NAMC 2014

The birds don’t need to see the Equinox on the calendar to know that spring is here. Here in western Arizona, they’ve been on the move for a few weeks now! Lucy’s Warblers are in full song on territories, Bell’s Vireos are starting to set up shop, and some of the migrants such as Warbling Vireo and Wilson’s Warbler are starting to trickle in.

Besides the various first of season dates that we aim to set every year, one of the most exciting events of spring migration in Arizona is the North American Migration Count (NAMC).

The NAMC is a lot like the Christmas Bird Count (CBC): a single-day count of every bird within a designated area, with participants of all skill levels invited to attend, compiled and compared against the years and with other areas. There are some major differences. While the NAMC is nationwide, not every state holds it; Arizona’s is run by Arizona Field Ornithologists. And instead of a big circle, the NAMC area boundaries are county lines. This means that any point in Arizona is up for grabs on Saturday May 10 this year!

For the past few years, I have compiled La Paz County for the NAMC. It is a unique county in many ways: it’s big, it doesn’t have a lot of montane habitat (okay, it has very very little), and it has zero birders actually living in it. This makes it a bit of a challenge to find participants! Still, we get big results. In 2013, even though we only had five intrepid participants, we still counted 2,261 individuals of 133 species. That ranked La Paz #9 for total individuals and #7 for species diversity (out of 15 AZ counties). Not bad, all things considered!

If you’ll be around for a fun day (or even just a few hours) of birding in La Paz on May 10, drop me a line at lbharter at gmail dot com! To read more about the NAMC or to find contact info for other county compilers, click here.

Red-winged Blackbird

The most numerous species in La Paz County for the NAMC 2013 was Western Grebe, which I don’t have any photos of. #2 was Red-winged Blackbird!

Posted in AZFO, Events, La Paz County, Migration, North American Migration Count | Tagged | 9 Comments

Early, early spring

While the icy grip of winter closes ever tighter on every other corner of this country, here on Arizona’s west coast we have watched as winter disappeared in January and February, with winds much calmer than usual and the sun’s rays turning a cool January morning into an 80 degree sunshiney day.

1314 Arctic blast

Spring is here! And definitely only here! (Photo allegedly from NASA)

I’m really a winter person. I was a child in Minnesota, where wind chills less than -40 were not a good excuse to miss school or (especially) sledding, where we had things like mudrooms and fireplaces, and we changed our shoes Mr. Rogers-style when we went inside. But here I am in the desert, and even I have enjoyed driving with the sunroof open and the windows down!

Birding has been decent in this warm early spring. Another trip to Cibola with David turned up more shorebirds on Hart Mine Marsh: American Avocets and Long-billed Dowitchers. We spent an hour and a half at the Awesome Goose Pond adjacent to Nature Trail, studying geese until our heads hurt. This produced one good year bird, Greater White-fronted Goose, along with a cool hybrid and five Cackling Geese.


Greater White-fronted Goose and a hybrid of that species. Initially identified as half Canada Goose, but I suspect now that the other parent was a Cackling Goose.

Cackling Geese

Taverner’s Cackling Geese hanging out with a Lesser Canada Goose made for a lasting headache and great opportunity to study these birds

A few days later, I spent the day birding the Parker Strip, hoping mostly for rare landbirds. My first stop was ‘Ahakhav Tribal Preserve, always good for lots and lots of birds. The cottonwood plantings did not disappoint, with flocks of hundreds of Audubon’s Warblers and a few surprises sprinkled in. These included the surprise continuing Greater Pewee which had been thought to be gone, a great bird to pick up for the Big Year! I also picked up Dark-eyed Junco, one of my most expected needs for the day, along with a low-end rare winter Gray Flycatcher and a Black-and-white Warbler to kick off eastern warblers! A stop at my favorite Bell’s Sparrow spot produced the sparrows as well as an Ash-throated Flycatcher. Various stops along the Parker Strip didn’t produce much, but I finished the day on a great note. After David texted to say he had a White-winged Scoter on the La Paz side of the Bill Williams Delta, I had to stop and look for it. Well, no luck with that bird. But, the two continuing birds did appear in La Paz, for the first time as far as I know! (Since then, they have been frequenting La Paz waters more often, but hey….)

Figuring flocks of hundreds of Audubon’s Warblers always have something to offer, I decided to try that route again. Okay, that’s not true. I had a spare morning so I went to the end of Planet Ranch Road to walk the desert route and find Black-throated Sparrows. What I didn’t foresee was that I would be held up about an hour by the budding cottonwoods sagging with the weight of all those 15-gram birds. Those included a low-end rarity, Plumbeous Vireo, and a common migrant that is very rare in winter, a Townsend’s Warbler. Also, another low-end rarity that weighs significantly more than 15 grams: a Western Scrub-Jay, a holdover from this fall’s invasion which I had also been hoping to find. And the Black-throated Sparrows, probably the most abundant breeding bird in La Paz County, were right where they were supposed to be up a nice desert wash.

For our last La Paz trip in January, David and I took a day and visited the legendary Alamo Lake. Last year’s spoils on that far-off isolated lake? Red-necked Grebe, Mew Gull, Lesser Black-backed Gull. This year…well, there were a whole lot of Western and Clark’s Grebes. So far, anyway; it’s still early! The upshot is that we spent a few hours on the drive there looking for desert birds, especially thrashers. No Le Conte’s or Curve-billed, but a Sage Thrasher was a county bird! Another county bird was mixed in with some nice sparrow flocks: we had several Sagebrush Sparrows.

February has been a little slow so far. Lots of fabulous continuing birds, but I haven’t had much time to go birding since returning from a brief trip to Florida. Still, I have picked up a few year birds: a Bell’s Vireo at ‘Ahakhav, two American White Pelicans flying up the Bill Williams River (#150!), and a flock of early returning Cliff Swallows.

The next few weeks should turn up more early spring migrants, like Blue-winged Teal, White-winged Dove, Black-chinned Hummingbird, and Violet-green Swallow. Maybe I could finally find a Dunlin, too…?

Posted in Big Year, Bill Williams, La Paz County, LCRV, Migration, Vagrants | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Chipping away: Early January birds

I admit it: it’s 15 days into the new year, and I’ve only made five trips to La Paz County. Meetings and deadlines have done plenty to keep me busy, and daily gusty winds have done their part to keep me inside. Still, two of the trips I’ve made since January 1 have landed me Year Birds, including some excellent rarities.

Since David and I were driving to Tucson on January 3, I thought we could make a few stops along the way to try to pick up a few county birds. Most pressing on my mind were the Nutting’s Flycatcher and the Blue-footed Booby, rarities I would be very disappointed to miss on my Big Year.

Accordingly, we left early for the Bill Williams January 3. We stopped briefly at the hilltop overlook of the Bill Williams Delta, hoping for a sighting of the elusive Blue-footed Booby. I was also still thinking of sly mergansers; Common was my biggest Big Day miss and Hooded had eluded me as well. We saw not a single Common Merganser on the water, but Hooded came through feeding in the shallow inlet near the hill. I also apparently picked up Ruddy Duck, which I must have forgotten to write down anywhere on my Big Day (I probably picked it up first at Hart Mine Marsh)! No, this discovery actually doesn’t affect my Big Day total. While entering my lists into eBird, I discovered that I had written down and counted Double-crested Cormorant twice.

After the usual dip on the booby, we cruised down Planet Ranch Road and stopped at Mosquito Flats. Two birders were way down the road, waving their arms: clearly they were on the bird. I hustled down the road until I heard WEEEP! All I really needed was to hear the bird, and I was keen to find the Golden-crowned Sparrow that is wintering in the same area, so I cut off the Nutting’s hustle. I believe this may have left the other birders bewildered. Sorry about that, other birders, and thanks for the arm waving!

Nutting's Flycatcher

No La Paz County Big Year can even start right without Nutting’s Flycatcher!

Mosquito Flats was rather active that morning, and I picked up new species like American Robin calling from the forest, and Rock Wren calling from their favorite Rock (where they were silent on January 1…). While the Golden-crowned Sparrow didn’t show up, the continuing Hammond’s Flycatcher did put in a brief appearance. A good bird to pick up in January.

Back at the refuge headquarters, we continued to not see Blue-footed Boobies or Common Mergansers. David did pick out the “brrt” of a flyover Northern Rough-winged Swallow. We continued down to the Parker Valley. I pulled over at a flooded field full of White-faced Ibis, and David and I both estimated the flock and came up with about 900 birds, an excellent count for winter. The other prize for the stop was a briefly heard “deet dee dee!”, a Greater Yellowlegs. This species shouldn’t be difficult in winter, but I’m having some trouble finding the flooded fields they prefer.

Greater Yellowlegs

Greater Yellowlegs: Check. Now I need its friends Long-billed Dowitcher and Dunlin.

We continued south, stopping again to check the fields where Mountain Plovers had been January 1. Although the Mountain Bluebirds held fast to their powerline perches, the plovers had gone. We drove down a dusty side road, where hundreds of sparrows would perch tantalizingly in the open only to disappear the moment we tried to look at them. It took quite a bit of sneaking before David spotted both Vesper and Brewer’s Sparrows among many White-crowned and a few Savannah Sparrows. We also made a brief stop at Quartzsite on the way to Tucson, but it was quite birdless.

