Thursday, June 25, 2015

When Luck is on Your Side - My New Luck Bird!

After the Young Birder's camp in the Chiricahuas, where Caleb and I got 109 species (!), we wanted to stay in touch and continue birding together.  We decided we were a "one-two punch of awesomeness," and didn't want that to go to waste.  We kept in contact and decided to bird a few spots in the West Valley on June 23rd.  With daytime temps in the valley reaching over 110 degrees Fahrenheit, we knew we had to get started early.  I think we might be a little insane, as we birded until around 1.  We met at the Baseline and Meridian Wildlife Management area at around 5 a.m., where we wanted to clean out the birds of the vicinity.  I still hadn't gotten Barn Owl, and that was my main target of the day.

Blue Grosbeaks were calling, and Green Herons were quite oddly extremely numerous.  I believe we ended the day with a count of 13.  We continued birding down the main trail, and picked up my ABA-first and yearbird Black-bellied Whistling Duck!  That brought my yearlist up to 325.

The first highlight occurred when the distinctive Yellow-billed Cuckoo call was heard.  We both frantically turned about, looking for a visual, when Caleb got it in some trees near the island area to the west of the main trail.  He got some photos, and we both got good looks of this long-billed trogon-like tropical bird.  What a treat for Maricopa!  The YBCU was an ABA area first for me, as well as a yearbird.

I was getting pretty anxious about trying to see my first Barn Owl, so we walked under the Avondale bridge and scanned the pipes.  After reading reports of multiple dead BAOWs, we were gladdened to see an adult pair watching us from above.  It's pretty hard to beat an owl lifer.

Exciting stuff!  We kept walking north and found a juvie as well.  This guy didn't really know how to be an owl, as it flew toward us instead of away.  Then it decided to fly directly into perfect 6 a.m. light to give us some sweet flight shots.  My ISO was at 3200 for shade under the bridge so I was totally unprepared!

Well, that was exhilarating, and Caleb and I thought we were having a pretty good day so far.  Little did we know what was coming soon!  We had planned to bird Tres Rios Wetlands as well, and the two zones are adjacent to each other, so we opted to keep walking east onto the Tres Rios site.  Near where the two sites intersect, we happened to flush about 8 Lesser Nighthawks, always in pairs.  What a treat that was!

Then, Caleb spotted a pair of eggs!  Sweet deal.

We fired off a few flight shots as the presumably bothered LENIs swarmed around us.  It was (almost) like a scene from The Birds!

Right at the far west end of the Tres Rios site, we stopped to take a bit of a shade break, as the temperatures were rising fast, even before 7 a.m.  We were very pleasantly surprised to hear not one but TWO Yellow-billed Cuckoos calling nearby.  A first for Caleb at the Tres Rios site.  That's also where I heard my lifer Yellow-breasted Chats!  Lifer count, two, yearbird count also two.  Also near the west end of Tres Rios, we passed a really interesting marsh/stream/riparian area, with some great Eastern-like habitat and thick lush grass.

It was such a nice green habitat zone that Caleb said jokingly, "Man, I bet we could find a Painted Bunting in there!"  We both got quite a kick out of that, as the chances of that were really slim.  That's kind of a joke we have, we're always calling out extraordinarily rare birds.  Our goal in the Chiricahuas was a Yellow Grosbeak.  We have some fun with that.

Painted Buntings are rare in Arizona.  They are casual during fall migration in the southeast part of the state, but very rare at other times and places.  The crazy part is, both Caleb and I have found our own PABUs in Maricopa.  His bird was back in November, and was a female.  My bird was at Tres Rios back in January, also a female.  We discovered these birds ourselves, and the thought of another Painted Bunting was crazy. ;)

We persevered through the 100 degree heat, and picked up Crissal Thrasher and Common Ground-Doves.  Farther down the several-mile trail, we had my county-first Lucy's Warbler, county Bullock's Oriole, and others.

At around 7:15, Caleb and I turned a bend in the trail, and we both got our binoculars on a severely backlit bird.

