Sunday, December 27, 2020

Las Aventuras: The 2020 Arizona Birding Highlights


This year changed the way most of us birded.  Goals were changed.  Plans were made, remade and cancelled.  Only the safest plans were the ones that could be made closer to home. 

The silver linings of 2020?  Watching birds from home became a thing.  Lots of new people joined the birding club and became addicted to this beautiful adventure. And I decided to focus my energy on new birds for Pima County, and in some cases, for the southeastern part of Arizona. I saved a lot of money and ended working on my photography and home. Here are some of the highlights.  

Life birds were few and far between.  I added 4 life birds to my world list.  And in reality, it was only 3 because I saw one back in the 90's before I was a birder.  However, as an official birder, I felt it necessary to revisit the Yellow-billed Magpie to make it really count. So in total, it was a technical 4 additions to the 2020 list.  

The crowning achievement is the Eared Quetzal, the true gift of 2020.  The rarest of rare gems in the bird world.  Perhaps as many as 3 were observed in the Chiricahua Mountains of Southeastern Arizona. It was THE bird of Arizona that I had been hoping to see for years.  After observing that top 20 "must see bird" on my world list, I felt like the 2020 year was complete.  If it was the last new species I ever observed, I would be okay.  This is a very special localized Mexican bird to see in the wild. It's even more amazing when we get to observe it in Arizona. It's normally quite secretive and difficult to find in the state.  

The next bird was from a trek out to San Diego and Imperial Beach for some coastal birding. It was here we witnessed the Gull-billed Tern fly over the saltmarshes at the Tijuana Slough Wildlife Refuge.  

We wandered upon a lot of terns on Imperial Beach and had fun ID'ing them.  Then from seemingly out of nowhere, this tern broke away from the massive group of terns. The behavior was different and it wasn't hunting over the estuary like the other terns. I was thrilled to finally see this tern in the wild.  I also remember that our trek there was a great break from the relentless heat of our Arizona summer. 

On that same trek, we had a Yellow-headed Parrot fly over our head at a local Mexican restaurant at Imperial Beach.  It is a countable species on ebird even though it's an introduced exotic. I don't play the ABA game so I don't worry if it's "countable" or not. It's endangered in its native range of Southern Mexico, Belize and Honduras due to poaching.  However, states like Florida, California and Texas have created an urban oasis for many non-native parrot species.  In Arizona, the Rosy-faced Lovebird now numbers in the tens of thousands around the Phoenix metro area.  Would I like to see this Yellow-headed Parrot in its native range?  Absolutely.  But for now, I spied one in Southern California where a few populations now breed. The two things I nerd out about in birding?  Exotic parrots in urban spaces.  Their intelligence to adapt is very....human.  And of course, I am addicted to all things sparrow. 

The final technical addition as mentioned before came from the Yellow-billed Magpie near the Ventura area.  Technically I could count the bird as I remembered seeing it often in the Bay Area while I lived on the East and South Bay.  In fact, one morning I woke up and saw one in my San Jose backyard!  I loved birds before I was a birder.  I always wished I had had a better camera but due to poor wages as a teacher, I could never afford one.  Years later I remedied that situation. And we did it proper. The winery visit made the day complete. 

So FOUR lifers in a year!  What did I do in between? I worked on rooms to recreate visions of lodges I've stayed at over the years creating a gorgeous coastal room.  It's not complete because now I'm getting that master bathroom redone to match the coastal theme.  The international and forest rooms are currently getting a makeover.  One thing lead to another and now I've created a monster. 

By the way, these rooms are still not complete.  There are still some final touches that need to happen:)

The garden also became a "thing" attracting so many wonderful new species this year. I live in a very urban part of Tucson.  However, we've created a microhabitat that has attracted some wonderful birds!  Thanks to covid, I've been home for much of the year working.  After 13 years living here, we now have seen a total of 70 species of bird come through our yard.  Each year with the addition of new native plants and running water, we attract something special.  A total of 9 new species of bird were added to our yard in 2020 with the Hutton's Vireo being the last bird seen and heard in our oak trees. 

