Sweetwater Wetlands and Christopher Columbus Park, Tucson, Pima County, AZ

Saturday, October 29th
It seemed a good day for a trip to Tucson for some birding as several things worked in my favor:  cooler temperatures, a few rarities and avoidance of commuter traffic during weekdays.

Additionally, two birder friends who had never been there agreed to join me to see how it compared to our local Gilbert Water Ranch.

Up early again, I met Hinde and Rosemarie at 5 a.m. so that we were able to begin birding at 6:45, shortly after sunrise. Cool temperature of 63°F had us smiling immediately. 

The trifecta of rarities we might find included American Bittern, Baltimore Oriole and Black & White Warbler. I was birding the location as thoroughly as possible, not necessary going for each of those birds -- just hoping to see them.

With nothing spectacular awaiting us in the big cottonwood tree at the entrance, we continued westward on the sidewalk. Soon, I heard a Cooper's Hawk calling softly so I started to search the nearby trees. Behind me, Rosemarie looked up and said, "It's right above us!!"

Sure enough! Can you believe it stayed there as long as I took photos from directly beneath it - as close as I've ever been to a Cooper's in the wild.

Shortly after we reached the Gazebo, we had two fly-overs I couldn't believe.  One was the BALTIMORE ORIOLE that Rosemarie spotted and that I got on briefly but sufficiently to know what I was seeing. [This past Spring, we had hundreds of them in a fall-out at High Island, TX.] It was flying from the SE to the NW past us, possibly landing within that area of Sweetwater or at the old water treatment plant across Roger Road. This eastern oriole is a continuing bird at this location but sightings are not guaranteed.

From our platform out over a cove of water, I started looking at the ducks but another bird soon came our way. Having never seen this bird in flight before, I was noting its ID markings: bigger than Green Heron; smaller than Great Blue. Brown bird; slow similar wing beats; hunched shoulder posture. I got really excited. Yikes!! Another one of the rarities: AMERICAN BITTERN. It flew from the SE to the NW past us and as soon as I lost it behind trees, I went running to get an even longer better look, but it was gone. 

Fortunately, I didn't have to be concerned about whether my call was correct or not as Luke Safford and his son (Tucson Audubon Bird Trip Leader) arrived asking if we had seen it.  Yay! Yes, we did.

While focusing again on the pond, another flock of birds flew over going the opposite direction = YELLOW-HEADED BLACKBIRDS! Luke's son (not very old) called its size: 50!

Already, Hinde and Rosemarie were commenting on how differences in layout between Gilbert Water Ranch and these wetlands seemed to provide for more up close and personal sightings.

As we ambled the pathways for the next three hours, we spotted and/or heard a variety of birds:   SORA, COMMON GALLINULE (Moorhen), YELLOW-RUMPED WARBLERS, but not the Black & White Warbler, the last of the trifecta.  

But there were more raptors:  five (5) RED-TAILED HAWKS, a SHARP-SHINNED HAWK, a PEREGRINE FALCON and three (3) more COOPER'S HAWKS, the most cooperative bird for photos there today.

Cooper's Hawk #2

Cooper's Hawk #3

Not knowing how many resident Cooper's Hawks might be present, I checked with local birders there and they said my numbers were good. Can it be the same bird over and over?  Not today, anyway, because I heard them calling softly to one another. And, one of the Cooper's flared its white under tail feathers out to the side in a display as it flew, presumably, toward a female.

With temperatures not yet into the 80sF, we decided to drive the short distance west to Christopher Columbus Park where we saw several different birds.

Our first GREAT BLUE HERON of the morning was across the lake.

A gorgeous Western Grebe swam in close enough for a photo op.

And, then, there was a bird that made us work for an ID. Was it leucistic?  Was it lighting?

The greatest number of birds in the trees and on the grounds was GREAT-TAILED GRACKLE. This strange looking bird appeared to be one and as it ended up, the whiteness was a trick of lighting.

