Saturday, September 10, 2016

Fall Madness: Shorebirding And More!!!

Over the last few years that I have been birding I have known fall as the time of year when there is so much potential for rarities that it can become overwhelming. For example, one might go to a local migrant trap and find a crazy fallout of warblersm but that's not it. There's always the possibility of a wandering frigatebird or jaeger to fly over or an Upland or Buff-breasted Sandpiper to be feeding in the fields surrounding that stand of trees you are scanning. This fall one family of bird has taken the spotlight, shorebirds. Now for those who are unfamiliar with the taxonomy of shorebirds, shorebirds include plovers, stilts, avocets, curlews, and sandpipers. Fortunately I live in between two of the most productive shorebirdsing spots in the county, the Glendale Recharge Ponds and the Gila Bend Area. Between these two areas there are many ponds and fields (which when flooded produce many "shorbs") that can be very productive at times.

In Arizona fall migration for shorebirds starts in late-June/early-July. So having a Western Willet be one of the first shorebird migrants I found in early July was pretty cool!

Western Willet (record shot)

A few days later, in mid-July, I was wandering around my house completing various chores off of "the list" my mom gave me for the day when fellow bird-hard birder Tommy D gave me a call. He excitingly explained that he was on his way to my house to pick me up to see a couple Black Skimmers (a code 5 for the county!) which Duane Morse (founder of Maricopa's one and only record of White-eared Hummingbird) had just found at the Lower River Road Ponds about 20 miles west of my house. Finishing up on the list, Tommy picked me up and we zoomed over to the Lower River Road Ponds. Before even parking the car we spied the skimmers hunting over one of the ponds!

Black Skimmer

These skimmers were a Maricoper for both Tommy and I, and not one we exactly expected to get this fall! There were also a couple other birders present watching the skimmers, Barb Meding and Melanie Herring. Together, the four of us enjoyed observing these very unique birds.

Black Skimmer

 Although I got back to my house fairly early in the day, many other birders got to enjoy Duane's great find! But then something crazy happened, even crazier than the skimmers. Later that evening, while I was chilling at the crib I got a call from Kurt Radamaker and he told me that he had found an alternate plumaged Hudsonian Godwit about a mile away from the Lower River Road Ponds in a dairy slop pond!!! There was one problem, however, it was too late to chase the HudWit that day because the sun had just set and the pond he found it in was about a half hour away. I got in contact with Tommy, yet again, and we made plans to search for the godwit very early in the morning. So for the second time in the last 24 hours, Tommy picked me up from my house and we drove over to the Palo Verde Area. Tommy and I were the first birders to arrive at the slop ponds so we split up and scanned the two ponds from opposite sides. After scanning for less than five minutes I yelled "Tommy, I got the bird!" and boom, we were looking at Maricopa's 3rd ever Hudsonian Godwit!

Hudsonian Godwit

Within five minutes of spotting the HudWit the birders started rolling in and before we knew it there were around 30 birders present watching Kurt's amazing find! Unfortunately the land owners didn't allow birders onto their property (for any possible liability issues) but either way we enjoyed this awesome bird!

Hudsonian Godwit

#photobombdabfail (photo by Tyler Loomis)

With the HudWit and skimmers being found in the same day I knew there was more out there! Since then I have been scanning most every pond between Buckeye (sometimes Glendale) and Gila Bend in search of rarities about once every-other week, most of the time with success. Now shorebirding can become addicting and I was definitely hooked for the fall! The first of the rare species of shorb for AZ I started finding this fall was the Semipalmated Sandpiper, an overlooked and overeported species in Maricopa County.

Semipalmated Sandpiper

Semipalmated Sandpipers can be distinguished from Western by their short rather stout blunt-tipped bill, darker streaked ariculars, the brown streaked breast band, and unique overall brown scapulars/mantle. They can also be separated from the Least Sandpiper by its light supercillium and throat, more scaley patterned scapulars, broader bill, lightly streaked ariculars and crown, and black legs (not always a good field mark because bad lighting and/or mud can effect the look of the legs).

Least Sandpiper (left) Semipalmated Sandpiper (right) 

Another shorebird that is rare yet regular in the county in fall which I had found earlier on in fall was an adult Short-billed Dowitcher, my first time seeing an adult in the county.