On our way back, we checked out Vicksburg, where we found a sludge pond tucked away behind one of the dairies. No birds, but good to know about for the future! We stopped again at the Bill Williams Delta and again lacked booby and merganser.

A week later, friends Frances Oliver, Linda Pittman and Karen Zumwalt ventured east to Arizona to look for the Nutting’s Flycatcher and other goodies. At Mosquito Flats at dawn, the Nutting’s was perfectly cooperative and we enjoyed great looks. A sparrow lurking at the edge of the road turned into a lovely Golden-crowned Sparrow, and as we watched it, a surprise FOX SPARROW popped out of the brush! Not only a Year Bird, but a County Bird for David and I! Mosquito Flats rarely disappoints. In fact, while we were watching the flycatcher, a lanky shape darted over the treetops in and out of view: a Common Merganser!

Fox Sparrow

Pre-dawn Fox Sparrow. Photo by David Vander Pluym

We also stopped at the Bill Williams Delta, where everyone enjoyed good views of Barrow’s Goldeneye. Then, with his eyes to his scope, David called out, “Lauren!”. I wasted no time getting there and rested my eyes upon the distant Blue-footed Booby loafing on Heron Island. Awesome! Hopefully this great bird continues to use this roost site where it can be found by birders.

There is still plenty to do this January. I’d like to take a trip to Cibola to look for the Red-shouldered Hawk at CVCA (it would be nice if it were on the Arizona side) and a Black-and-white Warbler at Nature Trail found by Donald Sutherland. Paddling the Bill Williams, I may be able to find Green Heron, American Bittern, and rails. A desert venture could produce LeConte’s Thrasher, and a trip to the mountains could include a scarce wintering Gray Vireo. Who knows what good birds are hiding out at Alamo Lake or the high Harquahalas. I’m sure there are still rarities to find in the Parker Valley along with wintering Bell’s Sparrows.

Blue-footed Booby

Posted in Big Year, Bill Williams, La Paz County, LCRV, Trip reports, Vagrants | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Big Times in La Paz County

This past November, while David and I were out birding with Susan and Bob Steele, we got to talking about county Big Years. The excitement, the rush, the disappointment, the car miles adding up. This conversation struck a chord in me, and a tiny voice whispered, “It’s been long enough. You could do another one”. The idea of a La Paz County Big Year in 2014 struck me, and I more or less decided right then to go for it.

Those who have been following this blog for a while might remember my first county Big Year, Mohave County in 2011. That was a challenge for a number of reasons: it’s the 5th largest county in the country and probably the only one requiring a drive through three other states to get to the other half (thank you Grand Canyon). Not many birders live there. Mohave also has a great diversity of habitats, even three different deserts, and a few high mountain ranges, grasslands, four large reservoirs. That year turned out very well, I think. I got to know my new home county, found a bunch of county birds, and ended the year with 310 species.

La Paz is very different. It’s less than half the size of Mohave, with only desert mountains to break up the geography. No pine forest; but a little bit of juniper in the Harquahalas. The main feature for birders is the Colorado River, with a few lakes (southern Alamo, the southern end of Havasu, and Moovalya in Parker, and a few small ones; plus small natural lakes only accessible by boat). Half of the Bill Williams, Cibola NWR, and CRIT lands (‘Ahakhav and the Parker Valley) are in La Paz. Oh, and no birders live there (not permanently, anyway): the main cities are Parker and Quartzsite.

Without the mountain and northern species possible in Mohave, I figure 250 is a solid goal for the year. I checked eBird and the highest year total is 234, my total from last year.

I had the thought that it would be fun to start out this Big Year with a January 1 Big Day. Maybe a little crazy: only ten hours of daylight was the main limiting factor, and of course you could do much better in early spring when warblers, flycatchers, vireos, and other migrants have started returning. Still, I figured I could get at least 100 species.

I started planning last week: a list of possible species color-coded by difficulty (1-3), a list of locations to visit and a schedule to make sure I can get to all of them by sunset, target birds for each spot. Just a bit of scouting: where can I pick up Hooded Merganser, Rock Wren, Inca Dove?

So, New Years Eve, no partying for me: I went to bed around 8:30. Fireworks woke me up at midnight, so I celebrated for a minute before crashing back into bed. Three hours later, I was up and packing the car. I drove maybe a little fast to my first destination, CVCA, and arrived half an hour early.


So much for a low of 48. BRRRR!

05:30, only a minute after arriving at CVCA, I heard a mournful “Who’s awake? Me too.” Great Horned Owl: Check. This means it’s the Year of the Great Horned Owl, not a bad first bird! I bundled up as best I could and started walking the perimeter of the plantings under inky black skies peppered with bright stars. Nearby howling dogs and the spooky giant cottonwoods, which don’t allow light to penetrate even in the day, only creeped me out a little. Wailing and yipping coyotes were strangely comforting, as were a few shooting stars.

For the next hour and a half, I tried in vain to hear a Barn Owl or Western Screech-Owl. I was certain that if I did hear a Barn Owl scream, I would jump out of my skin. As I approached a canal on the far side of the trees, I could feel the temperature fall below freezing. My sandal-bound toes cursed me, and I cursed the weather forecast. I reached a nice brushy spot around 07:00 and waited for the sun. Ten minutes later, the birds all woke at once: White-crowned Sparrow, Abert’s Towhee, Lincoln’s Sparrow, Hermit Thrush, House Wren. Turkey Vultures stirred in the treetops, a Cooper’s Hawk called. More of the the little guys awoke over the next few minutes, and I started walking out, ticking new species as I went. Audubon’s Warbler, Chipping Sparrow, Gambel’s Quail, Sandhill Crane, American Pipit.

White-crowned Sparrow

#2 Bird of 2014: White-crowned Sparrow

I arrived back at the car all ready to move on, but then I noticed that the bushes and trees on the sunny edge next to the car were all twitching with bird activity. New birds were also around the adjacent farm fields: American Kestrel, Killdeer, Mourning Dove. Three little doves flew into the flock: Inca Doves! Not something I was expecting to find. Then I heard a most distinctive hawk call, “kyeer, kyeer, kyeer, kyeer!”, Red-shouldered Hawk! As I turned my head my heart sank as I remembered where I was standing: Imperial County was only about 75 meters north of me. Sure enough, I spotted the source of the call, flying then perching just on the wrong side of the river. Oh well, time to move on: I was late for my next spot.

Red-shouldered Hawk

Can’t have everything. (A different Red-shouldered Hawk in a very different place)

A brief stop at the Cibola NWR headquarters hoping for Common Ground-Dove produced Phainopepla and Anna’s Hummingbird. I started down the loop drive and was delighted to see the pond next to the road was full of birds. I started scanning and ticking: Canada Goose, Mallard, Northern Pintail, Snow Goose, Ross’s Goose, Brewer’s Blackbird, American Wigeon. Out of about 4,000 Canada Geese on this refuge, I wasn’t all that hopeful that I’d be able to relocate the two Cackling Geese that David and I found a few weeks ago. So I was pretty shocked to see three Cackling Geese in the flock! I scanned again looking for a Greater White-fronted Goose, but no luck. Time to move on.

I parked at Nature Trail (flushing a Sharp-shinned Hawk as I pulled in) and started a brisk walk around the very birdy loop trail. Birds were dripping from the trees, mostly Orange-crowned Warblers, but a Red-naped Sapsucker and a Spotted Towhee were nice additions. It was a little difficult to hear with all the ducks flying over, heading to and from the resting pond between the plantings.

American Wigeons

Wigeons were constantly taking off in huge flocks from the resting pond


A few of many Mallards streaming overhead

I didn’t spot any new waterfowl on the resting pond, but the edges were graced by Savannah Sparrows and a Vermilion Flycatcher. Continuing around the trail, I heard a loud, full chip coming from a cottonwood that was quivering with Orange-crowned Warbler activity. I recognized it as a Black-throated Gray Warbler, a good find in winter, but I wanted a visual to confirm it. After a minute, I spotted the little gray-and-white bird high in the tree. That species turned out to be my only bird of the day that I didn’t have on my list of likely species!

Orange-crowned Warbler

Orange-crowned Warblers EVERYWHERE!

After pulling myself away from the multitude of Orange-crowned Warblers, I jumped in the car and cruised the loop drive. Raptors were cooperative: Red-tailed Hawk, Peregrine Falcon, Northern Harrier. I checked the Burrowing Owl houses as I passed, and after a few empty houses I started to worry that it was still too cold for them to be out. Not to worry, though, as I eventually found a few of the little guys.

Burrowing Owl

How could I not take a photo of that face!

Normally I could spend all day scanning and counting the thousands of Sandhill Cranes, geese, ducks, and blackbirds of the loop drive. This day, though, I had to move on; I was still half an hour behind schedule!

Sandhill Cranes and Canada Geese

Bird-filled cornfields.

Next stop: Hart Mine Marsh. I was a little disappointed when I arrived: no shorebird habitat. Cattails cover more of the marsh every time I visit, and it was difficult to peek through to the open water, but I still added a good number of new species. Marsh Wren, Double-crested Cormorant, Pied-billed Grebe, Black-crowned Night-Heron, Belted Kingfisher. Redhead and Osprey were good additions to the list, definitely possible to miss. Rails were frustratingly silent, and no Green Herons flew up from the canal on the back side of the marsh.

