lifebirds gained, Arizona Lifebirds gained, Maricopa County Lifebirds gained, and Gila County Lifebirds gained.

Overall (World) Lifebirds:  Worm-eating Warbler, Crescent-chested Warbler, Connecticut Warbler, Yellow-bellied Flycatcher, Alder Flycatcher, American Woodcock, Mute Swan, White-winged Crossbill, Cape May Warbler, Eurasian Tree Sparrow, Spruce Grouse, Eared Quetzal, Northern Jacana, Yellow-green Vireo (14 species added in 2020 to total 623 currently)

Arizona Lifebirds:  Worm-eating Warbler, Crescent-chested Warbler, Clay-colored Thrush, Eared Quetzal, Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, Blue-winged Warbler, Northern Jacana, Canada Warbler, Yellow-green Vireo, American Tree Sparrow (10 species added in 2020 to total 477 currently)

Maricopa County Lifebirds:  Worm-eating Warbler, Streak-backed Oriole, Canada Warbler, Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, Yellow-green Vireo, Baltimore Oriole, Black-throated Blue Warbler, Laughing Gull, Short-eared Owl (9 species added in 2020 to total 402 currently)

Gila County Lifebirds:  Red-necked Grebe, Hooded Warbler (2 species added in 2020 to total 327 currently)

Arizona County Birding:  Something I love to do is explore the different counties in Arizona.  We have 15 in total.  I like to get 200 or more in each county.  To get number in a county, you have to explore it pretty well.  In 2020, I added Coconino County and Navajo County to the counties I have 200 or more in.  It now gives me 12 of the 15 counties, and the remaining 3 I have to get 200 in are:  Yuma, La Paz, and Mohave Counties.  These three counties are along the west side of Arizona.  They will be fun to explore in the future, and Navajo and Coconino were a lot of fun in 2020.  I hope to take a few more out of state road trips in 2021 too.


Happy New Year everyone, and I wish you a healthy and safe 2021.  2020's birding for me was "The Year of the Warbler".

Thursday, December 17, 2020

A New Arizona Bird

 The American Tree Sparrow (Spizelloides aborea) is a sparrow of the north, where it is rare anywhere south of northern Canada in the summer.  In winter, flocks move south to more southern latitudes, but usually stick to cold climates.  With me living in Arizona, nothing is truly considered to be all that cold when compared to latitudes to the north.  The northern reaches of Arizona do get very cold in the winter, and at times, birders have found American Tree Sparrows in northern Arizona.  Most of the records come from Apache County.  When one showed up in Cochise County (southeastern Arizona) several years ago, the birding community was pretty shocked.  I didn't chase the bird, and it proved to be good that I didn't when the bird wasn't seen again.  When one showed up at Badger Springs Wash of the Agua Fria National Monument by the discovery of Tim Flood this past December 12th, I couldn't believe it.  From my home in Peoria, that is only a 50 minute drive.  When birders investigated further, it continued.


Prior to today, December 17th, I had only seen American Tree Sparrow once in my life.  It came from a 20 hour jaunt during mid-April in 2016 to Minneapolis, Minnesota.  I was chasing Eastern Screech-Owls, and in the pursuit, my buddy Josh and I came across a good flock of American Tree Sparrows.  With it being mid-April, they knew spring was approaching, and they were vocal and sang a neat song.  Minnesota is a place where the bird is common in winter, and I was happy to see them in places like that.  To get one in Arizona wasn't a huge deal to me, but I always thought highly of it if I were to get it.  I didn't think one would show up in southern Yavapai County, and for a bird like that, it is a "must chase".  After seeing positive reports on the 14th from many birders, I went to Badger Springs Wash after work and arrived there to search at about 3:30 P.M.  I joined Mary, Dara, and Eric and we all searched unsuccessfully for the bird until dark.  We concluded that late afternoon-time of day was a bad time to search.  There was no doubt about that, and the next two mornings of the 15th and 16th the bird was seen by plenty of observers.  

I decided to try for the bird this morning, on December 17th, a day off of work.  I arrived at dawn, and waited for a little while before it got more light out.  Levi arrived when I started birding at about 7:35, and we teamed up to look for the bird.  Badger Springs Wash is a little east of the parking lot to the area, and the bird was frequenting a stretch that was about a fourth-of-a-mile long.  The distance might not seem long, but when there is good cover for birds throughout the stretch, it turns into a longer story.  Luckily, Levi and I got our eyes on the bird as we detected movement on our first walk up the wash.  We came across it at about 8:15, after we had only been slowly birding for about 40 minutes.  I thought we had a great shot at the bird, but didn't think we'd get it that fast!

The sparrow was foraging on the ground in a part of the wash where the wash seemed to split.  It was joined by a few other sparrows, including a Song Sparrow that saw it as competition for food.  Levi and I snapped some shots for documentation.  It was behaving as American Tree Sparrows usually do by foraging for seeds on the ground.  As far as habitat went, the wash was filled with a variety of shrubby and dense cover-perfect for a Tree Sparrow.


For the next two hours, Levi and I managed to successfully track the sparrow down when it would move around elsewhere.  It was a great way to enjoy a state bird, and for Levi, a life bird.  At one point, we knew the sparrow was in front of us in dense cover, and as we waited, it stayed in one place while feeding for about 15 minutes.  In our times of encountering it, we managed to get a selection of photographs.  However, the bird stuck in thick cover for most of the time, and fed rather slowly on the ground.  When it would land on higher branches, it would barely perch for more than a second and we rarely had time to snap photos when it would do this. 

We also got Rob on the bird, and by late morning, a lot of the sparrows of Badger Springs Wash became more active.  The Tree Sparrow perched up longer than it did earlier in the morning, which was awesome.  Thanks Tim Flood for this discovery!

A total of 5 hours spent walking up and down a wash on the Agua Fria National Monument, very close to home-is a fun story I can tell for how I got my first American Tree Sparrow for Arizona.