Birding with Susan to put a few more birds in her AZ Year List

December 30, 2015

What a fine way to close out the year 2015!  Susan Fishburn sent me a late-night email on Monday (28th) after she heard from Laurens Halsey (bird guide) who had agreed to help her find the McCown’s Longspur today to add to her Year List of Arizona Birds.

Not checking my email until 8 a.m. or so the next day (12/29), I was surprised to see Susan’s invitation to join her in seeking three target birds which would help her regain her #1 spot among the Top 100 e-bird Birders.  The #1 spot was being contested among three women — with lots of admirers watching to see who might end the year as #1.  Susan had held that spot for quite a while up until December when the competition and listing picked up and she and Janine traded #1 & #2 spots frequently.

posted by Magill Weber on her Facebook page on Dec. 22, 2015:

Susan had suggested we meet about noontime at her place and go together from there to search for three rare birds within a reasonable (in birding terms) distance. With her intense chasing of birds, our previous joint birding trips had faded away. After canceling one appointment for the day, I met Susan as planned at 12:15 p.m., on Monday, December 29th.  It was a clear cool (50°) day and we were off to look for a PINE WARBLER in Tucson's Reid Park today and a MC COWN'S LONGSPUR in Quail Creek Veterans Park, Green Valley; and a GREEN KINGFISHER in a reserved natural area adjacent to Patagonia State Park tomorrow.

Birding began behind the Randolph Recreation Center on S. Alvernon Avenue in Tucson where we listened for and checked out every bird we could find but none was a Pine Warbler. Best sighting there was a healthy-looking coyote walking the golf course as if it was its private domain - proudly strolling. Driving, then, to the main entrance of Reid Park, we searched the pines there - filled with many Yellow-rumped Warblers but no bright yellow male Pine Warbler that had been previously reported.

Hungry by the time we checked into the Best Western in Green Valley, we decided to skip the restaurant in the B.W., for the Italian one just across the back parking lot - Rigazzi Italian Restaurant. Having eaten there once before, I highly recommended it so we arrived for an early dinner. Without reservations, our early arrival enabled us to enjoy a fabulous meal in its dining room with quietly elegant ambiance.

On the 30th (Wednesday morning), Laurens Halsey met us at the Best Western around 7:30 a.m., with most of the frosted windshield cleared in Susan's Pathfinder by the time he got behind the wheel. Laurens lives not far from Quail Creek Veterans Park where the McCown's Longspurs have been seen. It was a new place for me.

Wearing almost all the warm clothes I had stuffed in my pack, I was able to keep my binoculars on the big flocks of Horned Larks, Lark Buntings and a variety of sparrows as I searched for the special longspur in the 27° cold. (Not our usual AZ winter temps.)

Laurens kept searching the flocks with his spotting scope. The first time he found it, Susan, of course, got the first look. But then the whole flock lifted, flew around a bit, but then returned slightly closer to us.  Again, Laurens started searching for the longspur that would be a LIFE BIRD for me - the first time seen!  This longspur looks pretty much like many other LBBs (little brown birds) about 6" in size comparable to many sparrows. It breeds in the northern prairies  but migrates out in winter. Keen birders find them from time to time in Arizona, so I was thrilled to be on this quest. When Laurens got on it, I was right beside him ready to look through the scope to view the smaller longspur with its broad light eyebrow and short pointed pink bill that contrasted with the many birds around it.  It kept busily foraging on the ground in the bigger mixed flock of feeding birds.  YAY! - Life Bird for me!

Photo?  Not by me. My camera is very sluggish in cold weather and I knew it would be very difficult for me with this point-and-shoot to single out the longspur from the rest of the flock for a decent shot. I left it in its case in the car. This shot is from the internet.

Winter-plumaged Mccowen's Longspur
Since Susan wasn't sure I'd go with her when she had asked Laurens to help her find her birds, she thanked him for finding the McCown's Longspur for us and let him go off to enjoy the rest of his day. We headed south to see if luck would travel with us to see the Green Kingfisher.

Arriving at Patagonia State Park at 10:20 a.m. (42°F), we birded the Visitor's Center area even though it was closed. We had gone there for the special permit needed to visit the Sonoita Creek State Natural Area where we hoped to find the Green Kingfisher. This was the second new spot I visited on this trip. We got our permit at the front gate. As usual, Susan had done her homework and discovered that on her previous try for this bird, she had not walked far enough. So, we tackled the longer walk today going beyond the concrete abutment for another 300 yards to the wider pools where the bird had most recently been spotted.

