Tuesday, May 17, 2016

The Arizona 400 Club

Prothonotary Warbler
Well, life is good when you first begin birding.  It seems like everyday is a new bird day.  And for two years, it's pretty easy stuff. Then you hit the 300 wall.  In Arizona, it's easy to get over 200 birds for your state list.  But it's not so easy going from 300 to 400 birds.  Today's post is about the spectacular journey that took a difficult two years to achieve.

California Condor
It happened on April 30th, 2016.  A random Prothonotory Warbler had been migrating through one of our desert washes.  I was in my pajamas watching Game of Thrones.  My friend Magill texts me and tells me to get off my butt and go get the warbler.  I was playing with my cats and quite honestly had no desire to chase a warbler.  They are so hard to spot and always give me a headache.  But it would be a lifer and help me enter the 400 club for Arizona. So I reluctantly got into my car and went to the wash.

During my drive, I remembered my 300 start that began back on September 17th, 2013 with a Black-bellied Plover. I thought, "I'll never make it to 400.  Who cares, why try?"  I forgot about the number, yet curious birders would ask me what my state total was often and I'd reply, "I don't know."  The birds in the 300 category are majestic, difficult(to find and ID sometimes) and mostly in areas outside of my Southern Arizona birding zone.

The California Condor for me is THE bird of my 300 list.  It's the one I love the most.  It's the one Micheal loved.  And it's in the area furthest away from civilization......the North Rim of the Grand Canyon.  One of the most beautiful places on this planet.  And I'll be honest.  This bird made me cry. The sighting gave me goosebumps and made my eyes water up.  I always dreamed of seeing these birds in Arizona and around the Grand Canyon as a child. Never in my wildest dreams did I think I'd get the chance to see them in my lifetime. They were near extinction and I remember in 8th grade that I felt incredibly sad after our Biology teacher's lesson. I have always loved nature as a child, but today I have fully accepted it into my life. My life's work is only getting started. Thanks to many hard working people, these birds are slowly making a comeback today. 

Blue-footed Booby
Stranger things have happened.  A juvenile Blue-footed Booby made it into the Patagonia State Park. Kathie was still living in Arizona and we stood there marveling at this incredible ocean bird in the desert.  How in the world??!!!!

Eventually the list narrowed and the really difficult chases had to happen.  The Ridgway's Rail is one of the trickiest birds to find.  Not so hard to hear, but I wanted to SEE the bird.  When I finally saw my first one, I felt a heavy weight lift off of my shoulder. 

Ridgway's Rail
And then it came time for Mountain Plovers in dusty fields along junky roads that were tough on tires. And with Kathie again I spotted my first Mountain Plovers.

Mountain Plover
Then swifts.  Yuck.  They are sooo fast and give me headaches as well.  It required alone time without the pressure of other birders around me to find this lifer.  After two hours alone in Tucson, I was able to call my first Vaux's Swift.  But it took two years to get this photo below!

Vaux's Swift
Then it was time for the Grosbeaks.  One of my favorite group of birds. Searching for the beautiful Evening and Pine Grosbeaks are often difficult to find in the state....especially the Pine Grosbeaks because they are in a very tight habitat. And yet, they do live here.  Evening Grosbeaks are more common in Arizona BUT I have had to drive into higher elevations further north in Arizona to find them.  However, my first poor looks at one happened in Summerhaven up on Mt. Lemmon.

Evening Grosbeak
A several mile hike lead us to an amazing Mexican migrant. The Tufted Flycatcher.  Sore bodies healed over the week:)

Tufted Flycatcher
There were easy ones. Not always.  But they were a welcome break from the intense hours of chases. 

Greater White-fronted Goose
Some required us to work together.  After waiting a couple hours, a tropical Purple Gallinule would appear. 

Purple Gallinule
Some birds required us to find specific habitat in the state that attracted birds.  Lily pads(rare for Arizona)= Purple Gallinule  

American Dipper
Moving stream at the right speed(rare in Arizona)=American Dipper

Red-breasted Sapsucker
Drippy sappy mesquite tree during winter=Red-breasted Sapsucker

Elusive American Bittern
And sometimes you gamble.  And often you can lose, but sometimes you strike it big and find a rare American Bittern in a small area of wetlands.

Chestnut-collared Longspurs
If you REALLY want to get to the 400 club in Arizona, you have to know your longspurs.  More headaches BUT I honestly love these birds.  After a blowing dust storm and major headache, I found my McCown's Longspurs among the many hundreds of brown and yellow ground birds. 