Time to make a decision: go to Cibola Lake, or skip it? It was my only hope for American White Pelican, so I decided to drive there quickly, and I could make up for lost time by not birding the Levee Road. I reached the overlook and was surprised to see more birds on Cibola Lake than I ever have before, although they were mostly Northern Shovelers. No pelican, but Gadwall, Clark’s and Western Grebes (the latter can be difficult), and a few calls from a Common Gallinule.

I kept my eyes open as I drove the Levee Road: I knew Greater Roadrunner and Crissal Thrasher would give me trouble today, and this would be a good place for both of them. I was delighted when a little falcon on the side of the road turned out to be a Merlin, the last falcon I needed for the day! I remained roadrunnerless until I turned onto Baseline Road, when I finally spotted one sunning itself on a dirt mound!

Greater Roadrunner

Roadrunners don’t care, they do what they want

With time saved on the Levee Road, I arrived at the pond on Baseline Road 20 minutes early. I thought of skipping this spot – it’s the best place in La Paz County for Wood Duck, but we didn’t find any here a few weeks ago, and there weren’t any other likely additions. But, what the heck, it was on the way. I scanned the pond thoroughly and didn’t see any Wood Ducks, although I did hear my one and only Common Yellowthroat of the day. A few times, though, I thought I heard some quiet wheezing whistles. There must be some Wood Ducks hiding in there. Sure enough, another scan produced two males hiding in a swarm of Mallards.

Wood Duck

Always a good bird in the LCRV!

11:40, time to head north, and I knew I would have to skip Quartzsite. I was giving up my best chance for desert birds like Black-throated Sparrow and Cactus Wren, and the possibility of Harris’s Hawk, but it would give me the time I needed to bird the Parker Valley. I left the Cibola area feeling good at 77 species.

The road north heads through Imperial and Riverside Counties in California, and I grumbled at a flock of Brown-headed Cowbirds and a mockingbird, both of which I was still missing for the day.

I drove the Parker Valley quickly but stopping frequently, scanning the grassy fields for Long-billed Curlews and Mountain Plovers, and checking for raptors. The one small Horned Lark flock I found had no longspurs, but a quick stop to check out a raptor on a pole (Red-tail) turned up very high-flying Ferruginous Hawk and a White-throated Swift. After pulling off at one spot, while waiting for traffic to clear so I could continue, I scanned some grassy fields and spotted two distant ravens, two of only three I had in the day!

Ferruginous Hawk

The Parker Valley produced three Ferruginous Hawks, one of my favorite raptors

I decided to turn east of the highway at Tsosie Road. There is a phenomenon in birding that you always want to check a spot that proved productive once, even if it has been utterly boring ever since. Some flooded fields here were once filled with hundreds of Killdeer and a few Dunlin, and I always want to check them now. Almost as soon as I turned off the highway, I glanced into the field to my left and saw it filled with buffy shapes. Mountain Plovers!!! I pulled over quickly and scanned the field: 133 Mountain Plovers. A scarce species that is usually very hard to find, and not one I actually expected to get. Just as I finished counting the flock, a brilliant piece of blue fluttered down into the field. Mountain Bluebird! Even more difficult to find than the plover. Seeing these two species in the same field was the highlight of my day.

Mountain Bluebird

A small group of these brilliant little bluebirds put on a good show

Mountain Plovers

A few of many Mountain Plovers on a field where I never would have expected to see them

Moving on, I checked Tsosie Road on the other side of the highway. A distant flock of blackbirds looked promising, and sure enough, that field produced Brown-headed Cowbird as well as my only Cattle Egrets and Least Sandpipers for the day. I cruised the rest of the valley looking for a flooded field where I could pick up shorebirds: Dunlin, Long-billed Dowitcher, and Greater Yellowlegs. There were none to be found. I stopped at Poston Wetlands and picked up my only Sora of the day. A wet field in Poston had a flock of White-faced Ibis, just as I was starting to worry I would miss that species.

I arrived late at ‘Ahakhav Tribal Preserve, but I knew I needed the stop to pick up gnatcatchers and hopefully goldfinches and Crissal Thrasher. I slowly cruised an area that recently had Common Ground-Doves, but no luck. When I parked at the preserve and started listening, I was surprised to hear “potato chip!”, an American Goldfinch, not always an easy bird, and I didn’t even have Lesser Goldfinch for the day! My first Black-tailed Gnatcatcher of the day (!!) called soon after. I walked the park area and added Blue-gray Gnatcatcher. Just before I left I decided to check the small House Finch flock hanging out by the nursery, and discovered a few Lesser Goldfinches among them.

American Goldfinch

Potato chip!

No Crissal Thrasher, and still no mockingbird, but time to head up to the Bill Williams. I could skip CRIT HQ (my main target there was American Goldfinch anyway) and Headgate Dam, so that would put me back on schedule. After stopping for gas in Parker (and finally getting a mockingbird, but still missing House Sparrow), I decided to take a gamble and skip Red Hills and Parker Dam. There have been Hooded Mergansers at Red Hills, and Parker Dam is almost guaranteed to have Lesser Scaup. But, I wanted to hurry up and get to the Bill, and both species are possible there.

I decided that I couldn’t skip Havasu Springs, my best chance for non-Ring-billed gulls, Common Loon, and Horned Grebe. The usual gull loafing spot only had a few Ring-billed, but I did spot a Common Loon from there. Heading out with the windows down, I finally heard the obnoxious chirping of a flock of House Sparrows.

I stopped at a highway pullout above the CAP inlet so that I could scan the ducks there with good light. Common Goldeneye and Greater Scaup were plentiful, but I needed to find Barrow’s Goldeneye and Lesser Scaup. Barrow’s Goldeneyes: no problem, and species #100 for the day! Lesser Scaup took a bit more time, but I finally picked out a sleeping male. Time to move on to the refuge headquarters. It’s not the best spot to scan La Paz County waters, but I needed Costa’s Hummingbird anyway. After a minute I heard that distinctive twittering, and I only spent a few minutes scanning. Tree Swallow, Canvasback, Neotropic Cormorant, Bufflehead. Two male Cinnamon Teal, a nice surprise. An unexpected Spotted Sandpiper working the shore of the CAP inlet. Time to move on.

Neotropic Cormorants

Typical views of Neotropic Cormorants in the Bill Williams.

My final stop for the Bill Williams Delta was the overlook close to the bridge, which would give me a much better view of the marshes of the Delta. Just as I laid eyes on my first Eared Grebe of the day, it dove and all the coots around it started scattering. I looked around. No boats. What was freaking the birds out? Then I saw it: a big raptor circling the water. Osprey? No, an adult Bald Eagle! Not always an easy bird in La Paz. It circled lower and lower over the water as a Ring-billed Gull mobbed it relentlessly. As it neared the water, the eagle just reached out and plucked a fish from the water. Wow!

Now that I had almost all the expected ducks, I became very aware that I didn’t have a single merganser for the day. I eyed the roosting flock of Common Mergansers on an island well into Mohave County. As if on cue, two of the birds took off and started wheeling around, headed for La Paz! …the excitement only lasted a minute, as the jerks with wings disappeared behind a reed island well into Mohave. Even though I knew I needed to move on and get to Mosquito Flats, I was reluctant to give up on the mergansers. All three species should be here! I scanned the edge of the CAP peninsula, a spot I couldn’t see from the headquarters, and picked up a Horned Grebe. I scanned the marshes and rocky edges again and again. While I happened to be looking at a little marshy corner, a small heron flew into sight. My first thought was that it was a Green Heron, which I had been looking for all day. But it landed and showed its buffy body plumage and black back: a Least Bittern, very scarce in winter! Finally I figured the Bill had taken good care of me, and it was time to move on.

Horned Grebe

Close call! Horned Grebe was one of many species which I saw only once all day

It was quiet when I arrived at Mosquito Flats, and the sun was already hidden behind the Buckskin Mountains. I paced the road around the usual haunts of the Nutting’s Flycatcher, and strained my ears listening for new species. Canyon Wren was most obliging, even setting off a bit of a cacophony at dusk. In the silence I started to worry that I might miss Gila Woodpecker, unacceptable!, but twice I heard distant calls and breathed a sigh of relief. Crissal Thrashers, too, finally announced themselves with their distinctive “doity doity”. The light faded and the Nutting’s remained silent, as it usually does in the evening. No Rock Wrens called. I spotted a silent lump moving through the catsclaw next to my car, and was surprised to see one of the Cactus Wrens that has been around: not a species I expected to find. Getting Cactus but not Rock was a bit backwards, but okay. I realized that was #117 and started to think of what three species I could still get. It seemed less and less likely as the light faded, and I finally gave up on Passerines for the day. I hoped for rails in the forest, until I remembered that the beaver pond was probably dry.

Crissal Thrasher

Doity doity!

Once it seemed dark enough for owls, I tried again for Western Screech-Owl. Mosquito Flats has a very high density, so I was hopeful. Finally I heard a sound which at first I thought was a distant singing Pied-billed Grebe. As I listened I realized it was coming from fairly close, and no, that was definitely an owl. Check! I looked up the vocalization, the bark call, which is an aggressive response to predators and sometimes other owls. It sounded something like this, but this bird was giving a much longer series which recalled a Pied-billed Grebe.