Mostly, we walked on trails formed by cattle that peered at us through desert scrub and trees along the creek.  

Ever-present cattle

Susan along the Sonoita Creek Trail

After walking over 3 miles from the parking area to the wide lazy pools in the creek, we decided to eat our lunch there. It was pleasant with a Black Phoebe snapping insects from the air above the creek before returning to its post to just go out again and again.  Lunch time for the Black Phoebe, too. 

Sonoita Creek

Many interesting birds that we don't see frequently in our Phoenix desert showed themselves as we hiked and rested: Gray Flycatcher, Dusky Flycatcher, Canyon Towhee, American Pipit and three wren species: Canyon, Rock and Bewick's. But NO Green Kingfisher. It was not a Life Bird for either of us, but it's definitely a stunning bird to see. Susan saw them in Costa Rica; I saw several on an Audubon trip to the Lower Rio Grande Valley of Texas a couple years ago. This rarity would, however, be an AZ YEAR BIRD for each of us in 2015.  

Instead, our familiar Arizona Belted Kingfisher showed up. No slouch in the "looks" department either, it perched briefly for a quick photo.

Belted Kingfisher

Somewhat disappointed, we turned back to the parking lot. For eBird, when we retrace our steps, we count only the birds we saw as we walked out. On the return over the same trail, we add only new sightings of which we had several - the Red-tailed Hawk and Common Raven being two of them.

Susan as we hiked back to the parking area

On our creek crossing going out, I had used the concrete blocks and stones while Susan, in her waterproof shoes, found a shallow spot to cross. I should have followed suit on the return. This time, instead of moving easily from the large blocks to the smaller ones, I needed to balance on the small river rocks to step up to the very sturdy chunks of concrete. Didn't go exactly as planned - I got one foot up but hit a slick spot of algae with my left foot and slid off into the creek - about a foot deep. Water cushioned my slip but, for the second time this year, I doused my camera in a creek!  My Swarovski binoculars and iPhone survived but not my Canon camera. I pulled the card from the camera while still hiking out, tucked it into one of my wool gloves in my pocket and hoped to not lose the few photos I had taken.  (card worked; camera - no - not even after using hair dryer and putting it into a bowl of rice overnight)

When we reached the Gathering Ground coffee shop in Patagonia, it was just closing (4 p.m.), so I quickly got a cup of herbal tea and took time to change my wet socks, roll up the wet bottom legs of my jeans that were still soaked (rest of me was mostly dry) and kept my wet shoes on the floor of the passenger seat under the heater to dry. Susan, meanwhile, had walked up to the Stage Stop Inn to pick up a pair of shoes left there by birding friend, Tommy, on one of their recent forays to that area. As happens in this interesting town, no one was present in the lobby, office or anywhere in the downstairs, so another birding friend will pick up the shoes within the next couple days.

As I'm writing this blog on New Year's Eve day, I'm aware that writing IT was one of my 2015 intentions for this year, I'm pleased that I managed to continue blogging throughout the year. And, I'm planning to continue it into 2016. 

Although I birded most of 2014 without knowing that the eBird stats recorded the names and number of species for its Top One Hundred eBirders each year (in every state), I became aware of that fact in the fall when someone mentioned that I was close or among the Top Ten. I think I was No. 9 on December 29th and No. 10 on December 31st.  But when I awoke on January 1, 2015, I had dropped to No. 11.  - Dang.  Not shabby by any means but I had not birded on the 31st and whoever was below me, did!  I hadn't done much "chasing" at all - I just bird a lot.  

But, under the tutelage of two of the present Top 3 eBirders (Susan and Barb) I learned  strategy. Birding hasn't been a competition for me, although I definitely have a competitive streak. Fortunately, I can turn it down or turn it off. But I learned more about the State of Arizona by visiting many new places and I needed to get a lot sharper with my birding skills to end up in my present position at No. 6. Good birding friend, Chris Rohrer is No. 7 and I cheered when on our recent outing, he mentioned he was going home to Wisconsin for the holidays pretty much guaranteeing my No. 6 spot at year's end! December 31st postings of bird sightings will be reflected in eBird stats as of midnight, December 31, 2015.

On my next year's list of intentions will be to become a much better birder than I am right now. Another intention is to focus on finding Life Birds in North America that will be taking me out of state so I may not be in the Top 10 again next year. But, it has thrilled me to have reached that level.

Because I became aware of eBird's statistical benefits, I know that I saw 108 more species this year (354) than I did last year (246). In 2016, I hope to get to know these birds a lot better.