McCown's Longspurs
Sometimes, you get shot at by stupid hunters, or nearly trampled by horseback riders or find fish hooks embedded to the bottom of your shoes.  Such was the case with the amazing Rusty Blackbird.

Rusty Blackbird
And then there are stupid ideas.  Black-billed Magpies.  We were camping near the beautiful town of Greer during the summer and decided to go chase down these birds. We thought it was a "closer" drive but it turned into HOURS!  We finally get to this weird town known as Teec Nos Pos on a practically empty reservation near the 4 corners and attempt to look for the birds. It was ugly. What did we find?  Shattered glass bottles, needles and oh.....a drug user. There were disagreements and discussion.  How far does a birder go if it jeopardizes their safety? We never did find the birds and it was the biggest fail ever.  

Later on, I returned with Micheal to visit our family in Colorado.  We tried once again to find these birds on an amazing road trip into Gunnison, Colorado. I decided to make the route go through Teec Nos Pos, AZ for a quick check.  Turned out to be the right idea and one of the most beautiful western routes to take during fall. And voila!  3 were hanging out along the highway.  All I can say is NEVER AGAIN!

I have great pics of these birds BUT I wanted to show my AZ friends that they really do live in Arizona:) And in that weird town of Teec Nos Pos!  I swear it's a Klingon Settlement.
The 400 list can also be based on hunches.  During a "hunch", I followed my heart to a nearby park in June and discovered an Elegant Tern for my birding peeps.  Never in my life did I expect to find this beauty.  I expected something.  Just not this very cool tern. 

Elegant Tern at Lakeside Park
As I finally arrived to my destination, I stood near the Tanque Verde wash full of Cottonwoods. It was all rather uneventful.  No one knew but me what this bird meant. A yellow caught my eye.  Western Tanager.  Another golden flash.  Yellow Warbler.  Female Summer Tanager.  Yellow-breasted Chat.  Black-headed Grosbeak!  Of course!!, I told myself.  This was after all a warbler.  Then I spied a chunky lemon throw itself into the tree in front of me.  I saw the butt of this bird and knew that Arizona number 400 was about to happen. I predicted where the bird would perch and focused my lens.  Experience paid off and I got my shots of the amazing Prothonotary Warbler.  It was about a 2 minute observation but it was one of those wonderful moments that seem to last forever.  

During the weekend, I glowed.  What a very special bird to mark my entrance into the AZ 400 club.  This year I have some truly special places that I will be sharing with you all.  I can't wait to visit them and report back. The life bird quest is about to begin again! Until next time......


  1. Lovely hearing about your 'bird hunts' and congrats on reaching 400 now. I know you will never be satisfied with that and will press on for more new birds.

    1. You are right:) This birding thing gives us a big appetite to know more. We are definitely addicted to this passion:) Satisfied? Never!:)

  2. A wonderful post with stunning birds and photos. Congratulations on joining the 400 club - so well deserved as you work so hard on id and planning your trips. Love the 400th bird :) Look forward to continuing following your birding adventures and quests :)

    1. Thank you:) Hope you are doing well. I have some catching up to do after finals are done! It has been a crazy crazy month here with everything going on.

  3. An incredible journey, dear Chris! You are such an inspiration! I loved reading this, and sharing in a little of that journey with you. The photos are amazing! You do such an incredible job! Thanks for your dedication to blogging about it too so we can share in it a little.

    1. Thank you Marie for reading. I'll be catching up soon. I know how moving can be. It seems like all the crazy happens at once. So much going on!

  4. Congratulations Chris! I knew you would be a better Birder than me one day! I sure wish I had been there to share your joy when you found the Prothonotary warbler!

    1. Hopefully we'll get to bird again someday! It seems like forever!

  5. Beautiful birds are showing, as always. I am very glad that you achieved this result and that you enjoy. I wish you have a lot of fun with the further observation of birds. Regards.

  6. Great write up Chris. Congratulations on reaching 400!

  7. Delightful! Also inspired me to check my AZ list. I'm not a big chaser but, hey! I'm getting close to that mark, too.

  8. Yeah, I wasn't an AZ chaser until I was:) When you don't have lifebirds to chase, it's fun taking up the challenge of building up the state list:)

  9. A fascinating story, and good to read that you've got your reward in your 400th, Chris. 450 coming up?????

  10. So 500 next? Well, why not!

    Great post.

    Cheers - Stewart M - Melbourne


Thanks for stopping by!