The western female Great-tailed Grackle is a pale warm brown color underneath; I had just never seen one at that angle in such light. We laughed at having been challenged by such a common bird.

The rarity at this location came swimming right up to us.

SNOW GOOSE (dark morph) spent the summer on this lake 

Snow Goose came up on land for a snooze [sometimes called "blue goose"]
...with eyelid closed

The three of us enjoyed our picnic lunch at the south end of the lake before heading home on local roads heading NE toward Coolidge to avoid the rushing traffic on I-10. 

Of course by 1:30 in Apache Junction, the temperature was in the 90s, but we had had a respite from heat and spotted some very nifty birds in the process. 

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Riparian Preserve at Gilbert Water Ranch, Maricopa County, AZ

Wednesday, October 26th
Locals abbreviate the name of this location to Gilbert Water Ranch; many birders go a step further and call it "GWR".

Being just 25-minutes from home, it is one of my "go-to" birding spots but I rarely post about it.  It's been a full month since my last visit there and today, I noticed, birds and bird behavior have changed. 

A friend, and just-returned snowbird herself, Rosemarie joined me today as we explored edges of several of the seven settlement ponds as well as the cottonwoods, desert willows and shrubs along the trails. We came upon many SNOWY EGRETS feeding in the remnant pool of Pond 1.


At Pond 2, we saw a juvenile BLACK-CROWNED NIGHT HERON and then I got hung up on seeing what appeared to me to be an American Bittern, but it was too well hidden to get a definite ID. Birds are often so camouflaged it's like a "hidden-picture" game to find them but while I was taking photos of my questionable bird, Rosemarie was spotting one, two, three and four and more in this one area where we stood still, not moving. She located one adult BLACK-CROWNED NIGHT HERON and, including my sunlit bird, we counted SEVEN of them in this one small area. 

Juvenile Black-crowned Night Heron
That's the only area of Pond 2 we birded because we could look west from our vantage point.  Many other birds were farther east forcing us to look directly into the early-morning sun - no fun. We can walk around the pond when we want to look at them, but we decided to check out Pond 5 instead.

With just a survival pond of water in the northeast corner of its big dry weedy field, Pond 5 holds few but sometimes very nifty birds. I was surprised to see so many photographers there for such a few birds and didn't learn until later that they were enjoying a Least Bittern. 

Usually, I'd walk up quietly to the folks with cameras to find out what was going on, but we had a "creature" that approached and fascinated us. I've never seen such a tame Black-tailed Jackrabbit. Usually, they hop high and quickly until they are a safe distance away.

Jackrabbit sniffing Rosemarie's leg and clothes

Fabulous Ears

This one came so close to me I couldn't fit it in the frame!

Eventually, we worked our way over to Pond 6 where more egrets and other birds were busy in a remaining pond (the rest of the area was weedy and awaiting water to be pumped full).  

Watching cormorants fishing together...sinewy movements up and under the water in loose rhythmic formation ... fascinates me and I watched them circle the pond several times. Snowy Egrets were less impressed with them.

GREEN-WINGED TEAL (Male) at far edge of Pond 6

Of the 42 species we enjoyed in a little over two hours, the Snowy Egrets seen very early on were now back in great numbers and were the show of the day.

With our temperatures still climbing into the 90sF everyday, it felt like it was time to head home. A good early birding day for the two of us!

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Local Area Birding; Maricopa and Gila Counties, AZ

Sunday, October 16th ROUSSEAU SOD FARMS (restricted access)
I arrived as the Full Hunter’s Moon began to set. With no farmers working the agricultural fields, I saw a nice variety of birds, including one rarity that I was absolutely thrilled to find. 

WESTERN MEADOWLARK  [above & below]

SAVANNAH SPARROW  [above and below]

Distant Coyote

Rare (for Arizona) PALM WARBLER migrating through
Rare PALM WARBLER showing its streaked breast; very yellow underbelly and under-tail coverts
Yellow on PALM WARBLER also showing on top of tail in a bright olive appearance

With a rare bird reported at one of my favorite birding spots -- one I hadn’t birded since June -- I ventured out early to see if I could locate the Magnolia Warbler.