* * *


Sweetwater Wetlands, Tucson, Pima County, AZ

Thursday, December 24th:
To celebrate my birthday today, good birding friend, Lois Lorenz invited me to go birding and to enjoy lunch on her. Couldn't turn that down but forecast called for a strong chance of showers in the Phoenix area. Closest place I could find with sunshine was Tucson so we left  the gloomy Phoenix area early in the morning to start birding at Sweetwater at 8 a.m.

Love the name Sweetwater for these Waste Water Treatment ponds. In the summer, the smell isn't exactly sweet but today with temps in the 50-60° range, it seemed like a marshy pond park, complete with gazebo and viewing platforms.

After noting a Song and Lincoln's Sparrow on the SE bank from the pedestrian bridge, I turned and took photos of the Green Heron and some finches drinking on the west side of the inlet.

Green Heron

Two House Finches & One Lesser Goldfinch

Among our other sightings were several small groups of young Pied-billed Grebes.

Three Pied-billed Grebes

Anna's Hummingbird

Cooper's Hawk keeping watch over the ponds and reeds and pathways

Ruby-crowned Kinglet (ruby feathers on top of head lying flat; not visible) Small 4.25: bird always active.
My two best bird sightings were of ones that eluded the camera: Four separate good views of Common Yellowthroat and one of a first-year Northern Parula, a rarity here. Photos below come from the internet.  

Common Yellowthroat

Northern Parula, first year female
Photo above does not do justice to this bird with blue wings, yellow throat and breast highlighted by the sunshine, and greenish-yellow scapulars (shoulders, sort of) and gray back (also showing yellow in the sunlight), white wing bars...a real stunner to watch.  4.5" in size, the Northern Parula is smaller than our House Finch at 5.7". I watched the bird for more than five minutes without having an opportunity for a photograph. It never stopped moving as it foraged for insects in, on or under each leaf of the Cottonwood tree.

Lois and I walked over 2.5 miles in 3.5 hours hearing and seeing 48 species of birds.
Even with quality species that I've mentioned above, the birds, today, were trumped by the  BOBCATS!

A mother bobcat and two young appear acclimated to people. The young ones were curious and walked toward us but Mom was trying to get them to fend for themselves.

When the Bobcats first noticed us

Without cropping the photo, you can see how well they blend into their environment

Curious Bobcat walks in our direction 
Young Bobcat crouched and waiting for something to move.  After about five minutes, what moved was its sibling within the marsh, so this one pounced toward it!  Note the back of its ears.

Adult watches the young from her perch on the viewing platform
Young Bobcat looking toward its parent perhaps wishing for some help in securing a meal

Scientific name for North American Bobcat  is Felis rufous (a bit smaller than the Canada Lynx)

Could not have asked for a better Birthday celebration, Lois, THANK YOU!  [Mint Thai hit the spot afterwards, too.]
* * *

Birding with a group of friends in 3 Arizona Counties: Navajo, Gila and Maricopa — a FOUR-WREN DAY!

Saturday, December 19th:
Having never birded with Magill Weber and Chris Rohrer before, I was looking forward to Magill’s projected adventure to the small town of Heber on top of the Mogollon Rim in Navajo County. Gordon Karre, the driver for the trip, was a birding friend whose expertise I respected and sometimes relied upon. From our Scottsdale meeting spot at 5:30 a.m., we headed north to cold, cold Heber. 

Magill had spoken to Jerry, the man who found our target bird, a CAROLINA WREN, at his feeder several days ago, so she knew exactly where to go. After parking in the lot at the Heber Senior Center and changing into heaver coats and pulling out our toques, we began birding at 7:54 a.m. at a brisk 37°. (Elevation: 6600’) As we lined up along the dirt road directly opposite the storage center bird feeders, we saw one junco after the other. Then, a smaller bird, by the tire of a parked truck, rang a bell for me. The Carolina Wren, a backyard bird for me in Hampton, VA, was standing in profile: its obvious size and shape, plus its slightly decurved bill, reddish-brown back, white eyebrow, buffy flanks and raised tail gave us our target bird immediately!  As soon as we identified the bird, it flew before we could take a photo, but it had been photographed two days ago by Eric Hough at that location proving it was in fact a Carolina Wren.

We spent 45 unsuccessful minutes trying to relocate the wren after it flew over our heads and into the neighborhood. Then, we heard Pinyon Jays and turned our attention to the adjacent fields.  Our count of 100 Pinyon Jays may be low; the fields were full of them feeding on the ground, flying around in small flocks, landing in the bare trees. Since we were at a fenced property, the jays remained quite a distance from us but I managed a few photos.

