Sunday, September 11, 2016


Hurricane Newton sky photos from WIKI and AccuWeather.  Note how the storm covers a wide area from the Galápagos Islands in South America to Mexico. 
 I'm not sure how this all started.  But I was supposed to take a week off from blogging.  Apparently that wasn't going to be the plan.  In an event like no other in my life, I, along with many Arizona birders, experienced fallout from Hurricane Newton this past week. 

The storm is predicted during this time period to hit Arizona.  Birders are watching carefully. 

 It started off as an innocent storm around the equator and developed into something larger.  Forecasters began to warn us that this storm was heading straight towards us, the desert dwellers.  I've lived here for 20 years now and have never seen anything like it. Sure, we've had tropical storms but not quite like this one. I paced my house worrying about the torrential rains.  In fact, when the storm was about to hit us, I felt a bit of anxiety.  Would the rain shoot through our windows again like it had earlier this month?  People were saying to expect horizontal rain(the worst kind of rain if you're a homeowner).  The night before the storm I couldn't sleep because I was worried.  I didn't want to drive through flooded streets to get to work and had seriously considered taking the day off.  Looking back on it, I should have taken the day off, but not because of the flooding. 

Hurricane Newton crawls up the Sea of Cortez and is heading straight for Southern Arizona
 I awoke to a gentle and wonderful rain on Wednesday.  There were cool temps and the storm was a much needed gift for the desert.  Instead of the predicted 3 inches of torrential rain in a few hours; it was spread out over the entire day. But there was something more happening.  We watched as the eye of the storm fell apart over Southern Arizona. 

The track hits parts of Mexico causing flooding and damage to various towns along Coastal Mexico.  Some rain bands enter into nearby Chiapas
If you've seen the movie(or read the book), the Big Year, you'll remember a scene that mentions "major fallout". I always wondered what that would be like to experience. I would soon find out and become part of a rare national event that usually happens in other states. Who would have thought Arizona would ever experience something like this?! As predicted, the eye of Hurricane Newton fell apart over several key watering holes in Southern Arizona while we were all working.  It began with a few terns which wasn't anything big. But then there were reports of Storm-Petrels and Shearwaters!  People were stuck in meetings, classrooms, making dinner or in bad traffic when the reports started coming into the "birding newsroom".  Holy cow!!!! NEVER IN MY LIFE did I expect to see these incredible ocean birds here in the desert!

"X" marks the spot and we know where to look thanks to local predictions
This is where I take over with my photos.  Someday, I may own a satellite to plot charts and graphs, but not today:)  So from the ground, here's the Christmas miracle that happened for so many birders in September.  This will easily be one of the biggest events in Arizona history with new ABA records for the state and for the country. For example, an ABA first, the Juan Fernandez Petrel of South America flew over a birder in his driveway!  This gadfly petrel breeds off the coast of Chile on the islands of Robinson Crusoe and Alejandro Selkirk.  I swear I'm not making these names up.  He was lucky enough to snap some nice photos of the bird.  Another amazing sighting was had by Laurens Halsey who found a Wedge-tailed Shearwater!  

And this is the "X" which also included nearby Peña Blanca and Patagonia lakes.  
It's not everyday you get to see these gems, but I wasn't prepared for what I'd see.  You see, "fallout" is actually pretty sad.  While we were observing some of these poor seabirds finally touch water; there were some that were actually dying right before our very eyes. That's the "feeling" reaction I had to the initial observations. But then everyone is shouting out birds and trying to get an ID before they disappeared. That's the adrenaline part. It actually felt like a true pelagic except that we were on firm ground.  And no one was throwing up:) 

Black Storm-Petrel at the Bensen WTP
Throughout the week, we had a possible FOUR species of Storm-Petrels!!!  We quickly learned how to ID between the white-rumps and brown-rumps and everything else in between which included such topics as wedge-shaped tails vs forked tails. It was an exciting and challenging ID contest. 

Wedge-rumped Storm-Petrel during a brief moment of sun at the Amado WTP
But there was one species of Storm-Petrel that confused everyone.  It had a white-rump and a square tail.  It looked like a Leach's Storm-Petrel but not quite.  For hours, people took notes, videos and photos of these birds in flight.  Still.  What Storm-Petrel species was it?!! Several California birders chimed into the AZ conversation and we were shocked by what they were saying. 