Short-billed Dowitcher

In Arizona most every Short-billed Dowitcher we get are of the inland subspecies Hendersoni, which just so happens to be the most similar subspecies of SBDO to Long-billed. Luckily Long-billed and Short-billed Dowitchers both give very different calls. Long-billed often gives a sharp "Peep" call sometimes given in a series when excited or flushed, while Short-billed gives a series of "tu"s or usually a distinctive "tu tu tu" call which almost sounds like a call a songbird would give. However, for a beginner the yellowlegs can sound similar to a SBDO so be cautious with IDing dowitchers by voice. Identifying adult Long-billed Dowitchers from adult Hendersoni Short-billed Dowitchers visually is perhaps unreliable but with first-fall juveniles it is a completely different story! In juvenile plumage both dowitchers have a relatively buffy breast, spotted undertail coverts, and rufous bordered feathers on the mantle/back, they can also appear overall more gray/brown than adult dowitchers. However, juvenile Short-billed Dowitchers are know to have what birders call "tiger-striped tertials", I've also noticed they have a dark ear patch. Now one might not know where the "tertials" are, well the tertials are found near the wing tips (when the wings are folded). Here's a photo with an arrow pointing towards the tertials of a juvenile Short-billed Dowitcher.

Juvenile Short-billed Dowitcher (left) and adult Long-billed Dowitchers (right)

Here are a couple more photos of juvenile Short-billed Dowitchers I've recently seen.

Juvenile Short-billed Dowitchers--Note the dark ear patch

Both dowitchers in the photo above are Short-billed, note the overall plumage color is different in these birds. That is likely due to age.

In adult dowitchers a field mark which is often useful in fall in Arizona is wing-molt. Now adult Long-billed Dowitchers are one of only a few shorebirds which molt their wing feathers in migration. On the other hand Short-billed molts its wing feathers on its wintering grounds. So in fall migration in Arizona any dowitcher which is molting its wing feathers is a Long-billed as where an adult dowitcher in Arizona in fall migration which shows no wing molt is likely a Short-billed. However, wing molt can be hard to see in many cases so this "field-mark" is to be used with caution.

Before I step away from the dowitchers here are a couple of very useful articles on these two strikingly similar species and how to distinguish them apart.

In mid-August while doing one of my casual shorebird runs with fellow birders Joshua Smith, Laura Ellis, and Steve Hosmer I spotted a Ruddy Turnstone!!!

Ruddy Turnstone 

Now the Ruddy Turnstone use to be a sketch species for Arizona back in the day when they were quite regular, however, but in the last 10 to 20 years we have had very few records with only 6 in the state since the status change to a review species. As a matter of fact, there hadn't been any records of RUTU in Maricopa in over 20 year!

Ruddy Turnstone 

To add the the rare yet regular shorebirds I had been finding on these shorb runs, a few Sanderlings and a Snowy Plovers made things nice.

Sanderling (right) with Western Sandpipers

Snowy Plover

On a recent shorb run with Tommy D and Ms. Susan Fishburn we checked up on one of the ponds in the Gila Bend Area and found a juvenile Red Knot, the first for Maricopa County in seven years.

Red Knot

Although not a shorebird, a recent chase to see, a would be lifer Tricolored Heron provided me with not just great photos but great selfies ;)

Tricolored Heron

Now with the second week of September rolling in shorbs are gonna start slowing down before I know it. But before I'm done with "pond patrol" for the fall I still have two shorebirds in mind, Buff-breasted and Sharp-tailed Sandpipers! This year has been a great one for Buff-breasted Sandpipers and the northwest appears to be getting hit pretty hard by this species so it shouldn't be too long before one shows up in the southwest. Whether the fall of 2016 is the year for this species to make its way back into the state again or not, I do not know, but I shall certainly keep an eye out!

God Bless and BIRD HARD!!!

