Thursday, December 13, 2012

2012 AZFO Meeting Summary

This fall, Arizona Field Ornithologists held their sixth annual meeting right here in Lake Havasu City.  The meeting was a great success, honoring Gale Monson with talks memorializing him and his work, discussion of the lower Colorado River Valley where he spent many years, and recognition of past and present recipients of AZFO's Gale Monson Research Grants.  Two days of field trips resulted in an array of unusual sightings.

Read all about the meeting and field trips here!

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

CBC Season

It's CBC season again!  A time of year when birders organize their efforts and agree to spend a day counting every bird in some small corner of the world, then celebrate together at a greasy local restaurant.  I missed the CBCs entirely last year, but this year I'm glad to be participating in at least two, the Yuma/Martinez Lake count and the South End of the Salton Sea.  I'm all about Imperial County, CA in my CBCs.  My December plans are up in the air, so who knows, maybe there will be more for me...

If you're not sure about the CBC schedule this year, have a look at Arizona counts or California counts.

Have you seen eBird's recommendations for entering your CBC data into eBird?  Read about it here!

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Birding Planet Ranch Road

With the recent return of the Nutting's Flycatcher, the Bill Williams River National Wildlife Refuge and Planet Ranch Road in particular are once again getting attention from the birding world.

Map of the western portion of the refuge
On the map above, note the location of the visitor center, a good place to stop in for information.  It's also a good place to scan the Bill Williams Delta, also known as the Bill Williams Arm of Lake Havasu.  Just down the road east of the headquarters, marked in both directions by brown binoculars signs, is the entrance to Planet Ranch Road.

Sonoran desert and cottonwood/willow/mesquite riparian come together on the Bill Williams River.  This photo was taken just after the gate on Planet Ranch Rd.
 Some caveats.  Note that asking a GPS to point you to Planet Ranch Road is not likely to be useful--I've heard stories of people turning up in random locations in Parker, and also being pointed to the other end of Planet Ranch Road, a long drive through the desert to a section of the river that is privately owned and not accessible.  The road once ran all the way from Lake Havasu to Planet Ranch, but was washed out in floods several years ago.  Many maps still show it as it was, but it now ends in a gate at the red triangle shown on the map above.

A person walking along the edge of the forest anywhere along Planet Ranch Road is likely to encounter flagging, some of which marks trails entering the forest.  I can't stress enough the importance of staying off these trails.  Researchers create and use them for a variety of projects on the refuge.  The flagging comes in many colors depending on the project, year, and type of trail.  The trails crisscross and backtrack, some lead into ponds or river channels, and many are disused and being reclaimed by the forest.  Sometimes the flagging just ends.  Navigating these trails requires a knowledge of the flagging systems, a detailed and updated map, and a good handheld GPS unit and compass (not to mention a willingness to crouch, squeeze, climb, bellycrawl, wade, and be scratched up).  Recently, hikers entered the trail system at Mosquito Flats, and eventually became hopelessly lost.  They managed to find a spot with cell reception and called the Sheriff's department.  The Sheriff's department flagged their way along the trails, got lost, but eventually (miraculously) found the hikers on the other side of the river, dehydrated but otherwise okay.  Don't try to hike the trails.

There's a trail in there somewhere
Sorry for the doom and gloom, but I had to get that out of the way.  So, what is the best way to bird Planet Ranch Road?  The road winds through desert hills, cutting through interesting rock formations and running by washes and canyons.  All of this makes for great exploring, and the dense mesquite edge of the riparian interface can always be good birding.  In my opinion, the best place to bird along the road is Mosquito Flats.  Of course, this happens to be where the Nutting's Flycatcher is.  This is the only place where the riparian abuts the road, and the mesquite edge even crosses the road.  Birds to be found here regularly include species of cottonwood/willow riparian, mesquite bosques, and Sonoran desert.  Rarities that have been found here include Northern Parula, Black-and-white Warbler, Hutton's Vireo, Painted Bunting, Gray Vireo, Winter Wren, and Broad-billed Hummingbird.

Birding along the road, you may run across a binoculars sign underneath a double power pole, indicating a nature trail.  More than once I've overheard people saying "Hey, this isn't a trail!"  It is just a short trail that cuts through the thick mesquite and reaches into the forest, where it ends at one of those research trails I mentioned.  Still, even though it is short, it's worth checking out.

Check out this short jaunt into the forest
So, how about a hike?  I mentioned that the road ends in a gate, but the track continues for miles, ending around the Cougar Point area.  Park at the gate, make sure to pack some water, and explore.  In places the forest is very dense, but in other spots the river channels are very open, and an adventurous hiker can wander to a variety of areas.  Generally, the track is the most direct way to access the best habitat (there are usually tire tracks to follow from ATVs used by the refuge).  Be aware that this hike requires a chilly wade from about December through May, when the river is flowing.

The end of the road
Biologists wading in the river
 After a little more than a mile, the road crosses the river and forks.  The left fork runs through some very nice riparian habitat and passes through the old Kohen Ranch.  There isn't much left of the ranch except for overgrown Bermuda grass fields being invaded by mesquite.  The refuge is working on mesquite restoration in the area, and the resulting brushy mesquite bosque is wonderful habitat for sparrows in the winter.  If you can find the right fork running alongside the river, it passes into more open habitat with some spectacular scenery.  It ends after another mile or so around Cougar Point.

