Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Asian Plover in Arizona

Monday 10/03/2016 06:41MST: I am standing on a berm next to Gary. The sun has just peeked over the nearby hills to the east and is beginning light up the mud flat and shallow pond in front of us.  A strong wind out of the southwest is blowing making it feel cold. We are scoping the far shoreline of the small pond and the mud flats further away for any sign of motion. The others are on another nearby rise and Dave is checking out a small wet area to the south.  We have been here for thirty minutes, the only shorebirds around were four roosting Long-billed Dowitchers and they have left. A Common Tern flies over raising the excitement level somewhat but it to departs. Faces are growing long, almost as long as the drive we’ve just made. And then to the east Gary and I hear a plover calling from a small wet area I was thinking about investigating.  Gary makes the call - Lesser Sand-Plover!
Lesser Sand-Plover just after flying in from the east.

Our party also includes Deb, Janine, and Chris.  We left Tucson at quarter to 01:00AM (I left Green Valley an hour earlier).  Upon arriving we meet up with Andrew, Dave, Mark, & Molly, they had stayed the night in Flagstaff and arrived at Round Cedar Lake a few minutes before us.  There were a few others present however I focused on searching for the quarry and did not mingling with the other birders much.

Whether intentional or not a small plover could easily conceal itself amongst clods of dirt and small furrows, particularly with the low angle of the sunlight early in the morning. We fortune seekers came to this remote location & isolate site with the hopes of seeing a vagrant shorebird discovered & identified Sunday by Chuck LaRue and Jason Wilder. The site is a playa where someone has scraped the soil leaving several shallow depressions each accompanied by pile of dirt. The depressions hold water and the berms provide a good vantage point. Good for birds and birders.

Upon calling, the Lesser Sand-Plover flies from its easterly hiding spot to the west around our group of birders and lands near the far edge of the small pond closest to us.  The bird called for the duration of its flight.  Whether the plover was calling before it flew or immediately after taking flight is not known and really doesn’t matter much at this point.  It would have been nice to get a recording of the call but again, it really doesn’t matter – we can identify this thing visually.

For the next hour and forty minutes we take in as much of this bird as possible. I personally bounce between taking photographs including two videos and studying it through the scope. Others are doing the same. There are minor and respectful celebrations - high-fives, handshakes, fist pumps and knockings, and a few hugs. 

Lesser Sand-Plover was once referred to as Mongolian Plover in North America. I suspect that some taxonomic committee in Europe or Asia determined that the birds once known as Mongolian Plover were merely a form of the Lesser Sand-Plover, they were lumped and the English name Lesser Sand-Plover now refers to both. The AOU at least adopted the name Lesser Sand-Plover in 2004. Interestingly (mildly) the scientific name of the ‘old’ Mongolian Plover Charadrius mongolus is also the scientific name of the ‘new’ Lesser Sand-Plover. And the scientific name of the subspecies of Lesser Sand-Plover that so far has been found in North America is Charadrius mongolus mongolus, the Mongolian Lesser Sand-Plover. What I am trying to say with all this useless information is that I much prefer the English name “Mongolian Plover”.
Lesser Sand-Plover - 10/3/2016 Round Cedar Lake, Navajo Res., Coconino Co., AZ

Lesser Sand-Plovers are rare vagrants to North America. Most of the records are from Alaska and particularly the Aleutian and Bering Sea Islands as well as around Nome and Barrow. There are a smattering of records along the west coast from Vancouver, BC to San Diego, CA and a handful of records in the east. This observation is the first for the interior of the western US. Lesser Sand-Plovers breeding range is from the Himalayas to northeast Siberia and apparently western Alaska. They spend the winter in coastal areas of India, Southeast Asia, and Australia. Their migration is typically through East Asia and the southwest Pacific Ocean. Clearly this bird is way off track.  Normally a coastal species, this individual is more than 300 miles from the nearest coastline (Rocky Point) and 400 miles due east of Los Angeles.

Long into our observation of the plover a Tundra Peregrine Falcon shows on the scene. It was migrating and apparently hungry. This little scape in the earth didn’t off much. The little plover was a candidate for the falcon, definitely more meat than on the Barn Swallows and Horned Larks flying by. The Lesser Sand-Plover ceased foraging, that is it froze and became another dirt clod until the falcon departed. After another thirty minutes we too departed to look for a meal at the IHOP in Flagstaff.   