Buckeye, AZ

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

The Start To Cleaning Up My AZ Lifers

Recently, I have been running out of birds in Arizona. I now only have less than 10 birds that breed in AZ to get for my life list! Over the 4th of July I made plans to bird the next day with Ms. Susan Fishburn, Mr. Gordon Karre, and Joshua Smith in Southeastern Arizona to search for 4 potential lifers. Purple Gallinule, Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, Cassin's Sparrow (overdue), and Rufous-capped Warbler. The Purple Gallinule and Scissor-tailed Flycatcher are vagrants to AZ, the Cassin's Sparrow is a common breeder in in grasslands in Southern parts of the state, and the Rufous-capped Warbler is a rare and local breeder in only a few canyons in the Southeastern corner of AZ. Additionally, my life list has been stuck at 449 for the past couple of weeks so reaching 450 would be awesome!

We left the Phoenix area early in the morning to arrive at the Sweetwater Wetlands and search for the gallinule. When we arrived we found out that the wetlands were closed for a couple hours due to bug spraying. Instead of waiting for the wetlands to open we decided to hit Sierra Vista first and search for the gallinule on our way back to the valley. Approaching the stand of trees which the flycatcher had been staying in, I heard my first lifer of the trip, the Cassin's Sparrow! We stopped the car and started searching the area in hopes of getting a visual. Cassin's Sparrows actually turned out to be fairly abundant in the surrounding grasslands and it wasn't too long before I spied one perched on a short tree!

Cassin's Sparrow--#450!!!

While we were watching the CASPs a couple of Botteri's Sparrows popped up and started singing as well!

Botteri's Sparrow

A Chihuahuan Raven added to the list of awesome birds we were seeing!

Chihuahuan Raven

After enjoying the sparrows we walked a little ways down the road and all the sudden we spied the Scissor-tailed Flycatcher flyingout of the stand of trees!

Scissor-tailed Flycatcher 

Returning to its perch the flycatcher gave everyone outstanding views!

Scissor-tailed Flycatcher 

The Scissor-tailed Flycatcher was one amazing bird and it was actually more awesome than I expected it to be!

Scissor-tailed Flycatcher 

After an amazing experience with one of the most beautiful birds I have ever seen in my life we drove over to the San Pedro River to do some chill birding. The San Pedro River was perhaps one of the largest riparian areas I have ever birded and it was thick with birds! Six Yellow-billed Cuckoos, an Indigo Bunting, a couple of Gray Hawk, and more awesome birds added to our great morning of birding! After the San Pedro our next birding stop was Hunter Canyon where Ms. Susan and Mr. Gordon would drop Josh and I off so we could search for the Rufous-capped Warblers for a couple hours, a would-be lifer for both of us. The Rufous-capped Warbler was probably my most wanted lifer of the day as I have searched for them before in Florida Canyon and missed them by just a few minutes! Josh and I hiked a mile up Hunter Canyon and started scanning the area with both our eyes and ears. There was no sign of the warblers but while we searched a singing Greater Pewee made its way to Josh's life list! We had been searching the area for nearly an house and our hopes started fading, this Buff-breasted Flycatchers, however, started breaking the fall of a possible dip.

Buff-breasted Flycatcher 

Josh and I loved the higher elevations of Hunter Canyon but we had to keep searching for the RCWAs! We ran into some birders from NoCal and we joined forces. Hiking up the canyon a little ways I got about 20 yards in front of the group when all the sudden I spied a Rufous-capped Warbler foraging at eye level in a douglas fir!!! I quickly called the group over and BOOM RCWA lifer views!!!!!!!!!

Rufous-capped Warbler

Josh and I were pumped but due to having to meet Ms. Susan and Mr. Gordon Josh and I hiked back down canyon. We then headed over to the Sweetwater Wetlands to search for the Purple Gallinule. Unfortunately no one had seen the gallinule that day so we didn't stay around long, and thus missed it. However, I can't complain because three out of four is pretty good especially since the fourth bird wasn't really a miss! Thanks Ms. Suan, Mr. Gordon, and Josh for the awesome day of birding!

In the mean time, the only birds that breed in AZ that I still need are Five-striped Sparrow, Buff-collared Nightjar, Eastern Bluebird, Flame-colored Tanager, Dusky Grouse, Gray Jay, Nutting's Flycatcher, and Black Rail I believe!

Friday, July 1, 2016

A New Birding Hotspot For The Public: The Dean and Beloat Riparian Area

Hi All!