The river crossing just before Kohen Ranch
Bermuda grass fields at Kohen Ranch
Scenery between Kohen Ranch and Cougar Point
What season is best to bird the area?  I recommend late April or early May, when many of the breeders have returned but spring migrants are common, sometimes in large numbers.  Summer can be great birding, with a good variety of breeding species, some of which are amazingly abundant (especially Song Sparrow, Yellow Warbler, and Yellow-breasted Chat).  Black Rails and Elf Owls are some of the more sought-after breeders.  Black Rails will call at night and, sometimes, all day.  Listen for them at Mosquito Flats.  Elf Owls are common in the area--go out on a spring night and keep an ear out, and you will be sure to hear them.  Just remember that they are at the edge of their range here, so please don't disturb them or play tapes.  Remember that summers are hot in the desert, so it's best to be out early and back to the car by 10-11.  Fall is more subdued than spring, but can carry surprises of its own, such as the Northern Saw-Whet Owl found at Kohen Ranch this fall.  Winter is more hit-or-miss, with some stretches seemingly birdless until you happen upon a flock, which will typically include many Yellow-rumped Warblers and Ruby-crowned Kinglets.  No matter which time of year you visit, be sure to bring plenty of water.  Allow plenty of time for exploration and enjoy this beautiful and unique area!

Sunday, December 2, 2012

ANOTHER Lesser Black-backed Gull

November 30th, after a lovely day rediscovering the now-returned Nutting's Flycatcher, hiking in the Bill Williams, and finding my La Paz County Winter Wren, I thought I had used up all my birding karma for a little while.  Still, when I pulled into the refuge headquarters to scan the Bill Williams Delta, a not insignificant part of me was hoping that the Lesser Black-backed Gull would show up (click the link for more on LBBG identification).  So while I was sitting in the car starting a BirdLog checklist and I happened to put my binoculars on a brown gull that looked awfully white-rumped, I wasted no time grabbing camera and scope, jumping out of the car and setting up to scan.  I quickly got the scope on a brown gull, but was disappointed to see just another California Gull.  Used to disappointment after three solid days doing nothing but looking for that LBBG, I sighed and scanned on.  Then immediately got on another brown gull, this one with a white rump and white-based tail with a contrasting black band.  The Lesser Black-backed Gull!!

Long wings, masked appearance and white tail with black band.
To say that I was excited to see this bird would be something of an understatement.  Not that it wasn't fun birding around Havasu for three days and finding some other rarities and all, but I kind of ran myself ragged looking for that bird in Lake Havasu City.  I chased and missed the first state record, as well, a bird near Phoenix in 2006.  So after snapping some photos, I laughed and danced a jig and I'm sure some refuge visitors wondered what was going on with the lunatic with the scope and camera.

Fishing with Ring-billed Gulls
Soon, David had arrived from Havasu.  The bird had flown to nearby Havasu Springs, so we drove over and found it loafing on a beach.  David, being the real photographer between us, had taken control of his camera and got some much better shots.  It was he who first wondered whether it might be a different bird.  I had noticed that it seemed much whiter than in John's photos, but I didn't think much of it.  Now much closer to the bird, I checked it out in the scope, and sure enough, it was messier-looking than John's bird, without those nice clean edgings on the mantle feathers.  It was a single feather, though, that finally convinced us that it was a different bird.  In the flight shots above, note an obvious missing primary on the left wing.  One of David's photos shows that this feather isn't missing altogether, but is actually growing in, and it's more than four days along.

Narrower tertial edgings and messier scapulars and wing coverts than the Lake Havasu City bird

Better photo showing how white the plumage is.  Photo by David Vander Pluym
White plumage streaked with brown, masked face.  Photo by David Vander Pluym
The magical photo showing the primary growing in!  Photo by David Vander Pluym
Exciting times here on the river!

Friday, November 30, 2012

The Nutting's Flycatcher is back!

Just after 8:00 this morning, after about 15 minutes of birding, I was walking down the road at Mosquito Flats in Bill Williams River NWR, planning out my post to the listserv about the continued absence of the Nutting's Flycatcher.  Of course it was at that moment that I heard that singular "WHEEP!"  I didn't think I had missed it so much, but that sound brought a huge smile to my face. It's back!

The flycatcher is behaving much the same way it did last year.  It called infrequently and was difficult to pin down, but once I located it foraging next to the road, it gave me some great looks.  Photos and sound recordings below from this morning.

"Miss me?"

Eating a mantid.  Check out the cinnamon secondaries!

Short, stout bill, bright yellow belly, cinnamon secondaries, and a greenish back are all good field marks.

The Bill Williams River NWR is about halfway between Parker and Lake Havasu City.  You can get to the flycatcher from Highway 95.  Take Planet Ranch Rd east from the highway (between the refuge headquarters and the Bill Williams bridge) and drive to mile marker 2, where cliffs rise on the east side of the road and riparian vegetation borders the left side.  Also check out the map.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Lesser Black-backed Gull - Lake Havasu

Two days ago (26 November 2012), John West photographed an odd gull on the beach at Rotary Park.  He sent the photos to David Vander Pluym, who immediately identified it as a juvenile Lesser Black-backed Gull!

