"Birding is hunting without killing, preying without punishing, and collecting without clogging your home. Take a field guide into the woods and you're more than a hiker. Your a detective on a backcountry beat, tracking the latest suspect from Mexico, Antarctica, or even the Bronx. Spend enough time sloshing through swamps or scaling summits or shuffling through beach sand and you inevitably face a tough question: Am I a grown up birder or just another kid on a treasure hunt?" -Mark Obmascik (author of The Big Year)
A year ago today, on December 31st, 2010, I sat down in the evening while eating dinner with countless memories of a very memorable birding year that I’ll never forget. In all of 2010, I did a “Birding Big Year” in Maricopa County, Arizona. I finished with 304 different species inside of Maricopa County, something I certainly didn’t think was possible when I started. The will to explore can change our lives however, and it certainly changed mine. It was such an amazing year for me that I couldn’t resist the urge for more, that great story in my life needed a sequel. A few days into 2011, when Kurt Radamaker relocated a Chestnut-sided Warbler at Rio Salado in Central Phoenix that was found in 2010, I thought to myself, “I think I want to do another Maricopa County Big Year!” I had said I wouldn’t do a big year again after 2010, but once 2011 hit, my interest quickly came back to life. The pen went down on paper, and I started preparing for another big year. But could I break last year’s record of 304 species? After such an awesome 2010, could 2011 even come close? Every big year is a story and a long journey, and so is this HUGE post. I invite you to please come on this long journey too, of my Maricopa County Big Year in 2011!
The quote above is from Mark Obmascik, author of the birding novel, The Big Year. That quote reminds me of myself a lot, and yes even though I’m not a kid anymore, I basically have been a kid on a treasure hunt for the last two years, birding in Maricopa County. I tried to be a grown up birder on several occasions, but the treasure hunting spirit inside of me had to come out. Just like the quote, I constantly sloshed through wet riparian and swampy areas like Morgan City Wash, I got my truck stuck in sand twice, and I scaled summits up on Mount Ord’s highest forested points right on the county lines. For what purpose was I doing this for? Birds! It was about focusing on one county, and hustling to get a box full of treasure, and being that detective throughout this large and diverse Maricopa County. I wanted to have the best big year possible in Maricopa County, and I was willing to risk anything to accomplish that goal. I had to hustle if I wanted to do well in the end, and that meant going out even when I was tired or exhausted. It was no different than when 315 pound Shaquille O’Neal had just put on a Suns uniform for the first time, diving into the stands of a nervous crowd after one loose ball to give the Suns one extra chance to score. Shaq was risking injury or killing a fan to help his team out. Hustling for birds is quite similar to diving in the stands from a basketball standpoint. I had slush through swampy areas and bushwhack through tough terrain to see several extra species. The drive to see every species possible was crazy, and I dedicated myself to trying my best to get out in the field as much as possible, in trying for another big year. Of course the ideas from birders doing county big years came from the idea of doing a North American Big Year, which has become quite popular. Mark’s book tells the stories of three birders who competed against each other in 1998, each of them reaching well over 700 species in the ABA area. That book even was made into a great movie this year, which many of us have already enjoyed. A good question is, what do birders think when they hear the idea, “Big Year”? Most probably think of thousands of dollars to chase every North American rarity that shows up while seeing every regularly occurring North American bird. I know I think of it that way because I could never afford to do one. It’s very competitive, but fun at the same time. Despite the fact people come up with amazing numbers, it doesn’t really contribute a lot to ornithological value, it’s nothing more than a personal accomplishment. And that’s where doing a county big year is much different. County big years bring a lot of personal accomplishments, but more importantly, they add significant birding knowledge to a given area. Birders hustling for an entire year in one county are very likely to come across irregular or new birds for the area, and have better chances at finding nesting records for the county. With me having the driving force of doing a few Maricopa County Big Years, I discovered a first and a few second county records, as well as a first county nesting record. While one person could never possibly see a hundred percent of everything in a big area, they can still show in their numbers how much potential a county might have. County big years can be a great resource for knowledge throughout the state of Arizona, which is why I think many of us shall explore the different counties and do big years, especially in the underbirded counties. With a county as big and diverse as Maricopa County, which is underbirded as well, I had a lot of ground to explore.
What is it about Maricopa County that I like so much? The answer is, the diversity of habitat and birds, which makes the potential here endless. I’ve become addicted to birding in this wonderful and scenic county the last two years, which I’ve had a hard time leaving for other birds seen in different places (even if they are amazingly rare!). David Vander Pluym and Lauren Harter had to drag me out last year kicking and screaming to go to California to chase the Bean Goose at the Salton Sea! Whether it’s finding a new county bird or a new potential “hotspot” to explore, I love everything about it here. Maricopa County is the 15th largest county in the United States by area, and is actually the 5th largest county in Arizona! Coconino, Mohave, Apache, and Navajo Counties are larger than Maricopa, and have very diverse habitats as well. Habitats in Maricopa range from open and hot deserts to forested mountains that exceed 7000 feet. The many habitats include a variety of desert types, agricultural fields, sod farms, golf courses, ponds in city parks, big recharge ponds/basins, several big lakes, conservation parks with appropriately planted habitats, great desert riparian forest (willow/cottonwood/mesquite), sycamore filled canyons at 3-4000’ in elevation, chaparral covered hillsides, pine/oak forests 6-7000’ such as Mount Ord, and forested areas with a mix of pine, Douglas fir, oaks and sycamores 5-6500’ in elevation (Slate Creek Divide-similar to Southeastern Arizona canyons). With this great habitat diversity, it gives Maricopa County the potential to harbor many different birds any given year. So how would I plan out a successful year in a county so big? It seems complex at first, but it’s actually quite simple. One needs to visit these different habitats on a regular basis! Some of them require more visits than others. I made a few checklists for the year grouped by species abundance, which helped me to plan my trips out more accurately throughout the year. I had one list for the expected or regularly occurring species, which numbered 237 birds. This list was for the birds that are usually found with ease during the year, species one would expect to see. The next checklist was for the uncommon to rare hopefuls, which numbered 57 species. These are birds that can usually be found annually somewhere in the county in small numbers. Some of them are much easier than others. Locals like Gray Hawk, Red-shouldered Hawk, Tropical Kingbird, and the Dusky-capped Flycatchers would fit on this list. Another example are irregulars like Mountain Chickadee, Red Crossbill, Fox Sparrow, Mountain Bluebird, and Lewis’s Woodpecker, or birds that are annual but sometimes very hard to find like American Bittern, Eurasian Wigeon, Long-eared Owl, or Sprague’s Pipit. The next list isn’t a checklist, but a fill-in list for the rarities seen. This is what’s rarer in the county than the “uncommon to rare hopefuls”, and could be just a very good Maricopa County bird to a mega rarity that is considered rare anywhere in Arizona by the Arizona Bird Committee. Examples include Cassin’s Sparrow, which is common in parts of Arizona but rare in Maricopa County, and Rusty Blackbird, which is very rare anywhere in Arizona with only six records in the last twenty years. I would often look at my list throughout my year and look at the birds I still needed. I would visit different places that I could often knock out a few different year birds out at in one trip. Examples would be a few trips to Mount Ord or Slate Creek Divide to get the needed high elevation species, several weekly visits to the Glendale Recharge Ponds during August and September for the different shorebirds, and visits to different desert/riparian habitats to find all the different spring and fall migrants. If a rarity showed up, I’d often plan my day to attempt at seeing that rarity, but also planning around that rarity to see what other year birds might be around based on time of the year or surrounding habitat.
Before I get to the summary, I’ll include the history of where my big year interests came from. My interest in doing a big year came at the end of 2009, where Mark Stevenson told me about a statewide Arizona Big Year that he and Molly Pollock shot for. An impressive year for Mark and Molly reached over 400 species throughout the state. I aimed for an Arizona Big Year at the start of 2010 with a goal of 360 species, but soon refocused my attention on a Maricopa County Big Year once I read that Janet Witzeman and seven other birders participated in a year list in Maricopa County in 1974. The eight birders, Janet Witzeman, Scott Terrill, Bix Demaree, Helen Longstreth, Bob Norton, Bob Bradley, Zona Brighten, and Gene Bauer had a great year exploring Maricopa during 1974. That list topper was Scott Terrill, with 284 species seen, 315 species were combined among everyone. Janet’s big year and passion for Maricopa County is what first inspired me to get into exploring this area so much. Janet has been excellent to me and has given me so many different articles and publications about birding in the county, which I’m proud to say is my “birding home”.
SUMMARY: THE MARICOPA COUNTY BIG YEAR of 2011
This is the long part of this post! This is the month by month summary of my big year in Maricopa County for 2011. Could I break my record from 2010 of 304 species? Read to find out! This post is much longer than last year’s, as I hope to give a better birding feel this year as compared to last year’s brief summary mainly about rarities. I’ll also include month by month comparisons to 2010’s different months, and for this year, I’ll include my favorite bird of the month (which there will be a bird of the year!). This big year for me included a little bit of everything: camping in the woods, wading through rivers, miraculous finds, scaring birds into Maricopa County, endless rarities, endless driving, 24 hour searching, many misses and strikeouts, being a famous birder’s “guide” for a day, birding in the intense heat, birding in small city parks, bushwhacking down rattlesnake infested drainages, all day hikes, etc. Join the fun and read about my Maricopa County Big Year for 2011.