Since I apparently don’t use the same route to the river as many birders, I wasn’t sure about the approximate location of the rarity at Coon Bluff, but I was early enough that warblers were not yet up and about. So, I parked at the second restroom and walked in the dirt road to the bluff as usual, then east along the Salt River, birding as I went.  

Eventually, I was far from the parking area enjoying the birds I had seen: Bald Eagles (3), Greater Yellowlegs in the shallows of the very full fast-flowing Salt River, a Belted Kingfisher and many more.

With the sun now up, warblers were beginning to move. I was stunned when I saw the first one to perch up; it appeared to be the MAGNOLIA WARBLER in its basic plumage which I expected but had never seen. Showing no dark necklace and dark streaks of its breeding plumage, this bird was distinctive because of its gray head with clear compete white eye ring. This was NOT a Yellow-Rumped Warbler. It was quite yellow below with many more streaks along its flanks than I expected to see for non-breeding plumage, but also showed a white vent and under-tail coverts that are consistent with the MAWA.  After studying it long enough to realize I had best get a photo, I lifted the camera and the bird flew.  As I continued on, I noticed all of the Yellow-rumped Warblers that were now flying about and perching were very very pale underneath with the exception of a male that still was no match for the Magnolia.

A while later, I came upon other birder friends, Lindsay Story and her Dad, and Gordon Karre who, when I told him why I had some reservations about having seen the MAGNOLIA WARBLER, he showed me the photo posted in eBird by Rob Bowker, the birder who had reported it.  The photo showed the extensive yellow and streaks on the underneath of the bird, restoring my confidence that I had seen the right bird. Getting a documentary photo of rarities is my goal, but in this case, I missed.

Wednesday, October 19th PINAL MOUNTAIN
With a Maricopa Audubon group of birders led by Dr. David Pearson (ASU), eight of us got an early start up the mountain east of Phoenix in Globe.

Cool temperatures kept us on our toes, eager to spot birds at our various stops, including the landfill where the gulls had not yet arrived but Common Ravens and Brewer’s Blackbirds were abundant.

We birded three distinct areas of the Pinals: the low area known as Russell Gulch, the ponderosa pine area known as Sulfide del Ray Campground, and Pinal Peak beginning with the presence of Douglas Firs. 

As we slowly worked our way upward, stopping many times along the paved road to bird Russel Gulch, we noted many birds out and about below and above us. With a group, I rarely take many photos unless the bird is "in my lap" so to speak. Below are a few such pictures I managed to take.

Six Harvester Ant Hills that fascinated me with their neatness



Not until we reached Pinal Peak did we gather to enjoy our carried lunch at one of the picnic tables.

L-R: Elithia, Barbara, Kate, Dr. Pearson, Sue, Kathe, Lisa
Prior to heading directly down the mountain, we took Ferndell Loop to look for some specific birds that were no-shows, but the leaves turning color made up for the lack of more special birds.

Photo by Lisa Augustyn

After hiking a few short trails on the Ferndell Loop, we all took some photos of the colorful autumn trees.

Enjoyed crunching through the fallen leaves instead of needing to rake them

October Aspens in the Pinal Mountains

Red-tailed Hawk

A birding trip with Dr. Pearson and so many other birders pointing out what they saw provided me with a grand total of 64 species on this long day on the mountain. Quite a day from 6:30 a.m. until 2:30 p.m.

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"Let's Make America Birdy Again"
(from Tucson Audubon magazine)

Wonder of Wonders in Navajo Nation, Coconino County, AZ

Saturday, October 8th
Another extremely rare bird was discovered in Arizona last Sunday, October 2nd, when birders Jason Wilder and Chuck Larue decided to check a very remote area on Navajo Land, northeast of Flagstaff. What they found at Round Cedar Lake (two depressions of shallow water in reddish-brown desert) was a LESSER SAND PLOVER. With a name like that, you might think this small wading shorebird could be found on a beach near you in Canada or USA, but it would be extraordinary for it to show up there.