Photos by John West

Above are two of John's photos of the Lesser Black-backed Gull.  I have fairly limited experience with Lesser Black-backed Gull, but I do see California and Herring Gulls regularly.  This bird is striking to me because the scapulars, tertials, and some of the wing coverts are solidly dark with narrow white edging.  Some important ID points are the long wings, narrow white edging on the tertials not reaching the greater coverts, fairly small black bill (though it seems to be on the large side for LBBG), fairly white ground color, masked face and streaked sides, and a dark bar on the greater coverts formed by dark bases growing broader distally.  In flight, it shows a black band on the tail (white bases to the outer rects) and plain dark underwing coverts.

There are two records of Lesser Black-backed Gull for Arizona.  Photos of those birds are here and here.

I've spent the past two days running around Havasu looking for this bird, without success.  However, I have seen a number of other goodies just being out and about.  In the Bill Williams, David and I saw the continuing two White-winged and four Surf Scoters.  At Rotary Park, we saw the two Pacific Loons which John found two days ago.

Pacific Loon on Thompson Bay, photographed 28 November
Also on Thompson Bay yesterday were two Arizona Review Species, a Black Scoter and a Red-throated Loon.

Red-throated Loon on Thompson Bay, photographed 27 November

Black Scoter on Thompson Bay, photographed 27 November
Today, I did something new, and bought a day pass to Lake Havasu State Park.  I think $10 is a bit steep to walk around on otherwise abundant lakeshore, but there is usually a nice gull flock there.  Not so today, but I checked the small cactus garden there, where I ran into a male Yellow-bellied Sapsucker.

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker at Lake Havasu SP, photographed 28 November
Best of all these birds, though, was a White-winged Scoter on the California side of the lake.  A county bird for me yesterday, and for David today.  I'm planning to give the Lesser Black-backed Gull another day of searching.  After all, the Glaucous Gull was notoriously difficult to find, and that bird was a cinch to pick out and ID even when it was over a mile away!

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Guest Blogger: Tips for Birding Havasu

Now that we're into mid-November, things are really begin to pick up here on Lake Havasu.  It's a prime time for birding the LCRV, and now is also the time for visitors to check out the area.  Below, David Vander Pluym steps in as a guest blogger to provide some tips for birding Lake Havasu and other large reservoirs!  Also, be sure to check out the links on the right side bar for useful websites for visitors.


November and December are prime times to bird Lake Havasu with waterfowl migration under way. With all three species of scoters as well as a Red-throated Loon and the now regular large numbers of Greater Scaup and smaller number of Barrow’s Goldeneyes having arrived for the winter it’s a great time to be out and looking! One of the main questions we are asked is how do you find these birds? Given that the majorities of birders in Arizona live away from large reservoirs and are not used to identifying birds at such a distance this is a very understandable question. Below I will try to offer some tips and guidance for looking for birds on the lake.

First and foremost, be aware that compared to sewage treatment plants and places like Willcox, Lake Havasu is huge; you are often trying to identify birds that are a mile away or more. To give everyone some perspectives here are some distances starting with the Bill Williams arm. From the NWR HQ the nearest reed island is ~.45 miles away while the distant end of the buoy line is roughly .7 miles away. To put this in perspective Lake Cochise at its longest point is only .4 miles long! Scanning the main body of Lake Havasu the birds are often more distant. Scanning from the red and white lighthouse on Pittsburgh Pt. the ferry boat that crosses the lake, at its closest point is ~1.35 miles away! At the north end the lake is still about a mile across. Added to this even in winter heat haze can be a problem, making seeing a bird a mile away difficult, let alone identifying one. Generally when the sun is most intense it is best to skip the main body of the lake.
Now for some tips, number one of which is to bring a good scope. As I mentioned the distances are great and having a good scope certainly helps. If you don’t have a great scope, that’s ok, but you should be prepared to let some birds go as being simply too far away to identify as well as knowing you might miss something. You can also help with some of the distances by checking multiple locations, as some may be closer to an interesting bird than others.  For example, in the Bill Williams arm it is often helpful to walk the CAP peninsula to get closer to some of the distant flocks of diving ducks.

Second and equally important is patience. There can be a lot of birds around and it can take time to go through them all. The birds often move around a lot, feeding flocks will form, boats will flush birds, or they may just decide another spot is better. Waiting around will give you the chance to spot something that has finally moved out from its hidden cove. It is easy to spend a couple hours on a good day scanning from one spot. This also can help with changing your perspective on the size of birds. If you are used to seeing birds up close it takes a while to relearn field marks that are useful on distant birds. Because of the distance involved, it isn’t uncommon to think you have come across a rare grebe because it looks huge compared to the Common Loon behind it, only to realize it is a Pied-billed Grebe that is a quarter or even a half mile closer than the loon!

Be sure and study up ahead of time knowing what field marks are useful at a distance to help you spot the birds. Things like knowing that Red-throated Loons are about the same length as a Western/Clark’s Grebe, while a Pacific Loon is slightly bigger is the type of knowledge useful for trying to figure out what that distant loon is. Finally knowing what birds are expected and where can be helpful. There is now an invasive mussel in Lake Havasu and it is particularly common in the Bill Williams Arm. Because of this, species like Barrow’s Goldeneye and scoters are most likely there. Does this mean that you shouldn’t look for them elsewhere? Of course not, scoters can be found below Parker Dam or on the main body of Lake Havasu. However for time spent scanning, I have seen far more scoters in the Bill Williams Arm than all other areas of Lake Havasu combined. A final note on scaup, because of the mussel Greater Scaup have increased astronomically in certain areas. They are now the expected species in the Bill Williams Arm and around Pittsburgh Pt and it can often be difficult to find a Lesser Scaup at these locations when they are not actively migrating. Lesser is still the more common species around Parker Dam and in the shallow weedy waters of the north end of Lake Havasu. 