I gave Virginia and Clapper Rails one more try at the Bill Williams bridge, but the marsh was stubbornly silent. Anyway, it seemed fitting to start and end the day with owls. 118 was a better total than expected, and a very fun day! I ended up with 71/72 Easy species (Common Merganser being the biggest miss), 41/67 Medium species, and 5/29 Hard species, plus Black-throated Gray Warbler which wasn’t on my list.

La Paz County

La Paz County, shown in the blue-green outlines. Plenty more to see this year!

And the species total for the day:

Snow Goose
Ross’s Goose
Cackling Goose
Canada Goose
Wood Duck
American Wigeon
Cinnamon Teal
Northern Shoveler
Northern Pintail
Green-winged Teal
Ring-necked Duck
Greater Scaup
Lesser Scaup
Common Goldeneye
Barrow’s Goldeneye
Ruddy Duck
Gambel’s Quail
Common Loon
Pied-billed Grebe
Horned Grebe
Eared Grebe
Western Grebe
Clark’s Grebe
Neotropic Cormorant
Double-crested Cormorant
Least Bittern
Great Blue Heron
Great Egret
Snowy Egret
Cattle Egret
Black-crowned Night-Heron
White-faced Ibis
Turkey Vulture
Northern Harrier
Sharp-shinned Hawk
Cooper’s Hawk
Bald Eagle
Red-tailed Hawk
Ferruginous Hawk
Common Gallinule
American Coot
Sandhill Crane
Mountain Plover
Spotted Sandpiper
Least Sandpiper
Ring-billed Gull
Rock Pigeon
Eurasian Collared-Dove
Mourning Dove
Inca Dove
Greater Roadrunner
Western Screech-Owl
Great Horned Owl
Burrowing Owl
White-throated Swift
Anna’s Hummingbird
Costa’s Hummingbird
Belted Kingfisher
Gila Woodpecker
Red-naped Sapsucker
Ladder-backed Woodpecker
Northern Flicker
American Kestrel
Peregrine Falcon
Prairie Falcon
Black Phoebe
Say’s Phoebe
Vermilion Flycatcher
Loggerhead Shrike
Common Raven
Horned Lark
Tree Swallow
Canyon Wren
House Wren
Marsh Wren
Bewick’s Wren
Cactus Wren
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
Black-tailed Gnatcatcher
Ruby-crowned Kinglet
Mountain Bluebird
Hermit Thrush
Crissal Thrasher
Northern Mockingbird
European Starling
American Pipit
Orange-crowned Warbler
Common Yellowthroat
Yellow-rumped Warbler
Black-throated Gray Warbler
Spotted Towhee
Abert’s Towhee
Chipping Sparrow
Savannah Sparrow
Song Sparrow
Lincoln’s Sparrow
White-crowned Sparrow
Red-winged Blackbird
Western Meadowlark
Yellow-headed Blackbird
Brewer’s Blackbird
Great-tailed Grackle
Brown-headed Cowbird
House Finch
Lesser Goldfinch
American Goldfinch
House Sparrow

Posted in Big Year, Bill Williams, Cibola NWR, Imperial County, La Paz County, LCRV, Trip reports, Vagrants | Tagged , , , | 7 Comments

CBCs 2013

The Christmas Bird Count season is always an exciting time of year, with more eyes and ears out in the field looking at birds, gathering data and finding rarities; birders getting together, seeing old friends and meeting new people; and of course it’s a good reason to explore new areas!

This year I had the time and motivation to participate in four counts: Alamos in southern Sonora, the south end Salton Sea, and my two local counts, Bill Williams and Havasu. All were fun and good experiences for different reasons!

The Alamos CBC was December 14, the first day of the count period. I was invited to go with Dave Stejskal, a friend and veteran Sonora birder. We drove down (about a 9-hour drive from Tucson) two days before the count with Carol Tepper. This was my third trip to Mexico and second to west Mexico, so I was hopeful for a few lifers but mostly I was looking forward to just spending time with birds with which my experience is limited, getting some sound recordings, looking at butterflies, and looking at Nutting’s Flycatchers that aren’t from one family group!

Birding tropical deciduous forest near Alamos

We spent the day before the count hiking Arroyo Mentidero, which drains into the Rio Cuchujaqui just outside of Alamos. The area was incredibly birdy and diverse, and if we didn’t have birds to look at we were always distracted by plants, butterflies or scenery!

Canyon walls in Arroyo Mentidero

The birding highlight was a lifer, a flock of Purplish-backed Jays which flew overhead, giving great views of birds of different ages. Later, they were calling from a hillside next to the river and even perched up for extended views. Other great birds included a very vocal pair of Common Black-Hawks, plenty of vocal Nutting’s Flycatchers, two vocal Blue Mockingbirds that even came out in the open for decent views, Streak-backed Orioles in a variety of plumages including a stunning adult male, Five-striped Sparrow, and a very large array of other interesting species. Plenty of them performed for the mic, and I’ll hopefully get to organizing those recordings soon…!

A beautiful morning on the Rio Cuchujaqui

Butterflies started puddling in the afternoon, and I was able to identify 13 species, several of which were lifers.

Creamy Stripe-Streak

Creamy Stripe-Streak, underside

Creamy Stripe-Streak

Creamy Stripe-Streak, upperside

Dorantes Longtail

Dorantes Longtail

Laviana White-Skipper

Laviana White-Skipper


Queen, which was very common in the area (as it is in the LCRV!)

White Peacock, one of my favorites!

Texan Crescent

Texan Crescent. Along with Mexican Yellow, one of the most common butterfly species we saw.

Rio Cuchujaqui

Montezuma Bald-Cypress on the Rio Cuchujaqui

Rio Cuchujaqui

More tropical deciduous forest on the Rio Cuchujaqui

The next day, on the CBC, I accompanied Dave in hiking up Cañón Cieneguilla, a beautiful canyon rising into the Sierra de Alamos.

Cañón Cieneguilla

Cañón Cieneguilla

We started the morning owling, with the highlight being spectacular views of a meteor shower! We also had some owls just as the eastern horizon was beginning to lighten: a variety of calls from a pair of Ferruginous Pygmy-Owls, and brief bouts of calling from a Colima Pygmy-Owl and a Mottled Owl.

Birding Cañón Cieneguilla

Birding Cañón Cieneguilla

The bird highlight of the day appeared early, flying in and calling once in response to Dave’s FEPO whistles. He immediately recognized the call as sounding like a Greenish Elaenia. We were both able to get on it, and there it was: a drab green flycatcher which wouldn’t be very exciting, except that it was so far out of range that it has never before been recorded in Sonora! Click to see the day’s eBird checklist which includes Dave’s photos and my sound recording of this first state record!

Of course, there were plenty of other avian highlights, although overall Dave noticed that bird activity in the canyon was way down from past years. We did have quick looks at flyby White-fronted Parrots, my second of two lifers on the trip. Black-throated Magpie-Jays accompanied us and shared some great vocalizations and amusing antics. High in the canyon, we ran into some higher elevation species, such as Slate-throated Whitestart, Rufous-capped Warblers and a Brown-backed Solitaire that quietly sang its incredible song once.

Sierra de Alamos seen from Cañón Cieneguilla

View of some higher ridges of the Sierra de Alamos as seen from upper Cañón Cieneguilla

The “butterflying” was good here, too, of course! I identified 14 species, including some real lookers like Ruddy Daggerwing.

Snappy Mottlemark

One of my favorite butterflies of the trip by looks and name, a Snappy Mottlemark

Blackened Bluewing

Blackened Bluewing (they look much fancier from above, but this one just sat with its wings stubbornly closed)

White-spotted Satyr

White-spotted Satyr

(Sorry for all the butterfly pictures and lack of bird pictures; the butterflies are just so much easier with a point and shoot! Incidentally, I used A Swift Guide to the Butterflies of Mexico and Central America for butterfly ID and am so, so grateful that I had that book handy!)

The trip was so much fun, though all too brief, and a great introduction to birding in Sonora. I think I’m hooked! I’m definitely hoping to return for next year’s CBC (and hopefully will stay longer), and would recommend it very highly.

Two days of driving later, I woke up at the great, stinking, magical, bird-filled Salton Sea! This is a CBC which I try to do every year, and it’s a different experience every time: you never know what to expect. My assignment this year was the north half of the IID Wetlands, a fairly new managed wetland created by the Imperial Irrigation District. The habitat is being utilized by breeding and wintering rails and bitterns, resulting in numbers of these birds increasing every year on the CBC. I focused on these birds and had good numbers of all the various whinnying, grunting and clacking secretive marsh denizens (except Black Rail; the only one I heard was the tiny one that calls when I get a text message…). Two Red-shouldered Hawks also contributed to a nice morning of birding.

Most of the participants of the Salton Sea South CBC are very avid birders, so the count runs in a half-day fashion, with an early afternoon compilation followed by a rush to chase all the great birds seen that morning. I was able to chase a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, a Red Phalarope, and a Long-eared Owl. David and I decided to stay in Yuma that night, and woke up bright and early to look for something even better: a White Ibis that is wintering at Yuma East Wetlands!

