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.

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