I hope these couple of tips will help out on your next visit to Lake Havasu!

-David Vander Pluym


Now I'd be interested in hearing what kind of specific information and tips would be most helpful to visitors and readers.  Share your problems, experiences, questions, etc. in the comments!

Saturday, November 17, 2012

News Tidbits

This morning I came across a few interesting and relevant items in a newsletter from the Arizona Game and Fish Department.

For one, over the next week the Bureau of Reclamation will be running an experimental high-volume release from Glen Canyon Dam.  The main purpose of this is to mimic natural flood events, and redeposit sediment from the river bottom to the banks, creating beaches and sandbars.  This is possible this year because of heavy flood events during the monsoon season which deposited large amounts of sediments into the Colorado from its tributaries.  The higher flow will mainly affect the Grand Canyon; after passing through that area, the water will be caught and stored in Lake Mead.  Although it doesn't directly affect the lower Colorado River, it's worth reading up on this effort here.

Another exciting bit of news is that the AZGFD has created an interactive map of Arizona showing land ownership, game management units, access and easements.  Check it out at

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Big Sit 2012: Cape Havasu

This weekend, everyone is talking about the Big Sit, a national birding event hosted by Birdwatcher's Digest, which falls every year on the second Sunday in October.  (This year, they added the preceding Saturday as a possible count day.)  This is one of the few events in birding that is purely for fun!  There's no scientific analysis of the data (unless you submit to eBird, of course), and no one is making comparisons of trends from year to year.  The event is supposedly non-competitive, but of course there is some competition among the circles to try to see the most species in the country or in the state.  The New Haven Bird Club, founders of the event, also pick a "Golden Bird" every year after the count, and every circle that recorded that species is entered for a chance to win $500 for a favorite conservation program.

I had been thinking that the Big Sit sounded like fun, and have also been increasingly interested in spending extended periods of time at Cape Havasu to see what may come by (for example, I spent five hours there last week).  With that motivation, I registered Cape Havasu as a circle for the Big Sit, and decided to spend my Saturday on the hill.

When people ask me what my favorite birding location in the LCRV is, I always say Cape Havasu.  It is situated just right at the north end of Lake Havasu, providing views of both the deep, open water on the main body of the lake, and the marshes on the northern end.  A narrow strip of mesquite, willow, and tamarisk runs along the shore, creating a corridor for landbird migrants.  Small stands of marsh vegetation along the water's edge harbor rails and herons.  Most of the surrounding land is desert, with rolling hills and deep washes of creosote and palo verde.  Lake Havasu City is nearby to the south, and Desert Hills to the north.  Also visible to the north is The Refuge, a golf course and country club.  The hill on Cape Havasu is tall enough to provide views of all these habitats, making it possible to see a great diversity of birds!

A Google Map showing Cape Havasu and the surrounding area.  Cape Havasu is the northernmost spit of land jutting into the lake, in the center of the screen.
I should note that this place has many names, and none of them are official.  In eBird it is called "north end viewpoint," which is how birders usually refer to the place.  David and I long called it "Lehman Hill" because it was Paul Lehman who told us about it, although I believe that Mark Stevenson discovered the spot.  Some call it "Pluym Point" for David.  It was Tom Johnson who, this spring, came up with the name Cape Havasu.  I think this is the most appropriate name for this amazing birding spot!

The diversity of birds seen at this spot is amazing, considering it has only been regularly checked for about the past two years.  I've seen nearly 200 species there.  The list of rarities includes Red-throated and Pacific Loons, Neotropic Cormorant, Tricolored Heron (the first for both Mohave and San Bernardino Counties), Red Phalarope, Arizona's second Little Gull, Parasitic and Long-tailed Jaegers, Purple Martin, Chestnut-collared Longspur, Prothonotary Warbler, Virginia's Warbler, Blackpoll Warbler, Clay-colored Sparrows, Bobolink, and (IMO the most unusual rarity for this location) Cassin's Sparrow.  Photos and details about many of those sightings are here.

All of these factors combine to make this my favorite birding spot in the LCRV, and an ideal location for a Big Sit!

On the morning of Saturday, Oct 13, I arrived at 4:15.  It was still completely dark out.  Immediately as I climbed the hill, I heard the "cree-cree" of Western Grebes, and accompanying begging calls.  As it turns out, apparently, Western Grebes do not sleep.  American Coots called occasionally, and before long I heard a brief call from a Pied-billed Grebe.  I listened intently for Great Horned Owls, but didn't hear a hoot.  I kept my digital recorder handy, and recorded several flight calls of migrating Passerines.  I'm not very good at identifying flight calls, but one Savannah Sparrow flew over, giving its distinctive "chintz" call, and I got a decent recording with a nice spectrogram.  Looking at spectrograms of other calls, I see a few of what I believe are Song Sparrows, and lots of unknowns.

Pre-dawn on the hill.  Photo by John West.
For a brief period before sunrise, local birder and photographer John West joined me in listening for the calls of the birds as they stirred.  Unfortunately he had to head down to the Bill Williams for the day, so he headed off before the sun rose.