Peregrine Falcon upper left, Lesser Sand-Plover lower right

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

AZ Big Year - Recovery

For the past week I have been trying to recover from the previous year.  Late in 2013 I set a goal for myself to observe 400 species of birds in Arizona during the 2014 calendar year.  My goal was personal, could I do it?  I believed this would be a good incentive for me to explore and learn about new birding locations around the state.  I knew that I had no planned trips outside of Arizona except for a week in Colorado.  And most important, my wonderful wife agreed that this was the year to go for it! I was not competing with anyone and I was not trying to set a new record.  I learned of the previous record only a day or two before starting while discussing my plans with another birder that happened to be the previous record holder.  I believe he said something to the affect that it was time for a new record. A new record has been set.
Though I did not advertise that I was doing a big year, I did not hide it either.  From the onset three other birders knew I was making my attempt. Early on, several folks noticed my eBird total for the year skyrocketing and asked. As the year progressed I felt that it was kind of common knowledge among the state’s birding community.  I was however surprised to find that I was mentioned and congratulated in a posting to the ABA Facebook page.
I was out birding 305 days in 2014.  Eighty-nine of those days were dedicated to Big Year Birding.  Most of the remaining days I was birding for another purpose, guiding, scouting, or volunteering and I saw many of the year birds in this way. For guiding & volunteering activities I put 14400 miles on my truck and 12150 miles specifically dedicated to the Big Year.  Data from eBird indicates that 444 species of birds were recorded in Arizona during 2014. Of those, ten (10) are not countable by ABA standards and I did not see any of them. That leaves twenty-one (21) species I did not see during the year.  I made attempts but failed to see five of the 21; Slate-throated Redstart, California Quail, Common Grackle, Lapland Longspur, and Least Flycatcher.  For various reasons, I chose not to chase or could not chase the remaining sixteen (16) birds that I did not see.  [The Sharp-tailed Sandpiper stands out amongst this crowd; the report that it was no longer present arrived the day before I freed up and had planned to go.]
Interesting side note: The California Condor at the beginning of the year was not countable by ABA Standards.  Before the end of the year the committee that determines such things, voted such that the California Condor is now countable.  Their decisions led to a trip to the Grand Canyon where not only did I see the Condor, I also saw a Pine Grosbeak.
Another side note: I anticipated that the AOU Checklist Committee would vote to split the Curve-billed Thrasher.  I saw and photographed both forms of Curve-billed Thrashers during the year. The split didn’t happen.
No one single species stands out above the others as the best bird of the year.  I saw seventeen new state birds during the year:
Bell's Sparrow
Baseline Rd-Salome Hwy
Tundra Swan
Prescott--Willow Lake
Pinyon Jay
Near Williams
Black-capped Chickadee
Fredonia-277 Altus Ln
Am. Three-toed Woodpecker
Near Jacob’s Lake
Ring-necked Pheasant
Yuma-5800-5998 W County 9th St
Broad-winged Hawk
De Anza Trail--Tubac
Dusky Grouse
Green's Peak
Gray Jay
Sheep Crossing
Caspian Tern
Glendale Recharge Ponds
Black-billed Magpie
Teec Nos Pos Wash
Long-tailed Jaeger
Lake Havasu City--N Pittsburgh Pt
Worm-eating Warbler
Patagonia-Sonoita Creek Preserve
Blue-headed Vireo
stakeout Sinaloa Wren, Tubac (2013-2014)
Red-headed Woodpecker
Aravaipa Canyon--west trailhead
California Condor
Grand Canyon NP--Bright Angel Lodge
Pine Grosbeak
Grand Canyon NP--Yavapai Point

And I saw 370 new country birds:  Apache 49, Cochise 15, Coconino 22, Gila 35, La Paz 35, Maricopa 65, Mohave 40, Navajo 4, Pima 11, Pinal 26, Santa Cruz 8, Yavapai 37, Yuma 23, [did not visit Graham & Greenlee].
I was asked the other day, “What’s next?”. My quick response was “a year of Zen birding”. I really haven’t decided what that means yet; I guess I’ll let that philosophy gel in my mindfulness for a while.  I do want to learn bird distribution in Pima County better.  Since becoming the Pima County eBird editor, I have learned how much more there is to learn about Pima County birds and birders.
I now declare my 2014 Arizona Big Year complete.  While the birding ended on December 31, I felt that I needed to tie up some loose ends before declaring that I’m done.  I have a few other loose threads to pull on, like determining how many species I photographed and cataloging all the year’s photographs.  I'll take care of those if I feel like it and have the time.  It’s been a blast and now it’s time to move on.