JANUARY: As January 1st, 2011 came in, I did my first birding of the year in the afternoon after work. With it being the first of the year and a fresh start, every first glance at the different birds was an exciting thing. I wasn’t thinking “Big Year” right off the bat on the 1st, as I was still recovering from last year’s tiring effort. I wanted to do something simple, so the close to home Glendale Recharge Ponds were my first birding effort of 2011. Before going to the ponds, I noted my first few species of the year around my apartment complex that included DARK-EYED JUNCO, INCA DOVE, and VERDIN. Once at the Glendale Recharge Ponds, enjoyable birds filled the basins. Diving BUFFLEHEADS and COMMON GOLDENEYES were present, as well as a flock of COMMON MERGANSERS. The wet basins also contained GREEN-WINGED TEALS, NORTHERN SHOVELERS, GADWALL, and RUDDY DUCKS. An OSPREY fished overhead, and a BELTED KINGFISHER sat on a power line that overlooks a canal which borders one of the basins. A LADDER-BACKED WOODPECKER called in a nearby mesquite on someone’s farm. These birds among 44 species brought my notebook to life to start the year. My interest in doing another Maricopa County Big Year quickly hit me hard on the 2nd. As I read the listserv from work, I saw that Kurt Radamaker had reported the Chestnut-sided Warbler at Rio Salado that I originally found on December 13th, 2010! I didn’t think twice about going for it, when I saw Kurt’s report my mind was made up immediately to re-chase this nice eastern warbler. Once at Rio Salado, it took me an hour to relocate the CHESTNUT-SIDED WARBLER. It ended up being very obliging, often feeding on the ground in front of me. I was two days into 2011 and a nice rarity was already on my list! A BLUE-WINGED TEAL and GREEN HERON were in a pond close to the Chestnut-sided Warbler, other enjoyable year firsts. The Chestnut-sided Warbler and a few other rarities were discovered at the end of 2010 and stuck around into January, which led me off to a very strong start to 2011 and an excellent January. Along the Salt River at the Granite Reef Recreation Site on the 3rd, a heard-only WINTER WREN was another example. I heard this wren on December 30th, 2010 in the exact spot. The tiny bird remained hidden from my eyes, but I was still glad to confirm it’s presence. Granite Reef contained other goodies that day, with my year firsts of BALD EAGLE, WILSON’S SNIPE, SNOW GOOSE, GRAY FLYCATCHER, and CANVASBACK. Driving north up the Bush Highway a GREATER ROADRUNNER crossed my path and at Butcher Jones Recreation Site/Beach area I was pleased to see WESTERN GREBES, a BROWN CREEPER, and a CANYON WREN. Later that day I made my way over to Gilbert Water Ranch, where a few other rarities from winter 2010 were cooperative with me. One was a BLACK-AND-WHITE WARBLER which spent the winter that was found by Jack Holloway, as well as a few RUDDY GROUND-DOVES that were first found by Pete Moulton. Other birds at the water ranch included a rare in winter YELLOW WARBLER, as well as a PEREGRINE FALCON and CINNAMON TEAL. On January 8th, I tried for another rarity found in 2010, a BROWN THRASHER at the Desert Botanical Gardens originally found by Frank Insana. I spent a well used fifteen dollars to see this bird, which was one of the first birds I saw, and it was cooperative the entire half-hour I spent with it in the Steele Herb Garden. Moving on to Tempe Town Lake gave me my first BROWN PELICAN of the year, and also a rarity in the “COMMON TEAL”, the Eurasian subspecies of our familiar GREEN-WINGED TEAL. Hopefully these are two species the ABA might split someday. It was a third state record for Arizona, and provided amazing looks for many seeking birders. Later throughout that day on the 8th between the Salt River and Gilbert Water Ranch, I got year firsts in CRISSAL THRASHER, DUNLIN, and LOGGERHEAD SHRIKE. Birding in West Phoenix in the Tres Rios area gave me my first WOOD DUCKS and a huge flock of BLACK-BELLIED WHISTLING-DUCKS on the 9th, as well as large YELLOW-HEADED BLACKBIRD flocks. Good raptors were in the area too, with a FERRUGINOUS HAWK and BURROWING OWLS being of note. A pair of CACKLING GEESE at Crystal Gardens Parkway in West Phoenix on January 10th made a nice showing for me, after being discovered by Stig Tjotta in December 2010. Seeing them side by side with the much larger look alike CANADA GOOSE gave nice comparison looks and study. Another interesting sighting came of a male WILSON’S WARBLER at Rio Salado on January 11th, which the species is rare in Arizona during the winter months. January 22nd was an amazing day, as I spent the day once again in the Lower Salt River Recreation Area. While doing aquatic bird surveys on a boat at Saguaro Lake, Troy Corman discovered a BLACK-LEGGED KITTIWAKE on the 21st. It turned out to be my first lifer of 2011, as I hiked a long distance on a trail that borders this awesome looking lake. It was a young Kittiwake, who’s plumage easily stood out among the RING-BILLED GULLS that were also present. I was given great looks of this rare in Arizona gull. The hike along Saguaro Lake gave me looks at two other Arizona rarities, a HORNED GREBE and a female GREATER SCAUP. Other year birds of note around the lake included a CLARK’S GREBE, SORA, and an early TREE SWALLOW. Pleasing year firsts continued to appear that day, as HARRIS’S HAWKS and a VERMILION FLYCATCHER showed themselves at the Goldfield Recreation Site. Closing the day out at Granite Reef gave me my second lifer of the day, a rare in Maricopa County TUNDRA SWAN. This swan had been reported by other birders and I had tried for it several times before this day. This time, it was there and cooperative, giving me perfect views. A two lifer day was a great memory! On January 26th, Jim Kopitzke and I explored the Sunflower and Mount Ord areas. Sunflower had great numbers of wintering birds typical of the 3-4000’ of elevation of sycamore-riparian canyon habitat. These birds included amazing numbers of CEDAR WAXWINGS, WESTERN BLUEBIRDS, and AMERICAN ROBINS (we estimated about 500 individuals), as well as a few TOWNSEND’S SOLITAIRES. WESTERN SCRUB-JAYS, BRIDLED and JUNIPER TITMOUSE were also great to see. In the midst of all these birds, we managed to find a nice rarity-a juvenile YELLOW-BELLIED SAPSUCKER. Later in the morning, the pines and oaks of Mount Ord gave us an amazing look at a stunning male OLIVE WARBLER visiting a water tank just feet in front of our eyes. Breeding RED CROSSBILLS were everywhere throughout Ord, as well as both RED and WHITE-BREASTED NUTHATCHES and HAIRY WOODPECKERS. The following day on the 27th, the new ponds at Tres Rios west of 91st Avenue gave me looks at my years first stunning male HOODED MERGANSER, as well as large numbers of AMERICAN WHITE PELICANS. I ventured to the area of the southwest part of the county on the 31st, covering the “Thrasher Spot”, Arlington, and Palo Verde, where good birds are always abound in the winter months. Plenty of good birds were plentiful in the area’s suitable habitats. WHITE-TAILED KITES, SANDHILL CRANES, and LONG-BILLED CURLEWS were present in the agricultural fields. In the marshes of the Arlington Wildlife Area, I was rewarded with a LEAST BITTERN, VIRGINIA RAILS, and a continuing SWAMP SPARROW found by Dave Powell a few days before. The creosote desert flats of the well known “Thrasher Spot” gave me spectacular looks at a pair of LE CONTE’S THRASHERS up close, as well as CRISSAL and BENDIRE’S THRASHERS. The Thrasher Spot is also an excellent place to observe SAGE SPARROWS, which were also entertaining during my visit. As January 2011 came to a close, I had 163 species for the month in Maricopa County. The bird of the month for me was the Black-legged Kittiwake. In 2010, I had 137 species in Maricopa County during the month of January.