John joins me on the hill.
 The birds woke with the sun, and I quickly started tallying new species: Ladder-backed Woodpecker, Great-tailed Grackles, Audubon's Warblers, Abert's Towhees.  Clark's Grebes calling "creeee" among the many Western Grebes.  Thousands of swallows started swarming out of the marshes, mostly Tree and Barn Swallows.  As they streamed past the hill, I picked out single Violet-green and Bank Swallows among them.  Scanning the lake added quickly to the species tally: Eared Grebes, Gadwall, Buffleheads (my first of the season), Ruddy Ducks, a distant Forster's Tern.  Gulls are early risers, and within a few minutes of sunrise I saw Ring-billed, California, a continuing Sabine's Gull, and my first Herring Gull of the season.

I turned my scope on the land as well as the water.  In the nearby community of Desert Hills I could see flocks of Eurasian Collared-Doves as well as Rock Pigeons (the latter a new addition to my Cape Havasu list!) and a few Mourning Doves.  A few American Kestrels were flying around the desert hills and washes, and a Prairie Falcon perched on a distant snag, stretching its wings.  Orange-crowned Warblers and Lincoln's Sparrows began calling from the trees and bushes next to the water.  Four hours went by in a flash, and I already had 55 species.

After several scans, I started thinking about the easier species that I was missing.  Northern Rough-winged Swallow immediately came to mind.  Loggerhead Shrike, Gambel's Quail, Greater Roadrunner, and Say's Phoebe were species that should be easy to see by scanning the desert.  I knew I would have to keep an eye out for migrating raptors: I expected to see Turkey Vulture, Northern Harrier, Osprey, Sharp-shinned Hawk (Cooper's was surprisingly easy, with a big female calling from the nearby trees early in the morning), and Red-tailed Hawk.  I hoped for Peregrine Falcon as well.  I was missing Gambel's White-crowned Sparrow, Wilson's Warbler, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, and Crissal Thrasher, all species I hoped to get in the riparian vegetation around me.

At first I focused my attention on scanning the desert hills to come up with those missing species.  A single Greater Roadrunner stood sentinel atop a distant hilltop.  A very, very distant Say's Phoebe flew around, barely identifiable (one would visit the hill later in the day).  I spotted Turkey Vultures roosting in cottonwoods, the local Osprey began terrorizing goldfish in golf course ponds on The Refuge, and I saw a Northern Harrier cruising over the marsh.  Loud call notes brought my attention to the trees below me, and a flock of Gambel's White-crowned Sparrows flew in to the tamarisks--amazingly, they stayed only for about 15 minutes, and I didn't see any others all day.  Twice I thought I heard a calling Wilson's Warbler, but I couldn't hear it clearly enough to count.  Eventually, a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher came by, its whining calls standing out among the calls of the resident Black-tailed Gnatcatchers.

I listened carefully for new birds as I continuously scanned the skies and the water for new birds.  Green-winged Teal and Northern Pintail were visible only briefly.  A strange call coming from the water below me turned out to be a small group of Horned Grebes, early arrivals to the lake.  A distant small flock of teal flew over the marshes, either Cinnamon or Blue-winged, but I never got identifiable looks at either species.  A Lawrence's Goldfinch passed over the hill, calling its bell-like "dee-dee" as it went.  A single Pine Siskin was a welcome surprise, and an American Robin calling from the nearby willows was unexpected.

Late in the morning, the biggest surprise of the day showed up.  I was checking out warblers in a small flock below the hill, when a yellow one caught my eye--at first I thought it was an Orange-crowned Warbler, but something about it made me do a double-take.  Then it popped up and I saw white wing-bars, and realized it was a Baypoll Warbler!  A better look confirmed that it was a Blackpoll Warbler, a very rare bird in Arizona.  I managed to get it in my scope, and it gave me good looks for about 45 seconds before dropping out of sight.  The really mind-boggling thing about this sighting: it was in exactly the same place where the Blackpoll Warbler was found in the spring of 2011!!  I took my point and shoot camera to the trail below, leaving the circle to try to get photos of the bird.  It never showed up again.  I did see a Black-throated Gray Warbler, which I couldn't refind from the hill, so I wasn't able to count that species for the Big Sit.

As the morning became afternoon, the wind started to pick up.  The sun was shining, but it never got too warm, topping out around the upper 70s.  The wind was chilling, with gusts eventually reaching about 13 mph.  It wasn't so windy that I couldn't bird, but I did have to rescue my chair twice as it started blowing down the hill!

My setup.  I had to set my backpack in my chair when I wasn't using it, or it would blow away in the strong winds!
The wind did make listening a bit more difficult, and abundant boats and jet skis on the water had shooed away most of the water birds, so new species were suddenly much more difficult to come by.  Scanning the hills for quail, I finally spotted a Sharp-shinned Hawk.  I kept looking through the swallows flying by, amazed that I hadn't seen a Northern Rough-winged Swallow, but eventually a few came by.  After thirteen hours on the hill, I hit the milestone of 80 species when I clearly heard the Wilson's Warbler call.  I scanned the hills, golf course, towns and streets continuously, looking for Gambel's Quail, one of the most common and widespread species in this area.  As the sun set and the light began fading, I gave up on the quail quest.  John and Lorraine West joined me for a few minutes in watching the orange and red sunset, and the three of us enjoyed the sight of a few Lesser Nighthawks emerging from the dusky sky.

