Instead of going into why and how life has been so busy, I'll just skip that--because I would not presume to think that is actually interesting to anybody else except my ever-loving Grandma--and get to the birding.
2016 was a crazy good year, CRAZY GOOD, for Arizona birding. Tropical storms blew Storm-petrels as far inland as Maricopa County, and there were numerous other rarities including Pine and Tufted Flycatcher (nesting 2nd summer in a row) and Lesser Sand-Plover. Of these I only snagged PIFL. Sometimes our own lives and movements do not coincide with the birds.
**Trying for the Maricopa petrel by skipping out from work early, I had a tire blow out on the way, obviously providential.
I did get out a bit towards year's end, first with the O.G. Butler Birder at the Santa Cruz flats between Phoenix and Tucson, and then joining forces again at the Glendale Recharge Ponds to start the New Year.
Pops has been Butler Birding since when TVs were operated with dials and there was only eleven species of Scrub Jay in the Americas.
The Flats have a couple migrant/vagrant traps that have notably produced Black-throated Blue Warbler and Rufous-backed Robin in recent years, both very good-looking and anatomically named birds in their own right. The vagrants are often just particularly sweet icing on the cake, a three-layered bird cake that is the mainstay attraction throughout winter months.
The soy and alfalfa fields around Baumgartner and Greene Reservoir roads are, without doubt, the best areas to view Caracara in Arizona. We logged 18 individuals in one large family group or flock on this day, and I've had high counts near 30 before. Interestingly, I see reports of these or other birds straying into nearby Maricopa or Cochise and Santa Cruz County much less often than I see reports of many Code 3 vagrants.
Whether they're falcons or vultures or something in between, CRCAs are loyal to their turf.
The other two layers of Flats birding cake are certainly less conspicuous by intent and design. Sprague's Pipits were thought to be occasional strays this far north, but they're now found with enough regularity and in large enough numbers in the area to be considered an expected wintering species here. SPPIs are also known colloquially as "5-inch Bitterns of the Barrens." Elegant skulkers.
Lastly, the mighty Mountain Plover, a bird perhaps with more affinity for dry crackly grass and furrows than even SPPI. Counts for this species in the area vary from a few individuals to 40+ in a given day. Much of this can be attributed to their camouflage and typically skittish behavior, as well as the relative inaccessibility of their location. Mostly I attribute it to the fact that they, unlike other birds, walk single file to hide their numbers.
Winter holidays were enjoyed in Carolina this year, where I spent time reestablishing my eternal legend as Wayne County, NC's ultimate top eBirder, but that is another post. Coinciding with my absence, a Long-tailed Duck was reported at the Glendale Recharge Ponds. This spot yields great water-birding (not illegal or unethical) and great rarities throughout the year. Typically the site itself is pretty ugly though, unless you catch it at sunrise.
The Long-tailed Duck was reported and confirmed on a remarkable day when, if memory serves, 2 or 3 others were also found across AZ. Mercifully and unusually, the bird stuck around for two weeks, and Pops and I set out early to nab it before heading in to our respective places of work. It was cool, peaceful, and pulchritudinous, except for the Least Sandpipers who were pretty certain we were going to eat them. It's unbecoming when other peeps have the startability of Killdeer.
We didn't have a large window in which to see the LTDU, nor particularly favorable conditions, but it was still pretty cool even without extra long butt feathers.
We happened to spot the bird just before direct sun-up, as it was transitioning from its tucked-away roosting spot and heading to deeper diving areas. The LTDU was chill on its own, but panicky Shovelers brought it to flight as well. Damn.
By time we had relocated the duck and cycled around Basin 3 the clouds had burned off a bit, but back-lighting is a merciless adversary. Once it gets going with its diving routine, LTDU does not let up! I was disappointed not to get better shots of the bird, but the behavior was pretty great to observe. We watched for another 30 minutes or so and in that time it would stay under for 20-30 second spells and never stay above water for more than 12 second at a time. Very go-getter.
The Cornell Ornithology website is very enthusiastic about Spotted Sandpipers, and this is unsurprising given the lobbying powers this particular peeps species has. SPSAs are known to have at least 4 congressman in their collective pockets. Credit where it's due, they are one of few shorebirds with a breeding population n Arizona, though you have to hit up the alpine lakes to find them. Winter birds are closer by, but keeping with the theme of quality over quantity, they don't have the same dapper action.
Welcome back to you and to me and to the NSA and whoever else is here again! I am hopeful and optimistic that 2017 will have more birding and posting than 2016, despite the fact that Butler's Birds will be adding on another generation of its own this summer.
First bird of 2017? Dead Red-naped Sapsucker. An omen? Absolutely. Good or bad? Rain check.