Pinyon Jays in foreground foraging in open field
Pinyon Jay 
After leaving a 40-pound bag of black oil sunflower seeds for Jerry who announced the sighting of the CARWR and allowed visitors, we decided to bird our way back home.  

Our first stop was at Woods Canyon Lake where the road to the lake was closed due to snow but the restroom parking lot was accessible but also full of snow and ice. 

Second stop was my favorite of the day: Tonto Creek Fish Hatchery a bit north of Payson. There was some snow around (elevation 6,500’) but it was more protected by trees than the Heber site that felt so bitingly cold. Plus, when two perched Bald Eagles were the first birds seen as we pulled into the parking lot, I got excited about other good possibilities. The eagles were perched above a pond full of large trout!  The fish hatchery is known for its American Dippers and Eric Hough had recently reported two Pacific Wrens there.

Adult Bald Eagles keeping watch on holding pond full of very large trout

The adults were also looking after their 3rd-year eagle. One flew very low over it when we spotted it on our way out and stopped for photos. Gordon got a photo of this bird lifting off in flight that is absolutely spectacular. He posted it on Facebook and he blogs at:
3rd-year Bald Eagle seen as we drove out of the hatchery.

Front to rear: Chris, Magill, Gordon
Visitor's Center at Tonto Creek Fish Hatchery
The American Dippers, very active in the creek, fascinated us with their behavior. Not only were they moving from rocks to the edge of the creek, they would fly up to the rather large pipe sending water back into the creek as a forceful waterfall! They hopped about on the rocks, they swam (a membrane protects their eyes when underwater). After enjoying the dippers for a while, we turned our attention to the Pacific Wren (recently separated from Winter Wren by the American Birding Association as a separate species). A Winter Wren is lighter in color than this more russet-colored Pacific species.

Pacific Wren liked the protection of the sticks

So, I kept taking pictures of the sticks - wow!

The Pacific Wren marked Chris’s 700th Life Bird!  So, Magill stamped out “700” in the snow while Chris posed next to the benchmark number.

Celebration of Chris's 700th LIFE BIRD
My best photos ever of an American Dipper:

American Dipper standing on the top of a little fall of water

American Dipper swimming 
American Dipper bathing

After such climactic birding at the fish hatchery, we also stopped at Payson’s Green Valley Park where we spotted a hybrid male Eurasian x America Wigeon showing characteristics of both: faint rusty cheeks, faint green on face, very faded crown stripe.

Hybrid Eurasian x American Wigeon in foreground next to American Wigeon

Still jazzed by our birding successes, we stopped at Sunflower along the Beeline Highway as we neared home. Although we hadn’t planned to walk all the way to the Ranger Work Station, we did and collected 33 quality bird species along the way. (Northern Pygmy Owl - heard distinctly calling from the north-side hill above Sycamore Creek; Juniper and Bridled Titmice; Brown Creeper; two of our four wrens, House & Rock; Spotted & Canyon Towhee; Cassin’s Finch and I heard, but didn’t see, the American Goldfinch)…my third Arizona Year Bird of the trip. And, just one of the 68 species I managed to see today.

A simply awesome day with good birding friends!

* * *

Watson Lake and Riparian Preserve, Yavapai, Arizona

Friday, December 18th:
Since I live year-round in the Phoenix valley, my blood thins with summer temperatures that reach as high as 117° (hottest day this summer--August 17th).
This past week, the mercury has dived to freezing and it feels like I'll never warm up. So, why would I head to the high country of Prescott today? You know the answer: A BIRD! 

When I lived in Virginia, I spent many winter days at Back Bay Wildlife Refuge with thousands of Snow Geese and hundreds of Whistling Swans whose voices and elegant bodies I remember well. Today, my target was a Tundra Swan (the American Birding Association's new name for the same Whistling Swan I saw in VA).  I would be thrilled to find even one in Arizona where it had been reported at Watson Lake.

High country (5,400') is cold country. When I arrived at 7:30 a.m., it was 26°F with snow on the ground. By the time I switched to my big heavy coat, tucked my camera inside it, put my spotting scope together and headed out, it was almost 8 a.m., but still the same temp!

Snow beside the rail-to-trail pathway
Except for Common Ravens overhead and the two House Sparrows that flushed from the eaves of the restroom building, birds were very quiet. No wind was a big help and I was dressed warmly. Yet all the backwater inlets coming toward the Peavine Trail were frozen over - no ducks - where, on my last visit, there were many.