Over the past couple years I have birded at a nice riparian corridor along the Gila River in Buckeye, AZ. This area has attracted some very nice birds like eastern vagrants and endangered breeders. Now I am happy to present that half of the D and B area is open to the public! Half of the Dean and Beloat area (southeast of the intersection) is on private property while the other half (southwest of the intersection) is public, the public half is better for birds anyways. PLEASE ONLY BIRD THE PUBLIC HALF. Here is a map of the area.

Red marks the area which is on private property (while everything else is open to the public), green marks the dirt stretch of Dean Road, black marks the parking area, and yellow marks the part of the dirt road which should be hiked.

Here is a closer map with the good stands of trees labeled as S (stand) 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, and 7.

S1 is a small stand of willow and tamarask trees along with a super thick understory and some fairly healthy marsh habitat. In this area I have had special birds such as Ridgway's Rail (summer) and Fox Sparrow (winter). Although I haven't found anything particularly 'rare' in S1, I have no doubt that it has attracted many nice eastern vagrants and will, over the years, get its fair share of glory among birders.

S2 is one of the larger riparian areas and it has produced many great birds over the last couple of years! It has the largest willows in the area and the best habitat for vagrants in my opinion. In this stand of trees vagrants I have seen include Broad-winged Hawk, American Redstart, Black-and-white Warbler, and more! This area is also good for Yellow-billed Cuckoos too. This is one of the better stands of trees in the area for Western Screech-Owls as well.

S3 is a small stand of tall willow trees but although it is limited in habitat I have had a Winter Wren and a probable Brown Thrasher (heard only so I wasn't confident in calling it for sure) in this area. I also heard a Ridgway's Rail in the marshy habitat that borders this stand of trees.

S4 is like S3 but about three times as large and it seems to hold good birds usually. In the past I have had Black-and-white Warblers in here and a probable Blackburnian Warbler.

S5 has been the best stand of trees for rarities over the years. It is a thick stand of willows with nearby marsh, and tamarasks bordering it. In this stand of trees I have had Prothonotary Warbler, Black-and-white Warblers, American Redstarts, an American Redstart x parula sp. (likely Northern) hybrid, a pair of probable Streak-backed Orioles (long story short I got brief views of a pair of orioles that looked good for an adult male and 1st year female Streak-backed Oriole pair), and more!

S6 is a good stand of thick willows with a lot of water. In this area I have had a couple of potential rarities that got away before I could see anything diagnostic but a Swamp Sparrow who stayed for a couple weeks was nice.

S7 is a very different habitat from the rest of the area. It is a tamarask forest which is actually quite productive most of the time. In this area I have had notable birds such as a Northern Parula and Gray Catbird. Willow Flycatchers also appear to breed in this area.

Year-Round Residents 
Birds that mostly say year round at this spot and are common to uncommon include Mallard (year-round but more in the winter), Gambel's Quail, Neatropic and Double-crested Cormorants, Least Bittern (uncommon), Great Blue Heron, Great Egret, Snowy Egret (more in the summer but still year-round), Cattle Egret (same as Snowy), Green Heron, Black-crowned Night-Heron (same as Snowy), White-faced Ibis, Turkey Vulture, Red-tailed Hawk, Cooper's Hawk (more in winter but still year-round), Virginia Rail (a lot more in winter but a a couple pairs stay to breed), Common Gallinule, Killdeer, Black-necked Stilt, Long-billed Curlew, Rock Pigeon, Eurasian Collared-Dove, Common Ground-Dove (mostly summer but they should be here in winter too), Mourning Dove, Greater Roadrunner, Barn Owl, Western Screech-Owl, Great Horned Owl, Burrowing Owl (in fields and ditches to the southeast), White-throated Swift (uncommon), Anna's Hummingbird, Gila Woodpecker, Ladder-backed Woodpecker, Gilded Flicker (be cautious as there are Northern Flickers as this spot from fall-spring), American Kestrel, Black and Say's Phoebes, Ash-throated Flycatcher (more of a summer bird but still a couple here in the winter), Common Raven, Horned Lark, Northern Rough-winged Swallow, Verdin, Black-tailed Gnatcatcher, Crissal Thrasher, Northern Mockingbird, European Starling, Phainopepla (very uncommon), Common Yellowthroat, Song Sparrow, Abert's Towhee, Red-winged Blackbird, Western Meadowlark (a lot mroe in the winter but a pair or two stay in the nearby fields for the summer as well), Yellow-headed Blackbird, Great-tailed Grackle, Brown-headed Cowbird, House Finch, Lesser Goldfinch, and House Sparrow.

