Thursday, January 12, 2012

2011 Big Year Summary!

I guess it was a strange thing to do, trying a Big Year as soon as I moved to a new county.  I was mainly inspired by Tommy D’s awesome Maricopa Big Year-ing, and I figured it would be a great way to get to know my new home county.  It turned out to be a lot of things: not only was it a lot of fun, and got me to explore the far corners of vast Mohave County, but it gave me incentive to get out there and bird as much as possible in 2011.  It turned out very well:  my goal was 300, but I managed to see 310 species in the county this year.  I should mention that David Vander Pluym, often my companion in the field, saw an impressive 307 species.

There were a lot of challenges to this endeavor.  To start with, I had only lived in Lake Havasu City a month before January 1 rolled around.  Of course, there aren’t a lot of local birders, and visits by out-of-area birders are infrequent.  I am very, very thankful for the birds I was able to chase, but it is a handicap that the area just isn’t well-covered.  Finally, there is the topography of the county itself.  Mohave is the 5th largest county in the U.S., and there is a significant crack down the middle of it.  It was funny to head to Colorado City or Mount Trumbull, and reflect that I had to pass through California, Nevada, and Utah just to get there!  Of course, much of the county is desert, but there are a lot of gems with access to a variety of habitats in the county.  It was very convenient to have Kingman and the Hualapai Mountains only an hour’s drive from home, but places like Alamo Lake, Peach Springs and Wikieup really took a day’s commitment to bird.

Of the many locations I visited in 2011, my favorite spot is the viewpoint at the north end of Lake Havasu.  I got a whopping 68 year birds at this one location.  That high count is partially because I birded there January 1, but the rarities there were pretty amazing.  The best were Little Gull, Blackpoll Warbler, and Bobolink.  Cassin’s Sparrow was an astonishing rarity there as well, but I’ll talk about that later.  Next on the list of most year birds was the Hualapai Mountains, with 39 year birds!  This isn’t surprising, as I saw most of my pinyon/juniper/pine/mixed conifer species there.  Havasu NWR was a big help, with 20 year birds at Pintail Slough, 11 at Beal Lake, and 7 at Bermuda Pasture.  Of course I have to mention the always amazing Bill Williams River NWR—I saw 14 year birds in the Delta, and 22 along the river!

Considering first the birds I did see, the list of rarities is pretty amazing, and it’s interesting to compare the groups I did well in, and the groups I did not (note that all the Review Species below are pending review by the ABC).  Waterfowl were definitely in the former category.  I saw all but eight of the 40 waterfowl species ever seen in Arizona.  All four loons were seen; the Yellow-billed took a lot of luck, as it was only seen once (to my knowledge) on the Mohave side of the Bill Williams Delta.  Tricolored Heron was a second? county record (first for San Bernardino), and Glossy Ibis was a first.  Raptors were an interesting category, as I had some good ones but I missed some that I should have gotten.  Harris’s Hawk was the best.  I couldn’t have asked for better luck with shorebirds, with 18 species on my list!  Highlights were Buff-breasted Sandpiper (sixth record for the state and first for the county) and Stilt Sandpiper (likely first for the county).  Gulls did not disappoint, either.  Little Gull was the second for the state and county, and Glaucous Gull was fourth for the state, first for the county.  Mew and Thayer’s Gulls were great additions as well.  A jaeger slam was very much hoped for, but unexpected!  My flycatcher list seems about average, except for the genus Myiarchus.  I was happy to hear the mournful calls of the county’s first Dusky-capped Flycatcher, but of course that pales in comparison to the Nutting’s Flycatcher!  Tropical Kingbird was another goodie.  Large thrushes were cooperative, including a Rufous-backed Robin (second for the county?) and a Varied Thrush.  I was hoping for one or two longspur species, so three was a great surprise—Lapland is a rarity but McCown’s may have been the county’s first.  I consider warblers to be one of the categories I didn’t do well in, but there were some good highlights.  I ended up with 18 species plus Olive Warbler.  This year saw the first documented Olive Warblers in the county.  A male Blackpoll Warbler was a very nice surprise, the county’s second.  Twenty species of sparrows isn’t bad, including Lark Bunting and Golden-crowned Sparrow.  Rufous-crowned Sparrow proved very difficult.  A lot of effort was put in looking for them, and all I got were a few call notes from a rocky slope!  The best sparrow was Cassin’s.  No previous county records, and David and I had at least seven in one morning near Peach Springs.  It was a great year for them across northern Arizona.  Still, I was not expecting to see one on the shore of Lake Havasu at the north end viewpoint!  As far as I know, this was only the second ever seen in the LCRV.

I didn’t list all the highlights above, but my full county year list is posted here.