White Ibis, Yuma East Wetlands

White Ibis with White-faced Ibis and Snowy Egrets

After a break for Christmas and some much-needed sleep, it was back out in the field for the local CBCs!

My area for the Bill Williams CBC was the beautiful area between Kohen Ranch and Cougar Point, rarely visited by birders other than those who conduct surveys in the spring and summer.

Cougar Point

Cougar Point

I birded with Rus Hall, a snowbirder from Alberta who is wintering locally. We enjoyed about two hours in the morning of excellent birding, after which the wind came up and shut the birds down. This was the experience reported by just about everyone on the count. Fortunately, we managed to turn up a good list of rarities: THREE Golden-crowned Sparrows, a pair of Northern Cardinals, a Western Scrub-Jay and a Black-throated Gray Warbler!

Golden-crowned Sparrows

Two of the three Golden-crowned Sparrows we saw. Four was the count total!

Yesterday, we finished up our CBC season with the Havasu CBC. I went along with Rus and the count compiler, my friend DeeDee DeLorenzo, on her loop through the southern part of the refuge including Beal Restoration Area and Beal Lake. While landbirds were quiet, Beal Lake came through as usual with all the expected winter shorebirds, plus four American Avocets (rare in winter). After finishing our area, we briefly checked out some other areas including the dense saltbush at Pintail Slough. There, we found good numbers of Sage Sparrows, but didn’t feel comfortable identifying any of them to species.

All in all, it’s been a wonderful CBC season. Here’s hoping that next year brings more great experiences!

Posted in Butterflies, Christmas Bird Counts, Havasu NWR, Imperial County, La Paz County, LCRV, Mexico, Mohave County, Trip reports, Vagrants, Yuma County | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Streak-backed Oriole at CVCA

It’s been a busy past couple months with doing vegetation surveys for GBBO as well as trying to get in as much birding as possible (along with the usual ebird and documenting rarities seen that results from such birding), that I have not had as much time to write. Hopefully that will change (I know promises, promises).

Note the thick, relatively straight bill with a dark tip and bright orange malar. Extensive whitish edgings to the wing. You can also see that the tail shows some yellow in it (right at the base) which is typical of all age and sexes except adult male. You can also just make out a row of streaks on the back in this photo. The bill shape as well as the dark tip, and bright orange face (especially the malar) are helpful in ruling out the otherwise similar Bullock's Oriole. 4 Nov 2013 CVCA La Paz County AZ. Copyright (c) 2013 David Vander Pluym

Note the thick, relatively straight bill with a dark tip and bright orange malar. Extensive whitish edgings to the wing. You can also see that the tail shows some yellow in it (right at the base) which is typical of all age and sexes except adult male. You can also just make out a row of streaks on the back in this photo. The bill shape as well as the dark tip, and bright orange face (especially the malar) are helpful in ruling out the otherwise similar Bullock’s Oriole. 4 Nov 2013 CVCA La Paz County AZ. Copyright (c) 2013 David Vander Pluym

In any case on 4 Nov 2013 during a trip down to the Cibola NWR and CVCA (Cibola Valley Conservation Area) to do some vegetation survey work (and birding) with Jennifer and Michelle Tobin I was fortunate enough to discover a Streak-backed Oriole! I don’t get to bird this area as often as I like and was hoping for something interesting, so we had scheduled some birding time in with the work (and we always pay attention to birds while working) but in a twist of fate the oriole was found neither while birding or working!

The Streak-backed Oriole in question was photographed, 4 Nov 2013 CVCA La Paz County AZ. Note the thick, relatively straight bill, with a dark tip and bright orange malar. Copyright (c) 2013 David Vander Pluym

The Streak-backed Oriole in question was photographed, 4 Nov 2013 CVCA La Paz County AZ. Note the thick, relatively straight bill, with a dark tip and bright orange malar. Copyright (c) 2013 David Vander Pluym

Note the extensive whitish edgings to the wing. You can also see that the tail shows some yellow in it (right at the base) which is typical of all age and sexes except adult male. Even at this angle you can see some orange on the face. 4 Nov 2013 at CVCA La Paz Co, Az. Copyright (c) 2013 David Vander Pluym

Note the extensive whitish edgings to the wing. You can also see that the tail shows some yellow in it (right at the base) which is typical of all age and sexes except adult male. Even at this angle you can see some orange on the face. 4 Nov 2013 at CVCA La Paz Co, Az. Copyright (c) 2013 David Vander Pluym

We had been driving through the Parker Valley and then the Palo Verde Valley south of Blythe, checking a few agriculture fields in the hopes of shorebirds, raptors, sparrows, or longspurs (of which we found nothing of interest). These areas are all rather open and after several cups of coffee (as well as the usual water) nature was as they say, starting to call. I decided that CVCA just across the Colorado River with its tall, dense trees would make a good spot. As we drove through the vast, open agriculture I could imagine my spot, all picked out. Getting close I mentioned to the Tobins that we would be making a brief spot to answer the call. Objections were made, we are close to Cibola NWR and Nature Trail with its port-o-potty. I waved such objections away as the need was growing and the trees were near! I pulled over at my spot and headed along a road into the tree plantings. Immediately I saw and heard several Orange-crowned Warblers and Ruby-crowned Kinglets. Figuring I could wait a few seconds I started sphishing. Instantly more birds came in and I was soon surrounded by Orange-crowned and Audubon’s Warblers as well as kinglets. A good mixed species flock always gets my hopes up!

Note the thick, relatively straight bill and bright orange malar. You can also see that the tail shows some yellow in it (right at the base) which is typical of all age and sexes except adult male. You can also just make out a row of streaks on the back in this photo. 4 Nov 2013 CVCA La Paz County AZ. Copyright (c) 2013 David Vander Pluym

Note the thick, relatively straight bill and bright orange malar. You can also see that the tail shows some yellow in it (right at the base) which is typical of all age and sexes except adult male. You can also just make out a row of streaks on the back in this photo. 4 Nov 2013 CVCA La Paz County AZ. Copyright (c) 2013 David Vander Pluym

Note the extensive orange underparts which include the belly. A Bullock's Oriole with a similar face pattern at this time of year should show duller underparts and gray on the belly. Here the tail looks dusky, but you can still see some yellowish color towards the base. 4 Nov 2013 at CVCA La Paz Co, Az. Copyright (c) 2013 David Vander Pluym

Note the extensive yellow-orange underparts which include the belly. A Bullock’s Oriole with a similar face pattern at this time of year should show duller underparts and gray on the belly. Here the tail looks dusky, but you can still see some yellowish color towards the base. 4 Nov 2013 at CVCA La Paz Co, Az. Copyright (c) 2013 David Vander Pluym

All of a sudden an oriole popped out of the Coyote Willow and I could easily see its glowing bright reddish-orange face! The bird stayed in view for a couple seconds and I stood there with my mouth open in shock! I ran back to the car to get the Tobins and my binoculars and camera! Jennifer later said with how fast I came back and the look on my face I was either being chased by someone scary or I had just found something very good! They jumped out of the car and I grabbed my equipment in hot pursuit! The bird was skullky and quiet, easily lost though it never seemed to move anywhere far or fast. Feeding slowly and deliberately in the tops of the dense Coyote Willows. With luck and trying a variety of sphishing styles (each worked once and only once) we were able to get good, but not great looks at the bird and I was able to get a couple of photos. It was looked for the next day but not refound. It should also be noted that most of this photos have also been posted at That however was the story of the best pee spot ever! And yes I did eventually remember the reason for stopping in the first place…

– David Vander Pluym

Posted in AZFO, eBird, Identification, La Paz County, Species Profiles, Vagrants | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Looning and Grebeing in the LCRV: part 1

I’ll just come right out and say it: Lake Havasu is the best place in Arizona to see loons and grebes.

Four-loon and six-grebe days are possibilities on Lake Havasu. Loon numbers well into double-digits are not unexpected, and grebe numbers sometimes break four digits. Such numbers and diversity make the LCRV, and Lake Havasu in particular, ideal for studying and ticking these charismatic diving birds in Arizona. But they can be tough to find, and loon and grebe identification is full of pitfalls. Below I outline tips for finding, watching, and identifying loons. I will focus on basic (winter) plumage of those species that typically occur in winter, but bear in mind that any species can show some alternate plumage in spring. Also be sure to check out this post for more lake-scanning tips, this post for information on shad runs which are loon and grebe magnets, and this post on uncommon loon vocalizations.

In my next post on this subject, I will cover tips for grebes.

Part one: Loons

Loons are a frustrating group of birds. As I often say, they don’t actually need to breathe air. It’s not uncommon to spot an interesting loon in the scope and zoom in only to have the bird dive, and never resurface. Okay, it probably does resurface eventually, but they can stay down for minutes at a time and move long distances underwater. Usually, when waiting for a loon to resurface, it’s best to keep an eye on the spot where you last saw it. Loons will often stick to a favorite spot and resurface there again and again. If you don’t see it after a few minutes, then it probably moved off and it will just take luck to spot it again.