Our arborist friend, Angelo owner of Romeo Tree Service, came out and took out an invasive and dangerous euc from the property.  It will be replaced with a native hackberry attract Cedar Waxwings and thrushes like.....the Rufous-backed Robin:)  I can dream.  

In Pima County, perhaps the greatest year of birding since I began birding years ago, we had one incredible bird after another.  In fact, this was THE county in the US to bird during the 2020 year.  A WHOPPING 15 new species were added to my Pima list.  The year began slow but as we hit migration, I went after some birds I never really chased in the county like Sagebrush Sparrow, Gray Vireo, Common Nighthawk, and Black Tern. They're much easier to see elsewhere in Arizona, but since I was doing a Pima year focus and wanted to stay close to home, it was about finding new birds for Pima County. Then the rarity firsts began in great numbers.  Thankfully it happened as a "rarity a week" kinda thing.  

The eastern warbler show was incredible with such observations of a Pine, Black-throated Blue, CANADA and BLACKBURNIAN Warbler.  Red-eyed Vireo, Painted Bunting and Bell's Sparrow also showed up!  WOW!  Then there were Pima firsts like the Northern Jacana(still here), Clay-colored Thrush, and Artic Tern.  Yeah.  Pima County was one fire,  literally and figuratively.  And maybe that's why we've seen so many strange migrants/vagrants passing through our county. 

For every good bird we saw, we also felt the heavy sadness for why that bird may have shown up in Pima County.  The fires in and around our state were not good.  We broke heat records this year.  We have a terrible drought. And there was human destruction of critical habitat like riparian areas affected by the damaging wall construction.  Just one of the many reasons why our American embarrassment of a "leader" lost our state.  Recently on a CBC(Christmas Bird Count) survey along the border, we witnessed complete destruction of what was once pristine habitat.  I don't hold much hope for humanity.  The Quitobaquito Springs that I have presented in this blog twice no longer exists thanks to the construction.  Several endemic species to that ONE specific pond no longer exist there because the pond is gone.  Gone is the Quitobaquito Pupfish.  It's now extinct in the wild. Their populations are held in 3 safe zones/aquariums for protection. 

Changing subjects.  My final 2020 tally for state birds included 13 new birds for the year.  I always wonder what dream birds will show up every year and be added to that Arizona lifer list.  It was an incredible year in amazing habitat and road treks. Here they all are from back in January until now......

In January, I decided to chase an Ovenbird.  They are rare vagrants but can be expected each year during our winter months along water areas.  I hadn't really chased this bird but I thought I'd kickstart the year with a sunset walk along the DeAnza trail.  This pic is from Maine.  My AZ photo documentation is dark.  I heard the bird scratching in the leaf litter and had nice observations all alone on that cool evening.

Then there was a long drought.  No new birds from January to May.  But when May hit, it would be the start of an amazing spring migration.  At least 2 pairs of Crescent-chested Warblers came to a lovely little canyon in the Chiricahua Mountains.  I've seen these birds often in the rain forests of Mexico and Central the rain.  I had a hard time believing that they could also range into our drier montane forests here in AZ:)  But they did.  We had a lunch under a beautiful tree watching all the incredible warblers fly around us. 

So I bit the bullet.  I had had it.  Grouse are my nemesis birds.  I can hear everything.  But what if the birds are silent? Then I become powerless.  It's my kryptonite. The above pic was taken in Oregon.  The only grouse we have in Arizona is the Dusky Grouse in the northern regions of the state. It had been a nemesis bird for years.  It would be embarrassing to tell people how many times I went to look for it.  Then on a whim, I broke down.  My friends and I headed up north when the Dusky Grouse began to mate on a known lek.  And down that magic hill, I witnessed this big brown chicken skulking around the woods on the big hillside next to Arizona's worst outhouse on Green's Peak. I'd use the woods and take my chances with the Gray Wolves before I'd use that bathroom. One day I hope for better pics. For now, I can count it:)

A first ever Clay-colored Thrush showed up in the beautiful Arivaca-Cienegas area where it sang a beautiful lullaby in the evening skies.  There we listened and watched this rare Mexican bird sing from Cottonwood Tree as the sun set. 