The hat that has been with me all year has been hung in (semi) retirement.

I will always remember: Life is simple. Eat. Sleep. Bird.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

AZ Big Year - Week Fifty-Two 12/24 – end of the year

This is the final week of 2014 and my Arizona Big Year.  The time is waning as well as my energy and motivation for the chase.  There are currently several known potential year birds for the taking.  Why should I continue?  My goal has been met and exceeded.  A new record has been set.  Isn’t it just a waste of gas, driving several hours just to see a bird?
When I began this challenge I made a commitment to myself to follow through with it.  I was not going to let this goal interfere with my guiding (more on that later), the only avenues out were the health & well being of my wife, my Mom, or myself. If Louise or my Mom needed my attention, they would get it.  Fortunately all has gone well here.  I have cut an excursion or two short because I want to support Louise with a few of her objectives but I have not given up.  So what if I you stop now? No one will know, I’ve broken the record. I’ve met my goal.  So what?  Well I would know that I had “given up” or took the easy path.
On Christmas Day, Thursday 25th, I headed out to the grasslands north and east of Sonoita.  I hoped to find my own Lapland Longspur.  Several of this species have been reported around the state in the past several weeks and I even chased one in Maricopa County (twice).  I found plenty of Chestnut-collared Longspurs and a single McCown’s Longspur, but no Laplands. 
On Saturday 27th I decided I would hike up Florida Canyon.  Florida Canyon is one of my favorite spot to bird alone and a favored spot for guiding.  Today was birding alone.  If I saw anything - great, if not - great! It turned out to be rather productive. I photographed a pair of Black-capped Gnatcatchers.  I found a Golden-crowned Sparrow, and photographed it.  I heard, saw, and photographed one Rufous-capped Warbler. I saw a flock of 27 Band-tailed Pigeons and photographed more than half of them at once.  And finally I heard one of the Elegant Trogons previously seen in this wonderful little canyon.  When I get home I hear about a possible Pacific Loon in Green Valley, I verify it, photograph it, and report it to the List Server for the TAS Rare Bird Alert. What a day! No new year birds but one of the most fun days I’ve had in a while.
Instead of panicking about the end of the year and what year birds to chase, I head up to Florida Wash (not the canyon).  I find the lone male Black-capped Gnatcatcher that been hanging around this area for a while. In fact he was the first bird I saw after getting out of my vehicle, he was flying across an open area and posed for pictures.  Later I find the female Evening Grosbeak that was first found on the Christmas Count a week & half ago.  She too posed for pictures.  As I was leaving, both the gnatcatcher and the grosbeak appeared in the corral.  The gnatcatcher played through the bushes while the grosbeak landed on the water tank to drink.  What a wonderful way to delay my departure!
By now, Monday 29th, I knew of a few new potential year birds around.  A White-eyed Vireo in Portal and a Red-necked Grebe northwest of Phoenix. From a time & distance aspect, neither was very appealing.  I guess if I had not yet met my goal, I might have been more motivated. So I went exploring down Proctor Road to where it turns into the Elephant Head bike path. I didn’t see or hear much exciting but thoroughly enjoyed myself.  Monday night I learn that the Red-necked Grebe was seen again by a number of folks and there are two species of scots on this lake.  If timing can be worked out, I could make another try for the Fulvous Whistling Duck and the Lapland Longspur.
I back out of the garage at exactly 5AM.  I arrive at Lake Pleasant at 07:48 and the sun has just popped over the hills to the southeast.  I am pretty quick at finding the three scoters from the Two Cow Cove overlook, not looking in the cove but out towards Burro Island.  Two Black Scoters and one White-winged Scoter have been present on this lake for several days now. I had previsouly seen both of these species this year (the Black Scoter in Tucson and the White-winged Scoters on this lake in February).  I take a few long distance photographs so that I can claim I photographed a Black Scoter this year.  After an hour of following yesterdays directions, I decide to follow the directions of the person that originally found the grebe.  I stationed myself on the southwest shore of the reservoir near the ten-lane boat ramp. I find the Red-necked Grebe across this cove near Burro Island to the east of the scoters (I can see them too).  I called Larry & Brian knowing that they too were looking for this species.  I lose the grebe when it dives at the same time a Peregrine Falcon flies by.  I have a nice conversation with a Maricopa County Deputy Sheriff.  Seconds after the deputy leaves, I find the Red-necked Grebe a few hundred yards off the shore.  I try digiscoping with no success, it just too windy to hold both the iPhone and the scope steady.  I call Larry & Brian again, there other the other side of the boat ramp and quickly get over to my position.  We find the Red-necked Grebe for several minutes before loosing track of it and finding a Horned Grebe.  This grebe comes in even closer and I get some decent photos with my long lens camera.
I leave Larry & Brian with the grebe & Lake Pleasant behind.  I head south to Tres Rios to look for any whistling-ducks.  I then head to Liberty School road to look for longspurs. Farmers are working in the field.  I continue on the Old Highway 80 where the first Fulvous Whistling-Dick was reported.  I see a Greater Yellowlegs, its just not the same.  I start heading home.  I make a stop at Coachline Gravel Pit pond and pick up the female Common Goldeneyes but miss the two geese that have been present. I get home at about 6pm, thirteen hours and 460 sixty miles.

