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.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

AZ Big Year - Week Fifty 12/10-12/16

On the way to some appointments in Tucson on Wednesday 10th Louise & I stopped by McCormick Park to see the Red-breasted & Yellow-bellied Sapsucker Mark & Molly had been following much of the fall.  Neither species was needed for the year list but I wanted a photo of the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker.  I walked the park alone once without finding any sapsuckers.  Separately, both Molly & Mark showed up and with Louise we walked the park.  I eventually found the immature Yellow-bellied Sapsucker and got some recognizable photographs.  It really did not want its picture taken. 
On Friday 12th I guided a couple from Tennessee.  After a quick futile search for the Harris’s Hawk in Green Valley, we head toward Madera Canyon.  We had a very nice walk along the Proctor & Whitehouse Picnic Area Trails.  The highlights for the visiting birders were many, though the standout had to be the Red-breasted Sapsucker just off one of the parking slots and at eyelevel.  At the Santa Rita Lodge we found three Magnificent Hummingbirds (high count for time of year), two Hepatic Tanagers, and a “Slate-colored” Junco (rare form for Arizona).  At Madera Kubo we found another Magnificent Hummingbird.  We took another walk, from the Madera Picnic Area we followed the trail down canyon.  Just a few yards into the walk, we ran into a wonderful mixed-species flock with included two Olive Warblers, five Townsend’s Warblers, a Painted Redstart, and a Hammond’s Flycatcher.  Finally we headed over to Florida Canyon and walked the trail to the large water tank.  On the way, another couple had just turned around after seeing a male Elegant Trogon.   This was the first I had heard of a trogon in Florida Canyon this winter.  Last winter there were three (at least).  A few minutes later we heard and then almost immediately see the trogon and get some good documentation photographs. We continued past the trogon a hundred yards and heard the Gray Catbird that has been reported hear recently.  Apparently this bird enjoys the company of two Spotted Towhees and the taste of dried hackberries. We enjoyed this bird for several minutes while it fed and perched up, I got some decent photographs.
On Saturday 13th I headed up to Tucson hoping to do some scouting for the Christmas Count.  I convinced myself that getting muddy today would not improve our bird finding abilities tomorrow, so I went to Sweetwater (paved or hard pack trails) to try again for a photograph of the Baltimore Oriole. Again, there was no oriole for me.
Sunday 14th was the day of the Tucson Valley CBC.  I was teamed up with Larry Norris & Pam Baum.  Since I was the supposed leader of the team, I developed a strategy that had us not backtracking.  We left a vehicle at the Crossroad Regional Park (outside of the circle), started birding around the Ina Road bridge and then down the river to the north.  When we reached the edge of the circle we put our binocular down and walked to the vehicle, and then drove to the Orange Grove Pond, left a vehicle there and birded our way down the river back to Ina Road where my vehicle was left earlier.  We found the Louisiana Waterthrush upstream from the Ina Road Bridge early.  I saw it briefly and Pam & Larry heard its distinctive chip notes. Also of interest at the bridge was a female Wood Duck in amongst a flock of Northern Pintails. Several days ago when I scouted this section of the area, the river upstream from the bridge was dry.  Today, it was flowing very nicely in the morning with the flow dimensioning all day so that by the late afternoon, the riverbed upstream from the Ina Road Bridge was a string of pools.  Our walk downstream along the river was uneventful however we were able to secure a few good birds for the count; namely Rock Wren, Northern Rough-winged Swallow, & Wilson’s Snipe.  At the Orange Grove Pond, the first surprise was water.  The second surprise was a basic plumaged American Avocet swimming with the few ducks, several American Coots, and two Pied-billed Grebes.  I believe the avocet was the only one for the entire count.  Just north of the pond, we came across a flock of at least three Lazuli Buntings.  While trying to get an accurate count of the buntings a flock of Chipping Sparrows appears with a Clay-colored Sparrow.  And then a Virginia’s Warbler appears in my binocular view for a few seconds.  The Virginia’s Warbler is the first ever for the Tucson Valley CBC and maybe the only one in the country.  Clay-colored Sparrows seem to be everywhere this fall.  We probably spent more time than we should have trying to get better views of these two rarities as well as getting some documentation.   The last part of our count day was driving the desert-residential neighborhoods was of Silverbell Road.  We found nothing exciting but did add a good number of species we did not previously find in the river bottom areas.  We all had a nice birding and enjoying each other’s company.
Though there was some good birds this past week, none were new for the year.  So the year list stands at 412.

