Saturday, January 28, 2012

Guest Blogger: Arizona's Next Ten

While I'm occasionally adding to a blog post I'm writing about the Nutting's Flycatcher, David Vander Pluym has been working on a very interesting project: a list of the birds he thinks will be added next to Arizona's state list.  Only time will tell how accurate it is, but such projects always give birders something to think about and something to study up on for the next outing in the field.  Enjoy!


I’ve long been interested in vagrants and what might be the next birds to occur in an area. I’ve been
meaning to put together a next 10 for Arizona and so a recent question by Jason Wilder and Brain Gatlinon the Northern Arizona Birds Forum got me thinking once again and I managed to come up with a “Next 10” list. I decided not to rank them and so the only order they are in is taxonomic.  I first started with a list of nearly 130 species of birds that seemed reasonably possible though some were very remote possibilities and there was a certain wishful thinking on some species. This larger list was easily whittled down to about 50 species but after that it got harder and I found it difficult to just pick 10 species. Nonetheless here is my pick of 10.

1. Surfbird – Uses the Gulf of California as a major stopover point in spring and is casual in spring in
the Salton Sink. A spring migrant up the Colorado River (Yuma?) seems likely, but with records
east to Texas and Florida (as well as the Black Turnstone record from Wilcox) a southeast Az
record is not out of the question.
2. Curlew Sandpiper – with every surrounding state boasting records this seems long overdue
for the state. Most interior records are for spring, when it is also easiest to identify, but pay
attention in fall as well!
3. Ancient Murrelet – With records from the surrounding states and multiple records for the Salton
Sink it seems a matter of time before one is recorded. Most likely in late fall but there are several late
spring records for the Salton Sink (coming out of the Gulf of California?). Most suspect a record
from Lake Havasu or elsewhere along the Colorado River, but this species is possible on any body
of water or even in a parking lot!
4. Red-billed Pigeon – Occurs as close as 150 miles south of the border and like most pigeons is a
strong flyer. Movements are not well known to me, but a vagrant seems plausible. It could be
overlooked and hard to document, though, if one blasts by.
5. Alder Flycatcher – This one is almost certainly overlooked due to identification problems but
with multiple records for the southeast deserts of California (including one from the Salton
Sink) this species likely passes through Arizona. Either late spring or fall could produce this species at migrant traps across the state. Studying Willow Flycatchers and its whole range of variation in both plumage and vocalizations will help one prepare for the possibility of this species. Though vocalization recordings will be needed to confirm identification, some potential birds can be picked out by plumage. A willow flycatcher with a green back and crown, along with bold edgings to the flight feathers that strongly contrast with the rest of the wing, would be worth a closer look and perhaps enticed to call.
6. Fork-tailed Flycatcher – A species that could turn up anywhere, with records from both Nevada
and California. Its penchant for wandering, as well as being easily identifiable, makes it a likely candidate to occur in the state.
7. Mangrove Swallow – Likely has some seasonal movements in the NW, as well as movements
based on local conditions. This combined with its regular range extending nearly to the head of the Gulf of
California makes it a prime candidate for occurrence. Should be looked for in large flocks of
swallows moving north in spring as well as other seasons. Note that given its white rump, it may be passed off as a Violet-green Swallow.
8. White-throated Thrush – Similar range in west Mexico to Rufous-backed Robin (though not as far north) with known casual dispersal into Texas gives potential for wandering into Arizona as well. To be looked for anywhere robins occur.
9. Rusty Sparrow – A record seems overdue as it occurs very close to the border. Though it can be
difficult to detect, learning the song and calls would be helpful in finding one.
10. Tricolored Blackbird – Though there are few records for the eastern deserts of California there are now
multiple fall/winter records for the Salton Sink in the large blackbird flocks there. This may be
the reward for anyone willing to pick through the large blackbird flocks in Yuma or elsewhere
along the Colorado River.

Given the difficulties in predicting vagrant species the next new species to occur could easily be one
not mentioned above as I left off many plausible species. White-tipped Dove, for example, was just recently mentioned on the AZ/NM listserve.  This species would have easily made a top 20 list of mine as it just barely didn’t make the cut (mainly as I thought a Red-billed Pigeon may be easier to document). One should study up on the identification of any of the possible species as who knows what may cross your path. Part of finding rare birds is knowing what to look for and how to pick one out from the common species (and how to document them), and of course getting out there regularly is also a major part of it.

See also articles on predicting vagrants in Birding May 2010 and Dec 2008 (as well as articles mentioned

What are your Next Ten?

David Vander Pluym

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!