Loons are versatile creatures, and will use a variety of (aquatic) microhabitats for foraging and loafing. While they are typically found on large reservoirs, they will forage anywhere from the middle of a lake to right against the shoreline. I have spent long periods of time scanning for distant loons, only to find one ten feet away when I stop scanning to rest my eyes! I once even saw a Red-throated Loon nearly chase a fish onto Rotary Beach. Foraging loons follow the fish, so keep an eye on gulls and other fish-eating birds to key in on areas where a loon may be fishing.

Most people don’t think of loons as social creatures, but they will often gather in groups on the water. They do tend to associate with members of their own species, but it wouldn’t be unheard of for a Pacific Loon to join forces with a Common Loon, especially when it’s the only one of its species around. In that case, the trick is picking out the Pacific from the common Commons.

Common Loon

Common Loon is by far the most numerous loon on inland lakes. As with any birds, it’s best to be familiar with the most likely species before setting out to look for rarities. Common Loon is large and bulky. The bill is thick, usually silvery-looking but with a dark culmen. The head looks blocky and angular, with a big lump just in front of the eye. The eye is often surrounded by white feathers. The line separating the dark blackish nape from the white throat is crooked, a feature that is visible at a long distance and is very helpful for telling a Common from a Pacific Loon. Common Loons tend to show white on the sides and flanks on the water line, especially when relaxed.

Look for Common Loon from mid-August to mid-May, and especially during peak migration in November and April. Small numbers (counts of 1-2) frequently summer.

Common Loon

Typical Common Loon. Note the big bill, lumpy head shape, crooked neck line, and white around the eye. Photo by David Vander Pluym

Pacific Loon

Pacific Loon is the second most likely species, after Common. They can occur in small groups and anywhere from one to ten are likely present on Lake Havasu in a given winter. Unlike Common Loon, Pacific typically arrives in mid-November and is gone by the end of March.

Pacifics are intermediate in body size, bill size, and overall bulk between Common and Red-throated Loons. The bill looks less angular and more evenly proportioned than on Common. The head and nape usually appear evenly rounded, forming a smooth curve from the forehead all the way through the nape, with no bump above the eye or peak at the back of the head. The division between darker nape and white throat is a smooth, sharply contrasting line, without indentations as in Common Loon. The nape often appears as a silvery color, especially in worn birds, unlike the blackish nape of Common Loon but similar in color to Red-throated Loon. The dark nape is very wide, so that a bird viewed from behind typically shows no white on the sides of the neck. The chinstrap is variable; its presence is a very good mark for Pacific Loon, but some individuals lack it, and it can be difficult to see at a distance. The eye is usually surrounded by dark feathers, never surrounded by white. Pacifics tend to show no white on the sides and flanks at the water line, but a very relaxed bird may show a bit of white, and it’s not uncommon for a bird to roll slightly onto one side, showing more of the white belly on one side than the other.

Pacific Loon

Pacific Loon. Note head and bill structure; silvery cast to nape; sharp, straight line of contrast between nape and clean white throat; suggestion of a chinstrap.

Pacific Loon

The same Pacific Loon from behind. Note the broad, silvery nape color.

Common Loon

Common Loon photographed in 2008 which I found misidentified and mislabeled as a Pacific Loon. Note the large bill, blocky head, white around the eye, and jagged neck markings.

Pacific and Common Loons

Pacific (above) and Common (below) Loons. Note especially differences in head and bill shape and bulk, and neck pattern. Photo by Mike Petriello.

Red-throated Loon

Red-throated Loon is less common than Pacific Loon, but probably does occur in small numbers every year, occurring from November through March. Red-throated is the smallest, most elegant, daintiest loon. They are often more similar to an Aechmophorus grebe than to other loons, being more or less the same size and similar in shape. The bill is silvery (though that varies depending on distance and lighting) and slender. It often appears to be tilted upward slightly, but not always. A relaxed bird is more likely to look this way. The head shape is distinctive: neither bulky as a Common nor smoothly rounded as a Pacific, but flat-topped with a distinctive peak at the rear. The sides and flanks nearly always show white on the water line, even on active birds. Unlike other loon species, juvenile and adult Red-throated Loons look dramatically different (although some juveniles can approach adults). Juveniles are far more likely to occur in Arizona. On juvs, the line between silvery (always silvery, never blackish) nape and paler throat is not sharply contrasting. The silvery nape is usually narrow, so that it often appears as a thin strip from behind with paler feathers on either side, like an Aechmophorus grebe. The throat can vary in juveniles from pure white (rare) to entirely dusky-silver (uncommon), but the chin just below the bill is always white. The most common pattern is a whitish throat with a variable dusky-silver patch, sometimes tinged reddish, on the center of the upper throat. On adults, the line between narrow silver nape and crown and pure white throat is very sharply contrasting, and the eye is completely surrounded by white.

Red-throated Loon

Typical juvenile Red-throated Loon. Note white on flanks, flat-topped head shape, pale nape with thin strip of dark on the back of the neck, throat pattern, slim bill shape with straight culmen. Photo by David Vander Pluym

Red-throated Loon

An uncommon dusky-necked juvenile Red-throated Loon. On this individual the dark of the nape extends onto the front of the neck like a shawl, which is unique to Red-throated among basic-plumaged loons on the few individuals that show this. Note that the chin is always white. Photo by David Vander Pluym

Yellow-billed Loon

Yellow-billed is much rarer than the above species, certainly not occurring every year. I have much less experience with this species, having only seen two, and only one of these well. As such I have fewer tips about identification, and can only comment on ID of juveniles. Yellow-billed is the largest and bulkiest loon, so the confusion species is Common. The first thing that most birders key in on is the bill. On Yellow-billed, the culmen is straight and dark on the basal half. The bill is large and bulky, and straw yellow. Sometimes Common Loons can have large bills, and the silvery color can even look yellowish in certain lights. Even more troublesome is the possibility of Common Loons with deformed bills causing confusion. As in most IDs, it’s best to look at multiple features, not just the bill. Yellow-billed Loons have paler heads, with more white on the face and an overall brownish, not blackish, color. Juveniles show a distinct brown spot on the auriculars.

Yellow-billed Loon

Juvenile Yellow-billed Loon. Note brownish cast to (limited) head markings, dark auricular spot, yellow-tinged bill with straight culmen. Otherwise shape similar to Common Loon. Photo by David Vander Pluym

To see more photos of this individual to get an idea of how light and posture affect its appearance, click here.

Arctic Loon

It has not yet been found, but it is a possibility. It has occurred in southern California and Baja California, and even Colorado has it on the list. Having only seen one individual, I can’t say much about identification. However, when I saw the individual in inland Los Angeles, I was surprised to see that it was more similar to a Common Loon than to a Pacific Loon! A word of caution: while Pacific Loons have less white on the flanks than Arctic, a relaxed, tilted or preening Pacific can appear to show the white flank patch characteristic of Arctic. Common Loon usually shows white on the flanks. A potential Arctic Loon in the LCRV should be thoroughly documented with as many clear photos as possible.

Pacific Loon

Diving PACIFIC LOON. This bird showed little to no white on the flanks when resting, but note how much white shows as it dives underwater!

Arctic Loon

Arctic Loon. Note extensive white on the flanks, blocky head shape, Pacific Loon-like neck pattern. Photo by Michelle Tobin.

Arctic Loon by Noah Gaines  1804

Arctic Loon. Again, note extensive white in the flanks although this bird is riding very low in the water. Blocky head shape with lump above the eye is unlike Pacific Loon; neck pattern is unlike Common Loon. Photo by Noah Gaines.

Hopefully this information will be helpful in your quest for loons in the LCRV (and beyond!). Next up: grebes!

Posted in Identification, LCRV, Species Profiles | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

The Government Shutdown and Western Arizona

The current shutdown of the federal government is having a significant impact on birders as we try to figure out which of our favorite birding locations are off-limits, and which are still accessible. On a recent trip to southeastern Arizona, I relied on very helpful listserv postings to find out which areas I could still visit. Visitors to the Colorado River and environs will find many of the popular birding areas closed off. Below I will summarize the closure status of some of the hotspots, and some alternatives to visit.

North of Needles

All land within the Lake Mead NRA is closed. This includes Lake Mead, Lake Mohave, and Willow Beach.

I’m not certain of the status of some of the birding spots in that area. It may still be possible to park and scan above Hoover Dam, and some locations above and/or below Davis Dam. If anyone has information on those locations, please share.

Update from Jason Wilder: “The Hoover Dam visitor facilities are open, and will remain so according to their website, meaning the Lake Mead can be visited in the vicinity of the dam. Last week (during the closure) I was able to drive over the dam and park in the lots on the AZ side, where good views up from the dam can be had.”

Bullhead City birding is an alternative to visiting Lake Mohave. The Colorado River winding through the city can provide good birding and has many access points.

The Mohave Valley is all either private or Reservation land. As fall progresses and winter approaches, the agricultural fields in the area can provide excellent birding (Glossy Ibis, Trumpeter Swan, and three species of longspur have been seen).

Further east in Kingman, Hualapai Mountain Park is county-operated so open as usual.

Needles to Lake Havasu City

Havasu National Wildlife Refuge is completely closed. This includes walking onto the refuge. Note that this refuge is actually quite large. Birding spots such as Pintail Slough and North Dike, Five-Mile Landing, Beal Lake and Bermuda Pasture within the Topock Marsh area are off-limits.