FEBRUARY: My first birding highlights for February came on the 5th, where I chose to bird at Gilbert Water Ranch. I saw a few very good highlights, including a ROSS’S GOOSE with a small group of GREATER WHITE-FRONTED GEESE. A rare in winter WESTERN SANDPIPER was noticeable in a scan of a couple hundred LEAST SANDPIPERS at the Water Ranch. After seeing a report that a RUFOUS-BACKED ROBIN was seen at the Hassayampa River Preserve by Dominic Sherony (who found last year’s Green Kingfisher), I made that bird and Hassyampa my priority on the 11th. This Mexican robin was first seen by Christina Smith in winter of 2010. I searched for the robin on and off for nine hours before finally lucking out with amazing looks for several minutes as the preserve was about to close. During this search, I had other amazing highlights that included two different WINTER WRENS, which I found by hearing their distinctive double-call notes. It was the first time I got to see a Winter Wren visually, so it was pretty cool! A distant RED-SHOULDERED HAWK could be heard calling throughout the entire day, another nice Arizona rarity which has a small and local population in this area. Jim Koptizke and I came back to try for these birds on the 17th, which we were rewarded with all three. The Red-shouldered Hawk was the first bird we saw that day, as it flew over the parking lot and over our heads as we started our morning. The Rufous-backed Robin put on a show in the picnic site, and we managed to relocate the Winter Wren. On the 21st, I headed out to the Arlington and Paloverde Area southwest of Phoenix. I was after a ROSEATE SPOONBILL, another rarity that was found in 2010 by Ken Bielek at the Glendale Recharge Ponds. It continued to move south and eventually spent much of this year along the east end of the Old US 80, where Melanie Herring and Dave Powell refound this awesome bird. After a daylong of checking the spot where it was seen, the odd pink bird finally made an appearance by joining three Great Egrets in an alfalfa field, after I had checked the spot three previous times. On this day I was treated also to a light-morph HARLAN’S RED-TAILED HAWK, which had been observed by Melanie Herring for five straight winters. The light-morph Harlan’s are rare anytime, anywhere, making up less than one percent of the entire Harlan’s population. By the Harlan’s Hawk were large flocks of LONG-BILLED CURLEWS roadside, which were breathtaking to observe up so close. To close out February, I birded the Salt River once again. The elusive WINTER WREN made an appearance for me finally at Granite Reef, who was cooperative with my camera. This was my original “lifer”, and was awesome to finally see it. Owling at night at Coon Bluff gave me my first GREAT HORNED OWL of the year, who flew right past me. At February’s end, I had 138 species recorded in Maricopa County for the month, and I was up to 178 species for the year’s total. I recorded 137 species for February in 2010, where at the end February 2010 I had 159 species for the year’s total. The bird of the month was the Rufous-backed Robin.
MARCH: The Seven Springs Recreation Area led off March of 2011’s birding for me on the 4th of the month. This is a beautiful area I love to explore with scenery similar to that of Sunflower (sycamore-filled canyons). Similar birds were present too, with highlights being my first RUFOUS-CROWNED SPARROW of the year and also yet another WINTER WREN! This area has great Winter Wren habitat, and it was the third individual of this species I found and photographed in less than three weeks. Driving to work early the next morning on the 5th, I had two slightly early LESSER NIGHTHAWKS for the year. The nighthawks could be seen well with the bright streetlights. On March 10th, I decided to hit the higher elevations of Mount Ord and Sunflower. Mount Ord had a lot of snow, limiting me to Forest Road 1688 rather than the route to the summit. The walk down this road gave me my first ACORN WOODPECKER of the year, and the many RED CROSSBILLS, who provided an excellent show by feeding in the snow along the path in front of me. Coming down from Mount Ord, I stopped at Sunflower. I had a nice surprise at Sunflower, as I got my first ever looks at a nice FOX SPARROW. The Fox Sparrow was the Slate-colored form of this variable sparrow, the most common form in Arizona. This bird was perfect and cooperative for a lifer. From there I went to the Granite Reef Recreation Site of the Salt River, and I found my first LUCY’S WARBLERS of the year. Ironically, I had my first Lucy’s Warblers at the exact spot I stood the previous year on March 4th, 2010. After the long drive and day on the 10th, I decided to take a shorter route to the Hassayampa River Preserve on the 11th. I spent most of the day here, which included an amazing highlight in my first ever Maricopa County PYRRHULOXIA. When I went inside the visitor center at the preserve, I saw that they had been seen. Christina Smith told me of the location, and sure enough I found two Pyrrhuloxias, a male and a female. It was an amazing sight to observe the “desert cardinal”, especially when the male perched above me on a power line. Another good highlight at the preserve produced my first LAWRENCE’S GOLDFINCH of the year, as I counted about ten of them along the Mesquite Meander Trail. They nested at this location the year before, which is often a good spot to look for them at the right time of year. On the 14th, I ventured out again to the southwest part of the county, visiting the Thrasher Spot, Arlington, and various roads around M-C 85. Driving by fields and canals gave me year firsts in CLIFF SWALLOWS flying over the canals and the awesome MERLIN perched on a pole wire. Once at the Thrasher Spot, my main target was to find my year’s first SAGE THRASHER, which I still needed for the location. The Sage Thrashers ended up being everywhere and it was incredible to see so many, as I counted a minimum of 15 birds foraging on the ground and perching on low bushes. Other thrashers provided excellent looks as well, as I found a bush that held three Sage Thrashers, two LE CONTE’S THRASHERS, and one BENDIRE’S THRASHER-all in one bush! I thought I was seeing things! Another nice surprise came when an EASTERN MEADOWLARK called in midst of a WESTERN MEADOWLARK flock that were near the abundant Sage Thrashers. Other year birds during the day included a WESTERN KINGBIRD at Arlington Wildlife Area and a BLACK VULTURE soaring off the M-C 85 near Perryville Road. On the 23rd, a female RED-BREASTED MERGANSER made an appearance at the Thunderbird Viewing Blinds Park in the northern part of Glendale. This is a small park that is located in the Arrowhead Lakes area and is often productive for waterbirds. My first BLACK-CHINNED HUMMINGBIRDS of the year were present at Gilbert Water Ranch on the 25th, along with a BARN SWALLOW. A visit to the nearby Veteran’s Oasis Park gave me my first three SWAINSON’S HAWKS of the year. On the evening of March 27th, a visit to the Glendale Recharge Ponds gave me two good gull highlights in my first and only FRANKIN’S GULL of the year (which was an adult bird), as well as a third-year CALIFORNIA GULL. Franklin’s Gulls aren’t always easy to come across, so I was glad I was able to see this one. The Franklin’s Gull was also my 200th bird of the year in Maricopa County. My last day of birding in March came on the 28th, where I decided to take another trek to the Sunflower and Mount Ord areas. Sunflower was very productive, as I got many enjoyable year firsts. The COMMON BLACK-HAWKS and ZONE-TAILED HAWKS were both returning to prepare for the upcoming summer. The Black-Hawks provided the best show throughout the morning at close range, as I even observed the pair copulating. There ended up being two pairs of Black-Hawks in the area that day, always a great sight! A WHITE-WINGED DOVE was present and singing, which is always good to get before April. My first BLACK-CHINNED SPARROWS sang from the hillsides, and three EMPIDS species were represented by PACIFIC-SLOPE, DUSKY, and HAMMOND’S FLYCATCHERS. Moving up to Mount Ord gave me my highlight of the day and a new Maricopa County bird…a CASSIN’S FINCH. This was a female bird near the summit of Mount Ord (where most of the snow had melted), on a bare branch of an oak tree. A problem arose as I realized the bird was on the Gila County side (a lot of Mount Ord is in Gila County). My best solution was to stand behind the bird and clap, as an attempt to scare the bird west into Maricopa County. After clapping a few times, I finally scared the finch into Maricopa County, which felt like a cheap shot in most ways. It really felt cheap as I was completely in Maricopa County down on Ord’s Road 1688, when a male Cassin’s Finch landed beside me while I was listening to a calling GOLDEN EAGLE in the slope above my location. If only I had been more patient! Slightly early mountain warblers in PAINTED REDSTART and GRACE’S WARBLER sang along this road high up in the pines. Then, a few CASSIN’S KINGBIRDS closed my day and month off at one last visit to Sunflower in the late afternoon. The 28th was an amazing day, highlighted by 14 year birds to bring my Maricopa County year list to 214 before the end of March, which the list was 180 at this point at the end of March 2010. March 2011’s month list in the county was a total of 185 species for me, where in 2010 it was 155. The bird of the month went three ways for a tie, Fox Sparrow, Pyrrhuloxia, and Cassin’s Finch.