Louise and I have appointments in Tucson on the 31st, the only birding I do is to look for some Eastern Bluebirds and a Yellow-shafted Flicker (neither year birds) that Mark & Molly found earlier in the day.  So I end my 2014 Big Year birding season by getting blown and rained out of Fort Lowell Park. What a year! 413

Thursday, December 25, 2014

AZ Big Year - Week Fifty-One 12/17-12/23

The Green Valley/Madera Canyon CBC was held on Wednesday 17th.  My assigned area and task was lower Florida Canyon above the dam and to find Rufous-capped Warblers for the count.   One would think that having a trogon fly over before one starts birding is a good omen of things to come. Just before reaching the parking area at Florida Canyon, a female Elegant Trogon flies down the road and over my vehicle.  Trogons wintering arounf the Santa Ritas are not necessarily rare but not to be expected.  Last year three were found here during the Christmas Count and following my observation today of the female, a birding-friend photographed an immature male and an adult male together.  I arrived at my post at about 08:30 and for the next three & half hours wandered up & down this section of the canyon.  The Santa Rita Mountains were socked in with heavy clouds & the threat of rain.  The weather seemed to suppress the bird activity and the vegetation is thick & the creek is flowing making visual & auditory detections as well as birding in general difficult.  At 11:14 I finally detected at least one Rufous-capped Warbler chattering & giving call notes.  I was not able to get a visual on this visually stunning little bird but the calls are distinctive enough to count it for the Christmas Count.  On my way out of Florida Canyon, where the birder’s path joins the designated Forest Service trail, I see the previously reported Gray Catbird fly from the bushes I’ve previously seen it in to the nearby hillside strewn with cactus.  I watched & tried photographing the catbird on the cactus slopes before it returned to the bushes. I manage a few more bad documentation photos before leaving.  For the next couple of days I set out to photo-document a few of the rarities reported on the count.  On Thursday 18th, I found and photographed the previously reported Lewis’s Woodpecker in the Madera Highlands park. On Friday 19th I found & photographed one of the two Evening Grosbeaks Larry Liese had found in Florida Wash near the corral as well as the long continuing Black-capped Gnatcatcher. I was unsuccessful in finding the Long-eared Owl roost discovered during the count.  On Saturday 20th I photographed the four geese hanging out at the Green Valley WTP, two Greater White-fronted and two Snow Geese.

On Sunday 21st Jeremy Medina and I headed to Buckeye chase a Fulvous Whistling-Duck and some longspurs.  The duck was in a canal that crossed Old Highway 80 just west of Highway 85.  We stopped twice without seeing any ducks.  We did have a personal high count of Killdeer in one field, 179, and two American White Pelicans. We spent almost hours searching for Lapland & McCown’s Longspurs along Liberty School Road about ten miles east of previous location.  We joined several others looking over the Horned Larks.  I thought several times to have heard longspurs but not enough to put Longspur species on my eBird checklist.  About two hours after we left, Caleb the young man that originally found the longspurs found them again at the same exact spot & photographed them.   In spite of not seeing our target birds, it was good to be out and enjoy Jeremy’s company for the day.