Also closed within this refuge are some of the best birding spots in Lake Havasu City. Cape Havasu and Mesquite Bay (both north and south) are closed.

Fortunately, there are alternatives for birding Lake Havasu City. Lake Havasu State Park is a good start. If you tell the gate attendant that you want to just hike the trails, it will cost $3 per person (and the trails are where the birding is). They will point you toward the parking for the trail. This will then lead you through some lakeside riparian and brushy areas, as well as to hills from which you can scan for the continuing Brown Booby and other water birds.

The Island (Pittsburgh Point) and Rotary Park are other good options. Nothing within these two areas is closed. Do note, however, that these areas will be a zoo this weekend (October 11-13) with various boating events.

Lake Havasu City to Parker

The Bill Williams River NWR is closed. Unfortunately there is no alternative for Planet Ranch Road. For scanning the Bill Williams Delta, note that the headquarters is closed, but there are various roadside pulloffs that provide decent views, as well as Havasu Springs. Two Blue-footed Boobies are currently frequenting the area.

Parker Dam is open and operating as usual, so birders can still scan above and below the dam. The one closure here is Take-Off Point above the dam. The old government housing below the dam is off-limits anyway, so as usual can still be birded from the road.

Private areas within the Parker Strip are open as usual (at least places that are open to the public or birders), but BLM recreation areas are closed. This includes Quail Hollow and Bullfrog.

Headgate Dam/Moovalya Lake can be accessed and scanned as usual.

Parker to Cibola

‘Ahakhav Tribal Preserve and other CRIT lands (e.g. the Parker Valley) are open.

Restoration areas away from NWRs, including Palo Verde Restoration Area and Cibola Valley Conservation Area, are partially state-operated and should be open with the usual restrictions (see posted signage).

Cibola NWR is closed.

North of Yuma

Imperial NWR is closed, but Fishers Landing is a privately owned area of Martinez Lake, so at least some of the lake should be open to scanning.

Picacho SRA and Mittry Lake are state-operated, so should be open.

I don’t have information on some of the other hotspots in the area, especially around Imperial Dam. Senator Wash Reservoir is largely or entirely federally operated, so is probably closed. Please share if you have more information about these areas.

The shutdown is making birding a bit more difficult, but there are still alternatives and great places to go in the LCRV!

Posted in Birding Locations, Cibola NWR, Havasu NWR, Imperial County, La Paz County, Lake Havasu, LCRV, Mohave County, Nevada, News, Riverside County, San Bernardino County, Yuma County | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Sage Sparrow

By now I am sure that most everyone has heard about the split of Sage Sparrow into (at present) two species: Bell’s Sparrow (Artemisiospiza belli) and Sagebrush Sparrow (A. nevadensis), two names I think are appropriate or at least I can’t think of anything else better. Bell’s has multiple subspecies within it and for the purposes of this blog post, all mention of Bell’s Sparrow refers to A. b. canescens. It is interesting to note that this split is not without its detractors and it is well worth reading the proposal, as well as the literature cited. Especially worth reading is Patten and Unitt 2002 (claims that canescens is not a valid taxa and should be lumped with nevadensis) and Cicero and Johnson 2006 (which is a rebuttal to the prior paper’s claims). Really it is a good idea to read over all proposals you have an interest in, as well as any of the publications you can get your hands on (important parts of which can be left out of the proposals). Read it and decide for yourself if you agree with the committee decision! I know I don’t always agree with the decisions, but after reading the material present and committee comments, I can at least usually understand the rationale behind it. Anyway I’m getting way off the topic of Sage Sparrows.

The main reason for this post is that the LCRV is one of the few places were both species can occur. This can present a great opportunity to study each species, as well as for listing with the LCRV being one of the best places for Bell’s Sparrow in Arizona, as well as Sagebrush in California. Within the LCRV, though, both taxa are reported to occur, but it is not known the exact status of each species. We have not seen many “Sage” Sparrows in the LCRV, but Rosenberg et al 1991 reports that they have a preference for inkweed/iodine weed (Suaeda torreyana) which is found in alkaline soils and is a localized habitat we do not visit very often. I know this winter though I will be spending more time in it!

I haven’t explored the Blythe area south enough in winter to give good sites there but check for good locations there. The Parker Strip is likely your best bet for Sage Sparrows in California, as along the river there are still nice patches of Suaeda. Good spots to check include the brush areas around Quail Hollow Day Use Area and the Crossroads Campground. I’ve had birds matching Bell’s Sparrow at both spots (but see below on problems of identification). On the Arizona Side your best bets are probably Pintail Slough on the Havasu NWR where I’ve also had birds matching Bell’s. I’ve had them once in the Parker Valley and it is likely still worth checking, but that area has lost a lot of habitat to agriculture which is typically unsuitable for Sage Sparrow. Kohen Ranch in the Bill Williams River NWR is another site I have had the species and is worth the hike in winter to check out. Interestingly these areas all have a lot of Atriplex (saltbush) which Bell’s Sparrow breeds in, perhaps there is some ecological partitioning on the wintering grounds?

Bell’s Sparrow is more local in Arizona than in California and the reverse is true of Sagebrush Sparrow. Bell’s Sparrow does not breed in Arizona, but Sagebrush Sparrow does breed in the Great Basin portion of California. Both species winter in the Salton Sink, but like the the LCRV the status of each has yet to be worked out. The status of Sagbrush Sparrow as a migrant (and possibly in winter) in the Mojave Desert is largely unknown. Within the Arizona portion of the Mohave Desert at places such as the Sacramento Valley it appears to be largely Sagebrush Sparrow (again see comments on ID below). Bell’s Sparrow has been found east to Phoenix in Arizona, but how regular is it east of the LCRV?

Given how new this split is and given the wide range of opinions as to how identifiable in the field the two taxa are, the following paragraph on identification should be considered tentative and in need of further evaluation. The papers used to split the two have cited morphological differences in the form of size, but little on plumage. One thing that is known is that both species molt before they reach the wintering grounds, so once present in the LCRV they should be at their freshest. Below I will review some of the field marks I have seen mentioned. Currently measurements are considered to be the most reliable way to identify the two species, I think however that the two are identifiable in the field though identification may be difficult especially when the two are worn in summer. The head/malar contrast of birds in the LCRV do seem to differ from those just east of there and some unscientific looking at photos online I am able to identify the majority of birds correctly. At this point I should note that of the field marks discussed below, Patten and Unitt 2002 only used measurements (which they did find largely differed), mantle shade, and presence of back streaking. Things like malar/head contrast were not evaluated. I should also mention that though hybridization appears to be rare (hence why they were split) my understanding is that it does occur.

Bell's Sparrow at Quail Hollow in Parker Strip Ca on 20 Jan 2013. Note the thin back streaking that is hard to see and the thick dark malar stripe. Same individual as the next photo. Copyright (c) 2013 David Vander Pluym

Bell’s Sparrow at Quail Hollow in Parker Strip Ca on 19 Jan 2013. Note the thin back streaking that is hard to see and the thick dark malar stripe. Same individual as the next photo. Copyright (c) 2013 David Vander Pluym

Contrast between the head and the malar stripe, along with the strength of the malar seems to be one of the most reliable fields marks. On Bell’s Sparrow the malar is darker than the head while on Sagebrush it is about the same shade. Bell’s Sparrow also has a thicker malar strip than Sagebrush.

Head coloration may be useful, but I think how dark the head is can be difficult to judge and it is better to use the contrast between the head and the malar. I’ve also seen mention of the darkness of the auriculars, but this seems to be variable.

Back streaking and mantle shade: Both the amount and the boldness of streaking on the back may be useful, but there appears to be overlap, possibly only extremes may be identified using this field mark, or it may be useful in conjunction with other field marks. It may also be more useful when they are fresh as photos online of birds on the wintering grounds seem to have a more noticeable difference than photos from the breeding grounds. Some fresh birds do seem to differ in mantle shade, but again it seems to be wear related and a lot of overlap.

Primary projection maybe be useful as well, as the wing length measurements differ between the two. However this can be difficult to use in the field and needs further examination.

Underpart streaking and coloration has been cited as a field mark, but this seems to be variable and I haven’t noticed any real difference looking at photos.

Prominence of a supercilium has been cited, but this seems to be variable as well, a complete lack of any pale area in the supercilium may be only found in Bell’s, but this could be nearly impossible to tell without a bird in the hand.

Amount of white in the tail has been cited as a field mark for Sagebrush vs nominate Bell’s. Though it is variable the amount of white (Sagebrush) vs buffy (Bell’s) in the outermost rectrices may be of some use. Another field mark that if useful would likely be difficult to use in the field.