APRIL: As April rolled in, my first productive birding came on the 2nd. I headed up to the Hassayampa River area, where I started my day at the U.S. 60 Roadside Rest Stop. I was happy to get a pair of GRAY HAWKS at this spot, who usually arrive in Arizona in the later stages of March. A species that is scarce outside of southeastern Arizona has expanded it’s range in this area of the Hassayampa River Preserve, where multiple pairs have been encountered the last few years. Certainly a species we are lucky to have as a local breeder in Maricopa County! Year firsts in BULLOCK’S ORIOLES and a BLACK-THROATED GRAY WARBLER also made appearances at the Roadside Rest. Later in the day at the Hassayampa River Preserve, I had another GRAY HAWK. The following day on March 3rd, I headed for the migrant treasure spot… Morgan City Wash. Good things always show up in this desert riparian heaven. This time, it turned out to be my lifer BROAD-WINGED HAWK. I was shocked as I saw this small buteo perched in a big willow next to an irritated COOPER’S HAWK. The Broad-winged left before I good get a picture, and after I relocated it briefly one other time, I still wasn’t able to get a shot. I waded down the wash in hopes of better looks, but was never able to get a nice picture. Luckily, I saw it’s key field marks, so I was content with the sighting. Later in the day, I headed out to the Buckeye area to enjoy a couple hundred SWAINSON’S HAWKS with Melanie Herring. These amazing raptors of three different color morphs surrounded the fields, and were often in kettles of fifty or more birds. It was the first time I really had the oppurtunity to see Swainson ’s Hawk migration, and I won’t ever forget it! I was then after another raptor on the 4th, the elusive and cryptic LONG-EARED OWL. Prior to the 4th, I tried for the Long-eared Owl seven times before between Salt River locations and the Phoenix Mountains. This time, my friend Norman Dong spied a bird in a wash at the Phoenix Mountains where I had luck last year. As I walked down the wash this time, the owl flew out as a got closer and closer. Time and time again he would fly, until at last….I spied the bird perched. The owl was relaxed and I had good open looks, where I didn’t have to go any closer. What a rewarding thing the Long-eared is to see when it is perched! The Glendale Recharge Ponds on the 8th gave me year firsts in LESSER YELLOWLEGS, a LAZULI BUNTING, and a few BANK SWALLOWS. A visit to Morgan City Wash once again on the 11th gave me my first WESTERN SCREECH-OWLS of the year, which were heard only birds. I then got to see another WINTER WREN, which was found earlier in the year by Troy Corman. My first SEMIPALMATED PLOVER, which was found by Kurt Radamaker, was then at the Glendale Recharge Ponds later in the day on the 11th. On the 16th, I did another one of my Mount Ord and Sunflower routes. Mount Ord was highlighted by the return of some of the county’s high elevation favorites. PAINTED REDSTARTS and BLACK-THROATED GRAY WARBLERS were everywhere, followed by good but lesser numbers of OLIVE and GRACE’S WARBLERS and my year’s first VIRGINIA’S WARBLERS. My first GRAY VIREOS were singing away, and several CASSIN’S FINCHES continued. Down at Sunflower I had a few year first’s I was shocked I didn’t get at Ord first ironcially: PINE SISKIN and BROAD-TAILED HUMMINGBIRD. Many HOODED ORIOLES were present as well as a nice male SUMMER TANAGER, always great year birds especially at that very first glance. A short stay after dark then gave me several calling COMMON POORWILLS at Sunflower, which was a creepy place at a night. On April 22nd, I headed southwest to the Gila Bend and Arlington Areas. A few days earlier, Paul Lehman, Barbara Carlson, and Gary Rosenberg had found a Glossy Ibis in midst of hundreds of White-faced Ibis. I knew I had a challenge in front of me, but the challenge was what I liked about the search. I found the huge ibis flock just west of Paloma Ranch where they gave directions to, probably close to 800 birds. After starting early and three hours later, I finally found that GLOSSY IBIS needle in the White-faced Ibis haystack. The bird gave me perfect views and was certainly a rewarding sight after searching so hard. Heading back north on my way home gave me other highlights in my only FORSTER’S TERN of the year at the Gila Bend Power Plant and then the elusive but un elusive CLAPPER RAIL sitting out in the open and calling loudly at the Arlington Wildlife Area. The Salt River was my destination on the 25th, as I enjoyed seeing courting BRONZED COWBIRDS and four awesome warblers for the first time in 2011: TOWNSEND’S, MACGILLIVRAY’S, and HERMIT WARBLERS, and YELLOW-BREASTED CHAT. Following the Salt River, a single WILLET was a nice addition at Gilbert Water Ranch. Jim Kopitzke and I then made plans to take overnight camping trips to the Maricopa County forests of Slate Creek Divide and Four Peaks to close out April and start May. On the 30th, Jim and I were joined at Slate Creek by Jay Miller, Troy Corman, and Tom Lewis. Jim and I showed our guests the drainage we explored a lot of last year, which requires very careful hiking in a hazardous area with a lot of bushwhacking. The Dusky-capped Flycatchers I found last year didn’t show up on this day, but we had some other good highlights. My only NORTHERN PYGMY-OWL of the year responded to Troy’s whistling, which consistently brought in good songbird numbers. Slate Creek also has good numbers of MEXICAN JAYS, which are scarce in central Arizona. These noisy jays can almost be expected at Slate Creek, as they made their racket during our hike. Other enjoyable year firsts included a male INDIGO BUNTING, HEPATIC TANAGER, and BLACK-HEADED GROSBEAK. Jim, Jay, and I tried forest owling as we camped overnight in freezing, windy temperatures without success. The cold Slate Creek night ended April, which I recorded 186 species for the month, and I was up to 245 species for the year. 2010’s April gave me 181 species during that month, and at that point in 2010, I had 229 species for the year. Because of the effort I put into the search, the Glossy Ibis was April’s bird of the month.
MAY: I was wide awake at midnight as May rolled in. Jim, Jay, and I were freezing in the Slate Creek mountain forest. High winds had blown in with 30-40 mph gusts, which gave Slate Creek freezing temperatures in the low 30’s. Jim and I were somewhat sheltered in a tent, while Jay was brave enough to bear the cold in a sleeping bag! When the sun started to come up and the wind was briefly quiet, I was happy to hear my first STELLER’S JAY of the year in the county in the Maricopa side of the forest. As we stayed half the morning before we left, I also got my first WESTERN TANAGER and RUFOUS HUMMINGBIRD of the year. Jim and I went with the easier to access Pinal Mountains in Gila County instead of the rough roaded Four Peaks area, which we plan to cover Four Peaks sometime in 2012 (with a much better vehicle!) On the 6th, a long trip starting at the Hassayampa River gave me my first BLUE GROSBEAKS and BROWN-CRESTED FLYCATCHERS of the year. Going southwest in the county my trip continued to the Gila Bend Power Plant for the first WILSON’S PHALAROPES of many during 2011. A stop at the Baseline and Meridian Wildlife Area rewarded me with a BARN OWL to close out the day. After a “break” from birding, I made it back out into the field again on the 20th, choosing the Hassayampa River Preserve. Christina Smith and I explored the area together, and had a nice surprise when we heard a closeby EASTERN WOOD-PEWEE along the Mesquite Meander Trail. The bird called three times, and as I walked in the direction, the bird flew out and landed in front of us. As we got our cameras ready, it never vocalized again and we quickly lost the bird. I was happy to hear it for myself, but unfortunetely this Arizona rarity never called again to give me the chance to officially document it’s presence. It would’ve been a first Maricopa County record had I been able to get a recording. The preserve was a flycatcher show that day, as I also got abundant WESTERN WOOD-PEWEES, a few OLIVE-SIDED FLYCATCHERS, and a rare and local breeder in Maricopa County, a TROPICAL KINGBIRD. The Tropical Kingbird is another southeastern Arizona bird who is expanding it’s range, like the Gray Hawk, which these two species certainly favor the area of the Hassayampa River Preserve. On the 22-23rd, I took my friend Norman Dong who is avidly into herps on a camping trip to Slate Creek Divide. It was actually a trip to show Norman the higher elevation rattlesnakes, but the snakes stayed hidden while the birds presented themselves perfectly. I woke up to singing HERMIT THRUSHES that morning, which is just as good as any morning cup of coffee. HEPATIC TANAGERS and PAINTED REDSTARTS showed perfectly, as well as PLUMBEOUS VIREOS and a BROWN CREEPER. Heading down the rocky and dense drainage in search of rattlesnakes, we turned up three nuthatches, RED and WHITE-BREASTED NUTHATCH, and the hard to find in Maricopa PYGMY NUTHATCH. Further into the drainage I was glad to hear the mournful call of the DUSKY-CAPPED FLYCATCHER, which I found last year here as the first Maricopa County breeding record. There ended up being at least seven individuals this time. There seems to be a local population in this spot that is most likely annual, hopefully changing the birds status in the county from accidental to a rare and local breeder. After another Slate Creek camping trip, my next birding was once again at Hassayampa on the 27th. It was a great outing, as I got my first ever SWAINSON’S THRUSH for the county along Palm Lake, as well as my year’s first WILLOW FLYCATCHER. Lack of birding time gave me a lower count in May with 147 species recorded, but I did add 15 birds during the month to bring my total to 260 species in Maricopa for 2011. In 2010 at the end of May, I had 179 species recorded, and 248 species for the year’s total. The bird of the month for me was the Eastern Wood-Pewee.
JUNE: To lead off the month of June, Gary Nunn reported a pair of CASPIAN TERNS at the Glendale Recharge ponds on the 1st. After work I went down to the ponds, where I got to observe the pair. What a sight it was! These two terns were very vocal and aggressive to the other birds around, almost behaving like breeders and often chasing the other birds off that were present. As I was enjoying the Caspian’s, I looked up and saw two beautiful BLACK TERNS flying over the basin. Glendale had become a Tern Show! The Caspian Terns stayed one more day before leaving. June was a rather slow month for adding birds, as my next good highlight for the month came on the 20th, this time in Jay Miller’s backyard. Jay’s yard, also known as, The Miller House of Mesa, is a rarity trap that is the best birding backyard in Arizona after the Paton’s house. Jay has had an incredible list of unexpected species show up in his yard, and this time, it was a male BROAD-BILLED HUMMINGBIRD! Jim Kopitzke and I joined Jay after he found the bird in his yard, and minutes into our watch the hummer appeared directly in front of us. Broad-billed Hummingbird is another bird that seems to be expanding it’s range, as there have been a good number of reports in Maricopa County in recent years. On the 30th, Norman Dong showed me a WESTERN SCREECH-OWL in the Phoenix Mountains, my first ever look at this species after hearing them only. In the month of June in 2011, I recorded 109 species, where in 2010, I did a little better with 121 species. Three year birds brought my list 263 species, and in 2010 at June’s end I had 255 species. My favorite bird during June was the Western Screech-Owl.