With the light gone, I settled back into my chair to listen once again for Great Horned Owls.  A chorus of "WOK!"s came from the marsh across the lake, Black-crowned Night-Herons emerging to feed.  A few times I heard calling Green Herons, which I had expected to see foraging along the shoreline during the day.  Finally, just before I left for the night, I heard an owl call, but not the one I expected!  It was the screech of a Barn Owl, species #84.

Looking for Great Horned Owls on the hills and snags.  Photo by John West.
Overall it was, I think, a very successful day!  Surprisingly tired from the day's adventure, I returned home, typed up an eBird checklist, and fell asleep.  The list has been submitted to Birdwatchers Digest, and right now Cape Havasu is leading in the rankings.  I hear that will change, though, as soon as a certain other Cape enters their list!  I should note that the night before the Big Sit, I asked some friends to predict how many species would be counted.  Amazingly, Jennifer Willcox guessed 84 species.

The Big Sit was a lot of fun, and a very different birding experience.  I hope to repeat the experience next year, hopefully with fewer scheduling conflicts so that others will be able to join in the fun!

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

The Red-breasted Nuthatch Irruption Reaches the LCRV

Lots of folks around the continent have realized by now that it is an irruption year for Red-breasted Nuthatches.  With failed seed crops across much of their range, they are showing up everywhere they aren't supposed to be.  Observers are noting that there seems to be one in every patch of trees in the desert!

The first in the LCRV this fall turned up south of Blythe in Riverside County, CA, September 20.  It was discovered by Jesse Swift.  I figured that they must be around in appropriate habitat, so I visited 'Ahakhav Tribal Preserve on September 22.  I briefly heard the "ink-ink" calls of a nuthatch, but no amount of searching, pishing, or owl calls could make it surface or call again, so I gave it up.  Now that I've really experienced how quiet these birds can be, I'm sure that it was a Red-breasted Nuthatch.  The next day, one was seen by Cyrus Moqtaderi and others at Cibola NWR, La Paz County.

Spending a week in the Bay Area, I saw Red-breasted Nuthatches in just about every tree I cared to check.  When I returned home two days ago, I was ready to try again!  During a stop at Rotary Park in Lake Havasu City, I saw at least one nuthatch--probably more like four.

Nuthatch at Rotary Park

Today was dedicated to nuthatches in La Paz County, a county where nuthatches aren't found in a typical year.  After an hour and a half of searching at the Bill Williams River NWR, one of the little guys decided to call, allowing me to get a short sound recording.  Later in the afternoon, one was at 'Ahakhav.  I saw it while it foraged, and it never called.  These irrupting birds have been so skulky and silent, I wonder how many are really out there.

Nuthatch at 'Ahakhav
The link at the top of this post shows a very interesting eBird chart for RBNU across the United States this year.  Sightings are spiking now at 16% of submitted checklists--that means 16% of checklists include Red-breasted Nuthatches!

Other good birds have been around in the past few days, too.  A Prothonotary Warbler has been at Cape Havasu for the past two days, photographed by John West today.  An exceptionally late Brown-crested Flycatcher conveniently called right as I was recording another bird today at the Bill.  Another cool sight at the Bill today was a flock of 500 Red-necked Phalaropes wheeling over the water in the Delta.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

White Ibis in Baker, CA

The summer doldrums are a thing of the past here in the desert, and I'm doing my best to forget them until next year.  Temperatures have been kindly staying below 110, monsoons have been passing through on a weekly basis, and fall migrants are steadily streaming through.  The past several weeks have been spent in and around Blythe, providing a nice change of scenery with some great birding locations that receive little coverage throughout the year.

David and I were wrapping up a week of work when we got word of a White Ibis discovered yesterday morning in Baker, CA--a neighboring desert locale a few hours from the LCRV.  There are only three previous records of this bird in California.  This status is somewhat surprising given their range: White Ibis are common along the coast of the Gulf of California.  Like Tricolored Heron, which shares a similar range, the ibis has turned up many more times in south-central and southeastern Arizona than in the deserts of western Arizona and eastern California.  The ibis is the much rarer bird out of range, however, and does not share the heron's tendency to turn up on the Pacific coast of California.

Naturally, we rushed to get home as soon as possible.  After dealing with paperwork issues that had to be resolved, we stared at Mapquest and weighed our options.  Two hours and 45 minutes from Lake Havasu City, sunset at 7:15.  Could we get there on time?  Should we wait until the next morning?  After waffling a few times, we threw scopes and snacks in the car and sped off towards Baker.  Two hours later (rare birds and setting suns wait for no man), we arrived in Baker in the middle of a torrential downpour.  Parked at the sewage ponds, we huddled in the car with lightning striking all around, rivers flowing down the roads, and bushes waving wildly in the wind.  Soon the storm abated, the rain let up, and the sun settled in just above the mountains to the west.  A flock of ibis lifted off the ponds and circled around, all White-faced.  We stood in the mud watching the birds, hoping the lone white bird would appear, when the rain started again.  The wind had shifted and seemed to be blowing the storm back towards us.  This is it, I said, the sun is about to set behind the mountains and we won't have enough time to wait it out again.