A male PAINTED BUNTING!  Presumably the first Maricopa record of the breeding-plumaged adult male!

We both looked to each other with wide eyes and exclaimed, "Painted Bunting!  What the HECK?" I managed a brief audio recording and tried to get closer.  Unfortunately, Mr. Bunting was not cooperative.

Finding this bird, along with the conditions, weather, and habitat, combined with the fact that this Maricopa mega-rarity was neither lifer nor Maricoper for either of us, all made it a truly surreal and quite unbelievable situation.  I guess we are too lucky when it comes to Painted Buntings.  We knew that we had to report this bird as soon as we got back to a computer.  It was truly epic in the fullest sense of the word.  I knew I had found my specialty bird, one that I would always remember.  Finding it with a friend was cool too.

Our photos were diagnostic but quite unsatisfactory.  Oh well, the joy and incredible-factor of the sighting was enough, and we kept walking.  We picked up a day-roosting Great Horned Owl, also being mobbed by blackbirds.  Poor fella got flushed and flew east.

We made it to the riparian area, where we scanned for Ridgway's Rails.  No rails of the Ridgway's variety, but we did detect a family group of 4 Virginia's Rails, giving their distinctive grunting calls. Also present was a family of Common Gallinules.

After checking to make sure a Common Gallinule was not a Purple ( ;) ), Mr. Bird-it-hard, AKA Caleb, spotted this Least Bittern.  It was a photo lifer for me, and was not skulky like other members of its species so woefully are.  Oh yeah!

At about 8:30ish, Caleb and I started the trip back to the car.  We still had plans to bird the fenced-off area at Tres Rios to increase our day's count. and maybe hope for a Fulvous Whistling-Duck.  On the hot and sweaty westward journey, we picked up three Caspian Terns overhead.

Wow!  Our luck was too much that day!

We were really stoked, and kept saying, "What the heck?" over and over.  On the return trip, we stopped at the approximate area where we had the Bunting, in hopes of getting some better looks and shots.  We heard its distinctive song, and located it easily.  Mr. Bunting is a real attention grabber.

Then, he decided to fly even closer, where we got some really nice looks, and decent shots!  It was pretty face-melting, and we were in shock from this beautiful and rare bird.  We also got better audio of this special songster.

The day couldn't get much better, even though we were burning up in the 9:30 heat.  The OH YEAH level was through the roof at this point.  We were literally jumping up and down.

Back by the B&M WMA, we also had good looks at the Nighthawk on its nest.

Crushable, right?  Not literally, of course.

We booked it back to the car, because it was getting unbearable out there.  We finished recording our list for the B&M, added a heard-only Ridgway's Rail, and headed to the east parking lot.  Our plan was to do some scope birding, and it was pretty successful.  We picked up a Redhead pair, Blue-winged Teal, my county first Bonaparte's Gull, Pelicans, etc.

Here are the checklists from Tres Rios and the B&M.
Tres Rios
Baseline & Meridian Wildlife Management Area

Caleb wanted to show me a place on his patch, where we were hoping for more rarities.
The best birds were Chats, Bullock's Oriole, Lucy's Warblers, and Summer Tanagers making attempts at territorial defense.  Highlight was a European STARLING (YEAAHHHHHHH!!!!!).  Here is the checklist from Caleb's patch (on private property where he has permission to bird):
Dean & Beloat Roads

What a memorable day, peppered with good photos, good looks, and best of all, a discovery of a great rarity.  Thanks to Caleb for being a great birding partner, and showing me the Least Bittern and first Barn Owl.  *fist bump*

Bird hard!



  1. What a day you two birders enjoyed! Too much!!!

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  3. A very productive day indeed! That place has so many wonderful birds. Glad you both found each other and that you live in the same area. Having a birding partner is important and makes the treks all that much more special. Excellent birds indeed.....Least Bittern, Lesser Nighthawk and Ridgway's Rail make this area very special. Obviously, Caspian Terns and Painted Buntings are the icing on the cake. Great day and congrats! Thank you for showing us the Nighthawk nest. I've only seen film footage of this so it was great to see in person.