JULY: The month of July consisted of birding in the higher elevations of the county, as well as early mornings in desert riparian habitats before the miserable heat set in. On July 4th, I celebrated my birthday with birding during the morning in the Mesquite Wash and Sunflower areas. I got to Sunflower just before light to enjoy a dawn bird chorus. I was also just in time to hear my year first ELF OWL before the sun came up. Just like June, July was very slow for adding year birds. The next came on the 20th at the Box Bar Recreation Site along the Verde River. I found my only YELLOW-BILLED CUCKOO at the top of a big willow, who started calling right as I got my lenses on the bird. One of my very favorite birds, this was the only one I found during 2011 in Maricopa County. Also present at Box Bar was a young male BROAD-BILLED HUMMINGBIRD, my second in the county in about a month. That night I got an email from the famous Richard Crossley, asking me for help in finding Black-chinned Sparrows and Common Black-Hawks, as well as Lucy’s, Virginia’s, and Olive Warblers. I decided to take Richard out to the Sunflower and Mount Ord areas, where these species were a good bet. Richard is from Britain, an amazing birder, and the author and photographer to the Crossley ID Guide-Eastern Birds, a well done and newer birding guide. This guide is very amazing (highly recommended!), which in my opinion really brings birding to life. But Richard was in Arizona, already working on a western guide! On the 21st, I was Richard Crossley’s “guide” and it was something I’ll never forget. Richard was quite the guy with a great sense of humor and a very hard worker, and it was great to listen to his ideas about how he wrote and illustrated his book. Each of us took turns throughout the morning talking about our birding passions, which was awesome. I found him BLACK-CHINNED SPARROWS very easily, but after that, our other targets were tough. We didn’t see any normal COMMON BLACK-HAWKS, but were surprised at the sight of a first-summer bird, which Richard informed me that it’s rarely seen in the U.S. A ZONE-TAILED HAWK family soared above us in circles, while Richard ran under them in circles trying to get as many photos as possible. We couldn’t find any of the warblers, particularly the Lucy’s Warblers that Richard was dying to see as well. As we pulled into Sunflower during one of our breaks, Richard luckily had the window rolled down. We passed by an open area with scattered grass and mesquites, where I heard the song of my first in Maricopa County CASSIN’S SPARROW! I screamed, “Cassin’s Sparrow!!! That’s rare in Maricopa! Stop the car!” I got out and heard more of the sparrow and eventually got to see it singing on top of a bush with obliging views. As I started celebrating and pumping my fist, Richard said, “Are you freaking kidding me, this doesn’t mean crap to me, you and your freaking rare in Maricopa Cassin’s Sparrows, you can’t even find me a Lucy’s Warbler!” I had a good laugh from Richard’s humor. The day was even better as there was something good in the mix for Tommy. Later, as Richard was in a rush to get down from the summit of Mount Ord to head for southeast Arizona, he almost drove over a steep north facing slope. All Richard could say was, “Oh crap Tommy, I almost killed both of us!” Luckily despite Richard’s speed race down the narrow one-lane mountain road, we made it out alive. It was a great day to learn a lot from a famous birder, one I’ll never forget. I spent the rest of July in Apache County’s White Mountains, where birding was amazing. During the month of July 2011, I recorded 117 species in the county, where three year birds brought my year list up to 266 species. In July last year in 2010, I recorded 97 species, and I had 255 species for the year’s total. The bird of the month for July was the Cassin’s Sparrow and Richard Crossley.
AUGUST: August of 2011 was one of my better months of the Big Year. On the 10th, it all began at Slate Creek Divide. Jim Kopitzke and I felt destined to find a good bird that would become an addition to our Maricopa County lists, and Red-faced Warbler was one of our most hopeful targets. We bushwhacked down into the wilderness of our favorite drainage in search of something good. It was a quiet morning, and it got even more quiet as we realized the Dusky-capped Flycatchers had left, meaning we weren’t able to confirm breeding for 2011 like we did the previous year. As we were trying to call in birds using Jim’s Audubon bird call, I spotted a warbler at the top of a sycamore. I told Jim, “Hey, I’m gonna make sure this is something crappy.” As I looked up at the movement, it wasn’t common at all. It was none other than our first Maricopa RED-FACED WARBLER! This bird was amazing and cooperative for over twenty minutes, and we had walk away looks. One of our most wanted birds for the county seemed to have found us! Other county year birds at Slate Creek were a handful of CORDILLERAN FLYCATCHERS (which one gave perfect Cordilleran calls), and on our way down, a BAND-TAILED PIGEON flying past my vehicle into the forest was also a good bird to get. On the 15th during a huge day of birding that went from desert up to Mount Ord, I had good success. Mount Ord gave me my first NASHVILLE WARBLER of the year, where a flock of PYGMY NUTHATCHES were very nice also. As I was walking near the Maricopa and Gila County lines near Ord’s summit, I found a small hummingbird that reminded me of a female CALLIOPE HUMMINGBIRD. It was in Gila County at first, but I managed to follow it west into Maricopa. I didn’t think Calliope after I looked at a picture in the field, but once I got home, I reviewed the pictures to realize I had a strong Calliope candidate and asked for Mark Stevenson’s help. The bird was indeed a female Calliope Hummingbird, excellent to get in Maricopa County, and a county first for me. Good thing I was able to get photographs, in which the bird was very cooperative. Also on the 15th, I stopped at the Higley Ponds in Gilbert, where I found my first SEMIPALMATED SANDPIPER of the year, as well as a STILT SANDPIPER. August 19-21st then produced three amazing heat filled days at the Glendale Recharge Ponds, where during the weekend, an amazing 21 species of shorebirds were seen by multiple birders in one basin. Shorebirds filled this one basin (Basin 5), and what an exciting thing it was. I quickly found five year birds in the mix on the evening of the 19th. A rather rare SANDERLING as well as a SNOWY PLOVER were two of the first birds I saw to start the night, which are good birds to get in Arizona. A BAIRD’S SANDPIPER, a RED-NECKED PHALAROPE, and several SOLITARY SANDPIPERS were three of the other year birds who appeared for me. I got home to see Kurt Radamaker was out there the same day, but in the morning. He found a juvenile Short-billed Dowitcher, which would be a lifer for me. I visited the Hassayampa River Preserve on the morning of the 20th, and got lucky as my first ever in Maricopa County PURPLE MARTINS flew overhead, which was a great surprise. The rest of the weekend was hopeful for the Dowitcher, and I ended up lucking out with the SHORT-BILLED DOWITCHER were Kurt had been seeing it while I was birding with Charlie Babbitt and Dave Pearson on the 21st. The Basin also produced WILLETS, LONG-BILLED CURLEWS, and the uncommon SEMIPALMATED SANDPIPER, which was also found by Kurt Radamaker. Short-billed Dowitchers had a good year in Arizona, as multiple birds turned up at the Glendale Recharge Ponds during the season after my original lifer. Ending August 2011, I had 162 species for the month, and 280 for the year’s total. Last year when ending August 2010, I had 143 species recorded for the month, and 266 species for the year’s total. August’s bird of the month by far was the magnificent Red-faced Warbler!