Barn Owl being chased by a Cooper's Hawk

Summer Breeders (June-July)
In addition to the species of bird that can be seen here year-round there are also birds that can only be seen here during the summer. Species that call Dean and Beloat their breeding grounds for the most part include Swainson's Hawk (a probable breeder somewhere down in the river but a lot more expected during the spring and fall), Ridgway's Rail (S1), Yellow-billed Cuckoo (mostly S1), White-winged Dove, Lesser Nighthawk, Black-chinned Hummingbird, Willow Flycatcher (mostly a migrant but at least one pair breeds here in S7)Western Kingbird, Cliff Swallow, Lucy's and Yellow Warblers, Yellow-breasted Chat, Summer Tanager, Blue Grosbeak, and Bullock's Oriole.

Yellow-billed Cuckoo

Wintering Birds (November-March)
Birds that are strictly wintering birds (snow birds) include Gadwall, American Wigeon, Northern Pintail, and about any species of wintering waterfowl (as there are large ponds on both sides of the D and B area), Northern Harrier, Sharp-shinned Hawk, Bald Eagle, Sora, Greater Yellowlegs (also can be seen during migration), Least Sandpiper (same as Greater Yellowlegs), Wilson's Snipe, Belted Kingfisher, Northern Flicker, Red-naped Sapsucker, Merlin, Peregrine and Prairie Falcons, Vermilion Flycacther (around the house around the Dean and Beloat intersection), Loggerhead Shrike, House, Marsh, and Bewick's Wrens, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Hermit Thrush, American Pipit, Orange-crowned Warbler, Yellow-rumped Warblers, Black-throated Gray Warbler, Chipping Sparrow, Lark Sparrow, Dark-eyed Junco, White-crowned Sparrow, Vesper Sparrow (very uncommon here), Savannah Sparrow, Lincoln's Sparrow, Green-tailed and Spotted Towhees, and Brewer's Blackbird. Uncommon to rare birds for this spot which I have seen here in the winter have included Wood Duck, White-tailed Kite, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Plumbeous Vireo, Dusky Flycatcher, Winter Wren, Black-and-white Warbler, American Redstart, Fox Sparrow, Swamp Sparrow, Eastern Meadowlark, Pine Siskin, Lawrence's and American Goldfinches, and Evening Grosbeak.

Black-and-white Warbler

Spring and Fall migration (April-May and August-October)
Birds that I have seen here often that are strict migrants include Lesser Yellowlegs, Vaux's Swift, Western Wood-Pewee, Hammond's Flycatcher, Pacific-slope Flycatcher, Cassin's and Warbling Vireos, Tree, Violet-green, Bank, and Barn Swallows, Nashville Warbler, MacGillivray's Warbler, Townsend's Warbler, Wilson's Warbler, Brewer's Sparrow (could be seen in winter too), Western Tanager, Black-headed Grosbeak, Lazuli Bunting, and Hooded Oriole. In migration this spot is amazing with songbirds! And if one birds this area during migration you never know what you might find! Fall migration has treated me quite well providing many good rarities.

American Redstart x Parula sp. hybrid 

Here is the overview for this hotspot on eBird HERE. This page is very helpful in getting directions to this area and gaining a mindset of the birds that can be found here.

I made this post so other birders can explore this area and hopefully contribute to the eBird data of unique oasis. PLEASE BE RESPECTFUL TO ANYONE YOU ENCOUNTER WHILE AT THIS SPOT, BECAUSE, YOU, AS A BIRDER, REPRESENT THE ENTIRE BIRDING COMMUNITY. Keep an eye out for other wildlife to as there are a few species of large mammals that call this place home as well as snakes. This area can also have a good amount of mosquitoes in the late summer and fall so bring bug spray. Water is also important for birding anywhere in Arizona. Most of all, have a great time enjoying the birds and other wildlife of this new birding hotspot!!!

God Bless and BIRD HARD!!!