Christmas Birding Trip: Bill Williams to Yuma

This post is a bit belated, but December 15 was my first Christmas Bird Count of the season, the Yuma/Martinez Lake count.  Centered on Imperial Dam, the count circle is equal parts Yuma County, AZ and Imperial County, AZ.  Since Yuma is a good three hour drive, I thought it might be wise to camp down there so I could be fresh for bird counting first thing in the morning!  Naturally, that meant a day of birding my way south.

My first stop was a brief one at the Bill Williams Delta, where our first winter storm of the season had brought overcast skies and drizzle. I was hoping to see the recently reported Long-tailed Duck, but it continued to elude me.  I left before long without seeing much of interest.  A quick stop at Parker Oasis was similarly quiet.  I buzzed through the northern Parker Valley, stopping briefly to watch dancing Sandhill Cranes, check out the continuing Harlan’s Hawk, and count a field full of Killdeer.

Cranes in the Parker Valley
Flocks of hundreds of Killdeer can sometimes be seen in the Parker Valley in winter

Flipping to the California side, my next stop was Palo Verde Diversion Dam.  The wind was blowing so hard I didn’t think I’d be able to bird outside of the car, but a quick scan with binoculars produced a Black Scoter on the water.  A review species in Arizona and a good bird in Riverside County, especially on the Colorado River, I had to figure out a way to get my scope on the bird without being blown into the lake myself.  I repositioned the car so that it would block the wind, which worked out nicely, and I was able to get good looks and some terrible photos of this rarity.

The Loch Ness Scoter

Unfortunately it didn’t move to the Arizona side, but it did fulfill the Prophecy of Three.  David and I have noticed that Black Scoters in Arizona occur in threes.  Either they turn up in a flock of three, or three separate individuals are found in an area in a season.  This is Black Scoter #3 for the LCRV this winter.

My next stop on my way south was Cibola NWR.  I had hoped to check a few spots, but strong winds kept me out of landbirding spots like CVCA and Nature Trail.  It seemed like a good idea to just start with the Goose Loop nature drive and see what was out on the fields.

Before long, I came to a field of recently cut corn, covered in Sandhill Cranes and Canada Geese.  I pulled over here and started counting: 1000 Sandhill Cranes (including one banded bird I was able to get a resight on) as well as several hundred Canada Geese.  I sat in the car, scanned the flock, took photos and sound recordings.

Cranes and geese under moody skies
Sandhill Cranes and Canada Geese at Cibola NWR

I got a few recordings of the foraging flocks.  At first the soundscape was dominated by the lovely rattling crane calls and honking of incoming geese.

Soon, as the sun began to sink, more flocks of geese started to join the throng.  Then Mallards came in.  Since I happened to be running a BirdLog checklist, I counted every flock as it came in and BirdLog added it to the totals.  By the time I left an hour later, I had counted about 800 Canada Geese and 2,285 Mallards, along with 110 American Wigeon and 30 Northern Pintails mixed in with the Mallards.  You can view the eBird checklist here.

It was a sea of green heads once these guys joined in

Just before I left, I took another sound recording.  In this one, Canada Geese are a much more significant part of the soundscape, and the quacking of Mallards is audible in the background.  A faint buzzing noise is the cumulative sound of 800 Canada Geese making soft calls while foraging.

That was all the birding I could fit in for the day, so from there I went straight to Imperial Dam and headed to Ferguson Road, which took me to the shore of Ferguson Lake.  There I found the perfect campsite by the lake, where I sat with a beer under dark skies (no stars, all clouds), did a one-species eBird checklist (American Coots in the dark), and contemplated the day.

I woke well before dawn the next morning to start the CBC with a bit of owling.  Although I couldn’t get any Western Screech-Owls or Common Poorwills to call, I did count four countercalling Great Horned Owls.  I stood over the marsh at the south end of the lake as the light started to bleed onto the eastern horizon and noted several Least Bitterns and a few Soras calling. As the sky grew lighter, more birds started chiming in: Marsh Wrens, Song Sparrows, a few Common Yellowthroats. A chupping Hermit Thrush and a few chattering Ruby-crowned Kinglets.

A hike up the nearby wash was surprisingly birdy.  One of the first birds I heard was an Ash-throated Flycatcher, a very uncommon wintering bird in the area.  It turned out to be a good day for them, and over the course of the day I recorded nine of these critters. Some of the other notable birds among the flocks in the wash were two Green-tailed Towhees and a Bewick’s Wren.

The rest of the morning was spent scanning Ferguson Lake between intermittent bouts of drizzle.  Despite fair numbers of birds like Western and Clark’s Grebes, Double-crested Cormorants, and American Wigeon, I wasn’t able to turn up anything unusual on the water.

Ferguson Lake in the rain

After the afternoon lunch at Phil Swing Park with the rest of the bird counters, I spent some time wandering around desert washes, then headed toward Bard to look for rarities. During this time I realized I wasn’t finding any sparrows!  In areas where I’ve previously seen hundreds of sparrows in winter, I was seeing one or two White-crowned Sparrows at best. No Black-throated Sparrows, and only a handful of Savannah. The habitat seemed grassy enough, so I’m at a loss to explain the absence of sparrows and other grass-eating birds.

One of the highlights of my afternoon, a chilled tarantula

As the sun started to drop, I buzzed over to Betty’s Kitchen to look for the previously reported Thick-billed Kingbird, which would be a Yuma County bird.  Before long I heard a call I didn’t recognize, like a big squeaky Lesser Goldfinch.  I tracked it down, and sure enough, it was the kingbird! It posed for photos and great looks before moving further into the cottonwoods. I walked around the restoration area, tromping through the mud while trying to pick out different species at this incredibly birdy spot.  Not a bad end to a nice day of birding!

My first Yuma County Thick-billed Kingbird. Success!

About Lauren Harter

I live in Lake Havasu City, Arizona, where I work as a field biologist and spend as much of the rest of my time as possible looking at (and listening to!) birds.
This entry was posted in Christmas Bird Counts, Cibola NWR, Imperial County, La Paz County, LCRV, Sound Recordings, Trip reports, Vagrants, Yuma County. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Christmas Birding Trip: Bill Williams to Yuma

  1. Wow Lauren! What an adventure, and a great culmination with the Thick-billed Kingbird!Watching and hearing al those Ducks and Geese amassing must've been a pretty surreal experience (unless, of course, you experience that often) too.Busy weekend, beautiful birds!

  2. Lauren says:

    It's not something I experience often at all–it was my first winter visit to Cibola, and that's the major concentration of these birds around here. It was incredible!! I couldn't believe how many Mallards were continuously streaming in, and I don't think I'll ever get over the sounds of cranes. 🙂

  3. I hope the Thick-billed Kingbird sticks around for another month……is it time to read Kingbird Highway again?!

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