SEPTEMBER: September began with more visits to the Glendale Recharge Ponds, particularly during the evening and searches for eastern passerine vagrants in desert riparian habitats. My year’s first PECTORAL SANDPIPER added to the shorebird mix on the 4th, at the Glendale Recharge Ponds. On the 5th, I paid Morgan City Wash a visit. I was starting to search for the Northern Waterthrush as it was prime time for that species, as well as any other warblers rare in Arizona from the east. I didn’t get the waterthrush that day, but I did hear a bird farting as it would take flight. The “fart” sounds were the distinctive callnotes of a DICKCISSEL, which was just as good of a bird as a waterthrush. These calls do sound exactly like a person farting, so perhaps letting some gas loose by the weed patch full of migrants will bring in a Dickcissel! On the 10th, I made another trip to Morgan City Wash, where I joined Troy Corman. Troy is a rarity magnet, so I felt like my chances were much higher with him being there! Shortly into our birdwatch while bushwhacking through the Agua Fria River side of the area, a warbler called loudly and Troy said, “wow, that sounded just like a Waterthrush”. Sure enough the bird popped up in front of me, and it was indeed…a NORTHERN WATERTHRUSH! It perched on a branch, constantly pumping it’s tail. We then observed it on the ground foraging alongside running water. I then headed out to the Mesa area on the 11th to bird the Salt River. On my way there, I decided to give Jay Miller a call. The Miller House of Mesa is always good for birding, but it’s probably one of the easiest places to see Vaux’s Swifts in the county. I missed Vaux’s Swift completely in 2010, and I didn’t want to repeat that sequence. Jay invited me over when he got my call, and right as I joined him in his backyard, my first VAUX’S SWIFT in over two years flew overhead. What an amazing sight it was! After I got the Swift at Jay’s, I went to the Salt River, where I started at Granite Reef. This place was amazingly birdy, as I recorded 71 species in less than three hours. My highlight was a bright CLAY-COLORED SPARROW in midst of a big sparrow flock. These sparrows are rare but annual in Arizona, and 2011 turned up great numbers of them throughout the state. I also got to see one of a few TROPICAL KINGBIRDS at Granite Reef that were found by Jack Holloway, another great find of this expanding species in Maricopa County. After Granite Reef, a trip to the Foxtail/Sheeps Crossing stretch along the Salt gave me my second NORTHERN WATERTHRUSH in two days. It was an amazingly cooperative bird, who I watched for thirty minutes up nice and close. When the 16th came along, I went to Seven Springs to start my day. Seven Springs was birdy without any year birds, with a nice highlight being a lowland PAINTED REDSTART at Seven Springs Wash. I continued later in the day to the willow and cottonwood filled Box Bar Recreation Site along the Verde River. I was immediately successful at Box Bar, stumbling across my year’s first AMERICAN REDSTART just five minutes into the bird search. It was a female bird, constantly showing off her tail. It was also my first double-Redstart day in Arizona, a nice accomplishment. My luck still continued at Box Bar as I got a second year bird in less than an hour, a LARK BUNTING out on open and shrubby ground! After the 16th, I failed to locate any additional year birds in the month of September. I searched and searched multiple habitats. Migration was still great, and I made regular checks at ponds and lakes for different rarer shorebirds and Sabine’s Gulls without success. 2011 in September gave me 173 species for the month, and 7 additional year birds to bring my county year list to 287 species. At the end of September 2010, I recorded 170 species for that month, where I was at 276 species for my year’s total. The bird of the month for September was the extra cooperative Northern Waterthrush at the Salt River.
OCTOBER: On October 1st, 2011, I was trying to decide between Morgan City Wash and the Hassayampa River Preserve. I knew deep down that something good in the eastern warbler department was going to show up at one of those two locales. I chose Morgan City, which shockingly turned out to be very quiet. When I got home later in the day, I saw on the listserv that John Arnett had found two Magnolia Warblers at Hassayampa. It was living proof about being in the right place at the right time, and I hoped at least one of the Magnolia Warblers would stay through the 2nd. As I woke up on the 2nd and was getting ready to head for Hassayampa, I checked the listserv before I left. A report had come in from Brian Ison, he had found an Ovenbird in Scottsdale’s Northsight Park! I decided to try for the Ovenbird first, which I felt I had a better shot at. As I got to the spot where Brian found the bird, I heard a loud chip. It was the OVENBIRD, and it came down from high in a mesquite to the ground, where it walked around, showing off it’s character perfectly. I observed it for thirty enjoyable minutes. After a perfect start to the day, I then went to Hassayampa to search for the Magnolia. Minutes into my birdwatch as I was walking along Palm Lake looking at every warbler, the MAGNOLIA WARBLER turned up right above me. The couple walking behind me must have gotten the impression of a little kid’s reaction after he got his first Hotwheel’s toy car. These rare eastern warblers were lifers for me, two in one day was a perfect reason to celebrate. The Magnolia ended up being the easiest rare warbler to observe that I had ever seen, as it foraged close to me at all times as I checked on it throughout the day. After such an amazing start to October, I didn’t find any new year birds until the 17th. The 17th did turn out to be good and erased the two week “slump”. Troy Corman found a Northern Parula at Morgan City Wash early in the month. I searched for it and missed it, only to have Troy go back again and find the bird was still present. On the 17th, I headed for Morgan City to try for the Parula and also a White-throated Sparrow that Troy also found. Before I birded, I found Chris McCreedy near the parking lot. McCreedy was after the same birds too, especially the Parula. After Troy gave me perfect directions to the bird’s location and Chris and I had hiked to the spot, I looked up and spied the NORTHERN PARULA up high in a willow. McCreedy was able to see it right after I spied it. It was a beautiful male, one of my favorite warblers. McCreedy and I couldn’t find the sparrow during a more brief search. After Morgan City, I went to Scottsdale’s Rousseau Sod Farms where I got three year birds. The first were a few PRAIRIE FALCONS, who highly favor the sod farms, and a species I don’t see often enough. I was also on the lookout for Longspurs, in which James McKay had spied a few McCOWN’S LONGSPURS a few days earlier. I quickly lucked out with one of the McCown’s. The looks were distant, but the birds field marks thankfully stood out. Those looks where followed by a close-up CHESTNUT-COLLARED LONGSPUR, which are the most regular Longspur in Arizona. Two longspurs in the bag was perfect pre-November! The 27th was the day when my big year luck went to a high level. The excitement and anxiety of chasing rarities became overwhelming. Birding miracles began to happen, and it was almost freaky. As I sat at my desk at work on the day of October 27th, a report came to the list from Bill Grossi. Bill had found an EASTERN PHOEBE at the Tolleson Wastewater Treatment Plant, which the surrounding habitat were fields lined by pecan trees. I went after work immediately, where Barb Meding also pulled up in search of the phoebe. Barb and I looked and looked, and were constantly seeing Say’s Phoebe’s. I then heard and saw what was likely a first-fall female Black-throated Blue Warbler. The bird was a teaser and gave me too brief of a look. As the day was getting old and the sun was going down, Barb and I finally lucked out as the Eastern Phoebe crossed our paths. It constantly pumped it’s tail in that circular motion, where we observed it up close. The 28th was no different; another rare bird had found Maricopa County. Once again I was at work, and this time I got a text from Melanie Herring. Melanie was looking at a HERRING GULL along Lower River Road in Paloverde, which this road has good ponds that annually attract gull numbers. Once work finally was over, I made a long trek over to Lower River Road. It was a stressful drive filled with anxiety, I wanted to get there fast. Things were much better as I pulled up to the pond and had Melanie kindly waiting there for me, with a big smile on her face. She still had the Herring Gull! We both enjoyed it for a long time, studying it and taking pictures. It was a second year bird. On the way back from the Herring Gull, I stopped again at the Tolleson Wastewater Treatment Plant, where I found a nice “YELLOW-SHAFTED” NORTHERN FLICKER. On the 29th, the craziness continued for a third straight day. I started the day out by exploring a nice riparian area in the middle of Fountain Hills. My phone went off, and it was once again another great text from Melanie: “Kurt found a Surf Scoter at the Glendale Recharge Ponds!” Surf Scoter was a lifer for me, and I was practically running the two miles back to where I parked my truck. I had to get to Glendale fast, but I didn’t like the fact I had another long and anxious drive ahead of me on another hot pursuit bird chase. It was in my mind that I had Fountain Hills Lake, which attracts large waterfowl numbers annually, right next to me. Before I tried for the Glendale Surf Scoter, I decided to check Fountain Hills Lake just “incase”. I quickly spied a duck which shape looked good for a scoter. After I set my scope up, the bird had it’s head down, but it looked perfect for a scoter species. It then lifted it’s head up, and it was ironically, a SURF SCOTER!! I was shocked that I found a bird that I was on my way to see for a chase. This Surf Scoter was almost tame, and swam along the shoreline, where it actively fed on food sources that were more numerous close to shore. Brendon Grice soon joined me, where we saw that this first Surf Scoter had flown in with a second Surf Scoter! Both birds then swam and fed together, just feet away from Brendon and me. Brendon even got a picture of me with the Surf Scoter! After the ironic luck, I still decided to head over to Glendale on the 30th, to see that Surf Scoter also, which was found by Kurt and Cindy Radamaker. October 2011 was a birdy month, as I recorded 177 species for the month. Nine of those were year birds, bringing my county list for 2011 up to 296 species. 2010’s month of October gave me 166 species for that month, where my progress for the year was up to 285 species. With it’s ironic appearance, the bird of the month had to go out to the Surf Scoter.