Off we went, wading through the red puddles and up to the ponds, walking as quickly as we could without risking flushing the birds.  Fortunately, the wind slowed and the rain stopped after a few minutes, leaving us free to scan the ponds.  We checked each pond carefully but could not spot the White Ibis.  As we were slogging through ankle-deep mud to check the next pond and the next, we heard voices behind us and spotted Jim Lomax and Bruce Barrett.  They circled back around the ponds while I walked out to the edge to scan the temporary mudflats covering the desert.  Suddenly David and I heard a piercing whistle, and looked up to see a large flock of ibis circling over the ponds, wheeling dark birds with one glowing white beacon among them.  The black storm clouds lingered to the northeast, in stark contrast to the one pure white bird against the lightning-laced clouds.

We joined Jim and Bruce to watch the flock fly up, gaining altitude as it circled.  They flew to the north as the rays of the sun grew dimmer behind the mountains, turned back and headed southwest of the ponds, apparently scanning the area for a better roost site.  Finding nothing, they set their wings and dropped back, circling repeatedly over the ponds before settling into the trees.  We were finally able to get scope views of the White Ibis (thanks to Jim!) as it struggled to gain a purchase in the dead branches with its gangly red legs.  Very much satisfied, the four of us slowly and carefully retraced our muddy steps, returning to the cars just as the sun's last rays faded, and the glow of the blue moon peeked out from behind the clouds.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

New AOU Checklist Supplement

It was about one year ago when the American Ornithologists' Union published their last supplement to the Check-List of North American Birds.  If you need a refresher, you can read about that supplement here.

The AOU has just released this year's supplement.  Here, I will summarize those changes most relevant to ABA-area birders.  If you want to read the full supplement, download the PDF here or read the proposals in their entirety here.

Two of these changes stand out, at least to me.  First is the split of Xantus's Murrelet, giving us Scripps's and Guadalupe Murrelets.  More fascinating to me is the taxonomic reshuffling of Falcons, Parrots, and Passerines with the findings that the three orders are relatively closely related!

More on these and other important changes:

1. Species Added
 Bryan's Shearwater has been added to the AOU list as this species has been newly described from an old specimen (other specimens have since been identified as this species).  It is considered accidental in Hawaii and not recorded from the ABA area, but this one is too interesting to leave out.

2. Splits and Lumps
 - Galapagos Shearwater has been split from Audubon's Shearwater (but has never been recorded in the ABA area).
- Gray Hawk has been split, but the break between Gray and Gray-lined Hawks is in Costa Rica, so the change doesn't affect the status of the birds in the U.S.
- Xantus's Murrelet has been split into Scripps's Murrelet and Guadalupe Murrelet.  Scripps's is the more northerly-breeding and generally the more commonly seen off the U.S. Pacific states.  Guadalupe is the more southerly-breeding, and though it does wander as far north as Washington (casually), it is found well offshore after breeding.
- Calliope Hummingbird is no longer in the monotypic genus Stellula, but is now included in Selasphorus.  This is an obvious relationship and a welcome change!
- Sage Sparrow is no longer in the genus Amphispiza with Five-striped and Black-throated Sparrows, but in its own genus, Artemisospiza.

3. Name Changes
- The genus Caprimulgus has been split so that ABA-area nightjars are now in the genus Antrostomus
- House, Cassin's, and Purple Finches have been moved out of the Old World genus Carpodacus and into their very own Haemorhous. More fun to spell, not so fun to pronounce?

4. Taxonomic Reshuffling
- The linear sequence of hummingbirds and wrens are changed
- Research has shown that Falcons, Parrots and Passerines are sister groups, so the three orders (Falconiformes, Psittaciformes, and Passeriformes) are now grouped together in linear sequence.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Early Fall Birding

It feels a little weird to call it "fall birding" on July 1st, but with temperatures spiking over 115 recently*, it is much more pleasant to think of fall than summer.  Besides, as I have written before, something is always moving in the LCRV, and a few species begin to migrate south by mid-June, which is when the last of the spring migrants pass us by.

*Temperature range for today's outing: low 66; high 110

Today's birding trip with David to the Blythe area had many purposes.  Primary among those was just to get out birding, as I haven't had much chance lately.  Then there were the cuckoos, the shady forest birds known to be inhabiting the restoration sites in the Blythe area, representing potential ticks in La Paz and Riverside Counties.  Not to mention, of course, that they are all-around cool birds.  Finally, as always, there were migrants to track, and potential vagrants to find!

Today started where every good birding trip starts, 3:00 a.m.*  The plan was roughly to work out way south through western sites, then back north through eastern sites.  We started at Palo Verde Ecological Reserve (PVER), one of the Bureau of Reclamation's excellent riparian restoration sites.  It is particularly interesting being located in California, since most restoration sites (as well as remaining riparian habitat) fall in Arizona.  Along with Picacho State Recreation Area, PVER has some of the best landbird habitat along the California side of the lower Colorado River.

*I do not stand by this statement.

Dawn at PVER.  Tiny Bigfoot at the edge of the trees in the distance is a cuckoo researcher.
Breeding season at PVER.  Park in the parking area and you will be greeted by the cacophony of calls typical of an active Red-winged Blackbird colony.  Birds are abundant here, although most are blackbirds, cowbirds, and doves.  Several countersinging Blue Grosbeaks provided an easy Riverside County tick for me, but we were there for the cuckoos.  Sauntering along the road pictured above, it was not long before we heard the series of knocking calls typical of Yellow-billed Cuckoo.  Success!  Icing on the cake were flyby Long-billed Curlews and a single Whimbrel, and a female Indigo Bunting on our way out.