May continued.  Covid began to really take off in the state of Arizona.  But the first ever Pima and super rare for Arizona bird, the Arctic Tern, showed up not stopping any birder alive from witnessing history in the making. 

May continued. Another rarish Glossy Ibis was reported.  I bit the bullet and went with my friend Celeste to work on ID field marks between the similar and common White-faced Ibis.  And now the species is officially added to my AZ list.  I feel better knowing the minute differences between the two species. I was just too lazy to look for that one Glossy in the hundred White-faced Ibis.  However, on the day we went, there weren't many White-faced Ibis and the Glossy was much easier to separate from the rest. 

Several weeks passed and a reliable report of an Eared Quetzal came out in the rare bird alert.  I regretted not going right away to see this bird, but the huge Bighorn Fire on Mt. Lemmon threatened a friend's home and interrupted plans.  I couldn't believe how upset I was for not going.  Then a friend reported the bird again and I went without hesitation.  The rest is history. 

From June to September, the AZ lifer list slowed to a halt.  That was until a Northern Jacana was reported.  It was a bird I knew would show up at some point. I had one two years ago in Mexico at the border.  This year 2 birds, a juvenile and adult, were both seen.  The adult still continues along the sewage stream near the overpass of a popular road making the bird very easy to observe. 

Then a Christmas miracle happened.  A RUFF!  A European bird showed up at a nasty sewage area full of shorebirds.  What a treat that was!  There I got to work on my ID of this very cool bird.  I saw my first Ruff in Wales last year thanks to my friend Stephen Culley who pointed the bird out to me. 

After that adventure, 3 very special warblers all came to visit Pima county.  So rare and beautiful that it was an exciting treat to see them here around the Tucson area.  My friend and colleague Scott Olmstead reported the super rare Canada Warbler!  I was finally able to spend a really good amount of time observing this bird. 

Then my friend Sharon Goldwasser sent me a text wondering what type of warbler she had stumbled upon.  She knew it was different and suspected it to be a Pine Warbler, but in cases of fall warblers, it's always good to get a second and third opinion before reporting it to the listserv.  I got in my car and drove to her location.  Finally.  I can say I saw a Pine Warbler in AZ.  Thank you Sharon.  And to celebrate, I had a vanilla shake on the way home. 

Then like the cherry on top of a great sundae, a Blackburnian Warbler showed up!  HOLY COW!  Never in my life had I expected that to be an easy add to the state list.  They've always been up in the north and in difficult areas to search.  But nope.  This one came to a local park and flew above our heads happily feeding. 

My final state bird was the amazing Field Sparrow.  There were eleven state records of this bird in the state.  What a great way to end the year!  I love sparrows and it happened to be in one of my favorite locations, the Whitewater Draw.  

I didn't think it could get worse than 2019, but it did.  I'm just glad that birds helped many of us get through these difficult times.  2021 promises the end to many horrible things like the Trump presidency, ecological disaster(reversal of very damaging regulations made by Trump) and of course, covid.  Somehow birds go about their business and remind us that there is still a world out there to explore when all is said and done.  I love DIY projects but I'm ready to go search for a Harpy Eagle in the Darién Gap.  Happy New Year to everyone!  We'll get there.  Until next time...... 

Pima List- 372 + 15=387 Species

Arizona List- 460 + 13=473 species

World List- 1093

Total Birds Seen This Year-392(normal average is between 500-600 a year)

Friday, December 11, 2020

Half A Life; Half The Credit


The world is a crazy place right now. It seems to test us more as we close in on the final stretches of the pandemic. And each of us struggles in our own way to try and figure it all out.  While there is hope, there is also much frustration. 