NOVEMBER: The start of November continued right away with the crazy sightings, beginning with the Glendale Recharge Ponds on the 1st. Michael Lester was visiting the basins and he came up with a nice surprise, a very late in Arizona COMMON TERN. As work got out, I went straight over to the ponds. The Common Tern was still there, and John Saba and I were treated to amazing looks. It was a life bird for me, and a bird I certainly didn’t expect to show up in November. As November comes in, so do storms. High elevations are harder to reach in the county because the rains affect the dirt roads. Jim Kopitzke and I decided to take advantage of the weather before the storms hit, and headed up to Mount Ord on the 4th. High elevations are a gamble in the winter months, and can be very quiet. The potential of irregular wintering species is what gets my attention. Mount Ord was cold and quiet as we arrived, and I thought I probably made a bad decision for the outing. But when I was about to tell Jim about my poor decision making, a bird interrupted me, saying, “Chik-a-dee-dee-dee”. It was our first ever MOUNTAIN CHICKADEE in Maricopa County, an awesome bird to land! The Chickadee was one of a small flock of four after Jim and I have had our eyes peeled for this species over the last few years. The chickadees were one of eight species at Mount Ord that day. I spent the rest of the 4th after we got back from Ord, looking for a White-throated Sparrow at Gilbert Water Ranch without success that had been found by Chris McCreedy. During a drive in the Arlington area on the 7th, I saw that Melanie Herring’s light phase HARLAN’S HAWK had returned once again for another winter. Following that, I then found the black race of a MERLIN, which is also rare in Arizona. On the 9th, I got a text from Chris McCreedy while I was at work, saying he found a Pacific Loon at Granite Reef along the Salt River. McCreedy was everywhere! I was about to go for it, but changed my mind when Chris checked for the bird a few hours later without success and said it was likely gone. I decided to just go to the Glendale Recharge Ponds, where a large and interesting young GULL caught my eye as I was starting my birdwatch. It sat in front of me in plain view and offered perfect looks, and I shot video and pictures. I’ve never been good with gulls, but it reminded me of a Glaucous-winged Gull at a first glance. After consulting my handheld Sibley in the field, I thought the bird seemed dark for the Glaucous-winged Gulls that were illustrated and I thought it was the more likely Herring Gull. I even reported Herring Gull to the listserv before I dug in my big gull reference book at home. Looking carefully in the reference book, I saw this bird looked much more like a Glaucous-winged. I sent pictures that I took to several gull experts, and when David Vander Pluym was calling me just minutes later, I knew it was something good. David said it was strongly Glaucous-winged, but my pictures couldn’t rule out a hybrid. Kurt Radamaker thought the same thing too. Glaucous-winged Gulls hybridize extensively with other gulls, giving vagrant birds a lot more caution. The photos were sent the next day on the 10th to many gull experts, where it was crazy. Some said pure Glaucous-winged, others said hybrid. It went back and forth, back and forth, a crazy and mind confusing day. Meanwhile, Dave Powell was looking at the bird live, thinking it looked fine for Glaucous-winged in the field. Kurt Radamaker joined Dave and thought so too. Two experts had thought the bird looked good, and I was happy with the news as Kurt called me and told me about it, but the gull still had one more test to pass…Paul Lehman’s expert eye. Paul was on his way down from San Diego for a birding trip, and he wanted to look at the gull to be sure. Having so much experience with gulls and living in California, Paul was the person to make the final call. Early morning on the 11th, Kurt Radamaker, Dave Powell, Paul Lehman, and Barbara Carlson looked at the bird and Paul too felt it was fine for a pure GLAUCOUS-WINGED GULL!! I got the good news from Kurt right away, and he explained how they laughed and said they wouldn’t have taken a second look at this bird, had they been in California! The word went out and many came to see this rarity (7th state record), who ended up being very cooperative. On the 11th, I also got more good news. It was another great text message from Melanie Herring. Melanie was at Granite Reef, looking at McCreedy’s Pacific Loon who was still around, and she also had found a White-throated Sparrow. The loon was a lifer, while the White-throated Sparrow was a long overdue county bird who eluded me last year on several occasions, as well as this year. After enjoying my Glaucous-winged Gull once more on the 11th, I headed for the Salt River to search Granite Reef in the early morning on the 12th. I was anxious, and after an hour of walking up and down the river at Granite Reef, the PACIFIC LOON appeared right in front of me, with the best looks I could ask for. I studied it’s field marks as it swam slowly in front of me. Besides the fact it was my life bird, it was also my 300th Maricopa County bird for 2011. After enjoying the loon, I couldn’t find the White-throated Sparrow. Landbirds were quiet, so I decided to go elsewhere and return later. As I came back to Granite Reef a little later, it was much more active. As I got out of my truck, I saw a sparrow hopping around by the parking lot in the open. When I looked through my binoculars, it was the WHITE-THROATED SPARROW! It amazed me how the time of day can make such a huge difference. I hardly even had to work for the sparrow. On the 17th, I went to Sun City Grand for my second attempt at a male ORCHARD ORIOLE that has wintered for several years in the backyard of my friend Dave Bradford. As I pulled up, I had good looks at the distinctive oriole, a lifer for me. I decided to go to the Glendale Recharge Ponds after the oriole chase. The Glaucous-winged Gull was still present and I could see it from a distance as I was approaching. Glaucous-winged had a smaller gull standing with it on a stone structure, and when I got closer, the gull looked different. I thought the common Ring-billed Gull at first, but this bird had a cute expression, a small thin bill, and a rounded head……..which would have to be the MEW GULL!! The Mew Gull is another rarity in Arizona, and had only one previous Maricopa County record. With those two rarities sitting together, it was very hard for me to believe. I thought I was definitely seeing things, so I took a walk after filming the bird, leaving the Mew Gull. But when I came back, the bird was still there, and after studying it, I knew it was a Mew Gull, which was a first year gull. Because gulls cause so many identification problems, I called David Vander Pluym to be sure before I reported. David said yes! On the 18th, I joined many birders at the Glendale Recharge Ponds for a fun day of rarities. The Glaucous-winged and Mew Gulls highlighted the show from the start. After Steve Hosmer and I looked at the gulls, we decided to head over to one of the dry basins to look for longspurs, since I had seen a Chestnut-collared Longspur in the dry basin a week earlier. HORNED LARK flocks filled the basin as Steve and I scanned. Luck soon found us as Steve said, “Hey Tommy, what is this I in my scope!?” I took a look to see that Steve had a bright LAPLAND LONGSPUR in his scope, one of the rare longspurs in Arizona! Steve shot a few digiscoped photos of the “spur”. It was cooperative, and after the birding crowds had looked at the gull, they then enjoyed the Lapland Longspur as well. Three rare birds pleased the many birders on that memorable day. On the 21st, I headed north to the Seven Springs Recreation Area. I was in search of a MOUNTAIN BLUEBIRD for the year at Seven Springs, which I got lucky with two calling birds while walking up the road to the nearby Mount Humboldt. The Bluebirds were a special bird, as they were bird number 305 for my big year, breaking last year’s record of 304. As I went south a few miles to Lower Camp Creek, my day got even luckier as a PACIFIC WREN popped out of the dense wooded habitat. I heard it give it’s Wilson’s Warbler-like call note, and looked down to see the tiny bird below me. It called a few more times and more importantly gave me excellent looks on and off for twenty minutes, as it hopped around in wood piles. The bird was a lifer for me visually, after only hearing one last year. November ended on a perfect note, as the month was one of the best my birding eyes has seen. I recorded 164 species for November 2011, which 10 of those were new for the year, bringing my Maricopa year list up to 306 species, already breaking all of last year’s total of 304. At the end of November in 2010, I had 154 species for that month, where my year total was 294 species. The bird of the month had to end in a tie: Glaucous-winged Gull, Mew Gull.