Friday, December 19, 2014

AZ Big Year - Week Forty-nine 12/3-12/9

Again, this week turned out to be very interesting.  I had helped Rich Hoyer review Pima County eBird records last month while he was on tour in Peru.  He resumed the duties once he returned home and then this week asked if I would be the primary eBird reviewer for Pima County.  I have trouble saying no and now I’m it. 
Lucy's Warbler
I started at Sweetwater Wetlands on Wednesday 3rd hoping to see the Baltimore Oriole again. I missed getting a picture when I saw it a few weeks ago.  I did not see the oriole however others (a group from Green Valley) said they saw.  I did find and photograph a Lucy’s Warbler, which may be the first December Pima County record.  After Sweetwater I did a wee bit of scouting for the upcoming Tucson Valley CBC.  My area includes the Ina Road Bridge over the Santa Cruz River where last year a Louisiana Waterthrush spent the winter.  Well it has returned or at least that’s the current belief. I heard and then saw the Louisiana Waterthrush in the dense vegetation surrounding the effluent outflow that is now the headwaters of the Santa Cruz in this area.  The main channel of the Santa Cruz River was dry due to the closure of the Roger Road WWTP further “upstream” month ago.  That was about it for scouting. I surveyed the river to the north from under the bridge and returned to Green Valley. On Thursday 4th I did some local Green Valley birding, kind of scouting for another CBC, with no exciting finds.   On Friday 5th Louise and I walked the Proctor Road trails.  Even though I saw a pair of Black-capped Gnatcatchers and a pair of Hepatic Tanagers it was not a serious birding expedition.
Black-and-White Warbler
On Saturday 6th I meet Pamela at the Phoenician Resort in Scottsdale.  Pamela had only one day to get out in to the field and I agreed to get up to Phoenix (not my normal area for guiding).  From the resort we headed east to some of the recreation sites on the Salt River.   In route, somewhere on East Indian School Road we found a Merlin, always fun to see.  At the marina area at Saguaro Lake we searched the lake and the scrubby hillsides.  Though nothing too exciting for the local, Pamela enjoyed several Arizona specialties including Black-tailed Gnatcatcher; Rock, Canyon, & Cactus Wrens, Gila Woodpecker, and a male Costa’s Hummingbird.  At Butcher Jones Recreation Area, of interest locally were Black-and-White Warbler and two (at least) Greater Scaup. We both enjoyed the close looks at the Eared Grebe that somehow managed to dive in less than six inches of water.  Just before reaching the Granite Reef Rec Area Pamela saw a Greater Roadrunner along the side of the road.  We stopped & looked but were unable to re-locate it until we were about to get back into the truck.  The roadrunner was catching grasshoppers along the side of the road; Pamela was able to get many photographs before it decided to head into the bushes.  Though Granite Reef had nothing particularly unusual this day, it appears that this site has much potential and worth more visits when in the area.  Our final stop was at the Riparian Preserve at Gilbert Water Ranch; again nothing too exciting but nice to see the mixture of water birds and desert birds.
Canyon Wren
After dropping off Pamela, I made a few phone calls to determine if I should proceed to Lake Havasu or head north towards Ashurst Lake for a reported Common Black-headed Gull. The Black-headed Gull turned out to be a Bonapart’s Gull so I headed towards Havasu.
Red-throated Loon
On Sunday 7th at Lake Havasu Lauren Harter, David Vander Pluym, and Paul Lehman picked me up for a pre-meeting excursion to Pittsburg Point overlooking Lake Havasu.  There we met Gary Rosenberg and Chris Benesh.  Almost immediately David finds a Red-throated Loon, the first of the season for Lake Havasu.  Minutes later it flies by and I was able to get some shots of it in flight.  Rather satisfying after a very distant study of two of this species on January 17th earlier this year.  There was an incredible number of Eared Grebes out on the lake; the estimate was thirty-some thousand with at least two-thirds on Arizona waters.  It looked as if parts of the lake were covered with a mat.  Much of the rest of the day all of us were in attendance at the Arizona Bird Committee meeting.  Somewhat ironic was that we voted Red-throated Loon off the review list after jokingly voting to accept our record by viewing the back of my camera.  I tried to summon up a rare gull in the few minutes of daylight left after the meeting.  No luck, but wish I had more time to study the first & second-cycle Herring & California Gulls among a large flock of Ring-billed Gulls at Windsor Point.
I spent the night in Parker and early Monday 8th morning I was at the Parker Oasis.  Laurens & David had found two Gray Catbirds and a Varied Thrush at this site recently and I very much wanted to see a Varied Thrush for the year.  The first rare bird I saw was a Rufous-backed Robin among a small flock of American Robin.  I was fairly dark due to overcast skies so taking pictures did not come immediately to mind.  I watch this small the Rufous-backed Robin & it companions fly westward towards & perhaps into California (honestly not sure if I watched long enough to say I saw them in Cali.).  I eventually saw one of the Gray Catbirds popup in a dead snag briefly.  And shortly afterwards found the Varied Thrush feeding at the fruiting palm until a flock of robins flew in & spooked the thrush.  The Varied Thrush was species 411 for the year in Arizona.  This appears to be a very interesting spot worthy of more visits when I’m in the area.  Other interesting birds included Western Bluebirds and Cedar Waxwings.  I had planned to head south to Cibola NWR after birding in Parker.  But with renewed reports of the Black-throated Blue Warbler on the Santa Cruz Flats, I decided to bird the Parker Valley on the way to the interstate and then try to twitch another year bird for the day.  The Parker Valley is in many ways like the Santa Cruz Flats and I could have spent an entire day wandering the farm road searching for anything.  Some of the more exciting species for me were Ferruginous Hawks, hundreds of American Pipits, large flocks of Great & Cattle Egrets, several flocks of Sandhill Cranes, and a single Mountain Bluebird. 