Peavine Trail this morning
A juvenile Northern Harrier showed up, perched a few times and then settled on a snag in the distance - a bit far for a good photo.

Next bird I saw was even bigger - an American White Pelican. There's no mistaking that bird and I was just too cold to fuss with a photo. Two pair of fingered gloves made my hands a bit clumsy and I didn't want to open my jacket to pull the camera.

But as soon as I reached my target - the TUNDRA SWAN - my blood quickened. I found it in the scope but left the scope to take a path closer to the lake with the hope of decent photos of this graceful bird that pleases me so much.

Tundra Swan (above and below)

Canvasback front left of preening Tundra Swan

The lake was full of ducks and geese that I took time to jot down in my field notebook. Then I turned back on the Peavine to take the trail through the riparian area with the hope of seeing the Wood Ducks that live there. The trail through that area was mostly powder snow but not over my shoes. Snow on a later trail there was well packed down with previous footsteps.

Wood Duck pond - frozen over

After leaving this spot, I drove to the overlook of the same lake but had definitely made the best choice by starting on the trail where I got reasonable photos of the Tundra Swan.

With more birding on the horizon, I chose to return home and save a thorough birding of  other Prescott Lakes for a warmer day. Am I glad I went?  You betcha!!

* * *

Boyce Thompson Arboretum, Superior, Pinal County, AZ plus a side trip

Sunday, December 13th:
Although it felt cold when we left Apache Junction at 7:30 a.m., it was even colder when we arrived to frost-covered grounds at Boyce Thompson Arboretum. With three birder friends from Ontario (Kathie, Lynne & Glenda), I joined the Sunday Bird Walk led by Kathe Anderson and Mark Ochs - two very good leaders who differ substantially in their approach to birding!  Thus, we had a VERY GOOD DAY with a relatively small group of 12-14.

Frost on leaves in picnic area
The beautiful still and sunny day at the Arboretum provided not only the usual desert species we expect, but the more stealthy birds not always seen: Green-tailed Towhee, Canyon Towhee (two different birds at locations distant from the other), two Pyrrhuloxia, a perched Peregrine Falcon, one American Robin and one Yellow-bellied Sapsucker. These are not everyday sightings, yet I took photos of none of them because of interfering limbs or distance.

But the trees were in delightful color.

Chinese Pistachio with berries that feed the birds all winter

Male Phainopepla
The Phainopepla, a slender whispy-crested black silky-flycatcher winters in the Sonoran Desert. The name, Phainopepla, comes from the Greek for "shiny robe"....very well named as you can see in the plumage of the bird. [pronounced: fain-o-pep-la]

As we hiked up the hill toward the mansion from the Queen Creek trail, we were able to look down upon the trees below.

Trees just now turning color below the mansion near Queen Creek
After finding 37 species of birds in 2.5 hours, we headed back to AJ to drop Kathie and Lynne before continuing on to Phon D. Sutton Recreation Area along the Salt River where a rarity had been reported yesterday. The GOLDEN-CROWNED SPARROW would be an AZ Year Bird for me, but I had seen it only one other time, two years ago in Sun City, AZ.


There were three other birders actively looking for the GCSP when we arrived so we quietly joined them in searching through the White-crowned Sparrows (including juveniles) in an attempt to locate our BIRD. After thirty minutes or so of serious looking at birds on the ground, I spotted Troy Corman coming up from the river. I asked quietly if he had seen it. He motioned that it was farther down than where we were searching. Interestingly, as I headed down the hill three sparrows flew up and perched. Brian Johnson started clicking off photos and discovered that one of them was, indeed, the juvenile Golden-crowned Sparrow with just a touch of yellow on its forehead. But its dark beak was in obvious contrast to yellow of the White-crowneds.  Mary Williams came along soon after that and joined Glenda and I in searching for a better look at our special bird. And, after about fifteen minutes, we came upon it moving around with the White-crowned Sparrows but giving me little chance for a definitive photo. 

I'm posting photos below taken earlier this morning that were sent to me by local birding friend, Lindsay Story, who saw them where they were originally seen out in the open.

Golden-crowned Sparrow

Golden-crowned Sparrow (left) & Juvenile White-crowned Sparrow (right)
After getting good looks at our target bird, we headed home where, as we drove along Bush Highway, we had yet another rather astonishing view of some birds:

Family of Harris's Hawks: I've sent my cards out, have you?

* * *