Clearly, the birds I did get outweigh the birds I missed.  But any good Big Year comes with its painful misses, so I want to dedicate some space to them.  I consider White-throated Sparrow to be my biggest miss.  I had no idea that one could look through so many White-crowned Sparrows without finding a White-throated!  Bendire’s Thrasher was another that I put quite a bit of effort into with no results, which was particularly odd because I picked up the very difficult LeConte’s Thrasher.  I had hoped for either Yellow-bellied or Red-breasted Sapsucker, but at least I did get Williamson’s.  Eastern warblers are nearly absent from my list.  I eventually picked up Northern Parula and Black-and-white Warbler, but missed American Redstart and Northern Waterthrush (the latter wasn’t seen in Mohave this year at all).  Other birds seen in the county this year but not by me were Brant (I was working), Chukar (two trips to the Virgin Mtns didn’t pay off), Common Black-Hawk (I missed the birds at Beaver Dam, and never went to Mineral Wash), Black Rail, Sandhill Crane, Elf and Long-eared Owls (needed to have done the Bill Williams at night), Downy Woodpecker, Golden-crowned Kinglet (a frustrating miss), Black-capped Chickadee, and Painted Bunting (a great find by David Rankin at Esquerra Ranch).

As I mentioned above, one of the difficult aspects of a Mohave County Big Year is the fact that there are few birders out here.  For this reason, I am especially thankful for those who do bird out here, and the amazing birds that I was able to chase as well as their company out in the field.  So thanks to Jan Richmond (Long-tailed Duck), John West (Red-throated Loon and Red-shouldered Hawk), Paul Lehman and Barbara Carlson (Glossy Ibis), Sonia Kirkendall (Harris’s Hawk), Michael Nicosia and Rich Aracil (Black-bellied Plover), Chris McCreedy (Thayer’s Gull), John Saba and Chris Benesh et al. (Glaucous Gull), DeeDee DeLorenzo (Tropical Kingbird, American Crow), Dan Pittenger and Nathan Marcy (Olive Warbler), David Rankin (Bobolink) and of course David Vander Pluym.

There were some amazing moments this year.  Every new county bird was exciting, but some moments stand out.  I’ve already mentioned the Cassin’s Sparrows.  When a Bobolink flew overhead at the north end viewpoint, David Rankin and I thought it would be a bird that got away.  But when we pulled in at Rotary Park, several miles away, one of the first birds David spotted was the Bobolink foraging on the golf course!  I’ve only seen five birds in Mohave County that I didn’t see in 2011 (Western Gull, Black-legged Kittiwake, Downy Woodpecker, Clark’s Nutcracker, and Dickcissel), so many of the 2011 birds were county birds.  A good number were even state birds, and one (Nutting’s Flycatcher) was an ABA bird.  But only two were life birds.  The Little Gull was one, and it was incredible to see one foraging over the familiar north end of Lake Havasu.  The other was totally unexpected, spotted when I stopped to scan a small field on a whim: the Buff-breasted Sandpiper.  My goal for the year was 300, so when I saw a flock of Wild Turkeys in the road for #300, I was very pleased.  My last two birds of the year were two of the best moments of the year.  The Nutting’s Flycatcher was exciting far beyond the scope of a county big year, but imagine my glee when I checked a coordinate I got with my GPS against the official county map to see that I had indeed seen the bird ONE TREE on the Mohave side of the county line!  That was 309, and after adding that bird, I really had no desire to add something like White-throated Sparrow or Yellow-bellied Sapsucker as my last bird of the year.  I was content with 309, and considered my Big Year more or less over as of December 22.  I worked all day Dec 23, and was leaving for California before dawn on the 24th.  A wrench was thrown into that plan when the Glaucous Gull was refound while I was at work on the 23rd.  It was too dark to bird by the time I left that day, so plans were changed to try for it the morning of the 24th.  We didn’t have much time, though, since we had a long drive ahead, and the Glaucous is now notorious for being a very tough bird.  To my great relief and amazement, it took less than half an hour to find it on the 24th, and we even had time to watch it battle with a Herring Gull over a dead coot, and to show it to Tom Linda and Terry Blows.  I left for California on the 24th at 9 a.m., fully satisfied with my Big Year.

The past year was big for Arizona county big years.  Tommy DeBardeleben covered Maricopa, Shaun Putz birded Coconino, Doug Jenness did Pinal, and Mark Stevenson covered Pima.  The county big year is about discovery more than chasing.  It requires that birders visit areas seldom covered, and every one adds to our knowledge of birds in the state.  For anyone willing to put in some time, money, and miles on their car, a county big year is a very rewarding experience!


  1. Incredible! Do you know what the current record is for Mohave? I regularly read great articles like this but never stay put long enough in one county to do a big year myself..

  2. Good question Ethan, I should have mentioned above that this was the first attempt at a Big Year in Mohave County.

    ...South Africa Big Year? ;)

  3. This is awesome Lauren! Sounds like you had a non-stop adventure, though I'm sure it wasn't all easy. It's got to feel pretty good to ID those rarities and contribute county firsts. Big Year's are taxing, but they seem like the sort of wonderful enterprises that positively affect you and many other people to a much greater extent than anyone can know.
    Thanks for bringing it here to share.

  4. So fun to read about your experiences...very inspiring too! My husband and I get out as often as we can, trying to improve our birding skills/knowledge...looking forward to his retirement about 5 years away...maybe then we'll be able to try our own big year of some kind! It is fun to bump into some of you excellent AZ birders out in the field...that was our good fortune on Dec. 30 when we met John West when looking for the Nutting's Flycatcher...and with his help, we got great looks too! Thanks to you and so many others for the help you generously offer (if not directly, then through the AZ/NM rare bird alert posts & especially to the eBird reporters!) to those of us learning the joys of birding.