This week, I landed Least, Black and my lifer Wedge-rumped Storm-Petrel. Top: Wedge-rumped Storm-Petrel, Middle: Black Storm-Petrel and bottom from left to right, Ashy Storm-Petrel and Townsend's Storm-Petrel(these were the ones we had to rule out from the top two) 
A Wedge-rumped Storm-Petrel!  This is a Galápagos Island species! Mind blowing. This storm was really a wonderful outdoor classroom experience.  By the next day, all the Storm-Petrels were gone or dead. It was like this major event never happened. Many Maricopa birders(the Phoenix crowd) and others were bummed as they tried desperately to find just ONE Storm-Petrel.  In an answer to their prayers, the bird gods gave them one incredible view of a Wedge-rumped Storm-Petrel in the heart of their lands. There, in their 100+ degree temps, they had marvelous views of this exciting bird. James McVay, who we've met on this blog, discovered the bird at a random park in Mesa. He was the guy doing a big year with his pops last year. Anyhow, the Maricopa birders really had the best views of anyone in this state. They had great lighting and really close and unobstructed views of this very special bird. Then, by the next day, this bird too had vanished. 

Hard core birders from left to right.  Wonderful birding guide Laurens Halsey is focused like no other.  Big year contestant, for Arizona, Brian Johnson is in the middle and the emergency rare bird contact person, Debra Finch is on the line with another awesome bird guide, Chris Benesh, describing the chaos that is happening around us as if it were a play by play for a football game.  In the background, another great bird guide Richard Fray goes over notes with other birders.  Yes folks, Arizona is the real deal when it comes to birds.  You'll never find a better group of birders in this country.  Many of us, including myself, have grown from their knowledge and expertise while "working" out in the field.   Not seen is Chris McCreedy who is trying to cover and record the flight patterns of the Storm-Petrels and other "interesting" birds seen over the waters. 
Final thoughts.  There were two sides of birders that showed themselves to the birding community.  The science crew and the "save-the-whales birds" crew.  Some were saying let them naturally die so that we can study and preserve them. The other half tried to save them.  And like all things with opposite views, both were accomplished.  I had a box just in case. Here is a local new's report about the fallout.  It was a wonderful experience to watch Mother Nature in action.  

Observing the Black Storm-Petrel from the Benson WTP.  It's a tricky area to bird because the hours are not posted.  Thankfully the people at the water treatment plant extended the hours for many birders.  
The birders here did an incredible job laying out a "net" to try and find rarities. Some birders, like a woman named Pat, hoped that Storm-Petrels would fall from the sky into her backyard. We can't all be lucky like Brian Gibbons with his amazing Juan Fernandez Petrel find(that is seriously the worst name for a bird). One day Pat.  One day......

Coachline, a lake once more!
Anyhow, during the next day at 4 AM(and before work), I covered the Northwest corner of Tucson at Coachline while others went to all the other watering holes in Southern Arizona.  All of our findings were relayed thanks in part to Andrew Core. It's wonderful being part of a team.  I'm not done with Storm-Petrels or Shearwaters just yet:)  Stay tuned for more about two weeks or so.  Hopefully, I can relax for awhile before things pick up again. 


  1. Remarkable records of those sea birds.

    And a wonderful 'its a small world' occurrence - I did I day birding with Laurens when I was at a conference in Arizona! Say hello from me if you see him again!

    Cheers - Stewart M - Melbourne

  2. Great write up Chris! An epic event in Arizona, and your recap was fun to read. Congrats on your birds.

    1. Thanks Tommy! What a fun and crazy week that was. Now it's back to robin stroking:)

  3. From all the bad weather came tremendous good birding and I love the fabulous dramatic sky shots

  4. Wow, congrats on your sighting. The Petrel is a neat bird.Happy Tuesday, enjoy your week ahead!

  5. What an incredible experience - wonderful story superb photos :)

  6. WOW!!! How sobering a thought it is, however, that sometimes what is the experience of a lifetime for a birder results in the end of life for the birds. Thank you for reminding us of both sides of this scenario.

    Best wishes - - - Richard

  7. I know what you mean about horizontal rain Chris, happens here also, very rarely though.. oh the damage it can do! What an extraordinary experience Chris, not one I'm sure you'd like to experience too often, for the birds sake.. they must have wondered what the heck was going on 😊 I hope more survived than died.

  8. Very happy to read this post Chris, an excellent one at that. I didn't know anything of this going on about all those amazing sightings. Thanks to you it was the next best thing to being there.

  9. How utterly amazing! Thank you for sharing this information -- I can only imagine how you must have felt to be part of this phenomenon. I have heard about fallouts before of course, but never gave it a thought that it meant some birds would die -- of course that is only logical, but I always tend to try to forget the downsides of things.

  10. You gave us a graphic account there Chris. These falls of birds are indeed phenomenal occasions witnessed just few times.

    Your account reminded me a couple of days in Greece last September when after two days of thunderstorms and torrential rain,the sky was full of swallows, swifts and raptors. The day after was brilliant for birding on the ground with all manner of species about.


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