BIG LOOP of 3 major birding sites in central Maricopa County, AZ

Friday, December 4th
From 7:15 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., I participated, with ten other birders, in Kathe Anderson’s annual BIG LOOP of intense birding in the Gilbert-Chandler area to tally as many species as possible. My list tallied 76 species in a little over six (6) hours of birding. This is a personally-led trip (not as an Audubon trip leader) for which, instead of paying Kathe, she asks that we donate to a conservation organization of our choice which she passes on for us.

Kathe was aware of several “rare” species at our first stop, Riparian Preserve at Gilbert Water Ranch, and we were thrilled to see a late-staying YELLOW WARBLER and a visiting WHITE-THROATED SPARROW along the east entrance trail between Ponds 1 and 7. Many other birds caught our eye as well as we worked our way toward the Tiger Moth Trail where the very rare Purple Finch had been seen daily, at various times, throughout the week since Tyler Loomis found it on Monday. 

Cooper's Hawk

Juvenile Black-crowned Night Heron

Snowy Egret
Finding local House Finches along the way, we studied them carefully for specific identification markers of the Purple Finch, including two white lines on the face that give an overall appearance of a “light” face, plus center belly stripes that do not go all the way down the belly. Not until we reached its most frequently seen location did the PURPLE FINCH come into our view. Then, wow! Without staking it out, it flew right in and gave me a photo op around 8:15 a.m. For people who visit AZ from up north, this is a very ho-hum bird like our House Finch, but when a Purple Finch visits Arizona, it’s a very big deal and I, for one, was delighted that we got to see it.

Purple Finch
The morning light and perching birds, many huddled against the morning cold, motivated me to take a lot of photos.

Vermilion Flycatcher

Northern Mockingbird fluffed up in the cold

Neotropic Cormorant drying its wins

European Starling in basic (winter) plumage

In three hours, walking 3.5 miles, we ended up with 56 species at Gilbert Water Ranch.

Second Stop: Water treatment ponds at Higley & Ocotillo Roads
In addition to many waterfowl at these wide open ponds, two raptors, Cooper’s Hawk and Northern Harrier (marsh hawk), made frequent passes. Among many shore birds, the stand-outs were two Greater Yellowlegs and a Wilson’s Snipe, the bird with a very long bill.

Kathe laid eyes on our surprise song bird that was scratching on the ground in the company of an Abert’s Towhee — a HARRIS'S SPARROW.  Three birders from Minnesota quickly confirmed the bird as it is one they see frequently.

Harris's Sparrow that flew to a distant tree while we watched
Harris's Sparrow taken at Coon Bluff earlier this year

In one hour, walking 1.5 miles at the Higley-Ocotillo Ponds, we collected 28 species, of which many waterfowl duplicated what we saw at Gilbert Water Ranch.

Unscheduled Third Stop was more of a pull-off-the-road to make sure we all saw the dozen Cattle Egret lined up along an agricultural field on Val Vista just south of Ocotillo Road.

Unscheduled Fourth Stop was at a cattle feed lot on Val Vista just prior to Chandler Heights Blvd. to see if we could locate some Yellow-headed Blackbirds. We found none, but added a few more species to our overall list. The unusual sighting there was a White-winged Dove that had not yet flown south.  

Kathe’s scheduled final stop was at Veteran’s Oasis Park on Chandler Heights Boulevard.  Among the 14 species we spotted there, the best was a GREATER SCAUP on the fishing pond.  

Flying into that pond as we watched, came a pair of Redheads.

With some of the birders, including me, hitting a time crunch for further participation, our three traveling cars returned to Gilbert Water Ranch for those individuals to depart while the others continued on to enjoy lunch together.

With 76 species, this proved to be an awesome BIG LOOP Adventure with Kathe!

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