Why? It breeds in Siberia, that very extensive area of northern Russia that, in its most eastern extension reaches toward Alaska. So, we have Siberia reaching toward mainland Alaska and we have Attu Island, the westernmost point of land in the USA (one of the Aleutian Islands) reaching toward Siberia. Makes sense to look for the bird on Attu - a desolate place that Big-Year Birders flock to in search of such Asian rarities. (by hiring a private plane)

After breeding, the LESSER SAND PLOVER forms migratory flocks from its various breeding grounds (Mongolia, the Himalayas as well as Siberia) and flies off in July toward Africa, the Middle East and many other southern countries and continents to spend the winter.

The Plover’s habitat for nesting (February-July) includes tundra, deserts and steppe (vast treeless grasslands with little rainfall). Photos below will show similar habitat where we found the bird today on Navajo land.

The bird winters on tidal flats, sandy beaches, estuaries, mud-flats and streams. So, I’m wondering if it intends to spend the winter at Round Cedar Lake where it has the two shallow lakes to itself, or whether it intends to fill up on all the bugs and worms it can find there to continue its migration. The LESSER SAND PLOVER we observed appeared to be a juvenile.

Lesser Sand Plover (sometimes called "Mongolian Plover") was patrolling the edges of two shallow lakes- rather small for us to find but other birders present got us onto it immediately

Our group: Moe at the spotting scope, Muriel & Marceline; also other Arizona birders, Ken Murphy (left) and Jeremy Medina (rear).
Habitat where Round Cedar Lake fills two depression in this desert

Our dirt entrance road continued on past the lakes, cutting between them, so we watched the LESSER SAND PLOVER fly from the pond on the north where we first located it, to the one south where we turned and moved to that lake. In both cases, the bird would walk/run a short distance, stop; then go again. We observed it getting bugs from the top of the lake water but it also pecked in the muddy shoreline a lot.

Distant photo of the LESSER SAND PLOVER where it pecked its way along the far shore of the north pond
Unlike the Semi-palmated Plover, its white throat line doesn't continue around to its back. Its nape is gray/brown. 
Lesser Sand Plover a/k/a Mongolian Sand Plover

Questions fill my mind:
How did just one Lesser Sand Plover end up at Round Cedar Lake?
How long had it been there before being discovered?
Was it flying south when Hurricane Newton came north from Mexico through the Gulf of California in early September bringing the bird north on its swirling winds? (as it did with the Wedge-rumped Storm-Petrel that landed in Riverview Lake, Mesa, not far from Bass Pro)

With Moe Bell, Muriel Neddermeyer and Marceline VandeWater, I stayed and watched the LESSER SAND PLOVER for an hour. We were rewarded with the plover coming close to us to take a bath. 

Bath time, close enough for me to get some awesome photos:

This photo by Muriel Neddermeyer
With feathers fluffed and preening complete, the LESSER SAND PLOVER starts walking again

Other birds present included a Barn Swallow, a couple American Pipits and a flock of Horned Larks. This solitary LESSER SAND PLOVER had this place all to itself for foraging and I'm thinking it may like to stay.

Since we had arrived by 8 a.m., we stopped and birded at Picture Canyon and Kachina Wetlands on our return home. Lightning hurried us away from Kachina, and Moe had to find his way through a torrential downpour that included hail as we drove south on I-17.

The bird's duration at this spot remains unknown. But to birders who definitely want to see such a rarity, it's timeline began last Sunday, October 2nd. I'm grateful that the LESSER SAND PLOVER was still here a week later for our Phoenix-area group as well as for others (including out-of-state birders).

Memorable day, indeed!

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