DECEMBER: It was December. I had already broken last year’s record, so this was the month to have fun. I still wanted to compete against last year’s record and work hard to still find new birds. December 1st was my first try, and the previous later year months in 2011 as well as 2010 always seemed to have a good bird near the beginning of the month. After I originally planned to go to the Hassayampa River Preserve and got a late start, I decided to settle on Tres Rios Wetlands, which is closer to home. The first hour was quiet and boring, but that changed quickly as I got my eyes on a bright male Bluebird perched in an open shrubby area. It had a bright white belly and I thought it was something else at for a split second, and then when I realized what I was looking at I jumped. No bluebirds in Maricopa County have ever had that bright white belly, and when I saw that it had an orange throat and orange sides on it’s neck, that contrasted with the white belly, I jumped even more. It then flew over me and vocalized, and I took pictures of this bluebird, which had a solid blue back. I knew I was looking at and listening to an EASTERN BLUEBIRD! It was cooperative and allowed me to get perfect pictures, as it vocalized a lot. I was shocked at the sight of this bird, as I knew it was a first record for Maricopa County. After ten minutes of watching the bird, I lost it after spooking it. Luckily, Jeff Ritz arrived at Tres Rios and relocated the bird in a big cottonwood grove close about an hour later. The bluebird was cooperative for both of us while we observed it. I went home and birders discussed this was likely the eastern race of Eastern Bluebird, “Sialis”, where the southwestern and pale subspecies “Azure” hasn’t been known to migrate. Finding a first Maricopa County record meant the world to me! I returned the following day to Tres Rios and heard the Eastern Bluebird briefly, which was never to be seen again. After being joined by Robert Bowker, Jeff Ritz and his mother Shirley, I was trying to show them a FOX SPARROW (Slate-colored) that I found. When I refound the bird, I realized it was a second Fox Sparrow, which was the rare in Arizona RED FOX SPARROW! Robert was able to snap great pictures of the bird which were perfect for documentation. Tres Rios Wetlands was hopping with goodies over those days. The next year bird came on the 10th, which was a COMMON LOON at Lake Pleasant. My initial views of this bird were distant and it’s bill looked yellow from the distance. I thought it might’ve been a Yellow-billed Loon, and as I got closer, the bird’s bill got grayer and grayer. Distance always has that power to deceive. Soon after, I found a second Common Loon in one of the lake’s quiet coves, always a fun bird to see, and sometimes hard to find in the county. After a pointless day of searching for Eurasian Wigeons in rural ponds and lakes on the 11th, I came home to a report from Ken Bielek who had found a LEWIS’S WOOPECKER at Encanto Park in Phoenix. It was dark already, so I chose to go on the afternoon of the 12th. I was raining outside, but I didn’t care. After searching for ten minutes, the Lewis’s appeared on a tall palm tree. Ken reported that the bird was likely gathering acorns from a few oaks in the park and storing them in palm trees. Watching this beautiful bird in the rain gave me the same impression, as it was getting ready to winter! On the 14th, a surprising report came into the listserv from Pierre Deviche. Pierre had gone to Anthem to Anthem Community Park to look at a RUFOUS-BACKED ROBIN that had been frequenting a section of the park for about a week, and on top of that he found the rare in Arizona RUSTY BLACKBIRD! I then went with my brother Tyler and Tyler (who isn’t a birder) quickly spied the Rusty Blackbird, a lifer for me. It hung around the playground and water features and showed itself well. Chris Reidy, a visiting birder from Michigan, came for the Rufous-backed Robin, which was a lifer for him. It wasn’t long before Chris, Tyler and I were enjoying looks at the Rufous-backed Robin. As we were looking at the robin, the Rusty Blackbird joined us by landing directly beside us. I participated in the Tres Rios Christmas Bird Count on the 19th. It was an awesome day, as I covered the extensive habitat of the Flow Regulating Wetlands on the west side of 91st Avenue, which isn’t open to the public. AMERICAN WHITE PELICANS flew overhead all day, and a good December highlight came with a TROPICAL KINGBIRD that was found by Robert Bowker and Jeff Ritz. The kingbird called for me when a Sharp-shinned Hawk flew overhead, confirming it’s identification, which was also possible for the nearly identical Couch’s Kingbird (which can be told apart only be voice). That same day, Laurence Butler reported a EURASIAN WIGEON at a few golf course ponds in Phoenix at 27th street and Camelback. I tried for it the following morning on the 20th, and easily found the beautiful bird mixed in with about a hundred American Wigeon. The reports for Eurasian Wigeons seemed to really lack throughout Arizona for 2011, but thankfully this one showed up just in time! After going a week without finding anything new and missing a few key birds on long chases, Troy Corman and Jay Miller then found a rare RED-NECKED GREBE on the 26th at Gillespie Dam while scouting for the Gila River Christmas Bird Count. As I had to patiently wait for a few days in high hopes, the grebe luckily stuck around. After updates from Troy telling me about the grebe’s continuing presence on the 28th during the Christmas Count, I decided to try for the Red-necked Grebe on the 29th. Arriving at Gillespie Dam at dawn in freezing temperatures, the grebe was still present and put on a show for me. It was joined by a CLARK’S and PIED-BILLED GREBE for good comparisons. It was my lifer Red-necked Grebe, completing my North American grebe list. Besides the Red-necked Grebe, Troy told me about a GRASSHOPPER SPARROW that had been found by Christina Smith in the Arlington Valley on the Christmas Bird Count. I wanted to try for that bird as well, so I headed in the sparrow’s direction after I looked at the grebe. After getting in touch with Chrissy, she told me where to look. As I scanned the area, I heard the Grasshopper Sparrow calling perfectly, which was a new Maricopa County bird for me. I didn’t see the bird, but was grateful to at least hear it. The Grasshopper Sparrow was the 313th bird I recorded in the county for the year. Later on the 29th, Lauren Harter informed me about ROSY-FACED LOVEBIRD being added to the Arizona state list as an established exotic, as she was looking at the changes from the AZFO website. I decided to go and enjoy a number of Rosy-faced Lovebirds at Encanto Park, where the LEWIS’S WOOPECKER was also present and in the same view as the lovebirds! After a day long search in areas along Highway 87 and the Salt River on the 30th, I didn’t find anything new for the year, where 313 species ended up as my total for the long and awesome year. The bird of the month for me in December was by far the Eastern Bluebird.
After miles and miles of driving and days and days of hiking and searching, the fun and awesome big year is finally over. As the year is all said and done and the Maricopa County Big Year is over, I ended up breaking my 2010 record of 304 species, with my new record being 313 species. The power of the listserv, eBird, and other birders helped me out a lot. 289 of the 313 species I recorded I either found or co-found myself. So 24 of those birds came from the help of other birders! At the end of 2010, my Maricopa County life list numbered 316 species, and by adding 30 birds to my county list this year, that list is up to 345. Hopefully in the future, more and more species will be added!
With as big and diverse of a county as Maricopa, there were plenty of birds that I missed, despite getting 313 species. Working full time kept me from going out a lot, so I had to work extra hard in getting the number I did. That being said, I think if someone wanted to and had the time, they could easily break my record! I did miss two easier birds this year, Marbled Godwit and Bonaparte’s Gull. I made multiple trips attempting to find both of these species, who avoided me completely. Many birders discovered amazing things this year, as there were a lot of other rarities seen that I missed that I feel like mentioning, which I kept track of the birds reported this year. Some of them I even chased unsuccessfully. These birds included: American Bittern (seen by several different people during the year), Little Blue Heron at Tres Rios (Melanie Herring), Reddish Egret at Paloma Ranch (Bill Grossi), 2 Black Scoters in the Salt River/Saguaro Lake areas (Troy Corman, Jay Miller), a Rough-legged Hawk at Paloma Ranch which I chased and missed (Charlie Babbit, Stuart Healy), 3 Crested Caracaras-two in SW Maricopa, one at Hassayampa (Melanie Herring, Stuart Healy Dominic Sherony), Purple Gallinule at Palo Verde Nuclear Plant (Mark Shobe), Black-bellied Plover (seen by several different people during the year), a Golden-Plover species at the Glendale Recharge Ponds that I chased and missed (Melanie Herring), a big flock of Mountain Plovers at Paloma Ranch (Bill Grossi), several Whimbrels that I chased and missed at Glendale Ponds and the Arlington/Gila Bend area (Melanie Herring, Stig Jotta, Kurt Radamaker), two migratory Flammulated Owl pairs in the Phoenix Mountains (Joel Pearson), a Short-eared Owl at Paloma Ranch (Charlie Babbit), an Eastern Kingbird west of Palo Verde that I chased and missed (Melanie Herring), a Scissor-tailed Flycatcher in Arlington that I chased and missed (Donna Smith), American Crow on Kurt Radamaker’s Salt/Verde River CBC, several Golden-crowned Kinglets throughout the year, a Gray Catbird in a Scottsdale backyard (Mark Larson), a Tennessee Warbler at Tempe Town Lake (David Vander Pluym), a Palm Warbler at Tolleson Wastewater Plant (Bill Grossi), a Blackpoll Warbler at Gilbert Water Ranch (Bernie Howe), a Hooded Warbler west of Bullard Avenue and Gila River (Troy Corman), several Rose-breasted Grosbeaks throughout the year, a local population of Varied Buntings southeast of Gila Bend (John Arnett), a Painted Bunting at Rio Salado that I chased twice and missed (Rich Ditch), a Harris’s Sparrow in a Scottsdale yard (David Malia), and a Golden-crowned Sparrow in an Awahtukee backyard (Randy Forrest). With the two easier birds I missed and this list of 27 species of uncommon/rare species added to my list of 313 species, that means there were at least 342 different species seen in Maricopa County in 2011! Not all of these sightings were reported on eBird. With this high amount of species detected in one county throughout the year, the great birding potential is shown. Great work birders!
In doing a Big Year this year I covered as many places and habitats as I could. I have plans next year to hopefully visit and study a few locations in the county I have never been to before: Four Peaks (pine/oak forest), the Superstitions Mountains (great forest habitat in the county also), the Apache Trail area, and someday the mountain ranges southeast of Gila Bend which have had some excellent goodies. The area southeast of Gila Bend is a dangerous place to be birding at, but the potential the area has is great (including breeding Varied Buntings). I also spent a lot of time this year working on an online guide to Birding in Maricopa County, which is a hotspot guide for birders wanting to explore the county. It has a lot of work still to be done, but in the meantime I have about 60 locations throughout the county on the guide. Hopefully next year I can get a lot more done towards that goal.
After some thought, the bird of the year goes to the Eastern Bluebird. The Glaucous-winged and Mew Gulls are a close second. Because I love to bird Maricopa so much, finding the county’s first Eastern Bluebird was something extra special! It was a perfect example of how exploring regularly can lead to finding great things.
I really hope more of us will take interest in participating in county year lists. It’s a lot of fun, I promise that. As for me, I plan on being a grown up birder next year! I challenge you to become that kid on a treasure hunt. Do a big year in an Arizona county for 2012!