Bell's Sparrow at Quail Hollow in Parker Strip Ca on 20 Jan 2013. Another look at the same individual where you can better see the thick dark malar, strongly contrasting with the rest of the head. Note also again the thin back streaking that is hard to see. Copyright (c) 2013 David Vander Pluym

Presumed Bell’s Sparrow at Quail Hollow in Parker Strip Ca on 19 Jan 2013. Another look at the same individual where you can better see the thick dark malar extending up to the bill, strongly contrasting with the rest of the head. Note also again the thin back streaking that is hard to see. Copyright (c) 2013 David Vander Pluym

Caution is warranted as we learn about identification of the two species, and for the time being it may be best to leave most birds on the winter grounds as “Sage” Sparrow or use the modifier presumed/probably. That being said with practice I think most individuals are identifiable in the field. Check out this photo of a Bell’s Sparrow and this one of a Sagebursh Sparrow posted online. Notice the head color in both individuals and despite the photo of the Sagebrush Sparrow looking like it has a darker head, the contrast between the head and the malar is minimal. The Bell’s Sparrow shows a strong contrast between the malar and the head. Notice also the amount of streaking on the back of each individual; this characteristic, though, needs further evaluation and should be used possibly only as a supporting characteristic. Robert Royse’s webpage has a nice selection of both species (along with nominate Bell’s Sparrow), though more location data would be useful to assure yourself that they couldn’t have been a different taxa than that listed. I also recommend checking out this post on the identification by song.  Finally Birding is Fun has a nice review of the split.

It may take a while to fully figure out the field marks of these two species, but I think we will come to a better understanding of identification. Remember how impossible other splits were thought to be (like Cackling Goose)?  I don’t think this is going to be a “Western” Flycatcher type split, but one that with time we will come to better understand. Course I could always be wrong only time will tell!


Literature Cited:
Rosenberg, K.V., et al. 1991. Birds of the lower Colorado River Valley. The University of Arizona Press, Tuscon, Az.

Posted in Birding Locations, Havasu NWR, High desert, Identification, Imperial County, La Paz County, LCRV, Mohave County, San Bernardino County, Species Profiles, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | 5 Comments

Elements of a Bird Description

Documenting a notable bird sighting is a part of everyday life for most birders, especially with the growing popularity of eBird. With the increase in documentation out there, though, in many ways there has been a decline in the quality of documentation. I’ve been an eBird editor for a few years now. In that and other capacities, I see a lot of variety in bird documentation. Sometimes it is difficult to know exactly what to write in the comments box, or what to give when you’re asked about a bird sighting. I’d like to discuss some of the elements I commonly see in bird descriptions in eBird, and which of these are more or less valuable as documentation. My focus here is eBird, but much of this also applies to writing bird descriptions for other purposes, such as North American Birds or submitting a report to a bird records committee.

If you’re not sold on eBird, read about why I use it. If you feel that writing a bird description is more trouble than it’s worth, I would recommend this article by Dave Irons. Another great article on the why, how, and what of bird documentation is here. Finally, I urge all eBird users to get to know the review process by reading this article regularly!

The list below is structured from least helpful to most helpful in bird documentation, from my own subjective view. I want to stress that no information is useless or should be left out–more information is always better! My point here is to encourage eBird users (and others) to include more of the really helpful information. Disclaimer: all the examples below are made up by me; I’m not actually quoting anyone here.

Incidental Narrative
Example: “I was just taking a break from setting up my cousin Bob’s wedding and decided to go for a walk. I was walking down by the creek, going really slowly because it was muddy, and contemplating life, etc. etc. when I spotted this bird!”
Incidental narratives are great. They help put the sighting in context and will help you remember it years down the road. Sometimes they can contain valuable information, like time of day, precise location, weather, or other observers. Often, though, they aren’t much help to the reviewer.

Where the bird was perched, When it flew
Example: “The bird was perched on a dead oak stick 30 feet from the second waterfall about two feet above the ground. After it saw me come around the corner, it stayed for about 10 seconds before flying off.”
I mention this category because these are the most common elements of bird descriptions in eBird, and users often end here. It’s helpful to know exactly where the bird was in case people want to chase it, and behavior can be useful in evaluating a record. But for a record that is flagged, this is not enough.

Some birds are very particular about their habitat, and it may be difficult to infer from the sighting location what the exact habitat was like. Noting elevation, habitat type, dominant species, nearby water bodies, etc. can be very helpful.

Distance to the bird, Lighting, Optics, Length of observation
These and similar details can be important, especially for very notable sightings, and are often requested by bird records committees.

If you know you are seeing a continuing bird, it is important to note it as such. Even if you aren’t sure, take note of your suspicions. “Possibly the bird that was seen here a month ago.” On the flip side, if it was not a continuing bird but could be confused with one, note that too. “Not the one that was seen here a month ago. That one was an adult and this is a juvenile.” Sometimes, all that is needed for a continuing bird is that one word: “Continuing.” One practice I really appreciate is to say “Continuing. Photos available if requested.” Of course, it never hurts to document even a known rarity with more information. This information becomes especially valuable if your sighting ends up being the last.

Familiarity with this species and confusion species
Whether it is a species you know well or one you had never heard of before, it is good to make note of it. Remember, though, that “Have seen this species many times in my backyard on Nantucket Island” is probably not enough to have the record validated on its own.

Recognition of the rarity of the sighting
If you browse sightings in eBird, you may have noticed notations like “*Early,” “**Very rare,” “***First county record!” or “****MEGA!!!”. eBird encourages these notations as an indication that the observer knew why the sighting was being flagged. It’s good to note whether you knew it was rare, or not! Here are just a few examples of things you could say to let the reviewer know that you have given the sighting some thought:
“My first of the spring.”
“Very unexpected in this habitat!”
“I see this regularly back home on Nantucket Island, but now I’m looking in the guides and see that this species is rare in this area. Still, I’m confident of what I saw.”
“I just snapped the photo, not thinking much about it at the time, so I did not take any further notes.”
“I was scanning a flock of Long-billed Dowitchers hoping for a Short-billed, which would be a state bird, and when I spotted this bird I suspected I had one.”
Also completely valid to say: “Species is not unexpected in this area at this time of year” If you know for certain that is true.

Age and Sex
When it can be determined, noting the age and sex of the bird(s) is essential and should be the first part of your bird description.

At this point, if you have included all the above information, you may be on your way to a great bird description. However, if you stop here, you are stopping short of documenting the bird! Take this hypothetical example: “I came upon the Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet in the Bill Williams River NWR around 11 a.m. Sunday morning. It foraged low in a cottonwood 3 feet from my face for 30 minutes! I was shocked to see one this far north, but I am very familiar with the species from my travels in Mexico and am certain of the sighting.” If I were to see this in eBird, I would certainly be intrigued, but such a rarity would require some sort of documentation to back up the sighting in order to be considered “confirmed”.

The three items below may not be required for a really low-end or continuing rarity, but without them, you have not documented your sighting and you may just receive one of those pesky emails asking for more details.

A description of the bird
This is the heart of bird documentation: a description of what you saw. For a high count in eBird, it may not be necessary to describe your identification of the species involved (but it can’t hurt). In those cases, a description of how you arrived at your count or estimate is more helpful. Otherwise, a bird description means just that: a description of the bird. What did it look like? If you realize it is a rarity at the time of the sighting, take some time to make mental, if not physical, notes. Even if you get a photo, video, or sound recording, descriptions are still immensely helpful, and learning to write a bird description goes hand-in-hand with becoming a keen observer. Say you got great photos from all angles. Now, stop and watch the bird for a while. What is its behavior? Does it vocalize? Try to describe the vocalizations, as they are sometimes extremely important in identification. For much more on what makes a good bird description, I highly recommend this very helpful article by Dave Irons.

How similar species were eliminated
Yes, I’m counting this category as more valuable than the description of the bird. In some cases, it may not be needed. What could you confuse with an adult male Painted Bunting? But, if you are claiming a Glossy Ibis, it isn’t enough to note “Tall dark bird, glossy reddish and brown, long legs and long downcurved bill, pale lines on the face.” That could describe White-faced Ibis just as well, and some folks with an older field guide may not know that White-faced Ibis exists! For most rare birds, some analysis of how similar species were eliminated will go a long way.

Physical documentation: Photo, audio, video
It is now possible to embed photos, audio, and video directly into an eBird checklist. This is the best way to share your documentation, since it will be easily visible to all users. See eBird’s helpful how-to for details. A simple link will also work, or, if you choose not to share your documentation online, leave a note for the reviewer: “Photo/audio/video available upon request” and wait for them to contact you. These are the most common forms of what is called physical documentation and are the only way to prove what you saw without a specimen. Still, sometimes the bird may not be identifiable from the material, so remember to take notes and include a written description of the bird, as well.

Keep in mind also that reviewers see records from all kinds of observers, from records committee members and other eBird reviewers, to brand-new birders using Google to identify birds. The skill of the birder may be taken into consideration if it is known, but it is always best to assume that the reviewer has no idea who you are or what your experience is, especially if you are traveling to a new area. Take the time to describe even an easy ID (American White Pelican: Counted a flock of gigantic white birds swimming and sitting on a sand bar. Short yellow legs, very long yellow bill.) to make it clear that the ID is correct, for the reviewer and for anyone revisiting the record down the road.

In summary, when documenting a notable bird sighting for eBird or any other purpose, all information is useful information. Before you hit “submit”, stop and ask yourself, did I describe the bird? If someone is looking at this record 50 years from now, will they be satisfied with this documentation? Bird documentation is essential to citizen science and the ornithological record. When you take the time to practice it, you will not only make your sightings more useful, you will make yourself a more keen observer. I hope this information will be helpful for eBird users and others. If you have questions or comments, please leave them below!

Posted in eBird, Techniques | Tagged , , , | 14 Comments