Over the past several weeks, I just gave up writing.  There has been so much happening.  We lost 2 of our older cats to something that resembled feline covid but gained two new members and were able to save our other 2 older girls. We can't shake that we somehow failed to protect them.  Even with 3 vets looking into it all; we were left with no answers. There are often moments of joy with the younger ones dotted by moments of sadness. 

Then there is work.  I don't know what happened to this semester.  It all seems so surreal.  Teachers are being forced to give students half credit for doing nothing.  There is no accountability at all and it goes against every moral fiber of our being. They ask, "How are you?" But they don't mean it. It's just a check on their list that their bosses told them to do. We see through it all. I am an understanding and patient man but to give basically free points to students/parents who abuse the system with unexcused absences? It truly is a lost year. I am not happy about giving free points to those who do not work for them.  Even with a pandemic, there are rules that need to be followed. Leadership on every level in this country has failed the American public. 

Then there is the birding.  I have been reduced to part time birder.  My heart doesn't seem to be into much of it anymore.  Rare birds aren't rare anymore.  I see people's excitement and I don't feel their joy. That scares me a lot. The weirdest part? I have found joy in watching the simple House Finch come to my feeders.  Or watch the Yellow-rumped Warbler feed from my oranges and suet.  I began this blog gardening and then became a birder.  I now find myself turning back into the gardener!  I hope this will pass. My friends tell me that this is common.  Sometimes you have to take a break. I still love my birds, but I have found other interests again.  The silver lining of covid.  Home projects are taking hold of me!  Birding money is spent into home design and art. 

I have been enjoying the work done on the coastal room. We put new furniture together and opened up the space a lot.  I've purchased paint and new light fixtures and have gotten into the art of remodeling. Our next project happens in several months.  It's all set to go.  In February, the coastal bathroom becomes a reality.  

With everything happening at home, like the roof being redone, landscaping...removing of a tree and pruning, etc, I haven't been able to bird like a normal human.  I'd say that I've gotten maybe 3 days to bird all day long.  And it's not even really about birding so much as it is about just taking a walk outdoors. 

I was finally able to do some birding with Gordon who I haven't seen since March!!!  We drove to this area just to check out things.  The best part of that day was catching up with him.  I miss hanging out with him.  Another day, I drove to a far away place to look at a beautiful Field Sparrow.  It was cloudy cool and quiet.  It was what I needed.  

I am going through something.  It's not good or bad.  Not even sure if it's really depression, but I just want to be alone working on personal projects away from everything.  I am emotionally exhausted.  Another road trip is in the works.  I was even thinking about going to Panama City, Panama because I have free flight mileage but covid is raging again and I am so near getting the vaccine. It's too risky.  I don't want to lose my airline points because of a cancellation, etc. 

Teachers in Arizona are set to be one of the first groups to get the vaccinations in the beginning of January. So that means I'll probably take the USS Betty White up along the coast to be near the ocean again to get some fresh air. And play it safe. It would also be nice avoiding getting covid a second time:)  

Right now, the USS Betty White is being serviced for a long range trek.  After that is done, I have to get new tires on the vehicle. In the above pic, a local Javelina eats pecans around my vehicle, the USS Betty White. 

For now, we all sit in a holding pattern.  We wait.  And wait.  A year lost?  Or a year full of new appreciation and perspective?  It will take awhile but at least the vaccinations have begun.  My last blog for the year will be the highlights of 2020.  There were some:)

I sit with my cats now in the catio having coffee with them watching birds and bugs. It's kind of my favorite part of the day.  

The year 2021 is beginning to shape up.  I am hopeful.  It could be the renaissance we have all been waiting for.  And one that we'll never take for granted again. Until next time......