Today's INBU at PVER looked much like this one, but less thoughtful.
After a quick stop to check on a small heron colony and ogle fledgling Great Egrets, we were off to our next cuckoo stop, Cibola Valley Conservation Area!  I was glad to explore a plot I surveyed in 2011 that seemed great for cuckoos.  It took a bit of walking, but we finally heard a slow knocking, quickly answered by another bird hidden in the willows.  While walking out, we heard another bird knocking to itself.

Our next stop was at a most intriguing place, a Birding Site Without a Name in Imperial County, CA.  This is one of the earliest restoration plots along the river, and its character is very different from its younger siblings.  Dead and half-alive cottonwoods stand along the levee road adjacent to the river for the long stretch of this site, while healthier, bigger cottonwoods share the other side of the road with a mixture of Eucalyptus, Athel tamarisk, mesquite, and palo verde.  The site is narrow but long, with farm fields on the other side.  David and I birded this area once before, but approached from the farm field side and found it difficult and unsatisfying to bird.  Today, we discovered the access from the Levee Rd near CVCA, and were excited to see this habitat was not only very nice for migrating birds, but also very easy to bird.

"Palo Verde--Old Restoration Site"
The site is reminiscent of Parker Oasis on a grander scale.  I can imagine this spot being very good birding in winter or fall, but it could really have some amazing birding in spring, when birds gravitate to trees along the river as they work their way north.  Today, it was hot by the time we reached this spot, and birds had gotten quiet.  Still, I was surprised to pick up two Imperial County birds, Brown-crested Flycatcher and Lucy's Warbler!

Now on to fall migration.  La Paz County doesn't have a lot of shorebirding spots, but what it has is quality.  No mediocre sewage treatment plants around here.  The three main sites are the Parker Valley (pretty good), the Bill Williams Delta (great, as long as there are veg mats for the birds to loaf on), and Hart Mine Marsh (solid gold!).  Once the day had gotten too hot for landbirding, we cranked up the AC and rode on to Hart Mine Marsh.

Hart Mine Marsh, home to shorebirds, herons, rails and many other marsh fowl
Most of our notable birds here turned out to be ducks, which are likely oversummering birds.  In addition to the expected Mallards and Ruddy Ducks, there were Gadwall, Cinnamon Teal, a Northern Shoveler, and a Redhead.  Fall migrants were numerous: an avocet, a Greater Yellowlegs, 2 Willets, 3 Marbled Godwits, a Least Sandpiper, and 2 Caspian Terns.  Two Snowy Plovers were good to see, although we don't know whether these were early migrants or potential (failed?) breeders.  This was my first real taste of fall migration this season!  Still, the highlight here was an unusual short-tailed bird that crossed the road in front of us...

Photo of a (different) bobcat by David Vander Pluym

After this fine morning it was time to head home, but since the Parker Valley lies between Blythe and Lake Havasu City, there was still more birding to do.  Several flooded fields in the area hosted gobs of Cattle Egrets and White-faced Ibis along with a few Long-billed Curlews and Marbled Godwits.  We made a thorough check of the Twelvemile Slough Rookery, which includes nesting Cattle and Snowy Egrets and White-faced Ibis.  None of these are common nesting birds in the LCRV, and this may be the only active nesting location for Cattle Egret and White-faced Ibis.  All the more exciting to come here and count 950 Cattle Egret and 50 White-faced Ibis nests!  The Cattle Egrets were particularly exciting, most nests holding two near-fledging chicks at varying stages of awkwardness.

Cattle Egret awaiting its next meal

Each pair of white specks represents a Cattle Egret nest
Despite temperatures creeping into triple digits at this point, we decided to make a quick stop at 'Ahakhav Tribal Preserve to check on the Tropical Kingbirds.  This pair returned to the same spot where they raised two chicks last year, and had already been found nest-building in May.  More recently, incidentally, the pair at Pintail Slough returned to their territory as well.  Since we hadn't had any recent news on the 'Ahakhav birds, we wanted to find out how they were doing.  Long story short:  three chicks in a nest!

Tropical Kingbird broods its chicks
Next, our requisite shorebirding stop in the Parker Strip: Emerald Cove sewage ponds.  The habitat looks nice, but there was not a lot around today.  One surprise was a pure-looking drake Mexican Duck that stood out from all the other brown male Mallards in eclipse plumage.  Not only was he darker overall, but the clincher was his tail: medium brown, not white.

Finally, we had to make one last stop at the Bill Williams Delta, premier Arizona birding location for Just About Everything. Of course, it's not such a happening place in early July, but we did see two Black and three Caspian Terns and three Eared Grebes as well as the continuing Neotropic Cormorant.  As I said earlier, it is a very attractive place to shorebirds when there are vast veg mats for the birds to loaf and gather on.  Even before the summer bloom of these mats, though, we found shorebirds trying to use the available space:  40 Marbled Godwits were crammed onto a small spit of rocks jutting into the water, and the Caspian Terns were repeatedly trying to land among them (without success)!

Today was filled with some wild temperature extremes (44 degrees difference!), great birds, exciting migration, good food (burritos from Ruperto's in Parker), good company, and all you expect from a birding trip.  When all is said and done, I just have to say it was good to get outside.