I reach the intersection of Baumgartner & Wheeler at around 14:30.  Keith & Doug have also just arrived, they station themselves at the driveway where the warbler was last reported.  I begin wandering back and worth along the road checking out every blasted Yellow-rumped Warbler I see.  At least there were a few Orange-crowned Warblers around to make it interesting.  Tommy & Steve arrive several minutes later.  They were returning from seeing the Baltimore Oriole at Sweetwater and had seen Black-throated Blue and an American Redstart earlier in the day at this location.  While trying to get a better view of the warbler and perhaps a photo, I keep hearing a Summer Tanager that sounded to my ears like the eastern form.  I never saw this bird.  After a while I got the Black-throated Blue Warbler in flight flying between trees.   It was kind of shocking how obvious it was in flight.  Later I see it foraging along the side of the house in pomegranate & citrus trees  with the American Redstart.  I think the warbler & the redstart were competing for whom was the most active flitting bird in the grove.  As I am about to leave I see a hawk on a pole that Tommy & Steve are also looking at.  When it flushes I recognize it as the “Harlan’s” Hawk I had seen a few weeks earlier nearby.  As I am driving away, I find that it has landed on another pole to the south and uncharacteristically (for a Harlan’s) allows me to get a few relatively decent photographs.  I get home after dark pretty tired.